State of Failure

Winter is coming.

One book has been far more influential on me both as a political scientist and as a citizen than any other. Jim Scott’s entire catalog of work changed the way I understand the world—eg “Weapons of the Weak,” “Domination and the Arts of Resistance”—but it is his magnum opus “Seeing Like a State” that is always my first and most fundamental frame for making sense of the relationship between civil society and state power.

The book came out in 1999. It is, at its core, a case against central planning, including most especially central planning that aims to “improve” life for the masses. Not because central government is wrongheaded or corrupt (although it certainly can be these things and often is), but because it simply cannot “see” the granular reality of the lives it seeks to better. It imposes simplistic solutions on complex systems, and seeks to override local, individual, practical knowledge with formal knowledge (ie, “The Science.”)

Scott discusses several centrally-planned schemes gone awry around the world and throughout history to make his case. Some famously horrific (tens of millions starved in famines as a result of Soviet collectivization) and others merely disastrous (the Tennessee Valley Authority’s multi-decade war on the malaria outbreak its own dam projects created). Whatever the specifics, the components of disaster are the same. There are, he argues, four components of state-created disasters, and all four must be in place if things are to truly go awry. They are, very simply:

  1. The capacity of the state to “administratively order” society. There’s nothing inherently sinister about this; it just means the state is keeping some degree of tabs on your whereabouts to tax you, count you in a census, enroll you in school or healthcare, dispense welfare and social security checks, etc. 

  2. A prevailing “high modernist” ideology that places complete confidence in the most impressive science and technology of the day and ignores/discredits contradictory views;

  3. An authoritarian state that wishes to impose its high modernist ideology on society, including under emergency conditions of war or economic depression;

  4. A prostrate civil society that is lacks the capacity, organization, and/or has been intimidated out of resistance to state mandates.

You might have a bit of an idea where I am going with this. 

Where we sit now, we face, at minimum, four intersecting Covid-induced crises. Here’s another list for you:

  1. The vaccines are causing some degree of significant direct injury, certainly in the short term and unknown in the longer term. We are not in a position to make sense of the data because it is not transparent, but between the VAERS data, the CDC’s unclassified death counts, and mounting credible anecdotes, it is clear the vaccines are not free from harm, and that previous vaccine campaigns have been halted for inducing considerably less harm. 

  2. The vaccines offer short-term, waning, incomplete immunity from Covid, and perhaps (probably) even less immunity from emergent, more contagious variants. At best, this means that regular, indefinitely dispensed boosters are necessary to maintain immunity, and at worst (again, likely) this means that vaccinated individuals are equivalently capable of being infected and infecting others. More so, if they are asymptomatic and operating with false confidence in high-transmission environments. 

  3. Imperfect  (or “leaky”) vaccination programs like this one have been experimentally shown to put selection pressure on the emergence of more virulent viral strains in chickens. We don’t have experimental evidence in human populations for obvious ethical reasons, unless of course you count right now. But there is real potential that mass vaccination during an active pandemic “drives the virus to fitness” to evade vaccines.

  4. Every other attempt to develop a coronavirus vaccine has run into the problem of “antibody-dependent enhancement,” where re-exposure to the virus after vaccination (as temporary immunity wanes) actually accelerates viral replication and kills most of the vaccinated lab animals. The Covid vaccines are theoretically not susceptible to this well-documented but poorly-understood phenomenon as they operate in a much more targeted and narrow way, but an early pioneer in mRNA vaccine technology among others sees the “signature” of ADE in current case trends. If it were happening, we would see it about six months after initial vaccination, which is what we are seeing. It’s not a smoking gun, but it certainly is consistent with an ADE hypothesis. 

Those four crises are each developing in the context of a high modernist and increasingly authoritarian state that is hell-bent on vaccine mandates and enthusiastically forcing them on an unwilling population. We have fulfilled all of Scott’s conditions and set the stage for a genuinely tragic fiasco.

In the U.S., many employers have had their own mandates for some time now, which have been upheld so far in the courts. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued their own mandate, followed quickly by an all-federal-employee mandate and an armed services mandate. At least two large unions have issued statements against mandates, thereby setting the stage for quite a showdown—the American Postal Workers Union, which represents over 200,000 people, and the SEIU 1199, the largest healthcare union in the country, which represents another 450,000.

Civil society is not entirely quiescent, but it faces great pressure. In New South Wales in Australia, where thousands protested last week against lockdown restrictions, the government met protestors with force and is is diligently working to identify and punish individual protestors (and asking their neighbors to report them.) The national government has also now deployed military enforcement against civilians.

In the U.S., so far the state has favored shaming, intimidating, and manipulating people over physical force, which might be just as effective. New York governor Andrew Cuomo this week said “We have to…convince people, put them in a car, and drive them to get that vaccine in their arm.” Alabama governor Kay Ivey declared: “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” who are “letting us down.” Leana Wen, the most despotic of Covid media gadflies, took to CNN to pillory the unvaccinated for violating “the honor system” and complained that the vaccinated are “paying the price” for their behavior. 

If you want to see the real seamy underbelly of vaccine polarization and you have a strong stomach, search social media for terms like “unvaccinated deserve,” “sick of unvaccinated,” and “fuck unvaccinated people,” for example. Some of those accounts are admittedly probably posting from a Russian troll factory, but not a few of those trolls have blue checks next to their name. Rhetoric is escalating in directions that eventually necessitate comparisons to historical genocides. The Hill called openly and unapologetically for vaccinated “safe havens” (including entire geographical zones) that are off limits to the unvaccinated. And the president of the Philippines took to the airwaves to declare of the unvaccinated: “For all I care, you can die anytime.” 

