The Politics of Panic
Do you know who panics the most during disasters?
It's the rich.
It's the politicians. It's the elite. It's the riot police. They don't panic about actual death and suffering. They panic about money.
They panic about their investments. They panic over property. They panic over the possible loss of their comforts and privileges. Most of all, they panic over the loss of their authority. They panic about the rest of us. They believe that the first chance we get, we'll break into their mansions and steal all of their stuff. Instead of helping the public, the elite collude with the government and media to preempt any imagined disobedience and to protect their own assets while amassing resources for themselves.
They hide crucial information.
They deceive us.
In most cases, the elite's abuse of power winds up making disasters far worse than they would've been. Meanwhile, communities themselves often pull together during disasters and emergencies. If anything, individuals underreact to threats. The average person is more likely to stand around waiting for instructions than they are to run screaming down the street.
That's the stuff of disaster movies.
It's all made up.
A sociologist named Kathleen Tierney came together with two others named Caron Chess and Lee Clarke to coin a term for all this:
They called it elite panic.
Rebecca Solnit talks about elite panic at length in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell. As she writes, "It's a very paternalist orientation to governance. It's how you might treat a child." Unfortunately, history shows us that our institutions often take the elite panic approach. It makes everything worse. They wind up posing a threat that rivals the original emergency.
Worst of all, authorities often deliberately hide, delay, or downplay vital information that undermines the public's ability to help each other or even protect themselves. They attack Cassandras. They put people in danger, out of a fabricated notion that we'll turn into violent, angry mobs.
It's called a disaster myth.
Lee Clarke tells us, "Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites... because to acknowledge the truth of the situation would lead to very different policy prescriptions than the ones currently in vogue." These policy prescriptions work for the greater good. They're simpler, and they're usually not very profitable.
We're seeing a lot of elite panic now.
It's getting worse.
It doesn't matter whether we're talking about deadly viruses or climate change. The elite own most of the media, and the media has churned out a constant stream of infantilizing rhetoric over the last few years. They're quick to remind us there's "no need to panic" or "there's no cause for alarm," no matter how serious the situation or how many are at risk.
As James B. Meigs writes, elite panic has routinely undermined our response to emergencies ranging from earthquakes to pandemics. We saw that in early 2020, when the WHO and CDC called for broad lockdowns but didn't acknowledge the airborne spread of Covid and didn't recommend masks. The contradictions confused people and led to backlash.
Elite panic continues to undermine our response to Covid, as they continue doing everything they possibly can to sabotage public health, while secretly freaking out over quarterly earnings. They're so panicked over their own wealth, it blinds them to the simple fact that protecting citizens from disease would work out better for everyone, including them.
It's the textbook definition of panic, focusing so much on your fear of drowning that you ignore the life raft in front of you.
They obsess over our imagined panic.
They should focus on their own.
The rich are so worried about urban uprisings and mass social unrest that they're building bunkers all over the world. The bunkers won't protect them from an uninhabitable planet. They're building mausoleums.
They won't know that until it's too late.
That's what panic gets you.
Acknowledging the truth of our situation would call for a decisive shift away from the systems and policies that generate egregious wealth for a handful of the elite. It would mean no more private jet rides. It would mean no more monster trucks. It would mean no more luxury vacations. It would mean no more mcmansions in the Arizona desert. It would mean an overhaul of the agriculture industry. It would mean less hamburgers, more beans.
We could go on...
Those of us who aren't panicked are already living the life the elite fear. It terrifies them that they might have to give up something.
They can't do it.
We could solve most of our problems with simple investments and restructuring of society. The elite don't want that. They believe we're a bunch of beasts in waiting. They believe we're one bad day away from devolving into animals. Their view of humanity aligns with their business models.
They don't think we're worth it.
Here's what Solnit writes:
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature... They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface.
The elite are scared we'll come for payback.
They're not wrong.
We see their attitude toward humans manifest in nearly everything they do. Their greed is what drives us further to collapse every day. Their desire for "endless growth" becomes the economic model they trap us in while pretending there's no other way. What they consider looting and unrest would, in reality, simply be us forcing them to get down off their pedestals and live like everyone else. That just happens to be the only way we'll save what's left.
As Solnit goes on to observe, the elite's view of humanity merely reflects their own violent cruelty. They're the ones who make billions by paying the rest of us starvation wages. They're the ones who strip us of healthcare. They're the ones who hoard wealth to the point that they have no idea what to do with it but see who can build the world's biggest yacht.
Of course, the elite panic about hoards of angry poor people. What they really fear is social mobilization and community resilience. That's what actually happens in the face of disasters. Citizens find out that they can't trust their institutions. They learn to rely on each other.
They discover their own power.
They demand better.
There's two opposite forces right now. As the world descends into a state of chaos and uncertainty, there are those of us who want to delve into our better selves and make more robust societies. Then there's those of us who want to continue operating on the world as it was.
Naomi Klein calls it disaster capitalism.
The same elites who panic over social unity want to keep us divided. They want to exploit the victims and survivors of natural disasters. They want to build beach resorts and shopping malls where poor neighborhoods flood or burn down. They want to let diseases spread so they can market treatments. They want children working in meat packing plants and serving them beer at sports bars. They sit around wondering if curing illnesses really offers a sustainable business model. They don't want to do anything that would address climate change on any meaningful level. That would hurt them.
They don't want to build climate infrastructure.
They want to sell you a neck fan.
Above all, the elite want to pathologize our sense of urgency and our survival instincts. Ultimately, what they do is insidious. Through their vast networks, they do their best to foment panic while simultaneously telling us there's no cause for alarm. They want us to panic, because it reinforces their own disaster myths and their own sense of authority.
The elite try to manufacture panic, then they use that manufactured panic to silence and suppress any urgent actions that run counter to their own interests. They can accuse their opponents of panicking.
It's very effective.
Meanwhile, the elite themselves do most of the actual panicking. They panic over things like community organization and decisive action. They live in fear of neighborhoods that can take care of themselves. Maybe that's why they go to such great lengths to villanize the Cassandras, the ones who see the disasters coming and actually know what to do.
Remember, you're not the one panicking.
It's the elite.
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