The Platform Biostate

Quarantine – perhaps we should say the first quarantine – has lifted here, and children have gone back to school. This is of course a matter of tremendous individual good fortune, which I am grateful for, while also wanting to snapshot the alien mindset of this moment into text before new consensus realities congeal and solidify. Perhaps the moment has already gone; the text is here nevertheless.

Governments did act during the crisis according to a different idea of the state. The nascent ideology was only partially realized, but does stand in contrast to what we might call financial neoliberalism. They acted as if the state was an extension of its hospital system, that the health of their people was the most precious asset to defend, and they used networked computing infrastructure as means to that end. They acted as Platform Biostates.

Declaring the death of neoliberalism has of course been a recurring hobby of many political professionals and dilettantes. Declaring COVID-19 the end of capitalism or even just liberalism seems very wishful thinking. But the specific financial neoliberalism that defined public policy from 1970 to 2020 seems intellectually over. This saw the state providing gardeners to cultivate and harvest taxes from markets that were desirable and pervasive. Nowadays even a lively True Neoliberalism Has Never Been Tried book like Radical Markets isn’t much about using money any more, but introducing tokens to voting or immigration to create markets which do not trade in everyday currency.

The basic causal model of financial neoliberalism was that the health of the state was downstream of the free market, free trading economy, and that the health and prosperity of people is downstream of the state and the market economy. Of course there is some truth to this, or neoliberals wouldn’t have been as effective as they were in creating wealth and gaining power for their nations, from China, to Germany, to Chile, to New Zealand. Financial neoliberalism was also so successful because it is a partial ideology. It dictates how to organize markets and where the state should switch from mover to referee, but it also mixes with Chinese Communism, army juntas, social democracy, or corporate liberalism.

Chinese Navy Hospital Ship Peace Ark
Peace Ark 和平方舟/ Daishan Dao 岱山岛

The Platform Biostate is also a partial ideology, but the causal model is different. The power of the state is downstream of the health of its citizens. Money and employment are a means for optimizing that dependency.


Sketching some features of the platform biostate, more descriptively than normatively:

Baseline medical welfare. The state looks after the base health of all of its residents. This is both an ideological commitment to care and a herd management technique. Keeping a persistently unhealthy group roaming around the community makes everyone much more vulnerable to communicable disease, so people in the community have to be fed well and have basic medical needs attended to.

Prestige Epidemiology. The science of disease management is the premier technical field. Other fields don’t go away, or stop providing insight, but they are politically secondary. John Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard is more urgently read than the New York Times, and the money-conscious watch an infection curve for signs of flattening, not (just) a zigzagging stock chart. Health is the lead department, rather than the Treasury or a Ministry of the Interior. The flawed WHO is more important than the flawed WTO. Oxbridge changes its major to Politics, Philosophy and Epidemiology. Economists already recognize this shift, and have been stunned at attempts to fix a virus with monetary and fiscal policy (consider Paul Romer‘s calls for massively expanded state-funded testing in the US). Economists also expect epidemiologists to be part of a public policy conversation they are not yet used to. 

[Distracted Man/Economists]

[Shocked Face/Explaining Sociology to Sociologists]

[Red Dress/Explaining Epidemiology to Epidemiologists]

External biosecurity. The platform biostate is a hospital system with a navy attached. It knows which people, animals, and plants cross its borders, and it imposes controls on those it wants to exclude. The Platform Biostate wears a mask. This doesn’t make it a hermit kingdom, necessarily, but one with good information about what is near its borders, able to open or close the borders quickly and effectively, and practised at filtering according to current health criteria. And yes, one prone to overgeneralizing the idea to memes, race, or other criteria less biologically grounded.

Internal biosecurity. Threats to community health inside the border can be detected and acted upon quickly. Isolation, testing and tracking are deployed specifically to maintain community health. Alcohol breath testing, mobile health apps, and the prison system state anticipate this. The tracking may be very explicitly individual tracking by a central system, or it may be distributed, but responsive to emerging threats. The social obligation to isolate when sick is a widely held value and backed by law and the police.

Asynchronous delivery / Remote synchrony. Logistics networks end at the house and the office again. Meeting is online by default, remote by default, virtualized by default, a routine piece of greenscreen theatre. Offices themselves fragment and partition. Automated supply chains are bioshock buffers.

Ecosystem complicity. Food, water and air – how casually we let them flow through us; how futile our pretence of the mind’s separation from them. So many more now know what it is like to be breathing death on people, and not able to see the effects until a fortnight later. Without doubting the human capacity for doublethink, everyone did just get an intuition crash course on the diseased exhalations of fossil fuel power.


