Adrift, in search of normality
A pandemic odyssey
Pandemics do not have clear start or end dates, we must leave it to future historians to provide a degree of order to our contemporary mess. Most will probably date the COVID-19 pandemic as commencing early in 2020, meaning we are about at the two year mark, whatever that means at this point. During this odd and uneven period one particularly unsettling feature has been how malleable time has felt. Time’s arrow has been flying into a strong headwind.
What next? Who knows, but like a collective Odysseus trying to return home, whenever ‘normality’ is eventually found, it is not going to be the normality that we left behind. And much like that hero from ancient Greece, we must first survive a series of tests. It is hard to know whether we are trapped in the land of the lotus-eaters, or have progressed slightly further to Polyphemus’ cave, or even have the capacity to pass all the trials as Odysseus did. Perhaps we will end up like his crew that did not make it back.
About a year ago, I published some initial reflections on what perhaps could be learnt from the first year of the pandemic. Reading back over the note, it feels like many of the observations remain just as pertinent, especially in terms of the need for humility when trying to make sense of things. Indeed, perhaps another reason for time feeling so amorphous is that in terms of political and societal learning, limited progress - if any - has been made. Many policies are responses that might have had a logic to them when facing a new, unknown virus, but are much more difficult to justify two years later. The context has changed, as has our positioning, hence our thinking and behaviour should also adjust. The Omicron variant is amplifying and exacerbating this dynamic: not only are we are a long way from home, and a long way from ‘normal’ / normal, we are also a long way from where we were a year ago. The virus continues to evolve, our thinking continues to dissolve.
What dynamics have become more clear to me over the past year? There are a few I will point towards. I am not necessarily suggesting these are new per se, but they have become much more apparent, and in some cases, more acute.
Living in a world of non-events
With the pandemic, so much of our individual and collective behaviour is shaped by what could happen: if you catch COVID, if you do so and experience lingering symptoms, if a wave continues with its exponential rise, if this behaviour is allowed, or if that behaviour prevented. Politicians produce models that foreshadow what will happen, while downplaying the extent to which the assumptions underlying them shape the predictions given. Yet we live in a reflexive and recursive world, changed through our thought and action. And so, by adjusting our behaviour, we avoid or forestall certain ‘what ifs’, while creating new ones. Does that mean those previous prognoses were misguided or wrong, or were they rendered irrelevant by the changes induced? The problem is that we can never know, it is unknowable.
The result is that we live in a world of ‘what ifs’ and non-events, haunted by shadows. There are powerful parallels here with the demented logic of the ‘war on terror’, where fantastical thinking became the grounds for policy decisions and the gradual extension of state powers. For the most part, the cure of counter-terrorism has proven equally or more damaging, doing little to address the initial problem while creating many new and worse dynamics. Will there be a COVID-19 equivalent to the fall of Kabul? It feels increasingly likely. Until then, it might be a good time to rewatch Adam Curtis’, ‘The Power of Nightmares’, which powerful details what happens when fear and fiction blur and reshape reality.
The B team in charge
Another echo with 9/11 and what followed is the misfortune that comes from great historical moments arriving when there are less than great people in charge. Remember the quaint old days when George W. Bush was seen as the nadir of American leadership? A related observation here is that one of the main reasons most conspiracy theories tend to be unconvincing is that they greatly over-estimate the capacity of people to undertake complex tasks and do so largely in secret. Stupidity, incompetence, laziness and a certain kind of passive malice tend to be much more common. Unfortunately, these features have been all too present in recent years.
The deeper we have gone into the pandemic, the further we have drifted from home, the more evident has it been that simply put, many of the people leading us and in positions of power are not very good. Perhaps there never was a golden era of great leadership, but there are better and worse moments, and there is much to suggest we are in a downwards trend. Ruling classes have become increasing removed and detached from the societies they are meant to serve, and not only are they not representative, bluntly, many of them are not particularly capable. There are few incentives for the best and brightest to enter politics and positions of service, and for the most part, they head elsewhere.
While the world has been getting more complex and uncertain, those in charge have been getting more uniformly mediocre and dully certain. Hardly a great combination, especially when a new virus enters the picture. Instead of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’, we are left with an embarrassing mess: the B team in charge, stumbling and fumbling their way through. Given this, is it a surprise that so many policies and responses have been, to put it mildly, suboptimal? To borrow a useful expression from the computer scientists, GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. It strikes me this rather simple formulation explains much.
The revolution will not be televised, but the pandemic will be streamed
When future historians turn to this pandemic, one of the features that they will likely emphasise is the pivotal role played by the internet. Certainly, policies like quarantine are hardly new, but extended lockdowns and shutdowns - as practiced during COVID-19 - have been practicable because of certain technologies. Put differently, hiding indefinitely at home only became an option with the advent of PCs, the internet, and the platform / gig economy. This has profoundly shaped and distorted our collective response to the pandemic. Considering the many ramifications that have followed from this is beyond the scope of this note, but I do want to highlight two consequential dynamics.
