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Lockdown learned helplessness

In 1965 a group of psychologists studying conditioning in dogs stumbled across what they were to call “learned helplessness.”  In their experiment, they took a puppy and put it in a cage.  Once the puppy got used to his surroundings, the experimenters rang a bell.  So the puppy thinks to himself, “Hey, I wonder what that is?”  But the puppy doesn’t know what to do, so he stays where he is.  Then the experimenters give him an electric shock and the puppy thinks, “Ouch, what did you do that for?”

This happens a couple of times until the puppy notices that there is a big green button at the end of the cage.  So the puppy thinks, “Maybe if I press the button I won’t get an electric shock.”  And so next time the bell rings, the puppy runs to the end of the cage and presses the button.  Not only does he not get a shock, he gets rewarded with a food treat.  So the puppy thinks, “Okay, I get the game now.  If the bell rings and I don’t press the bell I get a shock, but if I press the green button in time I don’t get a shock and I get a reward.”  And so the game goes on until, Pavlovian-style, the puppy internalises the game and it becomes unconscious habit.

Next the experimenters change the rules.  One day the puppy hears the bell and quickly dashes to press the green button.  Nothing happens.  “Hey wait a minute,” the puppy thinks, “this isn’t how the game is supposed to work.  Where’s my reward?”  When the bell goes off the next time, the puppy rushes over to press the button and the reward appears again.  “Okay,” the puppy thinks, “maybe last time was a mistake.”  But no; from this point on, what happens to the puppy is random.  Sometimes he gets the reward, sometimes he gets nothing and sometimes he gets a shock anyway.  The sometimes he gets a random shock even when the bell doesn’t ring.

What the psychologists found was that eventually the puppy just gave up and sat passively in the centre of the cage no longer responding at all to shocks or to rewards.  The puppy just gave up.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Cold War governments with an interest in mind control.  Propaganda could be designed to produce similar states of learned helplessness in some among the populations of countries they wished to subdue.  The advertising industry wasn’t far behind, understanding that if communities could be broken down into helpless – and often competing – individual “consumers,” they could be induced to make entirely unnecessary purchases which promised (but seldom delivered) psychological relief.

From the 1980s, propaganda, advertising and political campaigning became intermixed with the result that governments began to deploy this kind of “messaging” against people whose votes they needed.  Since general prosperity has been declining for most of the period since the 1980s, the offer of rewards has been superseded by an increased use of fear as a means of controlling people.  Consider recent – increasingly bitter – political campaigns such as Britain’s EU membership referendum or the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  These involved fear tactics on both sides – fear of migrants, fear of economic collapse, fear of corruption, fear of war, etc.  And since the status quo had become intolerable for the majority of working (and increasingly not working) people, it was the side that offered change (albeit unlikely change – “Make America Great Again,” “£350 million a day for the NHS”) who came out on top.

It should have dawned on you by now that a similar game is being played with us over the spread of SARS-CoV-2.  The rules of the game, you will have noticed, keep changing.

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it has a far better memory than most of us – one reason why the establishment media hate it.  Search for media stories about the outbreak of the virus from December and January and you will find an entirely different narrative to the one we have today.  Then it wasn’t even a threat.  It probably couldn’t even pass from one human to another.  Suggestions that we should ban travel from the infected region or even just quarantine those arriving were dismissed as racism.

Things quickly flipped around when China locked down and the death rate in Iran and Italy went through the roof.  Now we had to stay at home to save lives and to “flatten the curve.”  Understandably, people took to the shops to pick up a few extra items like toilet roll and dried foods so that they wouldn’t run out in the event that their government imposed a lockdown.  This allowed the establishment media to deploy one of the main weapons for inducing learned helplessness – blaming the victim.  Helplessness, mental illness and addictive behaviours are well established outcomes of blaming the victims of unemployment, disability, homelessness and relationship breakdown.  Unusually, the pandemic caused the media to deploy the approach onto a much wider part of the population.  Photographers stage-managed images depicting panic-buying and used telephoto lenses to give the impression that large numbers were not adhering to “social (i.e., physical) distancing.”

In fact, we were ahead of the establishment media on this one.  While the Prime Minister wittered on about the divine right of Englishmen to go to the pub, it turned out the rest of us weren’t quite so keen to spread a potentially lethal virus to elderly and disabled relatives, friends or neighbours.  Nor were we enthusiastic about overloading a National Health Service which stands as the last vestige of public decency in a dark sea of neoliberal corruption and greed.  We didn’t have to wait to be told to take to our homes; we did it ahead of times.

