We are accustomed to speaking of “diseases of modernity” or “diseases of modern life,” usually in the context of chronic illnesses stemming from extended lifespans, or the “diseases from worry and mental strain” and “lifestyle diseases” that plague the mental and physical health of our present-day populace. In many ways, however, COVID-19 represents the consummate disease of modernity. Emerging from its putative origin in the wet markets of Wuhan — or from the laboratories of the nearby Wuhan Institute of Technology, if you are of a more skeptical bent — the virus has spread through the arteries of the global economy, fanning out through airports and ski resorts before tearing through conurbations and densely packed facilities like apartment blocks, subway stations, and, due to its nosocomial tendencies, nursing homes and hospitals. In a matter of weeks this plague has, in the words of the French journalist Renaud Girard, “brought to light the bankruptcy of three ideologies: communism, Europeanism, and globalism,” and more besides, while causing untold damage to practically every facet of civil society.
It is perhaps fitting that our new microbiological nemesis is a staunch relativist, leaving many of those it infects utterly asymptomatic while causing others less fortunate to drown in their own fluids, depending on viral loads, comorbidities, and bad luck. Indeed it tends to be the presence of the aforementioned “lifestyle diseases” — hypertension, diabetes, and obesity among them — that leaves stricken individuals particular vulnerable to the worst ravages of Wuhan Syndrome. Overall the outbreaks impact, say, Taiwan and Lombardy differently depending on myriad factors within and beyond the control of authorities. As the virus spreads, public health and public trust become ever more intertwined, and not always for the better. Lacking herd immunity and viable vaccines, scrambling governments have had to rely on untried, and often inaccurately apocalyptic, pandemic models in order to determine likely trajectories and optimal mitigation strategies, while the virus, in Rabbi Dr. Zohar Atkins’ words, serves “as a clue to our ignorance.” And all the while SARS-CoV-2 not only induces a cytokine storm in those most afflicted, but similarly convulses governments, private institutions, and social media, paralyzing here and galvanizing there, while making it nearly impossible to discuss anything else (with the possible exception of Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness).
The modern world has thus received what Nicolas Hulot called “une sorte d’ultimatum de la nature,” one delivered with little warning by this novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus. Our etiolated, basically simulated lives are increasingly dominated by banausic, even subsistence-level concerns. Modern life has shrunk amidst social distancing and quarantines of varying levels of enforcement and severity, abandoning its wider bailey for the more restricted motte of Zoom, streaming platforms, and email suites.
Meanwhile the smog perpetually draped over Los Angeles dissipates. The canals of Venice now run clear, to the delight of gamboling dolphins. Wild boar cavort in the streets of Barcelona and Bergamo, while Kashmiri goats have taken over the Welsh town of Llandudno. “How suddenly,” wrote Nietzsche, “the wilderness of our exhausted culture changes when the Dionysian magic touches it! A hurricane seizes all that is decrepit and decaying, collapsed and stunted — wraps it whirling into a red cloud of dust, and carries it like a vulture into the air.”
Taking in these auspices, it is hard for me not to be put in mind of J. B. MacKinnon’s 2013 book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, specifically the passage concerning “shifting baseline syndrome.” It has been estimated that, over the last few centuries, “the biomass — the total weight of living things — off North America’s east coast may have declined by 97 percent since written records began.” A similar phenomenon has been observed in the Florida Keys, where in the 1950s big-game fishermen were hauling in catches with average lengths of one meter, whereas by 2007 “the catch is dominated by snappers that measure just a little longer than a grade-school ruler.” Sashimi aficionados are no doubt familiar with this dynamic, as bluefin tuna stocks have likewise been reduced some 96 percent, owing to purse seine vessels taking in far too many juveniles, in turn resulting in absurdities like the 2019 Tokyo New Year’s fish auction sale of a single 612-pound specimen for $3.1 million. MacKinnon concluded that
the failure of coastal residents and scientists to recognize such a shocking diminution seemed to [fisheries scientist Daniel] Pauly only explainable by a long-term pattern of amnesia. Each generation of people saw the coast that they grew up on as the normal state of nature, and measured the declines of sea life against that baseline. With every new generation, the baseline shifted — “a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance,” Pauly said. “We were forgetting what the world used to look like.”
Long-term amnesia, the inability to recognize diminution amid plenty, the accommodation of creeping disappearance — such is the effect of shifting baseline syndrome, that paradigmatic disease of modern mental life.
