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Locked Down and Confused: thinking through the Covid-19 situation

Sunday, 29 August 2021  | Yarkov Halik


 

One of the greatest challenges facing contemporary society is how to integrate the immense capacity of technology to transform reality into some kind of political structure. Against this background, the key lesson I believe we should draw from the government’s response to this pandemic so far is that it’s impossible to create a coherent political policy on the basis of scientific knowledge. Handing over political authority to public health scientists means capitulating to technocracy. The latter, literally ‘political rule by technicians’, leads to a managerial philosophy of governance. It’s what you get when politicians, seeing themselves as mere ‘managers’ of a techno-administrative apparatus of government, no longer attempt to address questions of destiny - questions of ‘how should we live?’, of why and what. When the frictionless execution of technical-functionalist processes becomes the ideal for politics, such questions no longer seem to exist. But the sphere of human affairs, of political life, cannot do without intelligent judgements to address questions of destiny. When such judgements are withdrawn, held in abeyance or seen as too difficult, the exercise of power is divorced from any ideas or aims.

Questions of destiny are ultimate questions, that is, ethical questions. Ethics is about right living: the other person comes first. A politics of destiny will be a politics that makes room for ethics by safeguarding and protecting those institutions which uphold justice in society. This means politics must not itself attempt to solve ethical problems, because then it risks turning into a moral crusade, a messianic politics whose disastrous consequence was amply demonstrated by the ‘political religions’ of the twentieth century - the ideologies of Fascism and Communism, to which millions of human beings were sacrificed. As I suggested above, politics and ethics must not be confused. And yet, as Francois Furet observed, this confusion is precisely the defining feature of the modern age: the notion that morality can be totally contained in politics, or, vice versa, that politics can strive for a sort of angelic ‘purity’. The other extreme to this confusion is the total agnosticism of technocracy, which forgets the deaconic role of politics, i.e. its responsibility to serve justice.

How does this particular configuration of politics and ethics (i.e., where ethics restrains the political; politics safeguards the ethical) play out in the COVID-19 situation? The goal of current public policy is to prevent loss of human life. Certainly, this sounds like a laudable objective. On one level, it would appear to accord with the secularised Christian values of our Western societies - the notion that human life is ‘sacred’. On the other hand, on a purely technical level, there are many different ways in which it might be expedited, in diverse areas of human existence (i.e., medicine, recreation, industry, urban environments, etc.). In practical terms, however, it’s clearly impossible to completely and absolutely prevent loss of human life. So there will have to be trade-offs. Where does one find the criteria for the latter? Some would argue in a theological casuistry, while others regard the sheer limits of the scientific-technical capacity to sustain life as what should determine our priorities.

It’s not for theological reasons, however, that science cannot determine questions of ultimate values. Rather, it is because scientific knowledge is inherently unstable and unfixed. Its singular feature is the pragmatic affirmation that truth is a process of ever-changing patterns of working hypotheses. In this respect, science and scientific expertise are unable to provide what a just society must always provide. By this I mean certain indispensable conditions for human thought and action - a sense of stability, and if not certainty then at least a modicum of coherence. The technocratic ethos does just the opposite. Indeed, we might say it foments in society a state of total confusion and disorientation.

One example are the recent ‘lockdown’ protests in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. The confused ranting of the protestors is in itself symptomatic. I stress this element of confusion not to demean the protestors but to draw attention to something I believe is completely valid in their behaviour. Of course they’re confused. They cannot work out what on earth is going on (but then neither can the officials entrusted with deciding what to do in the face of the Pandemic). In this respect, the grievances most commonly cited by protestors as their reason for taking to the streets - i.e., curtailment of civil liberties, supposed dangers of vaccination programs etc. - are quite irrelevant. We’d do better to understand their actions as a quite understandable expression, on the part of unextraordinary individuals, of a sense of psychic disturbance and fear.

What we’re seeing, then, is a very visceral reaction to a feeling that things just don’t make sense anymore. On an intra-psychic level, you might say people’s normal cognitive equipment is incapable of processing what’s going on. As a consequence, unable to create meaning out of a sequence of events, their entire mental equipment breaks down. But this is also where it gets potentially quite dangerous. For as Hannah Arendt observed, it was precisely such a condition of psychic disorientation that led to the rise in Europe after World War One of totalitarian political regimes.

During this period, in the face of calamitous historical events, individuals were blown about like leaves in the wind by powerful forces of social and economic transformation. It was a time when society was literally turned upside-down. No wonder people would reach for anything that provided a sense of coherence and stability: that is, the authoritarian dictator, who apparently brings order and stability to a very confusing situation. The presence, then, of certain conspiracy theories and social groups associated with them at the lockdown protest rallies is absolutely no accident. For the conspiracy theory is the stock-in-trade of the totalitarian ruler. Here is a reassuring narrative that seems to provide a simple, neat explanation for everything. And because of this simplicity and legibility, people will swallow the conspiratorial narrative whole, even if it flies in the face of all rationality or common sense.

