Put yourself in the mind of a smart, power-hungry politician obsessed with winning, someone with no moral compass. He is calmly reviewing the events of the past two years, looking for useful lessons on how to advance his or her career and causes in the future.
What nuggets of insight would such a person take away?
That you can manipulate people by playing on their fears, something copiously evident since 2020, is nothing new. That has been a staple of political writing for centuries, exemplified by Machiavelli’s contention that when faced with the choice between being feared and being loved, the wise ruler should always choose fear.
The “dread of punishment,” he believed, is a constant, while the bond of love will be broken at the drop of a hat if some advantage can be gained by doing so. Fear, then, is the more constant and reliable human motivator, and this has been known since long before Covid.
It’s also old news that you can get away with spouting total nonsense if you repeat it often enough and have ‘experts’ echoing the same thing. Repetition of a message is known in the field of marketing to create receptiveness to it, and even Goebbels famously said that the biggest of lies sounds totally plausible if repeated often enough.
That there are always legions of grovellers in the halls of power and in academia willing to rationalise anything a leader says is not new either. Just as Pharaohs and Roman emperors had high priests proclaiming them to be gods, today’s ambitious scribblers and ‘thought leaders’ are easily bought off by power and money.
So what in the Covid saga offers a new nugget of insight to the smart, history-savvy politician with a lust for power? The major surprise is that lockdowns transformed whole populations into crowds, or what Mattias Desmet has called mass formation psychosis.
The lockdown crowds, in the blink of an eye, internalised all the lies that their governments and science advisors peddled about those very lockdowns. In the grim weeks of lockdowns the world over, leaders’ approval ratings soared, dissent vaporized, critical minds were shouted down by their own colleagues and families, and the whole genius of society was subordinated to the lockdown project.
That insight is not to be found in the writings of Machiavelli. Indeed it is not part of standard teaching in psychology or sociology – disciplines that in recent decades have stopped seeing or presenting humans as innately herd animals, perhaps under the false hope that we’d all somehow grown out of that nonsense. Ha.
Lockdowns created these crowds almost overnight, galvanising populations into single entities with a single truth and morality. The bureaucracies of state sprang into action, drawing up thousands of plans on everything that had to be regulated, directed and defined, ranging from rules on how to implement social distancing in schools to classifying what was an ‘essential’ job.
It was like this in 1914 too, when mobilization of the male population into the armies of Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, France, the Ottoman Empire and Britain created the belligerents that slaughtered each other in the Great War. That mobilization galvanized European populations, pushing away previous doubts, forging previously individual minds into a collective that was oriented solely towards a war effort.
Millions started making plans for war, ranging from how to organize the hospitals to setting up food supply lines to distributing propaganda material. Once activated, the great mass of people involved in preparing for war made actual war inevitable.
Almost instantly, with mobilization, it no longer mattered that the whole circus was run by simpleton monarchs and politicians who had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Once the marching started, the only question was which disaster they were marching towards.
The power-obsessed politician of today will perhaps have taken note of the immense potential of mass mobilization based on a review of history, but to see mass mobilization ignited so quickly and effectively via lockdowns will have raised an eyebrow. Lockdowns meant everyone’s behaviour changed.
Whether they agreed with lockdowns previously or not, everyone had to adjust their behaviour, thus focusing their minds on the same objects: compliance with new rules, the supposed logic of what was happening and the new morals that rationalized why the new behavior was good. In a way, for a time, lockdowns defined populations.
All those following particular rules became a crowd, distinct from other crowds that followed different rules and hence different morals. Simply noticing all those complying with the same rules and the same truths informed people of the crowd they were part of. Machiavelli did not speak of such a thing (at least not in our reading!).
Observing the effects of Covid lockdowns on populations reveals to the amoral power-pursuer a whole landscape of political possibilities that was previously obscured by the fancies of prior thinking. Given how politically useful it is to mobilise a whole population in the name of some story, the possible uses of lockdowns in the future are nearly infinite.
Consider the possibilities that may run through such a person’s head. Lockdowns against climate change! Lockdowns as a dress rehearsal for nuclear war! Lockdowns in solidarity with Ukraine! Lockdowns could be made a compulsory form of Lent, Passover, or Ramadan: a means to affirm a particular set of ideas and a group that identifies with them. Seasonal lockdowns, lockdowns for the disabled, lockdowns to fight cancer, lockdowns for a higher minimum wage. And all made to happen relatively painlessly, through an inventive rationalisation – based on fear – followed by the stroke of a pen of the right bureaucrat.
Relying on lockdowns as a mobilization device does have disadvantages though. Lockdowns make the population unhealthy, anxious, and (most importantly from the amoral politician’s standpoint) unproductive. They do not generate nearly the same fevered enthusiasm as the military mobilizations of 1914.
A clever politician will look for less costly ways of mobilizing a population into a crowd to generate support for a single obsession, at least for as long as it is politically desirable for that to be the obsession du jour. What other mobilization methods might come to mind?
How about a ‘tree-planting week’ when the entire population, with no exemption for the ill, old, or frail, physically plants trees ‘for the climate?’ How about compulsory ‘rallies against racism’ in which the whole population is forced physically to attend anti-racism demonstrations organised by the government? How about ‘clean-up days’ where again whole populations must go around urban and country streets picking up garbage?
The mind reels. A ‘burn forbidden books’ day, a ‘get shots in arms’ day, or a ‘chase the Twitter adversaries day,’ with hunts informed by government-published lists of sinners in the community.
As with lockdowns, these alternative forms of mass mobilization only work if they are seen to be adhered to by everyone. No exceptions for the rich, the unhealthy, the children, the elderly, or those of different faiths. The initial power to force the entire population into joining in with the obsession is exactly what is needed to make the population into a crowd.
Once formed, as we saw in the case of Covid, the crowd will amplify the use of state power by adopting fanaticism, which in turn will force even the rich and famous into line.
Mobilizing populations via mass rallies and mass communal events would have been unthinkable in the postmodern West before 2020. Such events would have been seen by politicians not as ingenious tools of manipulation towards their own ends but rather as takeover bids by competitors in the power game, with these competitors being alternative ideologies, religious groups, or other community organizations that asked for the devotion from the population that the politicians wanted to keep for themselves. For its part, big business would have sabotaged mobilizations because of the costs involved.
The blind panic following the advent of Covid swept those objections away, and more easily still because lockdowns were new to the population, and so those about to be dispossessed of something were simply not aware of what they stood to lose. Once caught in the obsession, they had every incentive to look away once they became aware of the losses.
Now that the population has gotten used to one form of mobilization and a sizable fraction has found it enjoys the opportunities that mobilization opens up for bullying, new mobilizations for new excuses will be harder to resist.
Part of the crowd will bay for blood and quickly jump on those resisting the rationale of ‘tree-planting week’ or ‘burn forbidden books day.’ The little enforcers will chomp at the bit to bully both rich and unhealthy to ‘get with the program.’
All that a new era of marches needs now is the emergence of the political will to organise them.