Welcome to Post-Modernity
Sleeping in the bed we made.
There’s an obscure Max Weber essay I once read in grad school that described the evolution of warfare in Europe, from feudal to modern times. A medieval battlefield is about as crude a stage for violence as you can get: a bunch of armed men lined up on either side, charging straight into each other in a lethal clash. Obviously, in these circumstances, numerical superiority is the most important factor in winning. But the courage of each soldier also makes a material difference, simply in terms of how many enemies your army is able to kill per individual infantryman.
In Medieval Europe, Weber wrote, knights would go out onto the battlefield hyped up into a killing frenzy. The warriors who were most effective were those who went “berserk” (the word comes from the Norse term “berserker,” which referred to warriors who fought with a kind of transcendental fury). They were literally overcome with manic irrationality, losing all sense of self-preservation, sprinting straight into danger, slashing and killing with ecstatic glee. This was how battles were won in the pre-modern era — through deliberate, cultivated madness.
Compare that to the military battle of today. Obviously courage still counts in warfare (though less and less as technology advances; operating a drone doesn’t take much), but discipline matters more. Modern armies are practically the inverse of the medieval, mouth-frothing knights; wars are won not merely through brute force, but through often complex tactical maneuvers that can demand a surgeon’s care and patience to execute. A soldier who runs straight into danger, driven by sheer bloodlust, wouldn’t last long on a modern battlefield. Instead, the ideal soldier is a disciplined automaton, who acts only upon command, and then with robotic precision. Where the medieval army was a bunch of egoistic strivers, each seeking personal glory in individual acts of heroism, the modern army is a bureaucracy, operating not as the mere sum of thousands of individual parts, but (ideally) as a complex, well-tuned, unitary machine. Accordingly, the personal virtues this form of organization demands are, likewise, bureaucratic in nature: cool dispassionateness, respect for authority, mechanical obedience and discipline, and a subordinating of one’s ego to the primacy of the regiment — the ideal type image we’re supposed to get boners for in the movies. This is what Weber calls “rationalization,” the hallmark of modernity.
“Rationalization” is a big theme in Weber’s writing. The word refers to a particular transformation that occurred in just about every part of social life in the period of early modernization in Europe. It was a shift to a new mode of the exercise of power over a population — namely, bureaucracy — and, along with it, a change in the criteria by which people gauged whether the authority behind that power was legitimate.
The authority of the pre-modern, feudal state was, conceptually, simple. The monarch’s power was legitimated by tradition and enforced by violence. Kings and queens did not “govern,” they ruled. The arrangement was straightforward: you were born into your place and you accepted the role it imposed on you. If you rejected it, you were punished, by measures up to and including death.
We’re so inescapably products of our modern age that it’s hard to conceive of a pre-modern mentality, but Weber argues that in those traditional, Medieval societies, people didn’t seek out rational reasons for everything in their lives, as we’re in the habit of doing today. They didn’t demand to know why the sun came up in the morning or why there were stars in the sky: these were questions with answers that were easily found in religion. By the same token, they didn’t ask why some people were peasants and others kings, or why they were expected to submit to the authority of people who happened to be born with fancy titles before their names. The justification for this authority came from tradition (reinforced by the church). It’s just how things had always been done. And because they had been done that way for so long, it was just self-evidently the natural order of things.
Then, beginning around the late fifteenth century (for reasons that can fill volumes in scholarly debate), things got a lot more complicated, quickly. Suddenly, there was increasing population density in urban centers, creating a need for a level of basic government administration that had been absent in the agrarian past. There was an explosion of specialized professions and the emergence of a complex and interdependent division of labor. There emerged an entire new class, the bourgeoisie, whose capital was indispensable to the royalty and the aristocracy but who demanded political liberties in exchange for their fealty.
“Tradition” didn’t cut it anymore as a justification for power in this new world. Just as Renaissance intellectuals started looking for more satisfying explanations for natural patterns than “God created it that way,” others started looking for reasons for how the status quo social order was justified, or for ways in which it was not. People needed a better answer for why an enriched, non-producing, parasitical class was allowed to make all the rules, while the classes that actually created the economic value that kept the whole system afloat were subordinate and disenfranchised. That led them to start thinking about things like “natural law” and how the sovereign perhaps derives their right to rule from the consent of the governed.
Elaborate theories were concocted; these were the centuries of Hobbes, Voltaire, Locke and Rousseau. Some of these ideas were revolutionary; others affirmed the existing social order. Some introduced the basic concepts of democracy, others (and sometimes the very same ones) looked like ex-post-facto rationales for arbitrary traditions, dressed up in the language of “science.” But the upshot, nevertheless, was that the basis for what justified the exercise of authority shifted. No longer was mere tradition sufficient. Now people needed some sort of philosophical or technocratic rationale — a “legal-rational” basis for legitimacy, in Weber’s language. If the pre-modern state reigned, this nascent modern, bureaucratic state “governed.” Its authority rested upon rational, legalistic, and, later on, “scientific” arguments, pertaining either to the procedural validity of the power in question, or to the scientifically proscribed outcomes it was meant to produce.
