The trouble with the Germans is they’ve got no word for schadenfreude. No but seriously, the other day I was thinking about how we need a word that denotes the particular combination of schadenfreude and genuine pity.
The occasion of that was of course the strangled tweet by The Australian’s Adam Creighton all the way from Washington: “Covid19 has killed free speech” tweeted the foreign correspondent of a national platform.
“Covid 19 will be the most formative event of my life. Virtue signalling dominates truth. The West is finished.”
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Wow, someone was having a tough day. The thousands of Americans on respirators, mainly. But also Adam. But then it’s been a tough year for Adam, who got into the lockdown scepticism market early, only to see Australia go from one of the most locked-down societies in the world to one of the few that can hold a major sports event, a theatre season, or you know, just resume life, while the place he’s stationed in had half-a-million deaths and then had to lockdown anyway.
As a rider, Creighton threw himself into support for the Swedish “herd immunity” strategy, designed to avoid a second wave of infection at which it has had no success at all. Then, just as his columns for the Oz were taking their leave from any sense of reality at all, he stopped writing about COVID-19. Perhaps under firm instructions from his editors, who may have some limits after all.
Nothing got better. Strong lockdowns were working; the most disastrous stuffed-up handlings of the pandemic were by right-wing politicians — Trump, Boris, Bolsonaro — who trashed their own brands.
Morrison had his arse saved by state premiers. Boris and Scotty, to save their respective bacons, abandoned the last vestiges of classical liberal economic morality on fiscal reduction and balanced budgeting and turned their parties over to big-spending economic nationalism and collectivist-progressivist ideas about gender, race, social control, etc. They also upped police powers — but they’ve been doing that for quite a while.
That was when Creighton squeezed off his despairing tweet, which occasioned various friends, acquaintances and adult journos to suggest he have a bit of a lie-down.
To tell you the truth, I’d already had a small helping of schadenfreude with the soft cancelling of possible-senator-to-be Josh Bornstein by The Australian. The Oz discovered tweets from Josh calling a woman “a poodle” and constructed it as him calling her “a dog” — quite a different thing.
Since Labor’s Kim-Il Carr didn’t want to vacate the seat being lined up for Josh, I don’t think anything would have gotten him that spot anyway, so I didn’t feel too bad about feeling a little good about it — especially when they published the photo of him wearing the world’s only knitted mauve Mao cap.
But Bornstein, who would make a very good senator, has been quick off the mark with Twitter moralising and moral policing (including to this author). And, well, looks like his karma ran over his dogma.
But back to the main game, which was pity-joy at Creighto’s anguish.
He cheered up a couple of days later when he noted that the vaccine might eventually get us out of this “COVID madness”, by which of course he meant the reality we had to face and deal with. And therein lies the crucial point, because Creighto’s classical liberal politics can’t work in the real world. For such libs a reality in which collective solutions were required was the nightmare from which they were trying to wake.
As I’ve noted before, the advent of COVID-19 marked the end of the power of classical liberalism as a philosophy central to mainstream society and political power. What had been one half of the Thatcher-Reagan formula carrying through for another couple of decades has been shown to have little hold on the public’s loyalty.
Its philosophy that only “negative” (i.e. state-restraining) freedom exists as an expression of human freedom has been shown to be a crock. People rushed towards the real “positive” freedom of collective restraint in order to protect those they loved, or simply shared a city, or a country, or a world with.
Positive freedom was shown to be at the root of life; negative freedom an important but secondary add-on.
(How to explain Sweden’s role in this? Easy. For decades Sweden’s social democracy was grounded in a notion of nation-as-family, its quasi-socialist system being known as the Folkhemmet — “the people’s home”. Though this was extended to non-Swedes who arrived as refugees it had a base of a unitary ethnicity. This loyalty remained such a strong familialist ethic into the 21st century that people would accept a higher death risk as the price of nation-family survival. The poor boobies on the right had the country completely wrong: it was the soft totalitarian logic underlying Swedish social democracy they were supporting, not a love of liberty.)
COVID-19 came along as classical liberalism was dying anyway. The imposition of austerity in the 2010s threatened right-wing parties with extinction. At a global level, they opened the quantitative easing floodgates and pushed interest rates into the negative. The process has caused hidden inflation, undermined wage purchasing power, eaten savings and priced out housing as it simply pays a premium to capital. But enough has trickled down to keep things bubbling along. The right is now firmly economic nationalist.
In Australia the only classical liberals left are the wonk right of the ALP, determined to ride it down to loss after loss in the defence of “sound money”.
The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has certainly shifted its base of action. Currently it is mid-metamorphosis; some sort of monstrous half-larvae, half butterfly. The organisation’s website is as fly-blown and tired as the front window of the old Soviet-aligned Socialist Party “new era” bookshop was in the 1970s.
Just what sort of value has Gina been getting for her money?
The dormancy appears to be at the service of turning from classical liberalism to nationalist conservatism, with a strong “defend the West” theme. Senator James Paterson has become head of the Senate intelligence committee (stop it), and is a member of a China-wary group called… God help us… “The Wolverines”, after the group of teenagers in the mad ’80s John Milius movie Red Dawn who carry on guerrilla warfare after the invasion of the US.
Were they serious about this, they’d choose a slightly less silly name. But it’s really a device for political reorganisation, to make the organisation viable as a donations-paid defender of capital.
Because that’s what’s really killed classical liberalism. In its early 1980s period, it was a genuine electoral force, attractive to people who had tired of a stagnant post-war statism. Then it simply became the ideology preferred by major corporations while they made money from monopoly controls, psychological manipulation through advertising, and state transfers.
Now, by and large, it has no political value and declining donor value. The major corporations now want to encourage the idea of a strong state acting together with the market. The IPA is keen to align itself with the new reality.
Say what you like about their new direction, but they really make the trains of thought run on time. Or to suit the times. Poor old Creighto (come on, he was old when he was 12, and buying suits at Myer, you just know it). Well, his Twitter burst was a last gasp of a dying politics.
Soon it was back to business — COVID pseudo-facts his editors won’t let him put in the paper anymore, plus China’s threat to Taiwan. For what that sounds like, the Germans do have a word, and it’s not schadenfreude…