Apocalypse, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Boris Johnson, Civilization and Its Discontents, Colonel Tom Moore, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Death, Financial Meltdown, Joe Biden, Lockdown, Opinion, Politics, Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Social Distancing, Thanatos (death-drive)
Why has there been such a widespread public acquiescence to the lockdown? It is over a month now since this strategy was first initiated to try to contain the spread of the latest coronavirus. There is reportedly amazement and even some degree of disquiet within the government that the UK has succumbed to such a dramatic chloroforming with so few kicks of protest.
One of the policy’s most reluctant supporters had been the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. “We live in a land of liberty,” he had insisted back in March, but what is lately so offensive about the lockdown is not merely that it has demonstrated how pitifully unreliable this self-congratulatory feeling for liberty is. Barely a tenth of children who are allowed to attend schools during the lockdown have shown up. A collapse in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer could lead to the consequent number of fatalities eventually rivalling those from COVID-19 itself. And then there is the economic destruction, which is by now ballooning beyond all computation, with ominous long-term repercussions of its own for public health.
Not only is this destruction vast but it is also gratuitous. Many businesses that could function perfectly smoothly with social-distancing restrictions in place, such as certain construction sites, were shut down for most of April. Such a self-denying relish amongst economic actors might cause us to make inquiries after the sanity of the lockdown. Is the lockdown reasonable, if you study it for long enough, and does it ultimately confirm the innate rationality of the human condition (something that, after all, our democracy is predicated upon)? Or is it instead fundamentally crazy and morbid?
I am an optimist and so I will be hunting for any route that leads away from the conclusion that a mass irrationality has somehow stolen over the UK. But it is going to be tough. It is possible to heap together three broad theories about what the country is currently experiencing: (a) that people are respecting the lockdown due to virtuous and public-spirited impulses; (b) that people instead find the lockdown agreeable due to selfish and short-termist ones; or (c) that people have become motivated en masse by what the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had termed “the death drive” and what his disciples had renamed, more anthropomorphically, “Thanatos.”
The first theory is greatly to my liking. The lockdown’s gameplan has been to prevent the coronavirus from reaching those at the greatest risk, the very old and the very sick. Contrary to Malthusian or eugenicist “ethics,” this strategy proclaims that all human life is of equal value and that nobody is a price to be paid in order to help enrich society. That millions of people have acquiesced to this system might strike you as being beautifully humane.
It would be altogether happier, though, if such a sentiment did not come to find characteristic expression in the most facile reasoning, in the insincerest of gestures and even at times in outright vigilantism. I am suspicious of the lockdown because it appears to have inherited most of its genes from a family tree that includes the 2010 Haiti relief fund, the 2012 campaign against Joseph Kony, and the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge. Only in the last of these was all of the money not wasted and this was largely accidental since, once the ice had melted away, the spending of the revenues had proceeded with minimal public scrutiny.
The gusto for the lockdown might put you in mind of these earlier examples of viral brainlessness. Displaying an ineptly-painted rainbow in your window, and banging two saucepans together on your doorstep once a week, isn’t actually agreeing to the tax rises that will pay NHS workers a decent wage. The personality cult that surrounds Captain or lately Colonel Tom Moore – a kind of tiny, beleaguered leprechaun who can magically conjure up endless pots of gold for the NHS – is a phenomenon that seems to be spiralling out of all control. I can see him meeting with well-wishing generals and then appearing on Good Morning Britain to front a takeover by the military, with them all using his doddering charisma to enchant the nation into compliance.
It seems that the lockdown is only important in the places where it is of least use. The lockdown is observed most neurotically amongst the chronically healthy, as a lifestyle choice, whereas its overall failures as a public health policy are considered to be merely regrettable local mishaps. Yesterday, the Edinburgh Evening News reported that residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 in one of the city’s council-run care homes had been allowed to roam freely amongst the uninfected. I have heard, anecdotally, of a care home in England that had volunteered its spare beds to infected patients who had been discharged from a local hospital. Both of these excruciating lapses in the containment strategy had occasioned further infections and, from cup to lip, deaths.
