A child on line at a food distribution event in Florida (Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Another Monday in Covidtide. For me, dealing with mono, every morning I get out of bed exhausted. But the news is so awful that I’d probably feel that way even if I weren’t sick with the Epstein-Barr Virus. I’m going to post this item, then go back into the bookwork hole for a few hours. I finished over the weekend the final edit of the new book, and today have to finish the end notes. There comes a time in every book I work on when I can’t tell if it’s good, bad, or what: it’s just text. That time is now. I am equally prepared to hear from people who will tell me that this book changed their lives, and people who say that having read it, they are embarrassed for me and the next several generations of my family.
There are a couple of difficult and impossible-to-handle-well challenges of writing this particular book in Covidtide. As regular readers know, this book is based on warnings from emigres — people who have grown up in communist countries — that certain aspects of life under communism are emerging here, now. The argument is that it is harder to see this because things are hidden, not out in the open. Traveling through the former Soviet bloc, I heard over and over from these survivors of communism that they can’t exactly put their finger on it, but they know it is there. A Slovak priest said that under communism, the Gospel shone a light through the darkness, but today, the Gospel hits only fog. Talking to these people is like speaking to someone who is anxiously sitting in their dark bedroom, and can hear that there is an intruder in the house, but the lights are out, and they can’t see anything.
The argument is that the “soft totalitarianism” is going to come from the Left. A big part of the case I make is that America is pre-totalitarian, according to the standards laid out by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 landmark study The Origins of Totalitarianism. A second part of the case is that what James Lindsay calls “critical social justice” theory is spreading through the professional classes — and the concomitant abandonment of religion by them — and that that illiberal liberalism is driving this. Sociologist James Davison Hunter has pointed out that cultural change doesn’t come from the masses, but from elites and their networks. Even when something potentially revolutionary bubbles out from the masses, it doesn’t really have a meaningful effect until and unless the elites take up the idea.
This is why even though Donald Trump is president and the Republicans run the Senate, I would trade in half-a-second that power for the cultural power that the Left has throughout institutions — including corporate America. On social issues, the Millennials and Generation Z are much more liberal than older Americans — including us Reagan-era Generation Xers. And we know that they are far less religious. This blog has talked about these things since time immemorial, so I’m not going to make that case again here.
Liberalism is not the same thing as totalitarianism, heaven knows. The argument is that this iteration of liberalism is actually illiberal, meaning it is very intolerant of dissent. It’s the kind of illiberalism that got Mark Lilla, an actual liberal, denounced as a white supremacist by a Columbia University colleague, when he dared to question the illiberalism of the emerging Left. In the book, I make the case that these new leftists take their beliefs religiously, like the Bolsheviks did. They are zealots, and they are not interested in peaceful coexistence. Unlike the Bolsheviks, though, they don’t seek to overturn the system; rather, they want to administer it. And they’re getting there. As Ryszard Legutko has written, the superficial liberalism of their language, and the fact that they parasitically inhabit old-style liberal institutions, conceals the radicalism of what they are trying to accomplish.
Finally, I argue in the book that technology, especially in the form of surveillance capitalism, will be the means through which soft totalitarianism is implemented. The Chinese, with their total tracking and social credit system, are the models. We already have the technology to do what the Chinese do. Americans are already accustomed to tracking technology. We have accepted it into our phones, and into our lives. Tens of millions of us have already installed “smart speakers” that track our conversations. Thirty years from now, when the Boomers are all dead and the Gen Xers are aging and dying, we will live in very different country. My book, Live Not By Lies, is meant to prepare Christians for what’s coming.
So, here are the two things that complicate my narrative, and that make it hard to finish a book in the middle of an ongoing situation.
Obviously I didn’t see, nor did anybody see, a global pandemic coming. It doesn’t take a prophet to see that the Covid crisis is likely to exacerbate the trends leading to soft totalitarianism. All the social cracks that Arendt saw as characteristics of pre-totalitarian societies under vastly more pressure now. Matthew Walther writes today:
All the problems — alienation, exploitation, addiction, despair — exacerbated during the lockdown have long been hiding in plain sight. A political system that during what we told ourselves were ordinary times could not solve the simplest of challenges (passing a federal budget in a timely manner), much less address what the president once referred to as “American carnage,” will not rise to the present occasion. Instead Americans will muddle on, looking after ourselves and our families and friends as best we can, helpless in the face of transformations that we will barely notice.
