In several countries, lockdowns and/or other pandemic-related measures have provoked protest or even riots, and in many more, policies intended to slow down the spread of Covid-19 are widely ignored. I don’t think that these are fundamentally different kinds of responses to such measures – rather, there is a spectrum ranging from riots and attacks on medical professionals on the one end to covid denial and noncompliance on the other – and because of that, there are probably no fundamental differences in explanation either. Nevertheless, I don’t expect that there will be much agreement about an explanation for two reasons. Firstly, there are almost certainly several interacting factors that together explain protest and noncompliance, while most people seem to favor simplistic explanations focusing on just one factor (usually the one that is most convenient to them). And secondly, many of those factors are likely to be uncomfortable because they expose social problems that society as a whole – or the dominant forces therein, at least – prefer to ignore.
Because of the complexity of the issue, it would be presumptuous to claim that I have the explanation. I don’t, and consequently, it is not my aim here to present such an explanation. Rather, as the title of this article suggests, my aim is merely to share some thoughts about the issue, hoping that this can be a small contribution to a more balanced view about covid protests and noncompliance.
Part of the explanation is a cultural phenomenon that I have called “cultural psychopathy” before and that is closely related to what Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell have called “the narcissism epidemic”.1 What defines this phenomenon is the acceptance of egocentricity as “normal” (or even as good or required) and a widespread belief in entitlement to a variety of privileges and freedoms. Simultaneously, concern for the wellbeing of others is belittled or denied, leading to a culture celebrating the most selfish forms of individualism in which everyone is expected to behave like a borderline psychopath and in which egocentrism, callousness, and distrust are the norm.
I have written about cultural psychopathy before in The Hegemony of Psychopathy as well as this blog, so I won’t elaborate on the general idea here. Neither does it seem necessary to say much about how it relates to covid noncompliance, as I think that this should be fairly obvious: people who believe that they are entitled to whatever privileges or freedoms they enjoy, who are selfish, and who care little for the wellbeing of others are not likely to accept an “infringement” on their entitlements if they don’t perceive themselves to be the primary beneficiaries of that infringement. Narcissists and cultural psychopaths only care about their own interests – not about the interests of others – and if narcissism or cultural psychopathy becomes acceptable or even becomes the social norm, then it is only to be expected that any kind of restriction – and especially restrictions that are perceived to be in the interests of others – will meet widespread resistance.
There is one aspect of cultural psychopathy that does need a bit more attention, however, and that is also the main difference between that notion and Twenge and Campbell’s “narcissism epidemic”. The latter is presented as an epidemic – that is, a more or less natural phenomenon – while one of my main points in The Hegemony of Psychopathy was that cultural psychopathy is a political phenomenon as much as it is cultural. Cultural psychopathy is not spread by “natural” processes, but by sociopolitical processes – it is an aspect of the dominant ideology or “cultural hegemony”. That ideology involves a number of closely related beliefs that – thanks to its dominance – have become the “common sense” beliefs of almost everyone: that people are essentially selfish, that neoliberal capitalism is natural, that there is no alternative to the sociopolitical and economic status quo, and so forth.
What matters about this aspect of cultural psychopathy is that it makes it almost invisible as an explanation of social ills like resistance to covid-related restrictions and policies. If pathological egocentricity is “normal” – rather than the product of a hegemonic set of values and beliefs – then it cannot be (recognized as) the explanation of a kind of behavior that seems to go against the socially accepted norm, behavior that is – in one word – “abnormal”. What is normal is invisible, and what is normal certainly cannot explain what is abnormal.
It is neoliberal capitalism that produced the hegemony of psychopathy, and cultural psychopathy in turn deteriorates the social bonds that hold society together, but according to believers in neoliberal capitalism, there are no such bonds and neither is there such a thing as society – there are just selfish individuals. By spreading that belief they made sure that people increasingly started to behave as if it was true, thereby gradually making it true. Noncompliance and protest in response to restrictions are just the logical consequence thereof. From the neoliberal point of view, however, selfishness is “normal”, society never existed, and the status quo is “natural”, and therefore, neoliberal capitalism cannot possibly be responsible for aberrations like lockdown riots. That is convenient, of course, and because neoliberal capitalism is hegemonic, it also prevents everyone under its influence from recognizing its role in the resistance to attempts to curb the pandemic.
Covid-19 is widely seen as a disease of the elderly. Indeed, old people are much more likely to develop serious symptoms and/or to die of the disease, and consequently, the impression that young and healthy people have relatively little to fear from the coronavirus is not entirely wrong. “Not entirely”, because there are very many cases of young and healthy people developing very serious symptoms and/or dying as well, but still, relatively speaking those numbers are small, while the numbers of deaths among the elderly are not. And consequently, that pandemic-related restrictions are widely seen as aimed at protecting the elderly is not surprising. In the contrary, often that is even how such restrictions are presented by their defenders.
