Lockdown is here to stay.

Some thoughts on the new normal and why you may want to get comfortable.

Lockdown has morphed from an outlandish proposition to a temporary, force-majeure measure to a tool in the toolbox of power and the "new normal" over the course of this last year of perpetual emergency. 

Normalization has set in. Most are already numb to this once sudden, now assumed encroachment on their freedoms. Some have hope for the liberating effect of the vaccine, some have learned to love their captivity, to find a deeper meaning in "safety." Most have adapted by now.

The central narrative is that we are in a war with an invisible enemy, one that will kill - and will do so indiscriminately. By not actively participating in the fight, you may be guilty of killing others. This is, by definition, a virulent idea, one that frames anything outside of active participation in its aims as culpability. Passivity kills and will not be tolerated.   

Rule-by-algorithm

Some lockdown critics have asked for proof that lockdowns work in the abstract, but I do believe the impulse to lock down does have its logic. That's why it's so powerful. It makes sense. If you don't interact with infected people, yes, you will probably not get the disease. The same logic applies to masking. Masks - in this case, I'm speaking about sealed masks like N95 respirators, not some homemade cheesecloth apparatus - are typically useful for similar respiratory diseases, so the burden of proof is not to prove that masks also work for this one, but on why they may not. This is a healthy instinct, and I believe the priors do make sense. But if the next step is to take action on this data alone, we're in trouble because "will probably work to optimize for variable 'case rates' under X conditions and Y assumptions" is by far not the only salient dimension.

The problem this opens up is that we have wholly sanctioned rule-by-algorithm. The only legitimacy left within the layers upon layers of state and non-state managers tasked with addressing the problem is the idea of "expertise." The algorithm or the model is ostensibly prescribed by Science, the last vestige of divine authority conveniently disguised as its very opposite. 

The reality is, we are not ruled by a consensus concocted by the most brilliant minds in society and distilled into a comprehensive model. We are ruled by an iterative dance between anecdote, moral fervor, credentialism, bureaucracy, media trials, and, lastly, yes, niche expertise. The narrative predates the science. If the scientific method appears at all, it is either in Act 2, in service of the narrative, or struggling for air and funding at the periphery of discourse until something goes so violently wrong in the mainstream that some may start to look that way. 

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A video is worth 1000 experts

The videos and images of desperate Italian doctors and the collapsing inhabitants of Wuhan were more important to the reaction to the virus than any graph, number, or table ever presented. 

The 'empathy-boosting visually-enhanced anecdote' has been the legitimating engine of many sweeping policy moves globally, from the European refugee crisis to color revolutions and the many riots sweeping the US since Rodney King. Undeniable injustice, streamed at you 24/7, conveniently framed by people who make money from your outrage, egged on by people who get power and votes from your reaction, is hard to look away from. 

The reality is that witnessing abuse and horror perpetrated on your in-group changes you - it is more than a data point. It is narrative dynamite. Video is the killer app for creating ever more powerful mass movements and ever more demonic foes. The Covid Denier is one of them. 

Morality as the motor

Narratives are propped up and perpetuated by moral fervor. The mechanism is: people animated by moral passion rather than inert non-partisanship will always have incentives to co-opt new members, punish defectors and fight the righteous battle against the out-group. They are Taleb's "intransigent minority," powered by deep conviction and identification with the cause, while others are reading the morning paper and interpreting graphs with steely detachment. Moral indignation speaks to the pre-rational parts of us, and it brings with it the visceral persuasiveness of hunger, thirst, or getting sucker-punched. 

The seemingly ever-shrinking terrain between science and death is a major battleground of modernity. Highly visible, almost unbelievable advances in antibiotics, vaccines, and surgery have cemented medical science as a realm of miracle and its high priests as miracle workers. When a mysterious, exotic miasma stalks the land, the priests are relied on to exorcise it. First, to flatten the curve, then to reduce death rates, then to conquer death. The slide from the relative into the absolute isn't a bug. It is a feature of utopian ideas wherever they crop up. The utopianism of "safety through science" is the ultimate way to immanentize the eschaton. It is the promise of eternal life - here and now. If only we'd listen to the Science. 

