This essay is Part II of “Authority and Action in the Digital State“. Read Part I, here.
Authority and Action in the Digital State, Part II
The collapse of institutions faced with a globalization-produced epidemic sent elites scrambling, first to protect themselves, and then to restore their authority. If the mechanisms of globalized peaceful prosperity suddenly bring death to millions, disease to a hundred million — especially the weak and poor — how can global elites remain in command of what are supposed to be ‘democracies’? They recurred to the fundamentals of modern political philosophy: fear of death is the only thing to bring us together, and we all must be the same. The sign of fear has become a new religion, and you must wear a mask everywhere, at all times, in the age of coronavirus.
Meanwhile, patriotism has been reduced to publicly signaling one’s virtuous fear of the invisible menace, regardless of circumstances and regardless of evidence for the efficacy of masks; while Leadership, for the Party of Progress, now consists not only of proclaiming that that is what virtue means — but also compelling its universal practice throughout society.
Masks are the sign of the covenant of fear between people and government; an abstraction from politics as much as from safety having replaced reality; the eclipse and discouragement of practical judgment, at the state, local and individual levels. No one is allowed to use his or her own discretion anymore, and nothing can be demanded from our elites who have nothing to offer anymore but symbols.
Leviathan, King Over All the Children of Pride
Are all face coverings equally effective all the time — N95, surgical mask, some colored piece of cotton with a pattern bought online, or indeed any fragment of an old shirt? In the order of propaganda, the difference doesn’t matter. Obedience is enough to show elites win. They first laughed at masks, then demanded them hysterically. They get to have their way. But in the order of policy, what are we really achieving and how?
Our fellow citizens wearing masks while walking outdoors — where there is manifestly no risk of spreading or receiving the virus — is a symptom of the abstraction that plagues representative mass democracies: its oblivion of practical judgment. We stop asking what a given situation demands, and instead just apply the approved rule. This owes in part to an understandable weakness, fear for our own wellbeing, along with a healthy concern for the wellbeing of our neighbors. But it owes just as much to our social needs — we obey in fear of public disapproval or legal consequences, even when the rules are absurd or harmful.
The eclipse of practical judgment fosters the totalitarian temptation that preys on representative government. The Party of Progress wants to control all aspects of civil society in the name of safety. The state would represent us best if it could rescue us from our fear of death, even if this requires limiting or destroying our freedom and turning a state of emergency into a way of life. It resembles the Communist desire to represent the people without allowing any exceptions. It treats dissenters like class enemies, while its members now approach the totalitarian comrades of the 20th century in the intensity of their moralistic self-congratulation and fanatical hatred of those of us who would trust our own judgment and act accordingly.
Together with the wokies, our elites are trying to create a Leviathan to humble our pride in the name of the obstacle to be overcome at all costs — the fear of death. The contempt for liberty, which depends on action, and the love of abstractions come together to paralyze politics as well as private life, making prisoners of us. This corrupt form of authority is now so strong that it doesn’t even matter that the government is incompetent — that lockdowns haven’t stopped the disease, or that they are ruining so many lives. People are considered criminal or insane if they want to go on with life as they used to live it. Life itself is now to be defined by the threat of death. But as Manent said:
“[Life depends on] a plurality of motives and rules of actions that it is important to combine rightly… a very rich field of practice, which death, however much it may be feared, cannot come to occupy all by itself, nor even in general to dominate.”
The therapeutic tyranny of the Hobbesian living-individual is upon us, and it’s thus urgent that we heed Manent’s observation. The degradation of man the new politics facilitates must be recognized and combatted.
The Revolt of the Public
The near-total demotion of practical judgment is not just a political theory; people who deluded themselves about their freedom have actually stopped living their lives. The concrete is defeated by the abstract, a messy, complex reality where you have to judge for yourself has lost to a simple, clear, if imaginary doom. This is a danger endemic to our modern form of government — as the crisis of authority in the election of Trump and Brexit have revealed. Such was also described by Martin Gurri’s 2014 The Revolt of the Public. In the book, Gurri charts how social media has further destabilized authority in a system built on separations that tend to create public dissatisfaction; Digital technology has brought into being homo informaticus, a new type of man with unprecedented access to information and an unprecedented capacity to connect with others over this information.
