The Great Fear Machine of 2020

The events of 2020 were unique in human history, and so I think it’s important to give them some perspective. What we experienced was the first televised plague. What it spawned was a unique fear machine.

Fear delivery systems go back to the first tyrants, of course, but this one featured a scale and an intimacy that went beyond all others, even those of the vile USSR.

The plague itself, COVID-19, was minor as such things go. The flu of 1919 was far worse, not to mention historical plagues that made this one look like a case of the sniffles. Nonetheless, it was enough to spawn something unique. So, briefly, let’s look at the pieces that came together:

    • TV news: Television news was dying; their ratings had cratered and there was no real hope to be seen. Politicians and the elderly still took TV news seriously; the informed and the young did not. To these companies, COVID was salvation. It locked people in their houses for months at a time, with nothing to do but watch.
    • Politicians: Nothing in our time empowered middling political officials like COVID-19. Governors and regional officials became gods. They shut down whole states and provinces in a stroke and sent their armed enforcers to make it so, while television cameras hung on their every word. People get into politics for the rush of power, and 2020 gave it to them in spades. The new potentates decided what could or could not be sold, forbade relgious ceremonies, and so on.
    • Social media: Facebook, Google (YouTube), Twitter and the rest have become the core of soft power (aka, mass manipulation). As with television, COVID forced people into their arms, and they were pleased to addict them. More than that, the operators of these systems stepped from the land of geeks to the halls of power, where they drank the evil brew and liked it.

To this we could add maniacal health officials and others. It was an orgy for power addicts. And again we saw that fear makes humans manipulable. 

All of this was bad enough, but what’s coming out of it is worse: These groups became organs of the big hierarchy, joining the inner sanctums of power as essential players. But here’s the important part:

Once joined to power, you see the rest of humanity as masses rather than individuals.

You can find psychological studies that demonstrate this with hard data, but its easy enough to see for yourself. Phrases like “managing perceptions” imply precisely this. Furthermore, the actions of the newly powerful demonstrated this. Seeing the rest of the world as nameless serfs, they behaved like hubristic monarchs:

    • Tell the masses not to wear masks so there are enough for all the doctors to get them.
    • After a week or two, tell the serfs to wear the mask for their safety, so they have something to hang on to. 
    • As mask-wearing turns into a Good-Bad divide, play to the narrative; keep the masses outraged and engaged.
    • Scare people away from fast cures so the opposition can’t seize credit. Hold out for a vaccine.
    • Never admit mistakes that your group makes (like ten thousands of predictable nursing home deaths). If the issue persists, double-down and keep repeating “conspiracy theory;” the serfs are terrified of public ridicule. 

Aside from a quibble or two, I can’t see many honest disputes with these points; we all saw them.

What Comes Out of This?

Obviously it’s hard to predict what comes out of a situation like this one, but there are certain aspects that are reasonably clear:

    • Political regimes will hurry to pull as much out of this moment as possible.
    • State and provincial bosses will slide back toward to their former roles. Their lives will be overrun with servicing labor unions, preventing citizen revolts and begging for newly-printed money.
    • Social media, having made itself power’s best and most reliable friend, will ride high. They’re now the indispensable managers of the herds.
    • TV news will shrink back toward what it was: running from one crisis to another, large or small, real or manufactured. To prevent that, they’ll have to operate as court sycophants. 

The wild card in all of this is the productive class. Intellectually, these people are quite capable of understanding that they’re living in a totalitarian regime: They are regimented, herded, monitored, restricted and stripped of income far beyond the dreams of any Pharaoh. Emotionally, their ability to accept it is uncertain. They have a great deal of their identity tied to national myths; possibly too much to overcome.

The facts say that the regimes of the West have become totalitarian. Standing against this statement is neither data, nor reason, nor observation: standing against it is emotion, and particularly fear.

Good luck to us all.


Paul Rosenberg