Sectorisation, Narcissism and Delusions of Freedom

Society is being broken by Covid-19 but in truth the hard surfaces the virus has landed on were already corroded and disfigured by the cult of narcissism and the disintegration of the collective. Watching both the government’s response to the pandemic and the public’s dialogue about it reinforces the idea that the very notion of a common good and a society has been fundamentally undermined. As social media swirls with the madness of the QAnon cult, 5G conspiracy, anti-vaxxers and those decrying their “freedoms” being undermined by public health measures, the true depth and cost of this collapse becomes clear.

A phone-in earnestly asks ‘Are students being denied their right to party?’ as governments in Scotland and Britain struggle to contain the disease whilst simultaneously ‘opening up the economy’. Travel companies moan that they want people to be able to fly across Europe without restriction. 17,000 people including libertarians and anti-vaccination activists, marched in Berlin a few weeks ago to protest against Germany’s coronavirus regulations. Many flouted guidance on wearing masks and physical distancing as they accused the government of ‘stealing our freedom’. Yesterday thousands gathered in London for a ‘No New Normal’ demo in Trafalgar Square with the same complaints as their German counterparts.

Amongst fluttering Union Jacks placards included the Trumpian “The Media are the Virus” – the cranky “Stuff the Stupid Rules” – and the scientifically incoherent “Where is the Virus?” Scotland isn’t immune to the  phenomenon.

For this tribe their worldview and lifestyle trumps everything from rational thought to science, from public health to even their family’s own safety. These are little more than petulant children.

The idea that you should be able to do whatever you like is endemic.

This is a society that has been infantilised by misplaced notions of “freedom” whilst become completely inured to obscene levels of poverty and inequality.

If the virus thrives on a host with an underlying condition, it is the malaise of narcissism boosted by an economy that thrives on hyper-individualism and completely distorted notions of liberty. Now these concepts have been super-charged by a collapse in belief in the institutions of politics and religion and the shattering of trust in media outlets as reliable sources of information.  This phenomena manifests itself in different ways in different countries but it has been successfully exploited (mostly) by the right at the far-right, by the Brexit movement here, by the Trump movement in the US of A and by the Five Star movement in Italy, to name just three.

This has a long-tail and deep consequences. The American author of The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch wrote way back in 1976:

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”

This deeply-seated view has consequences for our approaches to climate breakdown but now also to the virus.

Jim Hougan, author of Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies has similar insights. Lasch notes: “Hougan notes that survival has become the “catchword of the Seventies” and “collective narcissism” the dominant disposition. Since “the society” has no future, it makes sense to live only for the moment, to fix our eyes on our own “private performance,” to become connoisseurs of our own decadence, to cultivate a “transcendental self-attention.”

Everything becomes reduced to our own personal realm: our mindfulness, our coconut yoga mat, our re-cycling, our keepie-cup, our one hundred daily performative actions dutifully recorded for display. Such a worldview is in some ways inevitable and understandable in an economy that deifies personal freedom and endless choice, and for some it is a self-defense mechanism to maintain the myth of agency.

But evidence about behaviour from John Burn-Murdoch, the Financial Times data journalist suggest that when these attitudes spill-over into times of pandemic the  results may be catastrophic. He has published data suggesting “damning data on the complete failure to follow Covid-19 guidelines in the UK”. His research shows that only 18% of people self-isolate after developing symptoms and only 11% quarantine after being told by NHS Test and Trace that they’ve been in contact with a confirmed case. Burn-Murdoch writes: “It doesn’t matter how much the capacity and availability of testing is increased, or how much the contact-tracing system is improved, if people are just going to flagrantly ignore the instructions. I guess this must be what “freedom loving” means?”

But if non-compliance does feel like a body-blow to collective action and any sense of the common good it may come as no surprise with the abject failure of leadership from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. They have after all eschewed personal responsibility, flouted the rules, lied, gone on holiday and sold-off dozens of key contracts and positions to their chums. In a time when political leadership was essential we’ve been met with elite disdain and contempt.The track record of failure and privatised out-sourcing in such a short time is astonishing:Randox Laboratories produced unsafe test kits at a cost of £133,000,000; Serco produced a broken tracing system costing £108,000,000; NHSX produced a n abandoned contact tracing app for £11, 800, 000; Ayanda Capital produced unsuitable face masks for £150, 000, 000, to name but a few.Councils, public authorities and the NHS has been by-passed as the government handed out huge dollops of public money, often without open and transparent tendering processes.