Post-War industrial societies peaked by constructing complex, hierarchical institutions in both government and civil society — in the bureaucracies of the state and the military, as well as those of corporations, banks, universities, and the media. People gained authority in these hierarchies by rising as professionals. But it was the institutions that conferred the authority. As the people moved through them and replaced each other, the institutions endured and built a monopoly on the information necessary to run a modern society. The scarcity of information among people who were shaped by the imperatives of industrialization to be more docile — to be very much a mass — permitted the industrial organizations Gurri (following James C. Scott) calls “High Modernist” to propound, in oracular fashion, a narrative that would be broadly shared because unquestioned and unquestionable. The people trusted the elites.
The hierarchies of High Modernism were characterized by manic self-confidence and utopian ambitions:
“They assumed that rational planning and scientific knowhow, if imposed on a gigantic enough scale, could eradicate the miseries of the human condition, from tyranny and inequality to hunger and disease. The enemy was history, mother of superstition and disorder. The hero was the expert-bureaucrat, who could wipe the slate clean.”
According to Gurri, the ambitions and failures of this ideology can be seen equally in the Iraq War, with George Tenet’s “slam dunk” and the broader ambition to deliver democracy to the Middle East, the Great Recession, which Alan Greenspan failed to predict, despite the mystique of expertise he cultivated since the 80s, and Obama’s stimulus, with its broken promise to fix the economy. In every case, government leaders overpromised and underdelivered. Elites were broadly involved in what amounts to a betrayal of trust at a generational level, involving the greatest democracy known to history.
Prior to these public failures, the prestige, authority, and confidence of High Modernism rested on its relation to scientific expertise, on its claim that “we can know at a glance the truth about vast systems” like the economy. The prevalence of statistical abstractions like the GDP and the unemployment rate in political discourse, as rhetorical tools, is a symptom of High Modernist hubris. But it also follows naturally from its institutional perspective — which is the theoretical perspective of the new politics Machiavelli and Hobbes inaugurated. High Modernist bureaucracies are necessarily distant from practical life as it is lived in the world they rule. Numbers, facts, as they are obtained through bureaucratic theoretical models, necessarily abstract from the complexity of practical life, and the countless idiosyncrasies that could be responsible for a given person’s unemployment, for example.
This does not mean such statistics are useless. Clearly the uptick in unemployment over the course of the pandemic was to be expected, and as it goes down perhaps we can feel justified relief. At the same time, that it is going down does not tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell the countless individual lives comprised in the aggregate trend. Are people who have lost their jobs getting better or worse jobs? How have their lives been affected in the interim? By taking such abstractions as factual indicators of the commonweal, the complexity of social life fades from view. Whether any individual case is in fact a problem that needs to be counted cannot be seen.
This, the preference for abstractions, deludes experts and the elites that one case, and a million cases, are essentially the same thing. Bureaucrats in government and corporations therefore believe they can take control of everything by reducing reality to a few categories, quantified as values and processed by machines. The individual, who knows the particulars of his life and he’s in the best position to judge the situation for himself, from the institutional perspective, he’s a problem. He should just obey instead and stop wanting to live his life, which only introduces chaos into the bureaucratic models. Governing institutions are losing our trust not only because they cannot keep their promises, but because they infantilize us, even unto despair.
During High Modernism, the monopoly on information permitted Government and corporations to maintain authority through an unchallenged public narrative. But that authority is now failing, as digital technology has allowed their many failures and crimes to become public knowledge. The rise of Homo informaticus communicating in a myriad ways online, in small numbers or in millions, in the open or encrypted, has facilitated the formation of voluntary conspiracies of amateurs. Gurri calls this dyad “the Border versus the Center.” From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, people can now form a spontaneous association around a common interest to oppose any of the High Modernist bureaucracies comprising the Center. They have little or no concern with governing, they form with lightning quickness and unpredictably, provoked by events that may not even seem extraordinary, and they place their challenge online where they are difficult to silence or conceal. Distrust is radically deepened the more it becomes obvious that the people are using new technology to rebel against old authorities.
Our Neo-feudal future
The best theory can do has so far failed even at preventing global catastrophes, to say nothing of social unrest. By operating in the mode of abstraction, theory necessarily falsifies the world in its real, practical complexity. Though elites think they can control fearfully calculating, Hobbesian individuals, the recalcitrant and proud who would trust their own judgment and doubt the wisdom and benevolence of expertise are obstacles to the leveling elites means to enact and the control they mean to impose. So elites have to get rid of those who might stir the people to disobey. Their vision is a future where these misfits and anomalies — that is, human beings with real agency — are impossible.