Far from inspiring outrage that society’s weakest members had not been protected, and that the pretext for the entire lockdown had been thus violated, these fatalities have been by and large greeted with a curiously passive and fatalistic dismay. There has been until very recently a universal resignation to the impossibility of introducing sophisticated Far-Eastern containment systems, something that would require us to develop the undreamed-of Martian technologies of phone apps and swab tests. Even a task as elementary as manufacturing face-masks, and distributing them to where they will help the most, is accepted as lying beyond the capabilities of our advanced industrial economy. You probably have to go back to the Neanderthals before you can reach a society that had regarded it as normal that it could not readily create basic protective clothing for itself.
Within a public-spirited democracy, where everybody was genuinely in some type of stirring, ersatz war effort, one would hardly expect such an ignominious capitulation to the virus. Let us therefore turn to the second and greatly more unappealing theory. Could it be that the public are in reality, and behind all of their public-spirited noises, accepting the lockdown for wholly selfish reasons? Outside of the health and care sectors, the lockdown’s losers are predominantly supermarket workers and delivery drivers. They are still being paid to do hard work whilst millions of furloughed employees are receiving equivalent wages to take what is in effect the biggest holiday of their adult lives.
The picture of the lockdown as a gigantic holiday camp is not necessarily a negative one and its “selfishness” might be in fact quite reasonable. It will be easy for many people with busy careers to convince themselves that the universe fairly owes them this time, as a windfall, to spend with partners and children. Good for them. What is worrying, however, is the short-termism of the holiday mentality. The lockdown isn’t a fortuitous free holiday. Everybody will be eventually presented with the bill through years of austerity and tax rises and perhaps even serious inflation too. Rather awesomely, some of those poor guys who are left manning the supermarkets are already paying through their taxes for you to flop about in the holiday camp.
So on to theory three. Let us assume that the ocean of pure human reason that our democracy is always drinking from has not suddenly dried up. Let us assume that most people are fully aware that the lockdown has been grossly inadequate and that it is incurring outrageous costs. The third option is that the public have been somehow morbidly hypnotised by the spectre of a looming economic depression. This theory proposes that our politics has become so knackered and hollowed-out that, perversely, catastrophe is now the most exciting vision of the future to remain available. As with the rise of Nazism, this would signify what the philosopher Walter Benjamin had viewed as a demoralising of practical, everyday politics into aesthetics.
“Dr Freud, I’m sorry that you have been waiting outside for so long. Please come in, I’m ready for you now.”
“Why, thank you. May I smoke my pipe in here?”
“I’ll open the window.”
Freud did not invent the notion of Thanatos. For a long time he was not satisfied that it even existed and he merely posited that it might exist. This was during that point in his career when he was continually bolting additional features on to the psyche, as a means of accounting for human behaviours that appeared to defy explanation. He also didn’t call his death drive “Thanatos,” a term that was supplied by later theorists who felt that such a concept of such grandeur required a cooler name. Thanatos is the Greek god of death. His use as a symbol was implicitly permitted within psychoanalysis by Freud’s equipping of libido with the name of Eros, Thanatos’ colleague and the personification of love.
The allure of Thanatos makes me always think of the process of going to bed. We will seldom sit down anywhere to sleep at the end of the day, in any corner. Instead, we have typically installed in our homes something that resembles an opulent tomb, which we will ritually dress for in especially designated clothes and make solemn preparations for, as though we were conducting our own mini-funerals. People are prone to speak rather mindlessly about sleeping as if it is something that they can savour and relish – a paradox since it there is obviously nothing that is pleasurable about blank unconsciousness.
