Covid is a nightmare from which we are still trying to awake. But whether the unprecedented response represents a singularity, or the beginning of an era of authoritarian capitalism, is unclear.
Many of us remain incapable of distinguishing a reliable version of reality from lonely projections. Thankfully, telling insights arrive in a new publication: The Covid Consensus: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor – A Critique from the Left. Authors Toby Green (a professor of African history and culture) and Thomas Fazi (a writer and journalist) navigate a path through the scientific thickets, to reveal the socio-economic and cultural factors that shaped the pandemic response.
The temporary elevation of public health officials in many countries to positions of almost unfettered power led the Mozambique writer Pedrito Cambrao to observe that ‘the secular West has essentially turned science into a religion and scientists and healthcare workers into a priestly caste that cannot be challenged. (p.346)’
Media, new and old, brought unrelenting focus to a single challenge, while only rarely surveying accumulating evidence of collateral damage. As in Albert Camus’s great novel, The Plague: ‘Rats died in the street; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street.’[i]
Additionally, as I propose in this review, a “left-brained” positivism appears to have informed the Covid Consensus that Green and Fazi define.
Positivism is a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified, or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, but this can lead to a narrowing of perspective. Thus, long-standing challenges yielded to a singular metric, the waxing and waning of “the virus” – as defined by the PCR test, a dubious diagnostic tool that accounts for exaggerated mortality statistics.
Positivism is identified with the nineteenth century philosopher Auguste Comte (d.1857), whose conclusions, according to Albert Camus, ‘are curiously like those finally accepted by scientific socialism.’
Comte conceived of a hierarchical society that looks similar to what we witnessed over the course of the Covid Consensus:
[S]cientists would be priests, two thousand bankers and technicians ruling over a Europe of one hundred and twenty million inhabitants where private life would be absolutely identified with public life, where absolute obedience ‘of action, of thought, and of feeling’ would be given to the high priests who reign over everything.[ii]
In our time, technocratic rule relied on an underlying hysteria founded on a generally irrational fear of premature death, whipped up by social media in particular.
Only once this dissipated – arguably when wide availability of rapid antigen tests revealed the widespread prevalence of basically harmless infections – was normality restored. As in Camus’s novel The Plague: ‘Once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended.’[iii]
The paucity of left-wing lockdown critiques, ignoring the plight of Global South, where more than one hundred million people fell below the poverty line (p.286), despite the minimal impact of the virus itself, demonstrates an intellectual impoverishment in a broad-based movement that achieved extraordinary progress during the twentieth century, by questioning established authority in terms or wealth, gender and race.
In contrast, the veteran Greek socialist Panagiotis Sotiris observed that what went missing during the pandemic was an understanding that ‘science and technology are not neutral’.
All too many who identify as left-wing, Green and Fazi argue failed to recognise, ‘something much more profound than a straightforward conflict between left and right’, but instead,
a struggle at the heart of capitalism between the traditional press and business interests it has always represented (hotels, restaurants, high street shops) and the new corporate giants which did not require such promotion. (p.19)
A sympathetic explanation might trace broad left-wing approval for what were ineffectual lockdowns to the accompanying state largesse. Below the surface, however, a huge transfer of wealth occurred to billionaire owners of giant corporations. Thus, the ten richest men in the world doubled their fortunes during the pandemic, while supports to workers proved transient, and were based on unsustainable quantitative easing, which has, predictably, given way to inflation.
Through effective control over online content, including outright censorship, and regulatory capture – including of the WHO – the corporate giants successfully narrowed the Overton Window of acceptable discourse. Dissenters from a dominant narrative were stigmatised as far-right, libertarian or conspiracy theorists.
Importantly, statements of President Donald Trump were weaponised by architects of the Consensus. Green and Fazi contend that it was ‘no longer possible for left-leaning progressives to question ‘the science’ since that is what Trump had done. (p.78)’
A "strawman" conspiracy theorist appears to have been developed, especially by so-called fact checkers, to deter valid journalistic enquiry during the pandemic.https://t.co/IvMv3c76Nw@broadsheet_ie @BowesChay @PD03662439 @ciarasidine @LiamDeegan3 @WhistleIRL @FutureVisions5
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) February 12, 2022
Beyond Conspiracy Theories
Various conspiracy theories purport to explain the decisions of governments to quarantine almost half of humanity for almost two years to inhibit (rather than eliminate) a virus with a median infection fatality rate of c. 0.27% (the figure for Spanish Influenza in 1918-19 was > 2.5%) that posed a vanishingly low risk of death to anyone under the age of seventy, prior to the arrival of vaccines that were not designed to save lives.
The Covid Consensus addresses a more interesting question however, namely: why did Western populations overwhelmingly consent to unprecedented infringements on civil liberties, culminating in the population-wide, medical coercion of vaccine mandates and passports?
