Coronavirus: A Hobbesian state of nature

Self-portrait of Dean Kyte.
In captivity:  Self-portrait of Dean Kyte, locked down in his West Melbourne hotel room.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W.B. Yeats,
“The Second Coming”

 

Your Melbourne Flâneur has been conspicuously quiet the past few weeks, despite events in Melbourne which demand urgent comment and analysis.

The reason for the buttoned-up bouche is very simple: I’ve been trying to keep the little barque of my small business afloat—in spite of the unconscionable economic vandalism being visited upon Victoria from week to week by Daniel Andrews and his government.

So I may as well throw in a plug for myself at the start.  If you’ve been following my critiques of the Coronavirus situation with interest, you might also be interested in the personal services I can provide to you.  If you’re a creative writer and you’re seeking to self-publish a thoroughly bespoke book, my Artisanal Desktop Publishing service is probably the ticket for you.  I can bring the same critical scrutiny to editing your work as I’ve brought to analysing the Coronavirus crisis.

And while I aim to be unfailingly courteous and considerate of my clients’ feelings in framing my criticisms, as you know by now if you have followed me this far in my critique, I don’t pull any punches, so if there are weaknesses in your writing, you can trust me to tell you so, and I will also suggest some strategies, techniques and approaches to strengthen your message so it lands well with your intended audience.

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Of course, it would be a much more pleasant experience for both of us to work together face-to-face, but that’s not an option at the moment.  Nevertheless, we can get a good rap going over Zoom, so if you’re further afield than Melbourne—parbleu! if you happen to be overseas, even—there’s no obstacle to us working together remotely as we edit, design and lay out your book.

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All right, enough with the word from our sponsors.  Let’s unbottle the tough talk.

So in my last post on the Coronavirus, I made some predictions that rapidly proved to be prescient.  Principally, I said that the next frontier in the battle about the deadly reality of this invisible belief would be fought over masks, and I noted that Victorian premier Daniel Andrews—while not making the wearing of face coverings compulsory in Melbourne at that time—had strongly lent the colour of his support to them, which suggested an imminent move towards mandating masks.

A week later, the Premier announced that you could not put your snoot outside your door in Melbourne without a muzzle over it, under pain of a $200 fine.

There are times I hate being right, particularly when it comes to my occupational talent for reading the characters of people and predicting what they will do.

Mr. Andrews couldn’t win a hand in a poker game: he telegraphs his tells a week in advance of his play.

I was sincerely hoping he would not prove me right because I knew what it would mean for his character, and for the consequential state of play of this crisis in Victoria.

It would mean that the Premier was not capable of strategic thinking, merely tactical, and that he was prepared to risk plunging not just Melbourne or Victoria but the whole country into a Hobbesian state of nature for the sake of one ill-defined goal on the health dimension.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a political philosopher who lived through the English Civil War.  He observed to what a spectacular extent civil society can break down into a naked competition for individual power and resources.  Hobbes defined this condition as ‘the state of nature’—a multi-polar environment of mutual fear and distrust in which individuals leverage whatever tools, tactics and strategies of violence they have at their disposal to extractively centralize power and resources to themselves in a zero-sum game.

In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described this state of nature as a ‘war of every man against every man’, and he said that the life of the individual in the state of nature would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

The zero-sum dynamics which underwrite our Faustian civilization in decline tend necessarily to drive us towards a Hobbesian state of nature: the fallacy of infinite derivatives in a world of finite resources must eventually lead to a societal collapse as our civilizational Ponzi scheme folds under its own unsustainable exponent.

You can’t keep Hoovering resources up to the top of the pyramid without the foundations collapsing under the weight.  And when that happens, alienated individuals start taking resources for themselves.

If you want to see what a state of nature might look like, take a glance across the pond at Portland and Seattle: the looting and rioting in those cities should be read as a cautionary tale of the civilizational collapse humanity is courting.

We’ve been slowly sliding towards the abyss of an all-out war of all against all for a very long time.  But it took the Coronavirus to expose just how weak the veneer of civility—and civilization—is in Western society.

Way back in March I raised the alarm with you in my first post on the Coronavirus, stating unequivocally that a global systems collapse had been triggered by the pandemic which would cascade through the economic system, through the political system, and ultimately through the geopolitical system.

I would propose that the more a civilization in its late period of senescent decadence tends towards a Hobbesian state of nature, the more one sees a quality I would call ‘mediocrity’ emerge—not only in the macro-character of its social and political institutions, but in the micro-character of the people who comprise them.

