The Hyper-Rationality of Crowds: COVID-19 and the Cult of Anxiety

17 May 2020. Updated 5 June 2020.

by Freddie Attenborough

There’s a photograph doing the rounds in the mainstream press (May 13th, above) which depicts a group of nursery children in a playground somewhere in France. What are they doing? Perhaps a little surprisingly, that’s not an easy question to answer. True, they’re in a playground, but what they’re definitely not doing is playing. (For those of you who may, quite understandably, have forgotten those now irrelevant sections of our pre-lockdown vocabulary, “to play” once meant “to do something enjoyable, spontaneous and entertaining”.) Most of them are sitting down, although two of them – breaking free from this majoritarian tyranny – have had the temerity to stand up: an act of such brazen individualism and character in today’s France that one suspects Emmanuel Macron is, as we speak, preparing yet another emergency Presidential decree to ban all “Fifth-Republic-endangering leg-flexing amongst minors”. But whether standing or sitting, they’re all caught in the same trap – or rather, “traps”. A teacher, interpreting French social distancing rules in what we might most politely describe as an “exuberant” way, has positioned each of the children in what the Daily Mail – less politely but very accurately – refers to as “isolation zones”. Chalked on the ground, each child has a box. Different colours have been used in their creation, like some grudging, Orwellian concession to anyone still clinging to frivolous pre-lockdown notions of “childhood innocence”. The boxes, it seems, mark the limits of each child’s world for the duration of playtime, although a Freudian psychologist might well argue that to persist with this box motif for much longer will be to ensure that those limits endure in various complex ways across each child’s life.

What are we to make of this? Sometimes, particularly during times of social crisis, I find myself paying more-than-ordinary levels of attention to these transient, ostensibly insignificant bits of flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shores of our popular culture: here, a metropolitan, Oxbridge-educated BBC reporter using a “clever” euphemism to thinly veil her contempt for the working classes; there, Piers Morgan – looking more than ever like a container after someone’s had it filled up but forgotten to shout “when” – smiling smugly on Good Morning Britain and slavishly spouting the government line on the lockdown. All the turbulence and all of the wider social and cultural problems that you’re struggling to process – all of that “big stuff” – often tends to crystallise in these tiny fragments of everyday experience. Of course, if you’re a lockdown sceptic it’s not hard to find moments like that right now. We see our innovative French teacher’s fundamentalist mania for human sanitation and the complete cancellation of biological risk echoed in recent media stories about Premiership footballers returning to training but only where tackling is banned, and in those deeply dispiriting recent surveys reporting that large numbers of the UK public don’t want the lockdown to end. For me, though, there’s something nicely symbolic about that photograph of the French kids. The country that once gave us Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) now gives us Emmanuel Macron’s Isolation Separating the Children (2020). What it shows is a crowd that’s not a crowd: a crowd made up of kids whose state leaders see enough risk in the basic human necessity of biological proximity to prevent them forming a crowd. In this essay, I want to unpick the wider social and cultural problems encapsulated within this image.

So how did we get here, to a world in which children can be herded into their little playpark Guantanamo cells not as a punishment but – remarkably – as an indicator of a society’s love and care for those same children? One word that springs immediately to mind is “madness.” “We must be mad – literally mad – to be permitting all of this,” you may very well say to yourself (if, that is, you have a fondness for paraphrasing Enoch Powell). Madness. It’s a good word, isn’t it? Rolls off the tongue. Helps to burn off steam. After all, who doesn’t like to channel their inner cab driver every now and then? “The world’s gone mad, mate. Take that wot’s-’is-name. Bonking Boris. That’s ’im. I had ’im in the back of me cab once. Screw loose, if you ask me. It’s all that sex wot’s done it. And that Ferguson? Shag other people’s wives all you like mate, but take your mathematical modelling back to the funny farm wiv ya when you’re done!” And yet, sadly, individual madness can’t really explain our current predicament. It’s a bit like blaming the invasion of Iraq in 2003 solely on President Bush and his family’s supposed mania for oil. Nice and comforting and all that, but hardly convincing when considered in light of the messy complexities of 21st century geo-politics. The problem with any individualised idea of madness is that we have a large group of people in the West right now who have allowed – have willingly and happily enabled – our lockdown societies to emerge. You and I may not be directly culpable. We may not agree with what’s happening. We may turn the cold eye of reproof upon our fellow citizens. If society were a golf club, we might even go so far as to write a strongly-worded letter of complaint to the club secretary. But whether we like it or not, right now we’re individual members of a society that, precisely as a society, has decided that battery-farming kids, playing football without tackling and hiding under the bed in order to avoid social interaction are all genuinely, 100% bona fide great ideas.

