‘Groupthink: A Study in Self Delusion’

Christopher Booker’s, Groupthink (2020) is based on pre-existing psychological theories of collective delusion and moral superiority, ideas developed by Irving Janis. Janis applied his theory to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, among others — bad decisions, produced by groupthink, ideas based on a flawed premise, descisions that led to disaster.

Booker believed that sloppy ‘second hand thinking’, the regurgitation of readymade ideas wholesale, often from dubious sources and without any critical reassessment, has contributed to a collective deluded fantasy, alarmist fear-mongering, and intolerance. This mode has become the new status quo in the West, which is hastening its decline.

Examples of groupthink, that he explores are: political correctness, Puritanism (and New Puritanism), the lost masculine and feminine, global warming and Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Booker died in 2019. During his life, he was a founder and contributor to the satirical magazine Private Eye, a journalist at The Spectator and The Telegraph, a scriptwriter for the BBC’s satirical show That Was The Week That Was, and the author of the Jungian inspired book about storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots (2004).

His work is intriguing because of it’s contrary nature and how it delights in tackling the status quo. His position is primarily one of the contrarian, the polemicist and the historian (seeing things framed within the larger canvas of history). He clearly sees himself as being set apart from ‘the crowd’, his thinking shows the influence of Gustave Le Bon’s, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895).

Groupthink is a strange mixture of Bookerisms, a solid recap of the British post war political establishment, his own weird obsessions, and plain stubbornness. Much of his career was built on ridiculing the British political establishment. He believed that were living in a fantasy world (a core component of groupthink).1

Booker points to the Suez Crisis as a defining moment between old and new England and how groupthink had pervaded the political class with its fantasy of Britain being a world power. The resulting collision with reality led the UK to rush into another groupthink project, the European Union. Booker was a ‘Euro sceptic’ who favoured the ‘Norway option’.

He disputed the threat of global warming, arguing that the earth was having a naturally occurring second warming period. He observed that Greenland was called Greenland because it didn’t have an ice cap. He refused to accept the connection between passive smoking and cancer, and the danger of asbestos. He campaigned against the Modernist architecture of the 1960s tower-blocks and Brutalist urban redevelopment. And he refuted Darwinian evolution theory.

There’s something oddly familiar about Booker’s thinking that feels very 1930s. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while, and then it clicked — Wyndham Lewis. In the 1930s Wyndham Lewis wrote about the sex-war and the age-war, and other political wars. Lewis was concerned about the dangers posed by ‘the crowd’ (these fears were held by many intellectuals in the 1930s, with ‘mass observation’ coming into vogue as an attempt to understand the behaviour of large groups). Lewis was interested in the management class, the effects of consumerism, the feminisation of masculinity, the decline of the West, and the importance of art and criticism existing ‘outside of time’. Like Booker (with his work at Private Eye, etc), Lewis also satirised the ‘elite’, most notably the posh Bloomsbury art and literary circles, in his novel, The Apes of God.

I found quite a few of Booker’s impassioned arguments verging on the comical (I did literally chuckle once or twice). Some of his groupthink examples come across as a conservative thinker dreaming of the 1930s pre-War idyl of ‘old England’ and resenting anything vaguely socialist.

The post-War Modernist utopia of social housing was, clearly, a failed experiment, but there were many reasons why it did not live up to expectations (poor planning, poor surrounding infrastructure, bad redevelopment locations, low quality construction, culture, etc). But, it should be noted, those ugly tower blocks didn’t replace pretty Tudor homes, they replaced slums without proper drainage or indoor toilets, or bomb damaged areas left empty long after the Second World War.

In another example of groupthink, ‘political correctness’ (a term derived from the binary thinking of Nazi Germany, where people could only have right or wrong thoughts) he never makes any allowance for the well-intentioned origin of these ideas as attempts to right the wrongs of the past. This gives ‘political correctness’ a darkly conspiratorial tone when it’s usually a retroactive attempt to counteract injustice, prevailing prejudice, bullying and other abusive behaviours (although there is no accounting for sloppy implementation). It’s easy to knock things without offering an alternative.

I do think that Booker was right in many ways about the consensus cultures that exist today (on both the left and the right) and the hatred they direct against ‘heretical’ thinkers. Their smug, almost theological disgust and violent disdain has similarities to Puritanism (they were disgusted by almost every expression of fun, from music and dancing to the celebration of Christmas). The in or out arguments of the Brexit ‘debate’ on both sides descended into Swiftian absurdity. Again, vitriol of the binary arguments quickly turned into Bushisms (the mentality of, ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’). How can open debate flourish when all nuance has been lost? What happens when almost no one is scrutinising the management class with intelligent criticism?

Booker is best when he employs his satirical eye to comical effect (for example, observing a clergyman trying to be modern and ‘cool’ about sex). I disagree with him about many things, especially the feminisation of masculinity. Being a man encompasses a wide range of behaviours. It always has and there’s nothing new about this.

I also disagree with him about the environment. While he was preoccupied with refuting the danger of global warming (labelling sceptics like him ‘deniers’ doesn’t help), I think there is a genuine threat to humanity posed by the effects of long term environmental pollution. Just as the Romans never understood the dangers of lead poisoning, we’re ignorant of the long term damage that background pollution could have on our bodies (potentially reducing feritility, to damaging human DNA).

The section that argues against Darwinian evolutionary theory is particularly concise and well conceived.

While many people vocally express their opinions nowadays, they’re usually binary ones, lacking in nuance, ‘discussion’ is little more than a series of codified expletives. Booker’s somewhat anachronistic stance makes him a sort of connoisseur of the contrarian viewpoint, an old ‘stick in the mud’ perhaps, and yet he presents an intriguing conundrum — defined by the swinging sixties, associated with irreverent ‘anti-establishment’ satire, and yet socially conservative.

Verdict: Interesting.

1 His book, The Neophiliacs: A Study of the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties (1969) explored the role of fantasy in the thinking of the political class.