More specifically, in the descent towards a Hobbesian state of nature, we begin to more conspicuously notice in failing institutions such as governments the progressive emergence of individuals who are adept at playing the Hobbesian zero-sum power game of resource centralization and extraction from the commons.

Indeed, in the Hobbesian state of nature, I would argue, these mediocre individuals are naturally selected for by the mediocre conditions of the system.

In other words, mediocre individuals whose only genius is the tactical animal cunning which enables an organism to more or less optimally negotiate a salience landscape of risks and rewards in a state of nature begin to populate social and political institutions with increasing conspicuousness.

In the Western Anglosphere, for instance, it is hardly controversial to notice that the leaders of the four major English-speaking democracies—Mr. Trump in the United States, Mr. Johnson in Great Britain, Mr. Trudeau in Canada, and Mr. Morrison here in Australia—are all men who, prior to entering political life, had careers in the public sphere involving pretence, mendacity, deception or dissimulation—qualities which, if we were not living in conditions of an escalating state of nature, would have disqualified them for public office.

As an entrepreneur, Mr. Trump was an unashamed con man.  Mr. Johnson debased the profession of journalism with his lies.  Mr. Morrison had a career in ‘marketing’, and Mr. Trudeau was, of all things, a drama teacher.

In the Hobbesian state of nature, a capacity to pretend, to deceive, to dissemble, dissimulate or outright lie with bravura is not a political liability but a positive asset—for in a multi-polar environment of mutual distrust, in order to maximize one’s personal resources, one must be able to forge alliances of a temporary and contingent nature with other actors.

There are some resources which cannot be extracted from powerful rivals by main force but which require the subtle dissimulation of allyship in order for one to gain access to them.  These men at the apices of the pyramids of power in their respective countries are currently the most adept exemplars of the socially pathological phenomenon I call ‘mediocrity’.

Daniel Andrews is also a mediocre person.

But as, when I apply the word ‘mediocre’ to somebody, I mean it as a term of art which describes the integral quality of their character, its capacity under pressure, not as an insulting epithet, it would be as well to provide a technical definition of mediocrity, of the maladaptive, pathological traits which I believe the mediocre person typically possesses in the state of nature where he or she thrives—for the state of nature is the ‘ecological niche’ of the mediocre person.

In essence, my definition of the mediocre person is a conflation of Spengler’s Megalopolitan man and Flaubert’s bourgeois.  Spengler describes the pathology of this human phenomenon in The Decline of the West, while Flaubert, in Madame Bovary and in Bouvard et Pécuchet, illustrates the character of the mediocre person in action.

The mediocre person is a creature of the city in a civilization’s senescent period of decline, and as, in our Faustian Western civilization, the Megalopolis of ‘the City’ is now the World Wide Web, a global caliphate that is everywhere, we are all creatures of the city, and therefore more or less mediocre.

I’ll leave it to Spengler to describe the mediocre late-City man:  ‘They are the market-place loungers of Alexandria and Rome, the newspaper-readers of our own corresponding time; the “educated” man who then and now makes a cult of intellectual mediocrity and a church of advertisement; the man of the theatres and places of amusement, of sport and “best-sellers”.’

It’s perhaps worth noticing that in that short sentence, Spengler identifies all the métiers practiced by the four conspicuous examples of political mediocrity I identified above—journalism (Mr. Johnson), advertising (Mr. Morrison), theatre (Mr. Trudeau) and sport and other places of amusement, such as casinos, wrestling and television (Mr. Trump).

In its feminine manifestation, the mediocre person is Emma Bovary, indefatigably fatigued with ennui, and hence the constant victim of fashion.  And in its masculine form, the mediocre person is la Bovary’s nemesis, the progressive, pragmatically materialist pharmacist M. Homais, whom Flaubert later reprised as his two hapless copy-clerks, Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Flaubert, in his pathological hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie, delineates the essential qualities of the mediocre person, whom Spengler defines as ‘small and shrewd’, amply possessed of the animal cunning of the trading class.  Let us not forget that the etymology of the word ‘mediocre’ stems in part from the Latin medius—‘of middle degree, quality or rank.’

The mediocre person, by Flaubert’s lights, is eminently ‘middle-class’.

And the thing about the mediocre person is that he is not unintelligent.  You don’t get very far in the game of mercantile resource centralization and extraction if you don’t have an edge of intelligence over your competitors.  But I consider this form of ‘tactical’ intelligence to be ‘mere animal cunning’, the application of the predatory instinct to the social realm which is the human equivalent to the pure state of nature.

