A rationally ordered world has been the vision of social engineers from across the political spectrum, although most commonly from the Left. Marxists, fascists, and caliphate-builders are the extremists of orderliness, but all governments and international authorities exert regulatory control, whether perceived as benevolent or oppressive. Around the world, states are becoming more authoritarian, not less. Liberal democracies are struggling to maintain the trust of their people, following economic crises and the consequences of mass immigration, while China, Russia, and Turkey have reverted to central command. Democracy is a hindrance to master-planners.
In the early 20th century, Prussian sociologist Max Weber introduced the concept of bureaucracy, whereby organizations would be rationally-arranged systems, in which every employee had a specified role. A worker’s personal attributes were irrelevant beyond his ability to perform the prescribed job, and he could be replaced by someone else with the required skill. The bureaucratic structure looks good on paper, but in practice, it depersonalizes relationships, stifles initiative and needs overbearing governance to keep people in check. Military history has shown how a large lumbering army of a dictatorial regime can be defeated by a smaller force able to think on its feet.
The production line of FW Taylor, while making Ford the leading automobile manufacturer, was soul-destroying. Indeed, the apparent efficiency of simple and repetitive piecework was countered by the frequent interruption of strikes, which crippled the British car industry. Popular author Arthur Hailey, in Wheels, portrayed the subversive culture on a typical Detroit factory floor, where officials had limited influence on the heavily unionized workers. The Hawthorne experiments by Chicago sociologists in the 1920s showed that employees create a social environment and an informal hierarchy that differs markedly from the formal structure. Human beings refuse to be mere cogs in the wheel.
Since the late 20th century, there has been a steady decline in manual labor in the West, due to imports from countries with cheaper labor costs, outsourcing, and automation. Meanwhile more people ascended to the middle class. In Organization Man, an expose of white-collar corporate culture, William H Whyte showed how loyalty was nurtured, with a collective identity and belief that only the organization could make the right decisions. The rugged individualism associated with the American dream was ironed out. Effectively, capitalism and communism relied on the same submissiveness.
After the Second World War, western Europe flirted with socialism, many on the Left seeing the Soviet Union as a guiding light. Cradle-to-the-grave welfare was pledged by the post-war Labour government. But an all-providing state comes at the price of freedom. In her biography of Pope John Paul II, Mary Craig described Karol Wojtyla’s return to his homeland in 1948. For the Poles, liberty after the Nazi occupation was short-lived:
Poland had become a People’s Republic, the Russian ‘advisers’ were in control, and the country lay in the grip of a great Stalinist freeze. Surrounded by red flags, portraits of Stalin and Lenin, peasants were being forcibly collectivized, and while officials droned out statistics proving how prosperous the workers were under Socialism, housewives wandered disconsolately about with empty shopping baskets. The air was heavy with slogans, the mind-deadening propaganda which robbed even the simplest activity of its normal human meaning: "the train – for – Chelmno – will – leave – from – Platform – Number – Three – beware – of – bacteriological – warfare – by – the – foreign – imperialists – the train – from – Cracow – is – arriving – on – Platform – Number – Two – long – live – socialism – and – workers’ – unity."
In a Russian oblast, schools were not named (my friend Maria, for example, went to School 7 in Tambov). Names are sentimental, and of no use to logical ordering. Numbers are the currency of control, and everyone and everything is counted. The ‘nanny state’ makes selective use of data to justify action on the ‘gender pay gap’ and to impose sin taxes on alcohol or sugar. We mustn’t forget Stalin’s reputed observation that:
"the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic."
To maintain its grip, authoritarians create a surveillance society. In the Soviet Union, tens of millions of political criminals were sent to a vast Gulag Archipelago in the frozen wastelands of Karaganda and Kolyma. We are a long way from that in Britain, but consider the messages sent by police forces urging reports of online abuse. Heard several times daily by commuters, ‘see it, say it, sorted’ has a broader target than suspected jihadists. With the creep of so-called ‘hate crime’ legislation, George Orwell’s 1984 has become a manual for our leaders. This amazingly prophetic dystopia, written long before the arrival of the internet, showed how technology would be exploited to quash humanity and its messy ways.
The internet was naively celebrated as an irrepressible bastion of liberty, but it is increasingly manipulated by governments to curtail freedom of speech (often in collaboration with the tech companies, whose liberal-left political outlook has led to the censoring of conservative or libertarian opinion). Pubs close down while younger people interact via mobile devices, unperturbed by this being recorded. In China, people are very much aware of state snooping. Under President Xi, a ‘social credit' scheme is being rolled out, whereby career opportunities and access to schools, services, and travel are determined by an algorithm that rates the acceptability of each person’s posts and followers on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook). Twitter bans are the thin end of the wedge.
While no Western country would overtly ditch democratic principles, the British establishment’s response to the EU referendum shows how the hoi polloi can be defied. The British people have been hoodwinked as their government has ceded sovereignty on the trajectory from the Common Market to the European Union. This was always the plan, as laid out by Monnet in the 1960s. Like Pravda, truth can be dressed up for public consumption, although not always credibly. Merely 13% of the British public believe what the government tells them on immigration (a result that shocked only the survey sponsors Hope not Hate). Politicians who thought they would represent their voters find themselves in the pockets of Sir Humphrey, the chief civil servant in the satirical TV show Yes Minister. Olly Robbins was always in charge of the EU negotiations, not David Davis; making a mockery of his status as Minister of the Department for Exiting the EU.
A healthy democracy relies on people having access to information. But the British government spent £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money promoting the Remain cause in the EU referendum. ‘Project fear’ was meant to scare the ordinary people from voting intuitively against rule by a foreign power. Checks and balances on government power are no longer functioning properly: the corrupted Electoral Commission, for example. The Tommy Robinson case was an exercise in state propaganda, with a blackout of his summary imprisonment followed by approved disinformation from compliant mainstream media. Populism is perceived as dangerous as it pits the common people against the cosmopolitan elite. So it is suppressed by demonizing any rabble-rouser who exposes lies or the underlying agenda.
Equality before the law is another casualty of the creep of autocracy. The moral relativism of identity politics is a boon to state control because it facilitates the old strategy of ‘divide and rule’. In the counter-culture of the 1960s, influenced by the critique of Michel Foucault, emancipatory campaigners spoke truth to power, while the privileged spoke power to truth. But the left-wing students of that time became the new Establishment, quashing opposing fact or opinion with their ‘safe spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and weaponizing of mental health language such as ‘trauma’.
This new puritanism is a tightening ratchet on the Enlightenment triumvirate of freedom of speech, democracy, and equality before the law. Society has retreated from rationalism to moralizing emotionalism, thereby weakening democracy by boosting the power of leaders who are able to manipulate emotional weaknesses. What is to be done? Perhaps nothing less than a revolution, but this could be averted if people took the plunge and voted for a party that genuinely puts them first. Populism is simply a pejorative term for people power.
The slogan 'take back control' used by Vote Leave implies a shift of power from one authority to another. Tough action is needed on terrorism and crime, but most people just want to get on with their lives with minimal state meddling. We should revisit John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: -
"The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection".