Above: Klaus Schwab with François Fillon, Prime Minister of the French Republic in 2008.
The “Great Reset” comes out of very long-term trends in thought and social organization. On the intellectual side these trends are obvious at least since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, on the institutional side since the rise of the modern state and later the industrial revolution. Their roots of course go much deeper.
What is it?
But I should start by giving my understanding of what the Great Reset is. Klaus Schwab has said that “the pandemic represents an unusual, short term opportunity to reflect, rethink and reboot our world.” He’s not being honest of course. In a crisis there is no time to reflect. He and his friends already knew what they wanted to do.
So the Great Reset—in American politics it is usually called “building back better”—is an attempt under cover of crisis to accelerate realization of our rulers’ vision of how the world should be. To use political science jargon, it’s a soft auto-coup. It is soft because it is non-violent and partially legal, and it is an auto-coup because it is an effort by those in power to get more power.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, the Bulgarian economist Kristalina Georgieva, tells us that its goals are green growth, smarter growth, and fairer growth. It seems, then, that the Great Reset wants to rearrange the world so people get more material goods more equally, more efficiently, and with less damage to other concerns like the environment. These goals, which reflect a view of man as a purely economic animal, are of course in line with those put forward by the EU and other international organizations.
Klaus Schwab tells us they are to be realized through “stakeholder capitalism.” He says that means everyone whose interests are affected by business decisions gets a say in them. That is often presented, at least in America, as a way of moving large corporations back toward the way they operated in the fifties—less concern for the short-term bottom line, more for broader goals and social harmony. As Schwab puts it, the Great Reset will mean “building in a more ‘resilient, equitable, and sustainable’ way.”
But a great deal has changed since the fifties. At that time “equitable” meant the family wage, which allowed a man to support his wife and children on a single income. Today it means promoting nontraditional lifestyles so that the family disappears as a definable institution with serious functions. In theory, social harmony would include relatively lower compensation for people at the top, as in the fifties. But at that time local and national loyalties were stronger, business was less international, and top management—certainly in America—was more like the rank-and-file in their basic attitudes and loyalties. So no one in America was paid as much as a million dollars a year. Today, Klaus Schwab gets that much running an NGO. The dollar is worth less now, but even so it seems that billionaires do not have much to worry about.
In the absence of shared cultural norms the operation of the system would be more bureaucratic than in the fifties. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics for business would play a big role in its workings. These already exist, and rate how much you are doing to reduce carbon emissions, promote multicultural inclusion, put politically favored people on your board of directors, and so on. If you want to get a bank loan, a government license or contract, or an investment from a large pension fund or investment advisory firm they show whether you are on the team, and the better your rating the more likely you are to get what you want. That is an extremely flexible approach, and it can be developed indefinitely.
There is also interest in a system that would do the same thing with individuals. The Chinese government has notoriously created a system of social credit scores, and others are working on it. The Italian city of Bologna has a system of digital points for good behavior and the Alibaba Group has developed an individual carbon footprint tracker. We will see more of these.
And then there are the various measures proposed to deal with pandemics, climate change, and problems like hate speech and disinformation—that is, dissemination of unauthorized views on important issues. Such efforts will only grow.
So the basic idea is a global system in which billionaires and big financial institutions join with governments and transnational bureaucracies to establish more effective ways of bringing everything people do in line with their collective policy objectives. The system will involve manipulation of incentives, extensive schemes of supervision and control, and constant propaganda and re-education through control of electronic communications and the educational system.
Its creation will involve states of exception, declarations of emergency, and licensed action by mobs. The goal, though, is a system in which those with power who believe themselves entitled to rule can impose their will more directly and comprehensively, but in a orderly and therefore lawful way. After revolutionary disorder is to come the new order. How successfully that can be done we will see.
Supposedly, the system will serve the broad public interest, but its objectives are decided globally so ordinary people will obviously not have any say in them. The stakeholder economy that was supposedly going to give a voice to more people in decisionmaking turns out to silence people and give an even bigger voice to those who already run our world.
To make the plan more alarming, Schwab and others are talking about harnessing what they call the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” in the service of their project. This is said to involve a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between “physical, digital and biological spheres.” So the plan is to extend the globally managed system now contemplated into every detail of life through the internet of things, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and even—Schwab says this will begin within the next ten years or so—brain implants.
The overall effect is that if you want to listen to horrifying fantasies about world domination by globalist elites you do not need Alex Jones any more. You can just listen to Klaus Schwab.
The Great Reset is being adopted without central direction by discussion and consensus within high-level circles. That indicates it is supported by an outlook that to our rulers seems like simple common sense. So it is a natural outcome of the basic principles on which public discussion is carried on today.
To understand the Great Reset we have to understand those principles. Public life is always based on common understandings that tell participants what is rational and good. At present these include the following:
- Scientism. This tells us that modern natural science is our only source of genuine knowledge. So if we want to understand the human world, we should use the methods of the natural sciences and base our investigations on statistics, simple causal connections, mathematical modeling, and so on. That approach is supposed to give social policy experts the same authority in their fields that astronomers have in theirs.
- Triumph of economics. Preferences can be observed and measured, and they are a guide to action, so is assumed that a scientific system will take satisfaction of preferences as the supreme good.
- Egalitarianism. Since all preferences are equally preferences, and the goal is satisfaction of preferences simply as such, all preferences are equally entitled to satisfaction.
- Technocracy. It follows from all this that the correct approach to human life is to do what scientifically-trained experts say will enable us to satisfy our preferences as much and as equally as possible.
These have a lot to be said for them as governing principles, at least from the standpoint of our rulers. First, they seem clear and simple. If government were based on something like natural law, ancestral tradition, or the good for man there would be endless arguments about specific interpretations, especially in an increasingly cosmopolitan society. Everybody would get involved, which would make the arguments unmanageable.
