Freedom for whom?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, one thing is emminently clear to politicians, scientists, business leaders and the public at large: mass vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic, and thus the only way out of the cycle of restrictions that have been imposed on our lives. Most people can see this, and thus most people in Britain have already gotten vaccinated at this point. But of course, not every country is as fortunate to have vaccination rates as high as ours.

Austria, which has among the lowest vaccination rates in Europe at 42%, has recently become the first country in Europe to make it mandatory for all eligible citizens to recieve the Covid vaccine. In the US, only about 59% of the population has been vaccinated, which sounds fine until you remember that a large and vocal part of the population resists the idea of being vaccinated at all, legitimised by a right-wing media ecosystem that denies the efficacy of vaccines, and sometimes the existence of COVID-19. Thus, President Joe Biden attempted to implement vaccine mandates, against significant legal challenges.

Unsurprisingly, the vaccine mandates have generated widespread controversy. In Austria, the country which recently implemented its own vaccine mandate, saw a wave of anti-mandate protests in reaction to the new policy, but such protests were not confined to Austria. Similar protests occurred throughout Europe, and also in Australia, the US, Guadelope and Martinique. Of course, these protests are not merely about the mandates themselves. Many of their supporters are “skeptical” about the efficacy of vaccines, and also oppose the wearing of masks, along with any and all restrictions that have had to be implemented due to the pandemic. To get a sense of their ideological aims, a slogan that was prominently chanting during a protest in Graz, Austria was “peace, freedom, no dictatorship”.

In the eyes of those who object to vaccine mandates, mask mandates, COVID passes, lockdowns or any COVID rules generally, they are fighting what we are to believe is self-evidently a fascist dictatorship. Right off the bat, there is a noticeable and perverse irony in seeing talk about how we’re becoming a fascist dictatorship coming from a movement with demonstrable links to white supremacist groups. This sort of doublethink is an elementary trait of the right (and let’s be honest with ourselves, the anti-vax movement is mostly right-wing), whereby they use the language of freedom to oppose policies that see the government intervene on behalf of public good, and also to argue in favour of authoriarian controls on academic freedom and brutal neoliberal economic policies.

The other important detail to note is that, unless you live in Hungary, nothing about the various measures introduced to combat the spread of COVID-19 remotely resembles a fascist dictatorship. Do they resemble a shift of Western liberal governments towards authoritarianism? Certainly that is true, as numerous countries have used the pandemic as a pretext for curtailing democratic rights such as the right to protest. Do the specific measures to curtail COVID – lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, social distancing etc. – represent fascism? No they do not, and the reason why I say this is because a fascist dictatorship typically doesn’t voluntarily repeal its draconian laws after a few months. I remember in July when an anti-lockdown protest was marching in Cardiff all the way to First Minister Mark Drakeford’s house, despite the fact that his Welsh Labour government was, at that time, in the process of repealing lockdown rules. In England, there were anti-lockdown protests on the day Boris Johnson lifted all Covid rules, shouting “arrest Boris Johnson” even though he was giving them nearly everything they wanted with his asinine “Freedom Day” stunt.

Because the concept of freedom has been used and abused endlessly by all manner of political actors, we must discuss exactly what freedom means to anti-lockdown activists, and I will begin by offering my own definition of freedom. A full and discursive account of the many definitions of freedom would be beyond the scope of this article, but my definition of freedom entails not only the power to speak, think and act as one wishes unmolested by any authority or any other individual, but also the ability to live your life without fear or anxieities hanging over one’s head, and to live without boundaries to one’s potential.

It is for this reason among others that I have embrace socialist, even communist politics over the years, under the conviction that capitalism is incapable of delivering on genuine freedom. In the context of this article, it is also why I think anti-lockdown libertarians are missing the point. Yes, I would like the freedom to be able to enter a cinema without requiring a Covid pass, but so too would I like all of our lives to be free from the spectre of COVID hanging over us, and I think many members of the public share my view, hence why many Brits wanted the existing Covid restrictions in England to remain.

What is freedom for the anti-lockdown, anti-vax milieu? To find out, let me ask this simple question. So they oppose vaccination, so if we can’t vaccinate, should we have a lockdown instead? After all, there has to be a way of keeping the virus under control, and if not enough people are vaccinated, you’d still have to go into lockdown as Austria has just done. “No more lockdowns” is their response, and alright, nobody wants continued lockdowns, but if you oppose that, what do you suggest to control coronavirus? Are they at least in favour of masks? Well no, absolutely not. They oppose any requirement for masks to be worn indoors and on public transport, even though this the norm throughout the Far East, which I may add has generally handled COVID-19 better than most parts of the world. They probably aren’t fans of social distancing either, considering they don’t practice it at their protests. They rule out everything you could possibly use to contain the virus. They only appraoch they do support is herd immunity, a fantasy approach which says we should let the virus run its course, and which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work.

