by Laura Dodsworth
reviewed by Makhno
This review was originally intended to be published in the Fall 2021 Anarchist Review of Books, put out by Fifth Estate magazine. However, due to some e-mail difficulties, I did not receive the comments sent to me by FE editors prior to publication; and since I did not respond, they assumed I did not wish to proceed with my review, so it was left out of the issue.
A few days ago, one of the editors forwarded the missing e-mail to me, so I now know what questions and comments the board had wanted me to address before including my piece in the Review. I have decided to post the review here in the following format:
- The original piece, without any alterations.
- The editing suggestions/questions submitted to me by FE staff
- My responses to those comments
A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic
By Laura Dodsworth
Reviewed by Makhno
A necessary, but not sufficient, element of any State is a relative monopoly over the use of force – military and police – within a given geographical area. Individuals or groups can be directly confronted by, or threatened with, the use of such force in order to gain their compliance with whatever laws or special measures are in place at the time. However, the personnel and equipment required for these operations are in limited supply, and cannot always guarantee the desired outcome when used. Even when successful, the effects of these coercive tactics may lessen over time, as the visible presence of the enforcers is decreased, and fear of future punishment loses some of its motivating power. This kind of fear has a limited shelf life.
There is another sort of fear that a State may use to motivate its citizens. This is the fear of some perceived threat to the body politic – a threat which we (the citizens) are led to believe requires consistent, concerted action to confront, contain, and overcome. A social consensus of this nature rarely, if ever, arises spontaneously, and must be carefully nurtured by the authorities and their allies in the sciences, academia, and the mass media. The fear campaign that has been waged in so many countries within the past 18 months in response to the spread of the Covid-19 virus and variants is an example par excellence of this type of behavioral engineering, and its application in the UK by the administration of Boris Johnson is the subject of Laura Dodsworth’s timely book, A State Of Fear.
In 20 chapters, Dodsworth lays out her case for what she sees as a deliberate attempt by the British government to frighten the populace into voluntary, even enthusiastic, compliance with their decrees or advisements: mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdown, travel restrictions, quarantine, contact-tracing, and vaccination. Interspersed with these chapters are 15 short anonymous testimonies that she has gathered from people of various ages, professions, and social class describing in harrowing detail how this deliberately instilled sense of dread has affected their lives and their relations with others. The author’s style is journalistic, and she is quite honest about her own point of view, but conscientiously seeks out and presents the opinions of those directly involved in the State’s “nudging” program.
The story starts in a personal vein, as Dodsworth recounts her own feelings while watching the Prime Minister’s speech on March 23,2020 announcing the beginning of a national lockdown. By this time, the Covid-19 virus was already very much on the minds of people in the UK, and she had done some research on her own about respiratory viruses, the events in Wuhan, and existing government contingency plans for dealing with the spread of such contagious illnesses. During the speech, the author experienced what she described as a reaction of intense fear – but not a fear of the virus itself, which she believed to be a more manageable threat than Boris Johnson was making it out to be, but rather a fear of the way the messaging was being packaged, and the blatantly authoritarian and disruptive measures that were being imposed. Sensing some inauthenticity in the style of the PM’s presentation, she consulted two experts in non-verbal communication and body language, both of whom confirmed her suspicion that not only was Johnson projecting a false sense of sincerity at some points in the speech (meaning he didn’t fully believe everything he was saying), but that he was also deliberately attempting to heighten the visceral fear reactions of the millions in his audience. In effect, the Prime Minister was making a wartime speech, with the coronavirus as the enemy, and imploring all Britons to accept the necessary sacrifices – or face the consequences from the authorities.
The start of the fear campaign pre-dated Johnson’s lockdown speech by two months, with a bizarre unsourced video purportedly showing people collapsing in the streets in Wuhan, and medics in hazmat suits attending to them, which was posted on several UK news web sites. Another video showed some presumably infected people being dragged from their apartments – again, by individuals in hazmat suits. While many in Great Britain expressed some doubt about the authenticity of these clips, they received millions of views, and a lot of journalistic comment. Exactly who posted these videos, or why, is not clear, but they definitely helped to prepare the ground for what was to come later in terms of the official pandemic response, as well as the general tone of reporting in the British mass media.
The Chinese, of course, were the first to institute lockdowns – rigorously, and on a massive scale. The rest of the world was paying close attention, and two weeks before Boris Johnson’s address, Italy followed suit with its own lockdown. This led to a domino effect in Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As a professional journalist, Dodsworth is very much concerned with the role of news organizations in disseminating fear porn, and she discusses how and why this happens, and its effect on government leaders and their advisors, as well as on ordinary citizens. The methods are not always as egregiously manipulative as in the Chinese videos; the government and mass media simply report only those aspects of a story that support the official narrative, and ignore the rest. Facts and figures are presented in a seemingly objective manner which conditions us to believe that there is no other way to interpret them; those who challenge these interpretations are regularly dismissed or maligned. This same pattern has been repeated for mask-wearing rules, social distancing, vaccination, contact-tracing apps (which, by the way, wreaked havoc in the UK when more than 600,000 were advised to self-isolate merely because they had been in the proximity of someone believed to be infected), and the requirement to disclose confidential medical information (the so-called “vaccine passports”).
