Omicron and governance theater
"In the 2020s, Science has killed more people than Hitler."
In the ominous age of the ominously-named Omicron—a very ‘70s name, really—it never hurts to restate the simplest theory of the origins of covid.
This theory goes: covid was created by Science. Not science, the systematic pursuit of knowledge—Science, the 20th-century planetary meta-organization that has captured and monopolized that pursuit. Here is how that happened, I think:
in 2003, SARS showed that bat coronaviruses are dangerous. Protecting people against dangerous things is important, so bat coronavirus research became important. Part of the government’s job is funding important scientific research. The more dangerous bat coronaviruses are, the more important they are, and the more scientists will get funded to work on them. Naturally their research tended to focus on making these viruses intentionally more dangerous, to prove that they could accidentally become more dangerous. None of this research was of any use in the accidental pandemic they released—and anyone of any ordinary intelligence could have foreseen that.
In the 2020s, Science has killed more people than Hitler. We, the people, should bear this in mind, when we choose to keep being ruled by Science. This is not a permanent commitment, but a continuous choice. Hitler killed people systematically on purpose; Science killed people by systematic negligence. Which doesn’t matter if you’re dead.
But Science also created the vaccines, you say! No—the vaccines were created not by the meta-organization that is Science, but by scientists in the meta-organization that is Capitalism. Science grudgingly, after a year and a half of “development” ordained by itself, allowed them to be used. Science also did such a great job with its monopoly of the pursuit of knowledge that the inventor of MRNA was hounded out of her career (and now works for Capitalism). And Science’s headlock on the product cycle is strong enough that we only have very leaky, slightly dangerous first-generation vaccines. (Which I still recommend taking.)
Covid should not be exaggerated—an error I committed in the past (probably because I was betting on it lol). It is a gnarly disease, not an apocalyptic one. It has surely cost way less QALYs than World War II. But it is still gnarly. The mortality rates of covid for younger populations do not justify emergency governance measures; the morbidity rates for middle-aged populations do.
While boomers may be a net liability, it seems that a substantial percentage of middle-aged people do experience serious health damage. And even countries like Sweden, so progressive that it bonded strongly to the January 2020 party line of licking doorknobs to reassure the Asians, committing so strongly to ignoring the virus that their party line could not flip over even when doorknob-licking became the Trumpy Trumpist line, have had trouble maintaining this “floomer” policy.
Yet ignoring the virus is certainly the best policy for regimes that cannot control it—even regimes as well-organized as Singapore’s. Singapore is a city-state and unusually dependent on travel—and could probably stick with control in a world of Singapores. But its new “floomer” approach seems to work well too. Well, it’s Singapore.
A world of Singapores might look like a country whose covid graph looks like this:
Strangely, there is only one such country. But it is a big one. It proves that controlling this virus is possible. And for those who value their freedoms™, subjects of China live today with far fewer covid restrictions than citizens of the reddest American red state.
Strangely, almost everything we use is made in that same country. Perhaps, instead of asking what China is doing right, we should ask what the West is doing wrong.
What the West is doing wrong is governance theater.
The concept of “security theater” is familiar to anyone who has waited in a TSA line. Security is a core competence of government, but hardly the only such competence. Actually, most of what most governments do is theater.
In a world of oligarchical democracies, “press-run states” where power derives from institutional leadership of public opinion, flowing from Science to the Fourth Estate and thence out into the broadcast-media audience, the existential task of any regime is to persuade that audience that it’s doing a good job—just as the existential task of any TSA checkpoint is to persuade air passengers that, despite the omnipresence of sinister Islamic terrorists, it’s still safe to go back in the sky.
Theater, of course, is the technology of persuasion. So one result of covid has been to greatly augment the funding for virologists to collect and tinker with coronaviruses. After all, if 2003 proved they’re important, 2020 proved they’re really important.
The purpose of a theater set is to look real—from one angle, superficially. It looks like tinkering with bat coronaviruses is a reasonable response to the SARS outbreak. Any parallax at all will reveal the cardboard nature of the justification. But when Science is sovereign and supreme, there is no parallax at all.
Covid control theater
The Omicron “travel ban” on West Africa—which exempts American citizens, as if viruses cared what color your passport is—is a perfect example. Trump’s “travel ban” in February 2020 was exactly the same.
As Enoch Powell said, the purpose of government is to provide against preventable evils. A border which is perfectly sealed before the virus is seeded on the other side provides perfectly against this preventable evil. But any less-perfect seal, due to the power of exponential growth, provides not at all—at most, delaying the wave by a counterintuitively-small matter of days.
This boolean property of biological security is counterintuitive. Therefore, no one will naturally notice it. Therefore, completely ineffective measures look like actual actions.
