The Fragility of Democracy IV: Fear and hope

‘The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.’

It was at some point during the first UK lockdown that I read The Machine Stops, a dystopian story published by E M Forster in 1909. In what was an uncharacteristic work of fiction for the Edwardian novelist, Forster hit on an accurate description of life for many in 2020, a society composed of people living separately and fearful of the outside world. ‘In each room there sat a human being, eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas,’ he wrote, describing the hive of underground chambers where everyone lived. His heroine Vashti has the physical characteristics of someone who spends her life inside: ‘a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus’. She conducts her lectures on music remotely, maintaining a network of global contacts via something that sounds remarkably like the internet.

At the beginning of 2020 I couldn’t possibly have predicted how prescient this would sound. In January, The Guardian ran a piece about how China was pioneering lockdown as a response to the emergence of Covid-19: ‘While sweeping measures are typical of China’s communist government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people’s liberties, and the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.’

The lockdown of ten cities, including Wuhan, was unprecedented. ‘“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told the Associated Press. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”’ A subsequent interview with the architect of the policy in the UK, Professor Neil Ferguson, revealed that the government’s advisory committee at first dismissed China’s ‘innovative intervention’ of confining communities to their homes as impossible in a liberal Western democracy. ‘It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’

By early April 2020, half the world’s population was under lockdown and, as 2021 gets underway, some European countries are on their second or third. In the UK, policy advisers are suggesting that restrictions could be in place for the winter of 2021 and beyond. It looks as if, as Carl Heneghan has argued, lockdowns may become the template for the way society deals with infectious disease. And yet, in the short, anxious year of their invention, little thought has been given to what such an approach, aided by the technological developments of modern life, might mean for future society. Could dystopian literature — the genre which uses exaggeration to explore the fundamental questions arising from shared human existence — help envision the implications?

Dystopian fiction begins when one particular vision of life and set of values has taken over a society so completely that the authorities have all-but succeeded in eliminating other ways of being. In this sense, they’re stories about control, the narrative taking off when some brave protagonist tries to pursue an alternative. Often, as in Brave New World, the initial aim is benign, the creation of a society in which suffering, ageing and disease have been replaced with safety, pleasure and comfort. In exploring the implications of such a trade-off — the giving up of experiences, needs and desires long understood to be constitutive of human life — such stories are far from impartial. Ostensibly futuristic, in reality they draw on the wisdom of the ages, ultimately demonstrating that fantasies of perfection, whether technological, political or medical, are doomed to fail.

The Machine Stops explores what human life might be like if isolation and confinement were to become a permanent state. In the society run by The Machine, physical contact with others has been almost entirely dispensed with, its absence legitimised by a social norm that is freighted with morality. When Vashti’s son Kuno asks, in a virtual conversation, to meet in person rather than ‘through the wearisome Machine’, she is horrified. ‘Oh, hush!’ said his mother, vaguely shocked. ‘You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.’

When Vashti finally gives in and travels to meet Kuno, her journey on an overground public transport reveals how far she has internalised a life of cerebral isolation. Attempting to avoid the feel of the sun on her skin, she is steadied by an attendant still accustomed, through her work, to physical contact. ‘How dare you!’ exclaimed the passenger. “You forget yourself!” ‘The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.’

Alongside the revulsion of others is a fear of the outside world, of embodiment and of nature. Due to the belief that the air is lethal, a respirator is needed to visit the surface of the earth which has become a place of banishment for the few who do not conform. The ‘homeless’, as they are known, are not expected to survive for long. In this technological society, atomisation and alienation from nature are part of a generalised fear of that-which-cannot-be-controlled-by-the-human, an attempt to eliminate the perils of biological life. The moral of the story is clear: ultimately, the attempt is both futile and destructive, since it extinguishes the experiences that make life worth living. But what it doesn’t do is explore the potency of fear: why does that one emotion have the power to drive people — and liberal democracy — to destruction?

“Fear always simmers beneath the surface of moral concern, and it threatens to destabilize democracy,’ writes Martha Nussbaum in an excerpt from her 2018 book The Monarchy of Fear which makes a much-needed link between the psychological and the political.

Fear, Nussbaum argues, is the first feeling humans experience, ‘the defining emotion of infancy’, a consequence of our long dependence on caretakers to meet our every need. Even once the independence of adulthood has brought emotional and social maturity, fear and its psychological cognates remain a constant possibility, able to throw people back into a state where the concern for survival predominates. ‘Fear is not just primitive; it is also asocial. When we feel compassion, we are turned outward: we think of what is happening to others and what is causing it.’ By contrast, ‘fear is intensely narcissistic … even when, later on, we become capable of concern for others, fear often drives that concern away, returning us to infantile solipsism.’

When fear pervades a society, its members look for ways of taking control, either by upholding a single way of being or by giving power to those they think can impose one. ‘Citizens may become indifferent to truth and prefer the comfort of an insulating group of peers who repeat one another’s falsehoods,’ writes Nussbaum. ‘They may become afraid of speaking out, preferring the comfort of a leader who gives them a womblike feeling of safety. And they may become aggressive against others, blaming them for the pain of fear.’

Writing in The Guardian at the beginning of 2020 — exactly three weeks before China began its experimental lockdown — Michele Gelfand makes similar observations. Authoritarianism, she points out, originates in a basic psychophysical response. ‘When people experience threat — whether actual or imagined — they begin to “tighten”. In physical terms, they tense their muscles, ready to defend themselves. In political terms, they begin to crave security and order in a community that seems to be collapsing. Authoritarian leaders satiate this need by promising quick, simple solutions — and, above all, a return to the tighter social order of yesteryear.’

With her fellow researchers, Gelfand,has conducted empirical research which builds on the speculative work of Erich Fromm into the psychology of authoritarianism. The research demonstrates how, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, insecurity is fostering the rise of autocrats and rightwing populism. The correlation is so strong that it’s led her to abandon her previous faith in progressiveness in favour of a more realistic recognition of the fragility of democracy. Democracy is ‘a precious exception to the rule, and one that is extremely fragile, for a simple reason: the human craving for order and security when chaos feels imminent.’

Of course, both Nussbaum and Gelfand were writing pre-Covid. And that raises another question: is Covid-19 the game-changer, the threat which will finally make the trade-offs envisioned in dystopian fiction worthwhile?

Unlike Brave New World, Forster’s dystopian tale has a happy ending. On an illicit visit to the surface of the earth, Kuno recovers a sense of bodily existence and of humanity’s place in the natural world. ‘That was my first lesson,’ he tells his mother. ‘Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.’ And discovering the hills of Wessex, their grassy hollows filled with ferns, he finds the people who are preserving a communal, embodied way of life for the humanity of the future.

‘But Kuno, is it true?’ asks his mother. It’s their final conversation, a Lear and Cordelia-style reunion that takes place after the machine stops and before they, like all the other humans no longer adapted to life in the outside world, perish. But as in Shakespearean tragedy, there is a promise of a new dawn beyond the bodies littering the stage.

‘Are there still men on the surface of the earth?’ asked Vashti hopefully. ‘Is this — tunnel, this poisoned darkness — really not the end?’

Her son replies: ‘I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. Today they are the Homeless — tomorrow …’ He dismisses Vashti’s fears that ‘some fool’ will start the machine again with categorical optimism: ‘Never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.’

This is the fourth in a series of essays which began with The Fragility of Democracy: An essay on our times.

Writer, reader & genre-weaver: current affairs, travel, place. Writing a book about Europe by way of its cities. See:

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