It should be made clear that I am not, through this environmental excursus, endorsing the sort of “mankind is the real virus” eco-fascism espoused by the recently deceased Pentti Linkola, who advanced from an altogether sensible position (concern over the “derailment of the human species into the whirlpool of technological religion”) into something beyond the pale of even the most perfervid Malthusian (“Who misses the unused procreation potential of those killed in the Second World War?” or “If there were a button I could press, I would sacrifice myself without hesitating, if it meant millions of people would die”). I am merely suggesting that the shifting baseline syndrome inflicted on us by modernity has indeed caused us to forget what the natural (and cultural, while we’re at it) world around us used to look like, and has blinded us to the fact that most of what is in our field of vision is not, strictly speaking, normal, and certainly not part of “the normal state of nature.” Barely 2 percent of the human story has even involved urban existence, and modern industrial civilization represents an even thinner layer on top of that stratum. Inhabiting a world of neoliberal consumerism in which agriculture makes up only 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, while $1.2 quadrillion dollars worth of derivatives float around us in a gargantuan bubble, cannot be said to be normal. As Pope Francis asked in his extraordinary moment of prayer on March 27, 2020, did we really think “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick?”
The result of modernity has doubtless been what Hamish Miles, writing in the pages of The Dial in 1924, called the “staleness and lethargy of our etiolated modern minds.” Fin de siècle intellectuals, present at the birth of truly modern life, recognized these symptoms all too well. Georg Simmel, in his 1900 treatise The Philosophy of Money, perceived “an extreme acceleration in the pace of life, a feverish commotion and compression of its fluctuations, in which the specific influence of money upon the course of psychological life becomes most clearly discernible,” and consequently scried “the temporal dissolution of everything substantial, absolute and eternal into the flow of things, into historical mutability, into merely psychological reality.” Modernity is all about the Eternal Present, and it has little time for those who view society as a partnership between the living, dead, and yet unborn, or those who would prefer a society founded on principles derived from a transcendent moral order.
Dwelling in presentism’s all-encompassing dominion has, incidentally, had the curious effect of rendering our society unable to place current events, like the ongoing pandemic, in any kind of historical context. To be modern is to live wholly divorced from the human experience. It is practically unfathomable to us that our great-grandparents’ generation withstood the trials of the First World War, with its 10 million military and equivalent number of civilian deaths, alongside three million deaths from typhus, 50 million (or more) deaths from the H1N1 (Spanish) Flu, plus further outbreaks of cholera and smallpox. Comparatively “minor” events, like the 1957–58 H2N2 pandemic that took “only” 1.1 million lives worldwide or the 1968 H3N2 pandemic that “only” killed another million, occurred in living memory but seem to have no purchase whatsoever in our collective consciousness. It is not that we should today pursue policies that would result in such a human toll; rather we have, with a few exceptions (mainly in Scandinavia and East Asia) found ourselves unable to even countenance the notion of risk management when balancing the needs of the public health against economic sustainability, however much that would be in the interests of the public weal writ large.
Professor Klaus Püschel, the head of forensic medicine in Hamburg, has argued that “this virus influences our lives in a completely excessive way. This is disproportionate to the danger posed by the virus. And the astronomical economic damage now being caused is not commensurate with the danger posed by the virus.” Yet proportionate responses are not exactly hallmarks of modernity. G. K. Chesterton characterized it thusly: “the modern world seems to have no notion of preserving different things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of culture. It has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.” Our simplistic approach to lockdowns and quarantines seems to be producing a rather similar outcome. Peter Hitchens, for one, has predicted a “a long and cruel struggle whose privations and griefs we can barely imagine,” a view every day being borne out by gruesome economic as well as mortality figures.
In the end, to be modern is to be hopelessly adrift. Max Weber characterized this feeling as “Entzauberung,” or “disenchantment,” the “knowledge or belief that … there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” Natural or supernatural forces, viewed through such a lens, are considered surplus to requirements. Recall how Oxford University Press infamously removed a host of words having to do with the natural world from its Oxford Junior Dictionary, words such as “acorn,” “fern,” “heather,” “ivy,” “nectar,” “pasture,” and “willow,” on the grounds that once upon a time “many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons,” but now “the environment has changed.” Has it ever. Oliver Rackham, in The History of the Countryside (1986), described the four ways in which a landscape is lost: the “loss of beauty, the loss of freedom, the loss of wildlife and vegetation, and the loss of meaning.” There is an analogy to our civil society in there somewhere. W. H. Auden, for his part, put it best:
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.
