There’s nothing like a crisis to test your mettle, or in this case, the mettle of your ideas. “Crisis” is a word used so often these days that, as Thomas Sowell warned, it’s becoming meaningless, but in the coronavirus pandemic, the word is finding its meaning again. This is certainly the worst crisis of my lifetime, much more so than 9/11. Horrific a shock as that was, aided by its gruesome visuals, it was still a one-time event. The Chinese coronavirus pandemic is an ongoing struggle with an enemy you can’t see, but which spreads easily and will kill over and over again, on many days. How do you meet a crisis like this? It depends on two things – character and ideas. Quintus Curtius covered character. I’ll cover ideas.
When I talked earlier this month about mental shortcuts you can use to determine credibility in people, I stressed the importance of how we all use filters on reality. Good filters “make you happy and do a good job at predicting things,” to quote Scott Adams. In the Chinese coronavirus crisis, a good idea should have had assumptions that were capable of predicting and/or responding to it.
A good idea will also be resilient in a time of crisis. If an idea makes sense only when times are good, and crumbles away like a poorly-built dam in a time of crisis, when the tempests rage and the rivers rise to overwhelm the structure, it is worthless. It can’t cope. It can’t survive.
Different times call for different ideas and different kinds of leadership, obviously. What worked in one epoch and under one set of circumstances might not in another. Good belief systems, though, should have the flexibility to keep at least some of their basic tenets intact under any circumstances, adjusting to meet the time as needed. No belief system should ever be taken dogmatically. Nevertheless, if everything has to be thrown out, it’s not an idea that will serve you or your community well.
Let’s take a look at some ideas on both the personal and societal level and test how well their assumptions could have predicted and responded to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Try not to get too subsumed by the labels (lest they control your mind) and try instead to look at the structure of the ideas themselves. I typically don’t like labeling things, but unfortunately, they are a necessary shorthand.
The Chinese coronavirus pandemic is a sad vindication for me, because I ended 2019 speculating that woke culture had peaked. My reasons were…
- It had become too visibly absurd.
- Some elites were starting to turn against it.
- A REAL threat, namely that of the Communist Chinese, was getting more ominous.
Thus, the prospect of its continued staying power was questionable. Well, it didn’t take long for all of that to come to pass and the woke elite to confirm just how dangerously absurd they really are:
Call me foolish, but I suspect that climbing for status by advertising how “Not Racist” you are, for example, is a belief system that wouldn’t survive a real crisis. You don’t see any frothing over “rape culture” nowadays, do you? A complaint by Vice about “life-affirming” transgender surgeries being denied in the wake of the pandemic was widely mocked. Suddenly, it doesn’t look like a good idea to allow vast, feces-piled homeless encampments in the middle of the street, does it? Drag queen story times are being cancelled. Not exactly useful in a pandemic, are they?
It’s almost like championing “multiple murderers and smelly vagrants” can’t survive when real shit goes down, right?
Moreover, the Chinese coronavirus era shows us just how important free speech is, the same speech that the woke have tried for years to censor – with great success. If doctors and observers on the ground in Wuhan hadn’t been censored, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s almost like mass censorship in the service of an Official Ideology isn’t such a good idea, huh?
Woke-ism was always the spoiled decadence of a society facing no real test, no real threat. Well, now we do, and now the long-term threat of China is beyond obvious. Unfortunately, woke-ism isn’t going to go quietly, because it’s become a religion and social custom among elites, but the pandemic brings its ultimate failure in greatest relief.
If there’s one tweet that sums it all up, this is the one.
The first ones to put their wrists out for leather handcuffs brandished by musclebound males are the thirsty feminists. Nothing changes. https://t.co/Oxt6Cu3wTl
— Peachy Keenan (@KeenanPeachy) March 23, 2020
Globalism and Neoliberalism
The economic theories of neoliberalism, attachments to open borders, unfettered free trade, etc., can all roughly be put in this category. Basically, the general idea of all of these things is that the free movement of goods and people shouldn’t be hindered, or hindered as minimally as possible.
I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that this belief system has failed completely in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Not only did it fail to predict it, it caused it to become worse than necessary. Pandemics are inevitable in the face of modern travel – there’s no avoiding that, no matter what belief system you go by, but the stubborn attachment to open borders by Europe’s leaders in particular allowed this crisis to go global. Unlike Donald Trump, who prohibited travel from China early, the European Union kept its borders wide open to Chinese travelers until it was too late. And the United States, in turn, got seeded from Europe. Trump’s travel ban to Europe came far too late. There is no avoiding the conclusion that open borders turned a manageable outbreak into a worldwide catastrophe.