Instead, technocracy provides what seems a straightforward way to decide what government should do: promote prosperity and equality—along with related goods like safety and environmental protection—in the most technically effective way possible. With that as the goal it seems obvious that experts should govern all aspects of life. They are the technologists who tell us how to get whatever it is that we want, and any debates will take place within a narrowly-defined group with similar backgrounds.
Technocracy also gives our rulers an easy way to justify total power with no answerability. They are experts, or advised by experts, so they have rational authority that is not questionable by outsiders. The goal of government is simple and obvious, at least in concept, and experts know how to achieve it, so resistance would be ignorance, bigotry, or mindless self-seeking rather than a legitimate exercise of freedom. Indeed, it would violate the freedom of others to get what the system would otherwise provide to them. So what the experts say goes, and nay-sayers are silenced.
Technocracy can also justify unlimited privilege. Incentives are needed to maximize production and enlist the best experts in the task of governing. How big the incentives should be is, of course, up to the same experts who determine everything else. So maximum equal preference satisfaction turns out to justify limitless social and economic disparities—without them, everybody will be worse off. That line of thought has been basic to the alliance between billionaires and bureaucrats that has ruled the post-communist world. They rely on each other, so they look out for each other. The Great Reset is intended to formalize that alliance and perfect its control over society.
So technocracy has huge advantages as a principle justifying power and making it unaccountable. Even so, it has serious problems that will eventually destroy it. How long that will take or how much damage will be done in the mean time is of course unknowable.
One very practical problem is the need for thought control. The system claims to give the people what they want, as much and equally as possible. They are therefore expected to support it unless they are ignorant, irrational, badly motivated, or misled. As long as the people act as they should, the system will therefore (supposedly) combine democratic legitimacy with total rationality.
A comprehensive system of censorship and propaganda is thus needed to keep the people on track. Otherwise they may think the wrong things and democracy will not work as expected. That is why people in responsible positions view the proposed acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, which threatens less censorship and less unified propaganda, as a global catastrophe.
The recent pandemic put our rulers’ attitudes toward freedom, democracy, and rational discussion on display. People who didn’t get on board with the official views were vilified and silenced. Even established experts were not allowed to present inconsistent views.
Similar attitudes have recently surfaced regarding parents who complain about the extreme positions regarding race and sex now presented in many schools. Parents know nothing, the idea seems to be, because they are not trained, and disagreement with what is taught is considered bigotry. So why should they have the right to tell educators how to do their job and become angry when they do not like how they are doing it? Those who do are viewed as ignorant, irrational, and very likely violent. The United States Department of Justice is therefore monitoring them as potential terrorists.
The Great Reset would involve regularizing the system of thought control. The abortive attempt by the Department of Homeland Security to establish a Disinformation Governance Board is a sign of efforts to come.
A further problem with the system is that the hedonistic standard of maximum equal preference satisfaction that theoretically justifies it does not work.
One obvious problem is that it cannot justify the sacrifices needed for a social order to endure. If satisfaction of individual preferences is the highest standard, why act like a good citizen who cares about other people’s preferences as well as your own? If you are an official, why do your job instead of lining your pockets? Where does the appeal to a standard higher than self come from?
The principle of maximum equal preference satisfaction can tell us why the system should favor efficiency and equality, but not why any of us should make those goals his own. We can say that people have a tendency toward altruism, and training can strengthen that tendency, but the training would be at odds with the logic of a system that defines rational action as action to satisfy preferences. On that logic it seems my rational action would be action to satisfy my preferences.
The need to preserve a system that depends on motives its basic principles do not support strengthens the need to turn education into indoctrination and public discussion into propaganda. It is also an absolutely basic flaw in the system the Great Reset intends to perfect. Sooner or later it means that corruption and incompetence will destroy it.
Another problem with egalitarian hedonism is that it is much less clear than it seems. For example, it is unlikely that taking maximum preference satisfaction as the supreme standard makes people more satisfied than other possibilities. If it does not, the standard refutes itself.
Further, it is very difficult to compare the preferences of different people. Who knows whether my love of sleep is bigger than your love of late-night parties? And in any event the complexity of life makes the end result of sacrificing one preference to another unknowable. The world is simply not predictable and controllable in the way our rulers’ vision requires. So maximizing collective human satisfactions is not as clear a guide as it first seemed. We do not know how to do the arithmetic, and the principle looks self-refuting.
Even so, it must be decided whether to let me sleep or you party. In the absence of a principled ground for decision, government will answer the question by favoring the preference that favors it. Since rested and focused workers benefit the system, I will undoubtedly win in this case and be allowed to sleep at the expense of your enjoyment.
Overall, though, the effect of always favoring what favors the system will be to encourage people to be careerists, consumers, hobbyists, adherents of boutique lifestyles, and politically-correct nags. They will be discouraged from becoming housewives, homeschoolers, independent thinkers, contemplative monks, or supporters of natural law as the basis for government. The former integrate more easily than the latter into a system based on maximum equal preference satisfaction, so they win every clash of interests.
It turns out, then, that the ultimate standard for who wins is the convenience of the system and thus the interests of those who dominate it. Matters that fall outside the class, professional, and institutional concerns of billionaires and bureaucrats, like family, religion, and local and historical community, become subjective matters of purely private interest that cannot, it is said, be allowed to matter practically without disrupting social life and violating individual equality and autonomy.
So the principle of equal preference satisfaction has the perverse effect of suppressing the preferences people care most about. Personal devotion is disruptive, and cannot be easily traded off against other preferences, so why would a system managed by billionaires and bureaucrats want it? But suppressing personal devotion will cut off any ultimate basis for the public spirit a political system needs to survive.