Indeed, leading experts seem to have been surprised at the power they wielded. Thus, after the British government adopted Chinese lockdown policy, Professer Neil Ferguson observed: ‘It’s a communist, one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’
It should also be noted that any idea of locking down healthy people was contrary to best practice in global health prior to 2020. An article from 2014 on the history of quarantine, ‘Gold, fire and gallows: quarantine in history’ by Médecins Sans Frontières’s Duncan Mclean found:
There is limited and far from definitive research on quarantine effectiveness and far too many other factors at play that are difficult to ascertain from the historical record. Yet while present understanding about the pathology and transmission of hostile pathogens is far advanced on centuries past, there are some basic conclusions that can be made. For example, it is fairly certain that isolating a healthy population alongside an unhealthy population risks causing more harm than good, especially when access to food, water and medical care is taken into account. For quarantine to be successful, it requires perfect compliance and transmission without symptoms.
Moreover, notwithstanding the dubious achievement of temporarily excluding Covid-19 from certain countries through a Zero Covid policy, the idea that a highly infectious respiratory pathogen causing a low level of morbidity (a U.K. study from October, 2020 found 76.5% of a random sample who tested positive reported no symptoms and 86.1% reported none specific to COVID-19) could have been eliminated was never a serious proposition.
The lockdown-to-vaccine strategy was also predicated on a misplaced article of faith, which is that vaccines – what Boris Johnson referred to as “the scientific cavalry” – would essentially eliminate Covid-19, or at least the transmission of the virus. The progressive – or “left-wing” – argument to take vaccines for the sake of others never stood up to serious scrutiny from the outset; but mainstream media had suspended critical assessment as part of what was immediately likened to a war-time effort.
Despite failing to achieve what most people assumed it would, i.e. block transmission, which its inventor claimed it could achieve, seemingly pre-planned measures were rolled out, while serious harms largely went unreported in a mainstream media dangerously reliant on ‘philanthro-capitalism’.
ZeroCovid Ireland's zero-tolerance to the virus shares characteristics with the War on Terror, but the enemy is within and the war unwinnable.https://t.co/Er9rfqGHPI@broadsheet_ie @IlsaCarter1 @wadeinthewate11 @liamherrick @AliceHarrisonBL @VillageMagIRE @ThePhoenixMag
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) February 17, 2021
According to the authors of the Covid Consensus the pandemic ‘provided a radical continuity of many trends which had been latent in global society.’ They point to a steady growth over many years in social inequality, ‘the power of computing, information wars, and the shift towards increasingly authoritarian forms of capitalism across the world had all been growing.(p.2)’ Arguing:
we should perhaps consider the troubling hypothesis that the Chinese and Western regimes, far from representing two opposites may actually have come to embody two different types of authoritarianism, conflictual but symbiotic at the same time – as the striking convergent responses to the pandemic would seem to suggest. (p.398)
Notwithstanding the similarities Green and Fazi point to, the approaches of East and West did diverge in one significant respect: China’s early adoption of a highly authoritarian Zero Covid policy ensured life continued for most of the time “as normal”, whereas Western governments promoted a more consensual social distancing approach that relied on an unprecedented propaganda campaign.
The disturbing effects of social distancing might be viewed as the apotheosis of neo-liberalism. The virus seems to have provided a welcome pretext for the wealthy to remove themselves from the hoi polloi.
Covid-19 also laid bare the widespread out-sourcing of manufacturing to lower wage economies (such as China). Lockdowns demonstrated that many workers in the West were no longer in productive employment, and instead engaged in what the late David Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs’, often as part of swollen bureaucracies.
Thus, Green and Fazi identify the lockdown response as ‘a symptom of the ever-increasing removal of people in wealthier societies from economic production. (p.2)’ For many Western consumers concern for ‘the implications of lost harvests, ruptured supply chains, and abandoned industrial plant machines was not as real as the threat of a new virus to this group of disproportionately influential people. (p.3)’
An important cultural facet the authors refer to is a crippling fear of death. Over many decades Western governments have cleansed ‘the dead from daily life’ (p.11). This contrasts with the far more obvious folk rituals and religious practices attending a person passing away in the Global South.
A collective inability to reconcile ourselves to death best explains the panic generated by coverage of events in Lombardy, Italy in February, 2020: as ‘the shadow loomed of death re-entering the normal spaces of society people sought to seal themselves away from something which terrified them. (p.11)’
Ferguson’s candid testimony suggests it is highly unlikely that anyone in power anticipated the propaganda value of “the scenes in Italy”. Indeed, many governments displayed little appetite for lockdowns initially. Most quickly rolled over, however in the face of an enduring hysteria; even after initial mortality projections of 0.9% (used by Ferguson in his infamous paper) had been show to be seriously inflated.
A fear of premature death is most obvious explanation for why peopled consented to unprecedented infringements on their civil liberties.
