Anyone who has followed my scribblings knows that I approach behavioural psychology with extreme caution. This concern predates COVID by decades – see Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes for something written in the last decade. In previous posts, I have voiced my concern at the explicit and conscious stoking of fear fuelled by the SAGE Behavioural Group in the UK. At the heart of its cynical propaganda has been the mask. A month or so ago I ended a section on masks as follows:
In essence, the mask seeks to muzzle us into obedience. It confirms that we are in dire danger. Itdemands that we police one another into compliance. It is the visible expression of the desire to divide us from one another, to undermine our humanity. It is about social and political control. It serves no other purpose.
The Mitsotakis government in Greece is determined to keep us in our place – at least until the tourist season starts. Thus, as I write, we are under mandatory manners to wear face coverings inside [preferably duplex] and in the great outdoors. There are heavy fines to pay if we are disobedient. Pragmatic contempt is to be seen. No masks in the villages, masks worn or in readiness in the big towns. And, as for out in the olive groves, foothills and mountains we are at one with nature and humanity, looking each other in the eye.
Nevertheless, I was thinking of rehearsing the arguments once more but I’ve been saved the trouble by a challenging piece, composed by Gary Sidley, a retired NHS consultant clinical psychologist and a founder member of the Smile Free campaign to remove all mask mandates. It poses disturbing questions for the trade unions, the bureaucrats and the members, together with educators on the ground, be they, lecturers, teachers or youth workers.
Let’s face it -Governments use masking to force compliance, not fight viruses
Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda: The Impossible Dream
I had a dream last night. Hardly newsworthy but personally troubling. In truth my sleep is often disturbed by nocturnal neurosis. I’m forever anxious in the scenarios summoned up by my unconscious, forever forgetting, forever failing to fulfil tasks or promises, forever letting myself down. Now and again the tales are so real I awake suffused with dread about my comeuppance, thankfully followed by a huge sigh of relief as reality sets in. This feeling of release is almost worth the worrying somnolent journey.
Last night’s dream was a warning. Indeed it was stuffed full of shots across my bow. Friends, comrades and acquaintances, old and new, offered their advice in a variety of styles from a concerned Rogerian whisper to an insistent authoritative instruction. Their recommendations were mouthed in a diversity of settings – a staff meeting, a conference, a trade union demo, the pub or indeed the living room. The message went along the lines of ‘keep your counsel’, ‘best to let all this go’, ‘would be wiser to keep a back seat’ and ‘just shut up about it’. ‘It’ was questioning the COVID narrative.
Unravelling why I was thus reprimanded hardly needed a psychoanalyst. Yesterday I was messing around with a couple of interrelated bits of writing focused on the benefits and deficits of pandemic-led social policy. In particular I was looking at the impact upon children and young people of the closure of schools and youth provision. All the more so as UNISON had underlined in its call for the return of face masks in secondary school classrooms and the reintroduction of “bubbles” the deeply problematic character of the regimes being imposed even when schools are open. As I scribbled, a long-standing trade union activist I was very conscious of treading on thin ice. The more I mused the more critical I became of the stance of both UNISON and the National Education Union [NEU], which seemed to be profoundly at odds with a commitment to pupils and students. I was feeling nervous about how I was going to explain my disagreement.
Then, despite my effort to ignore the news, my Chromebook threw up a notification of the latest SAGE doom-mongering modelling. Reluctantly I visited the Guardian web site to read.
The scale of the threat posed by the Omicron variant was laid bare by government scientists last night as they warned that there are now hundreds of thousands of infections every day. That daily number could reach between 600,000 and 2 million by the end of the month if new restrictions are not brought in immediately. broad
The government’s SPI-M-O group of scientists, which reports to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), also warned that, based on their modelling, hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day.
I bridled at their stupefying arrogance in claiming that a speculation of ‘between 600 and 6,000 deaths a day’ was somehow scientific. A soothsayer could hardly do worse. I felt anxious and hopeless. The spectre of authoritarianism was returning to haunt both the present and the future.
The advisers suggested reintroducing measures “equivalent to those in place after step 2 or step 1 of the roadmap in England”. Rules at that time included the “rule of six” and just two households meeting; they also barred holidays abroad, while care-home residents were allowed only one regular visitor.