Science as myth
A further problem with technocratic ways of thought is that they claim to be based on science but they misunderstand it. Science is more complicated than people think. It is a process more than a system of assured results, and it cannot be used as an oracle.
Not all science is mathematical and demonstrable. Some aspects aren’t exact at all. You cannot engage in scientific research effectively without insights that cannot be quantified or demonstrated. That is why the practice of science has to be passed down through tradition. Who you trained under is important in the natural sciences, just as it is in any other complex field of activity. More concretely, science rarely tells us enough to make broad policy decisions. Sometimes it cannot tell us much that is relevant, and when it can it cannot tell us what is good or bad, or how to apply our knowledge to the confused and idiosyncratic situations that we actually have to deal with.
So the “expertise” that supposedly decides policy is largely mythical, and when government appeals to it for authority the myth becomes ideological. As such, it always gives the answer that is wanted. If the authorities have decided in favor of masks, lockdowns, or turning emotionally disturbed young people into physical imitations of the opposite sex then studies will be produced that support the decision. In the recent pandemic, for example, science could tell us very little about the costs and benefits of lockdowns, so public health experts decided the question arbitrarily under the cover of their supposed expertise with very little understanding of what was involved—and, of course, very little discussion.
The attempt to extend the rational authority of the natural sciences to the social sciences creates even greater problems with the use of that authority to justify government decisions. At some point, people will simply stop believing in it.
Circumstances today lend themselves to the ideological corruption of science. Research is concentrated in universities and research institutes, and depends on funding from government, industry, and foundations. Without funding and an institutional position a scientist will have difficulty pursuing his profession. And if an expert says things the authorities do not like he will not be asked for his expert opinion. That can make independent thought hazardous. Peer review and positions taken by professional associations and leading journals can make matters worse by reducing the independence of particular scientists. The increasing influence of politics and social media on intellectual life can also play a role.
We have seen how this can work not only in the recent pandemic but in other politicized fields like climate science and psychology, and most recently in the rise of “wokeness” in the academic world and learned professions generally. This last tendency subjects even the hard sciences to entirely extraneous political demands. It appears, for example, that it has become professionally dangerous to deny that science is infected by systemic racism and sexism that must be remedied. Even in something as seemingly apolitical as mathematics, papers have been de-published when they are thought to have politically incorrect implications and there are calls to make the winners of prizes like the Fields Medal more diverse.
And that is mathematics, which is usually rather removed from concrete everyday things and the quality of work is usually obvious to everyone in the field. In softer sciences that deal more immediately with human life there are of course more opportunities and stronger motives for corruption. And in the social sciences subservience to political demands becomes all but total. These and other tendencies mean that the Great Reset is going to lead to growing dissociation from reality. I discuss that problem further below.
Other problems look more theoretical, but theoretical problems can quickly have practical consequences.
Scientism and truth
One problem is that scientism—that is, the myth of science that motivates public discussion—ends up destroying any coherent conception of truth.
Serious and educated people now believe that the real world is numerical and mechanical because that is what science talks about and they see science as our only source of genuine knowledge. However, the scientific demand for numbers and public verifiability limits what the exact sciences can talk about. That means scientism denies the reality of some very important things.
Our immediate experience, for example, has features like sensation that are not mechanical or numerical. Our sensation of “redness” cannot be defined mathematically. So when physical science becomes the model for all knowledge subjective experience becomes unknowable. That makes it hard to treat it as real. The result is that informed and intelligent people now treat conscious human experience as illusory—whatever sense it makes to speak of mind as an illusion. The Cartesian revolution, which started with individual consciousness as the basis for knowledge, has ended by doubting its reality.
But attempting to get rid of something as basic as consciousness only brings it back in lawless form. The scientistic view means that the world is no longer seen as a system in which mind and matter are connected, so that nature, whether the human body or the cosmos, can have meaning and moral implications. There are space, time, matter, and energy, which are mathematical and can mean nothing apart from whatever meaning we give to them, and there is subjectivity—sensation, feeling, thought, desire, and will. The latter has no intelligible connection to the former, so it is thrown back on itself to decide arbitrarily what things mean.
That is why traditional natural law no longer makes sense to educated people. Morality and politics, all respectable authority tells them, can have nothing to do with natural goals, because natural goals do not exist. The only goals are the goals particular people choose. The results are vividly on display in attitudes toward sex, which is assumed to have no intrinsic nature or meaning and so becomes a pure matter of individual choice with no definable function in human life.
More basically, we cannot observe or quantify reason, only opinion and preference—what people say and do. So modern natural science cannot tell us about rationality or knowledge. And if scientific knowledge gives us a full account of reality, as people believe, then what it cannot observe and define—knowledge itself—cannot be real. There is no such thing as justified belief because justification cannot be observed and measured. In a scientistic world, the very idea of knowledge thus commits suicide.
So we cannot have knowledge, only opinion and preference. But then the latter have to do duty for the former—they are all that is available—just as preference satisfaction now does duty for the good. Our picture of reality—what we think we know—is therefore a matter of opinion and preference. Everyone makes up his own reality and his own truth based on what he thinks and wants. Truth ends up in the same position as beauty and goodness: they are all in the eye of the beholder.
So scientistic modernity leads to post-modernity. That is not just speculation. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey the United States Supreme Court said that everyone is entitled to make up his own reality. As Justice Kennedy put it, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is why, in the view of educated and responsible people, a baby is only a baby if the mother says so, the mother is only a woman if she says so, and two men make a married couple if they say so. The Supreme Court now seems to be receding from the attempt to force that view on the entire American legal system, but it remains institutionally dominant, and seems likely to stay that way.
