One of the things I’ve had to get used to in writing these weekly blogs is that events sometimes move fast enough that I have to scramble to keep up. The self-inflicted epic fail of mass Covid vaccination seems to be turning into a good example of that phenomenon. Two weeks ago, when I posted part three of the current sequence, medical and political authorities across the industrial world were still striking heroic poses in front of every available mirror, preening themselves on how well they responded to the Covid pandemic. Now? Not so much.
We’ve had the head of the CDC admit that their response to Covid was pretty much a failure, and announce a top-to-bottom reorganization in the hope of doing better next time. We’ve had Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highest-paid bureaucrat in the US government, suddenly announce his retirement. We’ve had the governor of New York belatedly admit that shutting down the schools was a bad idea. We’ve had one of the two leading contenders for prime minister of Britain state publicly that it was a bad idea to hand over that nation’s Covid response to an unelected gaggle of scientists, and the British government decide that it’s a bad idea to give untested vaccines to pregnant and breastfeeding women. We’ve had the Democratic Party here in the US pivot on a dime and insist that the US Covid response was all Donald Trump’s fault Er, weren’t you all just boasting a few weeks ago about how Biden was fighting Covid?
My one consolation is that I wasn’t the only person left scrambling. I think most people know that major corporate and political interests in the industrial world hire rent-a-trolls—er, “paid social media influencers”—to push their preferred agendas on comment pages and the like. If you happen to like to write things that offend major corporate and political interests, as I do, you get used to them. I had a flurry of them early on in the comment cycle two weeks ago. One of the claims they took from their sheet of prearranged talking points was the insistence that the study I cited, showing that nearly a third of young men injected with a Covid vaccine suffered heart damage, was so weak it would never be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Apparently they forgot to check with the peer reviewed-journals. Here’s the published version in the respected peer-reviewed journal Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease. (If you really believe in following the science, this might be a good place to start.)
Exactly where this is going is a fascinating question. The speed with which the backpedaling has begun suggests to me that something may have gone very, very wrong with the Covid vaccines, and word of this has been leaked to some parts of the political establishment. If the US government follows its usual approach to admitting mistakes it can no longer cover up, I’d expect an announcement from a midlevel staffer on the Friday before Labor Day right after the stock markets close. That gives the people responsible ample time to get assets, and just possibly themselves, out of the country before the boom comes down. Still, that’s a hypothesis at best; they may try to keep a lid on it until after the midterms. We’ll just have to see what happens.
Meanwhile, as the popcorn pops and I hand out beers to all and sundry, and we all wait to find out whether there are perp walks and whose reputations get hauled away for decent burial, I’d like to talk a little about how we got here and where we might be going next.
The first point I’d like to make is that the clerisy of the modern industrial world—yes, that’s the class of university-educated experts who claim that their mastery of fashionable abstractions makes them uniquely qualified to run the world—hasn’t actually been in power for very long. A century ago, the vast majority of people, and indeed the vast majority of politicians, didn’t think of university-educated experts as the kind of people who knew much about running anything at all. The image of the smarter-than-everyone expert, clear-eyed and steel-jawed, leading the world toward a bright future of progress? That was restricted to science fiction pulp magazines in those days. Most people thought of university-educated experts, rather, as—well, eggheads. Boffins. Absent-minded, unrealistic eccentrics who’d strayed from the real world into a wonderland of abstractions, who might now and then come up with something interesting or useful, but who might just as easily kill us all through inattention or malice. There’s a reason why mad scientist movies were so fashionable in those days. (I sometimes wonder if people back then had some kind of dim intuitive sense of what was coming.)
The Second World War was the turning point. By the time it broke out, the exploitation of the gargantuan reserves of nearly free energy provided by petroleum had launched a cascade of technological revolutions—tanks, airplanes, motorized transport, and much more. The United States and the Soviet Union triumphed in that war because they had colossal petroleum reserves and the scientists and engineers they needed to cash in cheap energy for the headier currency of military victory. The actinic flashes that turned two Japanese cities into smoldering moonscapes in August of 1945 emphasized the point, and convinced elites all through the industrial world that handing over as much authority as possible to experts was the key to national survival and supremacy in the Cold War struggles that followed.
The experts, for their part, were more than happy to oblige. There followed promptly the vast metastatic expansion of government bureaucracies, the creation of thousands upon thousands of advisory panels and scientific positions in government, and the equally explosive growth of the university system in most industrial nations, so that there would be a certified expert ready, willing, and able to fill every imaginable position in government and business.
That expansion was driven by a classic good-cop/bad-cop routine carried out with gusto by the rising clerisy. On the one side, you had an endless parade of visions of a shining future of perpetual progress that would surely come our way once the experts were given all the power they craved. On the other, you had an endless parade of all the world-ending catastrophes that were sure to mash us all flat to the dust if the experts weren’t given all the power they craved. That’s still going on now, of course, though it’s lost some of its vigor; I recall seeing signs at recent climate protests reading “Every disaster movie begins with politicians ignoring warnings from scientists.” Granted, but the people waving those signs apparently haven’t noticed that those movies are fiction. In the real world, how many of those much-ballyhooed disasters actually happened? Meanwhile, where are the domed cities, the flying cars, the cures for cancer and the common cold, and all the other things we were promised so earnestly?