By this I don’t mean to suggest some kind of teleological progress. Legal-rational authority isn’t necessarily “better” than traditional authority. Certainly in some ways it has its advantages, such as in its capacity to check arbitrary power. In other ways, though, as Michel Foucault argued, it’s worse.
Legal-rational authority isn’t written into the laws of nature, as the Enlightenment thinkers liked to believe. It isn’t discovered, it’s contrived. It’s theorized, articulated, and codified by salaried intellectuals. If you’ve spent any time as an academic, you’ve probably seen the professional knowledge production process yourself — the preprints, the peer review, the publication — followed by distribution and marketing — conferences, lectures, submissions for prizes. It’s not all that unlike any other industrial craft. Knowledge is manufactured.
Once the intellectual product is finished, it’s taken up and operationalized by bureaucrats, which is often the point in the first place. When you generate a theory about the sociology of criminality, you’re not merely a disinterested observer, taking note of social patterns that existed long before you came along and documenting them faithfully like some wildlife biologist, hiding behind a bush. You’re also engaged in an act of creation. If your work is compelling enough, your intellectual labor is put to the task of building or honing an ideological apparatus with which the state can insinuate new modes of social control into the population. If you’re in that field, you’re probably not naive to this. You may be actively pursuing it, as validation of your work.
This is what Foucault referred to as “power/knowledge,” which he argued was the basis of the authority of the modern administrative state. Generating these discourses is the role, in Foucault’s view, of the social sciences, which are fields that arose and then flourished along with the emergence and development of bureaucratic governance. The timing was no coincidence.
Foucault’s view of the state was fundamentally different from Weber’s and Marx’s and any other writer who came before him, in this sense: he believed that the modern state is not an edifice that looms, metaphorically, over its citizens, as it was in the feudal era, but one that permeates us through our culture, in our daily lives, in our very minds. It’s generated from within the society that the state is tasked with administering — specifically, by its intelligentsia. Foucault called this conception of the state “decapitating the king”: regarding state power not as emanating from a single sovereign head and directed downward, but as something that circulates throughout the entire social order.
This state power is generated, principally, through the discourses of the social sciences. Economists, psychologists, criminologists, demographers, public health professionals, statisticians and other social scientists take as their subject the population at large, or some subpopulations within it. They observe it, measure it, hypothesize about it, and concoct novel methodologies for how to regulate it. State bureaucracies then adopt and implement those methodologies. This is the process we know as “governing.” It’s a process that tends to be characterized by classifying and segmenting the population, distinguishing the normal from the abnormal, and imposing remedial measures to conform the latter to the former. It can involve sequestering populations; granting, withholding or extracting resources from them; prohibiting or requiring specific actions from some subcategories and not others; making particular freedoms contingent upon certain behaviors, et cetera. These are exercises of physical power, but they’re inextricably woven into the intellectual discourses that provide them with their legitimation.
Not to be too on-the-nose about it, but here’s Foucault’s description of the regulations placed on a plague-infested town in the seventeenth century:
First, a strict spatial partitioning: the closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance… On the appointed day, everyone is ordered to stay indoors: it is forbidden to leave on pain of death...
Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere… Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked — it is the great review of the living and the dead...
At the beginning of the “lock up”, the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one… a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call…. The magistrates have complete control over medical treatment; they have appointed a physician in charge; no other practitioner may treat, no apothecary prepare medicine... The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralized. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it. The plague is met by order...
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a ﬁxed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical ﬁgure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead — all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism… It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power…
The image is obviously dystopian, if a little more familiar now than it would have been a couple of years ago. That said, the science behind this draconian administration of state power may have been sound; the measures may have saved many lives. Nevertheless, they yielded a new intellectual and administrative architecture for social control that long outlived the plague — in Foucault’s words, “a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising, and correcting the abnormal,” which “serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work,” in sum, “to perfect the exercise of power.”
This is the stuff of modern statecraft, whose commanding heights were reached in the twentieth century, when “scientific" public administration by expert technocrats educated national populations to near universal literacy, extended human lifespans by nearly three decades, lifted billions out of poverty, eradicated polio and smallpox, created systems of mass incarceration, dislocated millions and triggered mass starvations, created weapons of warfare unprecedented in their killing capacity, and innovated the concept of “total war” in the most destructive conflict in human history.
In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri documents the ongoing collapse of this modern leviathan — an unspooling that has been the defining feature of the “post-modern” twenty-first century. The intensive concentration and sublime exercise of state power that characterized the “high modernist” project of the twentieth century (Gurri borrows the phrase from the political scientist James C. Scott, a Foucauldian) crucially depended on the public’s sustained faith in the expertise of the intellectuals and technocrats who shaped public policy, or at least who appeared to do so. Their magisterial command of specialized knowledge was the source of legitimacy for the “legal-rational authority” Weber spoke of.