Here I think foreboding is justified. Trends that were worrisome long before we had heard of the new virus are accelerating to a point at which they are probably irreversible. In the name of health, wealth, and safety I fully expect work as we know it not to return for vast swathes of the population. Instead it will be replaced by subsidies meant not to provide marginal relief to families but to keep them inside their homes in front of screens, having things sent to their doors and generating meaningless analytics data. The closest thing to a picture of the future I expect to emerge out of this crisis is the one given by Wells in The Time Machine of a civilization split between idle aristocrats totally incurious about the mysterious means by which they receive sustenance and an underclass as resentful and resourceful as it is invisible.
I hope that I am wrong about the dark years ahead of us.
To be clear, Walther — if you’ve been reading his columns — believes that the lockdown has been one of history’s great self-owns, that it has destroyed far more than the virus would have done had we not reacted this way. I don’t necessarily agree with him on that; I don’t think we really know the answer to that question, and that we won’t know it for a long time. Lockdowns have proven very effective in dealing with viral outbreaks in the past. Given that this is the first outbreak of its kind in the globally hyperconnected world, I am inclined to cut leaders some slack in how they handled it. Still, whether they did the most sensible thing given all the facts we knew, or screwed it up royally, or (most likely) some combination of both, it is hard to deny that we are going into a prolonged economic depression. I hope Walther is wrong, but I don’t think he is. The important thing to keep in mind is Walther’s point about how the pandemic didn’t cause all this breakdown on its own; it revealed weaknesses that were already there.
So, here’s the thing. All the totalitarianism factors — chief among them, mass loneliness and social atomization — are dry brush waiting for a spark. In Russia, a series of catastrophes (famine, then losses in war) were the sparks that set off the Bolshevik Revolution. In Germany, it was primarily the trauma of economic pain that brought Hitler to power. I don’t know how you can look at the prospect of long-term serious economic suffering in the United States, with all our problems, and feel confident that the liberal democratic system will prevail. I hope I’m wrong, not because I’m just mad about liberal democracy, but because the alternatives are grim. You cannot have spent the past year reading things about how good Russian liberals in the late imperial era couldn’t wait for the Tsarist system to go away, because they knew that what was coming had to be better than that, without realizing that “it can’t be any worse than what we have” is a foolish thing to say.
It is possible that there would be a right-wing revolt. If that’s the case, I believe that it would put in an authoritarian regime. I think this is much less likely than a swing to the Left, because the Right has shown it cannot govern. Donald Trump is the most naturally authoritarian president in living memory, but he has hardly been an example of effective authoritarianism. Still, I suppose this could happen, though it’s hard to see a future for it, given the larger political and demographic trends in the country. There is not much constituency for right-wing government among the younger generations.
I think the much more likely scenario is a steady takeover by radical progressives, who know how to use the already-existing networks and institutions, and to turn them to their own purposes. Everybody knows that no matter what, the State is going to be much bigger for the foreseeable future. That is the Left’s strength. One of Arendt’s markers of a pre-totalitarian society is that the masses have lost faith in institutions. We are certainly living through that, but just because people don’t have faith in institutions doesn’t make those institutions go away. When the alternative is anarchy, people will submit to the institutions they have. I believe that the Left will take advantage of this opportunity to advance its radically progressive goals through the system that currently exists.
I believe there will be serious resistance to some of it. I expect civil unrest of some sort. But in the end, people will prefer an imperfect peace to chaos. And the Left will dominate the instruments of power.
Which brings us to the second thing that makes finishing this book right now so anxiety-inducing. I believe that technology will play a key role in helping us emerge from this pandemic with some sort of working economy. Writing in Quillette, Sean Welsh makes a case for a mandatory Covid app. He writes:
COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim.
Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary policy measures. If there is a way to reduce both the butcher’s bill and the banker’s bill, then governments are justified in mandating it. Recently, an Oxford team published a paper in Science which found that the spread of COVID-19 was “too fast to be contained by manual contact tracing but could be controlled if this process was faster, more efficient and happened at scale.” The authors therefore make the case for a contact tracing app. Its main feature would be to store data on proximity contacts and sound an alarm if a contact has been tagged as testing positive. The authors argue such an app can “achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” and that 60 percent take-up would be enough.
If we are offered the option of mass death (or at least mass illness), economic collapse, or accepting an app that could help us keep going until there’s a cure for this disease, which do you think people will choose? Before you say, “We can get through this without that technology, because the death rate is acceptable,” I would like you to read this account from the Washington Post, dictated by a 52-year-old nurse who has had Covid for seven weeks. Excerpt:
They gave me a malaria drug, but it did absolutely nothing. They gave me an antibiotic for pneumonia, but I still couldn’t breathe without 15 liters of oxygen. They tried vitamin C, magnesium, shots of blood thinner, baby aspirin, Tums, multivitamins, Xanax, cough syrup with codeine. It was like fixing a car when you don’t know what’s broken. They gave me inhalers and breathing exercises to do every hour, but my oxygen level kept dropping. They wanted to put me on life support, but I was afraid I’d never come off. The doctor came in and said: “We have a team ready to revive you in case you start to code. We’re going to watch you closely.” Watching was all anybody could do. Then, one morning, my fever started to go down. Nobody knew why that happened either. But it stayed down for 36 hours, and they said I could go home.
Her family is close to broke now. She’s still not well. The thing that stands out about that story is how freaking unpredictable this virus is. Last night I received an e-mail from Wyoming Doc saying exactly that: that Covid-19 does not behave in predictable ways, like previous viruses. We are still facing a steep learning curve. (By the way, after I finish my end notes for the book, I’m going to post a long letter from Wyoming Doc.)
Would you take the app option, given the alternatives, if it promised a way forward? How would you feel if you knew that companies already track all your movements on your smartphone, and collect massive amounts of data from you via the apps you already use? This would not be new technology, and it wouldn’t do anything in essence that companies don’t already do. We already have submitted to a regime of constant tracking of our movements and everything we do online, and the tens of millions of Americans who have smartspeakers or Siri activated on their phones already submit to having their conversations listened to!
Pandemic or not, the Social Credit System is bound to come to us, especially as the younger generations have grown up with tech, and the absence of traditional privacy notions, and are more illiberal in their views on the First Amendment. The pandemic only speeds up what was likely to happen anyway.
In China, which is well on its way to being a cashless society (it’s the farthest in the world on this path), they are very near to the point where you cannot buy or sell — that is, participate in the economy — if the government doesn’t want you to. If everything is done online, as part of the network, and you get crossways the government, you’re done. This is a powerful means of social control — even more powerful than a hard-totalitarian police state, because it allows for a functioning, even prosperous, economy, while ensuring conformity. Edward Snowden already revealed the total data-gathering capacities of the US Government. The only thing standing between a Chinese-style system and the American people is the political will of the American people.
I am not confident. But you knew that. As I have been writing for years, our relative prosperity has papered over a lot of brokenness. Now we are probably going to be poor, for a long time. This is the catalyst that will set afire the dry brush that Hannah Arendt identified. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I wish I had a clearer picture before I published this book. But books have to be done months before they actually appear.
Back to work on these end notes. Gotta finish by early afternoon.
UPDATE: I figured I would be done by 1:30, but I actually didn’t get finished until five, right on the nose. I’m fried, y’all. Gonna approve comments, then crash. Sat at the kitchen table with stacks of books all around, with notebooks spatchcocked to scribblings that I couldn’t always read, and footnoted (or rather, endnoted) the hell out of that manuscript. You’d think that after writing four books already, I would have learned by now to be super-orderly about keeping footnote information near to hand and readily accessible. But no! Next time, I’ll do that. Swear.
This really is the end of the process from my end. The copy editor will jump on the manuscript tomorrow, I think. There may be some very minor cleaning up at my end, but this is, for all intents and purposes, it. The book is set for September 29 publication. Which, me being me, means I have four and a half months to worry about all the things I forgot to put in the book, but now it’s TOO LATE…