That situation means catastrophe for any social system because it makes common standards impossible. People have noted that post-modernity creates no institutions. In the long run it does not even allow them to exist. But no institutions mean no system. Liberalism started with the Hobbesian universal war of all against all and it will end with it, because the Hobbesian solution to the problem created by the modern view of man as an individually utility-maximizing individual in a meaningless universe does not work.
Disintegration of thought
The situation is made worse by the general disintegration of thought in a technocratic society.
Coherent and effective thought has certain preconditions. It requires a definite point of view, a world that is understood as stable and meaningful, and a willingness to let truth rather than desire or power be the guide. People are losing a definite point of view because technocratic society radically weakens non-bureaucratic and non-commercial connections, depriving people of a sense of who they are and making them part of a mass. And the right of each person to define reality for himself makes it difficult for them to see the world as stable and meaningful, or truth rather than desire as the proper guide to life.
Further, technology destroys the personal engagement with the world necessary for effective thought. Functions once performed by individuals, families, and other natural and traditional arrangements have been industrialized. Instead of the traditional arts of life, which require skill and engagement with concrete circumstances, we have consumer goods, social programs, and industrially-produced pop culture. These deaden thought, suppress everyday skills, and spread propaganda and fantasy. The result is that common sense and human functionality vanish. People cannot do or make sense of anything. At the same time, instant broad-band electronic communications, and the distance between cause and effect in a complex globalized world, dissolve everything into an enormous mass of disconnected images that can be reassembled into anything whatever. Reality thus becomes endlessly manipulable and all but unknowable.
Nor can meritocratic elites save us. Our rulers believe they are the most enlightened and well-informed people who ever lived, and see themselves as the standard for everything. But instead, their training and position separate them from reality.
They mostly go to the same schools, where they are all told the same things, and in a world that makes career an absolute it takes all their efforts to rise to the top in an extremely competitive hierarchical system. That system features extreme specialization, insistence on credentials, and mass higher education. These work together to divert attention from everyday experience, destroy common sense about what is real and natural, and channel talented people into narrow bureaucratic or scholarly careers in which they rise by doing what pleases their superiors.
The result is that they become absorbed by their social position and would find it very difficult to adopt an independent perspective if the idea ever occurred to them. To make things worse, their institutional position insulates them from consequences. As a result errors are not corrected, and public thought loses connection to reality. In addition, their monopoly on formal education, the mass media, and the rewards for talent mean they do not have to face much practical intellectual competition. As a result, they often seem unaware that views different from their own are possible.
In any event, complex thought requires a tradition of inquiry for issues to develop and insights to accumulate. But technocracy is anti-traditional, because it claims to be perfectly explicit and exact. And tradition is always the tradition of a particular community, so any tradition capable of ordering complex thought is easily discredited as exclusionary and oppressive.
The result of all this is that elite opinion increasingly reflects not reality but institutional bias. People fail upwards in American public life. If someone supports the things that conform to institutional commitments—transgenderism, foreign intervention, dissolution of borders and boundaries generally—then the mere fact his proposals fail and predictions turn out false will not injure his career. His resolute adherence to what is known to be good and true in spite of all evidence will count as proof of his soundness. He will never say anything that challenges the institutions now dominant or their claim to rule. He will therefore count as serious and reliable.
That is why Donald Trump, a man who has never had a boss, has always done what he pleased, has no known intellectual interests, and to all appearances cannot be educated, retains a better grasp on reality than those who count as his intellectual betters. And because he does he was rejected by our entire ruling class the way the body rejects an incompatible skin graft.
Man as god or resource?
Last of all, a technocratic system is plagued by the opposition between man as a resource and man as individually the standard. The former means meritocracy—grading people by their usefulness to the system—while the latter means an individual right to define reality that turns each of us into a little god. But you cannot grade gods or talk about their usefulness.
Even so, the system needs people to fit into the social machine. The result is a compromise: people can be distinguished, but only by purely technical and functional criteria, and these are presumed to be equally distributed among all discernible social groups. Traditional identities must be denied social definition and relevance.
So we must transform the world in increasingly radical ways to abolish the definition and significance of the identities traditionally recognized. Women must be the same as men, and men who claim to be women must be viewed as truly women. To say otherwise, to say that men and women are distinct natural kinds with generally different abilities and aspirations, would—it is thought—imprison people in arbitrarily-constructed categories and deny the equal humanity of women and the very existence of transgender and nonbinary people. So no one knows what a woman is, but if they do not constitute half of all fighter pilots something is wrong that must be remedied.
Whatever efforts are made to maintain it, this compromise between man as a resource and man as a god is unstable. The effort to eliminate traditional identities will not work, since they are intertwined with the ways people naturally act and deal with each other. And the basic understanding of reality remains technological, so the view of every individual as divine tends to slide back as a practical matter into a view of him as a resource to be used for other people’s purposes.
The resulting standing threat to the most fundamental aspect of our dignity—the right to an identity that makes us something other than a thing—leads to the hysterical fears evident in the constant talk of “safety.” People really do experience the failure of others to cater to their self-understanding as something very much like annihilation. Truth and reality are constructions, or so it is thought, so social failure to validate our divinity and self-constructed identities dissolves them and reveals us as mere resources for others.
That is insane, but the insanity is not a personal invention. It is necessary consequence of the technocratic ways of thought that drive the Great Reset. Those ways of thought make reality seem wholly unstable, and so set the stage for both ideals of total control and the COVID and other panics that support those ideals.
Why the appeal?
So why have responsible, well-connected, well-informed, and highly functional people in a society as successful as ours come to insist on such strange and obviously destructive views? In other words, why has public reason gone mad?
One answer is that success overreaches. A stable and prosperous society that suppresses risk and makes consumer satisfaction its highest standard does away with reality checks and abandons itself to wishful thinking. If the society claims to be founded on reason it corrupts reason to protect its delusions. The more successful the society, the longer it can do so before it has to stop for practical reasons.
