America's Chernobyl

April 16, 2020

“. . . [A] collateral contemporaneity, and nothing else, is the real order of the world. It is an order with which we have nothing to do but to get away from it as fast as possible . . . . [W]e break it into histories, and we break it into arts, and we break it into sciences; and then we begin to feel at home . . . . We discover among its various parts relations that were never given to sense at all . . . and out of an infinite number of these we call certain ones essential and lawgiving, and ignore the rest. Essential these relations are, but only for our purpose, the other relations being just as real and present as they; and our purpose is to conceive simply and to foresee [which are] the ends of what we call science . . . .”

— William James, The Will to Believe


The world is changing. It is always changing, of course, and yet here we all are facing a turn that, to many, may now hold unexpectedly dim, bitter prospects. Even in the age of scalability and mass production and distribution, these large numbers of anticipated deaths—the first of probably multiple waves—are somehow still hard to imagine. We are told it will be anywhere from sixty thousand to two hundred forty thousand in the US alone, but of course our testing strategy is inadequate, so definitive numbers may be unattainable. In keeping with Hurricane Katrina, Flint MI, and the Gulf Oil Spill, we have developed a new American tradition: hiding problems instead of dealing with them.

How can we make sense of hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the coronavirus, deaths equivalent to losing a city like Madison, Laredo, or Reno? We are told to think of this crisis as a war, in which case death at scale would be tragic, but ultimately understandable and well contexted. And yet there are no invading boots stepping onto our beaches, no malignant credo that must be expunged from the world, no clear actor to take in all our anger, to be the target of our blame.

Neither can we fall back on the grounding of scientific thought, the more obvious framework for dealing with an element of the natural world. Not because it does not apply or because it is unsound but because it seems to have been utterly disempowered: we are being told daily that the voices of the scientists are only some of many that are at the table. Our leaders spent years covering their ears while the epidemiologists long warned of the inevitability of an emergence of just such a disease, while those with foresight pled to keep our domestic stockpiles, strategies, and implementations in order. The virus and its spread are and have been predictable, knowable, quantifiable, all based on leveraging well-understood science, and yet solutions, remarkably, are stymied. Even in these times, it seems that possessing expertise or prudence is a doom not unlike the fate visited upon Cassandra, the mythological prophet who was always right, but never believed.

So we all are stranded in place, a population holed up as mayhem visits our institutes of care, forced to brood because the disempowerments are stacking and there’s nowhere to run to in a lockdown, no story we can all get behind to explain what’s happening, nothing to do but hoard toilet paper, hazard the outside just to wait in line to buy food, idly wonder whether or not we’ve even been infected yet.

But hold on a minute. God was reported to have died sometime around the turn of the last century; humanity long ago claimed the right to exclusively and perpetually shape the human experience. And chief among our crafting tools were supposed to be science, technology, and their upstream sources: reason and its sister foresight. Nietzsche, amidst the froth of the industrial revolution, asked of humanity: must we ourselves not become gods? In other words, did we not claim command and authority over forces that not so long ago were ascribed to the will or manifestations of higher beings? Indeed, we assumed this role when we accepted the fruits and creature comforts of industrial and scientific progress. If there is no god to pray to, then is it also not our responsibility to save ourselves from harm?

As we are now seeing, perhaps we do not have control over reality and all it encompasses, but many of us did endeavor to understand, to foresee the problems that can arise, efforts and plans that have now been tossed aside. But why, exactly, are we abandoning responsibility and reason, why have our leaders so thoroughly given up on a scientifically-based response to a scientifically-understandable crisis?

To explain the largest absurdities, we need to dig in proportion to the degree of surrealism. And here we must dig deep: we are witnessing a farce playing out at the structural level of our institutes of power, in the central seat of governance itself which is right now telling us to fuck off, that we’re on our own. This is not the first time an administration has engaged in thinking in terms of acceptable losses in the face of an economic or natural or human-made disaster. In many ways, the current administration is following an established playbook, taking as givens the sins of its predecessors. The only difference this time is the degree, the crossing beyond the threshold of basis points into whole pieces of the economy and the population. Make no mistake: the Constitution didn’t mandate any of these behaviors. We as a people did not account enough for the human element, that pesky quintessence that can never truly be pinned down or encoded yet must necessarily be threaded through and embody the Framers’ constructs. And therein lies the cognitive error that is to blame, the commonality across decades of disaster mismanagement.

