Some of us have recently become aware of something called "nudge theory": essentially a morsel of cognitive behavioral psychology applied to regulatory questions with an immense découpage of rhetoric and the right sort of corporate-compatible scientificality sufficient to impress the politicians who mete out budget - the kind of HR-friendly "science" that fits into a 15-minute presentation.
Laura Dodsworth, a British journalist, has become a bit famous for exposing the role this theory supposedly played in the COVID panic - at least in the U.K. and probably a few other European governments.
As gripping as this tale of gossip might be, this is definitely the wrong direction for any genuine inquiry into the etiology of COVID mass hysteria. Our governments - as duplicitous, as pernicious, and paternalistic as all bloated bureaucratic governments always are - are not to blame for the panic. We created it. The people wanted it: that any politician or governmental agency would like to take credit for it, is only a sign of how deeply motivated the whole ceremony was.
Therefore Dodsworth is just another aspect of the ritual: to find someone to blame was always the primary motive… There will no doubt continue to be many more exploits of investigative journalism: it’s important not to lose sight of one’s own intuition about what you saw in the faces of your neighbors and friends in those years - was it or wasn’t it bloodlust, delight in having found a victim, the excitement of anonymous violence?
The perspective represented by Dodsworth says: "Everything important happens in government; the government is in control." Which is itself a very pampered and insufferably European point of view, isn’t it?
Blaming the manifold mass crimes of COVID on some adorably ambitious government department and mere "policy error", is the most politically correct means of securing a contrarian stance - and therefore will be the majority view eventually. Dodsworth has merely anticipated and prepared the politically safe way to shunt blame for the collateral damage of the rituals of mass hysteria.
A grasp of the principles and predominance of mass psychology seems lacking: but this is only an illusion. It’s already a trite truism to say, "a person is smart, people are stupid and dangerous." What’s particularly difficult to grok, is that almost everyone already understands group psychology extremely well: what they seek is to be on the right side at the right time, and therefore feigned ignorance of what’s really happening is essential - feigned ignorance of your own calculations, feigned ignorance of your trajectory mapping of group consensus, feigned ignorance of how often and adeptly you sample group consensus… Of course this dance of ignorance must itself be disguised, lest the pretense become conscious - make no mistake, becoming conscious in the midst of any of these commonplace cognitive distortions is guarded against at all costs: but how do we hide a feigned ignorance from ourselves? With "virtue": all too often, feigned ignorance is called humility, or prudence, or "maturity", or "social responsibility"… With a loud lie a quiet lie is hidden: moral posturing is the convenient garish lie we are all accustomed to, and we take its presence as a kind of sign of social quorum - where three or more are gathered in the name of morality, the unholy spirit will appear.
The essential question is: why did the majority love a fictional pandemic? What’s to gain? Why do people seem to love fascism? This is one of my formulae: no conspiracy, everyone a conspirator. How can that be?
If we look at the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century, if we ask Hannah Arendt about it, what does she ultimately say was the deciding factor? Firstly a threshold of homogeneity in needs and frustration among the middle class. A sense of going nowhere, with nothing to do, with no challenge, with nothing to gain, with a sense of unending anxiety: remember this was before the age of television, internet, Xanax, and corn syrup - there were only slower and cruder drugs such as alcohol, laudanum, and newspapers. Therefore it starts to look probable, that what’s happening is that first world misery has merely exceeded the threshold which the old 20th century narcotics were able to hold back - the levee broke, and the flood spilled. What’s the ooze? Alienation, frustrated aggression, and moral hypocrisy. Those are the seeds of fascism, those are the seeds which call forth a fascist regime from the otherwise tangled impotent mess that is mass governance - not conscious intentional planning, not conscious conspiracy, but something much deeper and more difficult to perceive except at greater historical distance…
Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see in any of these governmental responses to COVID, anything like indirect suggestion or hypnoid means of control. I see repetitive slogans, hamfisted insistence, and the same kind of smothering condescending tone that a spa takes towards its customers.
Now I’ve lived in Europe, and the way those governments relate to citizens always felt like something between a dentist’s waiting room and a "Living With Herpes" brochure. To acquiesce in a thousand ways to the life of a stupid child, an invalid, a prematurely geriatric superfluity - and at the last moment suddenly protest: could it really be that Dodsworth and her ilk have just now woken up into the world their upper middle class preferences created a long time ago?
The "nudge unit" is simply the logical conclusion to the kind of socialist-creep Dodsworth and her kind have been supporting for decades: but suddenly they’ve noticed how inconvenient it is, when a government infringes upon the upper middle class lifestyle in another form other than the guilt-laundering service of a high tax rate. Suddenly an increasingly socialist state begins to look a little bit fascist? That this surprises anyone, is only further evidence of what tame benumbed lives these people were living prior, how shallow and worthless the general education is, and how little anyone has managed to internalize the history of the 20th century: I am not yet tired of repeating, along with A. James Gregor, that fascist doctrine was first developed by communist theorists.
