What follows is an excerpt from the new book The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State.
The Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who came of age in the 1930s and observed with horror the emergence of Mussolini’s Fascist regime in his native country, warned that “the widespread notion that the age of totalitarianisms ended with Hitlerism and Stalinism is completely mistaken.” He explained:
The essential element of totalitarianism, in brief, lies in the refusal to recognize the difference between “brute reality” and “human reality,” so that it becomes possible to describe man, non-metaphorically, as a “raw material” or as a form of “capital.” Today this view, which used to be typical of Communist totalitarianism, has been taken up by its Western alternative, the technological society.
By technological society, Del Noce did not mean a society characterized by scientific or technological progress, but a society characterized by a view of rationality as purely instrumental. Human reason, on this view, is unable to grasp ideas that go beyond brute empirical facts: we are incapable of discovering transcendent truths. Reason is merely a pragmatic tool, a useful instrument for accomplishing our purposes, but nothing more. Totalitarian ideologies deny that all human beings participate in a shared rationality. We therefore cannot really talk to one another: it is impossible to deliberate or debate civilly in a shared pursuit of truth. Reasoned persuasion has no place. Totalitarian regimes always monopolize what counts as “rational” and therefore what one is permitted to say publicly.
For example, if people in a Communist society contradict Communist doctrine, the party does not explain why they are wrong. The authorities simply dismiss dissenting opinions as instances of “bourgeois rationality” or “false consciousness.” For a Communist, if you have not embraced Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism, then you do not understand the direction of history. What you are talking about is, by definition, pure nonsense and not worth considering. You are obviously on the “wrong side of history.” Authorities assume that dissenting opinions must be motivated by class interests (or racial characteristics, or gender, or whatever), which dissidents are trying to defend.
You don’t think such-and-such because you reasoned logically to that conclusion; you think such-and-such because you are a white, heterosexual, middle-class American female, and so forth. In this way, totalitarians do not persuade or refute their interlocutors with reasoned arguments. They merely impute bad faith to their opponents and refuse to engage in meaningful debate. They forcibly cut their adversaries off from the sphere of enlightened conversation. One does not bother arguing against such dissidents; one simply steamrolls them after placing them outside the realm of acceptable opinion.
The totalitarianisms of the 20th century were grounded in pseudoscientific ideologies, e.g., the Marxist pseudoscience of economics and history, or the Nazi pseudoscience of race and eugenics. In our own day, the pseudo-scientific ideology that drives societies in a totalitarian direction is scientism, which must be clearly distinguished from science. The ideology of scientism and the practice of science should not be confused: the former is often conflated with the latter, which creates no end of muddled thinking.
Method and Madness
Science is a method, or more accurately, a collection of various methods, aimed at systematically investigating observable phenomena in the natural world. Rigorous science is characterized by hypothesis, experiment, testing, interpretation, and ongoing deliberation and debate. Put a group of real scientists in a room together and they will argue endlessly about the salience, significance, and interpretation of data, about the limitations and strengths of various research methodologies, and about the big picture questions. Science is an enormously complex human enterprise, with each scientific discipline having own refined methods of inquiry and its own competing theories. Science is not an irrefutable body of knowledge. It is always fallible, always open to revision; yet when conducted rigorously and carefully, scientific research is capable of genuine discoveries and important advances.
Scientism is the philosophical claim—which cannot be proven scientifically—that science is the only valid form of knowledge. Anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “Science says . . . ” is likely in the grip of scientism. Genuine scientists don’t talk like this. They begin sentences with phrases like, “The findings of this study suggest,” or “This meta-analysis concluded. . . .” Scientism, by contrast, is a religious and often a political ideology. “It has been evident for quite a while that science has become our time’s religion,” the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observed, “the thing which people believe that they believe in.” When science becomes a religion—a closed and exclusionary belief system—we are dealing with scientism.
The characteristic feature of science is warranted uncertainty, which leads to intellectual humility.
The characteristic feature of scientism is unwarranted certainty, which leads to intellectual hubris.
Del Noce realized that scientism is intrinsically totalitarian, a profound insight of enormous importance for our time. “Many people do not realize that scientism and the technological society are totalitarian in nature,” he wrote fifty years ago. To understand why, consider that scientism and totalitarianism both claim a monopoly on knowledge. The advocate of scientism and the true believer in a totalitarian system both assert that many common-sense notions are simply irrational, unverifiable, unscientific, and therefore outside the scope of what can be said publicly. Antigone’s claim, “I have a duty, inscribed indelibly on the human heart, to bury my dead brother” is not a scientific statement; therefore, according to the ideology of scientism, it is pure nonsense. All moral or metaphysical claims are specifically excluded because they cannot be verified by the methods of science or established by the reigning pseudo-scientific totalitarian ideology.
Of course, the forced exclusion of moral, metaphysical, or religious claims is not a conclusion of science, but an unprovable philosophical premise of scientism. The assertion that science is the only valid form of knowledge is itself a metaphysical (not a scientific) claim, smuggled in quietly through the backdoor. Scientism needs to hide this self-refuting fact from itself, so it is necessarily mendacious: dishonesty is baked into the system, and various forms of irrationalism follow. The 20th century totalitarian ideologies all claimed to be “scientific,” but were in fact unfalsifiable by their own circular logic. Because scientism cannot establish itself through rational argument, it relies instead on three tools to advance: brute force, defamation of critics, and the promise of future happiness. These are the same tools deployed by all totalitarian systems.
To hide its own internal contradiction from view, the self-refuting premise of scientism is rarely stated explicitly. Scientism is instead implicitly assumed, its conclusions repeatedly asserted, until this ideology simply becomes the air we breathe. Careful policing of public discourse admits only evidence supposedly supported by “science,” and this atmosphere is rigorously enforced. As we will see in the next chapter, during the pandemic, qualitative (e.g., familial, spiritual) goods were repeatedly sacrificed to quantitative (e.g., biological, medical) goods, even when the former were real and the latter only theoretical. This is the fruit of scientism, which turns our scale of values and priorities upside-down.
It would be hard to find a more effective ideological tool to impose a totalitarian system than by appealing to “science” or “experts” and thereby claiming a monopoly on knowledge and rationality. Those in power can readily choose which scientific experts they endorse and which they silence. This allows politicians to defer inescapably political judgments to “experts,” thus abdicating their own responsibility. One’s ideological opponents are hamstrung, their opinions excluded as “unscientific,” and their public voice silenced—all without the trouble of maintaining a regime of brute force and physical violence. Defamation and exclusion from public discourse works just as effectively. Those in power maintain a monopoly on what counts as Rationality (or Science); they do not bother talking to or debating the [fill-in-the-blank stigmatized group] “bourgeois,” “Jew,” “unvaccinated,” “unmasked,” “anti-science,” “Covid-denier,” etc.
Repressive social conformity is thus achieved without resorting to concentration camps, gulags, Gestapo, KGB, or openly despotic tyrants. Instead, dissenters are confined to a moral ghetto through censorship and slander. Recalcitrant individuals are placed outside the purview of polite society and excluded from enlightened conversation. The political theorist Eric Voegelin observed the essence of totalitarianism is simply that certain questions are forbidden. The prohibition against asking questions is a deliberately and skillfully elaborated obstruction of reason in a totalitarian system. If one asks certain questions—“Do we really need to continue locking down?” or “Are school closures doing more harm than good?” or “Are we sure these vaccines are safe and effective?” or “Why has the promised utopia not yet arrived?”—one will be accused of being a pandemic denier, wanting to kill grandma, being anti-science, or of placing oneself on the “wrong side of history.”