“Right living is ‘dharma’ – the bridge between resources, ‘earth’, and human needs, ‘karma’. Dharma is therefore based on the sustainable and just use of resources for fulfilling needs. Ecological balance and social justice are intrinsic to right livelihood, to dharma. ‘Dharanath dharma ucyat’ – that which sustains all species of life and helps maintain harmonious relationship among them is ‘dharma’. ( Vandana Shiva, from ‘Soil Not Oil’)
April 7, 2020
Could Libertarian and Neo-Liberal Ideology Implode from this Pandemic?
By Jim Harding
This pandemic fundamentally challenges us to rethink norms and clichés about freedom and authority; about the individual, the community and the “state”.
The “libertarian” couple that says “no bureaucrat is going to tell us that we can’t travel when we want, where we want”, might be among the first to demand quick government assistance to get home. They might also be among those who put themselves above the rest by shopping on the way home from the airport.
As this pandemic unfolds, we are having to relearn solidarity the hard way; from the bottom up. The phrase “we are all in this together” has spread as quickly as the virus. This reflects growing compassion, gratitude and solidarity. It is also a plea for those not adhering to public health orders, to realize their behaviour puts others at risk. It empowers the concerned public and elected officials to apply more social and legal pressure to bring “pandemic deviancy” in check.
Inherited partisan political views, of both “left” and “right”, have not prepared us very well to face this global health crisis and the unfolding climate crisis. There is widespread confusion about the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” It is one thing to be free from political oppression, it is quite another to live in a society that facilitates the freedom to participate, organize and access goods and services that enhance our quality of life.
The Roots of the Libertarian Fallacy
The libertarian view that the individual must relentlessly fight against interference from the government has mushroomed since the 1970s. That government intrusion in our lives must be fervently resisted, gained credence from still popular writers such as U.S. Hungarian refugee, Ayn Rand. By 2009, the combined annual sales of her four novels exceeded one million. Her famous book, Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957 during the Cold War, has sold more than 7 million copies.
The contemporary libertarian view, especially in the U.S., is greatly rooted in opposition to communism. It encouraged the reframing of “freedom from” authoritarian governments to mean “freedom from” government authority. The constitutional pursuit of “liberty” in the name of achieving “happiness” was easily slanted this way. The Republican Tea-Party broadened the support. Bernie Sander’s call for a universal single-payer Medicare system, along Canadian or European lines, was met with libertarian attacks that this would make America, socialist. “No one is going to take away my choice and force me into a government insurance system”, even if this can be shown to extend healthcare to everyone and reduce overall costs.
We heard the same arguments about protecting “personal freedoms” 50 years ago, when Medicare was established in Saskatchewan. A lot of U.S. pharmaceutical and medical industry money was pumped into our province to keep doctors and patients free from government intervention. Thankfully most doctors today want more not less public healthcare.
This libertarian view easily fed into the spread of neo-liberalism. Perpetual global economic growth for profit was the new end-game. The freedom to accumulate grew along with the big-box stores. Mass advertising stimulated demand; wants were transformed into perceived needs. China was willing to produce most anything that Walmart could successfully sell.
Initially there was no attention paid to the resulting indebtedness of individuals or their lack of freedom from the gouging banks. With their simplistic formulas for fiscal austerity, neo-liberal politicians offloaded debt from the government onto families. We were left free to pursue private childcare, if we could find and afford it, but were not free from the scarcity, the high costs and the damaging family anxiety.
The growing private, for-profit market of consumer choices steadily undercut communitarian norms. It accelerated the growth of narcissistic behaviour. The growth in identity politics has added to our confusion.
The libertarian view of “rights” has been much more influential than we want to admit. Rights can’t exist without responsibilities. We can’t expect to have our rights respected if we don’t take responsibility to protect the rights of others. We are literally “all in this together” when it comes to the human rights that need to be strengthened across the diversity of humanity. This pandemic creates a very new context for the politics of difference and the politics of resentment.
In our confusing ideological environment, it has been vital to distinguish human rights struggles against norms and practices that have oppressed people, from the libertarian belief that there is an inherent right to practice whatever one wants, even if this is linked to the oppression of others. Social conservative patriarchal morality has furthered this thinking. The right to bear arms, regardless of the social harm that this brings to the community, is an extreme example. Even rebelling against compulsory use of seat belts, or against regulations that would stop us from dumping toxic wastes on our own or public lands, can be framed as defending one’s individualistic “freedom from” an intrusive government.
I once worked with a woman who was a staunch anti-nuclear activist but refused to use seat belts. I know people who support organic food production who are staunch opponents of any gun control. Their underlying social and emotional reality seems to be that they feel isolated, powerless and even abandoned in the face of a growing number of external threats. Trauma, isolation and socio-political fragmentation have gone hand-in-hand, which doesn’t encourage finding collective solutions.