As John Harris has written:”The new testing and tracing regime is branded with the logo of the NHS. It involves the government agency Public Health England, and official material on testing and tracing and local outbreaks identifies seven organisations and agencies that will also be involved, ranging from health protection boards and local strategic coordinating groups to outbreak engagement boards and local resilience forums. From the perspective of many people working at the grassroots, this is part of the problem. “Everything feels so fragmented,” one local government insider told me this week. “It feels like we’re trying to stick it all back together again.”So we have the macabre state of Boris Johnson using the ‘trusted brand’ of the NHS to promote private digital platforms that undermine it.Not only that but at a national level the co-ordination of responses has been top-down with an ideological insistence on central-control (ie London). Efforts to create a co-ordinated collaborative four-nation response has been met with disdain.

If the collapse in trust in the UK government was inevitable given the players involved and the background of anti-politics that has been the surround-sound of the last decade, it is not surprising that the general population fail to abide by commands from people they don’t have and trust in.

But another factor can be seen in our own response to the pandemic.

Day after day “sectors” are given voice by the media. Something called the “Hospitality industry” complains bitterly that they have been ‘thrown under the bus’. Something called the “travel industry” wails that they and their passengers should be able to travel anywhere they like. Football, theatre, hairdressers, cinema, taxi-drivers … everyone’s at it bemoaning that THEY are the important sector that government has ignored and MUST be saved immediately. This isn’t to denounce any particular sector or industry, and it’s natural for people try and defend their own jobs. But the “sectorisation” of our dialogue in crisis speaks to a wider problem of the collapse of any notion of wider “we” a common “us” that is about our society and our common humanity.

You can’t really have a vision of a common future and a plan to emerge from the wreckage if you can’t see our shared plight. It also hampers genuine useful reconstruction if all we are doing is clinging to the society as it currently is: fragmented and broken into shards of consumerism and polls of shallow self-interest.

Most of this is political failure of leadership. Johnson’s risible performances when challenged on the ineptitude and corruption of his government have conveyed astonishing hubris and self-delusion. Last week in the Commons Labour’s Ben Bradshaw asked the prime minister whether the fact that Germany and Italy had far lower death rates and far less severe lifestyle restrictions in place might be because “they have test and trace systems that actually work?”

“Actually,” came the reply from the Prime Minister. “There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.”

The Prime Minister’s vision of Britain will not be one shared by anyone with a functioning memory, or a passing knowledge of human rights or anyone who has experienced the surveillance state or police violence, the immigration system or the UK’s foreign policy.

So we join the circle between elite failure, narcissism and the celebration of the complete failure of public health measures in a global pandemic. Many more will die because of these delusions. Our inability to look ourselves and the world in the face with honesty and make the necessary radical and imaginative changes will be our continued downfall. Winter is coming.

Comments (33)

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  1. Michelle Shortt says:

    Brilliant article Mike. You absolutely nailed the narcissism that has undermined the public health message. The media have been hugely influential in spreading this narcissistic messaging. As someone who has spent over 30 years working in health and social care I find it all thoroughly depressing and enraging.

  2. Mark Bevis says:

    Yes, this is what COGIC looks like. (Collapse of Global Industrial Civilisation). Death of a thousand cuts. Even if we muddle through this crisis there’ll be another one to follow. By the time enough collective action is mustered to do things differently, we’ll be beyond the point of being able to count the corpses.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Great article Mike. The whole covid response has been a farce from the start and they’ve learned nothing. Why did we come out of lockdown so early? The signs of the second wave were already starting to show in Europe when the “UK” started easing restrictions. As you mention, people aren’t following guidelines so don’t give them a reason to leave the house. Pubs should never have reopened in the normal sense. They should’ve banned supermarkets from selling alcohol and allowed the pubs, restaurants and cafes to sell alcohol carry-outs as well as takeaways. They should also have been moving towards making home working / learning the norm. Anyone who has attended a university or college will know you’d have a lot more learning time with virtual courses.

    1. mince'n'tatties says:

      Are you serious? Ban alcohol, and then what? String up from the lampost anyone caught with a homebrew kit?
      Ban, ban, ban. You could ban murder, sex, maybe the old from dying, how dare they. Get real. You are the out of control authoritarian here.
      Daft days.

  4. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    I think the ‘problem’ in Britain is that, as a general rule, everything’s legal, providing you don’t get caught.

