Excessive power without end: politics suffering from Long Covid

Milosz Matuschek

Lawyer, journalist and author of several books. Columnist for the satirical magazine Nebelspalter, retired NZZ columnist; former deputy editor-in-chief of Schweizer Monats. Twitter: @m_matuschek

Sorry, this may be a stupid question. But what is actually the aim of the anti-Covid measures? Yes, one could say: to end the pandemic, of course. And then of course to end the measures once the pandemic comes to an end. So the aim of the measures is also to bring the measures to an end. As logical as it may sound, it is now clear that such a belief would be naive.

Because, since the beginning of the pandemic, a completely different image has emerged. Since the beginning of the pandemic, politics has continually changed the narrative, desperately seeking ever more new figures, panic factors and false threats to keep the population stuck in a “sack of measures” for as long as possible, as strictly as possible, and on constant repeat. First we must think about flattening the curve, protecting the elderly, R values, and preventing an overburdened healthcare system. Meanwhile, it is now all about vaccination passports and vaccination of children, despite the fact that in countries that are almost fully vaccinated, such as recently Israel, the numbers are going through the roof. Today’s solutions are always the problems of tomorrow. The coronavirus logic is that there is no logic, except that the continuous loop of excess power cannot stop. 

Long Covid is a power grab syndrome

Politics needs the measures in the same way as drug dealers need their addicted customers. It needs coronavirus more urgently than an end to the pandemic. Because an end to the pandemic would mean more focus on the mistakes made. At the end of the pandemic, the hour of reckoning will come, a major clean-up. Politics and its merry-go-round of experts suffer from Long Covid, an acute power grab syndrome affecting the lungs of democracies, freedom of expression, parliamentary processes, as well as the reflection on alternatives and pragmatic solutions. This conflict of interests in the relationship between state and citizen has become apparent at least since the beginning of the pandemic – and has so far remained unresolved. The conflict is as old as the state itself.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a well-known quote by Lord Acton. In ancient Rome, the power to conduct state business would be transferred from the Senate and Consuls to a dictator for a period of six months in the existential crisis of war. And of course, in democracies too there may arise emergency situations requiring immediate action by the executive. However, the current handling of power and states of emergency in contemporary democracies speaks volumes about their true condition, which is unfortunately one of fragility. The current emergency is actually a flu of medium severity, giving rise to a slight excess mortality at most, against a backdrop of a reduced number of ICU beds. In Germany, the coronavirus measures were recently extended in secret “night-and-fog” sessions of the Bundestag in a reading amending the law on foundations. The history books of tomorrow will be terrible to read if written in an honest way. The elected representatives actually meeting after dark to rob the sovereign of its power. If that is how the agents of democracy act, democracy needs no enemies. 

History repeating itself – a mirror image of the past

To this treason of the elected representatives is added a “treason of the intellectuals” (Julien Benda) who have failed to assess critically the democratic processes, as well as a complete failure by the courts of last instance (where they exist), constitutional courts, to scrutinise and rein in excess power. History is repeating itself, like a mirror image of the past, and it is not even necessary to go back as far as the Roman republic – which was at best a rudimentary form of democracy. In the 1960s, it was leftist students going to the barricades as they sensed a return to the enabling acts of the Nazis in the emergency legislation introduced by the German government at the time. Horkheimer and Adorno provided intellectual support. The latter recognised the existence of a kind of “emergency happiness” and found that “Once you are confident about what can be covered by emergency laws, you will always find opportunities to use them”.

Institutions losing their credibility

Today, extra-parliamentary opposition exists in the German Querdenker movement and, in Switzerland, among the Friends of the Constitution that recently launched a new referendum with record approval. However, today’s mainstream academics and journalists are playing on the team of those supporting a state of emergency, or, in the parlance of the 1960s, the team of “Kurt Georg Kiesinger”, the only Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany who was formerly a member of the NSDAP. But, unfortunately, the Adorno of yesteryear is no more than a Richard David Precht today. In his latest book, Precht might think he is emulating Kant when he claims to have discovered the alleged civic duty of obedience to the government but he keeps falling short and simply ends up with Heinrich Mann’s “Loyal Subject”. So what can you expect? 

We are living in a time when institutions are losing their credibility: they appear bungling, dysfunctional and somehow tainted. In such a situation, politicians might be tempted to add one excess power to another to keep a firm hold of the reins of power. So what’s next, if the next mutant cannot be taken seriously? A blackout? Soldiers in the streets and shuttered banks? Currently, fears of a cyberattack are being stoked: the World Economic Forum recently simulated such an attack in the simulation game Polygon. That should make us sit up and take notice. In October 2019, the WEF had a leading role in Event 201, a simulation exercise of a coronavirus epidemic in Brazil. What subsequently happened in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan is now history.

Willy Brandt once said: “Whoever plays with a state of emergency to restrict our liberty will find me and my friends on the barricades to defend democracy, and I mean this literally.” And the citizen sheep of today, what do they do? They queue up for their second jab and, with a bit of luck, plan their summer holiday. 

I don’t know about you, but it makes me think of a song by Chris Rea. And no, it’s not “Looking for the summer” – it’s “Fool (if you think it´s over)”.

More from this author on his site: Freischwebende Intelligenz.