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After Coronavirus, Tyranny Comes in Stark, Technocratic Forms

We're coming off a half-century of entitlement and radical individualism. Now the statist dream may be coming fully true.

“We will not wake up after confinement to a new world,” the disturbing French author Michel Houellebecq concluded in a May 4 letter read on national radio. “It will be the same, just a bit worse.” 

By this, Houellebecq meant self-isolation, retreat from nature, resort to joyless psychotropics and equally joyless hook-ups—the whole post-Christian anomie package. This “banal virus” has no distinctive or redeeming qualities, Houellebecq added, and is “not even sexually transmitted.” 

This last remark is vintage Houellebecq wit, extremely funny or offensive, depending on your taste. Houellebecq enjoys giving louche offense. Yet what he’s actually doing is warning that the self-distancing and home-working that the epidemic has prompted will accelerate the “obsolescence of human relations.” 

In Houellebecq’s eyes, the consequence and even the objective of popular technocracy is to diminish human exchange and contact. And indeed, dreck culture rattles on, virus or not. “Ariana Grande Posted the Hottest Quarantine Selfie, Wearing Nothing But a Sports Bra and Jeans,” a Yahoo headline informs us amid weeks of inactivity, and many of us click in for a peek. But more of the same? Not likely. 

In a matter of weeks, Americans have watched time-honored structures of local and private authority crumble. Donning masks when available, they have in good faith responded to edicts demanding compliance in the name of flattening the curve and lives saved. While advisable as a preventive, at least indoors, masks amp up social distrust, making it difficult to read expressions and discouraging conversation.

Complicating things, politicians and institutions are digging into policies, afraid that any misguided early response might be exposed or criticized.  

When the history of the 21st century is written, it might be said that “social distancing” began long before the coronavirus. Americans were “bowling alone,” said Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam 25 years ago. The Apple iPhone is just a little more than a decade old. Electronics now mediate daily lives, fundamentally altering our relations to nature and neighbors. Zoom “parties” are too depressing for words. The greatest cost of the virus might be the loss of conviviality and close human contact.

Only yesterday, we might someday say, when Gotham’s neon and earthly delights don’t return as hoped. What if a spooky, diasporic vibe replaces the bright lights and animal spirits of the imperial city? If a subway ride to Brooklyn feels more dangerous than cool? If amusing stores and funky restaurants are boarded up, avenue storefronts empty, office towers half-occupied, and co-op apartments discounted to prices not seen for decades? 

In the words of a Philadelphia investment consultant, the really tricky part for economic planners right now is that you can make an assumption that this emergency will last indefinitely and behaviors will change—or not, and whether in six months or two years, the world will return to behaviors very close to what they were in 2019. You can already see two camps forming on this very question, he observes, each certain of its conclusions. 

Whatever metro styles emerge from the lockdowns in New York and countless other cities—and we can’t know yet what they will be—they will almost certainly be entirely different from those of recent years. My hunch is the mood will be far less expressionistic and impulsive than what the affluent elites have known—and held up as cool—for the last decade or more. A generation hence might look back at lavender Lululemon yoga suits and tattooed trustafarians group-living in Bushwick warehouses with wonder and disgust. 

My own impression is that the curtain is fast dropping on a half-century that Christopher Caldwell documents in his recent book, The Age of Entitlement. That’s a 50-year run marked by radical individualism, eye-catching spectacle, identity politics, and imperial greed. The times are a-changing. The contagion might infect 40 or 60 percent of the world’s population before it runs its course, a senior physician long associated with the University of California at San Francisco speculates. Its dimensions and duration are by no means settled, but protocols to reduce it will not be ending soon. 

Most of us after two months have encountered those not dealing well with the crisis. The theatrically masked woman in the Patagonia vest splays herself against a wall, cowering. She is signaling frantically to others on the sidewalk, making a clear effort to keep their distance. Eyes wide with dread, she marks a cordon sanitaire with the world. The UCSF doctor, in his scrubs after a long day at the office, goes into a Berkeley supermarket to be screamed at: “Don’t bring your disease in here!” The television media have fanned panic and unreason that cannot be easily reeled back in.

For the progressive social police—they have been at large in favored blue precincts for years—biomedical emergency is an opportunity to regiment and perfect others’ behavior. It gives them a take-charge sense of service and duty. For others, too anxious to step into Trader Joe’s, efforts to reassure that the coronavirus is not smallpox or the end of the world meet angry incredulity. The wild card of Trump hate is a socio-political infection of its own. 

More alarming to many who worry about civil liberties, the regime—the deep state, if you will—is advancing a military state of mind to “fight an invisible enemy.” The sociologist Robert A. Nisbet recognized the “lure of military society” in his prescient 1975 book, The Twilight of Authority. As if working by playbook, Donald J. Trump declares himself a “wartime president.” Doctors and nurses are said to be on the “front line.” 

What should we fear more, the “invisible enemy” that might be here, there, and everywhere forever more—or a president obviously at sea and scornful of constitutional forms? Should we fear the pitifully enfeebled Joe Biden? Should we fear a strange, prancing speaker of the House pretending to be a tribune of the people? This mountebank in her color-coordinated masks with a private jet belongs in the senior line at Trader Joe’s—not in charge of the nation’s fisc facing a full-fledged economic depression. 

In public emergencies, said Nisbet, forms that comprise the traditional, legal, and accustomed ways of government—“the respect for law, for office, protocol”—can be discarded. Once such forms are flouted, they lose restraining force on centralized power. Control by centralized authority can be indirect, impersonal, not even visible, Nisbet warned, whereby manipulation replaces “naked coercion.” 

Americans today face the prospect of a stark, technocratic, valetudinarian society that re-defines the meaning of life and character. Resisting central authority might someday risk harsh official or community censure. In the worst case, ordinary Americans would learn to obey whatever public authorities keep the water clean, heat and electricity turned on, food and gasoline in stores, prolefeed flickering, and vaccines available at Walmart, take it or leave it.

With the ability to monitor private activities electronically, Nisbet’s soft police state might arrive unannounced but as inescapable as lethal microbes. No wonder many Americans fear phone-based health tracking, the statist dream of top-down oversight and social management come true.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945, and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.