How liberal ideals were distorted by the pandemic and how governments turned citizens into patients

May 27, 2022 | 2 comments

By Matthew Crawford

Throughout history, there have been crises that could be resolved only by suspending the normal rule of law and constitutional principles. A “state of exception” is declared until the emergency passes — it could be a foreign invasion, an earthquake or a plague. During this period, the legislative function is typically relocated from a parliamentary body to the executive, suspending the basic charter of government, and in particular the separation of powers.

The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben points out that, in fact, the “state of exception” has almost become the rule rather than the exception in the Western liberal democracies over the last century. The language of war is invoked to pursue ordinary domestic politics. Over the past 60 years in the United States, we have had the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on Covid, the war on disinformation, and the war on domestic extremism.

A variation on this theme is the utility of moral panics ­— spiritual warfare —  for pursuing top-down projects of social transformation, typically by administrative fiat. The principle of equality under the law, which would seem to be indispensable to a liberal society, must make way for a system of privileges for protected classes, corresponding to a moral typology of citizens along the axis of victim and oppressor. Victim dramas serve as a permanent moral emergency, justifying an ever-deeper penetration of society by bureaucratic authority in both the public and private sectors.

Once this pattern of government by emergency snaps into focus, one experiences a Gestalt shift. The self-image of the liberal West — as based on the rule of law and representative government — is in need of revision. Our society’s response to Covid brought this anachronism to mass awareness.

International travelers undergo health checks at an airport.

The pandemic brought liberalism’s deeper contradictions into plain view. On the one hand, it accelerated what had previously been a slow-motion desertion of liberal principles of government. On the other hand, Covid culture has brought to the surface the usually subterranean core of the liberal project, which is not merely political but anthropological: to remake man. That project can come to fruition, it seems, only with a highly illiberal form of government, paradoxically enough. If we can understand this, it might explain why our embrace of illiberal politics has met with so little resistance. It seems the anthropological project is a more powerful commitment for us than allegiance to the forms and procedures of liberal government.

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 is more hortatory than the first; it 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.

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.

Needless to say, this sits ill with the Enlightenment idea that governing authority is grounded in our shared rationality, accessible in principle to every citizen and capable of articulation. Technocratic progressivism in fact requires the disqualification of experience and common sense as a guide to reality, and installs in their place a priestly form of authority, closer to the Enlightenment’s caricature of medieval society than to its own self-image.

It also requires a certain human type which, fittingly enough, looks like a caricature of the medieval personality: a credulous, fearful person. This brings us to the Hobbesian anthropological program.

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”.

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, with heavy use of the term “disinformation” and attendant enforcement by social media companies acting as franchisees of the state. In this there seems to have been a consistent bias toward scientific interpretations that induced fear, even at the cost of omitting relevant context.

If all of this strikes you as illiberal, it should. Yet in another sense, the central role of fear in politics has an impeccable liberal pedigree in the thought of Thomas Hobbes. This brings us to the deeper, anthropological project of liberalism.

First, in what sense is Hobbes a liberal? He is certainly no advocate of limited government, and the regime he imagines is basically monarchical. It is liberal in the sense that it is founded on consent. But it turns out this consent depends on a re-education program that reaches quite deep, and is never finished.

Hobbes offers a fable of human origins, the state of nature, according to which we are originally in a condition of acute vulnerability. Even after the rise of political society, civil war is always a threat, and is the problem that his politics is meant to solve. The problem comes down to the fact that we are prone to pride, or vainglory; we are ornery. This is based on a false consciousness in which we place too high a value on ourselves; we then feel slighted and insulted when others fail to recognise us. Such aristocratic brittleness leads to faction and civil strife. The good news is that it can be overcome through a shift in perspective, if we (and especially the proud) come to identify with the weak rather than think ourselves strong. We are all potential victims, and this is the self-awareness that grounds political authority in consent. Out of fear, we consent to a social compact in which we all submit to Leviathan, whom Hobbes calls “King of the proud”.