It’s not that I don’t think anyone can be held responsible - again I’d love to see the virologists who created the virus held responsible - but that indeed a much profounder reckoning is called for than this superficial hand-wringing about some very British "ministry of conformity"… A reckoning with the civilizational forces that brought us here is called for, a revaluation of the viability of the coexistence of privileged freedom and paternal interventionist technocracy is called for…
I cannot for the life of me find a single example of a genuine indirect suggestion related to COVID - at least nothing beyond the typical marketing savvy which the average 20-something business school dropout might possess. The example which "nudge theory" seems most proud of, is the printed image of the housefly on the public urinal, which is irresistible to the urges of men and serves to make us less errant in our duties. I’ve seen these in airports and I admit it’s very clever and effective. But everything related to COVID was clumsy, repetitive, obsequious, and not at all subtle but hyperbolic. Now if they were taking credit for the unconscious effects induced by an exaggerated and histrionic demonstration of fear, I would be impressed: because false, histrionic fear is indeed a powerful social signal. It says: "there’s another hidden agenda of which we will not speak, and the goals of which you must guess." But above all, it promises: "Go along and you’ll get your chance to play persecutor."
Please don’t be overawed by the fact that they gave this guy Thaler the Nobel Prize in economics. Economics is almost as weak a science as psychology, and perhaps even more susceptible to political fashion. Moreover this is the same organization that gave Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for being elected: more than a little political buffoonery is at work here…
Behavioral economics seems to have gotten about as far as Hobbes or David Hume: they’ve caught up to the idea that humanity is often irrational, and decorate the realization with fashionable vocabulary borrowed from statistics and set theory. But they have no idea of unconscious mechanics: neither repression, nor displacement, nor projection, nor overdetermination, nor even really the ethology of symbolization, nor the proclivity to envy among primates… They have no anthropological education and no historical perspective whatever - a Foucaultian sense for the recursivity of historical domains is entirely too much to ask. I’d almost prefer a Marxist economist to these impossibly smug professors of the dismal science: at least "class consciousness" would be closer to the mark, since it at least traces impersonal forces and sees the individual as a node in a network, rather than this impeccably bourgeois prejudice that the individual "mind" is the indivisible atomic unit in which all decision occurs. As though all meaningful psychology can be reduced to "cognitive bias" and a list of typical fallacies - as though human nature were merely a faulty computer…
Moreover, "irrational" is incorrect! No animal is strictly irrational: only under the extreme pressures of post-agricultural civilization does humanity begin to look "irrational" - which would mean nothing else than that it fails to meet its own needs. The instincts are above all rational in their outcome. And even homo sapiens in the midst of civilizational maladaptation, still achieves largely rational outcomes: one only needs to understand what needs are being met, to understand their functionality. I insist that merely two forces suffice to explain the vast majority of seemingly irrational human behavior: loneliness and envy. "Am I in the group? And if so, what’s my status?" These two questions ring like an incessant bell in the head of modern humanity. The student of psychology who keeps them in mind will avoid many detours and deadends.
Social conformity, avoidance of abandonment, and unconscious strategic positioning: everything else is largely a matter of elaboration and disguise. That’s the introductory phase of my "böser Blick".
There is another important factor never to lose sight of, when dealing with transiently successful pop science of this kind: what’s the gratification? should always be the first question asked. Why is "behavioral psychology" popular? Because it says: "people are irrational, but we’re not." And for the small price of applause, you are invited to this club. And with one stroke, the increasingly obvious prevalence of unconscious mass psychology in an age of overpopulation is explained, defused, and neutralized - so that one may return to that "illusion of control" they like to speak of, without ever considering whether their shallow theorizing does not also constitute an illusion.
Y’all are granting far too much power and sophistication to these cognitive behavioral psychologists: actually they are sloppy, uneducated, and forgettable. "Evidence-based" behavioral psychology is fundamentally the art of statistical fraud, political posturing, and shallow quantization methods: they seek to study the multivariate statespace of social behavior with blockheaded questionnaires and computer-administered multiple-choice. Most of their studies are merely a test of the subject’s willingness to anticipate the socially correct answer. Among insiders, it’s well known that no other field is so riddled with fraudulent wishful "evidence" - Diederik Stapel was just a little too lazy about hiding it.
