Seeing Lockdowns Like a State

A state trying to survive the digital transition has certain interests aside from public health in imposing a series of lockdowns. 

Unquestionably the rhetorical imaginarium of “public health” unlocks vast powers a regime can wield in pursuit of greater social control. As I have detailed over the years under the “pink police state” concept, a globalizing liberal regime struggling to strengthen its legitimacy can even use public health to reshape public political thought away from the costs and consequences of oligarchic rule toward the social and psychological payoffs of institutionalizing the cultural conversion of stigma into status. 

However, in an age when digital entities—devices, programs, and environments alike—have risen to cement a level of control over the world beyond that of even the most powerful and ambitious human groups, regimes face an additional supervening challenge to sociopolitical authority beyond that posed by the unconsented-to restructuring of the political economy characteristic of globalization. 

The challenge is simply that world-dominant digital entities pose a massive and unprecedented obstacle to regimes pursuing the unification of the world under the “global governance” of one super-regime. This predicament is the specific responsibility of America’s ruling factions. They massively failed to anticipate the existential digital challenge to their mastery of the world, because they created and unleashed digital technology certain that it would further or even perfect their control of the world. 

Since the Manhattan Project, the largely secret, unilateral, and unlimited state direction and funding of basic technological research and development has been used as America’s primary instrument of policy in pushing to globalize its controls—accepting the economic and cultural damage to America imposed by globalization as tradeoffs worth the cost.  

At a certain point after the commodification of the smartphone and its saturation of global markets, that calculus was broken. Other states harboring identities, interests, and convictions incompatible with those of the globalizing America and its allies or clients gained digital power and authority sufficient to resist, and actually counter, the US regime. 

Yet soon thereafter it became clear that all major states faced the same problem caused by the digital domination of the world. The unprecedented supremacy of machine agency over human agency suddenly made regimes’ pre-digital structures of human meaning and purpose increasingly insufficient. 

Major states began to realize that the only resource deep and robust enough to draw from in restoring meaning and purpose sufficient to survive the digital transition was the unique cultural, theoretical, and religious resources of their people and their particular civilizations. 

This new kind of digital statecraft posed a special challenge to America. Not only was America, unlike any other civilization-state, uniquely pluralistic in the political and cultural sensibilities and relative balance of influence among the several distinct folkways predating its regime. 

Because of the regime’s strategy of leading globalization through interlocking military, technological, economic, and financial policies crafted and pursued apart from any effective constitutional or political restrictions, America was pushed into banking its ability to restore its authority and the people’s sense of sufficient meaning and purpose on forms of statecraft that run unique and acute risks of resulting in catastrophic collapse. 

In Seeing Like a State, Yale scholar James C. Scott enumerated the special recipe for this sort of catastrophe. First, a regime must use administrative tools of governance to reorder nature and society; second, its use of those tools must be animated by a deep certainty that scientific and technological progress can and should be rationally designed to master nature and human nature. 

Typically, notes Scott, regimes defined by these two elements resort, when encountering serious resistance, to the use of miniaturized models of the societies they seek to reshape. Through such models, an ideal system of abstracted people and networks can be created “in the lab” (so to speak) and applied to the real society at large. 

But only when two more elements are present is disaster around the bend. These are, third, a willingness and ability to apply the whole of its coercive power in pursuit of its reordering goals; and, fourth, “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.”

It is awkwardly apparent that these tools of statecraft look particularly inviting to the American regime as it struggles to recover from its shocking loss of power and authority to the digital technology it created to consummate its globalization and world control. 

Worse, they look increasingly like the regime’s only possible tools to reverse its tremendous accidental self-sabotage. And worst of all, the unification of these four tools of statecraft into a single strategy of regime refounding is made especially possible and effective by the use of lockdowns under the policy justification of public health. 

More than domestic reasons move the sitting American regime to throw itself back on these dangerous resources in an effort to salvage itself. 

Just as it is evident that civilization states lacking the robust pluralism of distinct folkways with roughly balanced strength have a certain advantage in mobilizing civilizational resources to restore meaning and purpose to their peoples sufficient to withstand the rise of digital entities to world dominance, so too is it plain that lockdowns have made it easier in some important ways for such states to focus dramatically on mobilizing those resources to sufficient effect before it is too late. 

Evidence is everywhere that America’s ruling factions probably simply lack the competence and maturity needed to successfully pursue any grand strategy of statecraft. But it also seems clear that the regime nevertheless recognizes the seriousness of its predicament. 

In a happier world, these factors would lead the regime to admit defeat and contritely devote its dwindling time and energy to the orderly restoration of constitutional power and authority to more competent and legitimate hands that Americans would not be unreasonable in considering a bare-minimum fulfillment of the ruling factions’ patriotic duty. 

Unfortunately, it now seems certain this is not to be. Civilization states have obvious interests in using lockdowns to achieve a “medically induced paralysis” of their peoples in order to perform what they conclude are the requisite “organ transplants”—perhaps making them even more “cyborg” than they already are—to ensure their survival under digital conditions.

But what “survives” such a process may no longer be sufficiently human to deliver the meaning and promise that the triumph of technology over the world causes human beings to need—and which established institutions are failing worldwide to provide. 

While many Americans may not be able today to spell out in detail the deep-seated problems with the regime and the logic of their instinctive resistance to it, more and more Americans grasp these elements of their situation intuitively. 

The regime’s ruling factions apparently sense that even a partial success in advancing their plan to “reset” and refound America for the digital age would result in their defeat. Rather than being spurred on to ever-greater extremity and obsession in executing that plan, they should stop while they still can. Greater escalation will only bring ever greater costs. Only a fundamentally different approach to digital statecraft in America can avoid disaster.


James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.