Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Covid-19 and the question of freedom

Margaret Thatcher’s point was that we could disregard forms of mutual obligation over and beyond market relations – the notable exceptions, of course, being family and church. 

Samir Gandesha
11 June 2021, 2.38pm
PM Margaret Thatcher addresses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, May 21, 1988.
Trinity Mirror / Alamy. All rights reserved

While the Corona virus pandemic is and has been catastrophic in ways that we have yet to even begin to come to terms with – and indeed may yet never fully come to terms with – it reveals some important and surprising truths about our shared world.

For example, it shows the way in which neo-liberal capitalism is riddled with myriad “pre-existing conditions” (I thank Derrick O’Keefe for this formulation), conditions that, were society to be understood as an individual seeking new private coverage from a health insurance company – without question, she would be denied coverage.

The pandemic shows us, as well, that what we may think of as individual freedoms are closely bound up with the larger context of social relationships and institutions that make them possible.

Observing public health protocols, for example, might at first appear to be an irritating, frustrating, even unbearable, limitation to a range of freedoms we previously took for granted.

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We may start out, therefore, by thinking that public health protocols pit our individual rights against society as a whole. We are free, according to this logic, in exact proportion to the absence of such regulations.

This was the justification for neo-liberalism and, further, Margaret Thatcher’s outrageous claim that “society does not exist.” Her point was that forms of mutual obligation over and beyond market relations simply could be disregarded – the notable exceptions, of course, being family and church.

Thatcher’s claim was what moral philosophers refer to as an ought dressed up as an is; an imperative masquerading as a declarative. Insofar as it constituted unnecessary, irrational friction for the smooth operation of market transactions, society ought not to exist.

The only obligation we owe one another is to make good on our contracts. In other words, our relations with others were to be understood as entirely transactional and hence an exact inversion of the Kantian precept that we ought to treat others always as ends and never as means. The freer we are to engage in such transactions the freer we are as such.

Such freedom is understood as part of a zero-sum game. Just as in the relation between two firms vying for the same market share, assuming if we can the absence of collusion, the benefit of Firm A is in exact proportion to the cost of Firm B. Similarly, individual agents are construed as so many firms in ferocious competition with one another; your loss is my gain and my loss is your gain. There are, in other words, clear “winners” and “losers.”

This is precisely why demagogues such as Donald Trump are so uniquely suited to our neo-liberal moment: they cannily attract socio-economic “losers” who imagine themselves as “winners” by identifying with figures like him who are able to deceitfully project victory. As President 45 exclaimed in a 2016 speech in Albany: “We’re going to win so much you may even get tired of winning!”

Safety and freedom

If we think it through more carefully, however, it becomes clear that, in following public health protocols, we care not only for other members of society, but we also care for ourselves. By adhering to these admittedly difficult measures we contribute not only to keeping others safe but also, in doing so, we keep ourselves safe.

To be clear: the protocols intended to protect others, also protect ourselves. Other-regarding actions are also at the same time self-regarding ones. The game is, in other words, not zero-sum at all.

Safety is a condition for the possibility of freedom. Not its limitation.

In following public health protocols, we not only help to bring down the numbers of fatalities but also those of critical cases. With the reduction of the numbers of both, we reduce the burden and stress on healthcare facilities. If such an objective were not urgent enough, we might also cast our minds in the direction of the very probable scenario of the consequences of an over-burdening of the public health care system as well as its ancillaries such as mortuaries, crematoria and cemeteries.

A prolonged crisis of public health infrastructure could be reasonably expected to cause large scale anxiety, fear, panic, civil unrest and, possibly, the breakdown of social institutions as such. Such a breakdown would, inevitably, affect us very deeply, by placing our rights and freedoms, which are dependent upon those social institutions, at risk. It could, of course, place our very lives in danger.

Freedom cannot be understood as possessed by isolated, heroic individuals in a state of first nature that becomes, somehow, optimized in what has become the second nature of the market “laws” governing commodity exchange.

Rather, freedom is a thorough-going historical product of the mutuality of social obligation and recognition via a constellation of social institutions whose very existence Thatcher denied.

It must never be forgotten, then, that genuine freedom, which ought to be cherished and fiercely protected, is not an individual but a social and collective accomplishment.

This article was originally published in the June edition of Splinters.

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