There are 5 aspects of the covid-19 pandemic I really did not see coming, all pointing to a phenomenon that European sociologists of a century ago spent their whole lives describing, coming up with theories about crowds and their behaviour – theories now largely forgotten. Scholars like Norbert Elias, Theodor Adorno, and Elias Canetti, witnesses and survivors of the World Wars, wrote about crowds and used phrases few people now recognise, like “hunting packs”. Those sociologists witnessed how whole populations in villages, cities, and countries changed in a matter of weeks from docile citizens into fascists, communists, warring tribes, and mourning packs.
It seems crowds are back, eliciting individual behaviour not seen on this scale for nearly a century. Let me talk about these crowds in the context of the 5 elements that appeared over time that surprised me.
Contagion of fear and of policies throughout the world
The emotional interconnectedness of the whole world shone out in this crisis, as evidenced by the quick and ubiquitous contagion of mass hysteria through social media and the popular media in February-March 2020. Even the Chinese censors were unable to prevent mass panic from breaking out over covid-19 on Weibo and other social networks, and there was no stopping the mass hysteria that soon followed in the West and eventually appeared everywhere in the world.
Newspapers were lapping up the fear; “experts” were fanning the flames; the WHO and lots of other organisations were quick in pushing the “something terrible is coming” messages; normally rational scientists with a keen sense of perspective were writing mass petitions that begged governments for totalitarian responses; elites in poor countries followed suit; etc. This is all evidence of contagion of emotions and beliefs, turning individuals into fearful crowds. It happened essentially in no more than a few weeks. That’s all it took.
I really did not see coming that the world was so emotionally interconnected. What I witnessed with surprise was how the contagion also affected many of my friends and family members, making them look very differently at the same objective risks and possibilities within a space of just a few days in mid-March. I still remember how one week my students were fearless rationalists and the next week they were anxious and meek. Smart, talented young people with nothing to fear from this virus. The contagious wave of fear, affirmed by policies, transformed them.
How the West followed China and thus respects China.
One could see the implicit respect in the West for China shown by the West following the Chinese policies of mass lock downs.
One does not follow the hysteria of the beggar but tells him to calm down, yet one does take serious the hysteria and subsequent actions of the respected citizen. So too with countries. Europe initially poo pooed the policies of China, but adopted them very quickly when fear spread. India copied the UK and Africa followed Europe, following the logic that if the countries one looks up to do this, it must make sense, right? The surprise in this is how Europe followed China.
I had not yet realised how respected China now actually is as a citizen in the world community and in Europe. Interestingly, the place that most sees itself as the superior of China, the US, is the place that most strongly resisted following its example, though even there large parts of the population were on board with the same policies.
The widespread and sustained appeal of the hysteria.
This is the deepest puzzle for me and the most interesting observation. Populations became overwhelmingly supportive of totalitarian responses to the threat of the virus and strongly resented smaller groups or countries that tried visibly different policies (like Sweden). That desire to see others do the same as oneself is one of the hallmarks of crowd behaviour: the crowd wants to feel one and does not tolerate dissent. Through media and social networks, people were egging each other on to stick to rules and punish dissenters. Dissenting voices in the media and academia were censored.
There was also other classic crowd behaviour: status, careers, beauty, and any other form of social position were momentarily irrelevant. Everyone got a break from their ambitions and other burdens carried in “normal life”. They lost their individuality. Instead, everyone was a potential victim of the virus and everyone was focused on the threat, with every “other” a potential contaminant. Countries and regions locked themselves against others, whether those other regions were ”cleaner” or the opposite. A large new set of rituals and beliefs very quickly got taken up: washing hands, keeping distance, wearing masks, and wiping surfaces. Such things were known as totems, taboos, and sacred rituals by social scientists of a century ago.
This behaviour is very reminiscent of the stories of crowds by writers of the 19th and 20th century who witnessed the rise of nationalism, puritanism, fascism, and communism, deeply impressed by how millions of individuals became united in crowds. Quintessential elements are the extreme fluidity of values, beliefs, and the negation of individualism and the pursuit of individual success. In crowds, groups dynamics are highly accelerated as individuals blur into one and want to blur into one: crowds are groups operating in a high-intensity mode that unlocks behaviour not otherwise seen. The high-intensity mode comes with a clear goal everyone obsesses about, whereas normally groups have fuzzier goals like the wellbeing of its members.
Yet, the crowds of Europe as depicted by Elias Canetti, Theodor Adorno, and Gustav Le Bon were dense, with people packed close together physically, either hunting, feasting, or lamenting. The images one then thinks of are of marching armies, stadiums full of fanatical supporters, jamborees, rave parties, and crowded funerals full of weeping widows. One thinks of people touching many others, becoming one entity in joint movement and thinking.
The covid-19 crowds were of a very different nature, neither feasting, nor hunting, nor lamenting. They were not made up of people physically close together, but by people keeping their distance. Only on the internet and in their minds were people acting together against a common threat that was perceived to threaten each of them as individuals.
Is this a new type of crowd, the “anxious internet crowd”, or some more well-known form of crowd that is somewhat disguised? I will speculate about that later, but the key observation is the sustained popularity of the totalitarian response to covid-19 in Europe, which indicates something is going on that really appeals to people: they want it to go on.
In March 2020, I truly thought the hysteria and the resulting support for draconian measures would soon fade as people realised the risks were not that high and the damage of the reactions was immense. From the extensive economic and wellbeing literatures, I knew mental health and happiness would go down a lot and that unemployment would go up a lot, which is indeed what actually happened. Yet, mistakenly, I expected this unhappiness and loss of jobs to translate into protests and resistance.
When the low death numbers started rolling in in April and the IMF started pumping out dire predictions of the collapsing economies, I thought: “here we go, this will at least wake up the economists and the governments so the madness will now soon end”. Well, the economists in central banks did start to jump up and down, but that was about it in terms of waking up. My mistake was to see it all as evidence of mass hysteria, and not of the transformation of populations into crowds. Mass hysteria is dangerous but very transitory. Crowds are much scarier things.
I expected large groups would realise within weeks the enormity of their loss of liberty and the violation of their personal sphere and privacy. I thought parents would rebel against the damage done to their children. I thought adults would rebel against the inhuman locking up and social isolation of their elderly parents in nursing homes. I thought the groups that lost their jobs and dignity would be rebelling in the streets. I thought scientists would regain their critical views of the mass experiments their societies had embarked upon.
None of this occurred anywhere. The closest to the protests I expected to see were the rallies in the US by small right-wing groups, apparently only saved from the lure of the hysteria in the rest of the world by the extreme partisanship of their politics and their disdain for the rest of the world. I am not normally on the side of groups like the Tea Party or the Second Amendment die-hards, but this was one of those occasions where I thought their behaviour was normal and rational whilst that of the rest was not.
Yet, on deeper reflection what might be a better explanation for these “hold-outs” in the US is that they were already crowds, but then with a very different goal that united them. Perhaps their behaviour is not due to the US being resistant to crowds, but due to the US having succumbed to them a while back already. Covid-19 was too late to turn the US into a single crowd. The unexpected benefits of extreme partisanship!
Whatever the reason for the protests in the US though, those protesters were the exception in the West, particularly here in the UK where only somewhat aristocratic intellectuals were speaking out against the totalitarian policies. Among the masses of scientists and the population, the crowd-state endures. Even now, mid-June, parents are protesting in large numbers against resuming the education and social interaction of their children; the locked down unemployed protest against measures to end the lock down; office workers protest against the prospect of going back to offices and work places; etc.
So the UK population is basically protesting against the return of normality and the chance of a decent life for themselves and their kids. This can’t just be ongoing fear. It’s the kind of behaviour we normally in social science associate with crowds as it is within crowds that people stop caring about their actual health, wealth, and all the other things they care about in normal life. Some deep need they do not normally get to satisfy is being met that makes them willing to damage their children, their own health and their own future. This is distinctly “crowd-like” behaviour, even if it’s a weird crowd.
