Perhaps the main question for those of us who are baffled by how we got stuck in the mess that is the corona event was asked by the German Professor Bhakdi: how could a society of educated people get it so wrong?
There is no single answer to this question but I sketched out my primary answer in post 10 which is that in late February-early March there was a battle in the public discourse between two competing narratives: the plague story or the flu story. For a variety of reasons, the plague story won. But that only changes the question to: how could a society of educated people convince themselves they were in a plague story when it should have been obvious they were in a flu story?
No doubt most people would reject the whole idea of a story. They would say their belief is ‘scientific’. Ironically, this is just another story and is, in fact, one of the founding myths of modern society: we are above stories; we are scientific.
This myth is no accident. We are still heirs to The Enlightenment which was in large part the battle between science and story in the form of the revolt against religion. It is no small irony that this movement began in the person of Isaac Newton who spent more time (apparently about a decade) trying to fix the inconsistencies in the Bible than he did working on science. Nevertheless, it was his work on planetary orbits that started a revolution. Newton’s genius is probably understood by fewer people nowadays than it was in his time. It was what we can call reductionist science. Specifically, in relation to calculating the motions of the planets, Newton was able to achieve this by simplifying the number of calculations involved through a series of brilliant assumptions. The method was reductionist because of all the things it explicitly (and sometimes implicitly) left out of consideration. It was only by reducing the number of variables that the calculations could be solved.
To say that this approach was revolutionary is possibly an understatement. All serious thinkers from that time on wanted to be reductionists. Philosophers such as Kant were inspired to create great systems of philosophy while scientists got to work creating powerful generalisations that were testable and reproducible. The idea was to simplify everything down to what could be calculated. This allowed predictions to be made and rules to be generated. Those rules that could be relied on to produce results. One of those results was the creation of society as we know it, a society based on what I will call, using the title from the final episode of Kenneth Clark’s wonderful 1969 TV series Civilisation – Heroic Materialism.
Heroic Materialism implies reductionist science but is mostly about the industrial revolution which, although predicated on that science, also had its own momentum in the development of technology and the relentless ramping up of capitalism as the organising principle of society. This eventually led to the radical re-shaping of our world in railways, tunnels, roads, cars, bridges and skyscrapers. In science, it culminated in a giddy period toward the end of the 19th century where scientists firmly believed that before long the whole world would be explicable in terms of generalisations and calculations. Everything would be predictable. Everything would be within the control of man.
It was around this time when the breakthroughs in infectious disease also started to be made. As with the increasing control man had over his environment, it seemed that for the first-time real inroads could be made in relation to disease which, until then, had been seen as simply an inevitable part of life. Improvements in water quality, sewerage, general sanitation and, of course, vaccines led to a massive reduction in mortality from infectious disease. These gains continued up until around the late 1960s when the US Surgeon General in 1967 declared it time to close the book on infectious disease and to start to address the growing issue with chronic illness.
No wonder then that people at the time were optimistic. We now look back on that enthusiasm and optimism with gentle mockery because we know all too well what came next. The world wars, where the machines of the industrial revolution were used to create human misery on an almost unimaginable scale. The atomic bomb where for the first-time man appeared to have the power to destroy not just himself but the whole planet. And the environmental degradation which had always gone hand in glove with the industrial revolution but which became an immediate fact of daily life.
It’s astonishing to think that, in some of the largest cities in the world, smog used to cause mass death. In a four day period in London in 1952, somewhere between 4,000 and 12,000 people died from a ‘killer fog’. In Los Angeles around the same time, the smog was so bad that schools were closed for a whole month. New York and other cities had similar incidents. As with the health crises of the 19th century, this led to push back, this time in the form of the nascent environmentalist movement which played the same role that the romantics played in relation to the beginning of bourgeois ascendancy at the start of the industrial revolution i.e. a kind of fairly common sense critique to things that seemed absurdly bad and yet nobody really paid attention to. This seeming indifference to suffering had been a part of heroic materialism since the start as witnessed by the large numbers of deaths on big projects and the general misery and squalor in which working class people lived during much of the 19th century in Britain and elsewhere.
