In the context of containment, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes, said the Cambridge professor. Who, in the Guardian columns, summons the philosopher Thomas Hobbes to analyze the response of governments to the pandemic.
We are regularly told that we are at war. Really ? Above all, it is the absence of normal political debate that lends this crisis a warlike veneer. Prime Minister Johnson makes a television appearance to deliver a grim speech on the restriction of our freedoms and the Leader of the Opposition fully supports him.
The British Parliament, insofar as it gets to work, seems to act mechanically. The population is confined and its conflicts are limited to the domestic sphere. Some speak of a government of national unity. Ordinary political life no longer exists.
The question of how
However, we are not witnessing a suspension of political life, but rather the disappearance of a surface layer which reveals something more crude. In a democracy, we tend to equate politics with the rivalry of several parties wanting to arrogate our support. We care about “who” and “what”: who wants to win our vote, what the candidates are offering us and who can benefit from it. We see elections as a way to answer these questions.
But the main questions, regardless of the democratic system in place, are always about the “how”: how will governments exercise the extraordinary powers that we grant them? And how will we react when they exercise these powers? These are the questions that have always preoccupied political theorists.
We do not control our leaders
Currently, all of this is not much theoretical. As the current crisis shows, politics rests on the idea that some people give orders to others. Modern political life is based on a compromise between individual freedom and choice of society. It is the Faustian pact identified by Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century, when the United Kingdom was torn apart by a civil war proper.