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We Live In Dangerous Times

American society was cracking up before the pandemic. Is coronavirus the trigger for political violence?
Portrait Of Hannah Arendt

If you allow yourself to start thinking about the long game in this pandemic — I mean, past the summer months — you will go down into a dark hole. There really doesn’t seem to be any way out of a world of economic hurt. Long-lasting economic hurt, at that. The Washington Post reports today about the risks of opening up the economy again too soon, or too widely:

A draft national strategy to reopen the country in phases, developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasizes that even a cautious and phased approach “will entail a significant risk of resurgence of the virus.”

The internal document, obtained by The Washington Post, warns of a “large rebound curve” of novel coronavirus cases if mitigation efforts are relaxed too quickly before vaccines are developed and distributed or broad community immunity is achieved.

I don’t think anybody thinks that we can maintain this widespread lockdown for 18 months, if that’s how long it takes to come up with a vaccine. But people who think that opening up will be without serious downsides are deluding themselves. There are no good options here, only less bad ones. The fact is, most of us are going to be significantly poorer, and economically unstable.

Though it’s hard to predict what is likely to happen, it’s a safe bet to say that this going to have grave political consequences. The genetics scientist Razib Khan writes:

Had I been asked in late 2019 what would eventually break American global dominance, I’d have said the rise of China. Projections indicated that by 2030 or so, China would overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. When was the last time the U.S. had not been the largest economy? According to the late economic historian Angus Maddison, it was about 1880. And what nation was the largest economy in that year? China.

My thinking, pre-pandemic, was that the psychic shock of America’s eventual demotion might trigger cultural and political turmoil, as the nation would find itself forced into a reckoning. Then came 2020. The true shock to our civilization has come not from our own self-image but from nature itself. Western elites were clearly not prepared for this turn, a shattering of our conceit that reality is ours to create. In the U.S., bickering about an appropriate official name for Covid-19, along with a sequence of bureaucratic blunders that led to dire shortages of diagnostic testing and medical gear, highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. In a strange turn of events, twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore, absorbed in intricate intrigues at court to advance their careers while European gunboats prowl the waterways.


Meantime, esoteric forms of intellectual exercise that prioritize human subjectivity and the power of social construction have marched through academic institutions and metastasized into public spaces. Thinkers like Judith Butler of UC Berkeley, who argues that gender is a performance intelligible only in a social matrix, come to shape elite discourse more with every passing year. They would have us believe that the shape of the world is purely a function of our wills, and that reality can be bent to our ideology without limitation.

Now Covid-19 has thrust the untamed physical world back into our line of vision. It has brought post-materialist, twenty-first-century humanity face to face with one of the species’ deepest and most atavistic fears: pestilence and plague. The disease will not be defined away. It is not a social construction or interpretation. It is immune to critique or public shaming on social media. Covid-19 will not be “cancelled.”

Of course he’s correct about the left-wing critical theorists who believe that reality is nothing but narrative. But you can find the same kind of thing on the right. This is what happens when you are a society that is rich and technologically advanced. You come to think that the world is more controllable than it really is.

The other night I watched the first episode in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part Decalogue series from 1988. It’s about a scientist who lives alone with his young son in Warsaw. The boy’s aunt (sister of the father) is a believing Catholic, but the scientist father puts his faith in science alone. Reality is what can be measured, and only that. The boy, Pawel, admires his father, and is learning how to love science by doing experiments with him. One cold day, Pawel and his dad work out on the computer whether or not the local weather has been cold enough for long enough to have made the surface of the lake safe enough for ice skating. The numbers check out. But little Pawel still falls through the ice and dies. We don’t discover what precisely went wrong, but his father is shattered by the limits of rationalism. He had made an idol of it.

Kieslowski, who was an agnostic, doesn’t make the scientist into a straw man. Science really can tell us a lot about the world, and anyway, the scientist father goes out to the frozen lake himself to confirm through direct personal observation the information his computer provided. Yet for whatever reason, nature did not behave as predicted, and a boy fell through the ice and drowned.

In our world, capitalism, globalism, science, and technology have made a lot of people richer and healthier than our ancestors could have imagined. And these things have made daily life more materially pleasurable. They have also made it harder for us to keep death before our eyes, and therefore to maintain a properly tragic view of human existence. One of the best movies to explore this theme is Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film version of Russell Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter. In the plot, a school bus full of a town’s children slides out onto a frozen lake, breaks the ice, and sinks. All the children die. A lawyer comes to town to stir up the grieving parents to file a lawsuit against somebody — this, even though it appears to have been a true accident. The driver wasn’t to blame, nor was the equipment faulty. The movie is a meditation on our inability to cope with the fact that terrible things happen without anyone in particular being to blame. We can’t accept that, because it implies that life is not under our control as much as we wish it were.

(This, by the way, is why conspiracy theories are so popular. It is more unsettling to believe that a lone gunman in a school book depository in Dallas, acting only on his own motives, has the power to strike and kill the most powerful man in the world, than it is to believe that a hidden conspiracy made it happen. Conspiracy theories are strategies of reassurance, because they allow us to believe that the world is more orderly than it really is.)