  5. Pete Roberts says:

    Excellent article, but there is another factor at play, which is that the Covid case statistics are not based on good science. This is coming under increased criticism from the independent scientific community.

    Basically the tests which the covid case statistics are based on do not detect the actual covid virus, they detect antibodies which can be caused by other things. So the official statistics on which the restrictions are based are exaggerated and do not reflect the actual number of cases.

    1. Paul Hayes says:

      Dr Yeadon’s argument is fallacious. One obvious error he makes is that it doesn’t matter that the testing FDR (false discovery rate) is large. What matters is that the case rate is increasing. Another is that it simply isn’t true that the evidence isn’t also showing up in the other indicators: It’s also important to remember that since the disease progression is an exponential process, it doesn’t matter that the numbers are small *now*.

      That “open letter” is not from a group that might reasonably be described as part of the independent scientific community with relevant expertise (virology, epidemiology etc.) but some cranks who are endorsing all sorts of CoVID-19 related myths and pseudoscience. Even the anti-mask rubbish FFS!

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I am not familiar with QAnon, but the Herald is surely feeding conspiracy views around their assertions by calling them ‘absurd’. How can they be absurd? Prince Andrew may yet face a formal charge of some sort. And conspiracies involving religious child abuse have been extensively brought to light, with the evidence of all those little graves (and other children not according even unmarked burial):
    “Ireland has started trying to rectify the wrongs of its history. The UK is lagging behind”
    Why prejudge the findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, even if you fear it will be a (partial) whitewash that protects the powerful?

    In an age where it seems that anything can be faked, empiricism struggles. Perhaps these cults stem from a need to mount collective action in opposition to the ego-dominance politics rightly condemned in this article. However, as the article says, some of those influenced still seem to take individualistic and irrational action. The basic lack, I guess, is a system of deliberative democracy, with norms of transparency and public engagement. Of course the deep state exists in places like the USA and the UK. I have reached the 21st century in Ruth Blakeley’s book on State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South, which looks beneath the public legitimation exercises to the covert continuation of Cold War and European/USAmerican imperialist execution and sponsorship of state terror to further the interests of capitalist elites. So it is not surprising that some in those capitalist elites may want to muddy the waters and project their own wrongdoings onto others.

    Apparently USAmerican military policy includes a full-spectrum dominance strategy where the enemy (everyone else on the planet, presumably including sections of their own populace) becomes trapped in lawless zones, competing amongst themselves, unable to mount a cohesive, collective defence on any level. How close the corrupt and backward UK is to becoming a failed state, I do not know. But some people will be looking forward to benefiting from this.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      But don’t you find that the catastrophe theorists are just as risible as the conspiracy theorists?

    2. “I am not familiar with QAnon” slightly underlines this comment.

      I suggest some reading.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, I followed your suggested reading and responded to the Herald article contents. What is canonical or authoritative QAnon? I have heard some of David Icke’s stuff, mostly secondhand, and found a discordance between bouts of clear, reasonable criticism and longer forays into what seemed like mystical gobbledegook and fantasy. Is there a suggestion that this is part of some information warfare campaign, like the attempts to discredit all news, and all experts, and that kind of thing? My view is that a systematic approach is needed to investigate claims and give the (alleged or recognised) wronged their day in court. And for that you need considerable (international) infrastructure in good working order. So undermining the rule of law, discrediting journalism and expertise, and wrecking consensus-based international institutions would seem to be intent on destroying the mechanisms for exposing conspiracies.

        I saw a documentary on flat-earthers, who met up in some kind of convention. It seems that their psychological motivation was not to uncover some shared truth (because their theories even in such a narrow area were so widely different and contradictory) but to gain some kind of social belonging and recognition, perhaps a sense of agency and purpose, maybe specialness.

        On specific claims, like whether the USAmerican military may be poised for a coup, it reminds me of what Margaret Atwood wrote about her Gilead novels: everything in them has happened before in history. And the story of the Business Plot remains murky, yet formally acknowledged to some degree at a high level.
        Just because some conspiracies are ultimately or perpetually ineffectual doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are large sections of the British and USAmerican state devoted to such conspiracies. And some conspiracies, like the Suez Crisis, have been major crimes that the villains were never punished for.

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          QAnon is a far-right conspiracy tendency, which alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles, which runs a global child sex-trafficking ring, is plotting against Donald Trump. It portrays Donald as an All-American superhero, who’s engaged in a kind of comic-book life-or-death struggle with this cabal and its creatures in the press, government, and academia, a struggle which will culminate in a ‘day of reckoning’ that will involve the mass arrest of all the journalists, intellectuals, and politicians working for the evil conspiracy.