Liberalism begins with the politics of emergency, then. Leviathan is supposed to end this state of emergency; that is the whole point of it. But the emergency must be renewed, over and over again, if Leviathan is to thrive. This requires renewal of the consciousness-raising program as well, cultivating the vulnerable self. This is the self that is implicit in the cult of safetyism that children are brought up in. It is also the guy you see riding his bicycle double-masked.

A therapeutic para-state of social workers and psychiatrists arose early in the 20th century and was well described by Christopher Lasch. It has long required fragile selves, more as clients than as citizens. With the rise of the biosecurity state, this demand has taken on a new dimension.

I should say where I am coming from. I live in the Bay Area, the deepest blue region in the country. I may be responding to different social facts from the ones readers are observing where they live. Right now, in the spring of 2022, I would estimate that a quarter of people walking around Berkeley are masked outdoors. I would like to understand this. Whatever they are doing, it is not “following the science”.

Let us acknowledge that many of our hygiene maximalists are acting, not out of fear for themselves, but in the name of the common good, and this is attractive. Indeed, maybe deep-blue Covid culture was prompted by dissatisfaction with liberal individualism. We have unsatisfied longings for belonging; for anything that could pull us out of the liberal mindset of rights and recall us to duties. The pandemic provided an opportunity to rise above the selfish concerns of the bourgeois and discover a public-spiritedness in oneself. Zero Covid is a heroic battle, to join which requires a literal effacement of the individual. As in any war, those who have answered the call recognise one another, not by their faces but by their uniform, the N95.

This is inspiring but it is also a little creepy, at least for those of us leery of mass movements. There is a cult-like quality to public spaces in the Bay Area. One may efface oneself, not out of fear, but out of identification with the Vulnerable One who is currently elevated, the immunocompromised. How many of these are there, really? It doesn’t matter. Note that in this Hobbesian dynamic, the politics of emergency is intimately tied to victimology.

Perhaps this helps us understand how, in the summer of 2020, the health emergency of Covid and the moral emergency of white supremacism seemed to merge into a single thing. Social distancing guidelines had to be adjusted to accommodate mass protests, as these too served to advance the generic crisis. You don’t need a conspiracy of hostile elites to explain this. It is sufficient to have a shared political morality that sacralises the victim, issuing in moral demands that are categorical, even if contradictory. (Here I am indebted to Mark Shiffman’s current work on “the role of the victimological imagination in legitimating the modern state,” forthcoming in the journal New Polity.)

There is another way in which Covid has exaggerated tendencies native to liberalism. Social distancing might be regarded as a heightened version of the late-liberal social condition, in which intermediary institutions that situate the individual in associations with others have badly eroded, as Robert Putnam documented in his book Bowling Alone. 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. Her analysis suggests liberal individualism has latent in it a tendency to totalitarianism, as a kind of overcorrection. This is one way to make sense of the cultish vibe of hygiene maximalists — as spiritual soldiers of the nascent hygiene state.

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, as the work of Ian Marcus Corbin shows. 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.

The good invoked by our hygiene maximalists was that of health. But not health considered broadly, which would require an accounting of the health costs of lockdowns. There is a lively empirical debate about this in the back channels of the Internet, as well as about the efficacy of lockdowns in controlling the course of the pandemic, quite apart from any rise in non-Covid mortality they may have caused.

My point here isn’t to litigate these factual questions, which are contested. But I do want to register the lack of curiosity about them in officialdom, and note that among those who identify as liberals, there seems to be little interest in such an accounting, though it would seem to be crucial. The real attachment seems to be, not to actual health, but to a source of collective meaning that floats free of the empirical: the Covid emergency itself.

It has been said that, in its formalism and insistence on neutral procedures, liberalism has an “empty centre”, denuded of substantive commitments. But political life abhors a vacuum, and the center doesn’t remain empty. The good that was latched onto as a source of collective meaning during the pandemic was that of minimising deaths attributable to a single cause, never mind the wider field of harms done by the lockdowns outside this tunnel vision.