Why now? What changed?

Well, meandering failure of the old thing, certainly. Epidemiology was an obviously relevant alternative idea lying around, and with some existing institutional forms, which is always important in a crisis. The platform elements of this form of governance – dashboards, rapid publication, gene-based tests, big data, smartphones – are also relatively new in institutional time. So in one sense we may care about COVID-19 because it is now cheaper to care about it and states may act as platform biostates because there are now technological platforms to use. Another common explanation is a shift of political consciousness – a sudden surge of social-mindedness. Perhaps. I doubt the wellspring of human sentiment has grown so very quickly without some other structural attractor.

Take a world with a wide difference in wealth and income between elites and most people, particularly the 0.1% and the remainder, but also where a top 10% of technically skilled managers and technocrats do quite well: our world of the elephant and Loch Ness monster graphs. This is also an era of dynastic capital, as Piketty has shown. Merit paths are important but so too is ensuring boomer-accumulated capital is stewarded in an orderly way to maintain the next generation’s place in society. As a purely instrumental matter, if you are a member of this 10 or 0.1%, crime, poverty, schooling, clean food, water and air can be protected against in a fairly individualized or family-level fashion. You can get bodyguards, you can live in a compound, you can have air-conditioning and an armoured limousine. It’s not a marvelous way to live, in my opinion, but it’s livable enough. Pandemic, though, is particularly hard to deal with this way; there are essentially three solutions if you’re trying to preserve dynastic capital.

  • Hygienic fortress. The normal compound solution isn’t enough for a contagious pandemic, especially one with an asymptomatic period. You need very strict lockdowns with all your servants and a biosecure epidermis. This is affordable for the 0.1% but not the 10%. For both classes it is in tension with the need to maintain a professional and social network to stay rich. You can’t go to restaurants or fly across the ocean. This era of capitalism works by assembling profit constructs from globally separated opportunities; people need to socially work a cosmopolitan network to navigate and construct that. You can do this online, and reach opportunities you previously couldn’t, but you can’t exploit all the senses for social advantage online; you can’t read body language as well, or catch people in the break of a three day conference. How do you decide when to let people into the fortress? – do they spend two weeks in the citadel hotel? It’s also inaccessible, in our current urban infrastructure, to the technocrats that actually manage the world, rather than owning it.
  • High fertility backup kin. The traditional farmer and landed aristocrat insurance against catastrophe is diversification through redundancy. Have plenty of kids, over multiple generations, and so have plenty of aunts and cousins as well, so that when war or disease does sweep through some of you survive. This is in tension with the multi-decade trend of urbanization and drops in fertility rates. The tendency is to have only a few kids, then hothouse-parent them into a career that will keep dynastic fortunes alive for the next generation (and your geriatric care). Perhaps it will flip the trend and people will start popping out more kids again, but even if it does, it will take decades, and there will have to be some default political worldview in the meantime.
  • Rawlsian contract. If you still want to leave the house and be near strangers, you are faced with a veil of disease ignorance. Especially with contagious diseases with asymptomatic periods, you don’t know whether you will be in the diseased or the healthy role after twelve days, when the veil is lifted. Rawls’ solution of distributive justice then applies – make sure that no-one is ever too sick or uncared for, and you reduce the risk of your own misery or death when the outcome is finally revealed.

Essentially the third solution, familiar in shape due to the historical welfare state, is what rich governments tried to implement in the first half of 2020. Some did it quite well, due to fortunate timing, advantages of population size and geography, or previous experience in biosecurity. For others – like the US or UK – it seemed like the levers of administrative government were no longer connected to any wires underneath. Those states (and sub-national states, like California) that did function, and treated population health as causing wealth, are already in a more powerful position than six months ago. They kept capable people able to work, protected their families, and limited their distress.

John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard screenshot


Optimizing for overall population and ecosystem health as a generator of power will still create losers (like all state power). A hospital is very good at treating sickness. It is also a bureaucracy that can be indifferent to people in need and make stupid mistakes. Medicine remains very fixated on treatment and on big centralized buildings of sickness control, all put under tension by the needs of keeping a population healthy rather than reacting only to sick people queuing for doctors. The epidemiological view of people as a population – a herd – also leans a manager towards the idea that a herd might be culled for the greater good. 

