The more disputatious sort of those opposing circuit breaker lockdowns and vaccine mandates, two of the “statutory” (mark the inverted commas) bellwethers of western nations’ scramble to curb the spread of Omicron, would likely agree with the famous lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound:
. . . but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself . . .
Linking a work supposed to have been recited to Eleanor Marx by Edward Aveling, her partner and a founding member of the Independent Labour Party at the turn of the 19th century, to a neoliberal (most people would agree) sensibility may raise eyebrows. Not to mention that approaching a matter where the lives and deaths of countless human beings are at stake through a literary prism may provoke familiar quibbles about the actual value of distilling concrete experience into airy abstractions for the sake of self-administered intellectual back-patting. Such criticisms would be far from mere pettifogging, but working through the rich (and unintended?) ambiguity of Shelley’s lines should urge us to puzzle over the all-too-neat conflict between collectivism and libertarian individualism through which most of us are likely to have been interpreting state responses to the pandemic.
There is, of course, a defense to be made of making sense of our times as a series of successive jolts undergone by the vaunted cornerstone of Western culture: individualism. We’d better be aware, though, of the nuances intrinsic to the perennial quandary between individual rights and collective security that is now manifesting itself in our day-to-day experience; nuances that highlight the folly of restrictively affixing, in cookie-cutter fashion, politically identifying labels to the diverse implemented (or proposed strategies) to tackle Covid we see all around us.
Individual freedom, the West’s cherished doctrinal brainchild, is of course no abstract ideological self-profiling. It is enshrined in declarations that may not per se be enforceable, legally binding, but have over time been codified into international law. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees every individual’s prerogative “to life, liberty and security of person,” while article 7 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights declares, in a similar vein, everyone’s right “to respect for his or her private and family life.” Needless to point out that in their core, these prerogatives are woven into the fabric of neoliberal or libertarian and welfarist credos alike. And despite their glaring socialist and communist implications, the lines by Shelley that I just quoted suggestively blur any boundaries between mutually antagonistic positions. Notice the way in which his exalted “man” morphs from a protocommunist archetype of a particularly extreme form into a paradigm of self-ownership at which any libertarian would beam approvingly: a “king/Over himself.” We may do well to beware of Twitter platitudes like that of Arizona’s current state treasurer, who back in September furiously branded Biden’s federal mandate – requiring vaccination or weekly testing of companies with more than 100 employees – as “socialism in action.” It is not only that (inventively) uncovering abstract spectres behind a single policy attests to the looming absolutes and dramatic oppositions studding a partisan mentality (i.e., obliging all employees in a company to comply with certain illness prevention standards is socialist, making whether employees in a company get vaccinated or tested discretionary is pro-choice and hence libertarian). It is also simply that such labelling risks coming across as genuinely oblivious as to what a truly socialist anti-Covid strategy should entail, which should in turn spawn a whole other series of questions: is there such a thing as a “truly” socialist policy? What would a “wholly” socialist policy against Covid consist of? Would any left-wing policy worth its salt ever possibly exclude elements commonly labelled as neoliberal, centrist, libertarian, individualist, etc?
This is, of course, not to contest the fact that there are gulfing discrepancies between neoliberal and welfarist approaches to tackling ever-new surges of the virus that stem from an ethical rift between individual and societal well-being. Diametrically divergent outlooks are decidedly real rather than a collective superstition. Australia’s libertarian firebrand Harrison Mclean, a self-christened “Freedom Activist” on Twitter, was arrested back in September for inciting a week-long mayhem against vaccines and lockdowns in Melbourne. It’s equally no shock that Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor and a member of the country’s Social Democratic Party, has vocally endorsed compulsory vaccination for the general population. The rationale underpinning such a decision, so commonsensical political wisdom would have it, being that each citizen is neither no less nor no more than any other entitled to the right to remain alive insofar as a vaccine is the closest route to safeguarding this right at present. Given the equal value of each human life, the imperative to secure the collective survival of a unit of individuals trumps ethically the duty to see to the security of a particular individual’s right over their body. Isn’t this as thorough, as ideal a fulfillment of article 7 of the Universal Declaration as one should wish for? Come to think of it, doesn’t a slew of individuals shielded unexceptionally against a life threat bring the right to life and security into tenfold as great a fruition as respecting a single individual’s volition to bar foreign matter from entering their organism does? Not an outlandish take on the Declaration, surely. Taking this logic further should show that relying on a binary political terminology to neatly define statutory actions may be untenable if seeking to ensure a collective whole’s survival equates to defending a myriad of constitutive parts. Theoretically, at least, to the extent that a democratic socialist (or social democratic) policy is in no danger of devolving into a version of the communist authoritarianism to which the 20th century has born horrid witness, it shuns an inhumanly abstract “whole” in favour of a diversitarian collectivist vision. A vision firmly anchored in actual social experience – experience that is manifold, messy, and ever-liable to disparities.
Numerous instances at our tense sociopolitical juncture debunk the rigid political labeling that has gone rampant. Widely displayed anti-vaccination slogans may chiefly be the shamelessly prideful creations of neoliberal right-wingers, but it is worth noticing that it is Austria’s liberal conservative government, led by the Austrian People’s Party, that has been outlining a stringent policy of mandatory vaccination. Given the party’s Catholic affiliations, it may as well be that it is its basis in Christian humanism that is motivating its decision, given its explicit self-labelling as anti-socialist. Things are no less opaque in the leftist camp. It’s no surprise that far-leftists should denounce draconian measures against Covid such as those implemented in China at the dawn of the pandemic as egregiously authoritarian. And many left-wingers’ credulity toward paranoid conspiracy scenarios points to an all-too-familiar moral outrage over the mileage to be gotten insidiously out of a societal crisis by elite contingents: the current state of affairs being a godsend for governments with an autocratic streak by legitimising a crackdown on citizen autonomy, pharmaceutical giants fishing for swayable guinea pigs to churn out absurd loads of cash. No wonder then that while a left-leaning figure like Scholz in Germany advocates mass immunisation, the leader of France’s democratic socialist party La France Insoumise and 2022 presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has criticised the French parliament’s approval of vaccine passports required for accessing bars and restaurants, cultural venues, and domestic travel.
It is by no means politically naïve to see the vast majority of lockdown and vaccine mandate refuseniks as neoliberal avatars and those supporting collective immunisation against any “pro-choice” argument as compatible with a welfarist ethic. Yet it is at the same time useful to take stock of what Shelley’s lines from two centuries ago imply, even in spite of themselves. Political doctrines are constructed categories that often seep into one another in theory as much as in praxis. Genuine political savviness should complicate our outlook on the inveterate clash between universalism and particularism that the Covid era has brought into fresh attention.
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