This collective purpose was of a peculiar, negative sort. It required us to deny positive, substantive goods that make life worthwhile, in particular those of human connection. Young children remained isolated or masked through two years of crucial social development; dying grandparents were denied the company of loved ones. The effect was a kind of enforced nihilism. We had to be actively detached, by police power if necessary, from sources of meaning that might call into question the bureaucratic fixation on a few narrow metrics. In our acquiescence in this, we can discern the influence of Thomas Hobbes in forming our spiritual horizon.

Hobbes wanted an education that emphasises that human nature (especially that of the “noble”) is selfish and base. Why? Because any appeal to a higher good threatens to return us to the horrors of civil strife and must be debunked. In his political metaphysics, a summum bonum to be aimed at is replaced with a summum malum (death) to be fled from. Lowering the sights of political life in this way helps tame the pride that leads to conflict. Men will submit to Leviathan only if they inhabit a moral universe that has been emptied of transcendent referents.

Hobbes’s metaphysical program of denying the objectivity of good serves his psychological program to undercut pride: any claim one makes on one’s own behalf to be acting for the good is really just vainglorious self-assertion. It may not feel that way to you, but that is because you continue to make the metaphysical error of thinking that your intimations of moral truth refer to something real.

Platonic psychology offers a useful point of reference for grasping the transformation Hobbes aimed at. Thumos, often translated as spiritedness, is the part of the soul prone to taking offence, and to making claims for one’s own dignity. That is because, more broadly, thumos asserts the value of things, creating the field for moral choice. If all goes well, it does this in dialectic with logos, the reasoning part of the soul. Working together in a well-ordered soul, they don’t merely assert, they are alert to the value of things.

The idea that emotion should have any positive epistemic role to play in grasping reality is foreign to modern thought. Pride can only be a source of partiality; to be “judgmental” is to be prejudicial. The ancient perspective offers a critical challenge, answering that reason without spirited evaluation fails to apprehend things in their true colours, because the lifeworld of human beings is shot through with value and cannot be adequately described in “neutral” terms that are value-free.

If it is not to be mere wilful assertion, thumos must be trained into a schedule of the noble and base, the praiseworthy and shameful. The content of this will always be inflected by the character of the regime. It surely tilted differently in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella from in the camp of Genghis Khan, yet both provided moral ecologies that were recognisably human, and mutually intelligible.

What happens when the regime is one in which this spirited, evaluative activity is short-circuited altogether, subordinating the (various) distinctions that make for (competing visions of) the good life to mere biological life, bare existence? That is, “health” as conceived by “public health”? This is aggression against our nature as evaluative beings. It would seem to be the consummation of a project that puts the flight from death, rather than attraction to the good, at the center of our political metaphysics.

Bereft of the possibility of a discoverable ethical reality to provide a transcendent anchor for its intuitions, thumos becomes frustrated and disordered. Indeed, it may manifest as political rage and interpersonal brittleness — the very tendencies that Hobbes meant to suppress, and seem to be once again prominent.

Or thumos simply dies. This would be one way to understand the explosion in clinical depression, especially impressive over the course of the pandemic. An older term used for melancholy in psychiatry is athumia – a failure of thumos. To be athumos is to be disheartened; lose heart; suffer a want of heart.

That seems to be where we are, collectively: rage and depression.

In his essay Men without Chests, CS Lewis found spiritlessness to be the consequence of an education that insists that all perception of moral worth is merely subjective. The philosopher Talbot Brewer says we all have an “evaluative outlook” on the world. If there is nothing real out there to look upon, our evaluative capacity makes no reference to anything located beyond the self. In that case, it is hard to see how one can make a distinction between evaluation and self-assertion: imposing one’s “values” on the world. As liberals, we are not supposed to do that. Hobbes’s metaphysics and his psychology are internally consistent, then. Within the horizon he constructed for us, the only possibilities are to be an asshole or be depressed.

The million-dollar question is this: would it be possible to reclaim the blessings of Lockean, political liberalism and back off from the aggressive metaphysical debunking of Hobbesian, anthropological liberalism? Or is it a package deal?

Matthew B Crawford is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.


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