These crowds are getting some kind of kick out of having an immediate joint goal that they don’t want to let go of. And particularly in the UK, which to me suggests the relief of the usual “keeping up appearances” culture that so typifies the UK must be immense. Whatever it is though, I have been taken aback by the abiding popularity of totalitarian responses to this minor threat and continue to wonder about what type of crowd I am watching.
Virtue signalling and hyper-rationality
The crisis saw a hyper-activity of social scientists and governments in coming up with ways to be seen to protect the population from the virus. Schools got hundreds of pieces of conflicting advice on what to do by the ministries; the health sector was flooded with advice from medics and others; the newspapers saw one petition after another with particular advice from particular groups, etc. In my line of work, social science, researchers have stopped doing almost anything else and are churning out maps of covid infections, analyses of who is more infected, the optimal way to prevent longer-term job-loss whilst still outlawing normal job activities, and the economic effects of different types of lock downs.
I see 99% of that work and advice as making the problems worse, ie totally counter-productive and essentially validating the goal of the crowd, with no regard as to actual health outcomes: it has largely been about seeming to reduce risks of infections and deaths from this one particular disease, to the exclusion of all other health risks or other life concerns. Social scientists have slotted in seamlessly with the program of how to help the seeming, taking the overall strategy as unquestionable. Of course they mumble something generic in their conclusions, but to truly strongly oppose the new orthodoxy? Not done much, though, to be fair, increasingly so.
It is this seeming aspect that makes me see this activity as a spectacular form of virtue signalling. They are falling over themselves to be part of the crowd, which is the essence of virtue signalling. The lack of interest in overall health and wealth effects makes it virtue signalling: ticking a very particular box but not making tough tradeoff calls that would openly offend the others obsessed only with covid-19 infections and deaths. The lack of interest in a long-run solution is also telling (except for the somewhat magical idea of a vaccine that would arrive in months rather than the usual decades that they take. It smacks of the belief in a wonder-weapon that will unexpectedly win the war for a losing army).
Whilst I knew in March that a hyper-focus was a natural aspect of fear, I didn’t expect what can be called this calm “hyper-rational” approach taken to the supposed threat. It is almost as if the virus quickly morphed from something that scientists and governments feared into something that they loved to hate and be seen to fight against using all their talents. Such a goal-transformation is also a typical crowd-attribute: crowds like being a crowd and the goal that unites them is somewhat immaterial to a crowd, so it is very willing to switch goal functions at the drop of a hat. From fleeing to guarding. From hunting to total war. As long as the crowd doesn’t end.
In the language of Elias Canetti, one can describe what happened as the formation of a fleeing crowd (lock down) turning into a hunting pack (track-trace), turning into a warring crowd (eliminate, safe zones). And now that the crowds have lost their goal, they are dissipating in many countries and normal concerns return. One can see the massive take-up of the BLM movement in various other countries than the original and focal point of that movement as, partly, due to the crowds in those other countries very eager to latch onto another goal before the crowd falls apart.
I still don’t fully understand the psychology behind this, but the March-June 2020 period really does remind me most of the enthousiasm among scientists and government departments in the second world war when they were supporting the war effort of their countries. Germany and the UK come to mind most of all. I am saddened that covid-19 is the cause they ended up with this time round rather than something more sustainable and useful (like perhaps the local environment or heritage): they have picked a fight they cant really win and a religion that can only disappoint, enslave, and impoverish. Just like the ideologies of the 1930s.
Yet, the analogy with a war effort is really what it looks like. There is the same unquestioning presumption that the cause is right, that the fight will be won, that naysayers and non-combatants are basically traitors, and that there are technical solutions that will quickly overcome any apparent problem or collateral damage. There is also the same disregard and disinterest on the part of individuals in the enormity of the collateral damage, either to their own kids, people in other countries, their own futures, etc. There is even the same fatalism about the inevitability of the path they are on. These are individuals somehow enjoying not being individuals.
