Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Essays

The COVID Regime and the Liberal Subject

The Rise of the Hygiene Maximalists

Matthew B. Crawford

Masked statue of Atlas by Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan, Rockefeller Center, New York; Patti McConville/Alamy Stock Photos.

Throughout history, there have been crises that could be resolved only by suspending the normal rule of law and constitutional principles. In such instances, a “state of exception” is declared until the emergency passes––it could be a foreign invasion, an earthquake, or a plague, for example. During this period, the legislative function is typically relocated from a parliamentary body to the executive; in effect, the basic charter of government and, in particular, the separation of powers is suspended. During the COVID pandemic in the United States, for example, lockdown restrictions and vaccine and masking mandates have not been enacted by state or federal legislatures, but by executive action or lower-level bureaucratic rule-making.

Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben points out that, in fact, the “state of exception” has almost become the rule rather than the exception in Western liberal democracies over the last century. The language of war is invoked to pursue ordinary domestic politics. In the last forty years in the United States we have had the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on COVID-19, the war on disinformation, the war on domestic extremism.

A variation on this theme is the utility of moral panics for enabling top-down projects of social transformation, typically by administrative fiat. Victimological dramas provide a mood of permanent moral emergency, justifying an ever deeper penetration of society by bureaucratic authority in both the public and private sectors (the latter incudes human resources departments and university administrations, for example).

Once this pattern of government by emergency snaps into focus, one can’t help but experience a gestalt shift. The self-image of the liberal West––as based on the rule of law and representative government––is out of date and in need of revision. Our society’s response to COVID-19 brought this anachronism to mass awareness.

On the one hand, the emergency accelerated what had previously been a slow-motion desertion of liberal principles of government. On the other hand, COVID culture—most notably, the withdrawal of the face and the sequestering of children, based on scanty and ambiguous empirical evidence, and more broadly the re-imagining of fellow citizens as disease vectors—made visible the usually subterranean core of the liberal project, which is not merely political but anthropological: to remake man. That project can come to fruition, it seems, only with a highly illiberal form of government, paradoxically enough. If we can understand this, it might explain why our embrace of extralegal governance has met so little resistance. It seems the anthropological project is a more powerful commitment for us than allegiance to the forms and procedures of constitutional government.

Liberal Pedigrees of Locke and Hobbes

Our regime is founded on two rival pictures of the human subject. The Lockean one portrays us as rational, self-governing creatures. It locates reason in a common human endowment—common sense, more or less—and underwrites a basically democratic or majoritarian form of politics. There are no secrets to governing. In the second, rival picture we are depicted as irrationally proud, and in need of being governed. This Hobbesian picture is more hortatory than the first; it needs us to think of ourselves as vulnerable so the state can play the role of saving us. It underwrites a technocratic, progressive form of politics.

The Lockean assumption has been quietly put to bed over the last thirty years, as I have argued previously, and we have fully embraced the Hobbesian alternative. Let us consider these developments in turn.

The 1990s saw the rise of new currents in the social sciences that emphasize the cognitive incompetence of human beings, deposing the “rational actor” model of human behavior. This gave us the “nudge,” a way to alter people’s behavior without having to persuade them of anything. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which this approach has been institutionalized, on both sides of the Atlantic. The innovation achieved here is in the way government conceives its subjects: not as citizens whose considered consent must be secured, but as particles to be steered through a science of behavior management that relies on our pre-reflective cognitive biases.

This is one front in a larger development: an intensifying distrust of human judgment. Sometimes this takes the purely bureaucratic form of insisting on metrics of performance and imposing uniform procedures on professionals. “Evidence-based medicine” circumscribes the discretion of doctors; standardized tests and curricula do the same for teachers. At other times, this same impulse takes a technological form, with algorithms substituting for individual judgment on the grounds that human rationality is the weak link in the system. For example, it is stipulated that human beings are terrible drivers and must be replaced in a new regime of autonomous vehicles. The effect, consistently, is to remove agency from skilled practitioners on the grounds of incompetence and devolve power upward toward a separate layer of information managers that grows ever thicker. It also removes responsibility from identifiable human beings who can be held to account for their decisions. Decisions made by algorithms are often not explainable, even by those who wrote the algorithm, and for that reason cannot win rational assent. Instead, we have simply to trust that the new clerisy of data scientists is both wise and benevolent. Such mystification insulates various forms of power, both governmental and commercial, from popular pressures.

