Is democratic dystopia now the order of the day?

It has been the stuff of dystopian science fiction for centuries. We have read the novels and watched the dramas. The typical thread is that the normal order of society breaks down due to alien invasion of beings, mutant plants, disease or nuclear war. Or that society descends entropically into chaos because that is the natural order of things.

I am a fan of dystopian writing. But I am not a fan of dystopia when it spills onto the streets and threatens democracy.

Yesterday’s abuse of Kier Starmer was not the usual rough and tumble of politics as some have claimed. It was clearly an organised attempt to intimidate the leader of the opposition.

We witnessed deaths on Capitol Hill last year. Ottawa, that most gentle of capitals, is in a state of emergency. Are we now living in a political dystopia we once only thought was science fiction?

How we gawped, even laughed. Donald Trump was claiming that he had won an election he clearly lost. Monies were raised to challenge the vote that elected Joe Biden to the presidency. The challenge generated huge headlines and probably huge profits for the legal profession but it could never succeed.

That would all but have been forgotten by now if it was not for the acceleration Trump gave to the conspiracy theorists. QAnon – a right wing extremist movement propagating fake news – soared in popularity. Or perhaps I mean soared in populism. It led to the storming of Capitol Hill and five deaths in some of the most disturbing and bizarre scenes we have seen in nations that claim they are at the heart of democracy. (Recommended listening: The Coming Storm.) Trump is still lurking in the wings hoping for a second act.

In Ottawa, the Guardian reports, the freedom convoy now disrupting the capital was the brainchild of James Bauder “who has endorsed the QAnon movement and called Covid-19 the biggest political scam in history”.

The Canadian flag was waved yesterday in London when Kier Starmer, along with David Lammy, were harassed by protesters by anti-vaxxers and others shouting the Labour leader was “protecting paedophiles”.

In Britain, fake news has been gathering strength for years. Back in the late nineties, I recall arguing in the pub against people who argued that irradiation of food would leave their dinners radioactive. There are a lot of arguments against resurrecting clapped out food with a dose of radiation but it won’t be radioactive. Since then, the public understanding of science has improved immeasurably through the efforts of scientists and communicators. But I confess, I was not prepared for the way that antivax protests have become entangled with bizarre theories about paedophilia over the last two years. I was not prepared for a prime minister who, like Trump, became estranged from the truth. And like Trump, doesn’t understand that when you get something wrong and that is leading to civil unrest, you apologise.

We have always had protests. Protests don’t concern me. I have taken part in many. What scares me is the way that legitimate differences in points of view have become entangled with madcap and frankly dangerous conspiracy theories.

I don’t think we are yet a dystopian society, here, in the USA or in Canada. But I do think we are showing symptoms of political dystopia. Those symptoms are already leading to the government attempting to clamp down on protest through its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The open question is whether growing dystopia and increasing authoritarianism is a short term trend or a growing anarchy. Will what we read in science fiction today become the reality of our futures?

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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9 Comments

  • In a week that saw the replacement for a murdered MP welcomed to parliament we have Johnson and other ministers defending his calculated dispicable attempt to hold Starmer personally responsible for not prosecuting Savile..An open invitation to some far right ‘nutter’, if ever there was one

    The excuse, that he later used (that he didn’t mean Starmer personally) is absurd; Johnson used the pronoun ‘he’ which, when I went to school, was a ‘singular personal’ pronoun..At least Sunak had the decency to distance himself from the remark but, even today, after the ‘attack’ on Starmer, Tory ministers have come to defend Johnson, claiming that what he said was acceptable..

    Starmer claimed that ‘Johnson was dragging his party into the gutter’; however, for Johnson and most of his ministers. that place would be a promotion..

  • Dystopia, anarchy, authoritarianism…The jury might be out on the first two but rising authoritarianism is undeniable – making liberalism more necessary than ever. Actually, in spite of Trump and Johnson, authoritarians need not be chaotic. Making the trains run on time is always a good idea and Mussolini was supposedly good at this! Johnson will always deny authoritarian tendencies but they go with a certain kind of ruthlessness that accompanies narcissism and the prioritisation of self-interest.

