Modernity Without its Clothes: the pandemic crisis shines a light on futilities of control

control dials

With so many self-appointed pundits (like me!) currently locked down with their laptops, the present rush of commentary on how to pivot the coronavirus crisis is hardly surprising. Beyond the general news and commentary, scores of articles are exploding across the media, diagnosing what this global catastrophe means, and prescribing how it can be turned to variously-held positive ends.

Understandably, dozens of these contributions focus on renewing – or reversing impeded – action on climate change. But other strongly-pursued aims include reforming academic orthodoxies; reimagining universities, enhancing scientific collaboration; de-globalising infrastructures; accelerating energy transitions; building resilience; advancing conservation; mobilising political movements; improving social justice; reducing consumption; achieving the Sustainable Development Goals; rejuvenating democracy; reorienting capitalism; restructuring the economy; building a greener world; resisting ecofascism; and generally steering possible futures to save the planet. All eloquently voiced, several of these agendas coincide. I would strongly support many of them.

But there is another point that also emerges. In many cases, the changes that authors assertively prescribe specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, look very similar to those they would have advocated beforehand. In this particular sense, for all the transformational language and ambition, it is ‘business as usual’.

So, if some of this effort is not to risk being seen later as opportunistic – or inadvertently (in its familiarity) potentially reinforcing of lock-in – then maybe there’s a need for as much dislocation, surprise and reorientation inside the commentaries, as many rightly call for in the outside world?

After all, the main significance of this pandemic lies not in lofty platforms for pre-entitled, indulgently-curated identities. The issues are instead about many very real further devastations of already-vulnerable lives and livelihoods, of those without the same chances to air their views. If this is ignored, then even where motives are laudable, this colossal juncture risks becoming captive to just another campaigning message, media trope, academic vanity, or expediently manipulated ‘policy storyline’. The implications are far too important to be reduced to these baubles in the usual salons.

In fact, there really seems only one clear truth so far, amidst the ever-present – now brutally-revealed – uncertainties. Incongruously neglected in the many confident pronouncements and predictions, this truth is that nobody knows the historic implications of this moment. A radical diversity of futures are possible. In each of these futures, a plurality of views will likely clash as much as they do now.

For whatever happens next, what is already evident is that: expert advisers and scientific institutions found themselves so wrong; commentators and policy-makers so short-sighted; affluent societies so poorly resourced; macho demagogues and plutocrats so indecisive; and democracies and autocracies alike so ill-prepared.

There is of course no shortage of apparently effective instruments available to seemingly controlling ‘cockpits’: dispassionately assured experts; precise scientific metrics; rigorous technical models; massive hierarchical agencies; apparently all-seeing monitoring; seductively informative graphics; compellingly captivating dashboards; reassuringly evidence-based plans; commanding policy levers; invisibly nudging techniques; formidable military capacities; all presided over by our ‘natural leaders’ in the same old ‘seats of power’. But in reality, what the pandemic already seems to show is not only that there is no pilot… but that the ‘cockpit’ itself has been built largely in our imaginations.

After all, what else can reasonably be concluded when even the most powerful, respected and self-confident authorities in the world manifestly fail so badly not only to control, but even to predict, even a single parameter of one specific disease? With this understood, how much harder is it to believe other hubristic aspirations to anticipate, let alone heroically lead, entire collective futures?

So, if this unruly open-ended indeterminacy of the world cannot be acknowledged at a time like now – when the gyres of history are turning most tumultuously – then when can it ever be recognised? And the salience of all this bites doubly hard, not because of some further confident projection of what this all will mean, but in light of what can (from many sides) already be seen to be unravelling.

However things pan out – and whatever modesty-preserving fig-leaves are later hastily installed – at least one global hegemonic casualty has already surely been revealed. This involves not just a single specific certainty of how the world is – or should be. What is now becoming devastatingly undermined, is the general credibility of any confident performance of predictive control.

This unsettling tremor cuts across many (contrasting and contending) political, cultural, religious and corporate tectonic plates. With it are subverted the shaky foundations of multiple familiar kinds of assertiveness – including those with which any of us (any ‘we’) might identify. Comforting certainties and commanding actions are not how the world is ‘controlled’: they are stories through which contingent forms of privilege that are actually unable to control, nevertheless maintain their status.

Take, for example, the repeated mantras of ‘evidence-based policy’ – and ‘science-based decisions’. Evidence is of course crucial – but it is necessary, not sufficient. Actions cannot be purely ‘based on’ data or analysis, only illuminated by it. That these well-worn claims are so ironically false, is about as informative as evidence gets. ‘Control by science’ is an expedient fiction in service of power.

