We must never surrender to the New Normal
Covid poses a serious threat to humankind. So does the culture of fear.
This lockdown feels different to the first one. Everyone can sense it. It feels greyer, more dispiriting. The sunny weather of the April / May lockdown has been replaced by rain and the occasional snowstorm, robbing even our ‘daily’ walk of its tiny promise of pleasure. The social solidarity of the first lockdown has been usurped by a concerted emphasis on the necessity of atomisation. Back in March, April, May, we set up local WhatsApp groups and pulled together to shop and care for isolated neighbours. This time round if you go outside you’ll be greeted by ghoulish public-health posters featuring elderly people in oxygen masks and the reprimanding line: ‘Look her in the eyes and tell her you never twist the rules.’ First time round we were assistants to the elderly; this time round we’re their potential killers.
The first lockdown felt novel; this one – the third – feels onerous. The first encouraged us to remove ourselves from society but to still think and behave as members of society: sign up to be an NHS volunteer, deliver medicines to the old, phone a mate and check he’s okay. This one discourages all forms of social connection. This is best summed up by the instruction from the Department of Health’s propaganda wing: ‘Act like you’ve got it.’ That is, assume you are diseased, assume you will sicken others. Who would knock on an elderly neighbour’s door to see if she needs anything if they believed, or assumed, that they were carriers of a virus that has a high fatality rate among the old? In the first lockdown I received messages every hour from local volunteers asking if someone could do some shopping, drop off some drugs, give somebody a phone call. This time, nothing.
Then there’s the most striking difference – the absence of anticipation. In the first lockdown there was always a buzz, building after a while to a palpable sense of national expectancy, about a return to normality. Remember the cheers and memes when we found out the date pubs would reopen? Lockdown was seen as a temporary measure, and more importantly an unusual measure. Aside from a few comfortably off green types who loved the lack of airplanes and the disappearance of greedy shoppers, and some millennial socialists who fantasised that having the government pay everyone’s wages was akin to revolution, most people viewed lockdown as a thing that would end, not a way of life. The baleful impact of lockdown was partially alleviated by a shared desire for a return to the crowded, shoulder-rubbing, maskless days of old. Never had the word ‘normal’ seemed so thrilling. ‘Back to normal’ was the moral glue of a necessarily atomised people. Now, perhaps most tragically of all, that seems to have disappeared, too.
Of course many people still crave a return to normality. But in the public sphere of commentary and politics, talk of opening up, of planning for the thrusting of society back into normalcy, is actively discouraged and even frowned upon. There can be no going back, some say. Ask the government for a timeframe for the restoration of normality and you’ll be branded a ‘Covid denier’ who wants to rush things to a potentially catastrophic degree. ‘We are not at the beginning of the end of this pandemic’, says Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis, ‘we’re just at the end of the beginning’.
The ‘dream of going back to normal’ is a ‘huge distraction’, says a writer for the Guardian. The inescapable Devi Sridhar, the public-health academic whose voice of doom is enthusiastically coveted by the media, speaks to us as if we are patients on a therapist’s couch – ‘it is perfectly normal to grieve for our lost normality, but denial needs to be followed by acceptance’, she has counselled. This idea of ‘denial’ – the favoured slur of lockdown elites who want to frustrate discussion about life and liberty after Covid – was taken up by the New Statesman, too. The blather about going ‘back to normal’ is just a way of ‘denying reality’, says one of its columnists. Which isn’t surprising – ‘denial… is a natural dysfunction’. ‘It is a hard truth to swallow, but: there won’t be a return to “normal”’, says a writer for the Atlantic.
In the first lockdown, the dream of normality was what kept people going; it was actively encouraged by some politicians and even some in the doom-laden media. This time, dreams of normality are treated as ‘dysfunction’, as a species of ‘denial’. What makes this concerted erasure of expectancy even more striking is that we are in the middle of the most impressive rollout of vaccination in human history. In the UK, thanks to an army of health workers and volunteers, we have vaccinated more than 10million people. The early evidence suggests vaccination protects against serious illness and very likely stems the spread of Covid-19, too. And yet even in this moment, even during this extraordinary campaign of human ingenuity against nature’s whimsical, destructive viruses, much commentary has turned against the aspiration to normality, against the dream of restored liberty.
