Covid was liberalism’s endgame

Covid was liberalism’s endgame. By Michael Crawford.

Our regime is founded on two rival pictures of the human subject.

The Lockean one regards us as rational, self-governing creatures. It locates reason in a common human endowment — common sense, more or less — and underwrites a basically democratic or majoritarian form of politics. There are no secrets to governing.

The second, rival picture insists we are irrationally proud, and in need of being governed. This Hobbesian picture … needs us to think of ourselves as vulnerable, so the state can play the role of saving us. It underwrites a technocratic, progressive form of politics.

The Lockean assumption has been quietly put to bed over the last 30 years, and we have fully embraced the Hobbesian alternative.

Average IQs in the West have dropped by over 15 points since 1880. Maybe woke politics and the new authoritarianism is a consequence. Maybe we are no longer collectively bright enough to sustain a rational, democratic way of life. The ruling class now regards others as too stupid to make the right choices, but is itself increasingly too stupid to make sensible choices. On average, of course.

The Nineties saw the rise of new currents in the social sciences that emphasise the cognitive incompetence of human beings, deposing the “rational actor” model of human behaviour. This gave us nudge theory , a way to alter people’s behaviour without having to persuade them of anything. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which this approach has been institutionalised, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The innovation achieved here is in the way government conceives its subjects: not as citizens whose considered consent must be secured, but as particles to be steered through a science of behaviour management that relies on our pre-reflective cognitive biases.

This is one front in a larger development: an intensifying distrust of human judgment when it operates in the wild, unsupervised. Sometimes this takes the purely bureaucratic form of insisting on metrics of performance and imposing uniform procedures on professionals. “Evidence-based medicine” circumscribes the discretion of doctors; standardised tests and curricula do the same for teachers. At other times, this same impulse takes a technological form, with algorithms substituting for individual judgment on the grounds that human rationality is the weak link in the system. For example, it is stipulated that human beings are terrible drivers and must be replaced in a new regime of autonomous vehicles.

The effect, consistently, is to remove agency from skilled practitioners on the grounds of incompetence, and devolve power upward toward a separate layer of information managers that grows ever thicker. It also removes responsibility from identifiable human beings who can be held to account for their decisions. Such mystification insulates various forms of power, both governmental and commercial, from popular pressures. …

Society was smarter and less bureaucratic in 1920:

How are we to understand the dramatically different responses of our society to the Spanish flu of a century ago and to Covid today?

There is an inverse relationship between the severity of these pandemics and the severity of measures to control them. Clearly, Covid acquired some of its emergency energy from the ambient political crisis dating from 2016, which put the establishment on a war footing. But it also slotted nicely into the more general politics of emergency that is the unacknowledged core of technocratic progressivism, and is further advanced today than it was in 1918.

In 2020, a fearful public acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life, and a corresponding transfer of sovereignty from representative bodies to unelected agencies located in the executive branch of government. Notoriously, polling indicated that perception of the risks of Covid outstripped the reality by one to two orders of magnitude, but with a sharp demarcation: the hundredfold distortion was among self-identified liberal Democrats, that is, those whose yard signs exhorted us to “believe in science”.

The meaning of “science; has changed . It used to mean a way of finding the truth based on experimentation, which ignores and is supreme over any political authority. Now it means whatever the political authority wants, because they fund it.

In a technocratic regime, whoever controls what Science Says controls the state. What Science Says is then subject to political contest, and subject to capture by whoever funds it. Which turns out to be the state itself. Here is an epistemic self-licking ice cream cone that bristles at outside interference.

Many factual ambiguities and rival hypotheses about the pandemic, typical of the scientific process, were resolved not by rational debate but by intimidation …

Progress towards woke totalitarianism:

Hannah Arendt found social atomisation to be among the conditions that give rise to totalitarian movements. In the absence of a shared world, we latch on to ersatz sources of solidarity, and the Party offers just this. Disconnected individuals coalesce into a mass, which is very different from a community. …

Lockdowns kicked our social atomisation to a level we’ve never seen before. Loneliness profoundly damages our ability to orient in the world and distinguish what is real from what is in one’s head …

With little shared material existence to provide an intersubjective anchor, we found what solace we could in disembodied interaction on social media. Screen time rose dramatically for all demographics. But such interaction tends toward the feedback loops and brittleness of merely verbally constituted tribes who have no skin in the game because they lack the shared, pragmatic interests of those who inhabit a real world together.

Controlling whatever appears on these screens has become of paramount importance, politically.

hat-tip Chris