Perhaps we’re talking less about individual, clinical madness, then, and rather more about some form of collective madness? Is it the case, for instance, that we’ve ended up in this mess due to some “crowd psychology” type issue? That’s a much stronger idea. After all, we’ve got a pretty sizeable social, social-psychological and cultural literature to draw upon when pursuing that line of thought. Crowds, mobs, rioters, protesters – gatherings of this type have long bothered the powers that be in modern states. As a consequence, much academic effort has been devoted to understanding the ways in which crowds form and the things they get up to once they’ve formed. Consider for instance Gustav Le Bon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind. It’s a classic of its genre. Le Bon got a lot of things wrong, of course, but his observations on what we would now call “deindividuation” still influence much work in sociology and social psychology. Individuals, he noted, tend not to see themselves as individuals once they join a large group. In various ways they tend to subsume themselves within, and take much of their identity from, a larger group identity. In itself that’s not a problem. Do you feel that your local Women’s Institute provides you with a moral compass? Is your life lived according to the precepts handed down to you by a Neighbourhood Watch Group? Great. A bit odd, but knock yourself out. The problem, as Le Bon saw immediately, was that when deviant or antisocial ideas start to circulate within a group, its deindividuated members – now cut adrift from lessons learnt at mother’s knee, so to speak – are primed and triggered to act purely on group impulse. They are, in other words, easily and quickly led astray. “Xs are sub-human.” “Yeah, that’s right, they are!” “I tell you what, let’s kill some Xs!!” “No… let’s kill ALL Xs!!!” And so on and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, Le Bon and subsequent authors in this field weren’t particularly complimentary in their descriptions of crowds or the types of collective madness that can descend upon crowds. For Le Bon, the crowd was “only powerful for destruction”. Elsewhere, he wrote of how “a crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile. Like a savage, it is not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire and the realisation of its desire.” Not to be outdone, and writing 30 years after Le Bon, Emory Bogardus suggested that “the crowd is a common yet dangerous form of intersocial stimulation… A crowd of human beings is closely related to a herd of cattle, a covey of birds, a shoal of fish. There are the same standard responses to danger signals, the same casual leadership, the same stampeding.” Moreover, he went on, as crowd numbers increase, so too do the “desires” of the crowd “assume superficial and reckless expressions”.

Savages. Impulsiveness. Stampeding. Dangerous stimulation. Recklessness. Cast your mind back to the photograph of that playground in France. Does anything about that scene strike you as having been the work of savages? Do the neatly partitioned chalk “isolation zones” suggest we’re dealing with dangerous, impulsive individuals? What about those Premier League footballers being allowed to play football but not to tackle? Have the suits who work at the FA and the English Premier League suddenly come over all reckless? And those people who want to stay at home, hiding under their beds until the virus has gone away: are they unable to admit that anything can come between their desires and the realisation of their desires? Just in case you’re struggling to keep up or have a short attention span (I flatter myself that you’re still reading), the answers to these questions, in descending order, are: No, no, no and no.

It seems to me that if we’re trying to understand public responses to the coronavirus then any talk of either individual, clinical madness or collective, social-psychological madness misses the mark. This lockdown debacle is driven by something a lot closer to textbook clinical anxiety. Le Bon’s madding crowds were driven by irrationality and active aggression, but what we’ve seen during this lockdown are crowds driven by anxiety in a very literal, almost clinical sense: that is, a form of hyper-rationality that causes total passivity. Anxious people aren’t irrational like our mad crowds: they’re hyper-rational. People who are rational (i.e., clinically normal) see risk and are prepared to live alongside it (“Okay, I could die of BSE, but I’m still going to eat beef because I like it.”). Complicated, global and massified societies as we know them (or knew them) depend on the overwhelming majority of us thinking in that way. People who are hyper-rational, on the other hand, just can’t let go of that slim statistical chance that they might be the one tragic case to die or suffer from X. They could be the special one. Their child could be the special one. Someone they know from down the road could be the special one. To them, this uncertainty – this sense that something might happen that they can’t control – is unbearable, and they cope with this lack of control by trying to reassert control. Often that means trying to have a risk cancelled entirely, or, alternatively, trying to hide from it. What anxious people can’t do, however, is live alongside risk. They can’t ever say, “It could be me, but I accept that risk and carry on.”

