As I’ve been flicking through my Twitter feed over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a steady flow of posts pointing towards discussions in which people, usually in think-tanks, claim to know what they want to see changed as we get used to the new normal that is being wrought by the pandemic. It appears that many smart people have already figured out what their list of priorities for social change is going to be. They have nailed their socially progressive principles to the mast, and now they want others to applaud, confirm or extend the flow of their pronouncements within the relevant filter-bubbles and networks.
There is a sense, if you go by what you see on my social media feeds at least, that these proposals and ideas have already been thrashed out and confirmed by each relevant think-tank, and now they are only really waiting for people to sign up to them, applaud them and wear the slogan as a t-shirt. No doubt a lot of this is posturing and position-taking. Some of these policy proposals and manifestos are clearly confirmatory, in that they expect the network of supporters that follow this stuff to simply say, ‘hey aren’t we so cleaver and wonderful at being able to come up with these responses so fast!’
I’m being cynical, no doubt, but I’d like to suggest that we might hold back from making any final decisions about what we need to do next. It might be better to wait until we have a grip on what is happening in the first place before we attempt to resolve the tensions, when the forces at play are not necessarily that clear. It is clear, though, that the Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge on a global scale to governments, economies and social systems everywhere. That much is obvious. It is also clear that there will be an enormous knock-on effect that will disrupt any expectation that we can continue to run our societies in the way that we had established, somewhat precariously, up until 2020. It is right that there is an active discussion and deliberative process to help to restructure the social and structural responses to this challenge, but as with any emergency situation, we might want to hold back before we commit ourselves to any permanent changes that we can’t get out of as easily as we might need to in the future.
There are going to be more shocks to the system coming down the line. The climate crisis is the most obvious. The automation crisis is the next. Then there is the continued reformulation of the global order, as it is founded on digital networks, that is going to see the historical centres of power and influence shift. Geocentric power is being repositioned in ways that we can barely anticipate through the media lens of personalities in which global politics is explained through. It’s not just about Trump, Jinping, or Putin. It’s also about the process that each represents and symbolises.
Much of this discussion, then, is focussed on the externalisation of change. It is taking the indicators of social and behavioural change, at both a micro and a macro level, and using these indicators to confirm and assert that we know what direction these changes are flowing. The think-tanks and Twitter commentators are expressing a wish and a hope, as a form of projection, in which they externalise what it is, and who they would like to see act out these changes. By pointing towards social indicators, demographics, engagement patterns, and so on, then it will be possible to determine what social systems need to be reorganised, coupled with what social engineering processes that will be needed to manage these changes.
I’m not saying that this is the wrong or the right thing to do. I’d like to suggest that we don’t rush into any changes at this point, because they may do more damage and harm than good, and they my make other forms of change harder later on. Here’s a simple example. The drive towards electric vehicles is promised to revolutionise personal transport. But when the ecological impact assessments are done, electric vehicles are more likely to cause long-term damage to the environment because of the additional energy that is needed to manufacture and run these vehicles, the additional rare-earth resources that are needed to create them, and the control of the technological systems that are needed to operate them. Everyone with a car driven by an internal combustion engine of a certain age can fix and adapt that vehicle as they need to. If Elon Musk gets his way, then electric vehicles will follow Apple’s model of a closed ecosystem for repairs, upgrades, maintenance, and so on. Electric cars are not the answer to the climate crisis. They will simply generate more problems that are not yet being anticipated.
The underlying problem, therefore, is the mindset that channels thinking along these narrow routes, and which pitches policy and economic transnational investment into magical and technological solutions. The bigger problem, however, is that of human nature, and the way that we aspire to live in the world and with each other, is also up for grabs. The dominant model of political thinking over the last half-century has been pitched as corporate liberalism – this is a better term than neoliberalism, which is an automatic switch-off trigger for many people. Corporate liberalism has promised a world free of consequences and responsibilities. It is typified by Boris Johnson’s expectation that we can each ‘have our cake and eat it!’ Even if we all want different cakes, and we all want to eat our cake in different ways.
The pandemic, however, is blowing this house of straw down. Corporate consumerism is not sustainable, and it is not resilient. Citizens are once again being asked to pick-up the pieces for a failure of economic management by global corporate businesses. Citizens are being asked to shore-up the banking system in order to maintain the share prices of the global elite who have seen record increases in their profitability and share prices during the pandemic. It’s not going to be easy to challenge the global financial structure, or to challenge the global military structures that support it based on the concentrated power blocks of the USA, China, the EU, Russia and so on. In the face of the magnitude of these intractable problems, we might give in to fatalism and protectionism. It might seem that we can’t do very much on a global scale, but we might be able to affect change on a more local and interpersonal level.
