By Michael Esfeld | Brownstone Institute
What do the unlimited creation of fiat money and the corona regime have in common? Obviously, the former is the precondition for the latter: without the possibility for governments to arbitrarily create money out of nothing, the corona lockdowns would not have happened, because people would have felt the economic consequences directly in their wallets. But the parallel runs deeper as I shall argue in this piece: fiat money heralds the first, economic phase of what can be dubbed “actually existing postmodernism;” the corona regime ushers in its second, totalitarian phase that affects all aspects of social life.
Postmodernism is in the first place an intellectual current that breaks with the pillars of the modern epoch. After the painful experience of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, both modern science and the modern constitutional state emerged as freeing themselves from exercising power by imposing a particular view of what the common good should be.
In science, authority plays no role; one has to provide evidence and argument for the claims that one makes, and these claims are subject to scrutiny. The modern constitutional state abstains from implementing a view about an alleged common good, focusing on the protection of the human rights of every person. These are exclusively rights against unwanted external interference in one’s way of leading one’s life, provided that one grants the same right to everybody else.
It is here that science comes into play: any claim of negative externalities that constitute an unwanted interference with one’s way of life has to be based on facts that are objective and accessible to all, by contrast to subjective feelings or views of what is good or bad.
To mention a common example: the fact of a robust statistical correlation between exposure to smoke and lung cancer legitimizes regulating smoking in public spaces, given the normative premise of rights of defence against inflicting harm. Science and the rule of law therefore are the two pillars of the modern epoch: the modern society is held together only by the respect of the human rights of all and the recognition of objective facts established by science and common sense, but not by any shared view of an alleged collective good.
Postmodernism as an intellectual current, by contrast, rejects employing reason as a means to limit the exercise of power. It debunks reason as yet another form of coercion. There are no objective facts that can be discovered by employing reason, and there are no freedom rights that pertain to each person in virtue of her being endowed with reason in thinking and acting. However, postmodernism is not a relativism in which everyone or every group constructs and lives in their own reality.
As Michael Rectenwald puts it in “Social Justice and the Emergence of Covid Tyranny, “Without objective criteria, there is no court of appeal other than power.” In his book Springtime for Snowflakes published in 2018, Rectenwald, referring to the development of wokeness and cancel culture, diagnoses the transition to “practical postmodernism” (pp. xiii, 114-117) that amounts to pure tyranny.
Indeed, the parallel is obvious: socialism as an intellectual current initiated by Marx and Engels turned into the totalitarianism of “actually existing socialism” when political authority was built on it. By the same token, postmodernism as an intellectual current turns into a new form of totalitarianism when implemented in politics.
In 1971, President Nixon suspended the definition of the US dollar by a certain amount of gold (then 1/35 of a troy ounce). In 2002, Willem Duisenberg, then president of the European Central Bank, praised the euro as the world’s first currency that is not backed by anything
This is actually existing postmodernism in economics: the construction of a reality in the form of a claim to real goods and services (purchasing power of money) out of nothing, per fiat, in the form of uncovered and thus potentially unlimited money creation. This is a postfactual reality: there are no facts that determine and thus limit this reality. By contrast, as long as a currency is tied to gold, silver or a basket of goods, its purchasing power is determined by the material assets on which it is based. Their availability is limited. They cannot be increased by political decisions.
The gold peg of the US dollar collapsed in 1971 due to a state that wanted to satisfy ever more welfare demands internally without creating wealth (Johnson’s “Great Society”) and that enforced claims to power externally also by military means (the Vietnam War). Faced with the choice of adapting these claims to reality or creating the illusion of reality in order to promote these claims, the US and subsequently all other states opted for the latter. Finally, Switzerland too abandoned any form of pegging its currency to gold in 1999.
This is actually existing postmodernism, because it breaks with the constitutional state: the mission of the latter is the protection of defence rights against unsolicited external interference in the freedom to determine oneself how to conduct one’s life. The welfare state, by contrast, is held together by granting entitlement rights to all sorts of benefits; that is, rights to benefits that don’t originate in private law contracts among individuals for the exchange of goods and services.
Consequently, these entitlement rights are enforced by the state power. Their fulfilment eventually becomes dependent on the unlimited creation of fiat money. However, as long as this is limited to panem et circensis – the welfare state and its orchestration in the media – the interference with the private sphere of people and their ways of conducting their lives is limited. There is no collective, common good conceived here that is imposed on all.
With the corona regime, actually existing postmodernism enters its second, totalitarian phase: it now encompasses all aspects of life. There is no privacy left: the lockdowns regulate social contacts even within the core family. Not even one’s body is one’s property anymore: it is at the disposal of the state as seen with the vaccination campaign, culminating in vaccine mandates. Totalitarianism is not necessarily a regime of brutal force. Force only comes in when the population no longer believes the narrative on which the regime is based.
Totalitarianism is characterized by unlimited regulation of the life of people by a political authority with coercive power in the name of an alleged common good (see also Mattias Desmet, “The psychology of totalitarianism.”
A first aspect that marks the present regime as specifically postmodern is its construction of a postfactual reality that is imposed on all. The coronavirus waves are a fact. But there are no facts that establish that this virus outbreak is more dangerous than past virus outbreaks such as the Hong Kong flu 1968-70 or the Asian flu 1957-58 that were dealt with by medical means only.