A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
The widespread desecration of our natural environment, in tandem with the concomitant desecration of our culture, our built world, even our mental architecture, has us inhabiting a veritable manufactory of disenchantment.
There are those who, even before the present crisis, recognized that knowledge may come from addition, but wisdom often comes from subtraction. Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato si’ (2015), described an Earth that is “burdened and laid waste” and is herself “among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail,’ ” while in the 2020 post-Synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia (2020) he suggested that “if we enter into communion with the forest, our voices will easily blend with its own and become a prayer: ‘as we rest in the shade of an ancient eucalyptus, our prayer for light joins in the song of the eternal foliage.’ ” As Matthew Walther has written, the pope’s, and ideally our own,
sense of “bewilderment and uprootedness” extends well beyond the Amazon. It is, in fact, the defining characteristic of modern life. Overcoming these evils in South America and throughout the world will involve something more than international climate summits or NGO-sponsored PowerPoint presentations. It will require nothing less than the destruction of the existing order of things and its replacement with a new humane form of social organization whose first principles are not the acquisition of wealth or the pursuit of fleeting pleasures but love, fraternity, and serenity.
At the time, Laudato si’ was not well received on the right; George Will called it “deeply reactionary” and expressed horror at how it “stands against modernity” — I am still waiting for a problem here — while the Weekend Australian thundered that the Holy Father was advancing a “new, pernicious dogma” that was, horror of horrors, “anti-free market.” (The dominion of presentism has apparently purged any memory of such classics of distributism as Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum novarum or Pope Pius XI’s 1931 Quadregisimo anno.)
Here we are, five years after Laudato si’, and, just as there are few atheists in foxholes, there are vanishingly few doctrinaire free-marketeers during a pandemic — perhaps RealClearMarkets’ Adam Brandon has come closest, bemoaning the fact that Peter Navarro’s “Buy American” order would “create a catastrophic incentive for companies whose supply chains are currently located outside of America to uproot their operations in an attempt to not be left out of the government’s largess,” when that is of course precisely the point, the better to avoid relying on ultimately nonexistent foreign supply chains during a global crisis. Japan is doing likewise, earmarking billions of dollars in its stimulus package to facilitate the repatriation of production capacity from China. And while in his March 12 address from the Élysée Palace France’s president Emmanuel Macron warned against “nationalist withdrawal” on the grounds that “this virus does not have a passport,” it did not take long for him to admit that “what this pandemic shows is that there are goods and services which must be placed outside the laws of the market,” before declaring that “delegating our food supply … to others is madness. We have to take back control.”
Taking back control is not merely a matter of economic theory. On the eve of the current crisis, the Trump administration was not just pushing for a return to traditional aesthetics in federal architecture but also working with Congress on the Great American Outdoors Act, which would restore national parks, bolster the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and address the park system’s maintenance backlog. As Quill Robinson noted, the push was “part of a larger phenomenon of Republicans taking the lead on environmental issues.” It is welcome indeed that the Right is becoming increasingly interested in those aesthetic aspects of our existence that do so much to determine our mental and moral landscape. The cultural historian Rachel Haywire has rightly maintained that “the dominant intellectual paradigm is dying. If we do not replace them, we will be accustomed to the corpse of the modern intelligentsia surrounding us. This is why we must replace them now. The New Art Right creates a spiritual revolt of art, music, philosophy, literature, theatre, film, poetry, and live performances.”
In a similar vein, James Poulos has described how “the definitive modern framework for conceptualizing politics in the West is being denatured in the biochemical sense: its characteristic properties are being destroyed at the most fundamental level of its formation by certain powerfully disruptive effects.” According to Poulos, “the forcible transformation of mere perversity or sybaritic enjoyment into ideologies — queerism, polyism, panism, transism, and ultimately posthumanism — betokens a decadent and delusional journey to the outer limits of the cult of the ‘spirit,’ actually assaulting the bodily integrity and natural anthropology that BAP [the pseudonymous Bronze Age Pervert, Nietzsche enthusiast and author of Bronze Age Mindset], but far from just BAP, are instinctively rushing to defend in the name of a new ‘vitalism.’ ” Subjected to an endless barrage of Entzauberung and fantastical “weaponized, officialized Disneyism” produced by an “all-powerful but now feverishly panicking elite,” it is only natural for dissidents — Christian, pagan, “raw-egg nationalist,” or otherwise — to prefer communion with the forest.