The manifold confusion created by the technocratic ethos is evident in other areas as well - in fact, in almost every aspect of the official response to the Pandemic. An example is the media’s reporting of these same lockdown protests. Nowadays, every public discussion of a social question must include the obligatory ‘expert’ opinion from a social scientist, social-psychologist or even brain scientist. So as part of its report on the protests, the ABC interviewed a number of university academics. And, as usual, everything they said was completely clueless and witless, perhaps because, committed to the all-knowing stupidity of their positivist empiricism, they were quite unable, by observing what was happening right in front of their eyes, to arrive at a vaguely intelligible or accurate formulation of the problem.

To explain why people might be distressed, these ‘experts’ either stated the obvious, spouted glib psychological truisms or came up with some convoluted theory that only too obviously reflected their own research interests. It’s as if they were completely unable to use their knowledge to make sense of reality. Indeed, the only thing they managed to express was a sense of confusion not dissimilar to the confusion of the protesters themselves. Of course, it really doesn’t help that, nowadays, people are mostly unable to think clearly. I don’t mean to be patronising. Here we need to go beyond the usual platitudes about the ‘internet generation’ who cannot concentrate on anything longer than two minutes. It’s more that individuals of any age find it very difficult to follow a reasoned argument, to think through an issue, to get to the bottom of it.

And if one cannot follow an argument or reason things out so as to then understand more broadly what’s at stake, then pretty quickly this ‘complex world’ in which we live will come to appear completely incoherent and senseless. Actually, I’d prefer not to use this expression ‘complex world’. It’s another one of those terms that very rapidly turns into a catchphrase or slogan people rattle off unthinkingly. Yes, it is a truism. But like all truisms, it’s also quite true. Our world is very complex, however not for the reasons people commonly believe. When one says ‘complex world’, for most people what immediately comes to mind is some tricky technical gadgetry - a computer or arcane technical process. But such things are actually the least challenging of the manifold complexities we face. Rather, what makes our world complex is the sense in which everything is so densely interconnected that each given phenomenon is simultaneously active over many different regions of reality.

This pluri-dimensional character of reality means that for someone to really understand what’s going on, they’ll need to have an ability to hold in their mind a great variety of issues and ideas at once. It means, in short, being able to draw together threads, to make connections between things that might appear quite unrelated. On this basis, Michael Wychogrod distinguishes intelligence from mere intellect, characterising the former ‘as a certain quality of brightness which enables all normal human beings to some extent, and some to an extraordinary extent, to grasp relations and implications in complex situations’. On these terms, intelligence has nothing to do with having a university degree. Rather, it signifies an ability to ‘connect the dots’. Indeed, the entirety of the honour that attaches to the human as a spiritual being - that makes us more than a mere scrap of matter adrift in an infinite universe - resides wholly in our status as creatures having a God-given ability to think (a creature, in other words, of intelligence).

Hannah Arendt once remarked that the most disturbing aspect of modern society is the ‘desperate inability’ of people to form judgments. So, one reason we’ve ended up with the paralysing confusion we see today is that individuals lack the confidence to work things out for themselves, to use their judgement, to think their way through the issues. As I said, their own cognitive equipment cannot process the reality around them. Another reason for the confusion is that the official explanatory narratives are themselves quite incoherent. This is partly because of their opportunistic character, but also because they fail to recognise the current situation is a product of certain comprehensive structural features. In order to comprehend, we must start to think in terms of paradigms, as opposed to just responding on an ad-hoc basis to whatever happens from one moment to the next, as our political leaders are apt to do. Otherwise, it will all remain a very confusing jumble of events.

A paradigm is an explanatory model; it helps us to make what is happening intelligible. The paradigm I will propose for exploring the current Covid-19 situation is called bio-politics. The latter refers to the notion that politics in the modern age has become almost wholly a matter of managing the human life-process, both on an individual and societal level. Bio-political configurations are present in many different spheres of contemporary politics. Here are just a few examples: the growing prominence of issues of ethnicity and gender in politics; the centrality of public health care as a privileged index of the functioning of economic systems; the priority accorded by contemporary totalitarian political movements to maintaining the homogenous ethnic composition of their populations (an example is the crudely eugenic character of many of the Chinese Communist Party’s social policies); and, finally, the looming threat of bioweapons and biological warfare.

As far as the Covid-19 crisis in this country is concerned, then, the relevance of the bio-political paradigm is that it explains how the domains of biology and politics have become tightly intermeshed. It’s not just that political leaders are now making policy decisions on the basis of epidemiological expertise and public health advice. We must see this situation in a wider context, to the extent that insofar as the very idea of politics and governance, in all its philosophical, institutional and legal dimensions, has been brought under the aegis of a notion of preserving human life, such a prerogative now wholly determines the content of all our political concepts, from sovereignty to liberty.