This illustrates the key argument spiked has been making since the very beginning of the Covid crisis. Namely, that the impact of this coronavirus on society, on our way of life and our view of the future, would be determined not only by the undoubted virulence and destructiveness of the virus itself, but also by the moral and intellectual health of society. There would be an interplay, we argued, and a potentially dangerous one, between this highly transmissible virus and the pre-existing cultures of fear and apocalypticism. The virus, we predicted, would not only activate but also exacerbate the late 20th-century, early 21st-century manmade culture of dread that views humanity as vulnerable and which treats every crisis that comes our way – from the manageable, like our slowly changing climate, to the very serious, like Covid-19 – as an apocalypse.
What we are witnessing now in this new lockdown is a clearer, more frank assertion of these cultural morbidities, of these lingering fin de siècle forces. The current accommodation to lockdown, the creeping institutionalisation of lockdown as itself ‘normal’, speaks to a winning-out of the apocalyptic mindset, of the deeply ingrained view of humankind as constantly under threat from forces it can ill-control, and which it probably unleashed itself via its destructive globalised forms of production and organisation. With the growing prospect of Covid-19 dissipating, or at least being rendered seasonal and manageable by the intervention of human science, we can see more clearly the true force that informed the lockdown mentality and underpinned much of the fretful social discussions and interventions of the past year – not Covid (or rather, not Covid alone), but the culture of fear.
Those of us who have raised questions about officialdom’s response to Covid-19 have been smeared and demonised. We are told we don’t understand the seriousness of Covid-19 (even though spiked described it as the ‘wolf at the door’ and a ‘profound challenge to humankind’ from the very beginning). We are accused of fetishising freedom and of wanting to ‘let Covid rip’ (even though spiked has long recognised the need for ‘serious measures’ to combat the spread of the virus). And we are told that we are stupid for treating Covid-19 as a ‘health panic’, even though very, very few people have actually done that. spiked certainly hasn’t. On Day 1 of the first lockdown back in March 2020 we expressly said that Covid is not like health scares or the climate panic or all that No Deal fearmongering. No, Covid-19, we said, is real – it is a ‘real and pressing crisis’.
But you know what else is real? The culture of fear. It exists. It is tangible. It influences almost every aspect of human life, from the economy to politics to the socialisation of the next generation. Over the past year we have seen the paucity of some commentators’ understanding of the culture of fear. They seem to view it as a fleeting, occasional visitor (expressed in sporadic panics), or even as something performative, as a tool consciously deployed by elites who want to keep the masses in thrall to fear and control. It is this impoverished understanding of the nature of the culture of fear, of its real expression of the real crisis of the ruling class and of human subjectivity more broadly, that has led some people to imprudently believe that the culture of fear would not play a significant role during the Covid crisis. As if it could just be switched off. As if it were a mere performance that could be postponed until we have finished dealing with a real crisis for once.
spiked’s understanding was very different. We argued that Covid-19, this significant threat to human health, would be refracted through the culture of fear, potentially harming our ability to understand and deal with this novel danger. This has come to pass. The shift from paying lip service to social solidarity to encouraging the populace to think of itself as diseased represents a victory for the degraded view of humanity gifted to us by the culture of fear. The government’s early move from encouraging people to take responsibility for limiting their social interactions to using older methods of terror to ensure compliance with lockdown measures confirmed the culture of fear’s reduction of people from citizens to be engaged with to problems to be managed. The failure to sustain the education of the next generation spoke to the exhaustion of bourgeois confidence, of the state itself, that underpins the culture of fear.
And the current threat of a New Normal – of a forever post-pandemic dystopia of distanced, masked pseudo-interaction – demonstrates that our future will be shaped at least in part by the ideologies and forces of the culture of fear. By phenomena that predate the pandemic. By the pre-existing cult of safetyism, by the elites’ long-standing denigration of risk, by the sacralisation of ‘safe spaces’, by the problematisation of modernity, of connection, of travel. Yes, the New Normal being talked up by the political and cultural elites will partially be informed by the experience of Covid-19 and the necessity of being prepared for a future virus. But it will also be shaped by something as real as disease – the culture of fear and its attendant anti-human, anti-progress ideologies.
This should not be difficult to understand. Covid-19 is a very real problem. So is the culture of fear. And fairly soon the practical task of minimising and managing the impact of Covid-19 will have been largely completed, leaving us with the far larger humanist task of combating this culture and making the case for a freer, more dynamic, dazzling future of growth, knowledge and engagement. Those who underestimate the culture of fear will be ill-prepared for these future battles. They will have a tendency to surrender to the New Normal. The rest of us should stand firm, even in the face of smears and wilful misrepresentations, and continue to recognise and confront the real and debilitating consequences that fear has on everyday life and on humanity’s future.