Moreover, modern psychology is largely the field which collects aimless academic nobodies too lazy and untalented for real science: thus the predominance of the lonely cat-lady, the simpering neckbeard, the soft-handed urban manchild seeking authority over those even more neurotic and impotent than himself. Who becomes a psychologist today? Desperate bescarfed women who begin their middle age in their late 20s, who collect patients like roadkill, who feed on a transient sense of superiority and sophistication only by gathering a following of true losers and keeping them ill. This is not godlike science, believe an insider: they have no power over anyone but the extremely weak and willing.
Leading a tangled morass of fully tamed, frustrated, anxious bores of the 21st century into almost any scheme is easy, as long as it appeals to fundamental needs: distraction from personal failure, tenuous meaningfulness, and social inclusion. Inducing histrionic fear in a population as cowering and feckless as the British have become, only requires a "nudge": but this fear is decidedly not genuine - it is a simulacrum of fear and moral prostration which everyone understood and already knew how to mime.
There is no nefarious psychological sophistication at work: merely endless repetition, intimidation, statistical fiddling, a serious mien, and various forms of inflating the hollow but brightly colored sack that is political clout. Have you ever attempted to impersonate an official in a vague context? Carry a clipboard, wear a pantsuit and an ID on a lanyard, frown and strut around and discover for yourself the power of undefined authority. Have you ever stood in line without knowing why? Have you ever felt a panic surge through a crowd? Manipulation of the civilized human race - the increasingly ill, increasingly alienated, increasingly bereft human race - requires no more psychological acuity than what an intelligent 15 year old girl is capable of crafting in her own tales of high school intrigue and betrayal, and since her enemies include the adept unconscious maneuvers of other high school girls, probably indeed much less.
Actually the hypnotic arts and the study of mass propaganda peaked in the early 20th century: Goebbels drew on a long line of scholars of propaganda, including some well-respected American and British thinkers in the mid-twenties - e.g., Edward L. Bernays, the "father of spin" and a nephew to none other than Sigmund Freud, oddly enough… In fact I might argue that the more religiously grounded, family-oriented, less neurotic, and slower-paced populations of the 1920s represented a more difficult populace upon which to work propaganda than the hapless, anxious, chronically ill, aesthetically hopeless mass of slobs that constitute the 21st century first world. We imagine that the Information Age and smartphones and plastic underwear add up somehow to proof of our intellectual superiority: but technological dependence and personal frailty increase proportionally - access to the sum of human knowledge does not make the average human creature "smarter", it makes it more desperate for a closed horizon of certainty.
The governmental use of propaganda is in no wise new: prewar Germany is not at all the only example, as both the UK and US used propaganda campaigns extensively before, during, and after WWII to great effect. At least the 1940s standard for graphic art was far superior to our own and their slogans much less sanctimonious. And I’d argue that normalization, shame, and social pressure were employed more effectively during the hot and cold war efforts than at any time since: governmental paternalism is not new, mobilized shame is not new, subtle and unsubtle means of coercion are not new.
This show of outrage and cries of "anti-democratic" are just another strategic anticipation of political advantage, and in the final analysis just another stageplay by which the majority shall bury the embarrassing revelations under a flurry of noise.
Did you imagine that a life of meaningless drudgery - schlepping from an indifferently depressing apartment to a hopelessly vapid office to a monumentally monotonous grocery chain, only to repeat the same endlessly - was somehow rational, sane, and volitional? Did you imagine that Pepsi or Doritos or Chevrolet were somehow an objectively sane choice and not "nudged"?
Across the first world, these are the same people who are convinced year after year that the Oscars are important, that the World Cup and the Olympics are not a corporate orgy, that accruing carcinogens while sitting on your ass answering emails under fluorescent lights is "as good as one can hope for". These are all forms of implicit and deferred violence which the general population was already inured to - global capitalism is nothing but implicit and deferred violence.
That a government official here and there seized the chance to garner a promotion by seeming to have caused what was already happening, should not warrant our attention. COVID panic is not proof of some godlike power our governments have, it’s proof of how weak, vicious, and thirsty the human race is for a form of sanctioned violence.
But the stupidity and gullibility of the civilized human being is superficial and only another disguise: actually it is constantly calculating its best advantage - that’s what it means to be weak and vicious. It’s only the strong who can afford to be stupid: they step out of line by walking in a straight line, they give the wrong answer when they believe it right, they lose their standing by standing their ground.