The bizarre impact of the pandemic on American public opinion has been to create not one but two schools of covid governance theater. One of these schools focuses on continuous coercive interventions that seem very ineffective at “flattening the curve,” but very effective at creating a sense of continuous coercion. The other school seems to have a juvenile attraction to oppositional hypotheses of every kind.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the first school is in charge—mostly. The measure of their capacity for governance is seen by these strange, pointless half-measures: the leaky travel bans, the loose cloth masks, the restaurant face-covering sit-down waltz. This is not covid control. It is covid control theater. It is not coercion for a purpose; it is coercion for the purpose of coercion.
And as for the opposition theater which is the opposite school of governance theater—it is even worse. Its theater makes no sense and could not even be put into practice, at least not as a general policy. In this case it would lead to a Scandinavian covid policy, which is tenable. But accidentally tenable. With a much worse virus—or a much worse covid variant, perhaps one as deadly as SARS-1—it would not be tenable.
There is no serious school of political philosophy that denies the absolute character of state sovereignty. Were Washington, Lincoln and FDR committing human-rights violations when they drafted young men to serve involuntarily as soldiers? Surely this was what Foucault called biopower: power over bodies. Not even law, but power.
Modern political philosophy admits the absolute and lawless character of power, but has confined this capacity for arbitrary action to exceptions and emergencies. Even our own Constitution has a procedure for authoritarian state action, including administrative detention of anyone—the Congress can suspend habeas corpus. Here again we see state power down to the level of human flesh.
The human herd is full of viruses. A few viruses demand emergency action; most do not. The emergency powers of the state are meant for wars and disasters—the natural equivalents of war. If a virus becomes an emergency, it is the moral equivalent of war.
A pandemic is a war against a virus. In a war against a virus that threatens everyone, everyone is a soldier. To beat the virus, everyone must accept military discipline.
Is the SARS-CoV-2 virus worthy of war? It has certainly killed a number of people comparable to any war, though far fewer of the victims were young and healthy. Damage, both overt and subtle, to the human constitution, may still be common among even its healthy victims. No state has succeeded in ignoring covid completely; it is just strong enough to be unignorable, just weak enough to be debatable.
Without descending into the medical-biological swamp—in the 2020s, it turns out, even pharmacology will be politicized—let’s just assume there is a virus that spreads like covid, and is worth going to war against. How should a modern state go to war against a pandemic—not as a matter of theater, but as of fact?
How to gently suppress any airborne virus
Clearly, we are utter fools if we cannot learn from the success of the Chinese regime—despite its clear complicity in covering up the leak in the first place—in suppressing the novel coronavirus. Actually, suppressing a respiratory virus is a crucial test of state capacity—and it is no surprise that the world’s most economically successful regime would prove its most epidemiologically successful.
It is unfortunate that China’s success with “lockdown” policies has spawned a range of generally-ineffective watered-down Western “lockdown theater.” It is not clear that any Western “nonpharmaceutical intervention” has had any significant effect on the shape of Western covid waves. In any case, the waves, and the variants, keep coming.
Chinese covid strategy works—in China. But for the West, inventing a strategy from scratch will probably work better than copying China. Here are some simple options in case anyone cares.
Seal international borders
If the 2020s have taught us one thing, it is that humanity can live without travel. In particular, it is simply an urban legend that trade requires travel—a piece of governance theater that harks us back to the day of the real-life “traveling salesman.”
Trade in the 21st century does not require travel—merely shipping. In real governance, it is easy to keep shipping routes (air and sea) flowing, without mammals sharing air. The breath of the foreigner can be considered suspect, toxic, radioactive, diseased. The tourism industry can be paid for empty rooms and flights until the crisis is over. All the disruption this causes is trivial in comparison to the disruption of a pandemic.
There is no reason that every country has to be sharing every other country’s viruses. The world did not need a Delta epidemic; only India did. The world did not need an Omicron epidemic; only South Africa did. Punishing other countries does not help any country which experiences such bad luck—except maybe in a theatrical sense.
Is Omicron the mild, cold-like covid, almost a natural vaccine, we have been waiting for? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the covid that kills 20% of its victims, like SARS or MERS, is already evolving in some AIDS-ridden shebeen in Soweto. Why we need to give this virus, which cannot swim, a ticket to South Dakota, is not at all clear to me.
The whole point of an international border is that there is little or no economic travel (eg, commuting) across it. Therefore, if any sealed line is drawn across humanity, it can best be drawn here. Most strategies for cleaning up decentralized problems, from terrorist insurgencies to airborne pandemics, involve dividing the substrate into cells whose boundaries are sealed, solving the problem in parallel in each cell, and merging cells only once they are clean.
True migration sometimes has to happen—people who are genuinely moving their lives from country to country. Migration demands quarantine—not quarantine theater. New Zealand was covid-free, then let its quarantine chill out into quarantine theater.
