The Totalitarian Ratchet: how fear, ignorance and disgust is eroding the democratic spirit and presages an ominous future.

The recent decision by Austria to mandate vaccinations for all its citizens, followed now by Germany and the Czech Republic, is the latest turn of the ratchet in the process by which democracies collapse into authoritarian, even fascist, states. It is one thing when a dictatorship is imposed on an unwilling population by a minority; a sort of equilibrium can be reached in which the oppression and brutality is mitigated by a sullen agreement to be ruled in the political sphere if life is tolerable, even liberal, in the economic and cultural spheres. Such was life under Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Assad in Syria. To varying degrees this can be said of Russia and China, the Gulf states and even Iran. It is quite another thing when a majority clamour for the oppressive nature of their freedoms to be removed and those in authority to exercise responsibility for their safety, the information they are allowed to see and their economic well-being. The Dutch psychologist Mattias Desmet hypothesises that this phenomenon arises from a form of mass psychosis, brought about by loss of confidence in the culture and a “free-floating anxiety” that is seeking an objective threat upon which to fix.1 If that is not found in some external, for example military, threat, it will fixate on what can be imagined or even engineered as a threat among the people themselves.

Desmet argues that, unlike an authoritarian dictatorship that is despised but tolerated, societies in the grip of a mass psychosis become increasingly oppressive as opposition wanes. That is because they are driven by emotions like fear, contempt and disgust, rather than rational motives such as self-improvement and prosperity. Nazi Germany was the archetypal example of a civilised people who were hypnotised by a bile-spouting demagogue in the wake of the cultural aimlessness induced by defeat in the First World War. Hitler and his party weaponised the already entrenched antisemitism in Europe, compounded by envy of Jewish success, by demeaning, marking, separating, abusing with impunity and even the encouragement of the German press, and eventually dehumanising the Jewish population to such an extent that few were interested or sympathetic to their eventual plight. It has become such a tired and empty epithet to refer to one’s political opponents as “fascist”, that awareness of the steps by which the Nazi horror came to manifest itself risks being overlooked, steps that are being gradually retraced by many countries in the West with their increasingly polarised politics, a process that has only accelerated during the Covid pandemic. As every step in the erosion of democratic traditions has become normalised, the previously unthinkable becomes thinkable and actionable.

In a recent documentary conducted by the news platform Unherd, opinions were solicited of vaccinated Viennese about their fellow nationals, approximately one third of the population, who have decided not to accept vaccination. Austria had already instituted a vaccine passport regime that largely restricted these people to their homes, and did not allow them to participate in any cultural events. Admittedly the sample interviewed in the documentary was small and of unknown representativeness, but worryingly few people evinced any sympathy for these virtual prisoners and this is borne out in the proclamations and actions of their politicians. This is not an issue about whether the vaccine is in fact effective,2 but that in Austria a majority are coming to have contempt for their fellow countrymen based on the fear of contamination from these people and an intolerance of their motives. This contempt is only likely to be augmented by the latest decision to lock down the entire country again, for which the minority will doubtless, though illogically, be blamed.

The policy is dangerous for another reason. Like all bad policies it is based on a false narrative of scientific knowledge. In the West science has prospered – although admittedly, not perfectly – through the free exchange of ideas. The actual progress of science to marketable commodities and the advancement of knowledge has been both facilitated and distorted by government and corporate participation, but the principle of the free exchange of a range of ideas on all matter of subjects has, until recently, been a core principle in our cultures, and this intellectual churn has allowed many social reforms and technological innovations to be realised that have improved the quality of life.3 The academic and scientific worlds have hitherto been worlds of hotly contested ideas in which, freed from political interference, the best ideas, which account best for the evidence, have risen to the top. But during this time, the corporate media and social media monopolies have strangled opinion and the free expression of ideas in the name of a consensus on “the science”, an entirely fabricated entity. This is a notion which should have been ridiculed, were it not that most of the organisations for the transmission of scientific knowledge, such as the universities, publishers and reputable journals, as well as a preponderance of corporations and institutions, are now almost entirely in lockstep with radical politics, for which ideological conformity is a sine qua non, thus preparing them culturally for their role as a propaganda arm of government.

From the beginning of the pandemic, western countries, intentionally or not, for the most part copied the Chinese response to the pandemic, by locking down their populations. This was already such a departure from their historical traditions that even a mantra such as “Two weeks to flatten the curve!” should have been laughed out of court. We are now almost two years later and several European countries are now locking down their citizens for the fourth time, despite the fact that the benefits of lockdowns are nowhere apparent in the long-term statistics but their entirely foreseen catastrophic social and economic consequences are beginning to be manifest. At the time of writing, more than 870,000 doctors, medical practitioners and experts worldwide have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which states that lockdowns are a devastating response to a pandemic and there are reasonable alternatives; however, the signatories have been reported in the press as if they are cranks. The fact that so many experts in their field are standing against “the consensus” would suggest to a reasonable person that there should be a more open debate about the appropriate measures.