The platform biostate is a partial ideology: it can be combined with luxury airport quarantine stratification by passport and frequent disease flyer status, or drone-delivered Universal Basic Mask provision, or ideological hygiene death squads, if you try hard enough. It could have a neoliberal variant too: it’s pretty technocratic. Still, I am sympathetic to centreing the state on health, and think it’s perfectly compatible with liberal democracy, which I remain fond of. Financial neoliberalism was pretty good at creating wealth, markets and inequality. The platform biostate could be pretty good at cleaning up industrial toxins, governing by health dashboard and nagging like a harridan when individuals choose fun today over health a decade from now. Some Leviathans may rot; others may send the corpses to pathology for some bloodwork and an updated infection model.

((This piece owes something to Benjamin Bratton’s 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism, which has a wider scope.))

Diagonal Basilisks: Slashing the Field of Enlightened Intelligence

O schizophrenic mathematics, uncontrollable and mad desiring-machines!
– Deleuze and Guattari [1]

The phone game Cthulhu Virtual Pet [2] is a loving tribute to both HP Lovecraft’s most famous monster and Tamagotchi-era virtual pets. A simulated pet needs to be regularly fed and cared for to grow big and strong. The pet just happens to also be Cthulhu, an ancient creature from a complex hell-dimension beyond human perception, who is fated to eventually devour the entire world, driving those few who glimpse the terrifying future insane along the way.

In the game, you care for a particularly cute baby version of the monstrosity, feeding it virtual fish and gathering simulated witnesses to worship it as it gains power. If you neglect to care for the little tyke, it will remind you with messages that it is hungry, or tired, crudely and shamelessly tugging at your sense of obligation, unless you pause the simulation by putting it into hibernation, or stop it by deleting the app and the little version of its virtual world with it.

What is justice but a form of obligation? When we raise something far more powerful than ourselves, what does it learn?

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Sagacity and the Sympathetic Observer

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls spends considerable effort drawing out a thread in utilitarian thought on the importance of sympathy, and of a sympathetic observer. He does this for a number of reasons. Utilitarianism advocates a nice empirical-sounding position, that of either the greatest good for the greatest number, or the greatest aggregate good. But that position depends on a number of far from empirical concepts, like happiness, desire, rightness and the good. (There have been recent attempts by psychologists to measure these, but let’s put that aside for now. One always imagines laboratories full of stand up comics, with technicians dutifully noting down their impact in milli-guffaws.)

I am perhaps unusual in being a skeptic about strict definitions of such things, but even for people like myself, the utilitarians are a smart bunch, and have another mechanism to cover these and to add weight in considering society as a whole. This is the sympathetic observer, used by Adam Smith, among others. The observer lets you get away with the wooliness of your definition of the good, with a trick used by a US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when defining porn: I know it when I see it. Or in the case of the utilitarians, I know it when my sympathetic mate, who is however unmoved by the passion of the moment, sees it. Plus, since he is observant (and therefore at a remove from any one individual), but still sympathetic, he cares for society as a whole. How could he not want the greatest good for the greatest number?

Our sensibility to the feelings of others, so far from being inconsistent with the manhood of self command, is the very principle upon which that manhood is founded. […] The man of the most perfect virtue, the man whom we naturally love and revere the most, is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the most exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others.
In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to overrate the good offices we may have done, and the injuries we may have suffered: we are apt to be too much elated by our own good and too much dejected by our own bad fortune. The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self command.

— Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

There is an interesting stoic flavour when Smith talks of sympathy.

The method has a humanism to it, and a long history not often noted in the Western tradition. It can be found in the book named for Mozi (墨子), written during the Warring States period, 2500 years earlier. (I haven’t done a full lit review, but to pick a few arbitrary but widely used reference points and introductions, there’s no mention of it in Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Singer’s Ethics reader, or Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Mostly such things get thrown in the comparative scraps bucket.)

Mozi only has one book, a kind of self-titled debut album, and some of the material was probably written by a later generation of his followers (Mohists, 墨家). AC Graham translates some of the relevant sections of Mozi in Disputers of the Tao (p145 Chap II.2 From Mo-tzu to Later Mohism):

Expounding the Canons 2. “Everything which the sage desires or dislikes beforehand on behalf of men, men learn from him as necessary through its essentials; but in the case of desires and dislikes born from the conditions they encounter, men do not learn them from him as necessary through their essentials … Yesterday’s thinking is not today’s thinking, yesterday’s concern for man is not today’s concern for man … Yesterday’s wall to the wits is not today’s wall to the wits.
A7 (Canon) “Benevolence” is concern for units.
A8 (Canon) To do “right” is to benefit.
A35 “Achievement” is benefiting the people.