When the British government began actively pursuing its own fear campaign, it needed not only the support of scientists and medical doctors, but also of experts in public messaging. Although official propaganda of one sort or another has been around for a long time, it has now become much more sophisticated, and is exercised in tandem with efforts by media corporations (including Facebook and Twitter) to control the narrative, and to block out any dissenting voices from anywhere in the political spectrum. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this whole situation from an anarchist perspective is just how much implicit trust is placed in official sources and mainstream interpretations by those who would otherwise be quite skeptical. This has indeed become a new secular religion of “following the science”.
end of review
Below are three editorial remarks offered to me by three different FE editors:
- In the review and perhpas in the book, no alternative is given to what is considered to be a fear campagne. What kind of government campagne instead of one of fear would be appropriate? What should replace science? Religion is so omnipresent, why is science a religion? Obviously politicians aren’t to be trusted and lie, so why is this suprising? Why do we need to study their body language? What would be an anarchist repsonse to covid?
2. But it’s still not clear to me what the fear campaign was-is. Examples? Every night the television and online is filled with horror stories that urge people to get vaccinated and wear masks. Isn’t this good? I think the idea that this is purposeful social engineering is misguided. Is this a practice? For what? Governments do this in time of war or against domestic radicals easily enough without need for any practice.
3. Different governments and political groups are trying to use the real
pandemic and varying conditions for their own power purposes. That is
where the uses of fear come in.
In response to editor #1, let me be very clear, first of all, that the author, Laura Dodsworth, is in no way opposed to science as such, nor to the use of scientific research or expert scientific advice in formulating public policy. There is, however, one particular kind of science that she finds deeply troubling when it is used as a tool of social policy, and that is the science of behavioral engineering. Her focus is on what is called “nudge theory”, which she defines as follows (from chapter 5):
Nudge theory is the concept in behavioral science which uses insights about our behavior to “nudge” our decision-making. Nudges are not mandates: they are subtle suggestions, and they happen without you even being aware.
Dodsworth goes into some detail about how nudge theory has been developed and used in Britain, particularly in response to concerns about Covid-19. Instead of encouraging open and in-depth public discussion involving a variety of different viewpoints (which is something governments rarely do in any case), so that their citizens would be well-informed about the actual health risks for different age groups, or the potential social costs and benefits of various strategies such as lockdowns, focused protection (as advocated by the Great Barrington Declaration), mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and so forth, the British State allowed only their version of the scientific consensus (which is far from being the only one) to be covered in the mainstream media, and presented their chosen restrictive policies as the only reasonable option, while demonizing, ignoring, or ridiculing even the most rational critics, such as Sunetra Gupta.
The “nudging” came in various forms, such as grim fatality predictions, mottos like “Don’t kill your granny”, scary headlines, etc. – all designed to push Britons into unquestioning compliance with official policies without asking too many inconvenient questions. Thus, the concept of “following the science” has come to stand for following unprecedentedly restrictive new rules and regulations with absolute trust in the annointed authorities – a secular religion.
As I pointed out in my review, quite a few anarchists in the UK and elsewhere seem to have been strongly influenced by campaigns like these, as I noticed myself when I visited an anarchist bookstore in Austin, TX a few months ago, and saw a sign on the door requiring visitors to wear masks. When I went to the New York Anarchist Bookfair just a few weeks ago, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space – an anarchist center just a block from the event – had a similar sign on their door. I have seen multiple bookfair announcements recently on anarchistnews.org “recommending” that visitors wear masks (Portland, Toronto, the UK).
While at the Monkeywrench bookstore in Austin, I picked up a copy of Eric Laursen’s new book The Operating System, in which the author of the Introduction speaks disparagingly of a man at a demonstration not wearing a mask, assuming he must be a “Trump supporter”.
The question of what an “anarchist response to covid” might be contains some unexamined premises: that there is one uncontroversial, standard interpretation of just what the “pandemic” involves in terms of infection rates, testing methodologies or other criteria used to label a Covid case, hospitalization rates, fatality rates, recovery rates, level of risk for different age groups, naturally-acquired immunity, excess deaths per year, therapeutic interventions, co-morbidities, and a host of other matters related to the new vaccines. The question also assumes that anarchists need to develop some kind of collective response, rather than each of us calmly examining and discussing available evidence, then making up our own minds.
In response to editor #2, all I would add to what said above is that I value free and open discussion, and see that as the most effective way of coming up with any kind of collective policy. I strongly disapprove of attempts by governments or anyone else to stifle debate and demonize their opponents, in an effort to obtain compliance through fear, rather than rational assent. I would also note that behavioral engineering has been a constantly evolving field ever since Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s son-in-law) wrote Propaganda in 1928, and has now reached an unprecedented level of sophistication, which anarchists would be well-advised to pay close attention to.
To editor #3, I would suggest that governments and political groups in general are far from the only actors who benefit from the kind of social engineering that has become so widespread in the last two years, and that it is far from clear just what the “real” pandemic amounts to, as I pointed out above, in my response to editor #1. A fascinating book about the convergence of interest between State and non-state groups, and how they may seek to take advantage of the perceived Covid-19 crisis is The Great Reset, by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret, which I hope to post a review of in the near future.