The libertarian can be an apologist for structural inequality of opportunity and condition. There is no recognition that our individual freedom to go to a doctor under Medicare, regardless of income and wealth, and to be free from the deadly outcomes of an undiagnosed disease, depends upon the exercise of the political authority that ensures the delivery of healthcare.
We still are trying to find our way through the impact of the internet on our views of freedom and authority. Initially the proliferation of platforms by private corporations was widely seen as enhancing most everyone’s freedom to communicate, network, research or start a business. There was little awareness or concern that we were not free from the corporate business model; to collect, mine and market data extracted from us. I often heard friends and acquaintances that regularly used Facebook for self-referential or self-gratifying purposes, say they didn’t care about the collective impact, as long as they were free to do what they pleased. It was always “my freedom”, with no apparent social conscience at all.
Yet when there were indications that there was government surveillance of citizens, which breached privacy, there was an uproar. During his presidential campaign, Trump purchased the most sophisticated corporate internet data to target political messages that stressed being free from corrupt political practices in “the swamp”. Disinformation was perpetrated under the populist cover of pursuing the American Dream, while Trump was accusing the media of spreading “fake news”. A similar thing happened with Brexit. There must be regulation of the information industry, and governments and politicians alike must be held accountable to the rule of law.
Widespread Confusion from Neo-Liberalism
But this will not happen easily. We became even more confused about freedom and authority because of all the anti-government propaganda about how privatization, deregulation and free trade will “trickle down” to serve us all. We have been bombarded by positive messages about these three pillars of neo-liberalism, since the late 1970s, when global corporate expansion ramped up. The stature of the self-made “entrepreneur”, who becomes a multi-millionaire, steadily rose as that of the “public servant” continued to fall. Commercialized celebrity culture spread into every nook and cranny. Unions that stood in the way of privatization of the public service sector for profit, were attacked as “entitled” elites. The “citizen” got renamed a “consumer” by government officials that believed that public services must now meet the “bottom line”. Environmentalists who opposed deregulation were continually labelled as “anti-development” or even “anti-worker”. “Property rights” got touted more than “civil rights”. The term “public interest” was used less and less, while public spaces shrank. The neo-liberal ideology has been so pervasive, squeezing out space for other ideas, that it almost became totalitarian. Neo-liberal theorists claimed that the “end of history” had arrived, but Covid-19 has put an abrupt end to this nonsense.
Some of the nonsense pervaded both the mainstream left and right. When I presented at the Broadbent Institute/Mount Royal University 2017 conference on “Social democracy and the Left in Canada”, I documented how pervasive the shift towards corporate resource globalization has been in my province since the 1970s (download pdf at: crowsnestecology.wordpress.com). This trend line was true no matter whether the Liberal, NDP, Conservative or Sask Party was in power.
The Blakeney NDP used public capital to create huge joint-venture resource corporations, in potash, oil and uranium, which later became privatized. This was premised on a faulty fiscal strategy of obtaining more commodity resource revenues to expand health and other services. In the “bust” in the commodity market, services were degraded and even privatized. The Romanow NDP accepted the neo-liberal idea that government debt-reduction and corporate wealth creation, mostly through ever-increasing exports, had to trump programs pursuing distributive justice. Trickle down was going to be our salvation. The prison population of mostly Indigenous people continued to climb.
The trend towards privatization and deregulation has been so pervasive over recent decades, that many elected officials sincerely believe they are serving a greater public good by doing everything they can to facilitate corporate economic growth. This includes weakening vital environmental and health regulatory practices. Neo-liberal politicians regularly undermine transparency, accountability, and due process in decision-making because these are seen to be impediments to business interests.
The Renewal of Social Solidarity
Our governments are now having to put on a different face. Truth-telling and public transparency are required because social co-operation and trust in government is crucial for effective action during this pandemic. Wanting to protect “the economy” certainly slowed responses to the public health threat. The early messaging was that we all must sacrifice (stay at home unless doing essential service) so the economy could “bounce back” to normal as quickly as possible. But this is not how things will likely play out, especially if this pandemic comes in waves and lasts 18 to 24 months, as some are predicting. Under these conditions some fundamental social reorganization will have to occur.
Early messaging from the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that most of us, and particularly younger people, wouldn’t face serious Covid-19 symptoms. Predictably, some took this as “good news” that they could be free from public health requirements and be free to carry on with their gregarious activities. Up until then most of the viral spread had come from returning travellers. With continuing social gatherings, community spread escalated.
This pandemic is challenging our views of solidarity. It has been a hard pill for some to swallow, but we now know that along with huge soccer events, and a massive far-right political rally, International Women’s Day celebrations in Spain led to a spread of the virus. So did the Mardi Gras. While we are not free to impulsively go out, as we please, and be a community vector for this virus; we are free to sing or bang out our solidarity with front-line health workers, from our windows and balconies. Individual restraint in the common interest is not something that comes easily to people living in the more advantaged countries.