At first, in order to address the malformed heuristics of conspiracy theory and "policy error", I was going to write about paranoia and the persecution complex… I even picked up my old copy of Lacan’s Écrits and was going to talk about the "paranoiac structure of knowledge" - which would be a fascinating navelgaze, I’m sure. And frankly it would be easy for me to waltz through the bespectacled latté-clutching crowd of urban trendsetters with Lacanian masturbatory aids like intricately crafted toys - and certainly I’d obtain a lot more paid subscribers that way - but what I really have to say is not half so gratifying nor metapsychologically intricate: the induced paranoia among COVID skeptics is only another symptom, and not what prevents the dialogue from touching upon the truth. It’s not paranoia, nor even lack of the psychological education sufficient to identify unconscious mechanics which guides this detour into a moral show of outrage at governmental schemes, it’s just avoidance, cowardice, and another moral posture - it’s the unwillingness to face what COVID makes so painfully obvious: the overwhelming hostility to youth, hostility to health, hostility to freedom. It’s an ugly underbelly, a revolting and somewhat surprisingly fierce hatred that bubbles there in the shadows - we didn’t know how much resentment the first world had accumulated - so it is hardly any wonder that so few of you have the stomach for it. But perhaps the real answer is that so few of us are sufficiently free from this same resentment, such that we can afford to acknowledge it: our aggression has clearer lines of descent and ascent, and thus we have no need to hide the genealogy of our attitudes from ourselves.
The problem is that many of you have glimpsed for the first time, the reality and power of the unconscious. For the first time in our lifetimes, much of the human mass on this planet spasmed in unison, shared a nightmare, and began enacting its repressed urges. It’s been known since at least Heraclitus and perhaps Democritus, that in large groups, the average human creature loses its inhibitions and finds its repressed impulses suddenly amplified - but many of you do not have the stomach for this vision, and would rather believe in vast conspiracies with vague objectives and even more vague means. Many of you would rather fantasize about global governmental control and "the elites", than face the fact that modern humanity requires no elaborate nefarious plot to obtain obedience from it, and that the world order has already been precisely what the elite class has wanted it to be, for a very long time.
Where others cannot help but see agency, I see nonlinear emergent dynamics.
And even those who would like to believe that the COVID panic was instigated by a program of subtle hypnosis, and thus give credit to the power of suggestibility and unconscious reasoning, are unaware of an important fact: the most powerful suggestion is transmitted by an unconscious mind, and in fact conscious suggestion is paltry compared to the ceaseless unconscious communication the human species is born into. The most effective hypnotist does not command nor scheme nor employ formulaic indirect suggestions, he trains his conscious mind to be quiet enough to allow his body to act effectively, and does not know precisely what he’s going to do and cannot except in rare cases explain it precisely: these cute CBT methods of suggestion are nothing and indeed less than nothing - because they obstruct with smug shallow imitation and social shame more than they guide or heal - compared to the kind of Ericksonian mastery I’m speaking of.
We did it: but who do I mean by "we"? Everyone in the first world who has ever tried to be politically correct, whether left or right; everyone who employs repressive schemata to get what they want; everyone who navigates first world misery with the appropriate masks as though nothing were the matter; everyone who has ever compromised their better judgment for the sake of getting by; everyone who’s ever swallowed a piece of petty aggression and lived to regret it; everyone who’s ever indulged a shitty person and suppressed wrath because it was the "right" thing to do - in other words, all of us.
The very first time I heard about COVID, I noticed the glee and wishful bloodlust in the eyes of the informant. The next thing I did was to look up age statistics. Therefore on day one, I found out that average age of death "from" COVID was around 80 - back when the CDC still published such things.
Those of us who never believed the histrionics, who like myself never gave in and never wore a medical mask, who have fought it at every step - how could we be responsible? Because it’s our world too, because we also made too many compromises with this same spirit in the past, because we were too complacent and indulgent of the strategies of moral posturing. If there is a "they" at work here, it is the swirling spirits of the worst of apenature: the mendacious moralist, the disguised bigot, the poisoncraft of lying-in-wait, the wannabe-fascist, the voracious bureaucrat, the bitter old hag and the avaricious old fart - the sick and geriatric of all ages.
The more government and policy and conscious conspiracy is blamed and suspected, the further recedes the revelation COVID offers us. The more that you, my dear skeptic, prefer to imagine government intention, international intrigue, or a plot of the "elites", the less likely it is that you will confront the responsibility we all share. This is not the first spasm of anonymous mass violence and it will not be the last: it’s likely to be only the beginning of an age of ideological purgings, of dogmatic wars, of fictional enemies and very real consequences.
Yet I don’t primarily feel afraid and I want above all to inspire courage: let’s be grateful that the monster has finally surfaced from the deep! Let’s be grateful that we have lived to see the conformists and the nasty bigots we previously suspected, finally play their hand. There is a sense in which many prematurely exposed their nastiness and misplayed their cards, so eager were they to see the independent and disobedient punished… It’s our task therefore to internalize the lesson, to grow up into our own strength of character, to become hard, unyielding, a guardian of precious and delicate things. Truth and beauty is a delicate and precious thing, my friends.