Compliance with covid-related restrictions and requests, then, could be seen as a case of intergenerational solidarity. The young (and healthy) are asked to sacrifice some of their freedoms and privileges in solidarity with the elderly (and less healthy). And generally it is assumed that the young somehow owe this solidarity to the elderly and that the sacrifice the young are asked or required to make is a relatively minor one. Both of these assumptions are more debatable than they may seem at a glance, however.
Let’s start with the second assumption, and let’s take a Japanese university student as an example. In Japan, the first three of the four years someone spends as an undergraduate are often the least stressful and most free period in one’s life, preceded by the stress and pressure involved in preparation for the entrance exam to university, and followed by the stress and pressure involved in working life. For many Japanese, these three years are the happiest time of their lives, and the only time in which they can (more or less) live for themselves and follow their own interests and desires. Moreover, this is the period in which many Japanese make their most important friends (often for life) and meet their marriage partners. Spending a substantial part of this period without the normal social activities associated with student life, then, is not a minor sacrifice, but a very big sacrifice indeed.
Of course, Japan is an extreme case in many respects, but for young people in many other countries the situation is not fundamentally different. Giving up the social activities that are central to adolescent life (as well as to adolescent psychology) for a significant amount of time is not a minor sacrifice. It may seem minor to older people who have passed that stage in their lives a long time ago (and for whom time passes faster anyway), but it certainly isn’t for the young.
The other assumption might be even more problematic. What do the young really owe to previous generations? The generations born in the decennia after the Second World War have enjoyed great prosperity compared to previous and later generations. They tend to have considerable political and economic power, and benefit from pensions, social welfare systems, and health care geared to their needs. What does a young person with a student debt, little prospect for the future, and/or working two jobs just to survive owe to them?
Society and the economy are stacked against the young and in favor of those older generations. Intergenerational solidarity is a two-way-street, but what solidarity do the elderly show with the young? When did the elderly offer to accept a pension reduction to make sure that social welfare policies for younger generations could continue to be funded? When did the elderly offer to pay more for public services attuned to their needs to make sure that more money is available for education? Imagine yourself in the shoes of a young person in an economy in continuous turmoil, with little opportunity for a real career, and burdened by debt. Imagine yourself in that situation, being asked – being requested, even – to express solidarity with generations that had everything you want but probably can never have (financial security, a nice house, etc.), with generations that continue to hold political power and use that power to continue serving their interests, with generations that took (and continue to take) everything and leave you with scraps.
One of the most common arguments for intergenerational solidarity is that previous generations built up everything we have, but that argument has lost its shine. All that they built up are the systems that keep their wealth and power as much as possible intact. The post-war generations didn’t built up everything we have – rather, they burned up everything they had. Quite literally, unfortunately. Intergenerational solidarity should start with leaving a habitable planet to younger (and future) generations, but the older generations even refuse to do that – they rather burn the planet than give up a small part of their wealth to create a future for their children’s children. The questions, then, boils down to this:
What do the young owe to the generation(s) that destroyed their future?
This issue is, furthermore, not unrelated to the size of the sacrifice. If you expect that you won’t have much of a future because things will slowly go downhill from here – and many young people seem to be very much aware that this is almost certainly the case – then sacrificing whatever makes life enjoyable right now, while it still can be somewhat enjoyable at least, is not making a minor sacrifice. And if you are requested to make that sacrifice to serve the interests of the people that caused all (your) present and future misery in the first place, then it seems that the only appropriate answer is something along the lines of “go fuck yourself”.
Much of the foregoing – while understandable – misses some important points, however. Most importantly, the intergenerational-conflict paradigm brushes issues of social class and related differences in wealth and power under the carpet. The elderly who are most likely to develop serious complications and/or die of Covid-19 are generally not the relatively well-off living of their private pensions, but the relatively poor who were exploited by the rich throughout their lives, and who can hardly be held responsible for the situation the world is in now. Generations don’t act or decide collectively, and to speak of the post-war generation as responsible for the climate crisis, out-of-control government debts and private debts, and a host of other disasters is misguided, as only a small part of the people belonging to that generation actually had and has substantial power. Many of the people belonging to older generations were exploited as much as younger people are now. True, the average member of the post-war generations may have enjoyed far greater benefits than the average young person can ever hope for, but averages are statistical fictions – not real flesh-and-blood human beings.
