In Self-Responsibility We Trust

Neoliberal management of the crisis is the snake eating its tail

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

When my mother died, she left me with nothing. Not even memories. I was adopted into my father’s family, but he never admitted to paternity. So for almost two decades, an entire family lied to me, despite appalling conditions and all the questions it raised. There’s a lot to that, and how it has affected me, but for the sake of this article I will tell you one thing that is vitally important to me.

Show me. Don’t tell me. My whole clan lied to me, essentially every time they saw me. So words can largely be meaningless to me unless they are backed by action, and preferable the actions lead before the words.

Across the world, the loss of trust in organizations, institutions, and governments was shockingly high before the pandemic. This decline ran in parallel with the acceptance of neoliberal capitalism as the dominant way to run societies. One of the most insidious aspects of neoliberalism is that it can infect people and institutions that seem like they should be critical of and against it on principle, like universities and journalism.

The uncoordinated and incompetent responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the loss of trust across the board.

Now, across the globe, the fallout of ‘letting it rip’ is escalating, despite Omicron’s supposed mild temperament. So-called experts and bureaucrats will get uncritical air time by saying that the now-dominant variant — highly contagious but less fatal — is ideal for the virus as it equates to more success. This assumes purpose, especially in the notion of viral evolution. Virus evolution can be rapid and random. High reproduction is not a goal, it is a coincidence.

The current assumption of many governments is that it is now game over for coronavirus evolution. And what are doing by throwing in the towel? We are giving COVID-19 exponentially more opportunities to mutate, and any new mutation could be the one where our luck runs out.

Our luck runs out and we:

  • Overwhelm PCR testing, then RAT testing, and contact tracing, ensuring that disincentives exist at every turn along with a shadow cache of positive cases.
  • Live in fear that was created by the institutions that demanded rather than fostered trust, so that much of society goes back into self-directed lockdown as cases explode, creating additional havoc.
  • Provide more fuel for vaccine (and other) disinformation.
  • Sit in our homes (if we are lucky) and watch in terror while Country X starts to experience a mutation that is both highly infectious and fatal.

The cognitive dissonance that people are experiencing right now is possibly higher than at any point in the pandemic. Depending on where you are reading this, you may have heard the message that this was a ‘public health first’ problem. Or not. “Listen to the scientists.” Or not. ‘Do as we say.’ Or not, in the new age of ‘self-responsibility.’

It is clear that governments are not capable of imagining anything other than getting back to the old status quo, despite how damaging that was, and how much carnage they have created in their myriad gaffes, heavy hands, and carelessness.

On the margins, businesses have pushed for unequal support, as they always do. Religious leaders and philosophers have struggled to find meaning. NGOs are stretched like never before. Higher education pretends that everything is as good as it was. And journalists cannot afford to look beyond the next cycle, which is far less than 24 hours.

Is there any wonder that the loss of trust has been accelerated in the last two years?

The pandemic and all the misery in its wake has taken place in the rise of another social phenomenon — hyperindividualism. This focus on the importance of individuals has led to a decrease in social cohesion primarily because of two significant shifts:

  1. The reliance on the experience and knowledge of an individual begins to supersede that of institutions, and trust in the latter naturally (and often rightfully) declines.
  2. Individuals are told (and more importantly, shown) that they cannot rely on institutions or their own communities for support. This weakens community participation and enforces ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ thinking across the board.

So here we are at the ‘self-responsibility’ stage of a catastrophe, when what we need is the best available information. This aligns well with leaders who go hard on punitive measures in the name of ‘public health’ but who are unwilling to do the heavy (and yes, it is very heavy) lifting of acknowledging and working with the realization that they have affected public health and wellbeing for decades, and none for the better.

They did try early to sell us on doing hard things for the community. They did not communicate movingly about why community still matters. Or even what community means.

They did not acknowledge that many people were already overwhelmed with the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the individualism that is elevated in neoliberal societies. Including trying to disseminate how to care for self, family, and whatever else is important to that person.

So why not leave it up to individuals?

My sense is that we shouldn’t be left to our own devices because there are always people who understand the highly complex and moving situation more completely and know better what we should be doing. The problem is trust — even the ones who do it best get pushback from individuals who believe their own thoughts matter more.

But is it possible to get Pandora back in her box? How do we rebuild trust? Do we need to?

One of my thoughts about our present status is that the deepening, rightful lack of trust may lead to some kind of revolution. And while history repeats in some ways, things are also wildly different now than at any point in history.

A revolution today does not mean some civil war in the name of communism. Despite what one might hear out of American media, there is no red threat. American ideals won around the world, but unfortunately they were some of the worst.

Globalization made some people rich and comfortable. It also made the world interdependent on a level like never before. COVID-19 helped us to see those interdependencies more clearly and highlighted again and again how it harms more than it helps. No place in the world, not even Antarctica, has proven safe.

Globalization is not just about corporations seeking cheap labor or on-time shipping. It is mostly about the success of ideas, even if that success comes at the cost of exclusion or punishment for those who do not abide. These concepts include, but are not limited to: free-trade capitalism, neoliberalism, and democratic governance.

It’s a big stretch to say that increasing distrust in the response to the pandemic might lead to revolution of ideas. But it’s a start.

The maneuver of ‘self-responsibility’ is straight from the playbook of America, the dominant exporter of bad philosophy. We can see for ourselves how that is working out — the U.S. has the largest distrust of each other than any other country, along with the most COVID cases.

So perhaps this trust gap, combined with something large or complex might provide the revolutionary push needed. Will humanity shift from poly-crisis or a black swan event? Or might it simply be death by a thousand cuts in public trust?

There are examples of other ways, looking at Europe specifically (noting that Europe has global and local problems, as well, including issues of trust). But at the moment, because America still believes (at least its politicians do) that it is the world leader, the examples seen in the EU will only support the people within its borders.

And the world is still too dependent on supplies and processes from other parts of the world. Not to mention the addictions that come with it, like travel and technology.

What about repairing trust in the most damaged countries? Is it possible to rebuild trust through the leadership of one block, one sector, or country?

Only if there is a significant collapse in those structures that will require a rebuild in which trust is earned and community is revalued. Otherwise, the selfish and irresponsible ideas — ideas that no one voted for — that have landed us into this dissonance, fear, fatigue, and grasping will only continue to wear down the little trust that remains.

I still need to be shown, not told.

What about you? Where do you stand with your own trust, and why?

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Chris Turner

Chris Turner

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Interfaith minister & spiritual companion writing about spirituality, chaplaincy, and humanness— more at https://innerfaith.life