          Interestingly, claims of the existence of QAnon might themselves represent nothing more than a conspiracy theory.

          Ain’t post-truth politics fun!

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Anndrais mac Chaluim, what does appear to be undeniable is that the USA is practically the only nation to refuse to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child:
            allowing some USAmerican states to legally continue to force children to marry their rapists (something even the pro-US British tabloid press was briefly up in arms about), the federal separation of migrant children from families, and the recent execution of minors (which could be restarted). So if President Trump was really battling to save children, you would imagine his first priority would be to push for the ratification of the Convention in Congress. Wikipedia, apparently drawing on the New York Times, says “As of June 2019, the Trump administration has not submitted the convention for Senate ratification.” No such push, theory goes whoosh.

          2. Yeah your summary of the Cult is accurate. I think you missed the cannibalism but other than that quite accurate.

  7. Ian McCubbin says:

    So if all this is true, is it possible that some Covid cases are actually flu, pneumonia and classed as covid if they die.
    The control by government is a power kick without the stats from test and trace and serious case numbers to back up actions.

  8. Brian McGrail says:

    The problem with conspiracy theories is that the presume there is an intelligent life form behind the acclaimed actions / events. But as Adam Smith notes 250 years ago (Book 5, chp 1, Wealth of Nations), the division of labour is apt to produce stupidity and ignorance. Those who claim the virus does not exist should be asked to volunteer for frontline work in Covid wards within hospitals, without the need to use PPE, highly valued by ‘believers’. At the end of the day it’s capitalism (‘commercial society) which Smith also noted evolved with no ‘wisdom’ (plan) behind it (Book 1, chp2) – there is no conspiracy, just blind and one-sided ‘invested’ stupidity.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      I think you might be onto something there, Brian.

      Conspiracy theorists do seem to have a hankering after some ‘final cause’ explanation of events – i.e. in terms of some ‘hidden meaning’ or purposefulness – with which Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith were keen to dispense in their project to ‘disenchant’ the universe and explain it in purely functional terms instead.

      Maybe catastrophe theorising represents a similar recidivism; only, in this case it’s a hankering after pre-Enlightenment ‘repent-for-the-end-is-nigh’ messianism.

  9. Barbara Ross says:

    You have just described the frustration I have felt since the beginning of the pandemic. If we could only direct the same level of outrage and intolerance to poverty and inequity than we do to protesting against simple public health guidelines then future generations will continue to thrive. As I watch these pointless demonstrations I fear our society is tearing itself apart for pointless, self serving reasons that destroy rather than build up. Where do we go from here?

  10. Axel says:

    Boris Johnson’s reply about England being a freedom loving country just showcases the Elitist exceptionalist nationalism. It was also a classic and unpursued evasion of the question while trying to shift the blame onto the people.

    Yes each sector is defending its turf, but if say Hospitality goes under a lot of the rest of the economy will go under as a result. No sector is an island. A government that was competent would (1) Prioritise the sectors to be saved and (2) provide support for the employed and self employed who go under in the remaining sectors.

    We have a government that will accept neither responsibility nor blame.

    once they have made enough today’s key players will leave politics and carp from the sidelines when others try to clean up the mess.

  11. Daniel Raphael says:

    Michael, I’ve mentioned to you on previous occasions that you come up with a “pregnant” paragraph or statement that is the perfect lead for a tweet. I just used one such a moment ago, and thought I’d point it out to you:

    “If the virus thrives on a host with an underlying condition, it is the malaise of narcissism boosted by an economy that thrives on hyper-individualism and completely distorted notions of liberty.”

    So much can be said in one compact sentence–and you said it. Please continue saying it.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      My understanding is that a virus – any virus – thrives on any host, whether that host has an ‘underlying condition’ or not. Unfortunately, there seems to a higher risk of the coronavirus killing such vulnerable hosts. Having no ‘underlying condition’ does not make you safe from the coronavirus; if you aren’t careful, you can still catch and transmit it from and to the people with whom you’re in contact, which is the driver of the current pandemic. The only way you can keep yourself safe from infection is by practising effective distancing from the virus.