None of this sits well with the Enlightenment idea that governing authority is to be grounded in our shared rationality, accessible in principle to every citizen and capable of articulation. Technocratic progressivism in fact requires the disqualification of experience and common sense as a guide to reality and installs in their place a basically priestly form of authority, closer to the Enlightenment’s caricature of medieval society than to its own self-image.

It also requires a certain human type which, fittingly enough, looks like a caricature of the medieval personality: a credulous, fearful person.

How are we to understand the dramatically different responses of our society to the Spanish flu of a century ago and to COVID-19 today? There is an inverse relationship between the severity of these pandemics and the severity of measures to control them.11xAccording to the 2021 National Institutes of Health study “COVID-19: A Comparison to the 1918 Influenza and How We Can Defeat It” by Shu Ting Liang, et al, the 1918 flu pandemic had a mortality rate of 8–10 percent for younger people, whereas for COVID-19 the mortality rate was thought to be 0.2 percent for those aged 25–40 at the time of publication. The rate has been revised downward significantly since then. COVID has overwhelmingly been fatal only to the already sick and the very old (with a mortality rate comparable to that of the flu for the rest of the population), making the measures contemplated in pandemic war games before 2020 entirely appropriate: isolate the most vulnerable. The authors of the Great Barrington Declaration advocated this conventional wisdom in 2020 in response to COVID, and were widely demonized for having done so; NIH study available here:,date%2C%20with%201.3%20million%20deaths. Clearly, COVID-19 acquired some of its emergency energy from the ambient political crisis that had been brewing since 2016, which put the establishment—an oft-derided term, which denotes real, interlocking centers of power in a variety of domains—on a war footing. But it also slotted nicely into the more general politics of emergency that is the lifeblood of technocratic progressivism, and is further advanced today than it was in 1918.

In 2020, a fearful public acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life, and a corresponding transfer of sovereignty from representative bodies to unelected agencies located in the executive branch of government. Notoriously, polling indicated that perception of the risk of dying from COVID outstripped the reality by one to two orders of magnitude, but with a sharp demarcation: The hundredfold distortion was largely among self-identified liberals, presumably those whose yard signs exhorted us to “believe in science.”

In a technocratic regime, whoever controls what Science says controls the state. What Science says is then subject to political contest, and subject to capture by whoever funds it. Which turns out to be the state itself. Here is an epistemic, self-licking ice cream cone that bristles at outside interference. Many factual ambiguities and rival hypotheses about the pandemic, typical of the scientific process, were resolved not by rational debate but by intimidation, with heavy use of the term “disinformation” and attendant enforcement by social media companies acting as franchisees of the state. In this there seems to have been a consistent bias toward scientific interpretations that induced fear, even at the cost of omitting relevant context.22xAs we now know (since the release of Matt Taibbi’s “Twitter files”;, the CDC, FBI, and other government entities pressured social media companies to censor information that they knew to be true, if it was judged likely to induce vaccine hesitancy or lessen the sense of crisis. The Virality Project of the Stanford Internet Observatory appeared to have acted as an entrepreneurial “disinformation” hunter (itself sometimes misinformed), mobilizing other actors to work in tandem; see This is emblematic of a wider development in which political initiative and functions we associate with the executive branch have devolved to a sprawling parastate that includes corporations, media, academic entities, and NGOs. The resulting dysfunction and policy incoherence can be overcome, it seems, if there is a crisis serious enough to get the various nodes of this decentralized apparatus moving in the same direction.

If much of this strikes you as illiberal, it should. Yet in another sense, the use of fear in politics has an impeccable liberal pedigree in the thought of Thomas Hobbes.