The problem here is that we can’t all be special. We can’t all have society rearrange itself to suit our own personal fears and worries. A society – any society – can’t cope with large numbers of people suddenly starting to act in this way. That’s the problem with anxiety when it leaks out of the clinic and into society. True, it might not initially seem as disruptive as the collective madness of a crowd: after all, hyper-rational crowds don’t want a fight – they want to hide. They don’t want to get in your face, because your face is a petri dish harbouring deadly microbes. But right now, mad crowds – crowds full of violence, recklessness, savagery and action – would be easy to deal with. Armies can be brought onto streets and mad crowds can be dispersed from streets. Well, okay, not easy to deal with, but at the very least easier, because what can you do to disperse hyper-rational crowds that are too scared to congregate together in the first place? Get the army to drag them out from under their beds, pop their underpants on for them and then transport them to their respective workplaces, like a slapstick Carry On film plot gone wrong? One smiles. But reasoned argument won’t shake them from their convictions either. Unfortunately, anxious people have a knack of turning any fact, model or statistic around and showing you that, actually, factually, statistically, they’re very vulnerable and could very well die or suffer at any moment. “Look,” the Minister for Health might implore until he’s blue in the face, “this research team says you’ll be fine – now get back to work!” “But actually,” they respond in sepulchral tones that drift up and through their bedroom mattresses, “if you look carefully, on page three of that report the authors specifically urge caution when interpreting their results for people in my age group and with my health profile, so I’m staying here, nice and warm and safe!” Good luck winning that argument, Matt Hancock.

This type of thing has been bubbling away for a while now in millennial “cancel culture” (where “to cancel” of course means “to undertake an entirely passive action that prevents engagement with anything you perceive as having the potential to ‘harm’ you”). Don’t like what some man (“Eurgh!”) might be going to say at a forthcoming university event? Don’t just no-platform him, get him sacked! Contact his employer! Organise a petition! Publish his home address on your Facebook group! Ruin his life! You can’t control the risk he poses, so cancel the risk altogether: ensure that no-one has to risk coming into contact with him again!

Welcome to the hyper-rational cult of anxiety, making sure you and your loved ones can’t be exposed to risk, ever again.

We know all of this, of course. It’s been happening for a while. What’s changed during this coronavirus outbreak is that governments have suddenly started feeding this hyper-rational anxiety like never before. That’s how we end up in that wonderful French playground. French kids have got to go back to school whilst microbes continue to stalk the earth, have they? No problem. Separate them from their friends! Draw boundaries! Build walls! Build higher walls! Buy substitute amniotic fluid sacs off the internet for all pupils! Every child is special! Every child is at risk! All risks must be cancelled, forever!

Not that the UK is any better. Every evening a cardboard-cut-out Minister is wheeled out for the TV cameras. Fully varnished and ready to autocue, s/he tells us how special we all are – each and every one of us. Yellow and black backgrounds. Serious faces. Danger. Risk. All around us. The Government can’t cancel the risk. Not this time. You could die. You might die. We’re sorry. We understand. It’s okay to wet yourself. But wear PPE. Sure, stay at home. Hide. Under the bed if it makes you feel better. Here, have some free money. Bleach your carpets. Disinfect your tongue. Wear a mask. Put a bag over your head to keep your mask clean. Cry. Sob. Buy a ventilator. On Ebay. Stay safe. That’s an order. Quack! Woof!

The result, of course, is an utterly dysfunctional society, and one that will give some people a free pass from being proper members of it for years to come. Make no mistake, what we’re dealing with here are socially malodorous problems. The stench has been creeping up from the intellectual basement of our society for quite some time, like thin coils of hyper-rational, narcissistic affront, getting ever closer to asphyxiating long-standing ideas of citizenship, self-responsibility, free speech and public culture. The problem we’ve got in the UK right now is that our government’s response to COVID-19 has effectively shut all the doors and windows in the house. Am I exaggerating? I wonder.

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