It was around the middle of the 20th century that the era of great progress started to come to an end. There was still the moon landing to come and some last strains of optimism, including the statement in 1954 that the rolling out of nuclear power would produce electricity that was ‘too cheap to meter’. Unfortunately, that cheap power never showed up. Neither did our flying cars or our hoverboards. Those failures, usually covered up in the form of jokes and light cynicism, have become ever more pressing in recent times. Let’s take the issue of health. In the last several decades, there has been essentially no further reduction in infectious disease mortality despite more money being spent on the issue. The US Surgeon General in 1967 was right. All the easy gains had been made. He was also right in saying that we should focus on combating lifestyle disease but that hasn’t happened. In recent decades there has been a relentless rise in cases of diabetes and other lifestyle illnesses leading to the fact that, for the first time in generations, average life expectancy has declined in the West.
On the economic front, things have also been going backwards. In the 1970s, the average family could live fairly comfortably on a single wage. Nowadays that would be impossible in most western nations. I addressed these economic issues in post 6 so I won’t repeat them here except to say that they have now become a political reality in many western nations as evidenced by both Trump and Brexit.
Those who still want to talk up heroic materialism nowadays usually do so in relation to what we can call globalisation. For example, the increased expenditure on western medicine in Africa and, of course, the big one: China. If ever there was a poster child for heroic materialism, it would be modern China. We’ve heard all about the number of people pulled out of poverty there. We’ve also heard about the environmental degradation too. As usual, the two go hand-in-hand. Nevertheless, China is the big example to show that heroic materialism can still deliver the goods.
I wonder if the corona event isn’t partly driven by a desire to see heroic materialism once again deliver the goods here in the west. I touched on this in post 9 of this series but I think I’ve now realised that there is something larger at stake. The reason we needed heroics and heroism was precisely because heroic materialism has been failing to deliver for quite some time. Thus, no sooner had the phrase ‘flatten the curve’ become known than we heard about how we had to ‘smash the curve’; a call to heroism. What if we needed a ‘win’? What if the stagnation of the last several decades has created a kind of spiritual malaise that needed an outlet? Simple pragmatism wasn’t going to cut it in this case. We needed something more. In fact, pragmatism in general has been cast aside and we are in a weird kind of twilight zone where nothing else matters but the virus. Economic considerations, psychological issues, even the business of sending children to school has all become subservient to that one end. This obsessive focus is a prime feature of both scientific reductionism and heroic materialism. It is also a feature of James C. Scott’s high modernist intervention; a type of intervention predicated on bureaucracy.
It is probably hard for us to believe nowadays, but the organisational type of bureaucracy was once seen as a big advance and also came to the fore during the optimism of the end of the 19th century. Bureaucracy was seen as a kind of machine that ran on rules rather than the old systems of cronyism and nepotism. Just like reductionist science, corporations and bureaucracies owe their power and efficacy to focus. In the case of a corporation, it means reducing all discussion down to profit and loss. Whatever else can be said about that, it gives a clear and somewhat objective way to resolve issues within the organisation. The same goes for bureaucracies. Of course, we’ve all had the experience of having to deal with a bureaucracy that’s too busy focusing on the thing that it thinks matters and is unable to focus on the thing that we think matters. And we all know the stories of corporations so focused on the bottom line that they pollute the environment or even sacrifice human life as a consequence. There are drawbacks to focus. The big bureaucratic interventions described by Scott featured bureaucracies focused on simplistic metrics who were unable to respond to real world feedback.
The corona event represents just that kind of old-fashioned, bureaucratic intervention that we’ve seen fail time and again. Just like those interventions, it focuses relentlessly and exclusively on a single metric: infections. No surprise, of course, that it has been run out of the public health bureaucracies which are just the kind of organisations to fall into that kind of error. In the public and in the media, the underlying story is the naïve germ theory which is a reductionist story in the old-fashioned sense. It reduces everything down to the virus. Nothing else matters.
So, another way to frame the question about the corona event is: why have we lapsed back into the kind of high modernist, reductionist, bureaucratic mindset that almost the entire 20th century showed us does not work?
I think part of the reason is that our governments are still constructed in that way. They still operate through bureaucracy and so they must translate the world into terms that a bureaucracy can handle. In this case, infections. But I think it’s also true that the public reverted back to the thing that we think constitutes our civilisation i.e. heroic materialism seen in the form of reductive science. We still believe in heroic materialism. We still need to believe in it. We have to because we have no other story about what our civilisation is. This was a point that Clark made back in 1969. Heroic materialism is the only story we have about what we are. The whole point of our civilisation is that we can smash a virus. So, that’s what we must do.
