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Where Will You Draw Your Line? An Interview with Paul Kingsnorth by Jonathon Van Maren

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Where Will You Draw Your Line? An Interview with Paul Kingsnorth

"The Lovers II" ( 1928), a 54 x 73.4 cm oil on canvas by René Magritte (1898–19670.

Photo: Yann Caradec, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul Kingsnorth has been one of the most interesting writers to analyze our emerging narratives, government crackdowns, and the technocracy springing up overnight. What makes Kingsnorth uniquely qualified for this moment is that he’s been writing about what he calls “the Machine”—a “great agglomeration of capitalism, state power, and technology”—for decades. His 2017 book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, includes an essay titled The Barcode Moment that detailed the inexorable rise of a web of technologies all around us, and asked readers the question: Where will you draw your line? 

“At what moment does the direction of travel of the Machine become so obvious, so intolerable, so frightening, that you can no longer acquiesce?” he asked. “What is the breaking point? For some people it was smartphones. For others it might have been social media. These days I think that the really smart people stepped off the carousel at dial-up modems and went quietly into the woods.”

Kingsnorth himself didn’t go quite that far—he moved with his family to the Irish countryside, where he is making a go at a measure of self-sustainability. But with the COVID pandemic, the abrupt introduction of vaccine passports, and the accompanying demonization of the vaccine-hesitant, Kingsnorth has drawn his line. He isn’t against vaccines per se, but he will not participate in the systems being built around us. He laid out why in three compelling essays last year that were published on his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule.

The essays have proven so popular that he subsequently compiled them into a free downloadable e-book, The Vaccine Moment: Covid, Control, and the Machine. He analyzes vaccine passports, propaganda, and the pitched battles unfolding on streets across the West as populist uprisings swell in response to the curtailing of civil liberties.

In the most fascinating of the three essays, he details how some elites would like to utilize this vaccine moment as laid out by the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab in his book, COVID-19: The Great Reset. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist, Kingsnorth notes, to observe that the world Schwab would like to build is, in fundamental ways, a post-human one:

This is the essence of the Great Reset: the construction of a future which is at once controlled and catatonic, dystopian and dull, monitored and monotonous beyond bearing. A future in which global corporations are free to build the world they have long desired: a borderless, interconnected market technocracy, in which each human individual is a tracked, traced and monitored production and consumption machine—all in the name of public health and safety.

As nation states and their leaders lose power to the advance of globalization, that power has pooled around a different group—“those who create and control the world’s technological infrastructure”—including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Klaus Schwab, Jeff Bezos, and others. It is important to reject ‘weird conspiracy theories‘ precisely because it is essential that we remain clear-eyed about the world these people want to build. They aren’t hiding it. Schwab wrote a book about it, which you can purchase and have delivered to your home overnight by Amazon, courtesy of Jeff Bezos. 

The question, Kingsnorth writes, is whether this is the world we want—or whether it is one we will decide to resist. What follows is my interview with Kingsnorth on our vaccine moment and the new era it is ushering in.


Many have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic did not make things worse so much as simply accelerate existing trends. You’ve been writing about what you call ‘the Machine for years—would you agree with this analysis? Are there specific instances of trends that have concerned you that have accelerated as a result of pandemic measures?

Absolutely. Covid has acted as an accelerant to pre-existing trends towards digitisation, monitoring, and control. The obvious example would be the rise of Zoom, and the ease with which so many of us have got used to working ‘remotely.’ Even children in schools have been acculturated into this, and now that the pandemic is easing, many employers are seeking to embed this permanently. 

Another example, the one that concerns me most, is the normalisation of the vaccine passport. These things are useless from a health point of view—being vaccinated prevents neither infection nor, crucially, transmission of the virus—but the speed with which they were rolled out and normalised, and the way in which the media was used to encourage the persecution of those who refused to comply, was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in my country in my lifetime. 

We should expect all this to continue; much of it was planned in advance, and the virus was a useful means of making it happen. That’s no ‘conspiracy theory’; vaccine passports, for example, were on the EU’s drawing board since 2018, and the notorious Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum, wrote a whole book about how COVID could be used to implement his ‘Great Reset.’  I’ve read it: it’s both boring and sinister at once, which is quite a feat. 

The phrase ‘conspiracy theorist’ used to mean something, but, as you point out, many of the people who received this label turned out to be correct on a number of pandemic developments and predictions of government overreach. How can people of good faith begin to discern the difference between actual conspiracy theory, medical misinformation, and the truth?

‘Conspiracy theorist‘ is a phrase like ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ or ‘anti-vaxxer’: perhaps it had a concrete meaning once, but at this point it is purely a propaganda term, which is used to attempt to dismiss an argument or a demonise a person making it. The problem we’ve had over the past two years is an almost total alliance of government, much of big business, big tech, and mainstream media, who together have sought to push one single narrative and to close down, censor, or demonise alternative ways of seeing things or even asking reasonable questions. It’s been extremely disturbing to see this, and for me—a former journalist—it’s given the final lie to the notion that anything like an objective or public-spirited media exists. This makes it harder to discern what’s real, especially amongst the myriad of online claims, some serious and many bonkers. 

My way of navigating it has been firstly to ignore anyone who attempts to censor or insult those who take a different position. If they have to lie or bully, they have something to hide and they can’t be trusted. Then also to pay attention to peoples’ qualifications in the field, but also remember that, in my view anyway, the big issue is not so much the science around the vaccines or the virus—which most of us aren’t qualified to comment on—but what kind of a society we want to live in, and who decides, which is something we all have a stake in.

What are some things currently labeled ‘conspiracy theories’ that you suspect will prove to be true in the coming months?