This form of predatory intelligence is purely middle of the range.  The life of the bourgeois, citified person is entirely geared towards the goal of maximal personal resource centralization and extraction from the commons, and his education system is necessarily geared towards facilitating this practical end.

But intelligence is really an index of one’s problem-solving faculties.  It’s true that ‘making a living’ in the social realm, extracting the resources from it that supports one’s life, is as much a demonstration of the human capacity to solve problems as the tactics and techniques that other organisms have evolved to extract resources from their environments.

But at the human level of intelligence, there are higher order problems to be solved than merely extracting the resources that one needs to make a living—particularly when the problems are of a species-wide, existential nature.

The most conspicuous aspect of the mediocre person is what Spengler calls his ‘intellectual mediocrity’, his relatively modest cognitive capacity to perform these higher order mental operations of abstract problem solving.

The mediocre person is narrowly educated to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the economic domain of resource extraction, but he is conspicuously poor in his capacity to perform sovereign sensemaking.  Thus, he is the continual prey of ideological possession: the mediocre person doesn’t have ideas of his own; ideas have him.  He is their spokesperson.

This is the ‘deindividuated memetic possession’ I spoke of in an earlier post on the Coronavirus as being a characteristic of low internal individualism, the deprecation of individual freedom of thought in favour of individual freedom of action.

And it was this characterological flaw of the bourgeoisie that Flaubert mercilessly satirized at the end of his life with his Dictionnaire des idées reçues, recognizing that mediocre people imbibe their ideas from the air exhaled by those around them.

I would submit that, en revanche, genuine intelligence is a capacity to handle complexity at a sufficiently high level of resolution; to tease all the relevant variables of a problem apart, like the strands of a great tapestry; to hold them separate yet relative in their dynamic relations with one another for as long as possible as one negotiates a solution which strategically balances these variables.

Except in the STEM fields, where we have scientists working tirelessly to discover a vaccine for the Coronavirus, that kind of intelligence, that kind of strategic thinking does not appear to be in very great supply to us in negotiating the aspects of this crisis which touch most directly on people—on the social, political and economic variables of this problem.

The short-term, tactical response of mediocre leaders such as Daniel Andrews is more to throw oneself bodily on the brake of one dimension—the health aspect of this crisis—and say, ‘Well, we will sort out all the long-term damage done on the other dimensions after we have got numbers under control.’

Yet it’s precisely that approach of looking to tactically solve one salient variable in the short term by ignoring, delaying or commuting the long-term strategic solution of tangential variables which has weakened our entangled global systems to the point of civilizational collapse.

The sensemaking capacities of our socio-political institutions—including governments—are found wanting in this crisis, and in Victoria, from day to day new evidence emerges—despite the Government’s efforts to keep mum—that both the institutions responsible for the state’s response to the Coronavirus and the individuals who comprise them are mediocre thinkers—tacticians whose short-term problem-solving skills backfired in the long term.

One of the major problems for collective sensemaking in negotiating the incomputable number of variables associated with our existential crises lies in the realization that democratized universal education—the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose—has failed our civilization.

We have three generations of the most educated human beings in history currently alive, and their pieces of parchment ostensibly credential these people as the most intelligent cohort of human beings who have ever lived at any one time in history.

But education is a Hobbesian resource extraction game too.  In the civilizational Ponzi scheme of infinite derivatives extracted from finite resources, democratized education is another numbers game:  You’ve got to get a lot of suckers through the doors of the universities; soak the value out of them; pass them (since that is what they’re paying you for in exchange for the exorbitant debt you’re saddling them with); and credential them—no matter how mediocre the quality of their thought.

And because, in the Western model of mercantile education for narrow economic purpose, universities are the gateways to the professions, you don’t have to follow this Ponzi logic many steps along the chain before you realize the dire consequences for collective sensemaking in all the institutions we depend upon for a civilized life—from law, to banking, to media, to education, and to public policy.

As the Peter Principle famously predicts, everyone in a Scientific Managerial hierarchy rises to a position just beyond the level of his competence.

But in this competitive landscape of personal advancement, the capability to rise to an ultimate position of hierarchical eminence which is beyond one’s sensemaking capacity to properly serve in represents one’s optimal capacity to fraudulently extract resources from the economy and centralize them to oneself.

And when all our institutions are populated by people who are not well-placed to serve our collective sensemaking and problem-solving needs, but are excellently placed to serve their own private interests, we are primed for a Hobbesian state of nature to ensue under conditions of common existential crisis and civilizational collapse.