This construction of a postfactual reality is furthermore postmodern in that it reverses the relationship between rights and the state: in the modern epoch, it was the task of the state to protect fundamental rights. In the postmodern regime, the state grants freedom as privilege for conformity. The mechanism that seduced many academics that have no sympathy with intellectual postmodernism is this one: it is suggested that by pursuing one’s normal, everyday course of life, one endangers the well-being of others. Every form of physical contact can contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. Every activity has an impact on the non-human environment that can contribute to life-threatening climate change.
Presenting habitual, everyday ways of life as endangering others is what the construction of a corona as well as of a climate crisis and the fear and hysteria fuelled by these constructions serve to do. Science can be used for this in the same way as religion was in premodern times: with model calculations in which the parameters can be arbitrarily adjusted, and any version of disaster scenarios can be painted on the wall. The dominance of models over evidence fits perfectly with the postfactual construction of reality in actually existing postmodernism.
One then frees oneself from the general suspicion of harming others through one’s everyday course of life by acquiring a social pass – such as the vaccination pass or another form of a certificate – by which one shows one’s compliance with the regime. The licensed human being thereby replaces the responsible citizen. Rewards for conformity take the place of basic rights.
To cover up the arbitrariness of these orders, a cult is erected: wearing masks, publicly revealing one’s vaccination status by presenting a health pass in more or less any social interaction, etc. have by now acquired the status of symbols of a religious cult. More precisely, it is not venerable religion but outright superstition with the unfounded belief in magic powers, such as magic powers of wearing masks in public and medical treatments sold as vaccinations to expel the evil virus.
This is a kind of modern sale of indulgences by means of which one cleanses oneself from the suspicion of harming others by pursuing everyday activities. Asking for evidence of the effectiveness of these measures is met with moral condemnation instead of rational discussion in the same way as agnostics in religion were ostracised in former times. In short, a religious, in fact superstitious cult is back as a form of social cohesion that is controlled by a central political authority and legitimised through the pretension of scientific findings.
The most important difference between the current postmodern totalitarianism and earlier totalitarianisms is this one: the grand narrative of an absolute good – the classless society as the ultimate goal of history in communism, the racially pure society in national socialism – is replaced by many small narratives of partial goods, such as health protection, climate protection, etc.
Each of these narratives implies, when it is dominant, as comprehensive a social control as the grand narratives once did. Herein lies the danger of actually existing postmodernism: when one such narrative breaks down – such as the corona narrative at present – this is not the end of the totalitarian regime. One can easily switch from one small narrative to the next one – from corona to climate to various sorts of “social justice,” etc. – in order to maintain the regime of an all-comprehensive social control.
The postmodern totalitarianism is not a specifically technocratic totalitarianism. Every totalitarianism depends on the technological means available at its time to install the regime of total social control. There is no totalitarianism without an ideology, alleged science that supports this ideology and a superstitious cult. In every totalitarianism, all these means are employed to create a new man. In the current case, it is about a transformation of human nature such that human beings no longer infect each other with viruses, no longer consume energy in a way that they pollute the environment, etc.
If this diagnosis is on the right track, it is important, but not sufficient to debunk the corona narrative, the climate narrative, etc. One has to eradicate actually existing postmodernism at its roots. This means going back to the foundations of modernity: the rule of law consists in enforcing negative freedom, namely non-interference with the way people choose to lead their lives. Whenever one enlarges the role of the state to promote any sort of entitlement rights in the name of “social justice” or an alleged common good, there is no limit any more to regulating the lives of people.
One then inevitably goes down the road to serfdom, to use the terms of Hayek. This has become evident again in the manner in which the corona and climate science and politics usher in a new, specifically postmodern form of totalitarian social control (see also Phillipp Bagus et al., “Covid-19 and the political economy of mass hysteria.”
Once again, we need the courage to use reason as a means to limit power. The concentration of power is an evil in itself. It leads to abuse. It is an illusion to think that there could be a good state endowed with coercive power that could regulate society in the sense of “social justice” through redistributing wealth (the welfare state with its dependence on fiat money) or, even worse, implementing a common good through the regulation of the lives of people. The way back to freedom is to free ourselves from this illusion.
In his essay “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant defines enlightenment as “the exit of man from his self-imposed immaturity.” If one replaces “religion” with “science” and “guardians” with “experts” in this essay, it paints a fitting picture of today’s situation.
According to Kant, the public use of reason must be free at all times and under all conditions to enable enlightenment. It is therefore of utmost importance to fight cancel culture. Scientists and intellectuals should fulfill their responsibility towards the citizens, who finance them through their taxes, in their public use of reason, instead of going into self-imposed censorship and letting politicians and their mouthpieces in the media dictate what one may and may not say.
“Have the courage to use your own mind!” is the motto of the Enlightenment according to Kant. If enough people muster again this courage, we will return to the path that leads to peaceful coexistence, to technological and economic progress and with it to more quality of life and opportunities for the development of a self-determined life for all: this is the path of fact-based science and a constitutional state that safeguards the fundamental rights of each individual person.