The Witch-Hunt Belongs To Modernity

They're Not Afraid of COVID, part 2


In my last piece, I called COVID "a one-size-fits-all politically correct mask for the exercise of morally justified witch-hunting" - but what’s a "witch-hunt"?

In regard to COVID vaccination status, employing the term "witch-hunt" is neither sloppy historical analogue nor mere poetic license. Yet again I find that the term is used by those who sense an important connection but are unable to explain the relevant psychology.

The first fact to internalize concerning the history of witch-hunting in Europe, is that it peaked many centuries after the pagan world had truly expired. Any genuinely native European pagan sorcery was probably fully extinguished by 1200 AD, and yet the ostensible fear of witches rose to fever pitch in the late 16th century.

Generally everyone already understands that a scapegoat function was at work: or what decent psychologists used to term projection. But what precisely was projected? And what was the function of this projection? The difference between the perspective I’m outlining here and the usual psychologizing, is that I refuse all explanations which are satisfied with a demonstration of the uselessly irrational in neurotic behavior: I see functional adaptive behavior in these ceremonies of histrionic fear. I see the tribal human animal reasserting its dominion - I see the solenoid of the Pleistocene way of life struggling to clack shut… Mass aggressigenic hysteria creates enemies out of an ill-defined mass of social mobility; mass aggressigenic hysteria creates moral certainties out of a tangled morass of uncertainty…


To understand 16th century Europe and thus a little of our own time, let’s enumerate what had recently changed:

  • The New World: the discovery and colonization of the New World threatened the Eurocentric worldview in a way comparable to the increasing weakening of locality in our age of globalization.

  • The Protestant Reformation and the weakening church: Luther’s religious revolt expressed the need for a more private and personalized inner life. Not only the increasingly normative atheism of our time lies parallel, but the palpable wandering ramification of spiritual tourism among the younger generations… Soon nothing will be exotic enough to satisfy, just as yoga has long been trite and subsumed into suburban monotony.

  • Heliocentrism and the dawn of modern science: as the Copernican revolution slowly gained a foothold, the heliocentric model served as effigy and rallying point for a much deeper and unquantifiable change in épistémè, as Foucault would say. This encroachment of science into the everyday, parallels the increasingly ridiculous attitudes of cargo cult scientificality which one finds everywhere: one is as likely to find oneself arguing epidemiological protocol with the gas station clerk, because one refuses to wear a facemask-talisman, as in previous ages obscure religious debates sometimes served as an excuse to spill blood in the streets.

  • The emerging bourgeois and incipient corporate power: the rapid rise of the Dutch East India company and its ilk could easily be compared to Silicon Valley powermongering, alongside the threatened and weakening nationstate.

  • But the most important parallel might be this: the printing press and the rise of literacy. An explosion of books and a new relationship to knowledge suddenly flooded this emergent bourgeois world. But just as the almighty Internet is largely used for porn, spam, plagiarism, and gossip, so the printing press largely instituted a new Misinformation Age.

What were the top two bestsellers for the first 200 years of the printing press? The Bible - arguably the most spectacular compendium of misinformation to date - and a spiteful little book called the Malleus Maleficarum: "the Hammer of Witches", a legal manual and propaganda piece advocating the extermination of witches. Oddly enough, the timing is even similar: 30 years after the invention of the press, the Malleus gained a massive following - just as 30 years after the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, the COVID fiction gained its unassailable fanbase.

Who was its author, this Heinrich Kramer? Predictably enough, a sexual predator and a church inquisitor, who was even a little too unhinged for the church of his day: analyzing his personal motives would be a disgusting exercise we can thankfully forego. We need only mention that repressed sexuality and its consequent perversions obviously played a role in the fascination with witches. But male targets of persecution were at times just as likely. I don’t believe that sexuality nor misogyny is the determinative factor in the broader appeal of the witch-hunt: the need to discover enemies from within is far more powerful. Therefore we must ask again: why was this stupid hateful book so wildly popular in an age that lacked any real witches? Put another way, why would histrionic fear of an obviously nondeadly virus be so wildly popular in another age?

The enigmatic answer which we will unravel, runs thusly: the reciprocal of anxiety is persecution.


What we must understand is that when anxiety proliferates in a population, a set of instinctual responses is initiated which reveal our indelible tribal nature. The Malleus Maleficarum and the witch-hunt fever addressed and becalmed the uncertainties of the time: the surprising corollary is that the witch-hunt is not "medieval", it is essentially modern.

The medieval mindset was actually less anxious and thus less susceptible to moral panic. The medieval worldview was confident, pyramidical, and as redundantly buttressed against visible contradiction as a Gothic church. The "Age of Sail", on the other hand, frightened and overwhelmed the average newly literate bourgeois man: Francis Bacon and Galileo represented a tiny minority of those capable of being inspired by the New World and incipient science rather than terrified of it. Heinrich Kramer, Girolamo Savonarola, and Ignatius of Loyola represent the much more prevalent attitudes of bigoted outrage.

When Goya said, "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos", he expressed the same assumption I see in almost every analysis of the COVID panic: that if only the general populace were more rational, if only the scientific attitude were more widespread, our monsters would remain safely trapped within forgettable dreams. But this is false.

It is precisely the encroachment of the unrelenting uncertainty which true science demands, the gradual undermining of religious harmonies and their prettily painted and nested matryoshki, the weakening of moral categorical imperative, the increasingly urgent "whereto" of the common man lost in the bewildering infinitude of the Information Age like a monumental chip aisle stretching to the vanishing point, with more choices than anyone could ever need or desire - to be crushed by choice, suffocated by a freedom of mind which only grows more parodic the more it is hastily buried beneath a frantic moral posturing and political mimicry - it is this uncertainty and the frustration of the innocent human animal to live a simple life with definite horizons, which produces monsters.