If I’m right, then we are in for an interesting period because, to use a well-known meme: one does not simply smash a virus. Just like the high modernist interventions of the past, the simplifying model does not work in the real world and we are about to find that out again the hard way.
I expect governments will try everything they can to get the vaccine because that’s the only way to end this story properly. However, a vaccine is highly unlikely to the provide the closure that will so desperately be desired. There are all kinds of ways this can go wrong. For starters, we may never get a vaccine or the vaccine may take years. If the vaccine gets rushed through, there may be side effects. Professor Bhakdi has warned of possible auto-immune diseases as one possible outcome. Then there is the question of whether the vaccine will even work at all. Then there is the fact that the amount of attention placed on this vaccine will be enormous, especially if governments try to make it mandatory. As a result, any negative side effects are likely to be well publicised. If pharmaceutical companies get legal waivers for those side effects, the blowback will go straight to government.
That’s just the vaccine part of the story. The economic effects, still yet to really be felt, would have to be enormous at this point. Once again, it seems the only option governments are going to have is to print money to try and get spending back to where it was. Will that work? How are borders going to be re-opened again? How is international travel going to happen? There are stories of vaccine passports and similar measures but they represent a tax on all travel and economics 101 says that when the price goes up the demand goes down. What does globalisation look like if people can’t travel around?
There is an idea popular among certain groups that we can simply detach globalisation and return to national heroic materialism. That might be possible in some places although I think people underestimate how complex global manufacturing has become and how hard it would be to unwind. There is talk of massive infrastructure spending to get the economy going. And no doubt there will be other schemes. Even if we were to achieve this to some level of success, is it something that people could be optimistic about? Is what we really need more roads, more bridges, more tunnels? Here in Melbourne I can say quite categorically we do not. We’ve been building plenty of those for the last two decades and it hasn’t made things any better.
It’s hard to see how the corona event ends well and keeps the belief in heroic materialism going. Maybe it’s time once again to try a re-evaluation of the whole concept.
Reductive science, bureaucracy, corporations get their power mostly from focus. You ignore ‘non-essential’ factors and concentrate only on what produces the result you are looking for. But focus has drawbacks among which are the possibility that you don’t really want the result you are looking for and that you might get some other results you didn’t think about. Once again, I refer to Richard Feynman because he told one of the most poignant stories about the problems with focus, specifically in relation to the development of the H Bomb at Los Alamos.
The initial reason given to the scientists for the development of the bomb was to beat the Germans to it. But, after the Germans surrendered in May 1945, the scientists kept working on the bomb even though that initial reason was no longer valid. It simply didn’t occur to anybody to stop. They were too close to the finish line and everybody wanted to get the result. They got a result, of course: the bomb got dropped on Japan. Feynman, like many others at that time, went into a deep depression for a couple of years afterwards firmly convinced that humans would destroy themselves with the bomb. He told of how he lamented that they didn’t cancel the project when the Germans surrendered. That they didn’t de-focus and re-evaluate what they were doing.
This kind of error is exactly what James C. Scott talked about in relation to high modernism. It is the same error committed by corporations which focus exclusively on profit at the expense of everything else. We are committing exactly the same error right now with an obsessive focus on ‘infections’ at the expense of every other consideration.
I have already mentioned one body of work which dealt with these kinds of errors, Gerald Weinberg’s General Systems Thinking. Weinberg’s solution to excessive focus is quite straightforward: you must allow multiple perspectives to be heard. You must be able to de-focus as well as focus. To step back and see the bigger picture. Indeed, you must force yourself to do so in order that you don’t fall into just these kind of traps. You must also be aware of what you are simplifying by stating your assumptions and doing what Feynman suggested: trying to prove yourself wrong or at least thinking about if you could be wrong. Ideally, a functioning civil society in a democracy should achieve these outcomes through public discourse.
Weinberg’s work was practical in nature but around the same time there were also more philosophical challenges to heroic materialism and these came from within science itself.
