The World is Not a Hospital: A Hobbesian Look at the Covid Lockdowns | Owain Leyshon
I was recently listening to a BBC In Our Time podcast about Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. One of the guests cynically claimed that Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations was one of the greatest public relations pieces for power the world has ever known. The attempt to create a form of leadership that was less decadent than much of the Roman elite in 100AD- a new type of leadership which engaged in many forms of stoic self control, habitual conditioning, such as sleeping on the floor or other ascetic rejections of unbound luxury available to, what was at the time, the world’s most powerful man- was for this guest, a mere opportunistic facade; it was an opportunistic or merely ideological attempt to justify power. This typical, snobbish, liberal dismissal of historical figures conceals a deep insecurity among those who today have power and influence. The fear, which this attitude conceals, is the concern that one day a type of leadership may (re)emerge, which is conditioned on some form of self sacrifice, discipline and even honour.
Thinking about this, I couldn’t help but find it rather funny that decades of liberal dismissal of leadership as being an opportunistic power grab, has suddenly been lost, when a crisis hits and opportunistic abuses of fear for the sake of political self preservation and/or profit are rampant. One can see this contradiction most obviously around the discussions of speech and censorship, the role of experts and trust in expertise as the justification for authority. It seems that a new justification for authority has arisen among technocratic societies- one that shed its previous hesitancy and even outright cynicism- this new found love of the medical expert. His word is God and his lab coat is a clerical uniform. He is also a product of crisis.
A part of our modern day technocratic disposition involves the incredibly frustrating habit of indulging in all manner of theorizing and speculation when said speculation comes with ultimately little consequence, while when the very direction modern societies as a whole is being determined, we suddenly become as quiet as church mice. The vast majority of modern liberals enthusiastically embrace open, free and ‘subversive’ thought when it is either under the detached and safe veil of academia or perhaps, fashionable status symbols such as ‘virtue signalling’, while when it truly matters and when a small number of influential persons- should they conjure up the courage- were to speak honestly, a chance to divert from a catastrophic path we could rapidly be heading down, could easily open up. The difference between the two conditions are peace and crisis.
I can give you two quick examples of such a trend. A few months back I had realized how strange it was that the left had yet to refer to the work of Michel Foucault, considering how obvious the theme of bio-politics has become in the past eighteen months of medical lockdowns, shortages of healthcare services and of course the potential segregation of society based on vaccinated/unvaccinated. Perhaps the reason for this intellectual self muzzling concerning the theories of Foucault, could be that the left has largely supported every measure advised by these behemoth medical bureaucracies, like the WHO; they’ve even called for even more extreme measures in many cases. To embrace Foucault fully (and not just the postmodern fetishizing of marginal identities) would be to go against their political ambitions, which are clearly that of being an inheritor and extension to the post-WW2 technocracy. The perhaps even more peculiar silence is regarding Thomas Hobbes. He was the philosopher of crisis after all. His work is directly a philosophical attempt to overcome perpetual conflict; in his case the English civil war.
One highly overlooked aspect of Hobbes’ philosophy is the role of censorship as it pertains to the rights and benefits of free speech during a crisis. The 17 th century philosopher famously protested the translation of the bible into English from Latin- arguing that too many conflicting interpretations outside of an elite class of scholars would lead to conflict and warfare- while also prudely worrying over the influence of ancient Greek epics on young ambitious men, out of fear of their ‘regicidal’ influences. One wouldn’t be mistaken to assume Hobbes might be a useful source of philosophical authority for any technocrat wishing to give total control to an entire decision making class, while inhibiting and censoring any questioning and discussion from the general public (or anyone outside this elite class). Simply replace the religious class of clerical elites with medical experts and one has the exact same justification for power. To question or include people outside of this elite will surely lead to catastrophe!Too many cooks! One could easily refer to Hobbes in this way yet, the discussion of Hobbes, as an aid or otherwise, just like Foucault and the left, is oddly missing. I have not heard the name Hobbes being uttered once in any Op-ed or by any politician or status quo academic, at all, over the past eighteen months. One has to wonder why?
Crisis, after all , is an ongoing theme in the 21 st century; War on terror, wokism and Covid, alike. All have been justifications for censorship and the general crackdown of basic liberal tenets of free speech and freedom of movement; all have also displayed the political motivation regarding creating predictable or ‘safe’ spaces, whether that be national security, progressive moral purity or biological predictability.
With the blatant censorship and cherry picking of scientific data, whether to do with vaccines, mask wearing continuous lockdowns or any other facet the Covid responses triggered worldwide in March 2020, we have seen the very justifiable scepticism from large portions of the public over the legitimacy of our technocratic decision makers. It would seem the enlightened truth seeking tradition which values logical and empirical fact over political loyalty is noble but perhaps somewhat naive. We have landed in this position, not from some radical break with our secular enlightened history but almost at the very peak of it.