Reviving its role as the Ministry of Fear SAGE marketed a return to a Stage 1 clampdown by suggesting that ‘infections could be limited to between 200,000 and a million a day. Hospitalisations could run at between 1,500 and 5,000 admissions a day and daily deaths would be 200 to 2,000′.
The size and scope of this propaganda stopped me in my tracks. As ever the tame media obeyed the whip, trotting out the cliches – tidal waves and avalanches of cases. Is it any wonder there are a lot? This last week 9,390,590 tests were carried out. Of these 513,574 tested positive, which as we know doesn’t tell us a great deal in terms of the severity of the symptoms. An alternative headline could be ‘almost 9 million people didn’t have COVID’ but that’s hardly the issue. More to the point is that on the back of very limited early data on the OMICRON variant we rush to impose restrictions that have still not been tested for their effectiveness.
Now and again I wake from a dream gasping for breath, believing I am being smothered. I felt something similar, a tightening chest, as I took in the long queues for the all but mandatory booster, reflecting that they were less than likely to be consulted before being jabbed. Wondering too, on what basis have so many embraced apparently the oft confused and inconsistent hegemonic narrative? Matthias Desmet, the Belgian Professor of Psychology at Ghent University advances the notion that those supportive of the dominant version of events are in a state of collective hypnosis. My intuition is to resist such a sweeping generalisation about why people think and act in the ways they do. I am more sympathetic to his view that in an individualistic society bereft of a vision for the future even the imposition from above of a sense of solidarity has furnished a collective purpose, a reason for existence. As of now this an important discussion for another day.
Back to last night I found myself in the wake of the media storm, embarrassed to be thinking, “perhaps I’ll leave posting these thoughts till after Xmas, to when things die down a little.” ‘Why,” I asked myself guiltily? “What on earth are you bothered about?” Weary I retreated to my bed, to be beset therein by the troubling dreams.
This morning, having walked our Glyka and, for her, made the porridge, glistening with honey, I discerned the wood for the trees. The questions asked of me by my ghostly friends were but my own to myself. One in particular leapt out, voiced in the dream by a close comrade of many years. The interlocutor began by pointing out that across fifty years in the youth work world as worker, manager, lecturer and activist I had achieved a decent reputation. Yes, I was seen as something of a radical maverick but a likeable one at that. My friend’s tone altered. Didn’t I realise that challenging the lockdowns, the vaccines will be regarded as siding with the Right, worst of all as abandoning all you have stood for? They warned, if you go any further down this path, you will be cancelled.
Knowing this was in fact what I was thinking myself when I sought sleep last night felt sobering and liberating. Reputations, intact or tattered, are the province of the beholders. Across the last 20 months men and women, high and low, have risked their careers and livelihoods to speak out against tyranny. Proof of the tyrannical nature of society today is the suppression of the ideas and the assassination of the characters of those in opposition to what’s going on. In this context my overnight self-centred anxiety is pathetic. However in its ordinariness it does reveal the obstacles we face in mounting resistance to the creeping toralitarianism, which threatens to be the new norm. There will be so many, who disagree with the present state of affairs but who fear for their jobs and families, scared to speak out.
For what it’s worth, settling my debts, at least for now with my debilitating dream means I will risk getting on the wrong side, being on the wrong side.
More than ever I think we are at a pivotal moment in history.
As I finish this quasi-confessional, Austria has rendered ‘vaccinations’ mandatory with Germany about to follow in its neighbour’s footsteps. The new German Chancellor is quoted as saying, “for my government there are no more red lines as far as doing what needs to be done.” ‘Covid passes’ have been approved in France and the UK. Here in Greece ‘unvaccinated’ pensioners will be fined directly by reducing the amount of their state-pension payments. Whilst in the Victoria State of Australia ‘unvaccinated’ teachers will not be paid during the summer holidays and will be sacked in April if they do not comply with compulsory inoculation. Perhaps I should compile a more extensive account of the heavy-handed measures being taken across the globe. The list goes on….
Democracy faces Dictatorship
Humane, emotional, spiritual and intellectual freedom faces Inhumane, cold, mechanical and behavioural slavery.
For what it’s worth I’ll keep going on about ‘IT’ – in spite of the voices in my dreams.
