Myth and anti-vaccination

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By RICARDO PAGLIUSO REGATIERI*

Vaccine opposition based on delusional truths offered by romantic holisms and conspiracy theories

“Just as myths already accomplish enlightenment, so enlightenment becomes more and more entangled with every step it takes in mythology.”[1] This sentence summarizes the program of critical investigation of contemporary society carried out by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Begun and finished during World War II, this book begins with a chapter on enlightenment, which is conceived as "the theoretical foundation of the following",[2] in which the cultural industry and elements of anti-Semitism are discussed.

The attempt to understand Nazi barbarism, but also domination through mass culture in democratic societies, corresponds to the historical context of the book. Horkheimer and Adorno sought to understand how Nazism could mobilize an entire nation for the destruction of the Jews and ultimately for its self-destruction, as well as how the cultural industry produced individualities formatted by clichés. This effort went against the grain of the attitude that Walter Benjamin described in his Theses on history, such as “astonishment at the fact that the episodes we experienced in the XNUMXth century are 'still' possible”.[3]

In the current historical barracks, in which authoritarian leaders, lies and obscurantism have thrived, one phenomenon in particular draws attention in some of the most prosperous countries in the world: the refusal to vaccinate against the coronavirus. While in several of the poorest countries on the planet, vaccination has not advanced due to lack of doses or logistical issues, it seems that, in low- and middle-income countries, when there is a vaccine, the population adheres to it. But in others that have stocks to vaccinate more than the total population, the major obstacle has been the attitude against the vaccine. In Western Europe, where mandatory health passes have become generalized for access to restaurants, bars, universities and sports and leisure facilities, there have been constant marches in several countries against such an obligation, protests against what would constitute a restriction of freedom and all kinds of conspiracy theory about the hidden reasons for mass vaccination that the media would not publicize.

Countries such as Germany (70%), Austria (71%) and Switzerland (67%) have vaccination rates[4]below the target stipulated by their governments and are the scene of public demonstrations of resistance to the vaccine. Especially in the case of these countries, we should not disregard the role of romantic currents such as anthroposophy and various forms of naturopathy in the genesis of anti-vaccination dispositions.[5]. In general, these currents proclaim that vaccines – including immunizations against all diseases – disturb the immune system of individuals in their attempt to protect themselves from infections.

In addition to this vitalist view, there are often conspiratorial narratives about the inexplicable speed in the production of vaccines against the new virus, their unproven effectiveness, and the fact that they would actually be part of a great secret project by governments and pharmaceutical industries to control (further) individuals. Against the imposition of doses that are proven to save lives, freedom is invoked, which after decades of neoliberalism means nothing more than the subjective will and belief of self-centered individuals. Incapable, needless to say, of thinking about the collective, the well-being and health of all.

In Germany, the late scion of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy in the early XNUMXth century, has been the country's anti-vax frontline. Anthroposophical doctors, schools inspired by their holistic thinking[6]and supporters of this lifestyle are just the most visible part of a romantic and mythical conception of the body and nature that, in addition to active followers, is largely part of German common sense – and of German-speaking countries and regions such as Austria and most of Switzerland.

In Austria, the failure to scale up vaccination after a lockdown for unvaccinated people led the government to impose mandatory vaccination of all citizens from February 1, 2022, as did the government of Indonesia. Austria and Indonesia will thus join Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Micronesia, where such a measure has already entered into force. In the German parliament, there are proposals being processed for the establishment of mandatory vaccination from next February.

In Switzerland, the authorities of the cantons are in a state of alert due to the dissemination of alternative medicines for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. “Valérie Soukhérépoff, pendulum in hand, prescribes mushroom-based capsules in her office in the Basel region. She opened her company at the beginning of the pandemic and her business figures are dizzying. 'The first year we made CHF 302.000, and this year twice as much'”[7]. An unsuccessful attempt to strengthen the immune system made headlines in Swiss newspapers in recent weeks: a man, who ingested silver particles diluted in milk, arrived at the emergency room with “severe abdominal pain and a racing heart” and was diagnosed with argyria, severe intoxication resulting from the ingestion of this metal; “[his] skin has turned blue and will stay that way for the rest of his life”[8].

In the United States (61%), whose vaccination rate is even lower than in the three European countries mentioned above[9], nothing like a sanitary pass was established, in tune with the country's historical roots. There, it does not seem to be naturopathy, but the assertion of individual freedom that distrusts any authority or central power, which was at the genesis of the country's constitution, fueling opposition to the vaccine. Years ago, this historic provision culminated in Donald Trump, its logical conclusion.