The first consequence is that this has greatly amplified and strengthened a division within societies: between those who are able to stay at home, and those who cannot and must continue to go out into the world. One could stylise this distinction between ‘knowledge workers’ and ‘essential workers’. The former can work remotely, the latter cannot. This powerfully maps onto and deepens existing socio-economic inequalities. Indeed, it is also worth noting that generally the people making the decisions are those who can do so from the safety of a laptop screen. The consequences of this division will continue to be felt long after the pandemic has subsided: those for whom it has been an inconvenience, those for whom it has been life altering. What this also reflects is how the pandemic has been experienced and understood, what meaning given to it, can be radically different based on who and where you are. While there have been collective features to the pandemic, it has not been a collective experience. Rather, it has been deeply fragmented and fragmenting. This, in turn, impedes attempts to find common purpose, generate shared narratives, or create sense and meaning of what has occurred. Instead, we are left with shards of glass from a broken mirror ball; sharp, uneven and refracting different images, the party well and truly over.
This connects to a second dynamic related to technology, which further inhibits the possibility of finding common ways of making sense of what has been happening. With restrictions and limitations on people travelling and interacting, this has moved more and more of our lives online. As a result, our experiences with the pandemic have been powerfully mediated through the internet and social media. And so, how we understand what has happened, what is true and false, what conditions are like elsewhere, all of this appears to us through the distorted lenses of social media. In the process, this has reinforced the dominance of the biggest tech companies, most consequently Amazon, Facebook and Google, and with it, the model of surveillance capitalism they propagate. As Shoshana Zuboff explains:
Surveillance capitalism leaves a trail of social wreckage in its wake: the wholesale destruction of privacy, the intensification of social inequality, the poisoning of social discourse with defactualized information, the demolition of social norms and the weakening of democratic institutions.
These social harms are not random. They are tightly coupled effects of evolving economic operations. Each harm paves the way for the next and is dependent on what went before.
There is no way to escape the machine systems that surveil us, whether we are shopping, driving or walking in the park. All roads to economic and social participation now lead through surveillance capitalism’s profit-maximizing institutional terrain, a condition that has intensified during nearly two years of global plague.
The consequences of all this are overwhelmingly negative for our societies, with the full extent of the damage being slowly revealed, like receding waters after a flood.
A world of garbage and a world of mediation is a world of bad faith. I have becoming increasingly convinced this is one of the defining traits of the present moment. With this in mind, I was interested to discover the work of Nicola Chiaromonte who identified what he called an ‘age of bad faith’, an era he marked as commencing with the onset of the First World War:
Ours, then, is the age of what Rumelles, the diplomat in Roger Martin du Gard’s Les Thibaults, calls ‘useful lies,’ consciously created and consciously accepted fictions that take the place of truths not only because they are serviceable, easily handled, and universally employed but because truths that give even a semblance of unity and meaning to the world in which we live do not exist. The result is that these useful lies finally constitute a language in which even the truthful man finds himself fatally enmeshed if he wishes to live and communicate with others.
This echoes closely with Ben Hunt’s emphasis on the corrosive part played by ‘noble lies’ during the pandemic. Like putting colours into a white wash, means bleed into ends, truth and fiction blur together, and what is ultimately lost is confidence in the world. Everything is serious, and nothing matters. The corrosive and distorting logic of social media hypercharges these corrosive tendencies. Returning to Chiaromonte, he further explained:
When … hopes are incommensurate with the outcome and when there is no relation between the ends proclaimed and the results obtained, between the imagined future and undeniable present, then what crumbles are not just illusions regarding the wisdom of rulers or the validity of the political ideas with which one started, but the very faith to which one had adhered (as one always holds to a faith) beyond the limit set by credibility or even hope.
One response to such circumstances is nihilism, and there certainly are echoes of that heightened period of economic advancement, technological development and societal change that marked the end of the long nineteenth century. In last year’s note, I observed the difficulty of determining which historical parallels to draw on. While acknowledging the fraught nature of such exercises, it does strike me that there are important echoes with that period of acceleration and dissolution prior to the First World War. One of the difficult ideas to take from that experience is that things can get worse, reason might not prevail, entropy can also occur in the political and social realm. Simply put, progress is not linear, some periods are worse than others.
Reckoning with the possibility that things might be getting worse is something it feels like our political, social and cultural climate is thoroughly unequipped to do. Despite all the measures and rhetoric, the huff and the puff, the chest-beating and hand-wringing, I am deeply sceptical with how seriously we have actually reckoned with COVID-19. David Cayley powerfully encapsulates the consequences of this:
… policy has been driven more by panic than by prudence; science has been at the same time idolized and ignored; the well-off have fortified themselves, while those with a more precarious hold on livelihood, shelter, and even sanity have been cast off; political enmity has intensified; political categories have grown more rigid and confining; media have become more conformist and censorious; the sick and the dying have been denied comfort; and people have grown more afraid of one another. This does not promise the more sensitive attunement to our world ... It suggests an impenetrable human narcissism mesmerized by its own myths and sealed up in an increasingly artificial reality.
Where does that leave us? A long way from Ithaca, that is for sure. As for when and how we can get back, that is up to the gods, fortuna, and us.