But granted that success and self-conceit have led to the degradation of reason, why have public thought and discussion come to accept the particular assumptions they do?
The dominance of technocratic ideals has many causes. One we have discussed is their usefulness as a justification for power. Another we have touched on a bit is a specific understanding of reason and reality that makes those ideals seem rationally inevitable, and so makes it difficult to oppose them in ways educated people now find comprehensible.
Medieval thinkers tended to view our knowledge of the world in a commonsensical Aristotelian way. A tree as we experience it is the real tree, so knowledge that sums up our reflective experience of it is knowledge of the tree as it really is. In particular, a tree is a unity of form and substance, and thus an instance of a specific kind of thing, that has a specific natural identity, comes into being through the doings of things other than itself, acts in ways that bring about certain states of affairs such as growth and reproduction, and so on.
That is still a natural way for people to understand the world, and when dealing with living things it is a practical necessity. But it is now considered a sort of stopgap that intellectually upright people try to avoid when possible. The conception of knowledge as contemplation of complex realities that include natural patterns, goals, and goods, and of rational action as action taken in view of those realities, has vanished.
Instead, people divide the world into the mechanically predictable world of modern physics, and the free but rationally inscrutable world of subjectivity. And when they talk about trees they would rather talk about molecular biology than characteristic forms, patterns, and ways of acting. They want to talk about the mechanisms of life rather than life itself. The former seems rigorous, the latter subjective and impressionistic.
As we have seen, this way of understanding the world leads to liberal technocracy, which combines the modern scientific emphasis on prediction and control with the demand that the control be used to realize the goals each of us chooses, as much and equally as possible. More particularly, the consequence is that people would rather talk about statistics, legal arrangements, market fluctuations, simple relations of cause and effect, and abstract principles like equality than characteristic patterns of life and ways of behaving. The latter may be more illuminating, but they are difficult to define with mathematical precision, and they are far less adapted to engineering social policy.
Also, they are politically suspect. What, someone might ask, are these characteristic tendencies and structures that are supposedly so important? Families? The sexual binary? Inherited patterns of behavior? Historically-evolved communities? It would be racist, sexist, and heteronormative to take such things seriously and accept that innate and culturally inculcated ways of acting are basic to how people live.
The practical conclusion is that it is better to ignore such things, lie about them, or abolish them in thought by denying them any stable definition. So we hear that “gender” is fluid, and that there is no such thing as Western civilization, or French or Swedish culture. There are high-ranking public figures who say such things.
Narrowing of thought
But why understand knowledge and reason in such a narrow way? Why not recognize that we have a variety of goods, the world includes more than material objects, and we need a variety of methods to understand our situation and act intelligently? Institutional interests explain some of the attraction of the view now dominant, but the absolute certainty attached to it suggests more fundamental intellectual causes.
Not surprisingly, scientism and technocracy—the attempt to make modern natural science the model for all knowledge and the identification of practical reason with the use of science to achieve whatever goals we choose—are closely associated with the rise of modern natural science. Francis Bacon wanted to “put nature to the question”—that is, perform experiments—to derive knowledge useful for the “relief of man’s estate.” So he wanted knowledge to be technological rather than contemplative. The effect was to make exact measurement, prediction, and control central to the study of nature. That meant treating the physical world as much as possible as a collection of objects with purely numerical attributes such as size, shape, and mass acting in accordance with mathematical laws.
Galileo, who emphasized measurement, and Descartes, who viewed the physical world as purely mathematical, pioneered that approach. One of its basic feature was rejection of essences and teleology. In Aristotelian language, moderns decided to ignore formal and final cause—that is, explanations involving characteristic structures and the states of affairs toward which they tend. They did not want to look at a man and explain health by reference to overall bodily functioning and how to restore its proper balance. Instead, they wanted to look at detailed mechanisms. That approach, they believed, is more concrete, and more likely to enable us to devise interventions that help us achieve whatever our goals might be.
The approach has been enormously successful on its own terms. Modern natural science and the medical technology based on it cure disease more effectively than Galen ever did. The modern approach has therefore replaced the traditional one, which was based on long experience with natural systems such as the body and how to work with them. Its successes, not only in medicine but other practical arts, seem to support its unique validity, so much so that educated people today with a view on the matter generally believe that the real world is simply the world described by modern physics.
Descartes thought the mathematical objects that modern physics studies had to be supplemented by non-physical realities such as mind to account for the world as we find it. But it turned out to be very difficult to work physical and non-physical realities into a common system, so people today are trying, not very successfully, to do without the latter.
But how did people come to adopt this narrow but often very effective understanding of knowledge, rationality, and reality? Why the switch in goals from contemplation and the good to desire and control? The ancients and medievals might seek control so they could get what they wanted, but apart from the sophists their thinkers did not propose it as the standard for reason and morality.
There are several ways to tell the story. We might follow some scholars and trace the rise of scientism back to yet more basic intellectual tendencies. But at some point we need to refer to social developments.
A common account is that people in the early modern period got tired of disputes that could not be settled. Scholastic philosophy was not going anywhere, and disputes over religion had led to bloody religious wars. So they decided to stick to things that were practical and demonstrable. Hence the rise of modern natural science based on repeatable numerical observations, and of a utilitarian and technological approach to social questions. They worked, so people stuck with them, and the result has been the modern world.
This story glorifies the present by falsifying history. Early modernity brought not only the rise of modern natural science but the flourishing of magic, an alternative way to dominate reality. Modernity brought ideals of freedom and equality, but also state absolutism, and is increasingly pushing liberalism—the embodiment of those ideals—toward rejection of free and rational thought. And it has brought wars and massacres on an unprecedented scale justified by insane theories.