      1. I think we’re being a bit literal

        1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

          Perhaps… But isn’t it part of the problem that a lot of the so-called ‘rule-breakers’ think that the virus doesn’t seriously affect them but only people who have ‘underlying conditions’? Isn’t this precisely the kind of social irresponsibility you target in your article?

          1. Oh yes, absolutely and I think our ignorance is deep … if you read about long covid and the variant versions its not a nice thing and can affect in all sorts of ways

  12. Alan Deans says:

    What really hacks me off is that all the major players in this drive to kill us off – Johnson/Gove/Cummings/Farage etc etc – will all soon resign (laughingly ‘Honourably’ !) and then charge a fortune for morons to listen to them on the ‘After dinner’ circuit – whilst the rest of us eat dogs for dinner !

  13. Meg says:

    The definition of freedom is far reaching. We should not dismiss the idea of it. We should not be suspicious of those who sense that the idea of freedom is being belittled for some while others flex the monetary muscle.

    1. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      We should be suspicious of everyone. Three questions I’ve found useful in responding to anyone who makes a claim on my belief are ‘What are they selling?’, ‘Why should I buy it?’, and ‘Why should I buy it from THEM?’

  14. Lesley says:

    Some of this I agree with, but is it right to categorise all critics of the present covid strategy as delusional or narcissistic? The threat to liberty is very real and not only revolving around the removal of superficial ‘ freedoms ‘. The elderly suffer most from the imposed social isolation and our immune systems are stronger when we are able to be nurtured by our family and social connections. Does a concern about the depletion of access to previously available healthcare through the focus on covid make people shallow or delusional? There are some considerable and significant rights at stake here which many , including the medical profession, are deeply concerned by. I agree it is delusional to join the fantasy of Britain as a freedom loving country – the state has been far from freedom loving – think the Clearances, the Suffragettes, Peterloo, the condition of the working class at the onset of the Industrial revolution, but the present strategy of disease management is in danger, under the guise of addressing a pandemic, of reducing the right to democratic participation in society further than we have experienced before. We need to be clear where these threats are, not collude with them and consciously direct society in ways which open up social justice, fund public and social care and restore the right of movement, association and assembly which has been retracted at the moment through the Corona Act which Johnson wishes to extend for 2 years.

    1. “is it right to categorise all critics of the present covid strategy as delusional or narcissistic?”

      No it isn’t and I don’t.

    2. meg macleod says:

      so well said and balanced…you speak for many i think

    3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      ‘ I agree it is delusional to join the fantasy of Britain as a freedom loving country – the state has been far from freedom loving…’

      Don’t confuse the country with the state. We each love our own freedom (it’s the freedom of others that we can’t abide, since it impinges on our own), and our histories are littered with examples of us asserting of our freedom against tyranny. The state, on the other hand, is inherently illiberal in that it is, qua state, the alienation of our freedom for the sake of our security.

  15. Éilís Ní Mhurchú says:

    Excellent article. I’ve been so frustrated with the news on TV and radio, asking where are the real journalists, speaking out about the real state of government actions, not just giving us distracting details. Thank you for this article. We need more investigation and exposure of what government is actually doing. I think your assessment on society is correct. And the interesting thing is that our dis-connect from each other and past and future generations, is in part what drives our inward lack of peace, in turn driving the outward behaviours demanding to have freedom. Ironically, no freedom at all.

  16. John Gooch says:

    We are at a cross roads of a number of new technologies.
    The air industry makes pandemic more likely, even if this one is not so serious as Ebola for example.
    Meanwhile electronics allows new isolation operation options, that often don’t get proper Gov democratic debate and journalism.
    Perhaps the new electric delivery boxes of the CO OP food shops in Milton Keynes, will replace the present manned delivery industry.
    Maybe shared cars will be replaced by electric wheel chair Dalek like replacements.
    But regards the freedom concern, there is the fact that no one wants to have another cold war, with the latest powerful anti freedom power China.
    Thus the individuals freedom will be under pressure from propergander and Artificial Intelligence, if not actual Robot soldiers/police.
    What few realise is how 24 hour tireless supervision from AI, could erode the freedom to be free whilst just seeming attractive like drugs do.
    But possibly with the full power of government backing !
    A regime under pressure from China et al, regardless of flavour, may use any number of excuses to bring in individual supervision, to reduce the over all difficulties we have with other governments.

    For all this, I propose a simpler lifestyle more directly relying on nature, to help reduce the stress.
    The Bible mentions a certain mark with a sore and a certain beast, electronics coming through the skin could get infections, and God should be valued to help.

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