None of that matters, however, in the present context – it doesn’t matter whether blaming previous generations is fair or right (or whether it even makes sense to blame a generation), nor whether the young owe them anything. All that matters is perception: not whether the post-war generation is to blame, but whether they are seen as blameworthy. (And similarly, it doesn’t matter whether compliance objectively is a non-minor sacrifice, but whether it is seen as such.) If younger generations blame older generations for the climate crisis, for continuing austerity, and for various other problems affecting them and their future, and if they perceive Covid-19 as primarily a problem for those same older generations, then that would explain why the young show less willingness to comply with pandemic-related restrictions.
Covid-skepticism and lockdown protests are mostly associated with the right of the political spectrum and that is significant for several reasons. Firstly, the right uncritically accepts the hegemony of psychopathy. Secondly, the right is less likely to express solidarity of any kind. And thirdly, conservatism as a political ideology is dead. While conservatism – and right-wing thought in general – used to be defended by means of various more or less sophisticated arguments, contemporary right-wing thought hardly merits the qualification as “thought” at all: it is a defense of existing privileges by any means available. What used to be called “conservatism” is now just a crude attempt to maintain male privilege, white privilege,2, and so forth. Usually, it isn’t presented as such, however, but takes the overt form of a defense of “freedom”, but the only difference between “freedom” and “privilege” is that the latter term implies that there are people who do not or cannot enjoy the same freedom(s). The freedom to walk around waving a gun without getting shot is a privilege if there are others who don’t enjoy that same freedom. And since virtually every freedom is out of reach for at least some people (for a variety of reasons), virtually all freedoms are privileges. The freedom to gather in large groups without wearing masks, for example, is a privilege if there are others who cannot enjoy that freedom because it is likely to hurt or even kill them.
From a right-wing perspective, any restriction of existing privileges is an illegitimate constraint on freedom, and must thus be resisted. Furthermore, that there may be good reasons for some restrictions is largely irrelevant as the right has abandoned reason.
Seventy years ago, Hannah Arendt observed that totalitarianism is rooted in the mob’s desire for a “consistent” worldview that explains everything,3 but that ignores reality and rejects science. Because of that, the totalitarian worldview is immune to rational counter-argument and counter-evidence. “Its ingeniousness rests precisely on the elimination of that reality which either unmasks the liar or forces him to live up to his pretense”.4 The mob’s attraction to an all-explaining, “consistent”, but utterly absurd worldview find expression today in conspiracy theories like QAnon and the denial of basic scientific facts like the shape of the Earth and global warming. The denial of Covid-19 and/or of the efficacy of measures aimed at curtailing its spread fit in the same pattern. And all of those absurdities are immune to reason for exactly the reason Arendt mentioned: the mob’s worldview has eliminated science, reason, and the real world.
Worryingly, right-wing thought has drifted closer to fascism, at least in this respect. Fascism glorifies strength and the physical rather than the intellectual, and tradition and popular beliefs rather than science and reason. For example, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that “the ethno-nationalist (völkische) state must be based on the understanding that a person with little scientific education, but physically healthy and filled with determination and willpower, is much more valuable for the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) than a brilliant weakling”.5 Elsewhere he also expressed a disdain for science, and similar sentiments can be found expressed by other fascist leaders. Science, reason, and everything intellectual are among the fascist’s main enemies, and the same is largely true for 21st century right-wing “thought”.
Doubtlessly, there are further factors and complexities that play key roles in the explanation of noncompliance with and protest against measures intended to curb the spread of Covid-19. Cultural differences probably explain some of the differences between countries, for example. But completeness, obviously, isn’t my goal here. Rather, my aim is to highlight a few factors that seem particularly important to me.
One thing that should be noticed is that the factors explained in the foregoing somewhat complicate blaming anyone or anything. Neoliberalism could be blamed for cultural psychopathy, for example, and perhaps to some extent for the lack of intergenerational solidarity, but not for the rise of the perverse conservatism that characterizes the 21st century right. Neither is there anything else that can be reasonably pointed out as being singularly responsible for covid denialism, noncompliance, and protest. Furthermore, the considerations above even make it difficult – for me at least – to unequivocally denounce all noncompliance. Of course, covid riots and attacks and healthcare workers are beyond despicable, but I can’t really blame young people who flout lockdown rules to spend time together and enjoy themselves. Nearly everything turns out to be complicated when you have a closer look, and that includes resistance to pandemic-related restrictions.
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- Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria). Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
- Or the privilege of whatever (other) ethnic or cultural group is dominant in some society.
- “The mob” is Arendt’s term.
- Hannah Arendt (1951), The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Penguin, 2017), p. 502.
- Adolf Hitler (1925), Mein Kampf (München: Franz Eher Nachfolger), p. 452. My translation.