Today we publish a contribution by Daniel Hadas, a lecturer in Latin and ancient Greek at King’s College London.
(With apologies to Walter Kirn, and thanks to Fiachra Mac Góráin)
I was fired from my first-full time job. In the late 90s, I worked as a video store clerk for a central London branch of Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster required that clerks – or Customer Service Representatives, as we were called – complete a training program known as the “Starmaker Program”, whereby we would learn to excel in Blockbuster’s mission of providing “Customer Delight”. This was before the days of online training platforms, so we were given a handful of small, blue booklets, to be completed in order to gain our Starmaker stars. I was living at home, didn’t really need the job, and so just couldn’t bring myself to pretend I took this exercise seriously. I completed the booklets, but my answers were facetious (I can no longer remember them, except one. Q: “What is the first thing you do in the event of a fire in the shop?” A: “Throw the Starmaker booklets into the fire” – this is probably still my proudest moment). The shop manager who reviewed my booklets had the good grace to be amused, but nonetheless told me that I would have to fill them out again, properly, or leave. I left.
I have long since escaped minimum-wage drudgery, and these days I have a wonderful job as a university lecturer. But the moral equivalent of those little blue booklets has pursued me: tedious, nonsensical, bureaucratised tasks, parasitic on useful activities. I shall call this “the Bullshit”. A single academic example will suffice: the Research Excellent Framework. In brief, this is a UK government-run program requiring universities to submit on a regular basis enormous dossiers of the research published by their employees. Panels then assess the quality of research, and rank universities accordingly. Rankings affect universities’ funding and prestige. The REF is Higher Education’s very own Starmaker program: every single publication submitted is assigned between 1 star (“quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour”) and 4 stars (“quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour”). The dregs can be “unclassified” (“quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work” – apparently, if your work is only worthy, of, say, regional recognition, you might as well not bother). Unless you have spent the last 30 years under a rock, you will correctly assume that this absurd attempt to classify scholarship like restaurants or movies is carried out through vastly complex and time-consuming procedures. The guidance alone runs to 139 pages.
You too have certainly been subject to the Bullshit, and probably even helped enforce it. You have complied with, implemented, maybe even designed complex, joyless, jargon-laden procedures, whose purpose is some mix of the implausible, unadvisable, and/or very unlikely to be achieved by the means at hand. David Graeber famously argued that whole sectors of employment in advanced economies are nothing but such bullshit from top to bottom. But even if your job is beneficial and fulfilling, escaping the Bullshit is not so easy. If you have been employed for anything larger than a family business, if you have children in school, if you have ever taken an airplane, listened to a public service announcement, received a customer satisfaction survey, engaged with a government service, you have met the Bullshit. Moreover, since March 2020, the Bullshit has taken on a new, unescapable form: the Covid Bullshit.
The Covid measures which can most obviously be classified as bullshit are those that are utterly scientifically indefensible. Hygiene theatre, outdoor social distancing and outdoor masking, curfews, temperature checks, travel quarantines between countries where Covid is endemic, Scotch eggs in pubs … We have long known that none of this works, yet most of it remains in place as active or reserve policies.
It is easy to laugh at such absurdities, just as it is easy to laugh at Starmaker programs, big and small. However not all pre-Covid manifestations of the Bullshit were so innocuous. It is notoriously rife in some of the professional sectors whose work we claim to value most: teachers, police, doctors, social and care workers spend almost as much time creating peripheral documentation as carrying out their most vital tasks. Or, to take a specific, and sadly typical, example: friends in the Hertfordshire town where I live tell how their children’s primary school, went, within one school year, and in order to “keep children safe”, from banning footballs in favour of tennis balls, to banning tennis balls in favour of foam balls, then any ball games at all in wet weather. Games were also stopped instantly at any sign of rambunctious play. At such a stage, the power of bureaucracy over nature and common sense is doing lasting harm to those it is meant to protect.
Our entire Covid response must be situated within this culture of bureaucratised harm done in the name of harm-reduction. No one could doubt that the more drastic elements of that response have been harmful. It may however be less clear that they partook of our irrational attraction towards procedure for its own sake. After all, the more drastic an anti-Covid measure is, the more it seems to many that it must have been effective. But, in truth, for many of our more dramatic interventions, while the harm is palpable, the benefits have proved evanescent. Travel bans between countries have separated families, but they have not kept Covid out. Testing, tracking and tracing have destroyed our privacy, and incurred vast public expense, but have failed utterly, at least in the West, to bring about control of the virus. Community masking dehumanises our daily interactions, but no evidence has emerged to match the evangelic fervour with which it has been promoted. Vaccine passports can divide our societies, but with leaky and weakening vaccines, cannot push us towards herd immunity. Moreover, all such measures have been embraced even though they had been countermanded by pre-Covid epidemiological wisdom, and their predicted failure has rarely led to their disavowal. This is of course characteristic of bureaucracy-driven policy’s tendency to perpetuate itself once there is a bureaucracy whose interest is to perpetuate it. Bureaucracy is an inevitable feature of modern systems, but it has an equally inevitable tendency to take on the features of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office.