For that matter, it’s worth noting how many of the failures, disasters, and avoidable calamities of the last three quarters of a century have happened not in spite of the clerisy but because of them. Here’s a wonderful new technology that will bring all kinds of benefits! Oops, well, I guess it had a whole series of ghastly costs we weren’t expecting, but here’s another wonderful new technology that will fix them! Here’s a change in society that our theories say will benefit everyone! Oops, well, I guess that had a whole series of downsides and blowbacks we weren’t expecting, either, but here’s another change in society that our theories say will fix everything! Rinse and repeat, and you’ve got a pretty fair summary of what’s happened to the industrial world over the last seven and a half decades. It’s not a pretty sight.
It’s quite possible that in 1922, say, most industrial nations really could have used more experts than they had, and that a certain amount of advice from the clerisy actually helped in the years that followed. The opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea, however, and over the last century we’ve gone from too few experts to far, far too many. Consider the table above, which shows the expansion of administrative personnel in the US medical industry as compared to the expansion of physicians. If you’ve ever wondered why health care is more expensive in this country than anywhere else in the world, there’s your reason: all those administrators have salaries and benefits that have to be paid for out of your medical bills. Nor, if I might add, has the quality of health care risen accordingly—quite the opposite.
In a nutshell, that’s what happened to us in the age of experts. That’s also what happened to the glorious future of endless technological progress rule by experts was supposed to bring us: it got misplaced somewhere in the rising heaps of interoffice memos generated by an endlessly proliferating managerial bureaucracy. Right now, in hard economic terms, most Americans are significantly worse off than they were seventy-five years ago in 1947, when the clerisy hadn’t yet tightened its inept grip on the nation’s economic life, and when rent, health care, college classes, and a great many other expenses were insanely cheap by modern standards, even with inflation factored in. In that year, furthermore, anyone with an eighth grade education could pretty much count on getting a job and earning enough to stay fed, clothed, and housed.
The history of the last decade and a half can be defined fairly neatly as the process by which the clerisy threw away the last scraps of its legitimacy in the eyes of the general public, and then started panicking over the inevitable blowback. The boom and bust cycle that ran from 2002 or so to 2008, to my mind, was the critical event in that process. University-trained economists across the board loudly insisted that the speculative bubble in real estate that popped that year wasn’t a speculative bubble and wouldn’t pop. They didn’t count on a blogosphere that by then was large enough, widely read enough, and more than skeptical enough to challenge them point for point and make accurate predictions that left the economics profession looking like fools.
In the aftermath, things got worse for the experts. The Bush and Obama administrations jointly shoveled billions of dollars of money into the pockets of bankers, insisting that giving yet more unearned wealth to the kleptocratic rich would benefit the rest of us. Of course it didn’t, and the blogosphere and a growing number of ordinary people said so. They were sneered at by the experts, and of course they were also right. Obamacare, another gargantuan giveaway to corporate interests, put icing on the cake: practically every claim made by its proponents, from Barack Obama right on down to the flacks in city paper newsrooms, turned out to be false; a great many of the claims made by the critics and skeptics turned out to be true; and people noticed this. Meanwhile similar shifts were going on elsewhere in the industrial world.
Fast forward to 2016. The Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the US put the clerisy of the industrial world on notice that a very large number of people no longer trusted them and would not take their advice any longer. The result, as we all remember, was a pair of world-class tantrums. How dare ordinary people doubt the expert opinions of their betters? Of course that didn’t exactly go over well among the ordinary people in question, and the result was the increasingly hostile armed standoff between the clerisy and its supporters, on the one hand, and those people who had lost faith in the clerisy on the other. Since the clerisy was doing nothing to give people a reason to have renewed faith in their competence—shrieking insults at your critics isn’t an effective way to do this, after all—stresses rose to the breaking point.
That, I’d like to suggest, had a great deal to do with the bizarre way that the educated classes in the United States and elsewhere insisted on absolute obedience to a set of wholly untested public health measures once Covid broke out, lined up to get injected with vaccines (that is to say, experimental genetic therapies that were hurriedly renamed “vaccines”) that had been rushed through a few weeks of pro forma testing, and responded with shrill fury and calls for censorship when anybody raised questions about what, by every previously recognized standard of public health, was a very dubious set of procedures. The heart and soul of the clerisy’s claim to political power is its insistence that qualified experts approved by the relevant bureaucracies know better than everyone else. That made it easy for the clerisy and its hangers-on to turn blind acceptance of the official Covid policies into a loyalty test for adherents of the clerisy itself.
