Saturday, 5 September 2020

A Cultural Sociology of Mass Stupidity

We can now add former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown to the roll call of stupidity. Tweeting on Saturday afternoon, he wrote "NO LOCKDOWN NO TESTS NO TRACKS NO MASKS NO VAX." Utter bobbins, but remember he did release a song called Dolphins were Monkeys so science was never his strong point. We know it's not just him, though. Last week Piers Corbyn copped a ten grand fine for organising the anti-mask protest in Trafalgar Square, and to him flocked all that is naive, foolish, and downright thick. The banner of the British Union of Fascists made an appearance, and circulating among the anti-maskers were adherents of QAnon, climate change deniers, and assorted far right and conspiracy hobbyists.

When a small clutch of people do something, you can put it down to idiosyncrasy. But when large numbers are involved, with input from right wing politics and celebrity has-beens hungry for the hit of the spotlight, we're talking about a social phenomenon. It therefore behoves us to understand more than the cultural roots of this form of conspiracy thinking, as interesting an exercise that is, but what matters most immediately are the reasons why anti-Coronavirus conspiracy thinking and its anti-mask message has efficacy.

These processes are fairly well understood in general terms, but it's worth spelling them out. Mass stupidity in advanced capitalist societies is not because people are ultimately brainwashed or lacking in the grey matter department, it's a question of how we "become", of what type of human beings we are and why our society has churned our like out for decades. And this is inseparable from the N-word no one ever hears on the BBC: neoliberalism. Instead of conceiving neoliberalism as a set of economic-oriented policies emphasising market fundamentalism, privatisations and, with it, attacks on workers' movements and workers' rights wherever it takes hold, neoliberalism has to be thought about at its most pernicious: as a mode of governance, a diagram for shaping, manipulating, and relating to human beings, particularly at the interface between institutions and organisations as collective entities and people as atomised, individuated bodies.

Let's unpack that a bit. Thanks to successive interventions by the state across all areas of social life, what you might call the consuming self has become the model of citizenship. Think of the prototypical shopper. They go into a shop and choose what they want to buy, and as consumer markets have expanded so have the choices available, provided money is available to take advantage of the array of choices. What someone decides to buy, how much, and how frequently is solely a matter of individual determination, of weighing up the options and choosing. This sensibility was raised to the pinnacle of public policy under Thatcher, and has informed governments red and blue ever since. Education, for example, a matter of parental choice, and this has justified the semi-privatisation of schooling and the introduction of metrics to evaluate schools by. Enhancing the ability to choose between private or public health providers was a long-held Tory policy objective, and enabling patients to make choices about their treatments, who treats them and where, continues to justify the ongoing marketisation of the NHS. And on and on it goes at all level of public service. Yet it is not enough to simply be offered choices. Successive governments were just as concerned with turning out people capable of making choices. This depended on inculcating a sense of the entrepreneurial self.

Consider schooling. At school children are taught about individual self-responsibility. So what is new? That has always been a feature of the education system. But married to this are batteries of test regimens backed by an increasingly authoritarian school culture in which teachers are performance-managed by the inspections regime and fidelity to grade targets set by management. This encourages informal streaming, exclusions, and the move toward screening entrants. In many schools some children are simply told they're not getting entered for a particular examination because their performance reflects badly on the school's reputation, which is measured by league table positioning. While wider culture is tending toward more cooperation, children and young people are addressed as isolated monads thrown onto their own capacities, skills, and resources. Whatever they do with them, however these are deployed is, again, down to choice. No one is responsible for their application or lack thereof than them.

This critique of education of the last 40 years is also well worn. It advantages middle class children, and those who refuse, reject, or find this approach to schooling alien to their background are wheedled out. They chose not to succeed, and it's only a hop, skip, and a jump to suppose they chose (and deserve) the fates awaiting them. But this interpellation of a neoliberal self, which is reinforced by the way public institutions address someone and, depending on the organisation, administer sanctions as disciplinary measures to reinforce future compliance comes with a political bonus. If the institutional landscape is set up to address everyone in a similar way, and everyone has more or less the same shared capacity to access services and abide by expectations placed on them, the micromanagement of everyone by a Whitehall bureaucrat becomes moot. Neoliberal selfhood is the most efficient way of managing populations because governance is overwhelmingly self-governance. Micromanagement in fact mushrooms under such a regime as administrators are needed to track metrics and managers are required to reinforce conformist behaviour, but it immediately appears spontaneous and not directed from the centre, effectively depoliticising the running of the services the state provides. "We do not comment on operational matters" has become a staple of the government lexicon.