Of course, the lockdown was always going to divide us along class lines.  It is far easier for white collar professionals to work from home, and it is far harder for families in high-rise flats or bed and breakfast accommodation to maintain physical distance.  Nevertheless, the dramatic fall in public transport use, restaurant bookings, nights down the pub and trips to the cinema demonstrated that all of us were taking precautions against a virus that, as far as we were being told, might infect millions and result in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The early government messaging – associated with the “herd immunity” policy – was to “keep calm and carry on.”  We were just going to have to take it on the chin; and yes, all of us were bound to lose loved ones.  Herd immunity, though, relies on the herd maintaining sufficient physical proximity to become infected.  Our retreat from physical contact rendered the message – if not the strategy itself – untenable.  Instead, the government and the establishment media propaganda machine was obliged to get out ahead of us and promote a full-blown lockdown.  “Stay home and save lives,” became the order of the day.

As was the case in China, where the lockdown spanned the Chinese New Year break, our lockdown occurred around the Easter Holiday, giving it a surreal holiday-at-home feel.  Since many – particularly among the metropolitan liberal class – were going to be on holiday anyway, the economic impact would be barely noticeable.  Moreover, government loan and wages guarantees appeared to take the immediate threat of an economic downturn off the table.  Then the unemployment figures were published.  Many firms had already been laying off workers in response to the collapse in demand prior to the lockdown.  Many were reluctant to take out additional loans.  Some could not afford the twenty percent contribution to wages required in the furlough scheme.  The result was that more British jobs were lost in March and April 2020 than Margaret Thatcher managed to engineer during her depression between 1979 and 1982.

As Easter receded into memory, the SW1 crowd began to realise that their privileged position would be ruined unless the government could engineer a highly unlikely “V-shaped recovery.”  No sooner had we internalised the “stay home and save lives” message than the narrative changed again.  “Government,” the establishment propagandists proclaimed, “must publish plans for reopening the economy.”  Even the British Labour Party – now firmly back in the hands of establishment neoliberals – put this demand ahead of concerns for the two million newly unemployed or the large number of excess deaths among NHS workers.

No sooner had the public become accustomed to the rules of the lockdown game than the establishment media and factions within the UK government became increasingly shrill in their demands for an end to the lockdown.  Government ministers began to promise an end to lockdown with schools reopening by the beginning of June; only to roll back the promises the following day as it became obvious that plans for a systematic reopening of the economy had not been developed.

One result was yesterday’s apparently incoherent announcement by the Prime Minister that the policy had now shifted from “Stay home and save lives” to “Stay alert and control the virus.”  This was allowed to give the impression that the economy was reopening this morning; although today ministers are at pains to point out that the changes do not begin until Wednesday – which begs the question, why didn’t they wait until Tuesday night to make the announcement?”

The answer, of course, is that they needed to gain control of the weekly news cycle.  The shift in message is a psychological device to induce something akin to learned helplessness in a population which is about to be blamed for the inevitable spike in new Covid-19 deaths that will follow the end of the lockdown.  As Jon Alexander at Medium explains:

“This was not unexpected: a pandemic was widely expected. People are not victims: so many of us in so many ways have thrown ourselves into helping one another. Government has not been strong: they responded too late, and their ‘led by science’ trope has been convincingly dismantled.

“So here is why this announcement is happening today: not because we’re past the peak and ready to start lifting lockdown, but because the government’s framing is failing and they need to change it.

“This is much more a political moment than a public health moment.

“The new story is a version of one I call the Consumer story. Covid19 will now become an inconvenient hindrance to our lives, but one that each of us needs to take personal responsibility for dealing with, and getting back to normal as best we can. In this story, government steps back and gets out of the way, because people are best left to look out for themselves. We are individuals, there is no such thing as society. The dark corollary of course is that if you get the disease, it will be your fault — because you will not have stayed sufficiently alert.”

In class terms, much of the metropolitan liberal class will be able to carry out their professional employment from a comfortable home.  Ordinary working people – particularly those on the margins – will have little choice but to go to work; even if the conditions are unsafe.  It is notable that while “stay alert” is intended to place responsibility back on the public, ministers (and, indeed, the neoliberal Labour opposition) have refused to instruct workers in unsafe workplaces to walk out and/or to report the employer to the authorities.

Complications have also arisen as a result of public health being a devolved issue; so that the changes in England do not apply in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  Welsh towns that border England have long since become dormitories for workers who commute across the border to Bristol in the south and Chester-Liverpool-Manchester in the north.  But the current mismatch of laws mean that while they can legally work in England (and may lose their jobs if they don’t) they can be fined for the portion of their commute within Wales.  In the opposite direction, English tourists who now have permission to drive to the countryside for recreation (so long as they “stay alert” to physical distancing) face fines if they stray across the Welsh or Scottish borders where such leisure activities are still banned.