So let us look at elements of human cognition that remain underdefined. Conception (or a heuristic) is meant to simplify our observations, to compact them into holdable forms of thought usually for the purposes of gaining operational efficiencies: the less advertence that must be put on the raw data of sense media, the more we can focus on manipulating not the materializations in front of us but the mental models, the abstractions, inside us. And the richer the model, the greater the gain: the lever can move the stone, yes, but the backhoe is more powerful, more precise, and requires dramatically less human labor. Notice that the lever is a simple mechanism, but the backhoe, more powerful, is a composition of various parts, each of which are representations of abstractions, compactions of principles into physical mechanisms that in this assembly have been aggregated from multiple disciplines of science, engineering, and usability. No one person can make or repair a backhoe entirely by themselves: they may be able to exchange a part, but could they also fabricate it? What about the entire supply chain from the extraction of crude to its refinement into fuel usable by this machine? There is a tradeoff inherent in the backhoe’s making: a ladder of abstraction has been climbed so that the operator can take all of these pieces, even the backhoe itself, as a given, a convenience afforded to the user by the conceivers and manufacturer of the machinery. If the device were too difficult to operate or required deep knowledge of its inner workings, who would want to bother with it?

In contrast to reality, the predicate to any human endeavor, our society too is a construct. Its purpose is to abstract away the harshnesses that reality poses to the human race through structured cooperation. We achieved this via the scale of specialization: the farmer grows a surplus and exchanges it for some good or service likewise procured more easily through monofixated production. With this innovation, we distanced ourselves from an existence where each person must fend solely for themselves.

Here we have layered away reality with one abstraction to allow future generations to focus only partially—instead of completely—on overcoming the hardships of materialized existence. But then on top of society we built other structures as well, including models of governance, themselves structures made to streamline and enforce cooperation. Science, another abstraction, is a natural extension of this cooperative mentation strategy: good science accepts reality objectively, rejecting all impartial elements, leaving only neutral observation so that information may be gathered and theories may be formulated to fit the evidence. Results must then be shared so that they can be confirmed, refined, effectively utilized, and built upon. Here we are another layer removed from reality by having first taken society as a given, and then taking society’s frameworks of cooperation and the safety they provide as the new given on top of it. Interestingly, while we have entered more rarefied realms of thinking, we have done so to better understand reality itself, to synthesize it with human endeavor. In this case we have formulated a compaction stack that attempts to integrate every piece of the puzzle into a unified whole, with a clear goal of elevating us beyond where we were before.

Commerce is another abstraction, meant to be a check to ensure certain efficiencies. For example, a bad actor could extort undue earnings without the check of the competitive free market, or maybe a commercial enterprise could be horribly run, in which case a better alternative will eventually out in the free market. And at first glance, commerce appears to be generally the same as science: both take society as a given and are built on top of it, both offer strategies on how to manage our relationship to material reality at large. Both also utilize the concept of cooperation, as commerce may require multiple persons to work together in an enterprise, and its ultimate end is the bartering between two or more persons and/or groups of persons.

But commerce is not exclusively about cooperation. In the scientific arena, exchange is relatively free; perhaps there is some competition around securing grants or being first to publish, but these are hardly central to the goal of mutual knowledge seeking. Commerce in its essence necessitates a higher degree of competition, needs more game-theoretic constraints: idea, the item being exchanged in science, is insubstantial in the physical sense and may be perpetually replicable with no cost incurred beyond each recipient having an open ear and a curious mind. But a good or service, being essentially materialized, does not have this luxury: even at scale, it is still finite, edging the game always toward zero sum.

So we have science, governance, and commerce, all vital in that each deals with the tension of cooperation and competition in various ways. Commerce, in particular, has perhaps one of the greatest difficulties among the three: the balancing of the human ideal of cooperation while relying on zero-sum games, the primary rule of the very jungle we long ago sought to flee, the very thing we’ve been trying to avoid by creating society and all its child structures. Competition in a zero-sum game—its purest form—views reality as inherently hostile, as finitely resourced, a thing to be ultimately conquered simply because there’s not enough of it to go around: it is better that I own the resource than someone else because then I can guarantee that my own needs may be met. (Perhaps a cooperative game may be induced if the gain of one can be tied to the gain of another, but the same assumption of finitization still holds.) Whether it is a material or a market share, the competitive end in a finitized environment is always the same: control. And no, the competitive mindset will not be satisfied with anything less than control: at the end of the day, vainglory, while welcome, won’t put food on the table.