Corporate globalization can’t and won’t serve the fundamental public interest, as this pandemic so vividly shows. The positive role of a well-resourced and publicly connected government has again become self-evident. It is remarkable how quickly the most adamant supporters of the “corporate free market” joined the call for massive government intervention. Many vulnerable recipients of the small business wage subsidies likely supported the Conservative Party’s ideology of “smaller government” and “lower taxes” in the 2019 election. Now they want the government to be there to save them, at almost any cost, from the faltering economy.
Meanwhile the government is still considering bailouts for huge corporations with millions in stranded assets. This would be a good time to phase out the billions in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Hopefully, through this period of social generosity, small business owners and workers, alike, will better realize that their interests are not served by corporate free market ideology.
The ultra-nationalistic and anti-intellectual backlash to unfettered, bottom-line globalization, has not provided a path forward. This just creates an even more rigid “we and they”, which makes everyone more vulnerable when a pandemic like this emerges. Vibrant democratic national or federal governments are needed to protect people from both the pandemic and economic collapse. But, chauvinistic, national self-interest will not get us through this pandemic or show us how to better organize globally to face future challenges as a species. The UN Secretary General is calling for billions to ensure this pandemic doesn’t fester, anywhere, and thereby create a deadly second or third wave. He calls this “enlightened self-interest”. Our solidarity must go from local to global; that is what this pandemic so convincingly shows.
The Need for Multinational Solidarity
There are huge lessons coming about socio-political organization. And we have to park our ideological stereotypes to learn from the evidence. A BBC documentary on the Wuhan lockdown indicated that early on the Chinese government closed down public transit because it would be a huge vector for the virus. The city then marshalled 50,000 volunteers to provide transportation for healthcare workers and patients. This volunteerism in a communist country may seem counter-intuitive, but it suggests that the relationships between individuals, families, community and government in China’s historical and cultural context is more complex and nuanced.
There is much to learn about how the quick action of authorities, along with applied science, flattened the curve in several Asian countries. Also, so far, we don’t see Germany with nearly as large a death rate as other European countries. This may prove to be because Germany had standardized state-based testing authority and capacity in place, with federal authority able to coordinate. It seems that Germany has been able to isolate and treat patients earlier, with more ICU capacity, and to instigate contact tracing to nip the spread in the bud.
This contrasts sharply with the U.S. where the central authority, the Centre for Disease Control, was gutted by Trump, and there was deep confusion about states taking on testing, and how an overall strategy could be coordinated. And, of course, all this muddle occurred without universal healthcare. Collective preparedness, not laissez-faire corporate individualism, ensures that more people will remain free from the ravages of this virus and will be free to live and breathe after the pandemic is over.
In Canada we were not prepared with standardized, quick turn-around, province-based testing capacity that could then be federally coordinated. But we have moved in this direction. Nor did we heed the lessons from the 2003 SARS pandemic, and maintain an inventory of protective equipment. We are still scurrying to catch up.
Modelling scenarios only becomes capable of predicting outcomes and informing planning when good data is in place. This process is possible if decentralized testing capacity and authority is matched with national or federal integration and oversight. Rather than us being protected from this pandemic by being free from government authority, our freedom to continue to eat, to have electricity and heat, and to access healthcare if we need it, is solidly based on socio-economic infrastructures being quickly reorganized by authority that flows both ways.
Academic and scientific freedom from authoritarian or largely ignorant politicians, facilitates the freedom to execute a rational pandemic strategy. International cooperation accelerates creating a vaccine. Local capacity to do testing and contact tracing is going to be essential to enable any easing of social isolation that won’t, in turn, threaten the virus returning to the wider province or country. Responsible, informed authority will enhance human freedom and security.
After this global health crisis subsides there will need to be a major reset to review dependence on particular supply chains, to enhance local food security, and to make our societies and communities more resilient. We should implement an equitable Guaranteed Annual Income, which is long overdue as the capacity of the changing work world to distribute income continues to falter.
A supply chain that was truly built to serve human needs around the planet would look a lot different than the one we now have. It would shift the nature of our freedoms and the priorities of our elected authorities. It would be far less wasteful and less carbon-intensive. The reduction in global emissions and pollution, the return of air and water quality and habitat health that we are now witnessing, with the brakes put on neo-liberal economic growth, must continue to be pursued.
Future pandemics are not only possible but probable with a return of “business as usual”. People may think they will again be free to live a high-carbon life that sends toxic wastes into the oceans and atmosphere. But the creatures that are our ecological neighbours will not then be free from our harmful intrusions, and we will not be free from devastating climate changes, along with new pandemics.
Our solidarity, what we consider our truly important freedoms and the purposes that we want elected authorities to pursue, has to encompass taking care of our common home, the planet. Let this sink in, deeply, while our minds are so firmly focused on the need for solidarity, to get out from under Covid-19.
Activist-author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (go to: QVEA.CA). Since the 1970s he has taught university courses, led community workshops and published articles, chapters and books pertaining to environmental health.
publisher link[ photo credit: BriarPatch Magazine ]