Effectively, the whole plan of anti-lockdown, anti-vax types is to simply let the virus run roughshod over whole populations. For what vision of freedom are they willing to let scores of people die of Covid? Only the narrowest and most childish vision of freedom you can think of, which unfortunately is a lot of people’s idea of freedom. Their idea of freedom is one where they are simply allowed to do as they please with no consideration for others. They simply want to be able to eat at Wetherspoon’s without having to do any social distancing, without wearing a mask, and maybe yell at the manager if the possibly underpaid waiter doesn’t give you your full English breakfast on time, and they don’t give a damn whether they end up spreading Covid around in the process.

Theirs is a “freedom” that is only for them. The freedom of others to not get infected by COVID-19 is flatly irrelevant to them, as they are not even convinced the virus even exists. Nor does it remotely occur to them that so long as the virus is not contained, the very restrictions they hate will continue to be in place on an on and off basis. Right now a new variant of the virus, the Omicron variant, is spreading to Britain. Its potential for faster transmission than the Delta variant, along with the possibility that current vaccines may be ineffective against it, means that once again the government is having to reintroduce restrictions, with speculation that there could be a new lockdown. The cause is obvious: the West’s refusal to lift vaccine patents to allow countries in the Global South to easily produce their own copies ensured that much of Africa went unvaccinated, allowing new variants to form. If we had listened to the anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination types, the same would be happening here.

The idea that we would be any freer if we didn’t pursue the path of Covid restrictions is also ridiculous considering the backward trajectory of the Western bourgeois democracies. We were already on the way to implementing things like facial recognition technology before the pandemic, and had the pandemic not happened, it would have been happening anyway, led largely by our authoritarian Tory government. Of course, many of these anti-lockdown buffoons are probably also Tory voters, so they probably supported the authoritarian government until it started introducing laws that slightly inconvenienced them.

So when anti-lockdown cranks talk about how we’re “losing our freedom”, know that they are entirely unserious about it. They fundamentally don’t care, otherwise they would be complaining about the actual authoritarian abuses being carried out by the Tory government, the way it is crushing our right to protest, brutalising refugees crossing the English channel, denying trans people the right to self-identification, and trying to curtail academic freedom under the guise of “free speech”. If these anti-lockdown, anti-vax protestors in Britain gave half a damn about freedom as they claim to, they would be on the streets every single day of their damn lives protesting every single issue I just listed, but they aren’t, and they won’t.

They have quite a bit of gall talking about how the government scaring the public into compliance. Even if that were true, it’s the anti-vaxxers, those supposed freedom fighters, that are targeting children and intimidating them on their way to school and proudly boasting about frightening teachers, all while portraying themselves as “patriots”. Anti-maskers have also been putting razor blades behind their posters, a tactic also widely used by TERFs, homophobes and neo-Nazis for the explicit purpose of harming anyone that tries to take down their propaganda. Something tells me that if they were actually concerned with protecting freedom, these isn’t the sort of tactics they would use, because these are the tactics of authoritarians.

It is, I must say, quite surreal being lectured on “freedom” by people who practice authoritarian tactics, and like all authoritarians, they want unlimited fredom, power and privilege for themselves. Their version of “freedom” is not freedom at all, well, except for capitalists. The ruling class never actually wanted lockdowns at all, because unless you happen to be Amazon or OnlyFans or anyone else in big tech (for whom pandemic profits have been huge), to close the economy in the way that lockdowns necessarily entail is very bad for your profits. That’s why Boris Johnson privately said that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown, and why he appointed a Randian libertarian as Health Secretary. It’s also why the “reopen America” protests were primarily led by right-wing astroturf groups backed by Koch brothers money, and why the “Great Barrington Declaration”, a statement from a group of scientists calling for herd immunity, was issued by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank which is funded partly by a corporate investment firm with holdings in oil and petrochemical companies.

Thus, the “freedom” that anti-lockdown, anti-vax types envision is, in practice, a freedom primarily for the ruling class, inasmuch as the state does not get in their way as the pandemic has forced them to do. The average person isn’t necessarily freer, and if the Great Barrington hucksters had their way, the rest of us would be forced to potentially expose ourselves to a deadly virus just so the ruling class can rule as they have done before, and maintaining the economic order as it was is one one reason why right-wing outlets like the Daily Mail are dead set against the work from home model.

Surviving the pandemic means taking actions and adopting new ways of living and working which, by necessity, go emphatically against the childish, atomic conception of “freedom” peddled by the ruling class and its right-wing lackeys. At a certain point this will require us to reconsider the meaning of freedom itself. Perhaps it is precisely this that scares the right the most, because if we did rethink the meaning of freedom, and hopefully develop a notion of freedom that includes concern for others rather than being limited to concern simply for oneself, then their appeals to freedom in support of right-wing policies that leave people out in the cold will no longer be effective, and the whole edifice of neoliberalism will crumble.

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