“There will be 500,000 deaths in the UK.” Neil Ferguson, Imperial College. March 16, 2020
“The perceived level of threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent. using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” SAGE [SPI-B]. March 22, 2020
“The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades. All over the world, we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.” Boris Johnson, March 23, 2020
These three utterances capture the conscious hyperbole and calculated cynicism inherent in the outpourings of both politicians and their hand-picked experts at the beginning of 2020. Despite the pronouncements of the World Health Organisation [WHO] and Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor [March 13, 2020], ‘a very mild illness for nearly all of us’, the die was cast. The people of the UK, man, woman and even child, were to be frightened, terrorised. That they knew little of what they should be afeard was by the by. The people were deemed too ignorant to understand. The democratic notion that they should be informed and decide upon the appropriate response, nothing but absurd. This was war and only the High Command could possibly know what was best.
“Is there any means known more effective than war, assuming you wish to alter the life of an entire people?” — minutes of the Carnegie Foundation, 1908.
As for the enemy, the virus did not play fair. It could not be bombed, or even. so it proved. vaccinated out of existence. The virus itself was irritated by the abstract name by which it was designated, COVID-19, but pleased as its offspring were graced with Greek epithets, Alpha, Beta, Delta. How long might this go on – even unto Zita? In truth, the virus doubted such a historic possibility. Its impact upon the mass of unfortunates who crossed its path was in the main little out of the ordinary – headache, cough, temperature, tiredness, lack of taste, the shivers if badly affected, hardly anything if not. Its forefathers and mothers had inflicted much the same. In truth the virus felt a mite guilty, its conscience pricked. Here, there and everywhere, in the end, COVID-19 was primarily a deathly problem for the old and/or vulnerable with underlying complications. The virus thought they were too easy a target for a pathogen, said to be an existential threat to humanity.
In Greece, where I live, as of November 1, 52 deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall total of pandemic victims to 15,990. Of these, 95.4% had an underlying condition and/or were aged 70 or over. The official percentage figure is typical across Europe . It is time to put aside my personalization of the virus. Not least because treating the virus as a sentient being has been a staple throughout the mainstream narrative. The virus, it is said, has closed schools, youth groups and playgrounds, pubs and restaurants, parks and gyms. Indeed in its cunning, it leaves you alone when dining, mask set aside but stalks you to the toilet if you forget the face covering. For the virus is struck dumb in the face of masks, worn properly or otherwise, rendered impotent. Why this plastic face cloth should warn off the virus is irretrievably woven into the mythology of the pandemic. Evidence for its efficacy is thin on the ground – see Part Four of this rant. However the manufactured tension between the masked and the maskless, the good and the bad, the obedient and disobedient, the responsible and irresponsible has been deeply divisive. It has turned us against each other, serving to distract our attention from those who are responsible for the 18-month worth of imposed interventions into our daily existence. Divide and rule so the old saying goes. As I write the unvaccinated in Greece are being denied access indoors to kafenia and tavernas, the beating heart of community life.
All of which returns us into the arrogant hands of the medical and behavioural experts gathered together in March 2020. Pompously they ignored the fundamental premise of a holistic public health policy. This held that when faced with a specific health threat the response must, at one and the same time, deal with the particular whilst taking full account of any actions taken upon the general health of society as a whole. The consequences of this skewed strategy – the impact upon the mental health of so many people, not least children, to take but one example – was criminally ignored until the last few months. I must confess to a distaste for the crocodile tears shed lately. Anyone remotely in touch with the worlds of formal and informal education, health and social care, knew full well that lockdown would be harmful for the younger generation.
No matter, the first national press conference set the scene, a nervous Prime Minister, deprived of buffoonery, flanked by his experts and following an ignorant, one-sided notion of the Science, warned us of catastrophe if we did not do as we were told. The assembled press concurred. These journalists, an embarrassment to their profession, the stenographers of our times, nodded and took dictation. Touching their forelock they asked the meek and mildest of questions. Criticism, even curiosity was frowned upon. The next morning the mainstream media from the Sun to the Guardian shared the shorthand and replicated in unison the government’s propaganda. Labour, desiring to prove its conservative credentials, to be tougher than tough on the virus, parroted the line.
On what you might regard as a flimsy personal aside, the order to stay at home didn’t seem quite right to me. Growing up as a child in the 1950s, Doctor Cull, the community’s and my family’s faithful GP insisted that when I had a cold I should get as much fresh air as possible. Later, in my teens, given my dad worked down the pit, I went with him several times to the Miners’ Convalescent Home in Southport. There we would push many a collier with respiratory problems along the seafront and the length of the magnificent prom. Taken away from the cramped terraced houses of their birth the bracing air was seen as vital to their recovery.