In any event, the Wars of Religion were not simply or perhaps even primarily religious. Princes wanted to increase their wealth and power by consolidating national states and increasing their resources. That had nothing to do with confessional oppositions. The most destructive phases of the Thirty Years War pitted Catholic France and Lutheran Sweden against the Catholic Empire, and the Peace of Westphalia that ended it established the principle of state supremacy over religion: cuius regio eius religio. The Wars of Religion thus turned out to be wars for the state conquest of religion.
These tendencies were at the root of the Protestant revolt. To increase their power princes wanted to take control of the Church and her property. Religious reformers and malcontents who would previously have gotten nowhere, or accepted that they had to work more or less within the established system of religion, therefore found a ready audience for proposals that involved rejection of Church authority. And those princes who remained Catholic found ways to strengthen their position over against a Church that was now in no position to resist them.
From this perspective modern directions in thought, religion, and politics have had less to do with a sense that contemplative philosophy and Christendom proved themselves pointless, self-defeating, or dangerous than with the desire for power. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, the tendencies that have led to modern revolutions have had to do with “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Modern revolutionaries may speak of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but when they come to power they vastly increase state power.
Modern intellectual and political tendencies have thus been fundamentally oriented toward power. Their outcome has been the industrial society in which we live, and that the Great Reset wants to perfect and make absolute. That society reflects the union of exact and useful knowledge with the pursuit of wealth and power that defines the modern period. In that period social functions like government, education, and economic activity are carried on through big impersonal organizations that rely on large capital investments, ever-advancing technology, and rigorously defined procedures, all coordinated through markets and bureaucratic expertise.
People have been complaining about that kind of society since it appeared, but cannot do without it because it is so effective in certain ways. If we got rid of it we would all starve, die in the next pandemic, or get conquered by someone who kept it. Or so it seems.
Reformers have proposed ways to transform it or at least alleviate the problems it has created. But what are these problems? People who emphasize economics talk about poverty and the exploitation of workers. But industrialization does not seem to have increased overall poverty. Since the system increases production, and employers compete for workers like other resources, it seems that more industry should mean higher wages. And that is the way things have turned out. Even today, stagnating wages in developed countries are offset by rising prosperity elsewhere, fueled by world trade.
So brute material poverty is not the problem. Inequality is more of an issue, since technology magnifies differences in productivity, and wealth sticks to people who are well-placed in large networks and organizations. But inequalities are always with us, and they do not make a decent life impossible. The real problem is the one Emerson complained about: “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Systems that turn life into economics and the productive process into a sort of big machine based on technology and rigorously formalized procedures can be very effective at achieving specific goals, whether the goal is producing food, clothing, and shelter or destroying the enemy in war. But they have deficiencies.
A big one is that they dissociate people from their world, their work, and even from themselves. This is the famous modern problem of alienation. A traditional art or craft—traditional husbandry or medicine, for example—accepts its materials and emphasizes personal skill. Agribusiness and Big Pharma take a very different approach. They break down objects and situations into their simplest components and develop set quantitative routines that work equally well everywhere to achieve whatever goal is specified.
But the human element gets lost. Workers lose individuality, choice, and craftsmanship. The result of this transformation of the nature of work is that goods become more mediocre, but also much cheaper. The change may be worth it when survival is at stake. Famines are horrible, and industrial agriculture, with machinery, chemical fertilizer, insecticides, and hybrid seeds, produces a lot of food. The food may not be as good, and the change may cause other problems, but it is far more plentiful.
So it is hard to turn down the benefits of industrialization. Even so, it is intrinsically dehumanizing. In particular, it has greatly contributed to abolishing the social influence of human nature, history, culture, and religion. After all, what do such things have to do with a computer network, financial system, oil refinery, or code of government regulations? And if the latter are the things we live by, why not get rid of irrelevancies that just get in the way?
In fact, why not treat the world as a big industrial process? And that is what the Great Reset is all about. All power and social functioning is to be placed in the hands of commercial and bureaucratic interests organized comprehensively on industrial lines. An industrial process likes to deal with a mass of quantitatively graded resources that are passive except as required by the needs of the process. That applies to human beings as much as petroleum or ball bearings. Anything else would be inefficient and irrational.
So what the Great Reset wants is to reduce us to components of a global machine. Traditional social ties and differentiations are to be allowed no effect whatever. Even mutual support and cooperation within the family are suspect. That is why people speak of “unpaid housework” as an injustice. The only distinctions and connections that are allowed to matter are those like wealth and professional certification that can be defined and managed by the people behind the Great Reset.
That, by the way, is why the response to the COVID epidemic took the form it did. No one knew what to do, so our rulers imposed the measures that made most sense to them on general grounds—total anonymity of individuals through masking, total separation of people from each other through lockdowns, and total passivity of the population through fear and censorship. These unprecedented measures, adopted on the spur of the moment, did not help—certainly not in proportion to the damage they did—but they gave our rulers a sense of control in a world that made sense, and that was enough for them.
So where is all this leading?
In spite of intrinsic problems technocratic progressivism retains a degree of coherence and effectiveness that makes it very difficult to stop. Without a formal system of authority it seems to be progressing ever faster, ever more in lockstep, and with ever less connection to human reality. The Great Reset is, of course, a current example of these tendencies.
Its orthodoxies have intellectual defenses that, in practice if not principle, make them all but indestructible. In current thinking technology and equal freedom define rationality and morality. They tell us other standards are irrational and oppressive, and create a system that keeps us too busy and distracted for reflection. That conceptual simplicity acts as a powerful defense by leaving few routes for attack.
The system is based on minimal assumptions. All we need to attend to is what people want, the relations among measurable observations, and how to use the latter to bring about the former. Occam’s razor seems to tell us to stick with that. Everything outside those concerns, for example natural human goods other than preference satisfaction, is viewed as simply a personal preference, and thus a private choice. And to give private choices public effect is oppression. Why should that be allowed?