Despite its denialist and anti-vaccine president, in Brazil (67%)[10], apparently, the reactionary political agitation on social networks and the lies – called fake news – have not prevented people from trying to get vaccinated. At the end of November, the city of São Paulo, where vaccination began in the country, reached the mark of 100% of its population with a complete vaccination schedule[11].This allows us to assume that, if vaccination had advanced at the national level at the same pace as it could in the city and state of São Paulo, the percentage of vaccinated Brazilians would now be close to the total population. A possible explanation for this receptivity is that the last three or four decades of SUS vaccination campaigns, which universalized the application of vaccines in the country, have accustomed Brazilians to being vaccinated, so that conspiracy theories regarding immunization did not have much effect. around here in terms of refusal to receive doses.

Opposition to the vaccine in the form of romantic holisms or the enthronement of an antisocial conception of freedom reveals regressive movements at the heart of liberal democracies at the center of the capitalist world system. The politics of conviction, of individual truth, which corresponds to the era of hyperconnection and social networks, represents the contemporary form of the myth. For Achille Mbembe, the “contemporary psychic regimes” are marked by a “desire for mythology”: “The accelerated expansion of algorithmic reason (which we know serves as a decisive support for the financialization of the economy) goes hand in hand with the rise of mythical reasoning- religious"[12].

The glorification of number and calculation and the growing improvement of means that are not connected to the concern for ends have historically weakened the confrontation of trends such as romantic-reactionary criticism, which were generated within the enlightenment process. In other words, limitless progress was accompanied by the neutralization of reflection on its own direction. On the other hand, the intransparency of the social apparatus, which intensifies day by day, encourages the production and consumption of easy explanations that promise immediate access to the truth. Conspiracy theories and fascination with holisms of all kinds find fertile soil in this environment.[13].

Vaccine opposition in nations that rank among the world's most prosperous liberal democracies exposes what Adorno, referring to right-wing radicalism in 1960s Germany, called the wounds or scars of democracy.[14]. Anti-vax attitude and authoritarianism are part of the same constellation, as both share science denialism and belief in conspiracy theories. What Adorno had said about supporters of authoritarian movements can be applied to opponents of vaccination: “they always evoke true democracy and accuse others of being undemocratic”[15].

In both cases, anti-systemic energies are captured and put at the service of regressive ends. The governments of Austria and, it seems, also of Germany – imposing compulsory vaccination against COVID-19–, of Switzerland – practically expelling those who do not have a health pass from social life –, and of the United States–conceiving public health as not being able to confront the freedom of the individual –, reveal the inability to face the regression to the myth that erupts in the so-called “civilized” world. Such confrontation should go through a reflected deconstruction of the delusional truths offered by romantic holisms and conspiracy theories.

*Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Author, among other books, of Unfettered capitalism: The critique of domination in the debates at the Instituto de Pesquisa Social in the early 1940s and in the elaboration of the Dialectics of Enlightenment.

 

Notes


[1] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1997, p. 26.

[2] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1997, p. 15.

[3] Walter Benjamin. “On the concept of history”. In: Walter Benjamin. Magic and technique, art and politics: essays on literature and cultural history, Selected Works, Volume 1. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987, p. 226.

[4] Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World.https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccinations-tracker.html. Data refer to the percentage of the population that received the complete vaccination schedule. Updated 19/12/2021. Consulted on 21/12/2021.

[5] https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2021/11/23/antroposofia-o-movimento-que-pode-explicar-a-baixa-vacinacao-em-paises-germanicos.htm

[6] For example, the Waldorf schools, present in several countries, including Brazil.

[7] RadioTélévision Suisse.https://www.rts.ch/info/regions/jura/12707406-le-recours-aux-naturopathes-face-au-covid19-inquiete-dans-le-jura.html. Consulted on 13/12/2021.

[8] RadioTélévision Suisse.https://www.rts.ch/info/regions/jura/12630653-intoxique-par-des-particules-dargent-il-a-desormais-la-peau-bleue-a-vie.html. Consulted on 13/12/2021.

[9] Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccinations-tracker.html. Data refer to the percentage of the population that received the complete vaccination schedule. Updated 19/12/2021. Consulted on 21/12/2021.

[10] Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/world/covid-vaccinations-tracker.html. Data refer to the percentage of the population that received the complete vaccination schedule. Updated 19/12/2021. Consulted on 21/12/2021.

[11] https://www.capital.sp.gov.br/noticia/capital-atinge-100-1-do-publico-adulto-vacinado-com-duas-doses-ou-dose-unica

[12] Achille Mbembe. Enmity Policies. São Paulo: n-1 editions, 2020, p. 89.

[13] On these issues, see: Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1997; Theodor W. Adorno. Authoritarian personality studies. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2019; Theodor W. Adorno. Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2020

[14] Theodor W. Adorno. Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2020, p. 51

[15] Theodor W. Adorno. Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2020, p. 64.

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