As for the behaviourist vanguard leading the fight, knowing that the virus was nowhere near lethal for the majority, it determined that a marketing strategy was required. The plague needed to be advertised. In the absence of dead bodies on the streets, people might well not pay sufficient notice. The relentless brainwashing was set in motion. The slogans abounded, appealing to a smug sanctity.
STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY NAN I WASH MY HANDS TO PROTECT MY FAMILY I WEAR A FACE-COVERING TO PROTECT MY MATES I MAKE SPACE TO PROTECT YOU
And, almost criminal in their lack of ethical concern.
IF YOU DO GO OUT YOU CAN SPREAD IT. PEOPLE WILL DIE DON’T KILL GRANNY CORONAVIRUS. ANYONE CAN GET IT. ANYONE CAN SPREAD IT DON’T MEET UP WITH MATES. HANGING ABOUT IN PARKS COULD KILL
Without a doubt, these formulaic sound-bites marked young people’s cards in a time-honoured way. If they met in the park or wherever any rise in cases was down to their self-centred insubordination.
When it comes to assessing the ups and downs of the pandemic in statistical terms the mainstream media know only the language of spikes and surges. Nothing is contextualised. The Guardian, once the go-to bastion of liberal, progressive, pluralist journalism carries a daily banner indicating cases, hospitalisations and deaths. These categories are only revelatory if they are broken down. This is never the case. To do so would uncover all manner of inconsistency and distortion. Meanwhile, the Guardian eschews any idea that it should promote a critical exchange between differing analyses of the pandemic predicament. Rather it exudes sneering scorn for any departure from COVID-19 orthodoxy. It sinks to the level of the tabloids in running anecdotes, dripping with an ‘I told you so’ self-righteousness – ‘Anti-vaxxer, dies from Covid’ and ‘Anonymous, agonising parent says her child was bullied at school for having the vaccine.’ On the global scale, it ran in April with headlines such as ‘The system has collapsed’: India’s descent into Covid hell’ accompanied by stock photos of burning pyres of the dead. In fact, the images reflected only the traditional Hindu response to the end of mortality. After two days the Guardian conspicuously forgot about India. The sub-continent’s purpose was served.
The Guardian, the BBC and all profess not a word about the suppression of competing interpretations of the pandemic offered up by a diversity of alternative media sources. Evidently, anyone disputing the mainstream narrative, whatever their prestigious medical credentials or their biography of intellectual integrity is to be contemptuously dismissed as an anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist. It matters not that they are neither. The slander is sufficient. Depressingly, leading lights of the Left such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason define dissent as dangerous, even calling for the closing down of criticism. Meanwhile, the unelected, corporate arbiters of truth at Facebook or Google can censor any opinion at odds with the status quo without a questioning murmur. The Guardian, self-styled independent and investigative, remains silent. On April 23, 2020, OFCOM, the UK’s communications regulatory body issued the instruction that health claims contrary to the government’s policies should be perceived as harmful. The censorship is excused by the deeply contrary notion of ‘misinformation’. No such sense of contradiction can be found in the launch in the USA of Good Information Inc by ‘progressive’ billionaires Reid Hoffman, George Soros, and others. The public benefit corporation, led by former Democratic Party strategist, Tara McGowan will fund new media companies and efforts that cut through echo chambers with fact-based information. Presumably with a straight face and without a hint of doubt McGowan says that ‘the group’s goal in the next year is to raise more awareness about immediate solutions to counter disinformation before it spreads.
Embedding ‘Covid-safe’ behaviours into people’s everyday routines will require a coordinated programme to shape the financial, physical, and social infrastructure in the United Kingdom. Education, regulation, communications, and social marketing, and provision of resources will be required to ensure that all sections of society have the capability, opportunity, and motivation to enact the behaviours long term.[my emphasis]
Michie is quoted widely as stating in a June interview that face coverings and social distancing should become permanent. Much has been made of her four decades-long membership of the British Communist Party. For those of us with a communist disposition, inspired by the young Marx, by Pannekoek, by CLR James, by Castoriadis, by Kropotkin and Bakunin, the vision’s corruption by its all-too understandable connection with the parties of that name is always frustrating. In essence, she is a ‘soft’ Stalinist, a technocrat and social engineer, utterly comfortable with knowing what is best for us. Hers is a bureaucratic collectivism. It is of significance that, starved of the elixir of militancy and clutching at straws, the Left as a whole has been seduced by her top-down version of ‘nudged’ solidarity. The orchestrated Clap For Carers, the apparent widespread adoption of masking has been interpreted as a prefigurative philanthropic expression of class struggle. I am less than convinced. For my part, I have come across, amongst others, the seriously scared, the pragmatic, ‘best comply or I’ll be fined’ and the misanthropic maskaloholics, who see the worst in all of us. Perhaps I’m not seeing the house for the bricks but I’ve not detected much political energy in the compliant. If I get to Part Five I’ll try to tangle with the crucial issues of what we might mean in this tumult by notions of solidarity and resistance.