That, in turn, explains one of the oddest features of the whole Covid phenomenon—the way that so many people who used to insist that corporations couldn’t be trusted and that natural healing modalities were the better option suddenly turned on a dime and insisted that the only option was to believe every word that came out of the mouth of a Pfizer flack and take whatever quack nostrum Big Pharma wanted to push on you. The people who did this were by and large members of or aspirants to the clerisy, proud of their educational status and their white-collar jobs. Here as so often, class loyalties took precedence over everything else.
That was even true among a large share of medical herbalists and other alternative health care practitioners. Those of my readers who haven’t been tracking the alternative health care scene may not know that the beads-and-blue jeans folk herbalism of the 1970s and 1980s got shoved aside a quarter of a century ago by upwardly mobile herbalists who wanted to claw their way into the clerisy, with status and income to match. As that happened, teas made from familiar roadside weeds got replaced by chemically standardized extracts of exotic plants you can’t grow locally, certification programs became all the rage, and medical herbalism started blatantly modeling itself on mainstream medicine. Having committed to the values of the clerisy, they had to support those values, even at the cost of everything they once claimed to believe.
The same thing happened to the arts community, for the same reason. Since the fine arts in today’s America have embraced a sterile academicism and done their level best to chase off the mass audiences they had a century ago, the clerisy is the only market they’ve got left. For that matter, most of the arts community is obsessed with credentials these days—it’s not whether you’ve got the least trace of talent or skill, it’s whether you’ve got an MFA from the right school that matters. Those are among the reasons why every fad among academics and the managerial class gets picked up and loudly trumpeted by the arts these days. Going whole hog on the cootie theater of masks, shutdowns, social distancing, and vaccine mandates was just one more step in the ongoing quest to please their masters.
Thus it’s fair to say that the clerisy of the industrial world decided that the officially approved response to the Covid-19 pandemic was the hill it was going to die on. The problem with such decisions, in turn, is that very often, that’s indeed where you die.
British politician Rishi Sunak’s comments to the media about the failures of the British response to Covid-19 are a useful straw in the wind. He said in so many words that it had been a mistake to put that response into the hands of a panel of experts. What that means, clearly enough, is that those experts are going to be the designated scapegoats as the downsides of the vaccines, social distancing, and the rest of it come to light. Anthony Fauci is pretty clearly being set up for the same role here in the United States—admittedly, it’s one he’s richly earned. Expect similar scenes to unfold in other countries and on more local levels.
The politicians aren’t willing to take the hit for this one. For once, that’s reasonable. It wasn’t politicians, by and large, who decided to throw out a century of hard-earned epidemiological experience in favor of the unproven theories behind shutdowns and social distancing, or to demand that entire populations get injected with drugs that hadn’t had anything like enough testing to make sure they were safe, or even did what they were supposed to do. It was the experts who did that—and it’s the experts who are going to be left holding the bag.
It would be one thing if this was a one-off, the sole failure to be laid at the feet of an otherwise efficient and successful clerisy. Unfortunately for them, it’s anything but that. Here in the United States, it’s hard to find anything the clerisy hasn’t botched. Consider, as one example out of many, our public education system. It used to be one of the best in the world; now it routinely graduates entire classes of functional illiterates from high school. That happened because university education departments and school administrations imposed a long series of intellectual fashions on classroom teachers, discarding methods that worked and replacing them with ever more dysfunctional policies and programs. The ensuing collapse of public confidence in the public schools didn’t happen by accident. It was richly earned by the experts.
Here again, take the same principle and apply it to most other aspects of American public life and you’ll see the same thing endlessly repeated. Nor was any other outcome ever likely. University-trained experts, after all, are no more immune from the temptations of arrogance, corruption, and faddishness than the rest of us. Give them the opportunity to form a self-selecting, self-regulating, and self-aggrandizing coterie that runs important elements of society, without effective oversight from any outside source, and they’re going to make a world-class botch job out of it—as indeed they have done.
And now? It’s only in the imagination of the clerisy that the clerisy is indispensible. Especially here in the United States, where our era of global empire is rapidly waning and retooling our government and society to get by on much less wealth is an imperative, the privileges and salaries of the clerisy are low-hanging fruit for the first rounds of government cutbacks. It’s not hard to imagine a president in the near future, for example, noting that the Council of Economic Advisers has offered consistently bad advice to presidents since it was founded, and sending its inmates out to find honest work somewhere else, or noting with equal clarity that the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and most federal spending on science have become slush funds supporting educated failures and could be terminated without undue inconvenience to anyone but those battening on them. This list could be extended at great length without any great difficulty. It may well be so extended, to rousing cheers from everyone outside the narrowing circles of the clerisy, in the very near future.
Once again, a hundred years ago university-trained experts didn’t have the kind of wealth, status, and influence they’ve had in the recent past. It may take quite a bit less than a hundred years for them to revert to the condition they had in 1922. Fail badly enough and you forfeit your grip on power—and no, if that happens, it doesn’t matter how loudly you insist that people can’t possibly get by without you, they’re not going to listen. If the blowback from the failure of the Covid vaccines turns out to be bad enough, a loss of status may be the least that the clerisy has to worry about in the years ahead. Still, we’ll just have to wait and see.