As new cases of Covid-19 hit 50,000 per day for the first time since the last lockdown, the government has suddenly and unapologetically granted us our ‘freedom’ back. Restrictions have been lifted, businesses have reopened and everyone is going back to work.
The government’s approach to ‘Freedom Day,’ so-called, gives us an interesting insight into what ‘freedom’ really means to the modern Conservative Party. Boris Johnson and his cabinet seem to hold a very childish definition of the term. For them, freedom is simply freedom from constraints: not having anyone tell you what you can and can’t do.
It isn’t hard to see why Boris Johnson and his colleagues favour this definition of freedom. Power and privilege has a tendency to warp one’s conception of what freedom means. For a person who has never struggled to pay their bills, who has never worried about feeding their children, who has never been forced to ask for help only to come face to face with an uncaring bureaucracy, the only real experience of ‘unfreedom’ will have involved external compulsion: parental constraints, school rules, laws.
This idea of freedom as ‘the ability to do what one wants’ appears to stand in stark contrast with the increasingly authoritarian direction of this government’s legislative agenda – from the Spy Cops Bill to the Policing Bill. But while Johnson is pushing to release constraints on the behaviour of upstanding citizens, this doesn’t stand in the way of his authoritarian impulses towards the working class. The law, after all, should be a weapon to be used against the poor – not a constraint on the actions of the rich.
What is more surprising is that this narrow definition of freedom also seems to resonate with a lot of people in the UK. Those who have protested the wearing of masks and mandatory vaccinations have done so on the basis that they are free to choose and no one—certainly not the government—can compel them to behave in a certain way.
In part, this way of thinking stems from an internalisation of neoliberal governmentality. We are governed in ways that treat us all as isolated, atomised individuals – our behaviour affects only ourselves and our immediate families because ‘there is no such thing as society’. Whether or not I wear a mask should be up to me, because I’m the one who is going to have to live with the consequences.
This is, of course, a highly simplistic—some might argue objectively incorrect—way to view human social relations. The behaviour of each of us impacts everyone else, especially when it comes to epidemiology. As many thousands of immuno-compromised people have pointed out, if the majority of the population decides not to wear a mask or get a vaccine, their health is compromised.
But there is another factor at play here. People take comfort from asserting their narrow freedom in a world of pervasive unfreedom.
Most people who live in capitalist societies rightly spend most of their time feeling unfree. Most are forced to work in jobs they detest simply to avoid starving, while being subtly reminded that their unhappiness is their own fault. If you’re not wealthy and successful, it’s probably because you’re not ‘hustling’; because you’re lazy; because you’re worthless.
The tantalising prospect of escape from the drudgery of work and reproduction under capitalism is constantly dangled under peoples’ noses—whether in the form of the small business owner, the Instagram influencer, or the landlord—while remaining perennially out of reach. Those forced to rely on the state for help will be made to feel even more valueless through constant interactions with a bureaucracy that cares little whether they live or die.
This sense of powerlessness to change the conditions of one’s own existence is at the root of many peoples’ poor mental health. Rather than seeing the way they are treated as an affront to human dignity in general, most people see it as a reflection of their own personal worthlessness.
In this context of pervasive unfreedom, the prospect of ‘taking back control’ from those you see as responsible for your humiliation is an enticing one. The vote to leave the European Union, even among those likely to be materially harmed by such a move, is one clear example of this. But so is the insistence that ‘freedom day’ should go ahead, regardless of the impact on society as a whole.
This coalition between wealthy and oppressed individualists is that which underpins the Conservative Party’s electoral success. The impulse to rebel—to claw back an inch of one’s autonomy—is increasingly strong both for those who want the state to get out of the way so they can pursue their own interests and to those who resent the state for ignoring and humiliating them, as should be obvious from the fact that ‘anti-lockdown protests’ are taking place across London on the day lockdown officially ends.
There’s an authoritarian impulse in some progressive circles that manifests itself in the chiding of excited football fans, stupid anti-vaxxers, and ‘ignorant’ Leave voters, but such a reaction purposefully ignores all the ways in which these people are right to be suspicious about the exercise of state power. The Left can’t push back against neoliberal individualism by uncritically allying itself with the capitalist state.
Instead, we need to be asserting the value of every human life, pointing to the pervasive unfreedom experienced by many under capitalism, and arguing for the protection and extension of democracy so that every voice can be heard. Such an argument should be based on expansive understanding of freedom that can’t be reduced to freedom from external compulsion, but instead signifies the freedom of every human being to flourish.