Coronavirus: histories of emergency powers

As the proverb goes: it’s pointless to complain about losing your hair when they’re about to cut off your head. Across the world, coronavirus, not its longer-term impact, is the real and present danger.

After the crisis and tragedy of the disease itself, its economic impact is rightly the next biggest worry. The past indicates another risk, too, less urgent but with permanent consequences.

Governments in many countries have accumulated massive powers to deal with the emergency. History suggests that governments of all types will keep their extra powers as far as possible when the pandemic subsides.

I don’t mean that the parks will stay shut and the police will continue to break up family parties, but that smaller, apparently incremental changes might become fixed.

Look at Britain. Its new Coronavirus Law ranges widely not just across medical and quarantine rules, but unrelated areas of life, allowing essential work to go on if officials are sick or procedures disrupted. For instance, the new law permits ministers ‘to make regulations extending, for up to six months, the period for which the fingerprints and DNA profiles [of a wide range of persons] may be retained’.

Such a power is technical and useful. Its post-coronavirus retention will be easy to justify; it might hardly be noticed. Like many similar regulations, its design and oversight is the preserve of specialized officials. ‘Wherever the modern specialized official comes to predominate,’ argued the German sociologist Max Weber in 1917, ‘his power proves practically indestructible.’

Mayor of Moscow,
Sergei Sobyanin

What about Russia? The mayor of Moscow has promised pensioners 4,000 rubles to help them through the crisis: half payable straight into their accounts now, half later — if they obey the lockdown rules. On the first day of the restricted regime, 63,000 pensioners tried to access public transport. How do we know? Because they can travel for free using their social security cards, whose public transport function — but not information-sending capacity — had been disabled.

As the scope of the lockdown tightens and extends to the whole city population, new forms of surveillance become imaginable. Mobile phone signals and social media images can also be monitored, says mayor Sergei Sobyanin, to keep an eye on people who might not be staying where they should be. When rules were updated to keep dog-walkers within one hundred metres of their homes, facial recognition cameras were a mechanism for enforcement.

None of this is unusual — existing capacities everywhere are being used in new ways, and emergency regulations quietly accumulated — though many Russians have a particularly low level of trust in the growing power of government officials. But how do we know that today’s exceptional restrictions might become future norms? We all know that governments have become increasingly effective at monitoring their populations in the last hundred years. We sense too that they retain capacity that was created during crises. Russia is only a good example of a general trend.

Feliks Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, the new secret police founded in 1917: image courtesy of RIA Novosti / Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the Civil War, the Bolshevik dictatorship was merrily using surveillance practices, such as opening and reading mailed letters en masse, that had been initiated a few years earlier, by the Tsarist government during the First World War. In Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 was the basis of economic, police and surveillance powers that continued to shape post-1918 government. These powers were much less intrusive and violent than in the USSR, but they were just another example of the new modern way that governments across Europe catalogued, managed and exhorted their populations.

Kirov and Stalin, 1934

The process went on. A decade or so later, on December 1 1934, the Party boss of Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated in the city’s Bolshevik headquarters. Although the crime was almost certainly committed by a lone killer, Stalin and the Politburo took advantage and confected out of it a massive conspiracy against the revolution. Conspiratorial rhetoric and police capacity both escalated over the next two years, making possible the Great Terror, which began in late 1936. By the end of 1938, it had resulted in the judicial murder of 692,000 innocent people. There would be no re-run of the Terror, but other Stalinist atrocities followed in the 1940s, and the Gulag only reached its maximum size in 1953.

As the leading Kirov specialist, Matthew Lenoe, warns in his magisterial work on the assassination, this is the terrible end of a general modern tendency. In a very different context, he points out, the American government claimed special powers to defend its people after September 11 2001. The same measures were in place years later. The war went on in new forms. Barrack Obama never closed Guantanamo Bay. Drone strikes continue.

Beyond the mortal tragedy and frightening economic cost, coronavirus might have various longer-term effects: perhaps a new solidarity, a new internationalism, or a new attitude to public health. It might lead to a more valued workforce or to a more highly coerced one, with more people required to ‘home-work’. Or the pandemic might be the the tipping point towards unstoppable bureaucratic surveillance of unprotected populations, a new and enduring revolution in modern government. Who knows? Mercifully historians don’t have to make predictions. We just have to try to survive, like everyone else.