Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T S Eliot
IN 2020 this country, like a number of others, was subjected to a tyranny which our political leaders and the medical establishment, with the assistance of the mainstream media, imposed upon us in a style reminiscent of, if not inspired by, communist China.
I will not repeat all the lies, the propaganda and the fear tactics, as they have already been exposed for those with eyes to see. My concern here is with the questions of first, why so many people were prepared, in some cases enthusiastically, to go along with this evil experiment in social control, and second, why others were sceptical and even outraged by this incursion upon our freedom carried out in the name of a seasonal virus similar to ’flu. No answer to the first question can be adequate without its bearing on an answer to the second.
One argument which has gained traction is the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet’s theory of ‘Mass Formation Psychosis’. He suggests that what distinguishes previous instances of totalitarianism from the kind we have been experiencing is that it is ‘technocratic totalitarianism’. That label may truly reflect the methods that have been used (through digital technology and the rise in power of selected so-called ‘scientific experts’) but in many ways it is just another instance of the totalitarian impulse which existed even before the 20th century – see Roger Scruton’s essay The Totalitarian Temptation, which is much deeper than Desmet’s theory. The evil temptation to submerge human individuality and freedom into a top-down controlled collective, with the complicity of many of the populace, has a long and nasty history.
Desmet stresses that the wild exaggerations of the threat of Covid and the social isolation of lockdowns has led to atomised individuals, filled with fear and free-floating anxiety, being desperate for a sense of meaning, care and belonging that only our rulers can give. But he ignores the fact that we were already living in a health-obsessed, risk-averse culture (described in 1997 by Professor Frank Furedi in his book A Culture of Fear) together with an ever-increasing dependence on the state to ‘protect’ us like children. My TCW article The Spineless Generation in May laid out some dominant trends in our modern culture which have diminished the virtues of stoicism, courage and independence of thought.
Desmet invokes studies in group psychology to explain the conformity with measures that are oppressive or even absurd, but his scientistic approach is too sweeping, rather superficial, and does not explain why some people are not influenced by groupthink. His Mass Psychosis theory not only reduces compliance to a pathology (are all the compliers really insane?) which in turn implies that people are not morally responsible for their attitudes and behaviour, but also fails to draw important distinctions between those who believed the fearmongering lies and those who merely conformed for a variety of reasons, as with those who pretended to believe for the sake of their careers, the workshy who were happy to be furloughed and ‘working’ from the comfort of home, and those who just bury their heads under the bedclothes and don’t want to think at all (‘too upsetting’).
Nor do the ‘believers’ fall into one category. There is a difference between believing the fearmongering and believing inthe tyrannical restrictions as a solution. The latter depends upon one’s ethical values, or lack of them, political orientation, individual qualities of character, upbringing, and other conditions that are not simply reducible to a unitary model of cognitive affirmation. In some cases what looks like belief amounts to non-thought.
Rather than pathologising uncritical compliance we should see that it is rooted in long-standing tendencies in human nature to go with the flow, like ‘drops within the social river’ (in Huxley’s phrase) and to evade personal responsibility.
Some critics complain about the paucity of ‘critical thinking’, as though it were a single unitary skill transferable to all situations, which to my mind is as misleading as saying there is such a thing as ‘decision-making skills’ that can be applied to any situation where ‘choice’ is required (and as if the same force of the word ‘decide’ can be applied to choosing whether to eat a banana, to get divorced or commit suicide). Different forms of critical thinking are characterised by, and gain their different applications within, different fields of study or different kinds of human activity. A critical response to tyranny involves deep qualities of character, involving courage, integrity and moral values. A cost/benefit analysis cannot adjudicate between incommensurables. It cannot weigh or measure the combating of a virus against the cost of imposing inhumane restrictions, because that ‘cost’ is immeasurable. It is beyond the very concept of measurement, just as love cannot be weighed or priced. Freedom is a supreme moral value – a value not perceived in a utilitarian calculus where the end justifies immoral means.
A deeper approach to crowdthink than the scientistic view of Desmet was taken by those ancient thinkers who saw the ethical and not merely intellectual duty to resist it, along with the permanent threat to the human condition of self-deception. More than two-and-a-half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Plato presented us with his allegory of the cave, in which the cave-dwellers take shadows on the wall for reality and are resistant to an awakening to the truth. We can find wisdom in the words of the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, in a letter to his friend Lucias, ‘let us separate ourselves from the crowd and we shall be made whole’.
Even more powerfully, the 19th century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard brought out the ethical importance of resisting blind conformity by describing ‘the crowd as the untruth’, by which he meant that, ethically speaking, the crowd is an abstraction, not a person, and that hiding behind this abstraction ‘renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible or, at least, weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction’. To deny one’s own personal responsibility by seeking refuge in the crowd (even if it is a crowd of four) is to ‘flee in cowardice from being an individual’.
The huge number of people who felt no resistance or outrage against the inhumane restrictions carried out against us in the name of a virus that was not exactly the new Black Death were/are not suffering from psychosis, but, for a variety of different reasons, succumbed to a permanent feature of human nature. They were morally culpable for that compliance and in some cases, are still refusing to see the threat of future restrictions in the name of what Michael Gove and others have parroted as ‘The New Normal’, the WEF’s ‘Great Reset’. More crucially, the Mass Psychosis view does not explain why a number of us resisted. That was due, among other things, to courage, natural scepticism of mass movements, a love of truth, moral values deeper than mere physical safety, an ability to see through the empty virtue-signalling and demonising of the ‘unclean’ (the non-masked and non-vaxxed) and, for some of us, a knowledge of the history of totalitarianism. Last, but not least, the possession of wisdom, the gradual disappearance of which was lamented by T S Eliot in the epigraph to this article. Where indeed is ‘the Life we have lost in living’?