All of this would be shocking and disturbing enough if the unvaccinated did actually in fact bear sole responsibility for what increasingly appears to be near-inevitable vaccine resistance to newly-emergent strains. The idea seems to be that somehow if more Americans would just get vaccinated, we wouldn’t be in this situation. But that is, alas, not how this works.

Gibraltar, touted by the media back in April as an early vaccination success story and model, has effectively 100% vaccination—and has seen cases rise precipitously this past week. It’s the same story in Israel, Uruguay, Boston—all highly vaccinated places that are seeing tremendous population-wide surges. Even universal vaccination does not eradicate the virus, nor does it prevent vaccinated individuals from breakthrough infections, including asymptomatic infections they then pass on to others. And this should not be terribly surprising, given that universal vaccination against Marek’s disease in chickens (while still in the egg!) also does not prevent breakthrough infection and transmission, and in fact puts mutational pressure on the emergence of ever-more virulent strains of the disease

The push for increased vaccination is a blunt political instrument, not a public health one. Fauci himself admits he has shifted the goalposts on vaccination targets with prevailing political winds

By linking success to an impossible-by-definition political pipe dream—total universal vaccination from age zero—the state has a guaranteed scapegoat for an imperfect at best and potentially utterly disastrous vaccine in the unvaccinated. And that, my people, is the entire point. 

I believe there are three general political goals at this point (yes, it’s another list): 

  1. As a hedge against an ADE catastrophe, the architects of this debacle are motivated to obfuscate the outcomes for the “control” group (ie unvaccinated) by minimizing and confounding it in every possible direction.

  2. Whether or not ADE manifests, it is clear the vaccines offer limited protection that is fraught with unintended consequences. The architects are likewise motivated to shift blame and responsibility away from themselves. Elites and technocrats who absolutely knew the risks, knew the inherent limitations of any vaccination program, and have doubled down on a consistent message now of MOAR VACCINES anyway are fostering a narrative of irresponsible vaccination resistance, which blames that resistance itself on “misinformation.” A reasonable democracy can’t fault any of its citizens as “bad,” even when they do the wrong thing. It must, rather, characterize them as tragically wandered away from the flock through no real fault of their own, and insist they can and should be retrieved for their own good. 

  3. With “misinformation” and vaccination status as pretext, particularly in the context of what is likely to be a very deadly and panicky winter that increases demand, gradually impose a system of Chinese social credit-esque surveillance on the population. This is not to ensure vaccination for its own sake, but in Scott’s terms, to increase the “legibility” of society to advance a variety of other goals. This is a kinder, softer, friendlier sort of authoritarianism, a biosurveillance state that ostensibly tracks your vaccine status and other health indicators for important public health reasons (we already freely give this data away through our phones, our Alexas, and our fitness trackers). What it really does, of course, is make your entire motivational matrix more visible and legible to anyone who has that information. You can be sold anything, you can be convinced of anything, you can be nudged to vote for anyone. And if for some reason you are one of the more difficult ones, you can be very effectively managed, redirected, bought off, silenced, deplatformed, unbanked, doxxed, destroyed.

I don’t anticipate this trajectory because I believe the corporate state that governs us is inherently evil. I anticipate it because Scott’s conditions are more than fulfilled in this case, and have great momentum. High modern hubris is most potent in the context of a crisis, and in the face of a significant biological catastrophe most citizens and their duly elected leaders will actually clamor for exactly this kind of “legibility,” just as they clamored for greater legibility in the wake of 9/11 with the Patriot Act. The political opportunism of that moment gave rise to the modern surveillance state as we know it, a system that already catalogs every email, every phone call, every text message, every credit card purchase, and every time you stalk your ex in your browser history.

So all of that means we now face a dual dilemma: a balance between some degree of necessary emergency authoritarianism and survival. If the worst case scenario unfolds this fall and winter, which it very well could, we will have to accept some degree of state authority to minimize the damage. As long as that remains centered on vaccination however, it is ill-conceived. If the state shifts to a more rational and evidence-informed approach (which, as I write this, could finally be happening to some extent), we would be foolish indeed not to accept state-mandated pandemic mitigation measures, including lockdowns, likely more intense than we have experienced before. 

At the same time, the central tendency of state power is to consolidate more power, and it does that by expanding the legibility of its population. It will be an incredible, almost impossible to negotiate tightrope to give the state authority to (hopefully) lead us through a potential mushrooming of the Covid crisis—but not too much authority, and not a moment earlier than necessary. And, too, to both demand and accept that authority back when the crisis has passed, and not a moment later. Our capacity to even accurately discern those moments, let alone act on them, is less than robust. As we have already seen over the past year and a half, populations adapt shockingly quickly to a “new normal.” Many of us grumble and recognize the absurdity of the ritual, but we now diligently put our masks on between bites of our airplane pretzels, just like we’re told. Technology that blends our physical safety with our legibility will make plenty of sense and possibly even legitimately improve our odds of survival, and we are not in the habit of relinquishing new, helpful tools very readily. 

This is an incredibly perilous moment, and we are not going to get through it unscathed. Each of us needs to very carefully consider exactly how much and in exactly which ways we are willing to trust and even depend on the very same high modernist state that got us into this mess in the first place.