Niche Expertise

While epidemiologists are understandably important voices in how we should tackle pandemics, they are by far not the only critical perspective. Especially if the measures proposed are sweeping and affect other areas of human life, as they now have. 

But this is the logic of rule-by-algorithm: if you face a colossal, urgent, global-scale problem, you bring in the only people who have spreadsheets and models about that problem (in its current state, as far as it's visible to you). Epidemiologists, though, do not factor in other areas like broad-scale economic impact, other health outcomes, educational issues, and, most importantly, considerations of moral philosophy. These are all areas with a wide-reaching impact on the systems that the model works on, which it is almost certainly blind to. The glaring absence and utility of moral philosophy became apparent quickly when we shifted from the idea of flattening the curve to "zero cases" as the goal. The price of death was set to 'pretty much infinite' by default, with no recourse available. 

Managerial Vision 

The very nature of the administrative state, what it can effectively do, and what it can effectively *see* are huge factors in our new phase of perma-lockdown. 

How did we get the first lockdowns?

Governments were scrambling for measures that 1. they had the power to enact and were likely to affect measurable things like case rates and deaths, 2. were big and visible enough to satiate the first wave of moral fervor and "do something!"-ness and 3. made sense in the context of what was going on globally and by that point, very visibly, on the internet and in the media. Copying the first mover (China's Wuhan lockdowns) was the next step for most governments. Once the first domino fell, it became incumbent on governments to make a case on why they shouldn't lockdown. Most, as we know, didn't make that case successfully.

The next issue with complex, layered managerial systems with no natural, direct feedback mechanism to reality is that responsibility is distributed. It is distributed so well, in fact, that it almost completely disappears because no one person can be held responsible for the outcomes of the system and because it was no human agency that acted - but “rational, scientific calculus”. The issue is that once a policy has been enacted (after the moral fervor, the scrambling, and the first domino), it is almost impossible to dislodge, as it is probably doing some good. There is no single person in the system who is incentivized to roll back policies like this, especially if the result could be an increase, however slight, in the case rate or other visible measures. 

Then, there is the reality that lockdowns track the natural path of evolution for administrative (read effectively unaccountable) institutions. Almost every part of the current administrative state is a result of some acute initial need, was limited in scope at first, had promises of being rolled back once "goal X is accomplished," and then expanded as new goals or a more extensive definition of X was tacked on to its responsibilities. 

Once the bureaucracy has a metric, it assumes its role as a paper clip optimizer - in the best of cases- and becomes singularly focused on the thing it can "see." In this case, using the most visible and narratively sanctioned methods to reach the goal of 'get to a case rate of zero and stay there.' 

A failure to reach goal X becomes irrelevant because once the structure is up, the issue can never be that this new arm of the administration is ineffective. It cannot be ineffective because it, by definition, represents the solution. Its mission is "war on death," "war on poverty," "war on drugs." As long as the destination has not been reached it cannot be found wanting. It becomes identified with the solution itself and encompasses everything. It only fails because it is underfunded or hasn't been applied intensely enough. 

Once in place, bureaucracy is an inertial, lumbering beast. Once it's moving, it is hard to stop, especially if public sentiment aligns with the narrative about defeating the virus. The new institution shifts the burden of proof onto those who argue it shouldn't exist. An institution that is ostensibly there to mitigate the risk of something so serious as "death" will be a tough one to fight against. Also, through which mechanisms? You can't democracy your way out of something you didn't democracy your way into. Lockdown is "evidence-based," your protestations are not. 

To me, it seems that all incentives point one way for this type of institution - consolidation, mission creep, and, finally, permanence.

So, while I think the vaccine (this one, and all the ones that will undoubtedly follow) will relieve us somewhat of the most rigid of constraints, the ideological and managerial infrastructure that has emerged from this event is most likely here to stay. Like any utopian ideal, any "war on...", it grows self-reinforcing narrative loops. If the end times don't come on the predicted date, this only serves to confirm that the prophecy was more complex than we previously thought, maybe we need to add some epicycles to the model - or maybe - it was underfunded and just wasn't tried hard enough. 

One thing is certain. Eternal life is within our grasp.  


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