Pandemic and pandemonium


Authored on :
07/05/2020by :
Bob Hinshelwood

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Well…  The entire globe is in a panic.

What has happened to the celebrated virtue of enlightenment thinking.  The reasoned capacity to absorb beauty and truth which Renaissance Italy gave the world 500 years ago.  We have lived off our capacity for balance and logic ever since.  But now, pandemonium -- demons everywhere.  It is the black plague of 1348 again, that killed 30%-50% of the medieval population of Europe.

There is such a dread of death in the air.  We, and our loved ones may be lost for ever.  The analogy of a World War is all over the media.  Our little virus is terrifying us.  

To face the stark truth, it is not much worse than flu which comes around every winter, and kills off a few of us old people.  And yet flu does not cause us to panic.  Yes, Corona is a little worse, but is it not like the Spanish flu of 1920.

So why is the world in a ‘flap’ like the chicken run when the fox has got in?  It feels as though the world is out of control and our leaders and authorities are helpless, unprepared and quarrelling with each other.

I have in mind a possible explanation.  My mind turns to the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious where many dreaded things arise.  30 years ago, I wrote a paper about the relations we have with nature.  I had been impressed by the way nature was seen in, say, Shakespeare’s time.  Then, there was a radical distinction – the heath and the hearth.  The heath, those empty spaces between habitations, and the hearth the safety and warmth inside one’s home by the fire with the meal cooking.  The heath is the place of danger, wild animals, highwaymen and the mad.  One thinks of Gloucester in King Lear, stumbling with his eyes torn out thinking he is going to go over the cliff.  How things have changed now, I thought – we believe nature is tamed.  We have conquered all the dangers and are out exploring new worlds in space.

It is that sense of triumph, conquest and omnipotence which I focused on.  The taming of the wild – I called it the ‘Disneyfication’ of nature.  In Bambi the young deer’s mother is shot by the powerful human hunters.  This is the triumph of the human species; we increasingly feel outside of nature itself.  The image is the loved pet, taken for a walk on a lead, its excreta carefully collected like a baby in nappies.  Nature has become a sweet plaything.


Is this pandemic a huge rupture in that overblown omnipotent confidence.  When omnipotence shatters, it is a law of the unconscious that it is replaced  by vulnerable impotence and danger.  And is that what has happened on a global basis – a collective dose of omnipotence shattered?  

It is interesting that the danger of nature has now come so close.  There was a worry about the climate changing.  But too distant.  The virus has brought home to us, right down our throats, that Nature can claim us as its helpless creatures.  When we were once worried more about the planet and its climate, we could reassure ourselves with our omnipotence.  We caused it, in our omnipotence, and in our omnipotence we have the means to cure it.  Well, I wonder….  So far as I understand the geology, the globe has always changed its climate from searing desert to ice ages.  And has done so without the help of mankind.  So, our influence may indeed have been a contributory factor in recent times, and if we could come to our senses, we might delay the global changes long enough to adapt our civilisation to live through it.  But it may be we indulge ourselves in our omnipotent phantasies to think we are the controller of climate change, and the globe is there simply for us to manage it for our purposes.

Maybe I am overstating the case, but I am really doubtful if we can stop the planet in its tracks, and change its climate back to what is convenient for us.  More likely we need a large asteroid that will collide with us and spew so much matter into the atmosphere that we don’t see the sun for a couple of centuries and the glaciers will be able to right themselves.

And so, it looks like the global reach of Western civilisation is in process of being humbled – not out of revenge or intention.  We just got it wrong.  Our unconscious dynamics played its usual tricks, and we collaborated en masse.  We thought big.

It is the way with the unconscious – it has a means of convincing ourselves of untruths which spare us too many worries.  And when we do that altogether, and our civilisation convinces us we are right, then we risk a shock.  Our fragile confidence needs truth, and not the comforting illusions of grandeur we have enjoyed.

In truth, we are small and vulnerable.  Perhaps it would be best in our pandemic pandemonium if we began to recognise our place again.  We are but one of Nature’s small creatures.  With some remarkable attributes, but still our place is within Nature, and not the all-conquering master of it.


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Jenny Sprince


Dear Bob,

I've been thinking about this.  I think that over the last couple of hundred years - perhaps since the industrial revolution - people have become increasingly anxious about how the consequences of human ingenuity have spiralled beyond our capacity to control them.  When small children feel our of control, they have a tendency to become defensively omnipotent, and to believe themselves invulnerable rather than let themselves notice how terrified they are.  

So, on the subject of infantile omnipotence:  I'm particularly interested in how this state of mind is reflected in the concept of growth capitalism, where the interests of those who invest capital are prioritised over the interests of those who contribute their labour - let alone the interests of ordinary customers.   

This seems to me to relate to states of phallic narcissism, where the small child idealises the function of the phallus at the expense of maternal and feminine functions.  I gave an informal talk about this which you can find here, if you’re interested. 

I can't help thinking that many countries seem to be choosing leaders who exemplify this state of mind . . . .

I do like you paper.  Our current civilisation has got into a destructive spiral.  I only recently read Milton Freidman's iconic article in the New York Post in 1970 which started off neoliberalism and 'shareholder theory' -- or in other words 'how to pay the poor less than they need'.  But it did explain everything today, and the self-pity of the rich who have to pay more tax then the rest.