Digital vaccine passports, sold to us as a ‘temporary public health measure’ will become permanent and, citing public health concerns, most countries will require them for international travel. The EU has recently extended its passport scheme “temporarily” for another twelve months, and I doubt it will end there. This is, by the way, the means by which our existing paper passports came about, after World War I, when they were put in place globally due to supposed concerns about security and public health (sound familiar?) after the Spanish Flu outbreak. 

This time around, our digital QR code passports will begin to morph, gradually but inexorably, into social credit systems, and within a decade it will seem entirely normal to scan your code to prove you are an all-round good citizen in the eyes of the state and to collect your points for good behaviour from the commercial sector. I hope I can come back to this interview then and be proved completely wrong.

Massive protests in many nations around the world have pushed some governments to begin lifting restrictions and cancelling vaccine passports. To your mind, is this evidence of the effectiveness of grassroots pushback or simply the natural conclusion of a pandemic running its course?

What’s been fascinating here has been the working class uprising we’re seeing, especially in Canada with the truckers, who have now inspired similar revolts in France. The deer-in-the-headlights reaction of Justin Trudeau and the Canadian authorities has been a delight to see. Will this be the beginning of a widespread revolt against the laptop class by the people who actually do useful things? We could say that this is one definition of the ‘populism’ we’ve seen erupting since 2016. It could go in any number of directions, not all of them good. But I’m hugely encouraged to see it—and especially to see its good nature and public spiritedness, even as pseudo-radical media outlets like The Guardian continue to smear working people standing up for their liberties as fascists and lunatics. It’s been fascinating to watch pundits who have long posed as being on the side of ‘the people’ morph into authoritarians when the people actually show up. The pigs are becoming men all over the world, as Orwell would have it. 

In nations like Austria, mandatory vaccination and other crackdowns have increased despite protests in the capital every weekend for months. In your estimation, is this a function of the sunk cost fallacy and a desperate need to keep ‘the Narrative’ alive, or a government power grab to exert more control over the population—or both?

It’s a good question, but I don’t know enough about those countries to say. I’ve been interested to see how national character appears to have affected different responses to the virus though—and indeed, local character, as the different responses in some of the U.S. states has shown. Austria is just quite an authoritarian country, it seems. On the other hand, England, which in many ways is extremely centralised, has nonetheless more recently blazed the trail for scrapping restrictions, while Scotland has deepened them. 

There’s no obvious common thread to the different reactions in, say, Sweden and Australia, other than endlessly pushing the vaccines and hoping there are no long-term problems with them—which of course we can’t know yet.

Has ‘the Narrative’ suffered any serious setbacks—or mitigating ‘revelations’—since you published your three-part piece on The Vaccine Moment, in your view?

Omicron probably put the kibosh on ‘the Narrative’ by proving too mild to justify containment anymore. But another problem was containment being shown not to have worked. The recent study from Johns Hopkins which suggested that lockdowns across Europe and the U.S. had probably reduced death rates by only 0.2% was astonishing. Cloth masks are proving to have been entirely pointless, and we know that vaccine passports don’t prevent the spread of the disease—we saw this in my country, Ireland, where we had higher infection rates after six months of passport use than before. All of that put together is starting to paint a disturbing picture—that governments worldwide seized emergency powers and used them to impose the biggest crackdown on civil rights and liberties in peacetime history, with no consent and little debate, and that much of it didn’t even work. Then, of course, we also have more and more concerns expressed about the vaccines’ links to myocarditis, strokes, menstrual problems, and more. If these rushed vaccines do turn out to be damaging on a wide scale, it would torpedo any remaining trust that many people have in their authorities, and rightly so.

In Canada and in many other places, ‘the Narrative’ is cleaving in two, resulting in people that are figuratively—and almost literally—living in different worlds. What consequences could this have for society in the next few years, especially if governments respond to this with panic and increasing crackdowns?

I think this has already happened and will only continue. Many people—and I include myself among them—will never believe another thing we are told by government or the mainstream media at this point. Trust was hanging by a thread in 2020 anyway—anyone remember the Iraq dossier?—but it is now long severed. Many people have walked away from any notion that there is a social contract between a responsible populace and a government that cares for their interests. That is simply not the pattern of things, and more people can see it. I think it could well deepen divisions in many ways, and that’s nothing to cheer. But perhaps it’s also necessary for change.

It is difficult to read your analysis of Klaus Schwab without feeling a measure of despair. Besides drawing a hard line individually, is there anything that can be done to fight the construction of ‘the Machine’ around us? Or is checking out and attempting to live human lives on the fringes the best way to respond, especially for those with families?

I think we’re at a point where we all have to draw our personal red lines. What will you no longer tolerate? We need to think about both severing our links with the increasingly oppressive ‘Machine culture’ as much as possible—trying to live human lives on the fringes, as you put it—but also about when it is right and necessary to take a stand. What is happening in Canada shows this can be done, and to some degree how. This thing can be pushed back, at least in part—but it has to be done peacefully, in a unified and dignified way. It is very hard for any government, especially one pretending to be democratic, to stand up against a mass of its own people if they act in that way with determination. 

Finally, is there an opportunity amid this madness for Christians and traditionalists to speak up and present an alternative to the myths of ‘Progress’ and ‘The Narrative’? 

I think it’s a golden opportunity. What’s wrong with the stories of modernity, progress, and technology that they have brought us to this point? What are the alternatives? Whatever they are, I’m convinced they can only be shown to people through practice. Writers and intellectuals like me are all very well, but things will only really change when enough people get together and start to live differently. This is how change often happens in times of widespread collapse: not by waging war against the crumbling centre, but by creating parallel ways of being. I see signs of this starting to happen. I hope it will accelerate. 

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.