This pandemic fundamentally challenges us to rethink norms and clichés about freedom and authority; about the individual, the community and the “state.”
As this pandemic unfolds, we are having to relearn solidarity the hard way; from the bottom up. The phrase “we are all in this together” has spread as quickly as the virus. This reflects growing compassion, gratitude and solidarity. It is also a plea for those not adhering to public health orders to realize their behaviour puts others at risk. It empowers the concerned public and elected officials to apply more social and legal pressure to bring pandemic deviancy in check.
Inherited partisan political views, of both “left” and “right,” have not prepared us very well to face this global health crisis and the unfolding climate crisis. There is widespread confusion about the difference between freedom from and freedom to. It is one thing to be free from political oppression, it is quite another to live in a society that facilitates the freedom to participate, organize and access goods and services that enhance our quality of life.
The roots of the libertarian fallacy
The libertarian view that the individual must relentlessly fight against interference from the government has mushroomed since the 1970s. That government intrusion in our lives must be fervently resisted gained credence from still popular writers such as U.S. Russian refugee, Ayn Rand. By 2009, the combined annual sales of her four novels exceeded one million. Her famous book, Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957 during the Cold War, topped more than seven million sales after the 2009 financial crash.
The contemporary libertarian view, especially in the U.S., is greatly rooted in opposition to communism. It encouraged the reframing of freedom from authoritarian governments to mean freedom from government authority. The constitutional pursuit of “liberty” in the name of achieving “happiness” was easily slanted this way. The Republican Tea party broadened the support. Bernie Sanders’ call for a universal single-payer health-care system, along Canadian or European lines, was met with libertarian attacks that this would make America socialist — even if such a system can be shown to extend health care to everyone and reduce overall costs.
The libertarian view easily fed into the spread of neoliberalism. Perpetual global economic growth for profit was the new end-game. The freedom to accumulate grew along with the big-box stores. Mass advertising stimulated demand; wants were transformed into perceived needs. China was willing to produce almost anything that Walmart could successfully sell.
Initially there was no attention paid to the resulting indebtedness of individuals or their lack of freedom from the gouging banks. With their simplistic formulas for fiscal austerity, neoliberal politicians offloaded debt from the government onto families. We were left free to pursue private childcare, if we could find and afford it, but were not free from scarcity, high costs and family anxiety.
The growing private, for-profit market of consumer choices steadily undercut communitarian norms. It accelerated the growth of narcissistic behavior. The growth in identity politics has added to our confusion.
The libertarian view of “rights” has been much more influential than we want to admit. Rights can’t exist without responsibilities. We can’t expect to have our rights respected if we don’t take responsibility to protect the rights of others. This pandemic creates a very new context for the politics of difference and the politics of resentment.
Meanwhile, we are still trying to find our way through the impact of the internet on our views of freedom and authority. Initially the proliferation of platforms by private corporations was widely seen as enhancing almost everyone’s freedom to communicate, network, research or start a business. There was little awareness or concern that we were not free from the corporate business model; to collect, mine and market data extracted from us.
When there were indications that there was government surveillance of citizens, which breached privacy, there was uproar. During his presidential campaign, Trump purchased the most sophisticated corporate internet data to target political messages that stressed being free from corrupt political practices in “the swamp.” Disinformation was perpetrated under the populist cover of pursuing the American dream, while Trump was accusing the media of spreading “fake news.” A similar thing happened with Brexit. There must be regulation of the information industry, and governments and politicians alike must be held accountable to the rule of law.