A profoundly philosophical question has emerged and should be on the minds of all thoughtful public intellectuals and commentators today. It is ultimately the question Hobbes raised in Leviathan in the 1600s and perhaps the reason for the eerie silence surrounding him despite the obvious thematic connections to his thought. Roughly put, the question is: ‘is truth prior to politics or is politics prior to truth?’ Those less familiar with Hobbes should be aware that interestingly, one of the founding fathers of modern liberalism itself, thought the latter. We couldn’t merely refer to an external, neutral sets of assumptions or facts to guide our political judgments. The truth was rather that these decisions were inherently political and we as humans are somewhat cursed to act despite our limited knowledge, our human fallibility and our ‘flawed’ natures.
At the heart of this Hobbesian primacy of the political (which was inherited by later thinkers like Carl Schmitt in his Political Theology’), is an emphasis on political responsibility. We are responsible for our decisions, fully. No God,nor scientist, nor expert, nor spreadsheet, nor set of data, could tell us with absolute certainty what we should do. We must decide for ourselves. This is rather heretical, as it places an enormous power in human hands; a power which can no longer be outsourced to any third party.
There is a temptation when encountering the obvious censorial habits of our elite institutions (not to mention their somewhat laughable and patronizing micro management of our daily lives), to re assert some ‘truer’ set of facts, or some ‘better’ list of experts. Of course there are true facts and untrue opinions- and of course there are better and more competent people which should be in these roles instead of others, however the common assertion to ‘Let the truth speak for itself!’is perhaps a statement which only makes sense in a time of peace and prosperity; and not in the time of crisis. Implicitly in this statement lies the wish to negate the fact that no matter how we get to that truth, a human being must be the one to say (or act on) it. What technocracy offers political ‘leaders’ is the luxurious role of standing as a sort of public relations agent between two classes; between the experts and between the people.
While I certainly reject the censorial direction our world has gone in, I would be highly reluctant to naively claim that the world would simply, spontaneously fix itself with total obedience to some neutral and merely objective empirical or logical guidance- especially one coming from experts. It is itself this deflection to some other decision making authority which has led to this technocratic class of experts pursuing the goal of making our lives more miserable everyday; all with reference and justification to neutral and objective facts broadcasted obsessively on spreadsheets and data charts on the evening news. And when one of our political leaders alludes to the medicalized need to treat the sick and vulnerable and save lives, this may be justified in a hospital or doctors office, but it cannot be simply expanded to all facets of life. The world itself is not a hospital; every piece of data, taken in a certain context can be somewhat catastrophic if we work from the assumption that the statistics that hospitals use to measure themselves can simply be expanded to the whole human society.
What about this for a response to our crisis- We should be willing to allow for some risk to our health in the favour of freedom and integrity and for those who wish to destroy those values for the mere sake of statistically low hospital admissions and thoughtless and superficial golden stars handed to us by the cultivators of fashionable opinions, that they are themselves, the selfish ones. They have mistaken politics for statistical risk calculation. They have mistaken the role of political leaders (although politicians have mistaken their own role themselves) for that of an insurance broker . This shows us that no matter how much data we can store and crunch- and how good we get at projecting and ‘modelling’ the future for the sake of risk evaluation- none of this equates to truth but merely leads us on a nonsensical task of bundling information which is then fetishistically referred to when irresponsible leadership would rather not make difficult decisions. ‘I didn’t do it. The data told me to!’, is a statement we are not far away from hearing.
The problem here is that this statement- one rejecting the assumption that risk aversion of the vulnerable should be primary motivation for all political choices- is that it requires a leadership which is not afraid to offend, even threaten a relatively large portion of our increasingly neurotic modern dispositions. Democracy, for all its benefits, does leave our political ruling classes the infuriating opportunity to deflect away from their own responsibility and power and to claim they are only acting to accommodate scared and threatened citizens. Of course, this itself relies on continuous cultivation of the scared and threatened. It is a rather obscene dynamical power which I personally believe emerged during the so called ‘War on terror’ which was itself a psychopolitics of rather profitable fear. It required rather defenceless and useless subjects who were willing to constantly accept and empower their rulers to protect them against a myriad of perpetual threats (ironically from a threat which their rulers were themselves historical financial and logistical aids to visa vie the struggle against the Soviet Union in the middle east and the Western funding of jihadists in Afghanistan).
In this sense Hobbes was right, even if we don’t agree on the handing over of all authority to one sole judgement. It would seem that when in peace(when it’s rather inconsequential) thought and discussion is readily encouraged to almost nauseating degrees. When in crisis however, the political will take total precedent over the intellectual and even sometimes the rational. The simple point I wanted to make here is that in order to get ourselves out of this mess, we can’t simply engage in number-crunching and risk evaluating exercises, alone. This is an endless game which no higher purpose other than a controlled management of a societal decline, can be found. There should be values which are primary to mere statistical risk. It begs the question. Has data become like a God in the sense of being a point to deflect to, when humans feel too weak or too apathetic to make hard decisions? It seems so. As Hobbes argued over the often futile nature of rational discussion in a time of crisis, data itself will necessarily be politically interpreted to fit a political agenda. More data and more objectivity may not fix anything, but it could be that this interpretable ambiguity is just the very nature of Crisis. There is no point on a spreadsheet or info-graph where we once again say ‘Yes X number means we can go back to normal!’ This number does not exist. It’s time to start putting the doctors and statisticians back in their place.