As science and technology have commoditized everything from food to circuitry, you would think that, since basic security is no longer at issue, our perception of finitized resources would relax: science could not make them truly infinite, but with prudence and foresight it should still be more than enough for our needs. And maybe someday we will learn to see things this way. But for now, these are very recent advantages, a couple hundred years of the scientific-industrial revolution in the face of a hundred thousand years of the human race experiencing the exact opposite of bounty, billions of years of Darwinian forces compelling us to understand and instinctualize the hard knocks of the universe, that the altar of survival is fashioned to best accept blood sacrifices.

So we have all these conceptions layered together, a complex system latent and assumed in our daily lives, an assemblage not unlike the backhoe. And like the backhoe, it has become difficult for any one person to tease apart the structure. At what point does the operator recognize a problem in the system? Well, with the mechanisms of society, there are no check engine lights. And yet our responsibility to our own fate still dictates that we use sound engineering, thinking and planning, and a readiness for iteration when we must face facts. Most will only notice a problem when there are evident systemic failures, or even worse when the machine stops fulfilling its purpose entirely and grinds to a halt.

Which is roughly where we’re at right now. Though we think of our modern life as characterized by science and rationality, the evidence doesn’t support it: that was the age before this one. Now, we live in a commerce-dominated era, an imbalance whose effects we are now painfully experiencing. Traditionally, the merchant class had remained separate from the polity because some things like food, health, and physical safety should not really be competed for lest we subvert the very purposes of cooperation and society in general that legitimize a polity. Wars had fallen generally out of style as there were no new lands to conquer and too many people back home could easily see what was really going on during our adventurisms, a remarkable accomplishment, yet the constituents of society had not all moved on from zero-sum thinking. It turned out we already had an arena where such instincts could still be played out: the market. We transmuted the Darwinian chaos of the world into a Darwinian philosophy, a playground for the minds of the cunning, a sandbox where they may fight amongst themselves, importantly never directing their machinations outside the market. The merchant class, knowingly or otherwise, should serve at the behest of all, for is not the market itself one of only many threads of the social weave? We had leveraged the competitive motive by co-opting its fruits into the cooperative framework of society, a tidy solution to the very real problems that the accelerations provided by the scientific-industrial revolution posed to our effective self management. We built an engine of contradiction, an exploitation at scale of the tension that lies at the very heart of humanity: the management and reckoning of the existence of the person as both an individual as well as one of countless many, each simultaneously an end in themselves as well as a single voice in a larger harmony.

And this contradiction has become unbalanced. The market began to be seen in all things, not one of many but the beginning and end in itself: the school and the university should be run like a business, the government should be run like a business. Everything looks like a nail when you turn yourself into a hammer. Which led, of course, to one of the apparent leaders of the business world becoming president and believing himself to be a better judge of scientific matters than scientists themselves: if everything’s a business, then naturally a king of the business world can do anything. The same fundamental principles translate everywhere, right?

In our epoch of commerce, research must now serve the utilitarian mandate of the profit motive, which is not concerned with reality in and of itself, only the incentivization of those who abide by zero-sum games. Society built the firewall of the university to separate concerns, to keep scientific integrity preserved. This is all well and good until the sources of funding shift further and further away from cooperative entities like the state toward privatized enterprises whose sole purpose is dominion in a competitive landscape. So we instead rely on regulation, but what good is it when it’s never enforced? What is unspoken but implied by this and similar trends is that all cooperation, including but not limited to science and self governance, is unexpectedly out of fashion. What can happen from this is what is happening now: science and the polity now exist at the behest of its controllers, and facts inconvenient to the competitive motive—facts like how a pandemic can have no winners, how people are dying en masse—are ignored and suppressed.

This, to put it lightly, is a striking turn of events. We went from harnessing the power of the atom, from putting a human on the moon, from looking wistfully at the stars because they were out of reach but only for this moment, only for right now . . . to . . . well, I don’t even know what to call what’s happening outside. What words would you use to describe watching the perpetrators of a slow-motion Chernobyl try to actually use it to further consolidate their power, to further justify their legitimacy? But in the end, what else could one expect? Aren’t we supposed to act this way, to treat everything everywhere as zero sum?