Public life in these periods when the cultural paradigm is in decline attracts only mediocre people—short-term tactical thinkers like Mr. Andrews in Victoria, and Messrs. Trump, Johnson, Trudeau, Morrison et al. on the world stage.  It doesn’t attract the long-term strategic thinkers, for ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’

Spengler, co-opting the name given to that sanguinary epoch of ancient Chinese history, calls the Hobbesian state of nature in which mediocre individuals vie for political power the Period of Contending States.  He says: ‘In the degree in which the nations cease to be politically in “condition,” in that degree possibilities open up for the energetic private person who means to be politically creative, who will have power at any price, and who as a phenomenon of force becomes the Destiny of an entire people…. [W]e have now the accident of great fact-men.  The accident of their rise brings a weak people … to the peak of events overnight, and the accident of their death … can immediately plunge a world from personally secured order into chaos.’

Tactical thinking is about maximizing short-term benefits by negotiating a salience landscape of long-term costs.  Like a pinball glancing off an array of scoring targets, you negotiate a chancy path through this valley of consequential hazards which involves trying to maximize your current resources in the hopes that you will have enough of them at your disposal to eventually deal with the long-terms costs you are ignoring, delaying, or commuting.

The worst leaders are those who are the most brilliant at tactics, for, as Mr. Trump demonstrates, their agile, impulsive responsiveness to the random windfalls of chance in a rapidly evolving situation is often in temperamental contrast to the skill of predictively calculating long-term consequences and orienting micro-actions towards macro-goals.

It’s the difference between playing checkers and go.

Like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, Daniel Andrews, by the evidence of his decisions, amply demonstrates that he is not capable of strategic thinking, the balanced negotiation of short-term costs to ensure the achievement of a long-term goal, because he is, like all the so-called ‘leaders’ of our time, a mediocre person.

The evidence of his decisions demonstrates that he has risen to a position beyond the level of his sensemaking competence, but not beyond the level of his capacity to play the Hobbesian social game for fun and profit.

The quality of Mr. Andrews’ thought is mediocre.  His manipulation of the ‘algebra of thought’—human language—to express his tactical calculations is mediocre.

Strategic leadership, the capacity to inspire social coherence by virally communicating a vivid, memetic sense of the situation which can be shared by a population, cannot emerge from tactical mediocrity in conditions of existential crisis.

Statesmen are poets in their thinking and speech: they communicate ‘the big picture’ so that the population can share their strategic vision and get behind it.

In the late period of civilizational decline, however, the politicians who emerge to seize power are small and mean prosateurs—eminently bourgeois in their mediocre thinking and speech.

Mr. Andrews cannot bring the Victorian people together behind a shared sense of what the Coronavirus situation is and what it means because, in his own mediocrity of thought and expression, he himself lacks the strategic capacity to visualize the landscape of salient hazards thrown up by the lurgy at a sufficiently high level of resolution and predictively calculate alternate pathways through it.

The aim of strategy in this situation is to find a pathway which balances the endurance of acceptable costs by the population on all relevant dimensions—not merely the health variable—so as to maximize the long-term benefits for the society from the short-term costs of their temporary distress.

The decisions that the Premier has made on the social, political and economic dimensions of this problem have the hollow, panicky ring of tactics about them rather the solid, reassuring ring of strategy.

Mr. Andrews’ government has lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.  The authoritarian, Scientific Managerial approach the Premier has taken to this networkcentric problem—the dictates on mandatory masks, the escalation of repressive restrictions, the imposition of draconian curfews—is evidence that, due to his mediocrity as thinker, speaker, and leader, Mr. Andrews’ has, as I predicted at the end of my last post, lost the capacity to inspire endogenous compliance by Melburnians.

When you take an authoritarian, hierarchical Scientific Management approach to a networkcentric problem, you only attempt to impose more overt control on the problem when it is already clear that you have lost it.

Take, for instance, the issue of masks.

It’s well-known that transmission of the Coronavirus is not principally a function of whether one’s face is uncovered or not: transmission is principally a function of human mobility.  Hence the justification for repressive stay-at-home measures and social distancing.

So to anyone studying the science, when the Premier mandated the wearing of masks in Melbourne on 22 July, three weeks into the Stage 3 lockdown when everyone ought properly to have been at home, he was making the tacit admission that the Government had lost control of social distancing, had lost its monopoly on violence to restrict the movement of its citizens, and had therefore lost its legitimacy as a prescriptive authority.

Melburnians were refusing to keep apart from one another by staying at home.  In effect, when he mandated the compulsory wearing of masks in public, the Premier, having lost control of the people, was throwing up his hands and saying: ‘If you insist on breaking the rules by going outside and mingling, at least wear a mask while you’re doing it.’