But....  what to do about it.  A lot is anticipated from the virus and its warning that we behave like a community or we are done for.  Let's hope we can in fact learn the lesson it is offering to us.

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Jenny Sprince


Thanks for this, Bob.  Yes, what to do about it?  

Can you tell me where to find Milton Freidman's article?  We could perhaps post a link to it here?


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Jenny Sprince


Dear Bob, 

I've just read Friedman's article.  Yes - how illuminating.  Thank you for directing me to it.

Here's his conclusion:  (T)here is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.  

His argument, as I understand it, is that businessmen are usurping the function of government by choosing to do anything from a sense of 'social responsibility' rather than for the profit of the owners - that is, the stock-holders.  Businessmen don't have the expertise or the right to make decisions on what would be socially useful:  these decisions belong properly to politicians, and thus to the people who elect governments. It is they who rightfully decide how to regulate business, how high to set taxes,  and how best to spend the tax once it's collected.   Thus, if businessmen attempt anything that isn't purely in the service of profit are they are cheating their stock-holders and undermining the democratic process.

Of course, in an age where large corporations are multi-national, businessmen working to the profit motive need no longer be bound by the rules of any one nation or government but can chop and change at will.  So Friedman is providing them - and their stock-holders - with an excuse to evade taxation and regulation by hopping from one regulatory zone to another.

But this amounts to another way of evading democratic control, and it's debatable whether it can in fact be achieved 'without deception or fraud'.  So I think Friedman's argument is ultimately self-defeating (quite apart from being self-serving and morally repugnant . . . ). 

Have I got that right?

I regret that I only now have begun to navigate through the richness of the appcios site, and 'surfing' has brought me to this interesting and important discussion months late. Never mind. I have a question. I have just tried to use the Tavi library site to unearth some seminal papers on the origins of greed, not very successfully. 

Greed is one expression of Jenny's diagram in the paper about capitalism. I would like to explore the psychoanalytic notion of greed, so if this link is still lively, and someone can help me with this, I would be grateful. One link is to Bion and the notion of insatiability (is that a word?). 

The other thought I have is about the notion of investment (and the paper by Friedman is so hard to read, because it does permit greed, indeed, requires it). Investment requires investors, and investors require 'customers', and a cycle which has no homeostatic mechanisms, will require more and more customers. Perhaps this is one of the roots of our communal unwillingness to consider that there might be too many homo sapiens on the planet. I am interested in this issue, because it is not possible to find a forum for it (except perhaps among the right wing or the eugenicists). I am neither. I just believe we need to find ways to talk about human numbers, and manage the challenges it poses to our beliefs about freedom of choice (of course so many women do not have this freedom in any case). 

i hope my questions are not too late a contribution to this lively discussion. 

With thanks

Joan Herrmann



laila Al-Attar


Dear Jenny and Bob


I found your exchanges very thought provoking. I have been thinking about the phallic omnipotence versus the feminine function and wondered if in fact the capitalist thinking infiltrates the psychoanalytic one. The notion of the phallus as a desired object overlooks the idea of the womb, which is the fertile creative space, as the actual longed for object. Is this not what the environmental crisis is all about? And does it not translate into a concrete attack on Mother Nature?

It also made me think about the Oedipus complex as a myth of origin which is equally very phallic, individualistic and aggressive, in that it translates the human experience into conflict, power struggle and the need to expel to be individualised and I wonder if we were  to think of it in term of a nourishing experience that gives birth to the individual, the source can be appreciated more, and narcissistic tendencies could be appeased. Could a change of symbolism change our reality?

Dear Leila -- yes I think that phallic narcissism is omnipotent and it is probably a fascination for both sexes.  And it ultimately is a desperate denial of something. 

Is our conquest of nature a gendered thing?  Not sure.  But an idea worth considering isn't it.  Was it Karen Horney who wrote a paper on the dread of the vagina, and about the dread each gender has of the other sex?  There is also Christina Wieland's fascinating book about nazi hypermasculinity as a fear of the feminine.

And even Klein was more focused on the breast.  But she was interest in phantasies of conquering the womb.

Well, just some immediate associations.



laila Al-Attar


In reply to by Bob Hinshelwood

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your reply and for the suggested papers. I understand that Female psychoanalysts have responded and made valuable contributions that advanced psychoanalytic thinking. I was thinking more along the line of whether it was possible to find a starting point that is neither masculine nor feminine, and there is no doer and done to feeling. I thought of the experience of the womb as a creative space and the birthplace of both the masculine and the feminine, on equal footing. But maybe this premise does not hold as the womb is a gendered space.

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Amir Saeedi


Dear Bob thanks for the article. I shall mention that, I felt so related to the ‘omnipotent confidence’. The ego’s old wish for omnipotence and its satisfaction for controlling over the nature, with less doubt, can be the cornerstone of the formation of civilisation. As Freud mentions in Civilisation and Its Discontents “Man has become, so to speak, a god with artificial limbs”. In this regard, man has become an omnipotent being (god) of its nature but within an delusional bobble. And today, as you mentioned in this article, the pandemic of coronavirus could be one of the several phenomena which the humanity is going to face for its delusional bobble to be blown up. Maybe it is time to find a new omnipotent confidence. Or maybe it is time to face the real reality. But there is no doubt that after this pandemic many things are going to change, including our lifestyles and social interactions. I also would like to add that I have translated your article into Farsi language and shared it in my facebook and blog by maintaining the copyright.