But things weren’t always like this; there is still some vestige in the American people that vaguely recognizes that something wrong is happening beyond the obvious coronavirus and lockdowns. So what tipped the scales away from science, away from governance? Not too long ago, people perhaps thought that science itself had finally gone too far, first crafting the arguably-tactical fission bomb, then in a few short years making the fusion bomb, a tool so powerful that it could annihilate not military targets but whole cities in a single payload. And, of course, we didn’t make just one, we built them at scale, specifically to enforce the dogma of mutually-assured destruction, a radical strategy predicated on game theory, a new math devised by a schizophrenic. That’s not to say any of it was unsound or improperly implemented: sure, some may say, we lost track of a couple of nukes along the way, but, hey, we haven’t glassed anyone since Japan. But whole generations were born into the very real possibility that we would annihilate ourselves, a final showcase of our newfound capacity for scale and mass distribution, and all of it was based on a science that few could understand, kept in check by a math that only the certifiable could have imagined. Humans had finally achieved the ultimate hallmark of the gods: the capacity to invoke the apocalypse.

And in the face of this, of that minute hand on the doomsday clock rounding ever closer toward homebase, our spirit buckled. We became doubters: doubt about the war machine’s true intent for this arsenal, a doubt informed by their conscription of a youth who did not care about the conflict they were being forced to die for; doubt in those who roamed the halls of the polity like the crooks of the Nixon administration, the very people who were entrusted with the pushing of the button; doubt in science itself because, instead of improving our lives, it now threatened to be the means of our end.

Then, there was a beacon of safety in a new leader. It was a performance by a literal actor, sure, but maybe we needed a little escapism for a change. He told us that we could simply outspend our nemesis, a simple enough mechanism to understand compared to what the PhDs were doing. He even packaged it up to be nice and portable, a simple mantra to recite: greed is good.

But is not the essence of this credo a hidden surrender? No longer must we bear the burden of cooperation, it says. Only by embracing our baser instincts may our enemy be defeated. Literal war is taken from us, yes, but not its competitive spirit. And aren’t those base instincts the best means by which to predict behavior? Is humanity really anything more than a collection of inertial thinkers who require incentive structures to be kept in line?

A peek out the window right now would tell us that this is an absurd belief. Just go and ask any medical professional which is best motivating them to risk their lives right now: the low wages, the threats of layoffs, the lack of supplies needed for their own safety, the outrageous accusation of theft coming from their president whose administration is itself reported to be confiscating materials, the piteous people who are un- or underinsured and don’t know how or even if they will have to pay for their treatment. Maybe it’s fear of losing their jobs that incentivizes them, maybe they count themselves lucky that they are satisfying a market need, that they are not one of those millions now waiting for an unemployment check. Or maybe it’s just the simple joy of seeing their hospitals overfilled just as its patients’ pneumonic lungs are, of being witness to masses slowly, inevitably drowning over a course of hours while they look to them for help while everyone involved knows there’s nothing anyone can do because we did not bother to prepare.

But them’s the breaks the market says. That’s just what happens when you are not competitive enough: you die out. Because, you see, we took the market as a fundamental given, the new foundation of our reality, and up, up, up we climbed that ladder of abstraction, relentlessly dedicating our collective brainpower, at best, to crafting new economic mechanisms to benefit only a few, building technologies expressly and exclusively for the purposes of gaining market share, orienting our population not to solve global, objective problems but to find fixes for market weaknesses. The system of society itself has ended up being put into question, not for the purposes of strengthening it but simply because, since wars became out of style, we needed a new game to occupy ourselves with.

Does that mean we need to abandon capitalism as a whole? Of course not. It used to work for the US, and it works for other countries to this day, and without the uglinesses, too. Competition, just like cooperation, is necessary to effectively self manage. To abandon commerce is akin to abandoning science or governance: that’s not where we’re at right now as a species. As I had stated earlier, the problem here is a cognitive error, a category of problem that requires deep, critical self reflection. We are blind to our own creations, only claiming credit for the successes they bring and discounting their flaws or tradeoffs as a matter of course. Roughly one out of every two people in this country voted in the current administration, after all. Good thing nobody has anywhere they need to be for the next twelve to eighteen months.