First, in what sense is Hobbes a liberal? He is certainly no advocate of limited government, and the regime he imagines is basically monarchical. It is liberal in the sense that it is founded on consent. But it turns out that this consent depends on a reeducation program that reaches quite deep, and is never finished. It has been said that Hobbes invented the bourgeois, a new human type who is concerned with comfortable self-preservation and skeptical of higher goods.

Hobbes offers a fable of human origins, the state of nature, according to which we are originally in a condition of acute vulnerability. Even after the rise of political society, civil war is always a threat, and is the problem that his politics is meant to solve. The problem comes down to the fact that we are prone to pride, or vainglory; we are ornery. This is based on a false consciousness in which we place too high a value on ourselves; we then feel slighted and insulted when others fail to recognize us. Such aristocratic brittleness leads to faction and civil strife. The good news is that it can be overcome through a shift in perspective, if we (and especially the proud) come to identify with the weak rather than think ourselves strong. We are all potential victims, and this is the self-awareness that grounds political authority in consent. Out of fear, we consent to a social compact in which we all submit to Leviathan, whom Hobbes calls the “King of the proud.”

Liberalism begins with the politics of emergency, then. Leviathan is supposed to end this state of emergency; that is the whole point of it. But the emergency must be renewed, over and over again, if Leviathan is to thrive. This requires renewal of the consciousness-raising program as well, cultivating the vulnerable self. This is the self that is implicit in the cult of safetyism that children are brought up in. It is also the guy you see riding his bicycle double-masked.

A therapeutic parastate of social workers and psychiatrists began growing in the nineteenth century and was well described by Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World (1977) and elsewhere. It has long required fragile selves, more as clients than as citizens. With the rise of the biosecurity state, this demand has taken on a new dimension.

The Rise of the Hygiene Maximalists

I should say where I am coming from. I live in the Bay Area, the most deeply blue region in the country. I may be responding to different social facts than readers are observing where they live. Even now, a lot of people are walking around Berkeley and San Jose and Palo Alto masked, outdoors. I would like to understand this. Whatever they are doing, it is not “following the science.”

Let us acknowledge that many of our hygiene maximalists are acting not out of fear for themselves but in the name of the common good —and this is attractive. Indeed, maybe deep-blue COVID culture was prompted by dissatisfaction with liberal individualism. We have unsatisfied longings for belonging, for anything that could pull us out of the liberal mindset of rights and recall us to duties. The pandemic provided an opportunity to rise above the selfish concerns of the bourgeois and discover some public-spiritedness in oneself. Zero COVID is a heroic battle, to join which requires a literal effacement of the individual. As in any war, those who have answered the call recognize one another not by their faces but by their uniform, the N95 face mask.

This is inspiring, but it is also a little creepy, at least for those of us leery of mass movements. There is a cult-like quality to public spaces in the Bay Area. One may efface oneself, not out of fear but out of identification with the Vulnerable One who is currently elevated, the immunocompromised. How many of these are there, really? (The answer might matter if hygiene theater did anything to protect them, but unfortunately it does not.33xThe meta-study of 12 randomized control trials investigating the efficacy of masks in controlling the spread of respiratory viruses, conducted by the Cochrane Library, concluded that “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza‐like illness (ILI)/COVID‐19 like illness compared to not wearing masks….” In response to this finding that there is no evidence for the efficacy of masks, it has rightly been objected that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This is true in principle, as a simple matter of logic. But given the massive publication bias that afflicts science in general (null findings are rarely published), and given also the massive institutional investment in masking, it may be safer to conclude that here the absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. It is further objected that in these trials, compliance with mask mandates was incomplete, and therefore “real masking has bever been tried.” It may be left to the reader’s imagination what “real masking” might look like; what such a rigorous transformations of the lifeworld would entail, and whether this is attractive. The Cochrane Library Study is available here:

Note that in this Hobbesian dynamic, the politics of emergency is intimately tied to victimology. Perhaps this helps us understand how, in the summer of 2020, the health emergency of COVID-19 and the moral emergency of white supremacism seemed to merge into a single thing. Social distancing guidelines had to be adjusted to accommodate mass protests, as these, too, served to advance the generic crisis. You don’t need a conspiracy of hostile elites to explain this. It is sufficient to have a shared political morality that sacralizes the victim, issuing in moral demands that are categorical, even if contradictory.