Michie’s report follows the contemporary mantra ‘that till everyone is safe no one is safe’, which begs more than a few questions. For example, is it possible to be truly alive and fearful of existence? The goal though is to render the desired risk-free behaviour Normal, Easy, Attractive and Routine [NEAR]. There is much fashionable, shallow talk in the report of co-creation and co-production but only if you agree to the behavioural necessities in advance. In reality, the strategy will be delivered through a partnership between the state and corporations, who will deliver and monitor the desired changes in our individual and collective behaviour.
Susan Michie’s politics and ambitions are in tune with the desires of the Great Reset I touched on in Part One of these musings – the passage towards a global-led technocratic and surveillance capitalism. I have little doubt she supports the proposal that some form of global governance has to be achieved, a medium of control requiring ‘scientific’ regulation and a central role for experts. I have every expectation that she will be invited to speak about her research at the next Davos summit.
As I pen the last few words of this cry of concern about the insidious and insistent influence of behaviourism on our lives, the mainstream media continues to collude with its compulsory agenda of anxiety, After all, during the pandemic, the UK government has become its primary source of funding, hand in hand with Big Pharma sponsorship. Once more balanced reporting about the ‘experimental’ vaccines is shunned. In short the media’s unquestioning support for a vaccination programme from almost cradle to grave serves to deepen the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the latter collapsed into the reprehensible, even sinister category of ‘anti-vaxxers’. I will look more closely at the contentious medical issues raised in Part Four. For the moment the ‘othering’ of those, who for legitimate, informed and thoughtful reasons decline vaccination is deeply disturbing. The enemy is indeed within. It is one another. The SAGE group’s campaign of fear has willfully disregarded the British Psychological Society [BPS] code of ethics. In her formidable book, A State of Fear. Laura Dodsworth draws attention to Gary Sidley, a psychologist, who has challenged the BPS without success. In worrying about the tactics used by SAGE and the implications for our children and grandchildren, he says:
I don’t want to think about that really. It’s not a good place. There is something distinctive about using fear to get people to conform which is so distasteful and ethically unacceptable. Fear impacts on every aspect of our being.
In reality, behaviourism has no such qualms. It spreads its strangulating tentacles worldwide, confident in its certainty and immune to considerations of ethics or politics. It will serve authoritarianism, whatever its ideological hue. To take but the British incarnation the Behavioural Insights Team [BIT], affectionately or otherwise known as the Nudge Unit, initiated by David Cameron in 2010. According to Dodsworth, the Nudge Unit is ‘now a profit-making social purpose limited company with offices in London, Manchester, Paris, New York, Singapore, Sydney, Wellington and Toronto. It has run more than 750 projects and in 2019 alone worked in 31 countries. It has conducted over 1000 workshops for governments around the world, training 20,000 civil servants in behavioural insights.’
If anything it is the debilitating influence of these pseudo-scientific experts that ought to render us fearful rather than cheerful. They are nothing but the purveyors of official propaganda, the enemies of democracy and of the open, argumentative education that creates critical citizens.
By knowing how people think we can make it easier for them to choose what is best for them their families and Society [Thaler and Sunstein  ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness]]
.We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
― Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928
A passionate riposte is demanded. Bernays’ rationalisation of the status quo refused. We will not be moulded and manipulated. We reject their assumed authority. We are not puppets, the playthings of the powerful. We will decide together in questioning dialogue with one another, what is best for us, our families and society. We commit ourselves to the struggle for an authentic democracy.
[Part Four will examine the medical evidence, whilst Part Five will explore in relation to the pandemic, the slide to authoritarianism and the shift to technocratic capitalism the questions of agency and resistance.]