Widespread confusion from neoliberalism
But this will not happen easily. We became even more confused about freedom and authority because of all the anti-government propaganda about how privatization, deregulation and free trade will “trickle down” to serve us all. We have been bombarded by positive messages about these three pillars of neoliberalism since the late 1970s, when global corporate expansion ramped up. The stature of the self-made entrepreneur who becomes a multi-millionaire steadily rose as that of the public servant continued to fall. Commercialized celebrity culture spread into every nook and cranny. Unions that stood in the way of privatization of the public-service sector for profit, were attacked as entitled elites. The “citizen” was renamed a “consumer” by government officials who believed that public services must now meet the bottom line. Environmentalists who opposed deregulation were continually labelled as anti-development or even anti-worker. Property rights were touted more than civil rights. The term “public interest” was used less and less, while public spaces shrank. Neoliberal theorists claimed that the “end of history” had arrived.
But COVID-19 has put an abrupt end to this nonsense.
The need for multinational solidarity
There are huge lessons coming about socio-political organization. And we have to park our ideological stereotypes to learn from the evidence. A BBC documentary on the Wuhan lockdown indicated that early on, the Chinese government closed down public transit because it would be a huge vector for the virus. The city then marshaled volunteers to provide transportation for health-care workers and patients. This volunteerism in a communist country may seem counter intuitive, but it suggests that the relationships between individuals, families, community and government in China’s historical and cultural context is more complex and nuanced.
There is much to learn about how the quick action of authorities, along with applied science, flattened the curve in several Asian countries. Also, so far, we don’t see Germany with nearly as large a death rate as some other European countries. This may prove to be because Germany had standardized state-based testing authority and capacity in place, with federal authority able to coordinate. It seems that Germany has been able to isolate and treat patients earlier, with more ICU capacity, and to instigate contact tracing to nip the spread in the bud.
This contrasts sharply with the U.S. where the central authority, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, was gutted by Trump, and there was deep confusion about states taking on testing, and how an overall strategy could be coordinated. And, of course, all this muddle occurred without universal health care. Collective preparedness, not laissez-faire corporate individualism, ensures that more people will remain free from the ravages of this virus and will be free to live and breathe after the pandemic is over.
In Canada we were not prepared with standardized, quick turnaround, province-based testing capacity that could then be federally coordinated. But we have moved in this direction. Nor did we heed the lessons from the 2003 SARS pandemic, and maintain an inventory of protective equipment. We are still scurrying to catch up.
Rather than us being protected from this pandemic by being free from government authority, our freedom to continue to eat, to have electricity and heat, and to access healthcare if we need it, is solidly based on socio-economic infrastructures being quickly reorganized by authority that flows both ways.
Academic and scientific freedom from authoritarian or largely ignorant politicians facilitates the freedom to execute a rational pandemic strategy. International cooperation accelerates creating a vaccine. Local capacity to do testing and contact tracing is going to be essential to enable any easing of social isolation that won’t, in turn, risk the virus returning to the wider province or country. Responsible, informed authority will enhance human freedom and security.
After this global health crisis subsides there will need to be a major reset to review dependence on particular supply chains, to enhance local food security, and to make our societies and communities more resilient. We should implement an equitable guaranteed annual income, which is long overdue as the capacity of the changing work world to distribute income continues to falter.
A supply chain that was truly built to serve human needs around the planet would look a lot different than the one we now have. It would shift the nature of our freedoms and the priorities of our elected authorities. It would be far less wasteful and less carbon-intensive. The reduction in global emissions and pollution, the return of air and water quality and habitat health that we are now witnessing, with the brakes put on neoliberal economic growth, must continue to be pursued.
Future pandemics are not only possible but probable if we return to business as usual. People may think they will again be free to live a high-carbon life that sends toxic wastes into the oceans and atmosphere. But the creatures that are our ecological neighbours will not then be free from our harmful intrusions, and we will not be free from devastating climate changes, along with new pandemics.
Our solidarity, what we consider our truly important freedoms and the purposes that we want elected authorities to pursue, has to encompass taking care of our common home, the planet. Let this sink in, deeply, while our minds are so firmly focused on the need for solidarity to get out from under COVID-19.
Activist-author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies and a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association. He has written several books including Canada’s Deadly Secret and After Iraq. His book, Moving Beyond Neo-Liberalism in Saskatchewan is available here.