Odious Little Vermin

On the bureaucracy of everyday life

An erosion of rights, norms, and social bonds produces a kind of nameless, underlying suffering without a name that only certain novels and films seem to articulate; the hypertrophy of the bureaucratic element of life produces a reciprocal atrophy of the spontaneous element of life—a withering of vitality. The irony of the COVID era is that in the name of protecting life—and what tyranny is ever carried except in the name of public safety?—the substance of life is destroyed or partially destroyed. The future looks to me like one of surveillance, coercion, and fear—of endless, exaggerated crisis and resolution.

Lockdowns and masking destroyed the notion that you have the right to show your face in public: to assemble, speak, embrace. Once that barrier, that tradition, that assumption, was destroyed, all sorts of malevolent forces were unbound. Freedom shriveled up like a snapped tendon.

Fiat governance, even if nominally democratic, is the rule of the day; safetyism is the dominant political ideology, cutting across the traditional division of left and right. Soft fascism—the blandly benevolent alliance of state and corporation in the name of your well-being—is the form this ideology takes. The expert bureaucrat—that odious little vermin—is now the hero and the strong man: the horizon of aspiration.

Realism is violent, individualism is selfish; an ultra modern idealism—which imagines a perfectly frictionless and risk-free polis, where comparative choices do not exist, only right ones—underpins the logic of most politicians and public figures. The public has very little taste for anything else. It wants to consume easily digestible narratives; it has lost the cognitive capacity to do anything else.

If content-producers masquerading as leaders say Delta is scary, then it’s scary; if masks and vaccines are magic, then they’re magic. To question, to raise questions, to sift through evidence is heterodox, dangerous; it makes things difficult for the folks who just want to get by. The reason people hated Trump so much, in the final calculus, was that he was unpredictable; Biden is simply predictable, generic groupthink incarnate—an avatar of bland political professionalism. The new master-slave dialectic is one in which the masters promise to assuage the anxious concerns of the slave, the information addict glued to a scrolling screen.

To me, for these reasons and more, the contemporary world has the inexorable logic of a nightmare.