To be progressive is to take these principles to heart, and apply them single-mindedly. Hence the growing uniformity and dogmatism of progressive views worldwide as their nature clarifies and their implications work themselves out, and the incomprehension and horror when someone disagrees with them even in minor ways. To oppose them is to oppose the freedom and well-being of humanity and even reason itself. How could any sane person do that?
Reactions against liberal modernity have gone nowhere because they have embraced ways of thought excluded by the modern conception of rationality without effectively contesting that conception. What is evidently needed is to extend the concepts of rationality and objective truth beyond technology and modern physics, bringing mind, body, and spirit within an overall system that does justice to all of them.
Since a big part of the problem is an inadequate way of thought, it seems that the answer would be something more complete. Aristotle and Aquinas develop themes related to natural law and a more inclusive understanding of reason and reality, so why not study them and develop their thought to deal with new situations? Other Catholic thinkers like Saint John Henry Newman have suggested other approaches that start from within modernity itself.
The Church once supported such efforts, but has generally abandoned them. Ever since the Second Vatican Council she has emphasized reconciliation with liberal modernity, and Catholic scholars have become less interested in proposing alternatives. Nor have Catholics been alone in giving up. Many other people have proposed alternatives to modern ways of thinking. Modernists in literature—T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are obvious American examples—were often skeptical of the modern project and favored other lines of development. But such efforts have declined in recent decades. Some people still find something other than naturalism and liberalism persuasive, but their views are swamped by current orthodoxies and have no mainstream institutional footing.
Practical factors have proven too strong. It is hard to argue with tanks, Hellfire missiles, the Internet, modern medicine, the modern university, big business, government, and journalism, and trillions of dollars. Nor is it easy to argue with physical comfort and endless possibilities of distraction.
Events seem to have discredited older understandings. The First World War meant an end to traditional and multinational monarchies, the Second to any serious European Right or strong conception of national sovereignty. These and other upheavals made the administrative state more all-encompassing, and destroyed local traditions and concern for standards other than effectiveness.
The world wars were followed by the Cold War, which further increased government power, centralized social life, and made thought more ideological. And with the collapse of Soviet communism, which before the rise of China seemed the last non-liberal form of modern political life, Western progressivism could unfold without an external reality check.
People who run a mass industrial society with a mixed and fluid population find it easiest to understand their task by reference to technological rationality and maximum preference satisfaction. They have trouble making sense of traditional understandings based on a view of the world at home in a more stable and rooted society. People today eat at McDonalds, children grow up in daycare, young people live on social media, local establishments have been replaced by chain stores and the Internet, and our neighbors and colleagues come from all over the world. How can a principle of tradition survive in such a setting?
And the practice of treating all humanity as a mass of interchangeable components to be integrated into a single productive process results in acute public sensitivity regarding identity as different sorts of people jostle together and compete. That sensitivity makes it necessary further to suppress traditional order. You cannot have Christmas holidays, for example, because there are too many Muslims it might offend.
So liberal modernity has the argument from success and the lack of visible alternatives. Its supporters believe their claim to be “on the right side of history” proves their position by making all other positions irrelevant. How do you appeal to family, altar, and country when the family has lost all definition, Pope Francis is at the altar, and “country” has become a legal and territorial expression that the people who run things do not much care about? The result is that if you are not a liberal, loopy leftist, or moderate (and therefore useless) conservative, you must be fascist or insane. Such is the accepted view, and people can imagine no other possibilities.
As suggested, though, the system is not going to last.
The world is not predictable or controllable,so an attempt to institute a universal controlled system will not succeed. The expansion of irresponsible central power will be real, but it will be less effective than intended, partly because of inefficiency and corruption, partly because of the loss of connection to reality.
Liberal modernity has been remarkably successful in what it cares about: promoting wealth and power. But success never lasts forever. Modernity is single-minded, and the understandings on which it is based exclude sources of correction such as tradition, common sense, the consensus gentium, and recognition of everyday patterns. The result is that it continuously radicalizes. Once an advance is made on the road to equal freedom and technological rationality there is never any excuse for retracing it, and every step reveals deeper inequities and irrationalities that have to be addressed. It cannot stop itself, and all objections are dismissed in advance as expressions of stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry.
Progressivism is rebellion against God, nature, and history. For that reason every part of the modern world is in rebellion against every other. Everybody hates existing realities—and increasingly other people. Left and right liberals blame each other for the current state of affairs, while the people reject both. They are told they are free, equal, happy, and empowered, but it is obvious they are not. They know something is deeply amiss, but no resolution or even clear identification of the problem seems possible.
The blinkered outlook of those who run the system blind them to its problems. They consider their views obviously correct, and believe it is people who drag their feet on innovations such as transgenderism who have gone mad. But sooner or later a view that abolishes all solid grounds for human loyalty, and eliminates any conception of life in accordance with nature and reason, leads to radical dysfunction. Politics becomes manipulative, irrational, and corrupt, with social peace dependent on bribes and threats. Eventually rulers lose their grip, people stop believing the official story, and institutions stop working. Then other less formal and often more primitive arrangements take over. That is what happened with communism, and it will happen with liberal technocracy.
It is impossible to predict when a final crisis will come. Everyday life has enormous staying power, if only because no one can imagine anything different. Hollow institutions keep on functioning after a fashion, however useless and expensive they become, if they have an important symbolic role. The American system of higher education provides many examples.
The current system has shown itself remarkably adaptable, largely because its enormous wealth defers and softens all problems. And the collapse of an illusion or bursting of a bubble takes longer than those expect who see it for what it is. But if the system’s basic tendencies are unsustainable, the longer the delay the more complete the wreck. The Great Reset is a step toward the Great Collapse. Whether it is a final step or not cannot be known.
