by Ramesh Thakur
The evidence for the effectiveness of lockdowns is underwhelming; for the harm they cause to lives, livelihoods, mental health and civil liberties is overwhelming. Neither claim needs further substantiation for readers of this site.
Still the relentless march of lockdown folly continues, causing a growing sense of helplessness and despair. What has become clear over the course of the year is just how impervious the lockdownistas are to data, evidence, reason and – yes – even science. Part of the explanation, I suspect, is that Western democracy has been captured by self-absorbed careerists who occupy all key positions in political parties. They have no interest in using power to advance any particular vision or achieve lofty social purposes, which is why the Australian prime minister can reject calls to defend free speech with the dismissive comment that it never created a single job. Nor do many have any experience outside of politics, putting comprehension of the real-world consequences of their decisions beyond them.
Even so, the ease with which so many well-established democracies have succumbed to pandemic fearmongering, and surrendered freedoms hard-won over centuries, is astonishing. The sickening video of a pregnant Mum handcuffed in the presence of her child for posting on Facebook about a peaceful, socially-distanced protest in a regional town in Victoria, produced victim-shaming by fellow-Victorians alongside condemnation by most other Australians.
The most eloquent defence of traditional liberties has come from Lord Jonathan Sumption –for example, in the Cambridge Freshfields Annual Law Lecture delivered on October 27th. But so far even his erudite voice and elegant reasoning are just cries in the wilderness. The criminalisation of the right to protest, and the advance of the totalitarian state that intrudes into the most sacred and intimate personal spaces of individuals, families and businesses, has been backed by the ruthless deployment of the coercive apparatus of the state. I did not expect to see such scenes of confrontation between police and ordinary citizens – not militants – in Australia or Britain in my lifetime.
The failure of institutional bulwarks against the assault on freedoms has been just as dispiriting. One after another, parliaments, political parties, media and the judiciary have abdicated their duty to hold the executive to account. The net result of the grotesquely inept, bumbling and deeply authoritarian response of Boris Johnson to COVID-19 is the biggest attack on the lives and liberties of the freeborn English in centuries.
What then is to be done? I suggest one option is to channel our inner Gandhi against policemen indulging their inner bully and politicians indulging their inner tyrant.
Born after India’s independence, I grew up with the saying the that reason the sun never set on the British Empire was that even God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. In The Government and Politics of India, I noted that the political legacies from the Raj include civil disobedience as a legitimate and results-oriented technique of political protest.
‘Civil resistance’ encompasses marches, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and collective non-cooperation to express opposition to policies and state authorities without inflicting physical violence. This is both principled and prudent. Earlier this year, David Shor, a data analyst for the Democratic Party, was fired for tweeting a link to a scholarly paper showing that nonviolent protests have been more politically effective in redressing black minority grievances in the US than violent protests. The study, by Princeton University’s Omar Wasow, looked at black-led protests from 1960-72. Wasow showed that nonviolent activism against state and vigilante repression was more effective in driving favourable media coverage and framing Congressional speech and public opinion on civil rights.
The person most associated with civil disobedience is Mahatma Gandhi. In effect, he instrumentalised, operationalised and weaponised Henry David Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience (1849), turning it into an effective technique for peaceful mass mobilisation against a powerful opponent to end empire and win independence.
Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha – literally, the urging of truth upon the opponent – is deeply grounded in the power of moral suasion. More recently, people have become interested in its strategic logic as a cost-effective alternative to violent resistance. In Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan showed that from 1900-2006, civil resistance campaigns outperformed armed struggles in defeating authoritarian regimes, advancing democratisation, and averting a relapse into civil war.
The British Empire’s jails were the biggest training ground for the political leaders of newly independent colonies, including Jawaharlal Nehru in India. ‘Jail Bharo Andolan’ is one technique of civil disobedience. It literally means ‘Fill the prisons movement/agitation’. It’s a deliberate, coordinated campaign to subvert a law or regime by courting arrest and imprisonment in numbers that physically clog the courts and overwhelm the prisons. The fact that those imprisoned are normally law-abiding citizens adds greatly to the authorities’ embarrassment. It was used frequently as part of India’s independence struggle against the British. Because of that lineage, it has a legitimacy that makes it impossible for any Indian government to counter effectively. So it continues to be used in modern times, often for relatively trivial political purposes instead of in the service of a transcendental cause: to protest against corruption, price rises of essential commodities, prohibition and police brutality.
Gandhi prioritised the call of truth and conscience – ‘a higher court’ – over the courts of justice. Delivering the annual Gandhi Peace Foundation lecture on Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2nd in New Delhi, prominent activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan described the serial attacks on minorities and journalists as “an assault on dissent by the use of fundamentally unjust laws”. He concluded that were Gandhi alive today, he’d “surely have launched a Jail Bharo Andolan, daring the government to incarcerate millions of peaceful protesters from across the country”.
Gandhi got habituated to being jailed by oppressive authorities in apartheid South Africa and colonial India and jail was a second home to him. British authorities would release him when he began a fast, fearing mass uprisings should he die in prison. “I always get my best bargains behind prison bars,” he quipped with his trademark sense of mischief, the same that apocryphally led him to remark that European civilisation would be a very good idea.
England is “notoriously law abiding”, says Nigel Jones in The Critic, but it also has its own heritage of successful peaceful resistance and agitation for social justice and political rights – for example, the Suffragette movement 100 years ago. As the diktats get ever more arbitrary, petty and inconsistent – you cannot hug Granny but six cops can carry her spread-eagled to a police van – citizens develop contempt for laws, lawmakers and the principle of the rule of law.
So to those looking for what you can do: protest peacefully in large numbers, have several rungs of leaders to take the place of any who are arrested, be unfailingly polite and charmingly courteous to police officers and judges, refuse to pay fines in favour of court appearance and trial, and after the court has delivered its verdict go to prison rather than pay fines to overwhelm the prison system until the justice system breaks down.
It requires sacrifice, courage and steadfastness to refuse obedience to the dictates of a discredited and despised government. The dissenters must be prepared to accept the legal consequences, including imprisonment. But if you don’t fight for freedom, get ready to lose it.
Ramesh Thakur is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.