The bio-political paradigm helps us to get a handle on the situation we’re in. At the same time, the tendency it represents is by no means unproblematic. The premise of bio-politics is that human life is the ‘highest value’. But could one possibly question such a notion? Isn’t it the basis of all the theological and humanitarian values that underpin our society? Certainly, and that’s exactly why it is potentially so dangerous. What needs to be recognised is that when life as a biological fact is infinitely elevated, becoming the ‘highest value’, it can just as readily be infinitely degraded - that is, into a thing of absolute non-value (in this respect, is not the virus itself something that ‘lives’ - a form of living being?). The drastic Covid-19 ‘public health and safety measures’ - the harsh quarantine and social lockdowns meant to curb the spread of the virus, with all their catastrophic mental and physical health impact on society - demonstrate the extent to which the quest for life at any cost - that is, life as an absolute, as an abstraction - turns out to be lethal.

So what does this mean? That an abstraction called life is (literally) killing people. We should not be surprised by such a reversal. It is legion in our bio-political era. One example is the structural complementarity between the suicide bomber and human rights ideology. The former is literally the power of life become a power for the annihilation of life; but the same applies to the notion of human rights, for by reducing the human to species existence, it strips the person of every juridical and qualitative feature. In effect, both the suicide bomber and the notion of human rights weaponise bare existence in the space of politics. There is also a telling historical example. I’m thinking of the so-called Beveridge Plan. It’s no accident that this maximum international effort for organising the health of mass populations in the 20th century, which led to the foundation of the modern Welfare State, was elaborated in the midst of a war that produced 50 million dead. In essence, then, it is the same political agency in society that will, with utmost efficiency, organise health care for infants and herd individuals into concentration camps.

Because bio-power defines human life in terms of traits lacking all qualitative features except for the absolutism of its own biological given-ness, it can lead to imperatives with an appalling capacity for destruction. However, if we really cannot afford to regard life, understood as the striving of a being to hang on to its own being, as the highest value, what does qualify for such an exalted status? Not my own being but that of the other person. Ethics, in the form of the human possibility of giving the other priority over oneself, is the only absolute value, far exceeding anything a theology or philosophy of virtue has hitherto been able to provide. At the very least, it serves to remind us how we might recover a sense of humanity in the face of war, virus, natural disasters and the horrors of politics.

I began by suggesting that science cannot serve as a basis for political policy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not against people being healthy. Yet what could it possibly mean when our actual collective well-being is sacrificed daily to a public health policy become a life-destroying abstraction? We are currently terrorised by a veritable hell of timeless, wordless, content-less abstractions in the form of policy imperatives, abstractions whose immense power is apparent from the way the techno-administrative processes commanded by bio-political technicians now have the ability to shut down entire human societies. To which our political and institutional structures are completely at a loss, just as our politicians flounder about, coming up with a jumble of confusing directives that keep changing from one minute to the next. But if those in charge are unable to grasp how this is potentially a recipe for disaster, then I can only say, as Joseph de Maistre put it, that ‘words would fail me to tell what we would have to fear’.

 

Yarkov Halik is a former architect and teacher. He can be contacted at yarkovhalik@icloud.com.


Comments

Remy Chadwick
August 30, 2021, 10:58AM
Thanks Yarkov for thoughtful reflections on an incendiary topic.

Might I suggest that those hitting the streets in protest do actually have a firm grasp on the reality you describe, and are not as confused as you say?

I'm writing as someone who supports the protestors and is meeting up with them weekly.

We have drawn threads and made our judgement on where this is all going. This is a judgement that those who have engineered (or who stand to benefit from) the sudden metamorphosis of our social compact cannot understand and actively dehumanise us for. Though you express empathy towards us, you also 'other' us with your language and make complicated what is simple in our minds.

The demands of protestors are varied, because no leader has arisen yet to synthesise these requests into a compelling plan. But our motivation can be boiled down to two grievances:

1. Health dictates are destroying our future*
2. Political leaders have forfeited the democratic process

(*even as they intend to preserve it!)

CONSENT is the thing that protestors have not yet given and will not be shamed or coerced into giving. Any conversation that does not begin with mutual consent is one that violates citizens and may lead to violent chaos in response. This is not to advocate violence, just to state plainly how things work.

You are right that science means absolutely jack-all when it comes to the question of consent. Technocrats and polite society can ring around us all they like, but the only two ways they can achieve whatever utopia they are straining towards is through consent or violence. At the end of the day, protestors just want authorities to respect their consent, as is right and appropriate for the social system we have inherited.
Yarkov Halik
August 31, 2021, 11:47AM
Dear Remy,

I'm grateful for your comments. I would be very interested to talk to you about some of the issues you raise. Please email me on the email address listed on the article and perhaps we could have a chat. I'm also really interested in your experiences as a confessing Christian working with the creative arts culture community in the Northern Suburbs which you wrote about in Engage Mail some time ago.

Kind regards

Yarkov

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