The internet undermined every aspect of this legitimacy. It’s not so much that expert knowledge was democratized — though to a certain extent it was — but that the internet kept providing the public glimpses into the hitherto sealed off ivory towers, peeks behind the doors of the sausage factories where these discourses were produced. And when that happened, what was revealed was mediocrity. Far from the lofty, disinterested oracles they pretended to be, the vaunted expert intellectuals who forge the “power/knowledge” of the state turned out to be just as petty, parochial, cynical and politically-motivated as any pencil-pushing middle manager. The internet wiped the luster off of their polished images, at the cost of their legitimacy.
This is Gurri’s thesis, at least, and I think there’s a lot to it. But speaking for myself, I put more emphasis on a singular event: the financial meltdown of 2008. For more than three decades prior to that catastrophe, we had been led to believe that the financial wizards who ruled the markets were almost supernatural in their wisdom. “The market” was a vast, beautiful, and magically self-regulating instrument. When there were “inefficiencies” in it, we were told, they would be duly spotted and corrected by the legions of charcoal gray-suited technocrats who pulled the levers and pushed the buttons of the financial markets from their Wall Street cubicles every day, guided by their enlightened self-interest. There were much smarter people than us in the wheelhouse, and they knew precisely what they were doing.
If the modernist doctrine of the first three quarters or so of the twentieth century had us believing that the state bureaucracy was where the priesthood of expert administrative knowledge was housed, neoliberalism was an ideological campaign to shift that mythological status over to the C-suites of the private sector. This was an incredibly dangerous wager on a world-historical scale, because its success was predicated upon draining the state of its legitimate authority — authority that had upheld the social order since the dawn of the Enlightenment.
In the United States, it largely worked. By the turn of the new century, with some faint cries of protest from a marginalized faction of Democrats, both major political parties were more or less bought into the idea that markets were the only tools of social policy that worked, that the government mostly just got in the way, and that the best way to improve people’s lives was to let Wall Street do what it wanted. This conventional wisdom was so unquestioned it was literally called “The Washington Consensus.” The phrase was not hyperbole; the consensus was so stable that by the time of the economic collapse, American monetary policy had been controlled by a single supply-side zealot for 19 of the prior 21 years, across two Republican and two Democratic administrations.
The gamble did not pay off — at least not for most of us — and we’re now living in the aftermath. When the house of cards finally crumbled, the credibility of the technocratic wizards of the private sector crumbled along with it. The hegemony of market fundamentalism that had reigned for at least a generation was dead, and the backlash mounted with astounding speed: Occupy Wall Street, the movement behind Bernie Sanders, the election of Donald Trump. But by that time, there was no credibility left to speak of for the technocrats of the state bureaucracy, either; it had been eviscerated by the Washington Consensus. The very idea of technocratic expertise was decimated with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, ushering in the crisis of legitimacy that we face at this very moment.
So now we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, when public trust in expert knowledge is more desperately needed than at any other time in my life, and we’ve squandered it. The last stronghold of twentieth century-style faith in technocratic government is among those who were both unpersuaded by the neoliberal attack on the legitimacy of the state, and relatively insulated from the shock of the economic collapse: affluent liberals. This demographic, whose voice is disproportionately loud, given their representation within the elite and their domination over mass media, Believes In Science and is utterly and sincerely perplexed by the breadth and pervasiveness of vaccine hesitancy, and the depth of anger against lockdown measures, masking rules and vaccine mandates.
I understand this confusion. I grew up both affluent and liberal — in Berkeley, California, no less. I was raised to revere academic credentials, and got a couple of them myself. I tend to trust experts unless given a reason to distrust them. I’ve subscribed to the New York Times since I graduated from college. I’m vaccinated and believe that certain restrictions on our freedoms may be reasonable trade-offs for public health. I’ve rejected neoliberalism with a feverish passion for two decades, and if anything, I benefited from the collapse of the housing market (I bought a starter home on a short sale in 2009).
But for many of the same reasons, I also understand the limits of technocratic expertise. I’m intimately familiar with the political prejudices and the barely concealed class contempt of the over-credentialed, the arrogance that comes with a wealth of cultural capital and the casual abuses of power that blind self-righteousness makes easy. It’s not ignorant or irrational for Americans to regard experts with profound distrust. It makes perfect sense, even when it’s wrong. And it’s only sometimes wrong.
When many Americans look at vaccine mandates, they don’t see the beneficent leviathan of the twentieth century, as many a New York Times subscriber does. For a huge swathe of the population, those days are long over. Instead they see Foucault’s dystopian, plague-ridden town, in which “the gaze is alert everywhere.”
You can call that paranoid, and I can understand why one might feel that way. But you’d be missing the forest for the trees. We’re living through a public health emergency, obviously. But we’re also living through a crisis of legitimacy. At this point, the two are inextricable. It’s just one big crisis, and it’s threatening to tear the country apart. You can try to understand it, and labor to empathize with others whose worldviews are radically different from your own. Or you can choose to detest them, work yourself up into a frenzy of blind rage, slaughtering as many of your enemies as you can.