  • Nigel Hunter 8th Feb '22 - 4:12pm

    Has Q-anon learnt from George Orwell,s 1984? Has Johnson and Trump done the same? Johnson refuses to apologise. Along. comes this protest and it is noted on twitter that one is an ex Conservative Cllr (the one with the beard). .Conspiracy theories can have truth in them. Johnson and rent a mob working together to distract from Johnson,s problems.Remember that Partygate has not been mentioned lately This a distraction from it?
    Equally these last years have caused huge Disruption in the Western World .Can this dystopia be caused by alt right and Putin supporters?

  • Kyle Harrison 8th Feb '22 - 5:01pm

    It’s the internet… I see mad comments all over the place online. People now strongly believe various conspiracy theories. The Western world is arguably showing the strains of having too much freedom. That is probably an outrageous thing to say here on a liberal website, but is it not true? The internet is a wild west that is poisoning civil society. And what are we to do? It seems less liberalism and more govt crackdowns on tech companies and internet freedom is the answer…. Although, many liberals might baulk at such ideas.

    Could it be that decades of liberalism, promoted since the 1960s, could be about to be slightly reversed? To save liberalism, liberalism has to be curtailed? Remember there was a time when theatre productions could be shut down in this country, books could be deemed too morally outrageous and be banned etc… This was still happening at the beginning of the 1960s. Now, I’m not saying we are going to go back to those days, but could we soon find ourselves with equivalent types of laws restricting the internet?

  • James Fowler 8th Feb '22 - 8:32pm

    Well, thanks to the pandemic we have had the best part of two years of state sponsored alarm and fear ceaselessly blasted into everyone’s living room. It’s not surprising that people’s anxiety levels are high and that consequently their ability to rationalize threats correctly has been compromised to some extent. This is the danger of living in a constant state of amplified tension – hysteria may be ‘useful’ in some contexts to get people to do what you want, but once you’ve sanctioned it there’s no easy way to control it.

  • John Marriott 9th Feb '22 - 10:13am

    Life is all about choices, for most of us at least. When it comes to the way we are governed, we are also supposed to make choices. In December 2019 a majority of those who chose to vote, in England at least, believed the Johnsonian propaganda. Mind you, as today, there appeared then to many to be precious little alternative.

    Most people, actively but mostly passively, choose to go with what is our version of democracy, where freedom of expression is claimed to be sacrosanct. A few people decide to subvert that system and use its weaknesses to further their cause. Whether it’s Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, anti vaccination, Qnon and all the rest, one thing they all have in common is not only a massive conviction that they and ONLY they are right together with an inability even to conceive that they might just be wrong. Direct action for them means what it says on the tin. For these groups it’s action, not words, that gets you noticed.

    The fact that their activities are tolerated is surely a sign that our form of democracy is comfortable in its skin. I hardly think that applies in places like Minsk, Moscow, Beijing or Hong Kong. However, if you choose to take your actions too far, you should clearly expect to face the consequences. By the way, when is the Met due to finish its ‘Partygate’ investigations and decide what action, if any, to take?

  • The far right attacking people on the streets is more “historical fiction” than “dystopian sci-fi” in genre, I think. But then of course a lot of dystopian sci-fi starts from the premise of “what if some bad thing happened to comfortable middle-class people as well”.

    As regards blaming Johnson specifically for it … Jo Cox was murdered under former coalition-partner David Cameron’s government, Starmer’s two predecessors as Labour leader were assaulted as well, so it’s not as if there’s anything new going on here. May as Home Secretary and later as Prime Minister had hundreds of British Citizens illegally deported through Windrush and elsewhere. The Daily Mail has been yelling “traitor!” at anyone it disagrees with for years. The dystopia has been here for many for a very long time. Johnson is just less subtle about it and his eventual successor will likely continue that pattern.

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