Another cultural factor the authors point to is ‘the undermining of social science and humanities degrees by governments … in favour of STEM subjects’. They contend that ‘these subjects were routinely ignored in the shaping of major policy decisions by both government and the media. (p.14)’
This educational trend, I would argue, reflects a longer term tendency in advanced industrialised societies (now including China) to perceive the world disproportionately through the left hemisphere of the brain, which has yielded a distinctive version of reality.
In an extraordinary work, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009), Iain McGilchrist charts the ascendancy of left-brained thinking over that emanating from the right. He stresses that both are involved in most mental processes, but that each nonetheless retains discrete functions.
McGilchrist argues that since antiquity we find an ‘increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness.’[iv] This sounds suspiciously like the prevailing state of mind under lockdown.
McGilchrist also averts to the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, arguing the real horror of the Concentration Camps lay in ‘the detachment with which the detailed plans of the extermination camps were developed, often relying on expertise of engineers, physicians and psychiatrists that makes the Holocaust so chilling.’[v]
It is inappropriate to compare those who promoted lockdowns to the architects of the Final Solution, or the Gulags for that matter. Indeed, many lockdown agitators were probably motivated by a misplaced altruism. The architecture of lockdowns, however, also required a detachment from the far-reaching consequences of shuttering societies and undermining community life.
Lockdowns and vaccine roll-outs depended on (“left-brained”) technical approaches – relying on engineers, physicians and psychiatrists for disease modelling, track and trace and “psy-ops”. In an era of positivism, the role of governments essentially narrowed to curbing the spread of Covid-19. This obscured “big picture” determinants of health and well-being such as social connection, as well as causing almost incalculable educational loss by closing schools for up to two years in some countries.
An acknowledged tendency to mislead the public over the course of the pandemic may also be traced to the left hemisphere; as McGilchrist puts it: ‘The left hemisphere is the equivalent of the person who, when asked for directions, prefers to make something up rather than admitting to not knowing the way.’
Thus, more proportionate policies, such as those followed in Sweden, were sadly lacking in the response. The consequences of a detachment from other determinants of health and well-being seem to be reflected in the troubling excess death statistics we are now witnessing.
Frank Armstrong argues we shouldn't rule out vaccines causing 'among the worst' excess death figures in 50 years, but identifies a more likely reason for this.https://t.co/fUBQG1EzIJ#ExcessMortality #CovidIsNotOver #CovidVaccine
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) February 22, 2023
The belated repeal of emergency powers in most countries indicates that we have not entered a prolonged period of government led by public health officials. Indeed, conversely, there are strong arguments for greater emphasis on health initiatives to contend with other, more profound, challenges such as the obesity pandemic.
However, the overnight shift from blanket coverage of the virus to the War in Ukraine suggests we may have entered an era of ‘permanent crisis.’ This, according to Green and Fazi, ‘means being stuck in a perpetual present where all energies are focused on the fight against the enemy of the moment. (p.397)’
As with the response to Covid-19, the populations of Europe and America are presented with a single prescription – here a total victory for Ukraine – seemingly at all cost. This is, arguably, indicative of an ascendant “left-brained” positivism, which narrows or simplifies the range of possibilities to the “enemy of the moment”.
Moreover, our dependence on compromised technology accelerated under lockdown. This increases a susceptibility to propaganda, although freedom of association blunts the insidious power of the smart phone device.
Also, fear of Putin and Russia has not awakened a similar hysteria to that generated by Covid-19, although the plight of Ukrainians has certainly been used to garner sympathy for the war effort. A major difference, is that many, though certainly not all, on the left in Europe are questioning a dominant narrative; alert to the fingerprints of the military industrial complex; in contrast to the Covid response – where the role of Big Pharma was generally overlooked.
Importantly, the power structures of the Covid Consensus remain intact. There is a serious dearth of critical media and investigative reporting into the ties of the Biden administration to the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, which along with Vanguard and State Street manages a combined total of over twenty trillion dollars.
My concern is not simply that the billionaire class is enriching itself through proximity to power. It is also with the dominance of a “left-brained” caste of mind reigning ascendant in both the West and the East.
Perhaps Bobby Kennedy Jr’s bid for the Democratic nomination will bring greater attention to the influence of the corporate money men in power. An outspoken critic of the pharmaceutical industry and the military industrial complex over many years, Kennedy might previously have been easily dismissed as an “anti-vaxxer”, but that term may have lost its valency in the wake of Covid.
Unless, or until, there is a thorough evaluation of what has occurred during Covid-19, the possibility of a renewed assault on basic liberties at the behest of the billionaire class remains. Green and Fazi’s Covid Consensus represents an important first draft of history, which should inform that inquiry.
Feature Image: A classroom with socially distanced desks.
[i] Albert Camus, The Plague, (1947), p.18
[ii] Albert Camus, The Rebel, Translated by Anthony Bower, Penguin, London, (2013), p.145
[iii] Albert Camus, The Plague, (1947), p.272
[iv] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary (2009), p.3
[v] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary (2009), p.165-66