What the pandemic shows, then – in short – is that in the wider, long-run ‘real world’ of human affairs, control does not exist. And this is not a criticism. It is simply a fact. To criticise for lack of control is to be as misguided as to claim it.

But doesn’t this fly in the face of common sense? Control seems undeniably important. It is a potent experience, for instance, in our relations with machines. Where these work, people around the world have become very familiar with what it can mean (at least before gremlins, rust or wear take their toll) to control something – like a light switch, a water-pump, a bicycle, a mobile phone or a laptop.

As an example of control: a car steering wheel turned lightly to the left determines this single aimed-for effect and no other. The windscreen wipers don’t come on. The wheels don’t fall off. Nobody by the wayside faints. We know very well what control feels like: fully achieving the particular intended result, and only this. This is how control is imagined in the core cherished paradigm of Modernity.

But whatever instruments of control are directed at it, this is manifestly not how this pandemic is playing out. In country after country, initial reactions – whether of authoritarian suppression or complacent exceptionalism – have proven either highly ineffective or problematic in other ways.

And the story is still far from over. Unintended side-effects of control are, to some, already looking potentially even more serious than the disease. What will be the economic impacts on health? What other presently-unknown factors may yet become evident? How will the virus itself bite back? With so much already going wrong, falling short, happening by mistake, or yet to emerge, we’re very far from the familiar experiences of ‘control’ that current failing efforts are claimed to emulate.

But despite these lessons (not only from the present crisis, but from a multitude of earlier ones), the idea of control still shapes the globalising imaginations of Modernity. Just as a hammer can condition its holder to see every problem as a nail, so unfolding Modernities around the world are ironically enslaved by their perennial aspirations to control.

Indeed, once you start looking for them, imaginations of control drive every aspect variously recognised to define ‘Modernity’ itself: control by individuals of their lives; control by governments of nations; control by ‘the people’ of politics; control by bureaucracy of organisations; control by science of reason; control by industry of production; control by capital of labour; control by colonialism of empires; control in ‘the Anthropocene’ of an entire world. This is why the resonance chimes of ‘taking back control’!

And it is in each of these spheres that control has also not only failed to live up to expectations, but yielded so many perverse kinds of backlash as to often be seriously counterproductive. So what is distinctive about this global pandemic is not its novelty, but its intensity. A familiar cycle of disappointment has unfolded over weeks rather than centuries. The spectacle is too acute to ignore.

However it plays out, what this pandemic already shows is that (outside comforting machine-like moments) the ‘real world’ tolerates no control. Events appear orderly for a while. And, like a bull in a china shop, impacts can surely be exerted. But what history also teaches well is that, no matter how massive the effects (on lives or the Earth), these are always less exacting than control. Beyond and between the domesticated interludes lies an under-determined nonlinear mess of cause and contingency; intention and accident; influence and reaction; association and surprise; and collateral effects, feedbacks and shocks.

murmuration of starlings
Starling murmurations / Chris Lovelock / cc by 2.0

So what conclusions to draw from this diagnosis? Is it a counsel of despair? Does the coronavirus pandemic simply herald a new intensification of already-overgrown fatalism, cynicism and nihilism?

Or are the signs exactly the opposite? Is the present cacophony of over-confident prescriptions more important for its vigour and diversity than for any specific strand of content (including this)? Perhaps each of this multiplicity of energetic visions constitutes a ‘necessary fiction’, provoking into life dormant political hopes and critical faculties that have been lulled into complacent acquiescence by burgeoning electoral oligarchies?

Perhaps this collectively-enacted murmuration is more important than any individually-stated aim? (Indeed, is this why ‘murmurations’ have always linked distributed dissent with exuberant flocking?) Perhaps this is why the word ‘moment’ has always quietly signalled an axis of possible movement?

Perhaps this is how ‘the medium is the message’ – when encompassing actions speak louder than any ostensibly controlling words? If so, then now is a time, less for the blinkering tethers of ‘evidence based policy’, and more for an emancipating politics when knowing is doing, and it is the doing that makes the knowing?

If ratcheted well, perhaps even these fictions, fallacies and fantasies of control may themselves be inflected in new – less hubristic – directions? After all,  where driven by values of peace, equality, or the environment, urges to change the world are not just commendable, but deeply necessary. Here, perhaps it is the very futility of control that can be positive, offering – in its inevitable failure – a ‘civilising hypocrisy’ to provoke something far more modest, caring – and serious about the real world?

Again, the answer has to be that no-one really knows. What the coronavirus pandemic might mean is not a matter to be diagnosed in advance, but to be struggled for in its aftermath – and beyond!