But Goya was perhaps subtle enough to have understood me, and meant not "the sleep of reason" but the dream of reason: the monstrosities of modernity, the atrocities which we regenerate, the history we seem doomed to repeat, is always disguised and perpetrated and justified by precisely that same "rationality". No word was tossed around more enthusiastically circa 1933 than "wissenschaftlich": the witch-hunts of modernity are conducted in a labcoat, in sterile conditions, draped with opaque bureaucratic filigree and every conceivable humanitarian posture… Make no mistake, should this path we’re treading turn out to be the first steps toward a 21st century story of mass criminality, it will be conducted with the most assured and arrogant air of this same "rationality".

Haven’t you noticed how the ostensible fear of COVID disappears so rapidly when in the presence of a justified outcast? How suddenly masks and infection vectors matter so much less than the opportunity to shame, blame, and police each other? Haven’t we all noticed how the tone of this affair gradually became less about a pretense of cowering fear before a respiratory nuisance, and more about hunting down the unvaccinated?

Mass anxiety becomes mass persecution


We are now in a better position to ask what repression is, and discover its relationship to the untethered homeless anxiety our age is saturated with. We must first distinguish between complete successful repression and partial botched repression:

  • Complete repression halts the instinctual discharge before the associated affect has a chance to proliferate and seek energetic investments: the feeling remains virtual, merely as-if, like a thoroughly forgotten dream. Successful repression generates the kind of ominous suffocating atmosphere of your Midwestern grandparents, that old-fashioned New England stoicism, or the British "stiff upper lip". Anyone familiar with the robust rigidity and hermetic seal of the life of a true obsessive, would also have a clue what "successful" repression looks like.

  • Partial repression occurs when the initial energetic investment is repressed, but the displacing substitute is not fully integrated into the semantic network that is the unconscious mind - like a half-dead fly in a web it shakes and rends the whole psyche. This is the case with most neurotics one meets today - and thus almost everyone: that like the rest of their lives, their neurosis itself is uncommitted, ambivalent, and full of caveats and prevarication. They are usually partially aware of their problem: just enough to dislodge and disrupt the mechanism of repression, but not half enough to be free of it. Stuck halfway between the high-functioning repression of traditional life and the imagined freedom of a conscious convalescent: such is the modern wretch.

This pitiable individual suffers from partially lifted repression, a shallow psychological education and the lingua franca of therapeutic vocabulary, damaged half-functional societal institutions of previously coherent repressive schemata, and the abandonment by the community to their own "self-help" in the midst of unthinkable contradiction: partial sexual liberation alongside more repression of aggression than ever; "celebration" of individuality alongside more moral censure of dissent than ever…

Therefore the proliferation of anxiety in modernity is not due to any decline in the capacity for discerning danger, it is due to the almost exponential growth of instinctual frustration: but this frustration itself is a danger. I insist that anxiety is adaptive: it is social leverage, it encourages group restlessness and destabilization of priorities, it prepares the way for "acting out". Something is wrong, someone must be blamed, something must give.


There is a common confusion of the term "hysteria", as applied in two cases:

  1. Those who are truly subject to their fears, as in paralyzing phobia.
  2. The bad-faith histrionics of the social maneuverer.

21st century psychology is comfortable enough diagnosing the crippling anxieties of modernity - or at least in herding them into pharmaceutical dependence - but ignores and denies all signs that anxiety has a social purpose. What could the nail-biting agoraphobic, the evangelical preacher of doom, and the COVID-unvaccinated witch-hunt have to do with each other?

But the truth is that these types are deeply related and lie along a spectrum, in which the saturation of subjective anxiety dissipates proportionally to the degree of complicity in ritual exclusion and disguised mass violence: like unexpected origami, paralyzing anxiety is inverted into persecution. Personal anxiety on the one hand, and emboldened group persecution on the other, are merely the embryonic and full-fledged forms of the same adaptive response to frustration: to achieve social advantage through the rituals of fear, emergency, and even heroism. If you don’t believe me, see the history of the mob violence of early Christian monks against pagans and Jews, the destruction of the Serapeum, and the French Revolution. It should serve as sufficient parable to learn that the paramilitary Parabalani, who were originally uneducated nurses recruited to handle local epidemics, were eventually lawless bodyguards to belligerent bishops seeking to forcefully subdue unbelievers in the 5th century: how long until a "Public Health Task Force" is given perpetual emergency powers in your jurisdiction? Will the next pandemic seal the deal?

Where Freudian theory falls short is when it fails to see the aggression within ceremonies of fear: rather than maladaptive and uselessly neurotic, I see modern anxiety as just another sneaky vector to advantage within sociality. The more permissive toward manipulative hysteria and histrionic victimhood, and simultaneously intolerant of overt aggression our age becomes, the more anxiety proliferates as a profitable strategy. One may be paralyzed and overwhelmed by the symptoms, but the initial phases of the anxiety response may eventually have a chance to develop into their evil twin sister: mass persecution, the witch-hunt, the reign of terror.


If the illustration accompanying this piece does not make you shudder a little in recognition, you have not been paying attention to these last two years. Notice how the center is dark. Radial blame bristling from an anonymous core: that is what I mean by the ancient force of "ritual exclusion". This is a ceremony all of us already understand: we merely take up our places within or without the circle - there are no other loci. One of the most valuable and surprisingly joyful aspects of the COVID debacle, is the way it’s brought together disparate scattered loners and the invisibly ethical: we did not know where we stood until we were tested. Like a broken down subway car or a stuck elevator, suddenly it seems worthwhile to communicate with strangers - suddenly I share a political alignment with people I would never otherwise associate with. COVID is a darkness which reveals autonomous lights: may we never lose sight of this.