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The Age of (Non) Consent
“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program” ― Milton Friedman
In Benito Mussolini’s Italy, a child had to be vaccinated to be able to attend school. In modern France and Italy, too. And in Mark Zuckerberg’s sphere, you are free to decline his lawyer’s waivers of your rights, but then you won’t get the app to load on your phone. And in Emmanuel Macron’s world, ‘he’ decides what liberty is, not you. “Papers, please” are heard at all French train stations and restaurants, as in the 1940s.
A young anti Covid passport demonstrator appears clad mainly in A4 sheets of paper with bar codes on them. Meanwhile 20 truckloads of riot police play Candy Crush waiting for their orders to deploy. Noam Chomsky spoke of the manufacturing of consent.
Modern corporations and governments have dispensed with the effort of persuading you to abandon your rights. You are perfectly free to withhold your consent but they will then withhold the service. Big Government has learned from Big Tech.
We are not conspiracists. If anything, we believe in cock ups, rather than conspiracies. But we do believe in policy mistakes and we watch ratios and spreads, like all financial professionals. Above all, markets need a stable political background against which to function.
Last, but not least, currencies rely on a belief that the government sponsoring a given paper note will indeed ‘pay the bearer’. The system reposes on trust, freely given. The spread between the very rich and the very poor is a concern but a bigger concern is that trust in politicians and governments is at all-time lows, everywhere.
In a way, you can understand their embracing of coercion as a tool of government. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures has been the battle cry for Covid. Eighteen months ago, leaders seized quasi dictatorial authority almost overnight and lockdowns, quarantine, masks and experimental biotechnology sold (even if only recently approved by the FDA) as ‘vaccines’ have gradually become our new norm.
But as the pandemic’s threat starts to recede, how likely are governments to give up their newfound powers? According to Robert Higgs, author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, crisis-led government expansion never shrinks back to its former scale once the crisis is over.
In his 1987 book, Higgs refers to New Deal bureaucracies and subsidies that persisted long after the Great Depression and how the US military did not revert to its pre-war size after either of the world wars. The mechanism by which these powers are renewed is fear, writes Higgs in The Political Economy of Fear.
The UK Government, which fast tracked the Coronavirus Act 2020 through parliament in just four sitting days, weaponised fear¹ during the pandemic to control behaviour. In A State of Fear, Laura Dodsworth writes how members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour expressed regret about the unethical tactics that “smacks of totalitarianism”.
The Coronavirus Act allows ministers to detain people, close borders and permits the extension of time limits for the retention of fingerprints and DNA samples; while Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu authorised its security agency to track citizens using cell phone data; and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán obtained the power to rule by decree.
It was Orbán’s new powers without a set time limit that created unease among the more democratic European Union member states; so 13 countries issued a joint statement calling for coronavirus emergency measures to be temporary and, in line with principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.
Even dictators in Rome were only appointed when the Republic was threatened by war. Their extensive emergency powers were to do a specific job with a six-month time limit, according to Marc de Wilde in The Dictator's Trust: Regulating and Constraining Emergency Powers in the Roman Republic. It was only when these powers were abused that the Republic decayed into the empire of excess that we are more familiar with.
As the delta variant of Covid continues to spread, sickening even vaccinated individuals (and 13 other variants lurk in the wings), will governments take advantage of our landscape amnesia—also known as creeping normalcy—to keep their emergency powers under the guise of winning the coronavirus war?
If Proclamation 7463—signed by George Bush after the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001—is anything to go by then the answer is yes. Donald Trump renewed the ability to give himself sweeping powers to mobilise the military as “the terrorist threat continues”.
So, it is not surprising that the UK’s Coronavirus Act was already extended for six months and that the Scottish government wants some emergency Covid-19 powers to become permanent.
History is littered with precedents of crisis laws that never went away. Income tax is the most famous example. It was introduced in the UK in 1799 as a temporary way to fund the war against Napoleon. It was repealed in 1816, but Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel temporarily re-introduced it in 1842 to remove import and export duties on more than 700 items and it has never been abolished.
Covid has added $19.5 trillion to the global debt burden so, as we have already written, higher taxes are almost inevitable. Moreover, as World War II cost Britain alone more than 200% of GDP and the final $83 million in war loans to the US was only paid off at the end of 2006, a short term or temporary tax hike is unlikely.
Passports too. None of those that travel internationally will remember a time without passports, but towards the end of the 19th century, the US and most of Europe abandoned the use of legal travel documents and, in parts of South America, freedom to travel without a passport was a constitutional right.
In The Passport: The History of Man's Most Travelled Document, Martin Lloyd explains that World War I’s identity cards enabled governments to find more recruits and intercept spies. The first passport conference in Paris in 1920 was set up to discuss the abolition of the war-time identity documents, but instead it saw the birth of the uniform international passport. All subsequent attempts to abolish these useful tracking tools have failed.
Liquids only became a restricted item on planes 20 years ago. So, with time-consuming passenger locator forms and negative Covid test certificates adding to the hassle of travel, how many of these new impediments will remain?
More importantly, will Covid passports become a global mandatory requirement for travel, work and socialising? Today, you need a pass Sanitaire to enter public venues and restaurants in France; a Key to NYC pass for a variety of indoor activities such as dining to health clubs and concerts in New York; and in Italy, you can’t have your double macchiato indoors without a Green Pass.
The latter, a move that Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, the country’s far right (with roots to Mussolini), is vehemently opposed to. As Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi tries to use the Green Pass to revive the Italian economy, Meloni has been describing it as economic suicide.
“The idea of having to use this Green Pass to be able to participate in communal life is chilling, and the ultimate step towards the realisation of an Orwellian society,’ Meloni tweeted. But the Nineteen Eighty-Four reference is ironic.
