Coronavirus, mythologising social distancing, and fascism

There are now articles, e.g. see here even by political leftists crying out for authoritarianism, at its most stark representing a shift towards Stalinism – a perfect fascist storm; the stories being written start by describing the harms of politicians scapegoating the other (currently – the ‘ordinary person in the street’) apparently to deflect criticism, as the virus spreads, from the government’s failings due to, or so the stories claim, the lack of diktat, rules and authoritative ‘action’ to enforce social distancing and lockdown.

To be clear as I explain at the end of this piece I am in favour of government interventions to ensure landlords cannot evict, that the vulnerable have financial support including the self employed, and the lockdown of non-essential business – that said, the responsibilisation of individuals to socially distance is achieving a mythical status reminiscent of moral panic. Sensible social distancing is exactly that, sensible / it is not a panacea and should not be implemented over-zealously by little hitlers.

On a forum for a self-described spiritual community in the North a resident posted angrily because he saw people he ‘didn’t recognize’ in the Park (implied as ‘spreading the virus’) – what could he do to evict them, he cried, “who do I call?” – the reply from the list moderator was “Shout at them”. Is this a self-identified spiritual person vying to be first in line for the most zealous and xenophobic fascist prize? Is this ideology at work, an incitement to elevate social distancing to its most extreme level as a sign of moral dutifulness that actually reveals a fearful subservient identification with authority itself.

The zealots are already at work ‘shaming’ what they call Covidiots, and the mainstream media is lapping it up, see here. Will shame really ‘shine as a tool that can be used for social good’? Or is it a tool to embed fascist and xenophobic ideology and thinking as if not only normal but moral.

Instead of actively shaming others we could instead rely upon a naturally developing sense of what is good through simple guilt, because we care and by adopting sensible norms.

Prof Sznycer argues that “guilt – an emotion when you realise you’ve harmed people you love” – tends to lead to “more stable, benign and reliable” behaviour change.

“It may be that a government prompt about caring about the welfare of others could be more effective than shame,” he says, although “for guilt to work, you need to value the welfare of others to begin with.”

We should note that no matter what action the government takes it won’t be sufficient to prevent Covid-19 deaths; and it will suit government to blame the feckless others which will become surplus humanity: the unemployed, migrants, homeless etc.

A few breaches of social distancing will soon become socially unacceptable through ideological normative effects of peer pressure, without the need for heavy-handed law enforcement.

It seems some are desperate to believe that social distancing applied zealously is our salvation – spurred on by the media ghoulishly showing videos of clearly distressed exhausted and tearful medics after 13 hour shifts begging people to ‘stay at home’. Their fantasy is that zealous social distancing is not only the ‘good’ political thing, but the cure if only if can be done ‘enough’, regardless of collateral effects of fear and social isolation. And of course ‘enough’ is always out of reach spurring us on to ever greater efforts approaching the bizarre.

The thought-police and neighborhood vigilantes will soon be out with their Kafkaesque vitriol enforcing an over-investment in fear and social distancing.

A perfect recipe for fascist ascendancy: I would think that simply stating the infectious nature of this virus, and illustrating ways to avoid, eg with videos of social distancing in shops etc. should be enough. S Korea and China apparently have it under control; but even here we should be cautious and sceptical about claims for the effects of enforcing their apparent actions on quarantine and testing. The false-negative rate of tests and existing lack of social cohesion, (exacerbated of course by years of individualist arch-neoliberal pragmatism), to cope with enforced distancing make these dubious approaches here. Governments will love to blame the ordinary person for the spread and as an excuse to move towards increasing fascist mythology, hatred of the rational and science, and xenophobia. The people will come to believe that the sacrifice of the elderly and vulnerable to save the economy is ‘a good thing’ as if arch neoliberal pragmatism is the savior of us all! This is fascist ideology.

This combination of manufactured social fragility and neoliberal governance will sooner or later produce a political rupture. The election of Donald Trump was the first act of one. An extended economic crisis can produce social solidarity or a deeply ugly political response. The Democrats’ choice to stick with their neoliberal program means that they are indifferent between electing Joe Biden and a second term for Donald Trump. Add the widespread unemployment that is already baked into their reflexive austerity and a more perfect formula for fascist ascendance is difficult to imagine.

Breeding an internal xenophobia – omnium bellum omnes. More securitization – more elitism for a few.

However, that said, as things stand government does have certain failings and moral duties:

And that’s before we get on to the economic fallout: the lack of support for tenants … the continual refusal to enforce rather than request businesses to not lay people off, the lack of enforcement in place around supermarkets and hoarding, and the apparent total lack of economic planning measures to deal with what is to come.

Let me be clear: people have to obey the lockdown. And we as a citizenry should be vigilant about that. But if politicians do not start governing across every area of economic and social life to provide people in lockdown with what they need to live securely under these extraordinary circumstances, then at some point people will become desperate and lockdown breaches will become inevitable. There’s nothing about what the government has done so far which suggests to me that they are up to that task, so we have to push them to get there. The politicians have to govern and the citizens have to hold them to account. That’s how this has to work.

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