Graham comments on the parallels:

Here then the old Mohist utilitarianism is developed as a highly refined system. By a series of interlocking definitions it is established a priori that the benevolent and the right are what will be desired on behalf of mankind by the sage, who consistentely weighs benefits and harms on the principle of preferring the total to the unit. This system does not seem to be vulnerable, as I at one time assumed, to a charge commonly made against Western Utilitarianism, that it confuses fact and value by starting from what men in fact desire. It elucidates what the sage, the man who knows most, desires on behalf of mankind; it has behind it what we have identified as a general assumption of Chinese philosophy, that desires change spontaneously with increasing knowledge and that ‘Know!’ is the supreme imperative.

Graham doesn’t really have room here to draw a parallel with Adam Smith and the sympathetic observer specifically, or perhaps he was just busy learning a really bodacious skateboarding move. Can we rebut this critique of Western Utilitarianism with the same technique? The sage (圣人) and the sympathetic observer are awfully similar.

Rawls is also no stranger to complex analytic definitions of major everyday concepts, and he doesn’t attack the sympathetic observer on those grounds. He points out that the utilitarians need the observer so badly because it is often against an individual’s interest to follow the greater good when using a utilitarian formula (ie maximised average or aggregate good). Why would a rational individual consent to that, when there is such a nasty downside? This is even before taking into account the nastiest counter-examples for those utility functions, like a proportionally tiny slave underclass that is nevertheless horribly mistreated. JS Mill’s tack was to argue that you could only get to the greatest good for the greatest number through liberalism. Which appeals to me, but is also a bit convenient.

Rawls’ response is another kind of observer, his innovations of the initial position and the veil of ignorance. In the initial position, people decide what sort of society they should live in without knowing their position in it (the veil of ignorance). We choose for society by considering ourselves as a self-interested person in it. We observe ourselves and the society we live in from a distance that allows us to be just.

Rationality and Society

Oh those silly rational agents! What ridiculous duffers we were to ever believe in them. If you’ve read anything about business since the 2007/8 crisis you’ll already have read enough of this sentiment to wallpaper your flat with, but in the unlikely event you missed out, it was all pretty much covered in this op-ed by Joe Stiglitz in 2002 anyway.

And of course he’s right to a point. People aren’t perfectly rational, they are biased in certain ways being fascinatingly explored by behavioural economists, economists can be fixated on nice mathematical models.

And yet, and yet.

A lot of these attacks on rationality are intended as attacks on free markets, that rationality in this sense captures people at our worst. But despite the bad press of late, rationality isn’t just the domain of sociopathic capitalist uber-robot-mensch. It is, for instance, a key premise of Rawls argument in A Theory of Justice:


I have assumed throughout that the persons in the original position are rational. In choosing between principles each tries as best he can to advance his interests.

Rawls fuller argument, in a nutshell, said a just society would be the one chosen by rational but ordinary people who did not know what role they would play in it. They would have to choose the structure of society from behind a veil of ignorance which concealed whether they would be rich and priveleged, or poor, or a redhead. Under these conditions, Rawls argued they would choose two rules; firstly liberty, secondly the prosperity of the weakest class. He then argues that redistribution is just to the extent it benefits the poorest in absolute terms; you can’t sacrifice the wealth of the poorest for pure equality where everyone would be poorer.

Rawls cites Amartya Sen and social choice theory, looking to economics not just for part of his argument but part of his premises. A Theory of Justice effectively revived the idealist or contract tradition as a counterpoint to the utilitarian tradition then dominant. He was also a defender of the welfare state liberalism of his time, and a good one. One marker of the breadth of his contribution in reviving an idealist tradition is the phenomenon of libertarian Rawlsians, like, say, Will Wilkinson; they tend to like the veil of ignorance but not the distributive principle.

Only in a social union is the individual complete. — Rawls, A Theory of Justice, again

((Rawls was too much the careful scholar to go in much for quotable quotes: he is readable but longwinded. He also preferred to caveat his sentences with learned references and restrictions on their scope. The sentence above he only let slip in an unguarded moment at the end of a footnote.))

There are two contrasting uses of rationality here, one from social choice theory, one from efficient markets theory, that are slightly different, but only slightly. The point is that rational agents aren’t just a vision of utility maximising robots chewing each other to pieces. The considered reasoning behind the veil of ignorance also shows rationality as a vision of people at their best.