It is coming apart now, but last so in London, the home of theater.
The medical establishment defending its policy pre-eminence
There has been, particularly the last few weeks, a doubling down of the medical hierarchy and scientists involved in the advice to governments. I expected the scientific advisers to the European governments (the UK and the Netherlands in particular), but also the journal the Lancet, and all the other key public health advisers and organisations in the rest of the West to switch stories round about mid-April. I expected them to start peddling back hard and openly calling for the lock downs to end, schools to reopen, the necessity for people to touch each other, etc. Whilst there have indeed been many medical groups shouting about the damage being done in their neck of the woods (cancer doctors, education groups, mental health practitioners, organisations for abused women, etc.), the group feeding directly into policy has not changed its tune. The health generals are refusing to admit their war is lost and was futile to begin with.
Indeed, the exact opposite is happening right now: an editor to the Lancet has just published a scathing book on how governments weren’t enslaved enough to medical “advice” and thus got thousands killed unnecessarily. I am afraid there is a counter-argument to be made that the Lancet has been complicit in the deaths of millions by refusing to adopt realistic and overall views of the total effects of the advice they published continuously in their journal, so pressing the “thousands unnecessary deaths” line when the damage runs into the equivalent of millions is just weird. Methinks this editor protesteth too much.
Though governments throughout Europe are essentially forced by the collapsing economy and social systems around them to open up their economies, even if the population doesn’t want this, the medical advisers here in the UK are right now still doubling-down on the scare-mongering. Top journals in medicine still publish stories on how important a 2-meter distancing is, how likely a devastating second wave, the dangers of children who could infect their parents, against the lack of absolute safety in offices, against less than 2 weeks quarantines, against using temporary nurses, etc. They remain willfully blind to the huge health and social costs of this advice, simply hiding behind the unforgivable excuse that that is not their problem and they are just warning against the risk of covid-19.
So whilst the prophesies of doom have been well and truly debunked by the low death rates everywhere, no matter what policies were pursued, the medical hierarchy maintains a steady glut of fear stories. They also maintain that their advice has saved millions and that society needs to progress with what they call “extreme caution” and I call “extreme recklessness”. Only the Norwegian health authorities were brave enough to say they over-reacted, but even they did not admit the scale of their over-reaction.
To my best current reading, what we’ve seen in March-June 2020 in Europe is the emergence of fleeing crowds turning into hunting packs turning into warring crowds. These crowds are now either slowly dissipating as they have run out of a joint goal, or they are still looking for other goals to keep the crowd intact.
This is behaviour not seen in Europe on this scale for almost a century. Perhaps the reason crowds are back are because the levels of inequality are back to those of that time: an inequality that puts immense psychological pressure on the majority of the population, which is thereby eager to adopt the numbing effects of becoming a crowd, relieving themselves of the burden of expectations and subjugation normal in highly unequal societies. Perhaps that is why the US was more immune to the mass hysteria: its high levels of inequality created crowds there a while back, some of which vehemently opposed to other groups they were suddenly asked to join with.
The crowd behaviour so openly on display now is making me re-evaluate some other recent phenomena too. Political correctness and virtue signalling now in hindsight seem like embryonic crowd-formation and crowd-enforcement. Ditto for re-emerging ultra-nationalist groups. If its true that crowd-formation is essentially how populations react to high continuous stresses, such as from increased inequality, then very unequal places like Australia are going to see a lot more of this type of phenomenon. More equal places have less to fear, though of course the huge depression that is now upon is, is an acute crowd-formation event itself.
I feel how I imagine opponents of the Nazis felt in the Third Reich: dazed amazement at what has “begeistered” (animated) the majority of the population, coupled with the determination to hold on to the hope that that population will eventually come to its senses, saddened at the huge destruction it seems to take. Like those who loved German culture lamented the debasement of the peoples of Goethe and Schiller, so too do I feel the Weltschmerz of the damage done in this crowd moment to all I love. Snap out of it! Please!