Like the puppy in the cage back in 1965, no sooner have people figured out what they think the rules of the pandemic game are, than the authorities change the rules.  It is hard not to conclude that the aim is to have us all sitting helplessly in our rooms, socially isolated from the communities that we have evolved to be a part of.  The government’s aim may be more immediate – overcoming the growing public perception that they are clueless and incapable of leading in the biggest crisis in living memory.  Blaming the victims may – although probably only temporarily – shift the blame back onto us in true “divide and rule” fashion.  But the deeper problem is that nothing about SARS-CoV-2 has changed.

The purpose of “flattening the curve” – which the lockdown is meant to achieve – was never about “saving lives” – at least, not directly.  The idea was that more or less the same number of us would die.  But if we all died at once, we would overwhelm critical infrastructure including – but not limited to – the National Health Service.  By spreading the deaths over several months or possibly even several years, critical infrastructure could be maintained even if more frivolous economic activities like eating out or watching football had to be curtailed.

The conceit has been that Big Pharma would ride to the rescue with a vaccine or a treatment that would save lives if only we could slow the spread for long enough.  What they didn’t tell you – but they have known all along – is that:

  • The quickest development of a vaccine took four years – the 1967 mumps vaccine
  • Nobody has ever developed a safe vaccine for a corona virus – a seriously unsafe one was developed and quickly abandoned for SARS-CoV-1
  • SARS-CoV-2 is not the same as the flu – corona viruses mutate far faster than vaccines can be developed.

A vaccine – Pandemrix – hurried to market in response to the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic caused brain damage in 1 in 16,000 of the people injected:

“Among those affected are NHS medical staff, many of whom are now unable to do their jobs because of the symptoms brought on by the vaccine. They will be suing the government for millions in lost earnings.

“However, the vast majority of patients affected – around 80% – are children.”

This is precisely why we have to insist on prolonged safety trials for potential vaccines and should be extremely wary of self-interested pharmaceutical companies and desperate governments who want to cut corners to put an end to pandemics that expose their greed and incompetence.

The hope of a treatment for Covid-19 is only marginally better.  Blood plasma therapy – where blood is taken from someone who has recovered from the virus and given to someone who has contracted it – has some good preliminary results.  But new drugs like Remdesivir have no noticeable impact on the number of deaths.  Indeed, since the manufacturer, Gilead, has failed to make all of the trial data public, we would be foolish to take seriously even the claim that the drug might shorten the illness by a few days for those lucky enough to recover.

Existing drugs – including Mr Trump’s hydroxychloroquine – have also showed some promise.  But nobody is about to stump up the cash needed to run a randomised double-blind  clinical trial into a drug that is already available at cents per pack – there’s not enough money to be made from selling old drugs even if they appear to cure or even prevent Covid-19.  Unless a government or governments were to stump up the cash, trials of older drugs are not going to happen; and so they will never be approved as a treatment for Covid-19.

All of which brings us back to herd immunity.  The truth is – and governments have known this from the start – that herd immunity is – and was – the only game in town.  From the moment SARS-CoV-2 found its way into a human cell and began to spread, the only question was how the impact could be managed so that the spread could be slowed, the numbers requiring hospital treatment minimised and the inevitable deaths spreads out so as not to overwhelm the system.  And, of course, all of this has to be achieved without crashing the economy to the point that recovery becomes impossible.

So stay alert everyone, because when the inevitable uptick in infections and deaths follows the opening up of the economy, it will be your fault… and most definitely not the fault of your incompetent government, its corporate sponsors or its propagandist establishment media.

There is, perhaps, one glimmer of hope in this sorry tale; not in the likely deaths of loved ones that we are all going to have to go through as SARS-CoV-2 makes its way through the herd, but in the psychology of learned helplessness.  Around the time that those psychologists were mistreating the puppy, some other psychologists designed a similar experiment to see whether there was a link between learned helplessness and addiction.  In this instance, they induced learned helplessness in rats, and then allowed the rats to use heroin to medicate their response.  Sure enough, the rats became heroin addicts and the research informed the treatment of addiction for decades.

Not long ago, however, Professor Bruce Alexander remembered that – like humans – rats are social creatures; and that the addictive behaviour occurred in rats that were kept in boxes where they could see but not interact with each other.  What, Alexander wondered, would happen if the experiment was tried with “social rats” kept together in a “rat park?”

“We ran several experiments comparing the drug consumption of rats in Rat Park with rats in solitary confinement in regular laboratory cages. In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more.  A lot more… It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.”

To the surprise – and possibly alarm – of government and corporate interests, people have displayed a greater degree of sociability in the face of the pandemic than anyone had expected.  And while the establishment media attempts to blame the victim – made easier by the inevitable handful of antisocial fuckwits who lend credence to the stories – have divided us to some degree, there remains more which unites us than divides us.  We are not helpless yet.

As you made it to the end…

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