It’s fair to say that 2020 has been the worst year in living memory. The world has, in the span of just a few months, been plunged into one of the most widespread and severe crises since the Second World War. Even the Cuba Crisis of 1962, with all its implication of nuclear armageddon, was over in – as it were – a flash. Right now, the world is months into a crisis that won’t abate for another year or more. And society is bending under the strain.
In a way it was predictable. Society was already in difficulty before the pandemic hit. The current neo-liberal version of capitalism has long since reached its use-by date; times change, attitudes change, society changes, technology has changed – and with that, the way economies work must also shift. That was made clear by the General Financial Crisis of the 2007-10 period, which exposed the mechanisms of neo-liberalism for what they were. But there was nothing to replace it with, and that’s produced strain. Add to that the behaviours that have followed as those who have benefitted from neo-liberalism have tried to preserve it, and the world was probably ripe and ready for a general social crisis. The pandemic, in that social sense, has simply been a trigger – the straw to break the donkey’s back, as it were.
But there’s been another factor that has fuelled the fires. Social media. Twenty years ago, it barely existed. Today it’s ubiquitous to the point where even diplomacy, it seems, can be conducted via Twitter. Utterances on one platform or another become headline news, sufficient to torpedo the careers of celebrities, or to provoke mass condemnation. And it has fuelled the spread and credibility of a dismaying array of wild conspiracy theories. In many respects, it seems to me, the basic realities of human nature have been exposed by the mechanism. Curiously, this was predicted by Arthur C. Clarke, who visualised the social outcomes of free and ubiquitous global communication decades before it became a reality.
To me the interesting part is that the companies enabling this are, at best, amoral. As an example, Facebook suspends accounts on a guilty-as-accused basis, without telling the affected person why, and without recourse. Such policy puts me in mind of Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, where his hero Josef K. was accused of a crime, but not told what it was, or given detail to defend himself. This is the exact reverse of the moral principles on which western law is based.
You see the problem: a concatenation of social strains, driven by an economic approach that is two generations or more old, and a globalised society given voice by a specific style of ubiquitous communication – to which is added a huge dislocation in the form of a pandemic.
Is there a way out of the mess? To me, the first step is to understand why people are behaving as they are. What lessons can we draw about human nature from the way it’s been expressed, often via social media, during this time? And then, does this understanding show us a way forward?
Of course I wouldn’t pose such questions without offering ways of answering them. And the challenge to understanding – first off – is to pick the right tool. My pick, based on the professional historical work I’ve done along with an undergrad degree I did, way back when, under a student of Jane Goodall, is the relatively new science of evolutionary biology. Also known, sometimes, as ‘evolutionary psychology’. As with all intellectual tools, it doesn’t provide complete answers – nor can it be pushed too far. But it does, I think, offer insights and provoke discussion. Which is important.
Watch this space. Meanwhile – any thoughts as to why the world appears, right now, to be going to hell in a handbasket?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020