In a quarantine theater—like a typical “quarantine hotel”—travelers who have just arrived can infect travelers who are about to leave. No one should be sharing air in a quarantine. It should be as unimaginable that a virus could randomly slip through, as that a pint of boiling plutonium could randomly drip out of a reactor vessel.
See like a state
For a regime to see like a state is to see its sovereign property—the people and the land—as clearly as possible. “As possible” is a function of technology, which is always getting better.
If your government is not in fact a nest of perverts, clowns, thieves and rascals, you should no more worry about being drafted into
fighting in the swamps of the Mekong installing a mandatory covid app on your iPhone, than about your proctologist seeing your naked asshole. And maybe even probing it. And taking photos. If your proctologist is a pervert, a clown, a thief or a rascal, you need a new proctologist—not a principle of chastity that protects your sacred anal honor against the bad men in white coats.
Seeing like a state means that the regime knows exactly who is inside its borders. For every biped not a bird or kangaroo, the state has a biometric record and a general, low-frequency idea of the beast’s location. In a pandemic, the state needs a precise, high-frequency idea of everyone’s location—since it needs to know who is infecting whom. The state has always been defined as a shepherd. The modern shepherd gets an alert and a photo every time one of his sheep takes a shit.
One urban myth of political science rife in the Western mind, past and present, is the myth that the powers of government can be mechanically restricted, or that such restrictions can produce better, fairer or less intrusive governance. It is this myth that stands tall in the citizen’s mind when he denies the pandemic command center his location, even if that same location is currently rented to every spammer in Albania.
Good governance will be as intrusive as it has to be, and no more. A regime which is unnecessarily intrusive for perverse or nefarious reasons will do other bad things for perverse or nefarious reasons. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Again, solving this problem will require not a guarantee of limited government (at best, a promise by one organ to restrain another), but a guarantee against perverse or nefarious government.
Flatten high waves with short lockdowns
In a true lockdown—not a lockdown theater—no one leaves their house. Supplies are delivered. Since the government knows who you are and where you live, it knows what you need. If you have a car, you may even be drafted into doing deliveries.
In a true lockdown, you test yourself every day, then show a photo of the test to your pandemic app. If you test positive, you are taken to a pandemic hotel, where you get antivirals, antibodies and chicken soup. There is no need to prevent contagion within the hotel—the staff wear high-performance respirators.
Two weeks of true lockdown is a long time. It will end with certain pods which have to stay in home isolation, because they were exposed. Once every home is past the incubation period, any kind of massive, sustained infection will be gone—what’s left will be the residue of accident and noncompliance.
Chase sporadic cases with detective work
Once the bottom of the wave is reached—naturally or through a lockdown—the usual response of governance theater is to declare the problem more or less solved, and let the next wave start building. The proper response of actual governance is to find a way to get from low-covid to no-covid.
New Zealand seems to have failed in controlling its covid leak because the virus, as is usual in pandemics, went straight for the (Pacific Islander) urban underclass. Any kind of lumpenproletariat is a natural disease reservoir resistant to public-health measures, because such a class is relatively unseen by the state.
This invisibility causes all sorts of problems. A pandemic is a fine excuse for any state to see these people at last. They have phones—so the state can identify and track them. They have addresses—so the state can ship them mandatory covid tests.
Everyone has to brush their teeth every day—or should. It is not a giant human-rights violation for everyone’s morning routine to include a simple covid swab—especially since this is not a permanent imposition, but a wartime measure in a victorious war.
PCR amplification is an epic technology and can detect the slightest speck of RNA. If large public spaces, airplanes, etc, have covid detectors which run a PCR cycle every few minutes on whatever gunk they just pulled out of the air, such spaces will stop superspreader events before they happen. Everyone will be very happy to leave the building, then take a test, if the covid alarm goes off. And once a community gets to zero covid, wastewater surveillance becomes useful.
Covid is a generalist virus and animal reservoirs will remain. Every once in a while, a deer hunter may get covid from a deer. These little outbreaks should produce a prompt, effective, and mandatory contact-tracing and contact-testing response.
This simple, obvious playbook obviously works for covid or anything much like it. Why is China the only country doing anything like it? Because governance theater displaces actual governance.
In the West, where power depends on either managing or following public opinion, the idea of actual governance is almost unfamiliar. The wise experts who manage the public mind have one school of governance theater; the cynical sycophants who milk the populist mob have another. Both of these schools are fundamentally adapted for audience appeal, which is why they are schools not of policy, but of theater.
If our levers of power are held by the managers of public opinion, ie professors and journalists, we are an oligarchy (“liberal democracy”). If they are held by the servants of public opinion, ie politicians, we.are a democracy (“authoritarian populism”).
When this choice between oligarchy and democracy becomes a choice between weird, unhinged governance theater, and weird, unhinged governance theater, we really start to regret that there are only two forms of government. Clearly, we are just doomed.