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From collectivism to infantilism

How Covid-19 showed us what we have really become.

A Covid-19 rainbow.
Wishful thinking?

Coming out of the Second World War, during which a collectivist ethos had proved to be so successful in combating fascism (and then, into the 50s, communism), collectivism was quickly established as the leading cultural, economic and political framework for organising society and governing citizens lives.

This post-war settlement, characterised by faith in social welfare, unionism and the principles of participatory democracy as institutionalised by such newly established international institutions as the United Nations, the IMF and World Bank, became the guiding principle for the "Golden era of capitalism" and continued into the 1970s. By this time, faced with a crisis of political confidence in the US, Great Britain and Western Europe, for much of the public, collectivism had become synonymous with a culture of managed decline and an inability on the part of western governments to meet the challenge of historical forces, or indeed to understand them.

In response to this crisis, by the mid-1970s, a group of would-be political leaders began to take the political stage. These were led by Margaret Thatcher, by now emerging from the shadow of Ted Heath’s collapsed Conservative government earlier in the decade, and Ronald Reagan, who was himself turning his attention to the White House. Together with their courtier group of political and economic advisors, both Reagan and Thatcher began to develop a new individualist ethos to challenge and replace the collectivism they saw as destroying the legacy of the Second World War.

This individualism, with its foundations in a pure free-market ethos, sought to liberate markets, businesses, institutions and voters so that all could grow and thrive free from state control. On an individual level, the ethos encouraged an ideal view of citizens as free agents only moving between different market sectors to innovate and follow their dreams as potential entrepreneurs and people.

The eventual wave of deregulations, political realignment and cultural revolution that followed, ushered in by Thatcher from 1979 and Reagan from 1981 led to an economic boom on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as growing public enthusiasm for free social movement. The related technological innovations of the time in information technology, market research and electronic communication delivered new fashions, consumer devices (perhaps epitomised best by the home computing revolution), music, design and ways of engaging with the world, exemplified in everything from mobile phones to deregulated air travel and the happy musical chaos of the New Romantics movement.

The lasting impact of Boy George, The Human League and Adam and the Ants on the collective consciousness of the West should not be underestimated.

Moving into the 1990s this revolution seemed complete, following the collapse of East European Communism at the end of the 1980s, European Union expansion through the decade, and the invasion of the Internet into peoples lives. However, this newborn era of individualism quickly and rather unexpectedly faced its own existential challenge, both economically and strategically, on a curiously similar timeline as that of the post-war consensus that it replaced.

Two events defined this crisis for the newly liberated world, with both emerging directly from the loosening of restrictions and the emergence of the globalised capitalism that the free market rebels had hoped for in the 1970s. The first in the form of an Islamist terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001 saw commercial airliners hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and brought down in a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,977 mainly US citizens.

The second, in 2008, saw the globalised financial system come close to collapse, as the international finance system froze up in a speculative credit and liquidity crisis. It was only after Western governments stepped in, working collectively to refinance international banks and safeguard the regional economies, that this crisis was brought under control.

Coming off the back of these disruptive events into the 2000s, with the international order shaken by the failures of western intervention in Iraq, an Afghanistan mission to hunt down the terrorist leadership of 9/11, and with no leaders or intellectuals on the world stage to reinvigorate the free-market revolution after the banking crisis, the age of individualism fell surprisingly quickly into its own version of managed entropy. This historical moment rapidly became characterised in the emergence of a social justice movement built on a cultural and social existential crisis epitomised in campus-led, nihilistic woke phenomena seeking to cleanse western democracy from within of its historical crimes and misdemeanours.

This movement has its ideological roots in the historical underpinnings of a society that has delivered great wealth, knowledge and opportunity, even if it has stumbled more recently in the ruins of the Twin Towers, the deserts of Iraq and on the trading floors of New York and London. Regardless, just as The Winter of Discontent and President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 "Malaise speech" came to characterise the end of the road for collectivism in the late 1970s, so too has the pulling down of statues and the decolonisation of university curriculums in similar post-financial crisis confusion in the 2020s.

Against this historical backdrop, the Covid-19 crisis can be viewed as a symptom of our new malaise, underpinned as it has been by the same individualistic instincts which appeared so liberatory in the 1970s and 1980s when individualism appeared to usher in a new era of small government.

Curiously, one of the default strategies reached for so energetically during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis has been the collectivist principle, epitomised by the "Clap for the carers/We are all in this together" clarion call of spring 2020. This historical moment led to a plethora of rainbows and ribbons appearing around the country and seemed for a while to offer the social glue that could keep society together, if only on social media, as the shutters came down and commercial airlines stopped flying.