The socioeconomic shock of the COVID-19 lockdown has the potential to act as a sort of factory reset for modern society. I am not so naive as to imagine that the ongoing collapse of the neoliberal order will naturally and immediately give way to a heyday of distributism or anarcho-syndicalism. Corporations will always favor offshore outsourcing in the pursuit of cheap or even enslaved labor, and the arc of history only bends towards justice if you ignore where your cocoa, your cobalt, or your textiles come from. At this very moment some 83 companies are, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, benefitting from Uyghur slave labor in Chinese military-style factories. And at this very moment Walmart is investing some $425 million in Wuhan over five years. Anyone can do the math. As small businesses struggle amidst a brutalizing lockdown, the advantage of course is going to Amazon, Walmart, et al., almost as if by design. Peter Hitchens, for one, has wryly observed that Oxford’s “venerable and beautiful covered market, airier and more spacious than any supermarket,” is “mysteriously closed,” while of course the stuffier and dangerously crowded Tescos remain open. Of course the deck is stacked in favor of the monoculture.
James Poulos, in his April 8, 2020, essay “The Green Zone Plan,” mapped the way forward for those for whom such a dystopian future is unacceptable. “To beat coronavirus,” he declared, “get Americans back to living natural lives.” For Poulos, the “ ‘red zone’ kludge for ekeing out our existence in virus-overrun areas runs viciously contrary to our human nature and severs us from nature. It does so in a way that encourages us to become slaves to our illusions — to see our illusions as our saviors. This approach promises to fuel a gnostic attitude toward life implacably at odds with both our given anthropology and with the American way.” By expanding so-called “Green Zones — the easiest, safest, and most virus-free areas where businesses can be open, schooling can take place, people can move about relatively freely, and the natural aspect of our lives can be maximized under the circumstances. This is not simply a short term solution to the virus, but a long term course for civic health.” In other words, two Americas, Red and Green instead of Red and Blue, with the term “green” divested of its eco-socialist connotations. (The signification of “red” may very well survive.)
In his praise of the incomparable traditionalist Thai architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu, Léon Krier wrote that his “authentic vernacular and classical creations” stood as “vigorous, if lone, way signs to a civilized future.” I live in hope that more and more people will, in the coming months and years, follow those way signs in each and every aspect of our earthly life. Perhaps it will be in the form of a growing interest in traditional crafts, as advocated by the archaeologist Alexander Langlands, who has argued for an increased reliance on beautifully made, fit-for-purpose products that can be “fondly used, ingeniously reused, [and] considerately discarded,” or his Dutch counterpart Maikel Kuijpers, who is trying to make it so “the future is handmade.” Perhaps it will be in the form of widespread peri-urban community gardening as practiced by 50 to 80 percent of Russians, those proud datchniki or “gardener-inhabitants” who thereby achieve both food security, a pleasant pastime, and a deeper connection with the black earth that sustains them. It will all, grosso modo, come down to rejecting the “live in the pod, eat the bugs” mentality that has become so prevalent in our modern lives.
John Donne, in a verse epistle sent to Sir Henry Wotton, regretted how
Life is a voyage, and in our lives’ ways
Countries, courts, towns are rocks, or remoras;
They break or stop all ships, yet our state’s such,
That, though than pitch they stain worse, we must touch….
Cities are sepulchres; they who dwell there
Are carcasses, as if no such they were;
And courts are theatres, where some men play
Princes, some slaves, all to one end, of one clay.
The country is a desert, where no good
Gained as habits, not born, is understood;
There men become beasts and prone to all evils;
In cities, blocks; and in a lewd court, devils.
The only solution, Donne advised, was to “be then thine own home, and in thyself dwell,” indeed “be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.” In a world of quarantines and lockdowns, the world now feels less like a metaphorical and very much like a real prison. It is all too easy, in the midst of plagues and roiling economies, to adopt the nihilist pose of Céline: “the truth of this life is death.” But Céline’s contemporary Louis Guilloux had it right: “It’s not that we die, it’s that we die cheated.” Our “decadent and delusional journey” into modernity has cheated us in a great many ways. Now is as good a time as any to ensure that we do not die cheated after all.