James Foley

James Foley

After Lockdown: Did we Follow ‘The Science’?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

James Foley asks why debates over pandemic policy became so heated. Were we ‘following the science’, or the corrosive logic of the culture war.

To avoid any confusion, and to forestall interpretations in bad faith, here are the facts about this article’s author. I am triple vaccinated; I wear a mask, out of politeness and habit, even when not strictly obliged to do so; and I observed the lockdown rules that our governing class refused to apply to themselves. In short, I am not, in principle or in practice, a covid denier: I am neither “anti-vaxx” nor “anti-lockdown”.

But I don’t claim that any of the above makes me a morally superior or more rational person. I obeyed the directives because I was scared for myself and for my family. Another factor was sheer conformity: being white, highly educated, reasonably well-paid and aged over thirty, my obedience to “the rules” or “the science” probably says more about sociological determinism than it does about my character. People like me were obeying, so disobedience would have been as outlandish as it would have been statistically improbable.

I complied because it was convenient and because, on balance, I preferred deferring to authority to the consequences of making decisions I was unqualified to make. In retrospect, I have few regrets, but that doesn’t disguise the non-rational foundations of my behaviours. Others might claim otherwise, but I doubt I am abnormal. Many, like me, were scared into conformity and happy to defer, even as we moaned and groaned about the consequences. The hardest lockdown fanatics appeared to be driven by yet more irrational impulses: the thrill of dunking on the less educated, the buzz of shaming the non-compliant under a blanket of moral purity. Perhaps a tiny minority based their actions in peer-reviewed scientific evidence: but even then, there was often so little to go on that they might as well have been reading tea leaves.

Too often, as we succumbed to cabin fever, the hysteria of being “correct”, allied to dishonesty about our motives, became the alibi of muddled thinking. Hyper-online leftists – and who isn’t hyper-online during a lockdown? – bodged together “rule-following” with “the science”, science with ideology, and ideology with a nebulous “goodness”. A leftist is a goodie because they follow the science and the rules; a reactionary is a baddie because they disobey. The equation often applied in reverse: the mandate-obedient gained “progressive” bona fides, regardless of their other behaviours; anyone who mistrusted the dominant covid narrative becomes a reactionary, or at best guilty by association.

The more cerebral leftists often pictured the pandemic as a Manichean struggle between “individualism” and “collectivism”. This may have the aura of objectivity, compared to the cruder dichotomies of goodies and baddies, but intellectually it was even more stultifying. As visions of fundamental ideological division go, this is not just wrong, it is dangerously wrong.

As David Jamieson has observed, much of human history is the story of ruling classes making “collectivist” appeals to goad ordinary people into actions that enrich a small minority. Wars are the obvious example: going over the top “in the national interest”; dying a pointless death, face down in a muddy field, for the sake of one’s comrades. But the problem goes beyond military history. Whenever working-class struggles threaten profit, trade unionists are commanded to put aside their selfish demands “in the interests of the economy”. Women, historically, have been commanded to put aside their petty demands for autonomy and breed children “in the public interest”. The list could be extended indefinitely.

Collectivism versus individualism is thus a treacherous criterion for distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, left from right. Collectivism can be progressive or reactionary; so can individualism. For a socialist, as I understand the term, there is no shame in appealing to self-interest, and nothing in principle wrong with promoting individual expression and freedom from state control.

For others, covid obedience is the logical corollary of “following the science” and combatting “misinformation”. Nobody will deny that social media can accelerate the perpetuation of falsehoods: certainly, among covid deniers, there is motivated reasoning based on partial statistics and conspiratorial factoids: the sort of emotive thinking that social media promotes. We can admit that even if the BBC, CNN and the New York Times, after their enthusiasm for ridding the world of Iraqi WMDs, are unlikely crusaders for truth.

Still, no epistemology should rest on a binary divide between “settled truth” and “misinformation”. All scientific conclusions should be provisional and open to scrutiny. Above all, while science can inform your ideological preferences and your calculation of collective interests, it loses its edge when it becomes instrumentalised to serve corporate, state or ideological purposes. Science should ask difficult questions – most especially, of existing scientific consensus – and shouldn’t be wary that the pursuit of uncomfortable truth might trigger the wrong emotion or embolden the wrong people.

Confusing politics with science generates a hidebound consensus that degrades both while enhancing neither. This is especially true with covid, with its endless handbrake turns on scientific truth. Government decisions and scientific advice has often been invented on the hoof. Official advice has declared masks useless, then indispensable (and today, the consensus is more muddled). One day, liberals cried racism when Donald Trump closed borders with China; not long after, Trump was being condemned for not shutting borders fast enough. The Wuhan Leak was racist misinformation one minute, a fascinating hypothesis the next, as China returned to its status as geopolitical enemy when Joe Biden assumed office. Above all, there is also no disguising the kernel of truth in lockdown-sceptic critiques of bio-medical corporate power. For all the clapping for carers, NHS memes and mindless talk of solidarity, the beneficiaries of this pandemic are the rich and powerful.

In failing to concede those kernels of truth, the left weakens its cause on multiple fronts. Many conspiracy theories are false, and dangerous. But it’s also true that the most important truths were once labelled conspiracy theories: the Birmingham Six, Hillsborough, the construction worker blacklist, the build-up to Iraq, MK Ultra, and – let’s remember – a battery of state-enforced medical experiments on Native peoples, Black people and prison inmates. Suspicion of authority often rests on good instincts, even when its factual foundations are flimsy.

The point is not that government, big tech and big pharma are always wrong. Often, they were right; sometimes, they were wrong; and there’s much we won’t know until decades later. But what the left should have offered is a diagnosis: even where government, big tech and big pharma were correct, they were hamstrung by decades of weak legitimacy, reflecting the greatest triumph of neoliberalism: the gulf between people and power. 

By failing to distance the left’s agenda from the biopolitical bloc – tech, pharma, government – we may even have weakened the case for vaccination. The latter would be stronger if we admitted that people of all ages, races, genders and social classes have well-founded suspicions of authority. We missed the opportunity to promote vaccines in terms of freedom, as a potential antidote to chaotic lockdowns and corporate surveillance.

Lockdowns should never have been treated as a matter of principle. They were panicked products of generations of underinvestment. Perhaps it was the least bad option: I still incline to that view. But perhaps it wasn’t, given the costs in terms of mental health, learning loss, rising inequality and the dangerous growth of state and corporate surveillance power. 

“Science” in the true sense should decide whether lockdowns worked or whether they didn’t. If it later turns out that lockdowns were a mistake, it won’t shake my socialist convictions at all, because lockdown enthusiasm doesn’t follow from socialist ideology any more than socialism will follow from lockdowns. Both sides of the covid cultural divide are products of late capitalist malaise (a term I am not ashamed to use). Above all, we can’t let this become another excuse for online activists to turn “the left” into a snooty club house, out of which one can be expelled for failing to adhere to arbitrary diktats that change by the day. That way lies madness.

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