The Pandemic is Changing How It Feels to Be Free

by Keir Milburn

1 June 2020

smartin69, Adobe Stock

Last week, the think tank Autonomy released new research into the economic impact of Covid-19. By breaking down the post-lockdown increase in unemployment claims by age, gender and region the report has, amongst other things, provided the clearest evidence yet that the young are disproportionately bearing the economic costs of the pandemic. 

Around 40% of unemployment claims since lockdown began have been made by those under 35. That figure rises to 50% for those under 40. Despite being at a far lower risk from coronavirus than those over 60 – and particularly those over 70 – young people are bearing the heaviest economic costs of the current social distancing measures.

Viewed from this angle, the last few months look like an immense act of intergenerational solidarity from the young to the old. On the whole, this solidarity has been willingly given, with opinion polls confirming the impression that’s been created by the explosion of mutual aid groups, in which less at risk – and so presumably mainly younger people – have been doing the shopping of those who are more at risk – and predominantly older. 

This would be an important matter at any time, but its current significance is heightened, given that age has recently become a key line of political division. The last six or seven years have seen a large proportion of under 40s moving to the left, while many over 60s, conversely, have shifted to the right. 

Intergenerational divides.

In the 2019 general election, Labour led the Tories by 43% among the 18-24 year olds, while the Tories held a 47% lead among the over 65s. This raises an interesting question: will the experience of lockdown and intergenerational solidarity help bridge the political generation gap?

At first glance, things don’t look good. The age-based divide in political opinion is underpinned by a divergence in material interests – in particular, the generational divide that exists in terms of ownership of assets, primarily property, which has become concentrated among the over 55s. The chances of a young person on a middle income owning their own home, for instance, has more than halved in the last two decades.

This trend was made much worse by the quantitative easing and bailouts that followed the financial crisis of 2008, which massively inflated asset prices while depressing wages. So far, despite some government support for furloughed workers, the bulk of the pandemic related bailouts have also gone to asset holders. 

From this perspective, intergenerational tensions look likely to get much worse, however, material interests are never set in stone. We always have many potential interests and tend to act on those which seem likely to lead to an attractive future. Political and ideological arguments play a role in this and it’s here the pandemic is shaking things up.

Support for maintaining lockdown is consistent across generations, with the old understandably feeling more cautious. Yet all the anti-lockdown voices are coming from the political right, with whom the majority of the over 60s have recently been aligned. 

Meanwhile, it’s overwhelmingly the left who have been demanding much earlier and stricter lockdown measures, with even centrist commentators dismissing such early concerns as “hipster analysis”.

This doesn’t mean that only the right cares about freedom. What it reveals is a fundamental disagreement between the left and right about what freedom actually means. 

Defining freedom.

The pandemic is putting the right’s individualistic, even selfish, version of freedom under immense pressure and it’s this that offers the most hope for generational reconciliation. 

The last ten years have seen both the left and right go through still unfinished processes of recomposition. The latter has taken a dramatic turn towards a curious mix of both authoritarianism and a form of libertarianism, in which the most sacred right is not so much the right to free speech as the right to avoid criticism for your actions and opinions. 

Alongside the distinct turn to ethno-nationalism, there is also a clear tendency on the right towards conspiracy-thinking and the denial of uncomfortable but well-established facts. Chief among these is climate change denial but more recently the need for social distancing or even the very existence of Covid-19 have been denied. Holding this strange right-wing mélange together is a mutating conception of freedom that grows out of neoliberal reasoning.

Neoliberal thinkers have long argued that deliberative, democratic decisions are not just illegitimate but basically immoral. Decisions taken through markets, by this logic, create not just more efficient decisions but also more moral ones. As Fredrik Hayek puts it, constrained choices between options in a market, “is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual”. 

From this perspective, any attempts to democratically develop or change the values upon which society runs, to deal with racism for instance, are little more than bids to impose the private morality of one individual or group onto another. Talk of social justice must therefore always be an attack on freedom. 

Freedom with and through.

The neoliberal political project aims to replace democratic mechanisms with markets or pseudo-markets. This entails moving ever larger areas of life from the sphere of public deliberation to the sphere of private morality. As this form of thinking spreads, it’s a small step to seeing publicly deliberative knowledge creation, otherwise known as science, as an unjust attack on the right to hold private opinions. 

While this may seem abstract, it’s anchored in lived experience. Being asked not to do something because of its consequences for others can really feel like a diminishment of your freedom. There is potential, in such circumstances, to be tempted to embrace ideologies that reduce the range of people you need to care about.

The concept of freedom that’s been developing on the left, and particularly among the young left, is almost diametrically opposed to that of the right – not surprising when it emerges from the experience of ‘unfreedom’ that comes with living in a neoliberal world. The sphere of work, in particular, is a notable area where such unfreedom plays out. 

This is visible in the popularity of demands such as Universal Basic Income and the four-day working week, but is rooted in a contemporary experience of work in which neoliberal management, with its pseudo-markets and constant audits, not only makes work-time a misery but increasingly dominates non-work time as well. 

Low wages and high rents provide clear lessons in the material underpinnings of freedom, while the experience of oppressions like racism and sexism combine with the overwhelming issue of climate change to show how our actions can impinge on others. 

Rather than a ‘freedom from’ others this is a ‘freedom with and through’ others. And it is anchored by those moments of collective joy you can feel dancing in a crowd or marching on a protest; it’s the experience of an increasing ability to act in the world through productive connections with others. This kind of freedom is always a collective act.

Solidaristic solutions.

Living under lockdown has undermined the individualist, right-wing conception of freedom because social distancing has revealed our deep interconnectedness and interdependence. Suddenly, the working conditions of delivery drivers or care workers has become a potential matter of life and death. A worker’s access to sick pay, for instance, dramatically alters the odds of them infecting the socially distanced.

On the other hand, the left’s embrace of lockdown comes from a more democratic mode of thinking which starts by recognising how our actions impact on others and how how other people, in turn, affect us, but then moves to recognise more impersonal structures, such as racism, sexism, and capitalism, that constrain our lives and make one course of action more likely than another. 

Expanding this realm of freedom can only be achieved by connecting with others to change those structures and thus alter the way we live. The current public health crisis brings this to the fore because it demands universal, solidaristic and democratic solutions.

These two incompatible conceptions of freedom lurk deep beneath our contemporary culture wars. As lockdown puts the right’s version of freedom under real strain, the key political question of the moment is whether the left’s conception of freedom can find a form of expression that will help less wealthy propertied pensioners rethink where their interests actually lie.

Keir Milburn is the author of the book Generation Left and cohost of the #ACFM podcast. The recent #ACFM episode on freedom is here. 

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