At the beginning of this September, the Atlantic — a mouthpiece of the progressive professional managerial class if there ever was one — ran an unexpected article criticizing Australia for its COVID-19 policies. The piece, titled “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty,” ponders whether the country’s eliminationist approach toward the virus has rendered it undeserving of the title of liberal democracy.
The author, Conor Friedersdorf, is particularly critical of a proposed app that would force Australians in home quarantine to take photos of themselves at random intervals throughout the day, calling it a proposal “as Orwellian as any in the free world.” I was not aware of this app. From my desk here in Sydney, however, I have become intimately familiar with many of the other emergency measures taken by the Australian government. Masks are mandated everywhere, including outdoors, and straying too far from one’s home without a state-approved excuse is punishable with a $5,000 fine.
Residents of Sydney are now also obliged to check themselves into and out of a government app whenever they enter or exit a building. Consequently, the ruling bureaucracy of Australia’s largest city may now possess one of the world’s most comprehensive systems for tracking the habits and locations of civilians. Enforcement is questionable, and highly contingent on how the store clerk is feeling on any particular day, but an earnest effort is being made to ensure that no Australian moves, shops, or eats without the state knowing about it.
These ever-stricter policies have become necessary to maintain the delicate state of “COVID Zero” coveted by Australian and New Zealand politicians. At the beginning of the pandemic, the relative isolation of the two island nations allowed them to raise the figurative drawbridges and shut out the rest of the world, with New Zealand becoming one of a handful of countries in the world to successfully eliminate the virus after its first wave.
What initially looked like a blessing, however, has become a dilemma. It has by now become obvious that COVID-19, unlike the Spanish flu or more recent respiratory disease outbreaks, will probably not simply burn itself out and disappear; the term “endemic” is entering media discourse as experts grapple with the possibility of COVID-19 becoming as quotidian as the seasonal flu. This has left policymakers in Canberra and Auckland wondering whether their countries can man the fortress walls forever. If they let the drawbridge back down, would that invalidate the past year of effort and sacrifice? Politicians who have staked their reputations on a flawless COVID-19 record, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, are asking themselves that question.
Regardless of what the final answer turns out to be, it will mean an expansion of the technocratic bent of the state. Bureaucracy will be necessary to enforce compliance with vaccines and booster shots. Furthermore, if the current outbreak in heavily vaccinated Iceland is any indication, vaccination will not bring about the end of viral circulation and will therefore most likely coexist with, rather than supplant, current surveillance and control measures.
In the broader picture, however, Australia has been merely the grimmest example of a worldwide phenomenon. The Atlantic has burned Canberra, but what about Washington? The magazine, along with the rest of the media, cheered on lockdowns and stay-at-home orders last year. It bears saying over and over again that such policies were quite literally unprecedented in human history: not even the much deadlier Spanish flu pandemic provoked such a response. Many lines have been crossed since early 2020, and not just by Australia.
A late August piece in the fashionable left-leaning Tablet magazine made a similar argument, pointing out that mass coercive measures had previously been unthinkable to national governments before suddenly becoming the norm around March of last year.
What changed? The author gives the obvious answer: China led the way with its response, and in doing so, he argues, transformed the unthinkable into inevitable. It is indeed the case that Beijing’s whole-of-state effort to clamp down on the virus captivated the world and provided early inspiration to officials in the West. By the middle of last year, lockdown-free Sweden had become the black sheep of Europe for simply not going along with a policy agenda that would have seemed insane in 2019.
On the other hand, accusing China of having essentially hypnotized the world may obfuscate a larger trend. The lockdown in Wuhan was lifted in April 2020 after having been in effect for only a few months, and life in the People’s Republic has attained a degree of normalcy that most Western countries have yet to return to. The author’s blaming of Chinese infiltration into Western decision-making bodies is also dubious in the case of Australia, whose government is actively working to disentangle itself from its neighbor in Asia.
Putting the blame on Chinese influence mistakenly absolves policymakers in Australia and the United States of their role in pushing technocratic management upon their citizens. Lockdown policies have been enforced not because the Chinese Communist Party willed it, but simply because they can be enforced; because the nexus of growing technological prowess and sociological theory has made such a thing possible.
The issue of technocracy has been the wheelhouse of many philosophers, from Max Weber to Michel Foucault and Jacques Ellul. For the purposes of this piece, however, it suffices to say that the governments of the free world are too large and insufficiently democratic. What is happening in Australia is a swollen bureaucracy, originally raised for some nebulous purpose (“safeguarding public health”), and now running wild with an ever-growing arsenal of technological tools at its disposal.
John von Neumann, the 20th century’s greatest scientific genius after Einstein, once predicted that “science will, in the future, turn increasingly from problems of intensity, substance, and energy, to those of structure, organization, information and control.” This new science has arrived in force, and we the people are its unwitting test subjects.