In The Coming of Neo-feudalism, Joel Kotkin describes the future Progress has in store for us, which looks disturbingly more like the pre-modern world of the subjection of serfs to lords than it does the economic dynamism that has characterized the last few centuries. A former Democrat turned Independent, Kotkin’s concern is with the future of the American dream — rooted in broad material equality and upward mobility for the working and middle classes — that modernity has made possible. The proposals and intentions of our big tech neoliberal oligarchy — and their intellectual champions in the modern Clerisy that controls the academy, the culture, and the media — tend toward stagnation and social stratification. In this new arrangement — while the average American increasingly struggles to get ahead, afford a home, and support a family — our woke, green elites shuttle across the world in private jets and insists on economic policies that make life even harder.
The model for the neo-feudal future is California. The cadre of executives atop the tech economy often seeks the ultimate inequality through the cult of transhumanism, while rewiring young people around the globe for a screen-addicted digital serfdom, mining their data and profiting handsomely. Through the atomized detachment from reality this engenders, a significant portion of an entire generation has become increasingly incapable of self-assertion and competent social interaction. Family formation and even sex with another human being — as opposed to the fantasies of pornography or, soon enough, sex robots — recede from view as the natural horizon of our lives is replaced by corporate-provided fantasies for rent.
If the tech oligarchs imagining our future are exploiting and corrupting distant people for profit, they are also increasingly distant from the class of workers on whom they more directly rely, and who are resigned to a lifetime of renting and being shuttled to their respective companies’ campuses. Think of the Uber model: it replaces taxi drivers with concrete, hard-won knowledge of navigating cities with AI-assisted drivers, who are preparing their own obsolescence by supporting a company that means to replace them with autonomous vehicles. If global capitalism sought cheap labor overseas, techno-capitalism might be even bolder and hope to make human labor obsolete.
This growing gap between capital and labor is also reflected in our expensive and luxurious city centers — feudal enclaves surrounded by poor, propertyless masses — in which none but the wealthiest can afford to reside, and to which their serfs must make long commutes from the suburbs that are simultaneously under attack by urban planners and activists paid by elites, who openly advocate for their abolition in the name of racial justice and sustainability. The urban cramming they promote as a cure to global warming and white self-segregation dovetails with the plans of our tech oligarchs to submit more and more of city life to profitable surveillance and rational control. This is the future of woke capital, and the effectual truth of the Progress promoted by the new politics. The inefficiencies and perceived injustices that necessarily accompany humans in their frailty and imperfection must be technologically automated or scientifically planned out of existence. No problem is to be left unsolved or unrevealed. But having solved so many problems, having technologically tamed the state of nature to such a great extent, according to Arthur Melzer, “new evils must be found to take their place.” In the early 90s, Melzer argued that, for crusading liberals and progressives, “ecological disaster has taken the place of the state of nature”. Today it is both epidemiological and ecological disaster that drives them and, so they believe, authorizes their tyranny.
The lockdowns and the rise of woke fascism are the first open elite attacks on our freedom. Modern authority, the cult of Progress, is taking over our daily lives in order to stop the revolt of the people. As digital technology liberates people from the propaganda of Progress, elites are looking for uglier, harsher ways of asserting control. Already, those who rebel against the Progressive Clerisy (as Kotkin calls it) and its imperatives in the name of freedom of thought or action are seen as rebellious, benighted peasants to be crushed. Their lives must be ruined, their livelihoods destroyed, publicly humiliated, soon, no doubt, arrested too.
If elite power is not limited, we will see ever more draconian attempts to control our lives in the name of social justice and safety. If we don’t defend human pride and self-government, it will be automated out of existence by computer models and algorithms. Thus, let us wake more and more people to face the crisis and expose the incompetence and moral bankruptcy of the Progressive vision. Let us begin the bold task of controlling technology and build a future of national self-sufficiency. None of this will be easy. But if human beings are to have a future as moral agents, and not transgressive actors or consumers, we must ourselves take action. If we do not, human freedom and excellence may indeed perish from the earth.