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Bakunin and COVID 19

David Cowles

Jun 20, 2023

“If someone says, “God told me to do it,” we confine them in a hospital setting. But if someone says, “I followed the science,” we elect that person to public office.”

“I am guided by the science.” How often during the recent pandemic did we hear public officials recite that mantra? Meaning what? I have turned over my reason, my conscience, my moral authority, and my ethical duty to an amorphous collection of people and institutions guided by an ever-changing body of so-called ‘knowledge’? 

Once upon a time, folks used to say, “I am guided by my faith. I have turned over my reason, my conscience, my moral authority, and my ethical duty to God and to people and institutions sanctioned and guided by God.” 

Meet the new god (science), the same as the old God (YHWH). To the chagrin of many, there is no fundamental difference between “I am guided by the science” and “I am guided by the Word of God” (aka the Bible, the Koran, etc.).

In both cases, the speaker is subcontracting ‘moral responsibility’ to an external agent. It is a way of avoiding the always disappointing consequences of terrifying choices and timid actions. 

If someone says, “The Devil told me to do it,” we imprison them. If someone says, “God told me to do it,” we confine them in a hospital setting. But if someone says, “I followed the science,” we elect that person to public office. Yet, all three are really saying the exact same thing!

As a 19th century revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876) might have been expected to hold the precepts of modern science in high esteem, and so he did! But, unlike many of his comrades, then and now, he was singularly not fooled by the ‘science made me do it’ fallacy. On the one hand, he wrote: “We recognize the absolute authority of science…” Then he added: “…but we reject the infallibility and universality of the savant…the savants form a separate caste, in many ways analogous to the priesthood.”

Bakunin consistently excoriates Big Science:

“Suppose a learned academy…charged with legislation…frames none but laws in absolute harmony with the latest discoveries of science…Such legislation would be a monstrosity…”

“…Human science is always and necessarily imperfect…A society that would obey legislation emanating from a scientific academy…would be a society, not of men (sic), but of brutes.”

“…A scientific academy invested with a sovereignty, so to speak, absolute…would soon end in its own moral and intellectual corruption…such is the history of all academies.”

“A scientific body, to which had been confided, the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair…its own eternal perpetuation…”

“The government of science and of men (sic) of science…cannot fail to be impotent, ridiculous, inhuman, cruel, oppressive, exploiting, maleficent.” 

I wonder what he really thinks!

Sidebar: Notice what is missing from Bakunin’s blistering critique. Nowhere does he mention the undemocratic way in which academy members are chosen, nor the fact that members are almost all white males, middle-aged or older. (He does decry the fact that they all come from the privileged classes.) Today, organizations like Antifa treat Bakunin as an intellectual forebear, but would he recognize himself in their ideology?

As an intellectual, Bakunin paid the required homage to the scientific spirit, but as an ‘eternal anarchist’, he distrusted everything, including science itself: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! Science, theology, theology, science, church, state, tomato, tomato! It is institutionalization per se that is the enemy. 

Marxism replaced the Judeo-Christian God with a pantheon of new deities: the State, History, Science, etc. Not Bakunin. For him, atheism is atheism, period.

Importantly, Bakunin does not confine his Critique of Scientific Reason to the institutional side of science; like Beowulf, he confronts Grendel in her den:  

“…Science can grasp and name only the general significance of real facts, their relations, their laws – in short that which is permanent in their continual transformations – but never their material, individual side, palpitating so to speak with reality and life…Science comprehends the thought of reality, not reality itself: the thought of life, not life. That is its limit, its only really insuperable limit because it is founded on the very nature of thought…”

Bakunin’s thought spans the length and breadth of western philosophy. The distinction he draws (above) is both reminiscent of Parmenides (Aletheia and Doxa) and anticipatory of Sartre (en soi and pour soi).  Sartre’s best known novel, Nausea, is centered on the main character’s realization that Being incessantly and inevitably overflows the margins of ‘being’. 

Like Sartre, Bakunin finds value in art that is missing from science: “Science cannot go outside of the sphere of abstractions. In this respect, it is infinitely inferior to art…art in a certain sense individualizes the types and situations which it conceives…”

Summing up, Bakunin writes: “What I preach then is, to a certain extent, the revolt against science or rather against the government of science… to remand it to its place so that it can never leave it again.” Such language! Reminiscent of God exiling Satan in Dante and Milton, even of God enchaining the sea in Genesis and Job. 

In recent years, science has been uncharacteristically center stage in our public forum. To some, it is, at least potentially, omniscient, and omnipotent. To others, it is a ‘hoax’. Still others acknowledge their dependence on science, even as they view it with a measure of distrust. Very few of us arrive at the nuanced assessment of science achieved by Bakunin almost 200 years ago.


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