Pandemic Impressions II: The Great Turning Inwards and The Great Opting Out
Pandemic restrictions have driven people away from the public sphere and the professional world, leaving millions to lead vastly more private, withdrawn lives.
This is the second of a four-part series on my own subjective impressions of how pandemic policies have changed culture, society and politics, and what I think it all portends. Part I, on The Lie of Aufarbeitung and The Great Silence, is here.
Preference falsification is a social phenomenon, whereby people misrepresent their true preferences in the face of cultural pressure to adhere to artificial norms. It is pervasive in totalising and highly politicised societies, such as universities and, increasingly, the entire liberal democratic West.
Its dynamics are well known from Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale on The Emperor’s New Clothes. To avoid opprobrium and fit in, people profess to believe orthodoxies in which they have no confidence, contributing to the illusion that the consensus supporting these orthodoxies is vastly more widespread than it is. Preference falsification is commonly invoked to explain the sudden collapse of eastern bloc communist regimes, like the DDR, where the vast majority proclaimed personal support for socialism, until they realised they were not alone in falsifying their preferences and that committed adherents of the regime were in fact a minority. The more closed and authoritarian a society, the harder it becomes to plumb the true preferences of the masses; the regime risks becoming brittle and vulnerable to collapse from hidden instabilities. Unexpected political upsets, such as Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, the wild inaccuracy of political polls, and certain recent marketing failures, all indicate that preference falsification is widespread in the West, particularly in the Anglosphere.
One thing the pandemic has laid bare, is how little enthusiasm anybody had for the regimented professional world of the twenty-first century, and indeed how much people had come to sour on various aspects of public life in general. None of the technocrats who implemented the lockdowns and the social exclusion of the unvaccinated realised they were stepping directly into an area of pervasive preference falsification, which had accumulated gradually over many decades. The consequence has been a post-pandemic world in which millions have leaned into the opportunity to permanently reduce their participation in the public sphere and retreat to much more private, withdrawn lives.
We see the effects of this Great Opting Out everywhere: Businesses in major German cities face a substantial, permanent reduction in revenue, as former patrons now prefer to entertain at home and shop with online retailers. The “laptop class” of lockdown-enthusiast professionals have vanished into a permanent home office routine, beyond the supervision of superiors and the company of their coworkers. Many have relocated to rural areas, holiday spots or even their home towns. Some have imperilled their professional prospects, accepted demotions or left their careers entirely to maintain this new lifestyle. Chronic labour shortages, constant ‘away’ emails, desperate job ads and empty office buildings are enduring features of this new, post-pandemic world.