There is another way in which the pandemic has exaggerated tendencies native to liberalism. Social distancing might be regarded as a heightened version of the late liberal social condition, in which intermediary institutions that situate the individual in associations with others have badly eroded, as Robert Putnam documented in his 2000 book Bowling Alone. Hannah Arendt found social atomization to be among the conditions that give rise to totalitarian movements. In the absence of a shared world, we latch on to ersatz sources of solidarity, and the Party—whatever its current name or official form—offers just this. Disconnected individuals coalesce into a mass, which is very different from a community. Arendt’s analysis suggests that liberal individualism has latent in it a tendency to totalitarianism, as a kind of overcorrection. This is one way to make sense of the cultish vibe of hygiene maximalists—as spiritual soldiers of the nascent hygiene state.

The lockdowns kicked our social atomization to a level we have never seen before. Loneliness profoundly damages our ability to orient in the world and distinguish what is real from what is in one’s head, as studies of the effects of solitary confinement indicate. With little shared material existence to provide an intersubjective anchor, we found what solace we could in disembodied interaction on social media. Screen time increased dramatically for all demographics. But such interaction tends toward the feedback loops and brittleness of merely verbally constituted tribes who lack the shared, pragmatic interests of those who inhabit a real world together.

The good invoked by our hygiene maximalists was that of health. But not health considered broadly, which would require an accounting of the health costs of lockdowns. There is a lively empirical debate about this in the back channels of the Internet, as well as about the efficacy of lockdowns in controlling the course of the pandemic, quite apart from any rise in non-COVID mortality they may have caused. My point here is not to litigate these factual questions, which are contested. But I do want to register the lack of curiosity about them in officialdom, and note that among those who identify as liberals there seems to be little interest in such an accounting, though it would seem to be crucial. The real attachment seems to be not to actual health but to a source of collective meaning that floats free of the empirical: the COVID emergency itself.

It has been said that, in its formalism and insistence on neutral procedures, liberalism has an “empty center,” denuded of substantive commitments. But political life abhors a vacuum, and the center doesn’t remain empty. The good that got latched onto as a source of collective meaning during the pandemic was that of minimizing deaths attributable to a single cause, never mind the wider field of harms done by the lockdowns outside this tunnel vision.

This collective purpose was of a peculiar, negative sort. It required us to deny positive, substantive goods that make life worthwhile, in particular those of human connection. Young children remained isolated or masked through two years of crucial social development; dying grandparents were denied the company of loved ones. The effect was a kind of enforced nihilism. We had to be actively detached, by police power, if necessary, from sources of meaning that might call into question the bureaucratic fixation on a few narrow metrics. In our acquiescence in this, we can discern the influence of Thomas Hobbes in forming our spiritual horizon.

A Package Deal

For Hobbes, any appeal to a higher good threatens to return us to the horrors of civil strife and must be debunked. In his political metaphysics, a summum bonum to be aimed at is replaced with a summum malum (death) to be fled from. Lowering the sights of political life in this way helps tame the pride that leads to conflict. Men will submit to Leviathan only if they inhabit a moral universe that has been emptied of transcendent referents.

Hobbes’s metaphysical program of denying the objectivity of the good serves his psychological program to undercut pride: Any claim one makes on one’s own behalf to be acting for the good is really just vainglorious self-assertion. It may not feel that way to you, but that is because you continue to make the metaphysical error of thinking that your intimations of moral truth refer to something real.

Distinctions that make for the good life are then easily collapsed to mere biological life, bare existence—that is, “health” as conceived by “public health.” This is aggression against our nature as evaluative beings. It would seem to be the consummation of a project that puts the flight from death, rather than attraction to the good, at the center of our political metaphysics.

The million-dollar question is this: Would it be possible to reclaim the blessings of Lockean, political liberalism and back off from the aggressive metaphysical debunking of Hobbesian, anthropological liberalism? Or is it a package deal?