I came across this term when reading an article about the riots in USA triggered by police brutality, and it seemed particularly helpful in understanding wider governmental responses to COVID-19 – in the UK, certainly, but presumably wider than this too. Here is a quote, from here;
A dozen years ago, when I wrote a book about civil society response to urban disaster, I learned the term “elite panic”. It describes how the authorities often respond in an emergency – not by protecting and aiding the public but by seeking to control and repress us, protecting nothing but their own power and position.
‘Elite panic’ is a term that has emerged from over fifty years of sociological research into how society responds to major disasters. It turns out that what we might expect to see (based on a million disaster movies and popular doomsday predictions) very rarely actually happens. In fact, rather than pubic disorder and individual outrages against vulnerable people, these events more commonly bring out the best in us. However, our leaders – the government, the media moguls and the ruling elite – often seem to have a different reaction, based perhaps around a rather low opinion of the rest of us, who are clearly not like them.
Or perhaps the opposite is true, and they fear that we are just like them. After all, getting to the top, then staying at the top through inherited privelege, requires a set of scratch and smash skills that most of us might regard as plain rudeness. To be part of an elite seems to involve a healthy dose of fear, mediated only by the use of wealth and power to protect and sustain position.
As evidence of what we might regard as elite panic, consider the UK government response to the pandemic. At first, it was minimise and distract- keep the football matches/horse racing going (otherwise known to the Romans as ‘bread and circuses‘) beacause otherwise the rabble might rise.
Next we had the now entirely discredited ‘Herd Immunity’ approach. A few of you will die, but it will be better for the rest of us in the long run. Take one on the chin for the team. The cracks were starting to show here, perhaps. Almost as if the death of a few serfs is hardly noticeable to the lords and ladies.
Later on, the focus turned on us ‘all being in it together’. We conjured up imagary from the last great war and talked about ‘Blitz spirit’, but at the same time, the message was manipulated. Information from SAGE was managed and distorted. Then the Dominic Cummins affair showed it like it is.
It does not need to be this way- we know this from the reaction of governments not run by the elite for the elite. New Zealand, for example. Scotland even.
This might be an excellent point to remind ourselves of another highly pertinent piece of social research;