There are calls for Mr. Andrews to resign, but in my view, that too is an example of short-term tactical thinking.

There is nothing to be strategically gained, as far as I can tell, from removing Mr. Andrews now:  Despite the revelations of his thoroughgoing incompetence, no challenger has stepped forward who demonstrates that he has a better familiarity with this crisis as it is relevant to Victoria at the macro-level than the Premier has acquired in the past five months, so it makes no sense to change horses mid-race.

The Premier must seek to undo the damage he has done.

Moreover, in the Hobbesian state of nature into which we are entering, you have more to fear in the long term from the person who demonstrates a more exquisite degree of mediocrity by dispatching the present incumbent in a coup than from the incumbent himself.

But if our democracy endures to another election, Mr. Andrews will have to step aside from the leadership of his party.  Unless he can tactically capitalize upon some extraordinary and inconceivable stroke of good fortune which entirely cancels out the record of his incompetence in this crisis and puts his reputation with the electorate into surplus, he is unsalvageably tainted and a political liability to his party.

They can’t retain political hold of resources with Lurch at the helm.

But whoever follows Daniel Andrews as premier, from whatever side of politics he or she comes, the odds are six, two and even that his successor will be of even more mediocre character than the Chairman of the Hoard himself.

Better put your seatbelt on.  There’s turbulence up ahead.

2 Comments

  1. liked that dean….and the poem is perfect. i think my only addition would be that perhaps you are underestimating andrews and co….or lets say the degree of nuance in his tactical thinking. i suspect what they are doing is actually deliberate, and planned, even though it seems they are lurching from mistake to mistake. if, for arguments sake, there were a conspiracy to radically transform the australian political landscape towards an authoritarian state, first you must psychologically prepare the people for this – you can’t just go from a-b in one step. you must test the limits of compliance and non-compliance…. what we are seeing is the continual demonisation of the individual who stands out – they are a threat to all. this introduces the necessary suspicion and paranoia by which a police state functions. it is clever but not that original obviously. the difference between tactical and strategic. this is why i feel a little better in qld – redneck wonderland. it is those less urbane folk who are more grounded. they know when they being played – the late city man is intellect detached from his native intelligence….he is more susceptible to manipulation. of course bris is just the same as any city now, but the rest of qld is still in the main, uncouth….and this is an advantage at the moment. of course you know all this being from katter country. this is unfolding as i expected…in the main….but to be honest i am feeling that i will not address this directly anymore. its a little shocking to me,,,,the difference in perception twixt me and most others at mo. its disjointing. i also see that there is nothing to be gained by making anyone fearful…so i writing at a deeper level than this,,,,best stuff i done….will send soon…first bit, quite long, but would love your feedback. thanks for your words – get me thinking as always g

    Like

    1. Thanks, Gav. I’m really looking forward to reading what you’ve been working on. As I said to you, I’ve been itching to read some Bad Guy. I hope this experience has been as productive for you as it has been for me, though I do envy you up there in Queensland right now. The leash feels particularly tight when you’re confined to a hotel room for weeks on end.

      Yes, I’m basically in agreement with you regarding Mr. Andrews et al. I declined to say as much explicitly in the article, but since you’ve drawn a line to it with your comment, I may as well state my view plainly: it may be a function of the slight paranoia one feels being locked down in a hotel room for weeks on end with no unambiguous and trustworthy lines of communication from the outside, but my evolving view from recent weeks has been that there is a definite plot afoot, though what the nature of that plot is, I don’t know.

      But rather than being an underestimation of the deliberation which underlies what appears to be a series of contingent bungles, I would say that what you’re pointing to is really par for the course in the character of the mediocre person. As I stated, these conditions are the ‘ecological niche’ in which mediocre political leaders like Mr. Andrews thrive—but only in the short term. At some point, the tactical thinker is always undone by his lack of long-term strategy: relying principally on the manipulation of luck in his legerdemain, at some point luck always turns against him and a more canny political operator, one who is more exquisitely mediocre, more adept at prosecuting the Hobbesian zero-sum game, dispatches him and absorbs his resources.

      I agree with you, Gav, that it’s becoming almost too depressing for words, that one begins to feel it’s a hopeless enterprise to try to say honestly and in balanced, measured tones what one sees in this situation. But we men of letters might be the last bastion of free thought, so we’ve got to find the strength and fortitude to keep doing the honest work of sensemaking. That’s why I look forward to reading what you’re working on, my friend.

      Thanks as always for your supportive words, Gav.

      Like

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