The neoliberal self comes packaged with other consequences: on how the individual sees themselves in the world. While this mode of governance is prescriptive about individuality, choice, and responsibility, excludes collectivism (Thatcher might well have said there's no such thing as the economy, only individuals and their families), and reinforces one's powerlessness in the face of the world, it compensates by endowing the neoliberal self with ontological and epistemological sovereignty. Put plainly, I'm all that matters and I know best. If then the cultural accent is on self-responsibility and effort, there is no higher power dictating what is and isn't true apart from your own opinions. If previously "objective truth" resided in the claims of experts and the rules of evidence, the systematic denigration of politically inconvenient authorities by governments and the number of occasions experts have shown themselves to be wrong reinforces the belief of individual discernment. If I want something to be true, then it is. UFOs, climate change denial, QAnon, homeopathy, chemtrails, Rothschilds, lizards. No one can tell me otherwise.

Which brings us to covidiocy as the latest manifestation of the social propensity to stupidity. Primacy of the self involves more than just scepticism of authority: the sovereign individual is anxious the state is out to get them or curtail their fundamental capacities in some way. In other words, its a sensibility of self that heightens a sense of (narcissistic) paranoia. This is the logical end point of the individuated, isolated neoliberal self: an affirmation of their right to choose as it shrinks in terror from impositions of state authority. Therefore, the lockdowns and the partial closure of public life, the insistence on facemasks and bans on large gatherings, these are straightforward power grabs to force people to wear masks in public forever more (why?) and police the conduct of the citizenry. If that is the first concern, then the rest makes sense: Coronavirus isn't more serious than a case of the sniffles, or Covid-19 is a manufactured disease, or is totally bogus. The reality (or not) of the disease is secondary to people, in the absence of collective sources of symbolic belonging/reassurance, clinging to and fetishising the structural principles of their perceptual universe.

This is the how, but what comes next? How to beat this? Politics and hope. Variations of the discussion on the dynamics of mass stupidity can get written and find their audiences, but elaborating this critique and explanation won't dent the potency of these notions. The alternative, the only alternative, is by challenging the position neoliberal governance occupies. And again, that requires critique, but is doomed to impotence if it is not merged with a movement challenging not just the Tories but capitalism itself. This is not a cop out. Ideas can't change the world by themselves. Conspiracy theories were (mainly) harmless eccentricities until millions of people across the globe took them up and began acting on them. The same is true of our ideas too. Writing them is the easy part, making them part of the everyday is the difficult slog. But it's worth it. The struggle opens the way to real freedom where true individuality, not it pale, stunted, neoliberal version, can take wing and soar, unencumbered by authoritarianism and the banshee call of superstition.

Image Credit


Chevin said...

There are an awful lot of trolls around. I dont know whether its a boost to an insecure ego or whether it helpful to the hedge funds to keep the crisis going

Phil said...

NB - transphobic rubbish deleted.

Anonymous said...

The same is true of our ideas too.

Well you analysis is on point here at least. Nice try mapping everything onto your own beliefs. It's all down to neoliberalism? Well, neoliberalism is a shitshow but everything you describe predates it. You're a symptom of your own attempted diagnosis.

BCFG said...

These are the sort of scum who usually concern themselves with Muslim grooming gangs or any other tabloid concerns.

Yet they are far more dangerous than any Islamic terrorist or grooming gangs and will likely kill far more people than some knife wielding mentally deranged person on a London bridge.

And yet we shoot the mentally deranged person on the bridge and allow these people to live. I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

There are cogent arguments against lockdowns as expressed by Larry Elliott, for example

However I think the almost entirely uniform position of the parliamentary mainstream has not helped. Because there is no reasoned sceptical position being expressed there has been a notable shift to conspiracy theories.

Mal said...

It's not really my field but I don't think the deficit model has had much traction amongst the public understanding of science / science in society folks for many a year.

Ken said...

The consequences of anti-vaccination can be quite severe, mostly for children. This is what was reported from Samoa in December.

“More than two percent of the island nation's population has been infected, and 72 measles-related deaths have been recorded. Most of those who have died have been under five-years-old, according to the United Nations.“ CBS news.

As well as deaths, in most measles epidemics, there is a longer tail of hearing and sight loss and pupils for whom the Send label will be attached. In the case of profound hearing loss, the educational programme might have to be delivered in a boarding school at a cost of £50pa. for every school year. . In the case of those who might be able to attend mainstream education, the cost of a communicator will average out at £20k pa.
Those enamoured of market solutions might turn there attention to compulsory insurance for the financial consequences of their actions.

Unknown said...

Neoliberal individual choice as the motivator for these protests doesn't ring true in my experience. Some of them are quite insistent that others do not wear masks, and the whole thing seems to be tightly networked online. I also don't think it is product of government devolving responsibility - these protests are trying to hold the government to account in their own daft way. These are virtual communities engaging in an actually quite collectivist reaction against startling new circumstances.

I think it is more effective to analyse social phenomenon in terms of class rather than ruling ideology. I would suggest that this is the dark underbelly of the "networked worker" strata. Although misfiring, they are attempting to express their interests.