Under Mussolini’s Fascist regime, state surveillance became the social norm. For example, gatherings for culture and leisure, such as horse races, Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (an agency for after–work activities); and Opera Nazionale Balilla (a collective of youth organisations) were actively encouraged to allow close monitoring.
Monitoring has been one of the backbones of the war against Covid with apps and permissions giving providers and governments ‘legal’ access to data in what Harvard University’s Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’, now firmly on a slippery slope to digital authoritarianism.
Google, Microsoft and Palantir, the latter known for its relationship with government spy agencies, were hired to build a Covid-19 dashboard for the NHS, whose app has just been upgraded to be used as a domestic Covid passport. Entrust, the tech firm behind it, has also helped roll out national identity card systems in Albania, Ghana and Malaysia.
Coincidence, or a further erosion of our civil liberties? Likely the latter, as the digital identity industry push their own products as immunity passport solutions without a thought to safe guard human rights issues such as exclusion, exploitation and discrimination. There is currently no consistency on what data can be held on these passports and who will have the authority to view them.
Employers perhaps? Many countries now require health care and high-risk care workers to be vaccinated and only a couple of other countries have made Covid vaccinations mandatory. As Vanguard gives $1,000 to US employees who get vaccinated, and the share of job postings that require vaccinations are up 90% compared to the previous month, the pressure to be vaccinated for work is mounting.
In countries, such as Italy and France, where child vaccination is compulsory, it is easy to see how mandatory Covid vaccinations could come in. Memories of Mussolini’s Italia sana may explain why the 91-year old former mayor of Treviso believes that Covid needs to be treated like smallpox, and that vaccines should be mandatory; a landmark ruling in the European Court of Human Rights may have just opened that door.
A 2020 report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance highlighted a number of the measures that were concerning from a democracy and human rights perspective, including lockdowns that lack legal backing and tracking apps that share data with the police.
Protecting global human rights, and not exacerbating social inequality, in the digital age is essential, which is why updating international law and committing to a Declaration of Global Digital Human Rights should also take into account the ethics of artificial intelligence.
So, what next? History suggests that after pandemics there is a renaissance, which happened after the Black Death; the roaring ‘20s after the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and Italy in the 1950s and 1960s after mal aria, the Italian for bad air originally thought to be the cause of the disease; had all been vanquished.
At what cost? Il Duce’s anti-malarial strategy, expertly told by Frank Snowden in The Conquest of Malaria in Italy, 1900-1962, eerily echoes our pandemic experience: experiments on healthy volunteers; quinine given to healthy people, which gave rise to hostility and refusal; and educational campaigns that went beyond the medical problem. In fact, even Italian politics was transformed by the anti-malarial campaigns.
In a plot twist that resembles modern day political shenanigans, the retreating Nazi armies deliberately caused a malaria epidemic in Lazio, for which, according to Snowden, Alberto Missiroli, Italy’s then malaria expert, did not distribute quinine. He as creating the ideal conditions for a lucrative, human experiment, using a new pesticide called DDT developed with the Rockefeller Foundation.
Many of the Covid-19 measures are simply an acceleration of pre-existing trends, and democracy was under threat well before the pandemic hit. The Cambridge University’s Centre of Study of Existential Risk found that 87% of the world’s population was already living in countries that can be considered repressed, closed or obstructed.
Countries with existing heavy suppression of media freedom have used the coronavirus as an opportunity to intensify their censorial efforts, according to the 2020 World Press Index. And even though Trump has gone, with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Hungary’s Orbán, much of the world is already on an ever more extremist authoritarian path.
In the US, according to Kurt Gödel’s Loophole², a dictatorship can happen without anyone doing anything unconstitutional, but is this where we are heading? The coronavirus has not gone and further pandemics, extreme weather events, and cyber security failure are among the top risks in the next two years.
The need for emergency powers has not gone, so, it is not hard to visualise the emergence of some form fascism. Trump exploited the power of anger and Adolf Hitler, depression-ridden Germany. With the impending climate crisis perhaps an ‘eco-fascist’ will emerge to rake in the votes of the otherwise politically disinterested youth.
While Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, and US President Joseph Biden are both environmental activists, do they have the ‘dictatorial’ persona needed to drive the energy transition at the pace and speed required by the Paris Climate Agreement?
More likely, a neo-fascist will emerge building a following with eco-rhetoric and ever-increasing environmental disasters will see a ‘ratcheting’ of public spending through climate emergency ‘Acts’. And individuals will be forced to give up their life styles ‘to save the planet’ as the wives of Italy had to give up their gold wedding rings to fund the war.
The real problem in the post-truth age, however, it is almost impossible to make sure everyone is well-informed. Even if a solution to a problem were available, a corrupted and untrustworthy media ecosystem would prevent it from happening. For now, as Jonathan Sumption believes, it looks like we may have to accept vaccine passports as the lesser evil.
None of the above is good for market structure and the hidden friction of a world of ‘papers please’ for the free movement of goods and people is a sign of a brutal reversal of a globalised, free market economy. The western world has already taken the first step in this direction by incarcerating its healthy population as a first line response to Covid.
Will it now decide to intervene aggressively to rein in and control its own technology industry? And have we moved from the consumer-as-product to the citizen-as-product era? Once the Central Banks start to taper in earnest, we will see quickly what markets think of this brave, new, world.
Photo: © Niki Natarajan 2021
¹ Use of fear to control behaviour in Covid crisis was ‘totalitarian’, admit scientists, The Telegraph (14.5.2021)
² When Constitutions Took Over the World, The New Yorker, (22.3.2021)
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