The question I have, then, is are we spending enough time thinking about the internal changes that we need to make? Are we drawing on our inner voices and listening to what our collective unconscious is telling us about the need to change? What is it that is coming to the forefront in our dreams and our creative expressions? It’s been clear for some time that many people have been freaked out by contemporary lifestyles and symbolic options of expression. The widespread cultural phenomenon of zombie and horror movies has been with us for some time. These films, games and TV series aren’t just a hint a forgotten collective unconscious identity, as in folklore, fairy tales or mythological stories. They have been clearly projected up-front and centre into our world. The zombie is now such a widespread motif that it has been normalised. Yest, it is a clear indicator of cultural, social and psychological dysfunction. Our social anxieties have been expressed collectively in the cinema, on Netflix and in many other forms, but we’ve not seen this as a red light warning us that something is wrong with our collective spirit.
The process I want to try and explore in more detail, then, asks that while we might be trying to hold-the-line against social disintegration, and while we might be trying to appeal to a rational and systematic response to the changes that are happening, what are the psychological challenges that we need to allow to come to the front as we listen to the messages from our unconscious? It will do us little good to only attempt to rationalise our way out of these problems. If we can only assert that there is some form of available logic with a clear sense of progression mappable to the changes that we are experiencing, then we may not get very far.
My experience of living in Leicester during the lockdown is one of disambiguation. My social tolerances are being stretched thinly, and while I’ve been trying to maintain a sense of balance, empathy and understanding with my fellow citizens, I also recognise that in seeking to maintain my equilibrium I’ve not taken account of the fact that we3 live in a word that is rapidly losing its centre. I see many people around me who have been pushed to the margins here in Leicester. They have been pushed beyond what is socially cohesive and are exhibiting clear signs of social dysfunction. The evidence of both our social and our psychic disintegration is on full view in our streets. The clearest indicators of the breakdown of our social cohesion and equanimity is the numbers of people who have been pushed into vagrancy, the number of people with mental health issues left to wander the streets with no apparent support or care, and the number of people with drug and alcohol issues who have clearly been failed by an under-resourced and dysfunctional social support system. The victims of the collective denial of the lack of social integration are all about us if we care to look.
The second level indicator of the breakdown of our social cohesion is the low-level anti-social behaviour that is so often present in our public areas. The refusal to wear masks is a key indicator of a level of denial that there is a pandemic, and that there are real consequences for many people who are likely to suffer and die if they are not afforded proper public protection. This can be combined with the lack of civility from people in public spaces, where noise and boisterousness are normalised. Likewise, there is a lack of civility on our roads. Speeding and careless driving have become the norm, and there are few police about to correct people’s behaviour so the attitude of some in our public spaces becomes intolerant. Self-absorbed drivers circle Leicester and its neighbourhoods with impunity, in cars and motorcycles that have been modified to create excessive noise, travelling at speeds that are dangerous.
The highlight of many people’s days is still to go to the pub and drink all day. Because there are few meaningful or accessible alternatives, then many people resort to clustering in pubs and bars for many hours, with little social distancing. Incubating the spread of the pandemic as if it is nothing to do with them. We are social creatures, but if we can’t moderate our behaviour and take sensible precautions, then more draconian lockdowns are likely to be imposed when spikes and hotspots emerge.
What I’ve been doing is internalising my response, when the framework for this has been externally shaped. We are all human, and we have to allow some latitude for divergence from the behavioural norms, but when these norms are being changed quickly and in response to a significant threat, then we have to ensure that people are able to think these things through differently. If your social norm is that you are free to do pretty much anything, anytime, anywhere, with few social restrictions or consequences, then it is no wonder that it is difficult to manage and adapt behaviour when there are social problems that must be dealt with.
The long lasting effect of this public health crisis can’t just be left to the medical professionals, the jobs crisis can’t be left to just the economists, and likewise, the crisis of civility (or lack of civility) can’t be left to middle-class people like myself on Twitter. The new politics of civility and personal social responsibility needs to find a voice and a place of expression. Not in some moralistic or xenophobic way, but in a way that supports citizenship and social justice. Places like Facebook and Twitter are clearly not up to the job of fostering these conversations, so we’ll need to be more creative about how and in what way we engage people and discuss our social priorities for the future.
It might mean that some people’s behaviour will have to be restricted, which will them make it easier for others find and to articulate their voices. Children, for example, are virtually absent from our streets. They have become accessories to be carried around, but they have few practical freedoms. Older people are likewise absent from our communities, as they have been warehoused in care homes and retirement complexes, with no integration with families. We have to move beyond the present normality that people are open and expecting to be bombarded by sensory stimulation through our media, in our public spaces, and in our personal lives. This bombardment should be seen as the exception and not the norm. Take away the media stimulants that have been wrapped around us is a starting point. If we are to hear and begin to listen to the voices of the people around us, and the inner voices that are part of us, then we need to quieten things down and start to consider the internal revolution that will have to come first in order to cope with and adapt to the external revolution that has already taken place.