Moreover, the outsourcing of critical manufacturing to a hostile, deceptive foreign power has thrown the total failure of the neoliberal portion of globalism into even greater relief. For decades, these people chirped about “efficiency” and other such nonsense. OK, now explain how “efficient” it is to have the shady strategic competitor that caused this catastrophe be responsible for almost the entirety of the world’s supply of critical medical goods? How “efficient” is that?! There’s a high cost to those low prices, isn’t there?!
Neoliberalism’s failure is magnified even more when we consider that it usually calls for limited government budgets and deficit cutting, or austerity. It goes against my own natural inclinations, but I must admit that austerity was a horrific, unpopular failure in the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, contrary to my own predictions back then. It would be even worse now. You don’t see anyone calling for that now, do you? There’s a time for cutting budgets and spending, but it’s not during a crisis, because by definition, all societal resources must be mobilized to meet it. Small, feeble government has no place in the coronavirus era, no matter how temperamentally I may dislike Leviathan.
The coronavirus pandemic is showing us that the assumptions of globalism and neoliberalism have failed in all important measures. They couldn’t predict and cannot meet it. They must be strongly reconsidered when the crisis passes.
A close cousin of globalism and neoliberalism, libertarianism shares many of the same assumptions about society and so fails in the same way on the social level.
As an individual philosophy, the record is more mixed. As we’re seeing lockdowns all over the world, we see that libertarian beliefs in voluntary action are at least questionable. Can voluntarism meet the crisis we face – can we trust people to cooperate with the authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? In countries like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, we arguably have seen that – but those countries (Japan excepted), moved aggressively on testing in an authoritarian, rather than a libertarian, manner.
Companies in the United States have stepped up their game to help this war effort, which is a plus for the libertarian/voluntarist side, but individuals have often failed to heed the guidelines. Everyone remembers that footage of spring break on Florida beaches from a week or so ago.
In one major way, though, libertarianism has been affirmed by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. It’s proven the incompetence of government, at least in the West, sadly, and the competence of private enterprise, which has stepped in to fill the gap on testing, among other things. Does this contradict what I said above? No, because Leviathan is needed to mobilize resources. Its execution, though, has left much to be desired.
Libertarianism has failed on the big levels, and fails on smaller levels too. Voluntarism alone can’t meet a crisis like this, because it’s a community problem, not an individual one. If you organize your life or society around this philosophy, you won’t be able to meet the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Despite these failures, though, the record is more mixed than its cousin’s. The problem with libertarianism is that it’s a totally axiomatic belief system, but it’s shown some good things in private enterprise and how they can be galvanized by a smart government to meet a crisis. The same was true in World War II.
The Chinese coronavirus pandemic shows libertarianism has a limited, yet important part to play, but it can’t be relied on to survive on its own terms in the toughest times. It cannot mobilize the necessary resources or provide the discipline needed to control the plague. We will need to look elsewhere for greater beliefs to organize our lives and societies.
One of the assumptions of libertarianism (and indeed, globalism) is the belief that pleasure is the highest good. Why was manufacturing offshored? So we could get cheap shit from China that gave us immediate pleasure. Libertarianism, with its axiomatic insistence on individual action, is ultimately based on this belief as well.
The libertarian belief in individual autonomy is undoubtedly the foundation of any functioning, well-off society, but by taking it to the extreme, you assume that pleasure-maximizing behavior from atomized individuals is what society should be built around. That obviously can’t survive in the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
We can also put the “red pill” beliefs of the older manosphere in this category. They implicitly assume pleasure is the highest good. The Chinese coronavirus pandemic isn’t exactly a good time to seek club skanks or set up Tinder dates, is it? How much good will “spinning plates” do you in a time like this? None.
Yes, these things rest on a foundation of Epicrueanism in the end. Epicureanism was the belief that pleasure, defined as the absence of all pain, is the highest good. As Cicero mentions many times, Epicurus himself was not a hedonist. He believed a simple life free of temptation was the most conducive to being free of pain. Nevertheless, his ideas were abused, and in any case, in the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, we see precisely what Cicero criticized. Epicureanism simply can’t survive as a strong belief system because pain is inevitable. Could that be any more obvious right now?
Any social order which bases itself on pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance is going to be a weak one. Any individual that organizes his life around such ideas will be weak.
Epicureanism and its grander offshoots are worthless in the face of a real crisis.
I’m using a wide definition here, hence the quotations. Stoicism in the strict sense has its problems because it’s an axiomatic belief system like libertarianism, but it’s far more muscular, capable of meeting a crisis like the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
The idea here is that virtue is the highest good. Virtue is internal and comes from no outside source. No matter what happens, it cannot be taken away from you. It can cope with suffering. If you have a good character, that character will stay with you despite the Chinese virus. Once it passes, that good character can produce great things again. It’s just as capable as before the tragedy.