My main concern, then, about some of the current commentaries with which I began, lies not in any particularity of the changes they variously call for. It is that so much of this apparently critical discourse reproduces such a similar style to the incumbent interests that are ostensibly challenged.

In ways that also clash starkly with the little that we do know so far about the coronavirus crisis, many of the critics are as single-mindedly certain, as confidently predictive, as assertively prescriptive and as aspirationally controlling as any incumbent technocrat, autocrat or demagogue. And it is through such tacit support for the underlying mythology of control, that progressive intentions can nonetheless inadvertently reinforce the regressive status quo.

This is why the challenge is not to drown out with alternative certainties, the present vacuous claims of a control-beguiled Modernity. The pathologies of control could hardly be more reinforced, than if they snare even critics into their own controlling efforts. No! The responsibility is not to control Modernity – to stop it, replace it, erase it – but to revolve it in new directions. And here, for the controlling emperor even so briefly to be seen without imaginary clothes is arguably a pivotal moment in itself.

Either way, whatever futures may struggle into being, the present pandemic suggests these will likely turn out better if shaped in opposite ways to this failing reflex of control. This recasts ‘democracy’ not as a codified intermittent managerial procedure, but as multiple continual struggles for ‘access by the least powerful to capacities for challenging power’. So (also inevitably grounded in its own pre-existing enthusiasms!), it is in this spirit that another voice can join the clamour– directly challenging the pervasive control culture of Modernity.

What is needed now is more: humility (not hubris) about what is known; hope (not fear) about what is possible; diversity (not singularity) in what is held to count; mutualism (not hierarchy) as ways to organise; equality (not superiority) as driving values; precaution (not calculation) to protect the vulnerable; flourishing (not growth) as guiding aims; and care (not control) as the means by which so many kinds of better – but preciously unknown and uncontrollable – worlds may yet be realised.


Video: online seminar

In May 2020 the author gave an online talk related to the ideas in this blog post, as part of ESG’s seminar series Imaginaries for a Resilient and Inclusive New World. A video recording of the talk is available on ESG India’s YouTube channel.

Further reading

Book: The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation (available for pre-order, publication date: July 2020 as paperback / Open Access download)

Theme: Uncertainty
Resources on the STEPS Centre’s theme for 2019

Resources: COVID-19: Resources and research on epidemics and pandemics
Selected resources from the STEPS Centre’s work on infectious disease

8 comments:

  1. Interesting and informative. Certainly captures many aspects of the complexity of the current, and historic, cultural events, and reactions to them. Also helpful to have links and supporting information to the key aspects of the overall theme.

    The one comment I would make, which is in no way intended to challenge the validity of this particular piece, but could probably be helpful, within the overall scheme of things, to many People.

    The challenge to bring into such complex and challenging themes the issue of other paradigms of faith belief or truth that might also have a contextual reality that is equally helpful, insightful or valid.

    I hesitate to use the word spiritual because it has certain connotations. But our relationship to evolutionary principles that encompasses a none materialistic view or understand of our world evolution. To be able to somehow state that there are also forces at work that might stand behind those we experience in all actual events, both as intent and outcome, for which we must trust is beyond understanding, unless that is, there is a relationship to a more divine reality, in its true sense or purpose. I hope you find my comments helpful.

  2. Brilliant ! Such a joy and a privilege to read. You combine deep and novel analysis with poetical prose that pulls in the reader. Thank goodness you are there- and active!

    Your piece will help to inspire the emerging EEA response to the crisis.

    David Gee.

  3. Some great points! I would suggest dropping the either-or dichotomy you rhetorically employ given that it runs counter to your car argument. Complexity in life at its heart it’s multi-faceted by nature. Theory and rhetoric that seeks to ignore that by theoretically postulating sparse nomological networks or by rhetorically casting either-or dichotomies (last paragraph) and offering cute truisms (ie, nudging) that are mere bromides are doomed.

  4. @David Gee:

    Many sincere thanks for the very generous words. It means a great deal when thoughts chime like this with someone with your own inspirational track record in so many strands of this struggle.

    @Philip Carr-Gomm

    Many thanks also for your own kind words. Likewise! I’d be happy to engage with you as soon as time allows.

    @Bee

    Many thanks for these interesting thoughts. There are of course many weaknesses in this effort.

    But in the spirit of the analysis itself, I would like to push back a little on the criticism that the making of distinctions must somehow necessarily amount to the imposing of “either-or dichotomies”. Since distinctions can be as multidimensional as any complexity, then pluralities of these (as I try to strive towards here) can actually aid moves away from control and towards care (each, of course, themselves being multi-faceted and contestible).