But as usual, I digress. What I’m thinking about this afternoon is a Washington Examiner piece by Angela Nagle from a month ago: a column about Peter Turchin’s theory of chaos.The words “pandemic” or “coronavirus” don’t appear in it at all. Rather, Nagle discusses Turchin’s theories about which factors in a society cause civil unrest. According to Turchin’s analysis, the United States is due for a period of turmoil. Nagle writes:

In a 2017 review of Brian Burroughs’s Days of Rage, a book about the political violence of the Weather Underground Organization and other radical groups in the 1970s, Turchin wrote that the violence of the ’70s “provides us with a kind of a road map as to what to expect in the next few years.” The first thing to expect is an escalation of language that draws battle lines, fuses together the in-groups that will later spearhead violence, and demonizes and dehumanizes the dissidents’ opponents. The next phase, the “trigger,” has yet to happen. It is typically a “highly symbolic event,” often involving a “sacrificial victim.” For the Weather Underground and other similar groups in the 1970s, the trigger was the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton during a police raid in December 1969. After the trigger comes the spiral of violence and counterviolence. If something of that scale isn’t worrying enough, Turchin says our political elites are more polarized now than they were shortly before the American Civil War.

Back in 2016, it looked as though new possibilities were opening up with Trump’s apparent break from Reaganism and Sanders’s break from progressive neoliberalism. Today, however, it seems certain that absent some deus ex machina, no political figure will be capable of cutting across the ideological divide in order to address all the pressures described by Turchin.

Liberals may instinctively consider Turchin’s cyclical model of history fatalistic, but ironically, Turchin long believed that if he presented his theory to elites, they could avoid repeating the crises of the past. He seems to have changed his mind. In 2018, Turchin wrote that until recently, “I thought that we collectively have a decent chance of avoiding the crisis, but I now have abandoned this hope. A major reason for my pessimism is the resolute refusal by our ruling class (including its both Liberal and Conservative wings) to see the real causes of the crisis.” If past generations were doomed by ignorance to repeat the mistakes of history, our elites have the ability to recognize these mistakes — and to keep repeating them anyway.

Ten days ago on his blog, Turchin posted something about coronavirus and our “Age of Discord.” 

The takeaway is that the pandemic exacerbates trends that were already in place. Perhaps this is the “triggering” event. In a blog post from last November, Turchin posts slides that lay out his theory of why we should expect political violence in the 2020s. Excerpts:


As Turchin says on his blog, prediction is not the same thing as prophecy. Still, given how monumentally destructive this pandemic is and will be to our economy, and given the weaknesses that were already present before the first people started sneezing in Wuhan, it will be a miracle if we emerge from this crisis with things more or less as they are today.

I want to leave you with this — something I’ve already written about here before, but will mention again in this context. If you have a copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, go back and re-read the part toward the end in which she talks about the pre-totalitarian conditions of German and Russian societies. I will talk about this at greater length in my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, but let me say here that to read Arendt in the current American context is to set yourself up for a jolt. So many of the basic social facts of pre-totalitarian Germany and Russia are very much with us here and now.

For example, loneliness. Totalitarian movements, said Arendt, are “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” She continues:

What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world, is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.

The political theorist wrote those words in the 1950s, a period we look back on as a golden age of community cohesion. Today, loneliness is widely recognized by scientists as a critical social and even medical problem. In the year 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, an acclaimed study documenting the steep decline of civil society since mid-century, and the resulting atomization of America.

Since Putnam’s book, we have experienced the rise of social media networks offering a facsimile of “connection.” Yet we grow ever lonelier and more isolated. A 2018 Ipsos study for the health insurer Cigna found that 47 percent of Americans qualify as lonely on a standard academic scale for measuring social connection. One in four (27 percent) report that they rarely or never encounter another person who understands them. The phenomenon, which has been linked to serious public health concerns, is widespread across modern industrialized nations.

A second, related problem: social atomization. The masses supporting totalitarian movements, says Arendt, grew “out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.”

Civic trust is another bond that holds society together. Arendt writes that the Soviet government, in an effort to monopolize control, caused the Soviet people to turn on each other. In Russia today, and in the post-communist countries of Central Europe, the obliteration of social trust remains a crippling legacy of communist rule.

In the United States, we have seen nothing like the state aggressively dismantling civil society – but it’s happening all the same. In Bowling Alone, Putnam documented the unraveling of civic bonds since the 1950s. Americans attend fewer club meetings, have fewer dinner parties, eat dinner as a family less, are much less connected to their neighbors. They are disconnected from political parties, and more skeptical of institutions. The result is that ordinary people feel more anxious, isolated, and vulnerable.

Putnam concluded that this social atomization has been caused by a number of factors. As he and other scholars have shown, the central theme of American life since mid-century has been about liberating the individual from social and economic bonds. Voters on both the left and the right are nostalgic for the sense of national cohesion and purpose America had in decades past, but of course no one wants to live under conditions of restricted economic mobility and personal liberty.

Putnam found no factor in atomization more significant, though, than technology — first television, then the Internet. This was because this technology gave people a way to spend leisure time alone. A polity filled with alienated individuals with no sense of community and purpose are prime targets for totalitarian ideologies and leaders who promise solidarity and meaning.

Another factor: loss of faith in hierarchies and institutions. Along those lines, people gave in to a desire to transgress and destroy — even elites were happy to watch the institutions of their society destroyed for the sake of allowing outsiders to take over. Furthermore, people in those pre-totalitarian societies came to value loyalty more than expertise. They stopped caring about truth, and began caring more about ideological narratives that suited their desires. And almost every aspect of life became politicized.

Mind you, these were social factors in place before the Bolsheviks and the Nazis took over, but that made those societies ready for the “solutions” they offered. The trigger for the Bolshevik Revolution was Russia’s disastrous defeat in World War I. For the Nazis, it was primarily the economic pain and suffering from Germany’s defeat in that same war, and the Great Depression, which brought the Nazis to power in an election.

We live in dangerous times.



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