The collapse of current governing understandings is unlikely to lead to an immediate turn for the better. Consider the situation in Russia after the fall of communism and abandonment of the attempt to abolish the profit motive. Our ultimate fate is likely to be similar but worse, because our error has been more fundamental—we have attempted to abolish not the profit motive but all of human nature—and because there will not be another more workable model to follow.
Fascism, understood as an attempt to impose social unity and order on a primitive basis such as race through power, propaganda, and irrationalism, is sometimes suggested as a possible outcome. It seems unlikely, though, that when the time comes non-market and non-bureaucratic connections will be extensive enough to give fascism anything to work with. And it is intrinsically unstable in any case. After the Great Reset bogs down and fails we will most likely look forward to something like the “Period of Stagnation” toward the end of the Soviet Union, eventually devolving into a neo-Levantine society that carries life on through local networks based on primary human ties—family, tribe, religion—that reconstitute themselves when others fail, and perhaps through militias and criminal mafias as well. That is where the radically cosmopolitan and therefore deeply fragmented society of the Middle East ended up, and it is not obvious why we should be different.
But after death comes rebirth. I have not mentioned the Church much in my discussion, since she is a subordinate actor in the present situation. But in the end, what works and arouses devotion wins and what makes no sense vanishes. So even without a miracle it may be that the current civilizational collapse, like the last one, will lead to a new age of the Church. And that is what, for all our difficulties, we need always to look to and work for.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation.” The Guardian, November 2016.
Betz, Bradford. “Whistleblowers: FBI Targeted Parents via Terrorism Tools Despite Garland’s Testimony That It Didn’t Happen.” https://news.yahoo.com/whistleblowers-fbi-targeted-parents-via-012737548.html, May 2022.
Castelvecchi, Davide. “Mathematics Prizes Have a Gender Problem Can It Be Fixed?” Nature, May 2022. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01481-w.
Dutt, Kuheli. “Race and Racism in the Geosciences.” Nature Geoscience 13, no. 1 (January 2020): 2–3. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0519-z.
Georgieva, Kriselina. “The Great Reset.” IMF. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/06/03/sp060320-remarks-to-world-economic-forum-the-great-reset, June 2020.
Hill, Theodore P. “Academic Activists Send a Published Paper down the Memory Hole.” Quillette. https://quillette.com/2018/09/07/academic-activists-send-a-published-paper-down-the-memory-hole/, September 2018.
Jégo, Yves. “Emmanuel Macron et le reniement de la culture française.” Figaro, February 2017.
Liebeskind, Benjamin. “Einstein in Athens.” The New Atlantis, no. Summer 2019 (n.d.): 78–90.
Macon, Ken. “Italian City Introduces Social Credit Style System.” Reclaim the Net, April 2022.
Norman, Kajsa. “A Very Swedish Election.” HURST. https://www.hurstpublishers.com/a-very-swedish-election/, September 2018.
Ridley, Matt. “My Life as a Climate Lukewarmer.” Weblog. http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/my-life-as-a-climate-lukewarmer/, January 2015.
Schwab, Klaus. “Now Is the Time for a ’Great Reset’.” World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/now-is-the-time-for-a-great-reset/, June 2020.
Talbott, Stephen L. “Recovering the Organism.” The New Atlantis, n.d.
Zindulka, Kurt. “China’s Alibaba Pushes ’Individual Carbon Footprint Tracker’ at Davos.” Breitbart. https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2022/05/24/wef-individual-carbon-footprint-tracker-pushed-by-chinas-alibaba-at-davos/, May 2022.
 Klaus Schwab, “Now Is the Time for a ’Great Reset’,” World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/now-is-the-time-for-a-great-reset/, June 2020).
 Kriselina Georgieva, “The Great Reset,” IMF (https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/06/03/sp060320-remarks-to-world-economic-forum-the-great-reset, June 2020).
 Ken Macon, “Italian City Introduces Social Credit Style System,” Reclaim the Net, April 2022.
 Kurt Zindulka, “China’s Alibaba Pushes ’Individual Carbon Footprint Tracker’ at Davos,” Breitbart (https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2022/05/24/wef-individual-carbon-footprint-tracker-pushed-by-chinas-alibaba-at-davos/, May 2022).
 Bradford Betz, “Whistleblowers: FBI Targeted Parents via Terrorism Tools Despite Garland’s Testimony That It Didn’t Happen” (https://news.yahoo.com/whistleblowers-fbi-targeted-parents-via-012737548.html, May 2022).
 For a discussion of the unrecognized relevance of Aristotle’s thought to the solution of difficulties within modern science itself, see Benjamin Liebeskind, “Einstein in Athens,” The New Atlantis, no. Summer 2019 (n.d.): 78–90.
 Matt Ridley, “My Life as a Climate Lukewarmer,” Weblog (http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/my-life-as-a-climate-lukewarmer/, January 2015).
 Theodore P. Hill, “Academic Activists Send a Published Paper down the Memory Hole,” Quillette (https://quillette.com/2018/09/07/academic-activists-send-a-published-paper-down-the-memory-hole/, September 2018).
 See the articles collected at Stephen L. Talbott, “Recovering the Organism,” The New Atlantis, n.d.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah, “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation,” The Guardian, November 2016.
 Yves Jégo, “Emmanuel Macron et le reniement de la culture française,” Figaro, February 2017.
 Kajsa Norman, “A Very Swedish Election,” HURST (https://www.hurstpublishers.com/a-very-swedish-election/, September 2018).
James Kalb, who holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Yale University, is a lawyer and independent scholar whose reviews and essays on political thought have appeared in various journals in the United States and Europe, including Modern Age and Telos. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command.