Everyone likes to think that they see a dystopia coming. Everyone claims to have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, that apparently sacred document that will grant us to detect and combat authoritarianism. Of course it doesn’t actually have that utility, even if it is talked about far more than it is read anyway. The truth is that authoritarianism resides in specific policies. Any new law is, potentially, the thin end of the wedge for such a state. It couldn’t be any other way: an ‘enabling act’ is a policy with all its convoluted phrases and clauses. An enabling act is a detailed document. It takes time to read, and an attention span.
We already have an enabling act in the UK: the Coronavirus Act 2020. So much about this set of laws was questionable, odd, arbitrary. It contained provisions, for instance, for the ability of a single doctor to pronounce someone to be sectioned and institutionalised under the Mental Health Act 1983. Why? It makes things easier, quicker. Quicker, obviously, to make mistakes; easier, clearly, to ruin a life by inappropriately removing someone’s custody of themselves. How much was this reported on? Shockingly little.
The silence from the media is not surprising: laws are tedious to parse and even more difficult to convey interestingly enough enough to harvest clicks. Another exercise, almost as boring as reading the laws themselves, is to point out that such authoritarian measures are popular. We hear that the concept of a ‘vaccine passport’ or ‘COVID certificate’ is enormously, magnificently popular. The margin is something in the region of 70% of the British population. Morally I am outraged; intellectually I am nonplussed. This is the same old story.
But why, we need to ask, are these things so popular? The standard response is that fundamental ideas of safety and belonging are at the heart of authoritarianism and populism. Indeed in parliamentary debates we have heard it said—without irony—that the chief role of government is to keep its citizens safe. This is certainly part of it. A major and emotional motivation is always for safety, belonging and stability. Conservatism comes from the spinal cord.
I believe there is another, much more specific, and much more interesting reason at play. For several months, since about January, people have been posting photos of their cards they received after vaccination. This has a number of probable psychological effects. Firstly, it desensitised millions of people to the idea that such a record could, and should, be made visible and public. It is framed as progress, as an achievement—not just of science, but on some level, of the individual that received the vaccine. And, of course, we make our achievements public.
In turn, these images of vaccine ‘receipts’ created the expectation that if a vaccine is recorded, it should have a tangible purpose beyond immunisation. Immunisation is a biological process that we can neither feel nor see. Cognitive dissonance is also at play: there was a great deal of anticipation about these vaccines, and yet, materially, much has stayed the same so far. We are still pretty much in a lockdown. Many recipients of the vaccine still feel basically vulnerable, and they are told to behave in this way by the government. So a vaccine passport is the reification of progress, of hope. Retroactively, it makes many people think that it has been worthwhile, when before it has made little apparent difference. I wager, therefore, that the government will try to introduce vaccine passports purely because they are popular, and for that reason alone, regardless of the evidence and the ethics.
To believe that laws like the Coronavirus Act keep us safe, however, requires another component. This component is negative. It is, basically, a lack of an attention span. In order to understand and think about the situations in which a COVID passport becomes tyrannical and dehumanising, one has to, well, think about it. First of all, one has to consider the differing situations of those that live in this country. Some people have uncertain status, they are refugees, asylum seekers, or have been harassed by immigration authorities. Some people, shockingly, do not have fixed addresses.
Another thing which relied on this assumption—that everyone has fixed addresses—which also took place this year, is the Census, a comically antiquated system of data collection. The Census is not sent to people but to ‘households’. Until 2012, Travellers, Gypsy, or Roma peoples did not even exist according to the document, since their ethnicity was not an option.
Like the Census, any ‘vaccine passport’ would be a massive data collection exercise, tying identification to health records. This is a hugely consequential difference. The scheme would be discriminatory by design: it is literally used in order to deny services to people based on their characteristics. To have or not have the vaccine is not, in fact a choice: since there are all manner of reasons it may be dangerous or impossible for some people to have it. Moreover, it clearly would serve to open up further avenues of discrimination for vast numbers of people who are vulnerable to state instruments.
These are ethical considerations. They are also details. They shouldn’t be seen that way: they are rather quick sketches of the results of bad policy, but anything which searches beyond the most superficial headline is apparently considered niche, boring. That is why we do not have proportional representation in this country. Although people can just about be bothered to vote for a number of parties, even if their vote is made worthless by the gerrymandering of First Past the Post, precious few people can be bothered to consider the fundamental reason their votes do not count.
All politics is, at bottom, a matter of ‘details’. Problems and solutions are all systematic, boring, complicated. All forms of ethics are based on details, too. Whether a burger is immoral has something to do with the material conditions of the farm and abattoir that brought it about. Whether an investment is immoral has something to do with the practices, and methods, and ethos of whatever company one pumps money into. In other words, these considerations require research.
Laws are also political and ethical machines. Their aim is to convert what are, basically, philosophical ideas about what should and should not be allowed to happen, into some kind of reality. The way these things are written has just as much consequence as whether they are written at all. The law tries as hard as possible to read reality as rigidly (and therefore fairly, in some sense) as a computer. Any law’s wording is not missed or glossed over like normal speech. It is the substance of a case, the things which determine freedom or decades behind bars. We should all know that the law does not factor in ‘common sense’, but it took a distinguished former QC and Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption, to point this out in the very first ‘lockdown’.
Again, when reading about laws, our attention wanes. We need human stories to make us understand the real consequences of legislation, well or poorly drafted. I read, recently, the story of Aaron Swartz. Swartz is known as an ‘Internet martyr’. His crime was trying to make information free, by downloading files from JSTOR. The detail in question was that his breach of JSTORs terms and conditions was instead treated as a federal crime of wire fraud. This is just a definition: the name we pin a particular felony, semantics. He was also charged with eleven separate violations of a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—each one, of course, an intellectual categorisation. These details led to a ridiculous sentence of 35 years, and more importantly, the de facto elimination of any future in Swartz’s life. Quite unsurprisingly, the young man died by suicide. All of this tragedy stemmed from using computers in a particular way.
All documents in the modern world are monopoly-money, a social construct, a theory, until they aren’t. All laws are unenforced ink on parchment, until they are enforced. For anything to be set in motion, for things to happen, problems to be solved or created, someone has to consult the details of a matter. The government is now proposing to create a new kind of document we all carry in our phones so that, in return, we can indulge the psychological craving for normality. Clearly, seventy-per-cent of the British public cannot be bothered with detail. They will get what they deserve.