In her wonderful book, The Myths we Live By, Mary Midgley talks about how the Enlightenment ideal of the social contract was influenced by the physics of that time. The notion of solitary, self-contained, even selfish individuals in the political realm was an analogue to the focus on atoms as the basic particles of existence. These ideas continued right through Darwin with his emphasis of competition in nature and into works like Dawkins with his selfish gene. Is it a coincidence that with the lockdowns during the corona event we have all been reduced back down to solitary, self-contained, atomistic creatures in our own homes? Our Enlightenment social contract has been suspended on the basis that we are all now potential disease carriers. Is it also a coincidence that our naïve germ theory has the exact attitude to viruses and bacteria that Dawkins has about genes i.e. as ruthless gangsters; selfish, brutish, pernicious.
Of course, physics hasn’t been concerned with atoms or particles for over a hundred years. The idea that individual particles are fundamental is no longer valid there. It looks like microbiology will eventually get to a similar place. We now know that viruses and bacteria are not necessarily the enemy and that we are in fact reliant on some of them for our health and well-being. Modern science is showing us that connections and relationships are at least as fundamental as ‘objects’ and, in fact, the whole idea of an object independent of an observer doesn’t make much sense. If Enlightenment physics influenced Enlightenment political thought, modern science should be able to prompt for a re-evaluation of our own politics and our own world view. However, that may not be so easy because it’s not just heroic materialism that is at stake.
As I discussed in post 8, modern findings in microbiology challenge longstanding beliefs in the west over the separation of man from nature. Midgley notes that this antipathy to nature has roots in Christianity and specifically in the battle fought between the church and nature religions at different points in its history. It’s also the case that for much of western history, nature has been the equivalent to chaos. It was, by definition, the thing which could not be understood. That’s why we spent so much time star gazing because at least the sky offered a regularity and objectivity that was reassuring. The earth did not and, in any case, the idea of the earth as inherently degraded or sinful also has deep roots in Christianity.
It wasn’t until breakthroughs in geology and then the Darwinian revolution that our perspective started to change and we could try and make sense of nature from within science. By explicitly positing the relation between humans and animals, Darwin also began to breakdown the longstanding belief in humans as something apart from nature. This was, indeed, what the romantics had already been getting at, in particular Rousseau. But the romantics lost the argument and we chose heroic materialism instead. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, when the drawbacks of heroic materialism had become unavoidable, that there was another re-evaluation and I have mentioned one exponent of that, Gregory Bateson.
Bateson, with his work Mind and Nature, was trying to find the pattern which connects us back to the nature in a philosophical sense, an idea that had already found popularity among the hippie movement and which was a deliberate attempt to address some of the problems of heroic materialism. Similarly, there were works such as the Gaia hypothesis formulated by James Lovelock and (microbiologist!) Lynn Margulis which also put man within ‘nature’ as a complex system rather than apart from it. It’s strange to think that our reliance on nature had to be deliberately recognised but it seems that for most of history humans had spent so long struggling just to survive that we had viewed nature as at least without inherent value and even as an enemy. This idea still persists and it’s not going to be easy to get over it.
“We need to get rid of the notion that all natural things are valueless in themselves, merely pretty extras, expendable, either secondary to human purposes or actually pernicious. That notion is so fearfully misleading that we must ditch it somehow, even though we don’t yet have a perfectly clear map of the ideals that we shall need to put in its place.” (The Myths We Live By, p. 174)
Of course, this doesn’t mean over-romanticising nature which was arguably one of the reasons the romantics and the hippies failed to provide a viable alternative. Somewhere between the blind domination of heroic materialism and an excessive worship for nature there should be a pragmatic place to recognise that we are a part of the planet and not separate from it. In theory, the environmentalist movement of the 20th century was aiming at something like that but it was bought out by financial interests and what counts for the environmental movement these days is nothing more than heroic materialism in disguise.
So, that’s where we are. We still don’t have anything to put in place of heroic materialism. The lessons of the 20th century still haven’t seeped through into the general culture. In fact, I would argue that globalisation was the re-assertion of heroic materialism as our cultural paradigm. In truth, it was at least partly a way to get around the awkward fact that heroic materialism had stopped delivering in the west. I spoke in post 6 of what has been happening in Melbourne for the last couple of decades. It is, in fact, a kind of resurgence of heroic materialism. We have built skyscrapers, highways, tunnels, bridges, desalinisation plants and roads. Nothing fundamentally different from what we were doing a hundred years ago. When viewed this way, the corona event is not that surprising. It’s the continuation, perhaps even the re-assertion of heroic materialism as the dominant paradigm. If, as I suspect, the story of the corona event is not brought to a satisfactory close, we may just see the desire for alternative stories once again.
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