Perhaps one of the deepest errors that needs to be examined—and remember, we do need to dig deep—is one that Fromm had pointed out over sixty years ago, back in that scientific epoch. Way back when, he believed that supercapitalism—what he called the form of capitalism that we have all come to know and love here in the US—in its essence has a hidden idolatry: to worship the market, a human-made construct, is to vest into a totem powers that are inherent in ourselves, forfeiting them as a result. So maybe we killed god, as Nietzsche had declared, but nothing had stopped us from making our own down the road: we offer it efficiencies, sometimes as sacrifice, all undertaken to make it rain, so to speak. A few days ago, Governor Cuomo on CNN stated: “the states crafted the federal government, not the other way around.” More generalized, any human-made construct exists to serve humanity. Not the other way around. We don’t pray to the backhoe for it to work, we don’t defer to its whims because, again, what good is a tool that is unreliable, that makes the job harder to accomplish?

And from this comes a dark parallel, a concern about what will come next for America. Because, despite claims that greed had toppled the USSR, it was a single disaster that brought them down by exposing deep and hard limits of their systems of organization, that they brought only catastrophe after a certain point. It’s worth remembering how it came to be exactly: the suppression of objective, scientific facts about the flaws in their nuclear reactor design comixed with the reportedly improper incentivization of the reactor’s manager at the helm at the time of the catastrophe. All because of the worship and deference not to the market but to the Party, the totem of that time and place.

Presuming we even have elections this year, our choice will be between the guy who did active work to screw everything up leading to the death and suffering of a bunch of people, and the guy who just a few months ago said that nothing would fundamentally change should he be elected, obviously a concerning statement given where things now are. Of course he didn’t literally say this in the face of the Great Lockdown, but what is happening outside is an inevitability years and years in the making, a trend that less than a year ago he had explicitly said he wanted to maintain. Remember that we are being asked to vote for a member of the administration that had swept the Gulf Oil Spill under the rug, that had explicit policies in place to allow ten million home foreclosures as remedy to the financial crisis in the late 2000s, that had greenlit the acquisition which quashed our ability to manufacture low-cost ventilators now.

So Obama finally figured out how to rally the Democrats to a cause, too late for the supermajority or the grander vision of healthcare the audacious hoper himself had championed that probably would’ve been helpful in these times. Apparently it only took the threat of millions of American deaths and a sitting president who threatens dictatorship. Talk about a zero-sum game, and the Democrats apparently are still filled with inertial thinkers having the capacity to prevent a death only when something is dangled on a stick in front of them. So of course we have to vote for them because the American population is likewise forced into a zero-sum game that’s boiled down to a binary choice: vote against the incumbent, or don’t. Choose the chaos, or choose whatever the alternative is. The polity of the authoritarian who seems willing to accept total loss, or the polity with the trend of merely acceptable losses. Maybe I’m just a slack-jawed idealist, but we’re supposed to be energizing the voters with hope and change instead of fear and death. Right? Or are we just entirely past that now?

They claim they will be the most progressive administration since FDR, they have Bernie’s endorsement, some policies are being worked on cooperatively between the camps, Speaker Pelosi recently stated on the Late Late Show that, at least regarding the coronavirus, we should “move forward in a more well-informed scientific-based way”. That’s a start. But is it also the end? If they are truly inertial thinkers, then they would say to themselves that they are in a leveraged position, that probably the fear and death is enough to secure the votes. Who gives a fuck about giving the voters anything more than empty words—the cheapest commodity—to secure power? After all, once they vote, it’s locked in for four whole years: they give up their leverage the moment that chad comes loose. Rubes, the lot of ‘em.

If this is truly how they think—and for humanity’s sake, I dearly hope this is not true—then perhaps they won’t hide as much knowledge from the public or arrest federal response until their market positions are cashed out as some senators are now accused of doing, probably there will be the baseline competence of acceptable losses instead. But will the baseline be enough for the times ahead, for the very real challenges of climate change that, oh right, this other group of scientists have been screaming about fruitlessly for years? Time will tell, I suppose. It relentlessly marches onward whether or not we’re paying attention, whether or not we’re preparing. Because the world is changing. It is always changing, of course, and yet . . . .