These Stoic-like beliefs hold up in times of crisis. If you’ve taken them to heart and operated on them, you’re probably better prepared for a time like this, and are not despairing. It’s certainly worked with me. Someone with this kind of internal belief can live contentedly without frivolities, cheap consumer shit, and parties. Would people who adhere to some other belief systems be able to do the same?
The Meditations is a good book to read right now.
I’m not a religious guy, but religious ideas hold up well in the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Like your character, your faith isn’t something that a virus can take away. It can give you the mental boost you may need to get through the crisis. Would somebody like Saint Augustine be deprived of his truest self because of a plague? Would those who commit to a monastic lifestyle of labor, prayer, and study despair because they can’t go out to the club tonight?
Even those who are only more “casually” religious are probably better-served than adherents to some other belief systems. Their families, congregations, and places of worship (even though they can’t go right now) provide a comfort zone along with the higher calling of their faith.
Like stoicism, religion couldn’t have predicted the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, but it will survive it, as it has survived far worse plagues in the past.
Like stoicism and religion on the individual level, nationalism has held up well in the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Russia closed its borders early and as a result reports few cases and about three deaths, last I checked. Granted, the data coming from Russia probably isn’t reliable, but some reports would be leaking by now indicating that there was a greater outbreak than we know, such as China’s massive urn shipment to Wuhan.
If we rightly throw some shade at Russia’s example, we can look at Taiwan, Singapore, and obviously South Korea, which have all imposed strong border controls, aggressive testing, and mandatory quarantines. The result is that they’ve done better with their own outbreaks than any Western country, with our attachment to globalism and open borders. Taiwan’s massive production of masks also shows the importance of manufacturing and self-sufficiency. If you want to survive, you need to control your essential supply lines, period. You also need national governments to mobilize financial resources to help businesses and workers through the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen the “worth” of globalist organizations and institutions in the wake of the Chinese plague. Their performance hasn’t inspired confidence. Now we see that all the talk from 2016 about borders and nationalism has been vindicated. These systems of organization can survive a huge crisis. Their competitors are showing as we speak that they cannot.
And this “interview” really says it all:
Like some other labels, this is a broad camp. For now, I’m going to look at the ideas present in The 48 Laws of Power, the modern “Machiavellian” bible.
When looking at some of the laws, they do indeed hold up in a crisis. Entering action with boldness is the one that immediately comes to mind. People want and need aggressive leadership in a time like this. Never appearing too perfect is a good one too, because being relatable in a crisis increases morale.
Many laws, however, don’t hold up. “Always say less than necessary” seems less than ideal in a time when people need accurate, timely information. Some of the more manipulative ones undermine trust when trust is most needed.
I suspect that as the Chinese coronavirus pandemic mercifully passes, things will go back to normal. People will always play social games. Psychology doesn’t change. What the crisis does show, however, is that this is an incomplete view of the world that can’t survive on its own terms when times truly get tough. Anyone organizing their lives around ideas like this won’t be served well when shit hits the fan.
The Homeric Ethos
I’ve written about this from the beginning. The value systems you find in Homer survive in this time.
Courage in the face of fear.
Having the strength to conquer your enemies.
Proving yourself and your worth to your watchful peers.
The necessity of good leadership that stands alongside the men in battle, rather than cowering in the back.
The wisdom to survey the situation and not rush into the fray blindly, as Odysseus didn’t with the suitors.
The patience to endure suffering and not lose sight of the prize.
Hospitality to those that need it.
Knowing that your deeds are what you will leave behind in eternity. Proving yourself accordingly.
It’s hard to put all of Homer into a few words or an ideological label, but read the Iliad and Odyssey during the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. You’ll see how relevant it is and how much energy you’ll get from it. I’m on the verge of my yearly re-reading time anyway.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Homer’s ethos can survive a crisis. These poems have crisis as their centerpieces!
“The Persuasion Filter”
Scott Adams talks about this in Win Bigly. How important is persuasion in the pandemic era?
Well, the filter can’t predict when a dangerous virus will emerge, but its assumptions hold up in a lot of other ways. Businesses desperately need to get through the pandemic and show they’re part of the community fighting against it. That’s why we see a lot of advertisements now specifically related to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Chinese propaganda is in full swing trying to deflect blame and, in true Orwellian fashion, claim that they “bought the world time.” Moreover, China is trying to use the crisis as a way to strengthen its grip on other countries. That’s why an active counter-propaganda campaign is so necessary if the rest of the world is to hold China accountable for this catastrophe – as we must.
We also need a campaign to persuade the public to take mitigating action to slow the coronavirus spread. That’s worked wonders, though it unfortunately came too late to avoid a horrific outcome.
Whether it’s businesses, public health authorities, or states engaged in the struggle for hegemony, the importance of persuasion has asserted itself in the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
Read Stumped to up your persuasion game.
And if you enjoyed this post and want me to write one for you, hire me.