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.