Indeed, while critics of the Covidian turn often describe it as a rise of “technocracy”, technocracy is supposed to mean the yielding of democratic power to skilled elites, who will leverage technology effectively to achieve far-reaching aims. Some prominent covidologists may wish to cast themselves in this role, but the reality is otherwise. Doubtless there were some highly skilled scientists, and perhaps even some highly skilled politicians, among the leaders of the Covid response. However the day-to-day design and implementation of this response has not been a modern-day Manhattan Project, but rather the work of local officials, middle managers, human resources departments, and public health “experts”, whose expertise clearly entails only the shallowest understanding of the public or of health. All of these became the promoters and servants of a vast system of testing, tracing, vaccinating, boostering, quarantine-monitoring, QR-code-issuing, floor-stickering, Zoom conference-organising, and so forth. None had any professional incentive to ask whether this system does more harm than good, or indeed any good at all.
What of the most drastic measures of all, the lockdowns and the isolation of the vulnerable? (These have been endlessly presented as rival strategies – Great Barrington Declaration versus John Snow Memorandum – but in fact they have been run concomitantly). Belief that these measures were highly effective is widespread, even among those who have come to abhor them. Surely, the measures at least flattened the curve, protected health systems, and so saved many lives? In fact, the high death tolls in many restriction-rich countries, and Covid’s rapid journey to global endemicity, show that any such gains have at best been small. We will have to wait until the dust settles before we can determine whether there have really been any gains at all. In contrast, there is no uncertainty about the suffering and darkness lockdowns have engendered. Millions have lost their jobs and businesses. Human contact has been re-imagined as a crime. Children have been exiled from their schools and locked away from their friends and families. The ill have been subject to isolation, when they have not been simply driven away from medical care. The oldest among us have been imprisoned and left to die alone. Deranged attempts to extend the lockdown model to the developing world have led, inevitably and foreseeably, to the economic and social collapses harrowingly documented by Toby Green. These horrors are the result of our choices, not natural consequences of the pandemic, and they therefore must be called crimes against humanity, if that term has any real meaning. No humane attempt at cost-benefit analysis can possibly justify such crimes.
It may then seem flippant to speak of the Covid measures as a manifestation of bureaucratic bullshit. Every human society has deep urges towards cruelty and self-destruction, and those of our own have been at play in the Covid response. Still, I believe that the terrain over which this dark river has flowed has, inevitably, been that of our habitual landscape of process-driven, bureaucratic faux-rationality. The Bullshit is the medium, not the message, but, as ever, the two are inseparable.
This can be seen both from above and from below. From above, because the Covid response has been, of course, an exercise of power. But said power is, in typical bureaucratic fashion, bewilderingly elusive and decentralised. Admittedly, this claim runs contrary to the relentless media focus on national leaders’ decisions on how to manage the pandemic. However, this focus is best seen as in essence a manifestation of one of our social myths: that elected heads of state hold single-handed power to change our deep-state societies. Indeed, in some quarters, it has become a reductio ad absurdum of that myth: the enemies of Trump, Johnson or Bolsonaro sought to hold them personally responsible for failing to stop the course of a microscopic air-borne pathogen. But the fact that almost every Western leader, and many of their non-Western imitators, have followed nearly identical Covid playbooks, indicates how little true political leadership has been involved. Indeed, leaders themselves are keen to shift the blame: they are merely “following the science”, or doing their best to manage a recalcitrant public. The scientists, in turn, when not merely shifting blame back to leaders or to the public, abdicate responsibility in favour of Data, Evidence, and Uncertainty. Meanwhile, even many lockdown opponents are convinced the whole process is driven by the need for leaders to be “seen to be doing something”, that is by the media’s whipping-up of hysteria. But of course the media deny that they are whipping up, and the public do not like to think that they are gullible.
