‘Freedom Day’ Won’t Set Us Free

Populist masterstroke? More like unmitigated disaster.

by Keir Milburn

19 July 2021

nightclub coronavirus pilot scheme girl with hands in the air partying clubs

The government thought that dubbing today – the day that England lifts the bulk of its coronavirus legal restrictions – “freedom day” would be a populist masterstroke. 

Unsurprisingly, the decision is already backfiring, as the implications of removing the bulk of pandemic related health measures – at a time when only 54% of the country has been fully vaccinated – become abundantly clear.

Indeed, by calling it freedom day, the Tories have inadvertently shone a light on the contradictions inherent in their specific brand of freedom. 

Not long after defiantly announcing the decision to open up the country, the government was forced into some clarificatory backpedalling, announcing its expectation that most mask-wearing should, in fact, remain in place – only now as a matter of personal and corporate choice, rather than as a legal restraint.

But if the government expects the practice of social distancing and masking to remain unaltered, how does this declaration of ‘freedom’ really mean anything at all?

And what’s more, with coronavirus infection rates spiralling, the government is now advising those who are clinically vulnerable to take extra precautions by doing things like restricting their shopping to more quiet periods. From this angle, freedom day looks less like the lifting of legal restrictions, and more like the removal of legal protections from those who really need them.

The meaning of freedom.

To make sense of these confusing policy decisions, we need to think more closely about the conception of freedom that’s driving them. In her book Freedom: An Unruly History, Annelien De Djin examines more than 2,500 years of thinking on the subject. From this extensive history, she identifies two distinct, contrasting conceptions of what it means to be free. The first is defined by the absence of government control – the fewer laws you are subjected to the freer you are. Effectively, this can be understood as a kind of freedom from other people. The current iterations of this tradition consider the private, individual choice exercised in a market to be sacrosanct. It’s this notion of freedom that informs government policy. 

The experience of the pandemic, and the wider ecological crises of which it is an example, has pushed the individualist tradition of freedom into crisis by undermining the very assumptions and presuppositions upon which rests.

The pandemic has dispelled the fantasy that we are discrete, autonomous individuals, whose decisions impact no one but ourselves. Case in point: we wear masks in part to protect ourselves, but primarily to protect others – the decision to forgo wearing a mask can infringe on the freedom of others, as we’ve already seen.

The decisions we make in the marketplace can impact others too. The carbon emitted into the planetary atmospheric commons through the production of the goods and services we consume is a major driver of climate change, which increases the frequency of extreme weather events and, in turn, leads to human suffering and death. The 2003 European heatwave, for example, led to the deaths of 35,000 people. As global heating accelerates then large zones of the planet will become uninhabitable to humans and it’s quite possible we’ll get wet-bulb heat waves in which millions could die.

That said, we can’t just assume that we’re freely choosing agents. Take the world of work, in which we surrender control of our activities to bosses who are driven by the inhuman logic of capital accumulation. This often obscured ‘unfreedom’ has been brought to the fore by the coronavirus pandemic, given the obvious limitations that work presents to our ability to decide on our exposure to the virus.

The denial of freedom.

The ability to exercise freedom has material and psychological preconditions. The freedom of the sovereign individual to do as they please is always predicated on the unseen unfreedom of others. Indeed, the illusion of individual autonomy can only be produced by obscuring the resources, infrastructures and social reproductive work that makes such freedom possible.

But with the pandemic making this fantasy harder to uphold, the political right – and indeed, much of the centre – has been forced to embrace more explicit forms of denialism. The discomfort felt when cold, hard reality undermines a person’s lived sense of freedom can cause some to deny the very reality producing that discomfort. It’s this mode of thinking that leads to anti-mask Covid-19 conspiracism and climate change denial.

That said, the rest of us must also recognise our own implication in such denial, with climate change being the aptest example. Despite our willingness to acknowledge the facts of climate change most of us still behave as though we don’t really believe the scientific consensus on the utterly catastrophic consequences we’re facing.

This separation of belief and action can be made sense of through looking at the institutions and infrastructures that organise our lives. Built around an individualistic logic of personal choice, most operate as though the climate crisis isn’t happening. The stock market, for instance, assumes that trillions of pounds worth of carbon reserves will be extracted and burnt – yet, doing so will destroy human civilisation. With this kind of logic coming to structure our everyday lives, it produces a sense of unreality when it comes to the most pressing political problems of our time. This is how we are trained to adopt the individualist conception of freedom.

Despite this conditioning, a more collective conception of freedom is starting to emerge. We can see it, for example, in the instinctive anti-racism and anti-homophobia of the England men’s football team – a response informed by the egalitarian common sense of their generation. Such attitudes underpin what De Djin identifies as the second type of freedom, “democratic freedom”. This version has a much longer historical legacy, stretching back to ancient Greece, where freedom got its meaning from the style of government, rather than the limitations of its application – you were free if you participated in your own governance. This is not freedom from other people but freedom with other people, via the democratic negotiation of our relationships.

As De Djin makes clear, the former, more individualistic conception of freedom emerged as a reaction by the world’s elite to the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. At its root, this kind of freedom is,  and always has been, about the right of the rich to defend their property from the poor.

Contemporary denialism, and the culture war myths that accompany it, operate under a similar logic, acting as an obfuscating alibi for those who want to offload the costs of exercising their freedom onto others. It’s easier, for example, to build resentment against migrants than to admit that our consumption, by driving climate change, is causing populations to migrate.

Democratic freedom is therefore far better suited to addressing our contemporary problems because it presupposes the interconnectedness of individual actions – and of life itself. Exploring what this sense of freedom means under contemporary conditions will involve building the institutions and infrastructures that allow meaningful democracy and the collectivisation of risk.

Overcoming existing inequalities will be hard enough, but building democratic freedom globally and universally will be an even greater challenge. Since both the pandemic and the climate crisis are planetary issues, the solutions we need must operate on the same scale as the problems they seek to solve. As variants from the unvaccinated Global South threaten to evade our existing vaccines, it becomes clear that we need democratic planning and coordination on a global level to really address the problem.

One way or another, we’re headed for unprecedented social transformation. Either we build the conditions for democratic freedom and work to address our current ecological crises in an egalitarian way, or we continue to suffer the spiralling inequality, climatic chaos and global apartheid of individualised freedom. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been sacrificed at the altar of the Tories’ discredited ideology. Freedom day threatens to add to the toll. It is therefore vital we use this moment to clarify what we really value about freedom – and then perhaps those deaths will not have been entirely in vain.

Keir Milburn is the author of the book Generation Left and cohost of the #ACFM podcast. He works on municipalism, economic democracy and political economy for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

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