On fear

No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

– Edmund Burke

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite scared a lot of the time. I’m talking lying-awake-at-night scared. There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. People fear the unknown. In modern industrial society, where most people live in anonymous urban environments, this includes almost all of the people around them. I couldn’t put a name to more than two of my neighbours in this street, and while I grant you it’s a short street, it isn’t that short.

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a lightning-rod for the unspoken undercurrents of fear which were already getting too uncomfortable to keep on ignoring. In one of John le Carré’s novels, fear is described as “information without the cure” which seems particularly apt in today’s (supposedly) information-rich age. Try as we may to remain unconscious of the less welcome bits of this information, it isn’t going away. There are so many elephants in the room that it’s standing room only.

Can we believe what we are told? The official version of reality seems to diverge ever further from what we live and experience. Here are just a few things we are all supposed to believe that are getting less and less plausible:

  • The economy will always keep growing, and even if it stops temporarily it will always return to growth, even though we only have one planet’s worth of resources. This occurs in many variants, especially in the UK with the deeply-held faith that house prices will always go up, in the teeth of the evidence. Conversely:
  • If the economy ever stopped growing, the sky would fall in (© Chicken Little).
  • Things in general will improve, and have always improved, and must always improve, as if the mere passage of time were some sort of guarantee of this. The Canadian academic Stephen Pinker went so far as to write an entire book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in order to prove this, but most of us aren’t experiencing any such thing. This is particularly difficult for people with children, who naturally would like to think they will have a bright future.
  • Technology will fix all of our problems, including – indeed, especially – the ones that technology gave us in the first place. I’ll be writing in more detail about the electric vehicle fetish, which is just one example of this line of thinking (if you can call it that), but this comes up a lot. “They’ll think of something” is an evergreen mantra.
  • There will always be plenty in the shops – the fear that this one may be a lemon is often demonstrated, for example in the recent wave of panic buying when Covid-19 first kicked in. Freud would no doubt make much of the central role that toilet paper always seems to play on these occasions.
  • There will always be money in the ATMs and that money will always be worth something. Very few people in industrial society would have a clue how to meet most of their basic needs without the money economy. One the other hand, why should someone give me a thing of real value like a bag of carrots in exchange for a piece of paper? Let alone waving a piece of plastic so that a machine goes beep.
  • Most of our problems are caused by bad people (who by definition are not us). Opinions vary as to exactly who these bad people are, ranging from Islamic extremists through the 1% to David Icke’s evil space lizards, and there may be a grain of truth in some of these opinions (okay, maybe not the lizards), but none of them is a complete or satisfactory explanation. But at least none of it is my fault, right? Just as well, because:
  • There’s nothing I can do to fix the world – the only thing I know how to do is stack shelves/create marketing strategies/sanitise telephones/whatever. And a lot of the world’s problems look big and scary. And we’ve all got bills to pay.
  • The people in charge can lead us through this because, per the above, we are individually pretty helpless, so if they can’t then we are pretty much toast. Nobody likes to think they’re toast. Still, the evidence in favour of this proposition is not exactly strong.

Cognitive dissonance is therefore our constant companion. It’s uncomfortable. We want it to go away, but it won’t. Despite Apple’s best assurances, there isn’t an app for this.

And now Covid-19 has pressed a lot of these buttons for many people. As far as anyone can tell, it’s just another coronavirus mutation, but there was initially a widespread belief that it was all caused by the evil Chinese, which has now morphed into a belief that it would have gone away if it weren’t for the evil non-mask-wearers. Face-masks seem to have become some sort of talisman, like the nosegays of flowers people used to carry to ward off the Black Death; I’m reminded of Bruce Schneier’s useful concept of security theatre, whereby we perform rituals that don’t actually make us more secure but make us feel as if we are. To be clear, I wear one myself, because it’s really no trouble and it can only help, but I don’t imagine it will cure all ills.

The economic implications of the measures taken to counter the spread of the virus have brought us to the brink of the abyss. Those still in employment fear unemployment; those made redundant have little chance of finding work; and at least in the UK the government’s plan seems to consist of borrowing money like there’s no tomorrow and hoping it will all just blow over. Given that we have been told repeatedly that government borrowing is the root of all evil, this is not especially reassuring.

This is not to single out the UK government, by the way; governments across the industrialised world are floundering in the face of this. Many have implemented policies that were supposed to be impossible, especially when they were called for by environmentalists, like suppressing passenger air travel. (We’re not supposed to notice that these policies have had some beneficial effects, either, because that might lend credibility to those evil Greenies.)

On a personal level, a great many of us have been given a lot of time to think. This is not something we generally have, and indeed is something most of us actively avoid, for reasons that should be obvious by now. But some awkward questions are coming up for people; for example:

  • “Is my job really that important?” Many people have discovered that their work is officially non-essential, and what’s worse that may not have come as a complete surprise.
  • “Are my relationships with my partner/family/friends all that they should be?” There’s nothing like being locked down with someone to stress-test this kind of thing; many of us suddenly found ourselves in the Big Brother house minus the cameras.
  • “What if I/my loved one should die of this?” Death is a massive taboo subject in modern industrial culture, where few of us ever even see a dead body. As pandemics go, Covid is not actually all that lethal, but this is a Pandora’s box that perhaps we are collectively desperate to open. I’ll be devoting a post to death in due course.
  • “What if it all goes south?” Nobody really wants to go there. A lot of this blog will be going there anyway, but it’s hairy.
  • “What is my life actually all about? Is that enough? What else could I be doing with it?” This is the big one for many people. A recent survey suggests that a very large proportion of the UK population has been asking itself this and deciding that “normal life” wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. What they might want instead is an open question which urgently needs to be addressed, and so far as I can tell it isn’t, at least in terms of public discourse.

There is of course supposed to be a Covid-19 vaccine Real Soon Now™ which appears to be the tacitly accepted exit strategy from the current situation. Nobody openly questions that this will happen (because they always think of something, right?) even though it will certainly be tricky. Even if it does, though, the genie will be out of the bottle. I suspect a significant portion of the population will be less than thrilled at the return to “normal”, even if normal is still an option, which there seems reason to doubt.

So here we are, staring into the unknown. It’s no wonder we’re afraid. We’re hanging on to a cliff and we’ve been told not to look down, and now we have looked down, and it’s a long, long way to the bottom. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that at least we have a realistic idea of where we are, and maybe there’s a way to climb out of it. Life at the top of the cliff may not be much of an improvement, but we’re going to have to find out. At least there’ll be a view.

Sleep well.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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