There are many things we do not know, including the origin of the virus, the aetiology of viral infection and evolution, the efficacy of the vaccines, or the potential risks or long-term effects of taking the vaccines, although some of these things are beginning to be understood. There are things we know better, such as the fatality rate of Covid and its dependence on age and underlying health conditions. We also know that the sustainable alternatives to lockdowns, such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing are effective. Then, there are immoveable certainties, such as the devastating effects of the lockdowns on the national economy and the general health and well-being of the population.

We are seeing a strange confluence of interests, which could not have been predicted a decade or two ago, of governments, big business, the academy, the media, wealthy liberals and political radicals, primarily in America, but reflected to varying degrees around the West, particularly in the Anglosphere: interests in the primacy of the global over the national, in the repudiation of history, in the suppression of dissent, in centralised and powerful government, in widespread surveillance and information harvesting, in the abolition of independence and localism, and in compliance rather than liberty. If this is not exactly textbook fascism, it has many elements of it. It may, in fact, be more terrible than that prospect: the emergence of a global totalitarian digital state. This was foreseen in China, but I predicted just over a year ago that it may prove too tempting to governments around the world. I did not imagine that we would be facing this prospect so soon. The pandemic, however, has provided a unique opportunity for those wishing to realise such a world.

A handful of countries and American States have resisted the siren call for lockdowns. The statistical evidence shows that these states, all other things – such as a high developmental index – being equal, have not fared worse in the pandemic over the long term, and better than many. Moreover, they have not removed their citizens’ rights or destroyed their economies. In America, many individuals and businesses are relocating to these open states, away from those states under perpetual mandate. America is fortunate in that respect, in that the individual states have a degree of autonomy and there is free movement between them. Most people do not have the luxury to vote with their feet in this way, as crossing national borders is challenging even under normal conditions.

Freedom brings risks, particularly to the individual having to make choices. There is a need for the individual to make a risk assessment and to make choices that are in their interest and the interest of those close to them, in both the short-term and long-term. Governments also have to make a risk assessment and make choices, but these should not, unless in the state of imminent and high-level threat, involve taking away individual responsibility. The worst scenario, the one unfolding in Austria, Australia and other states, is to generate a climate of fear over a serious but manageable and long-term threat, censor the open debate of information, impose increasingly harsh measures on a population that is based on poor evidence, and seek to demonise a section of the population. This is the recipe for civil strife and a precursor to totalitarian rule. For this reason, protests are breaking out in many of these countries, which have been blamed – predictably and inaccurately – on the far right. The imposition of harsh rules also makes the beneficiaries of those rules, when they are based on propaganda rather than evidence, more likely to be complacent. This could be why we are seeing cases increase in these countries; against the evidence, those who have been vaccinated may believe that they can disregard other preventative measures. If you remove the responsibility from a people and assert this to be the monopoly of the state, you also remove the sense of responsibility of the individual in regard to themselves and others.

I will make a prediction based on my belief in reason and my understanding of human nature and historical precedent. The states which have preserved the freedoms of their citizens, have been as transparent as they are able with the information available and have trusted individuals to make the best choices for themselves and their families will emerge the eventual winners from this crisis. ‘Eventual’, though, is a relative term and this does not preclude that the immediate future, including for those who are resisting this psychotic episode in the world’s history, may be bleak.


1. Desmet lays out four conditions for what he calls “mass formation”: There needs to be a lot of socially isolated people or people who find it difficult to form a social bond; people who experience a lack of sense-making, unable to come to sensible conclusions; there is a lot of free-floating anxiety, for which there is no clear cause; there is a lot of free-floating psychological discontent, in which people lack purpose or meaning in their daily lives. Desmet argues that these conditions were largely met in western societies prior to the pandemic and account for the rapidity with which people acquiesced to the drastic policies being proposed.

2. As the evolutionary biologist and vlogger Bret Weinstein notes: “We are entitled to ask how effective a vaccine is that requires everybody to be vaccinated in order for you to be protected”.

3. It is notable that in the 1950s and 60s communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and North Korea were outstripping America and South Korea, respectively in terms of technological and economic prowess, though at enormous human cost. But after this burst, the lack of intellectual freedom, to say nothing of political and economic freedom, led to severe stagnation.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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