The death drive had been around the block several times before it got to Freud. It is present in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as Freud himself had acknowledged; one might also espy it in Edgar Allan Poe’s “imp of the perverse.” The death drive can be nonetheless observed most fruitfully in Freud’s writing because he had entertained the concept following the First World War, an inexplicable slide into mass irrationality that might look increasingly familiar to today’s citizens of the coronavirus. Freud had returned to muse upon the death drive in light of the rise of Nazism and its rampant hysteria.
The First World War feels relevant to COVID-19 because it had been like an infernal engine that, once started, could not be stopped. After hundreds of thousands of troops had been sacrificed, it became naturally very difficult for the British government to announce that the war was not so important after all and that they should instead broker a peace. Similarly, with the lockdown, once the government had actively triggered an economic depression they were no longer free to reverse out of it, since this would be to admit that they had wrecked a load of lives and businesses through pursuing the wrong policy. As a system of logic, the lockdown can only ever escalate. Repetition is its defining feature.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud was troubled by examples of repetitive human behaviours that had seemingly no connection to the libido. He theorised that we must possess a “conservative” instinct that desires to return to an ancient, inanimate state of being, namely nothingness. This instinct was so preliminary that Freud claimed to detect it operating in the world’s first cells. He soon found that the symbiosis between Eros and the death drive had spilled out into society. In Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930), he suggested that “a portion of the [death] instinct is diverted towards the external world and comes to light as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness.” Civilisation is essentially a collective neurosis that tries to repress this instinct beneath a societal drive towards “perfection.”
It is, of course, entirely random what “perfection” looks like. As well as inspiring great art or scientific improvement, it could also entail ethnic cleansing (as Freud would soon see) or it could arrive at a moralistic authoritarianism. But supposing that at some point there were no longer any usable political narratives available to subsume the quarrelsome individual.
Supposing, in fact, that every new political idea that society came up with – the noble vision of the European Union, the disruptive excitement of Scottish independence, the cry for change from Barack Obama, the “fairer society” of Jeremy Corbyn and the environmentalist revolution of Greta Thunberg – all failed. Supposing that each one sank into mass unpopularity or indifference without a trace. With this wilting of civilisation, might not the final recourse be a turning back into our own individual instincts of aggression and self-destructiveness? If millions of us together abandoned civilisation in such a way, in a kind of starling-like murmuration, we might converge on a completely alternative sphere and one where our practical civic society had been replaced with Thanatos alone.
This is not to say that we should return to any of the failed social-democratic ideas that are listed above and try to appreciate them all over again. Yet it is to place the blame for our present malaise squarely at the door of the Left. Today’s lurid, rubbernecking fascination with the destruction of the economy can only occur in the absence of any glamorous or even plausible political narrative. Its starting-point is the demoralised feeling that, to quote what Margaret Thatcher had once said in triumph, “there is no alternative” to a socioeconomic system that is otherwise visibly depleted.
For years now, Tychy has been maintaining that the UK urgently needs an enormous state investment into new technologies such as robotics and stem-cell research and gene editing. Technologies that in Freud’s terms would very much symbolise the life-instinct or a commitment to societal development and renewal. With the coronavirus, the country has at last agreed to an expenditure on the necessary scale but, nightmarishly, it has all gone into measures that will do less than zero to improve productivity. In this context, there is something wryly apocalyptic about paying people to simply sit in their houses doing nothing.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Democrats’ up-and-coming candidate for the presidency, Joe Biden, appears to throb and pulsate eerily with a mass repletion of the death drive. It is by far the most astonishing feature of contemporary politics that when required to challenge Donald Trump – a man who is, under any objective criteria, the worst president that the USA has ever had – the liberal elite has responded with a candidate who is literally almost dead. Biden’s “team” or minders are currently restricting his public appearances to try to keep tell-tale indicators of his cognitive decline out of the media. At the presidential debates, Biden and Trump could pose as Death and the Maiden. And then Death will sweep all before him and rear himself a throne, looking gigantically down upon the ruins of our post-COVID world.