To address the forces behind recent anti-lockdown protests, we need to understand the way American-style notions of ‘freedom’ are taking hold throughout the West.
It should be unsurprising that the pandemic has heightened tensions within Australian society. In the second half of 2021, Melbourne claimed the toxic crown of the world’s most locked down city, at more or less the same time that frustrations and anger boiled over into so-called ‘freedom’ riots, which made headlines across the world.
Despite what some in the Murdoch press claimed, these were not union protests. Neither were the riots the work of the ‘far left’, as some claimed. Instead, the participants seemed to be a loose mishmash of conspiracy theorists, alt-right YouTubers, anti-vaxxers, anti-lockdown libertarians and disaffected young men looking for an outlet. If there was a common thread, it was the demand for “freedom”. But freedom from what?
To explain that, it’s worth noting the historical conflict between two very different notions of freedom. Inspired by philosopher Immanuel Kant, these can be summed up as ‘freedom from’ (negative) versus ‘freedom to’ (positive).
Politically speaking, one seeks to expand democratic power, the other to restrict it. Negative freedom is usually attributed to the individual, while positive freedom is often attributed to collectives or their members. The left has traditionally fought to expand democracy to increase the freedom to participate in society, whereas the right seeks freedom from governmental rules and regulation, usually to increase profit and protect property.
Under lockdown, Melburnians were subject to restrictions that prevented them from attending workplaces (on the whole), shops and pubs, meeting friends or family for dinner, or many of the other ordinary things we took for granted pre-pandemic. And yet, it was also clear that these lockdowns were in place to protect the same society that usually enables us to do those very things. The rioters may have been calling for freedom, but it was of the most selfish kind – the freedom from restrictions designed to limit their chances of endangering the lives of others.
In the end, freedom from regulation means the freedom for the powerful to exploit and oppress the vulnerable.
These riots fit neatly into a broader picture of populist protests across the West. We can see 2016 as a turning point, when the twin ruptures of Brexit and the Trump election – at the two poles of Western culture – signalled the rise of a political movement that, paradoxically, has had enough of politics.
Embodying ideas of negative freedom, Brexiteers and Trumpists alike spoke of “taking back control” from shadowy institutions, both at home and abroad. There may well be genuine concerns around the devastating impact that globalisation has had on workers, but those concerns have become submerged in a wave of knee-jerk nationalism.
Just as it’s hard to identify a single, coherent goal in the Australian protests, it’s difficult to know what this movement wants, beyond a vague notion of ‘freedom’. When Trump fans successfully stormed the US Capitol in the wake of his electoral defeat, there was a palpable sense of “what now?”
This is a movement necessarily without structure; that refuses to participate in society in a meaningful way. It’s also a movement that seems uniquely vulnerable to conspiracy theories about 5G, paedophile rings and ‘Big Pharma’. Its adherents talk about taking a ‘red pill’ (a reference to 1996 film The Matrix), by which they mean gaining the ability to see the world as it ‘really is’. By realising they are slaves, they make themselves free.
These ‘red pillers’ function as a worrying reminder that many people simply don’t understand how democracy works, or why certain restrictions and protections exist. In short, they represent a damning failure in political education. When nothing real is understood, it is easy to succumb to fantasy.
It is, of course, possible that there is a global conspiracy that governments are keeping from us. But to believe them capable of such competence is to prove that you haven’t been paying attention. The irony is, the sort of freedom that anti-lockdown protestors, Trumpists and Brexiteers demand would only serve the economic elite that has already made their lives so alienating.
In the end, freedom from regulation means the freedom for the powerful to exploit and oppress the vulnerable. The rest of us – genuine trade unionists – will always fight for our freedom to stop them.