Covid power is also decentralised via its tangled web of laws, guidelines, corporate regulations, and best practice policies. We have been incessantly told by officials and media, employers and shops, what we “can” and “can’t” do, but who but the most assiduous policy wonk actually knew which requirements were hard law? If I refused to wear a mask, work from home, follow the one-way system in a shop, give information to Track and Trace, at what point did I step outside my legal rights or obligations? The question hardly matters, because the essence of the Covid response has not been the enforcement of new laws by the state’s legitimate use of force, but the roll-out of the Bullshit through wan, faceless bureaucracies and glossy corporate initiatives.
Neither faceless bureaucrats nor corporate managers are violent thugs, and Covid power is soft power. To be sure, there are fines and sanctions for infringements of Covid rules, and the risk of creeping authoritarianism is not to be dismissed. However, as matters stand, in most of the West, the Covid response presents the rulebook of a police state, without the police apparatus to enforce it. Yet compliance with even the most absurd of the rules has largely been high. This is no surprise: we had all long ago been trained to comply with bullshit, however we perceived it, because not doing so would be discourteous, awkward, inconsiderate, would in short break the rules of our passive-aggressive social contract.
This takes us to the view from below, to how we have acted at the receiving end of Covid power. In our general dealings with the intrusions of Kafkaesque procedure, most of us, most of the time, employ three strategies. Firstly, we can react by taking the long view: an immediate requirement may make little sense, but it is part of an overall worthy project, that cannot be accomplished without it. Honour and sociability require that we comply in order to get good work done. Alternatively, when we find a requirement harder to swallow, we can resort to a mood of ironic resignation: we sneer and play along. Here, no one believes in the requirement, but both masters and underlings are too cynical to fight it, caught, as Geoff Shullenberger has written, in “a Matrix whose operators implicitly acknowledge to the subjugated that it exists, and just shrug it aside with some knowing humor”. A third alternative it to concentrate, in the face of such requirements, on our personal psychic survival: we then seek above all to minimise the time, effort and attention the Bullshit is able to exact from us. We are less interested in perceiving the nature of the evil confronting us, let alone its causes, than we are in ensuring that we think about it as little as possible.
It may be objected that these mental habits have played a much lesser role in our compliance with the new Covid order than have much more fundamental urges, both noble and base: fear of illness, death and punishment; solidarity with the vulnerable; and an unhealthy craving to control and to be controlled. However, these urges are, in themselves, as eternal as are pandemics, so that they cannot on their own explain why we have reacted to this pandemic in so unprecedented a fashion, nor, specifically, why we have had such difficulty pulling back from measures that are not effective, or whose price in horror and pain is far too high. The patterns that I have described help to answer this: if we are habituated to doing violence to our minds, in order to accept procedural insanity, our deeper urges will be channelled through these habits, and mix with them inextricably. Every culture uses a share of non-rational practices and beliefs to make sense of the greater sorrows and mysteries of the human condition. But where older cultures resorted to superstitions and taboos, we seek salvation in policies and procedures.
This helps establish a framework for what may happen next, because any possible Covid future will be a reaction of some sort to the Bullshit. At best, we may hope that, in becoming its Covid manifestation, the Bullshit has finally gone too far, penetrated too deeply into our lives, so that the counterreaction may lead to a broader reaction against rotten proceduralism. Conversely, it may be that the Covid reaction has opened a dystopian era, where we will prove unable to resist both implementing and submitting to a regime that stifles our bodies and souls, in the illusory pursuit of safety and purity. In between, and most likely, is a future where the bio-politics enshrined by Covid will persist, not as a life-crushing tyranny, but, to use Glenn Greenwald’s terms, as a “vague coercive public health apparatus”, yet another complex of useless rules and bureaucracies serving to hem our lives around with tedium and absurdity. After all, we’re used to that sort of thing.
However, even if the prophets of digital bio-dystopia have spoken too soon, we must not blind ourselves to the great harm of which our culture of bullshit has shown that it is capable. The Covid Bullshit has not just brought us the maddening annoyances of Zoom meetings, passenger locator forms and nasal swabs. It has ushered in poverty, isolation and social division, death and despair. That these consequences were brought about by soft, well-meaning power makes them no less grave. Rather, the true lesson is just how dangerous soft, well-meaning power can be. Sixty years ago, Hannah Arendt taught us to fear the banality of evil: how totalitarianism could turn extreme violence into an administrative routine. Our culture is defined by an obsessive fear of repeating this scenario, and this helps explain our preference for soft power, and our focus on safety and harm reduction. Much of the Bullshit and even more of the Covid Bullshit is born of these values. However we must now see that to escape in this way from the banality of evil is also to brew an opposite poison: the evil of banality.