    Indeed, being accountable for distinctions (rather than concealing them in ‘no-dichotomies’ rhetoric) might arguably be seen as a crucial feature of flatter power and more open relations? In this sense, the othering of unwelcome distinctions as ‘dichotomies’ might be held to be in itself quite controlling in its own categorical style? I don’t know for sure. This could be wrong. But I do think it is quite core to the kind of more caring nuanced discourse that I (like many others) am partly on about here, that distinction be drawn between distinctions and dichotomies.

    What do you reckon?

  5. Thank you for such a thought-provoking and interesting blog essay.

    I quite agree that if the ‘unruly open-ended indeterminacy’ of life is not acknowledged now it never will be. And I very much agree that the metaphors of control – of seeing the body politic as like a car where a touch of the steering wheel by our great leader will lead to the agreed end point it is assumed we all want – are among the most damaging illusions of modernity. And finally I agree, of course, that academics, policy makers, and all those born-again arm-chair pundits on talk-back radio need much more humility about our ability to understand what is going on or to control anything. We need to display negative capability – to be willing to accept that we live in uncertainty and be constantly receptive to new pointers to emerging patterns.

    But two observations: first, from Ancient times (when life was even more obviously uncertain) people have grasped at illusory oracles pretending to know the future. That, too, is a fact of human nature and unlikely to change. People crave certainty in their lives, and if it is not provided by social insurance etc they will be attracted by the narratives of populists promising sunny uplands if only they are elected and the elite and the ‘other’ are expelled.

    And, second, your lovely description of murmuration – of self-organising clouds of alert, imaginative and caring actors – as our best hope for the bottom-up emergence of better solutions reminded me of a writer you may not like me comparing you to: Hayek. Hayek, like Popper, was deeply aware of fundamental uncertainties and the folly of rational schemes of control. He viewed society and markets as ‘catallaxies’ where better (tried and tested) outcomes emerge bottom-up in in an evolutionary self-organising series of settings.

    So just a warning: your message with which I wholeheartedly agree will not be one that will be met with universal joy on the Left or in much of the environmental movement which still dreams of rational constructivist solutions to the self-evident despair and poverty stalking the world. But, reassuringly, your message is one I suspect that Elinor Ostrom would have agreed with. She argued for a ‘polycentric approach’ involving trial and error learning and ‘experimental efforts at multiple levels’ rather than the illusion that we can design a single global solution to global problems like climate change or pandemics.

  6. Many thanks for this generous and insightful reaction, Richard. I appreciated and learned much from your thoughts and am extremely grateful. It prompts quite a few onward questions.

    With respect, for instance, to your comment about it being “human nature” to grasp at “illusory oracles pretending to know the future”, I wonder. This is definitely an important syndrome. But can we automatically assume this to be as ubiquitous as is often supposed? In particular, I wonder whether it is generally diagnostic of “human” societies, or more specifically of unequal ones?

    It emerges compellingly in the literatures you rightly refer to, for instance (Hayek – as well as Shackle and Loasby in economics and Lindblom and Collingridge more widely), that it is unequal power relations and stratified privilege that generate the pressures for justification, which in turn spawn enforced delusions around false precision in oracular prescriptions.

    The extent – in general – to which “people crave certainty” is an issue Ian Scoones is closely investigating in his ERC project, with specific attention to pastoralist livelihoods. And it has also been queried in work by Brian Wynne and others on attitudes to emerging technologies. So, I am not sure this assumption bears up in quite such an unqualified or all-encompassing way. It is perhaps more true that people are especially hegemonically conditioned to be demanding in this respect, in circumstances where assertions of false certainties are a means by which they are dominated?

    In this sense, it might be a reasonable hypothesis that one of the most generally effective means to make societies more resilient in the face of deep uncertainties, is to make them more equal.

    As to your “warning” about Hayek, you’re absolutely right. I have appreciated before (and not without a sense of irony) how few are more insightful than him on issues around ignorance. But is this necessarily a warning – or more an affirmation? It follows from the very questions we are sharing, that progressive politics is not a spectrum of polarised categories, but a rhizomically entangled knot, in different parts of the complex multidimensional patchwork, sundering otherwise close similarities and juxtaposing strange bedfellows.

    In this light, perhaps the divide-and-rule dynamic of the ‘left’/’right’ straightjacket is itself an expedient controlling imagination of Modernity. With each side disciplined (whether positively or negatively) in relation to prevailing incumbency, the gradient itself gets taken for granted.

    Thanks again for the thoughts – and all the very best in your continued great thinking and interventions on these issues, Richard.

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