Pandemic protests have mobilised the language of ‘freedom’. Progressives need to redefine that as emancipation.
The year began with daunting news. Omicron is on the rise, the most infectious mutation of the coronavirus so far. It is spreading and mixing with the prior Delta variant and it seems very hard to tell how many victims the pandemic may claim over the coming weeks.
While the public may have already lost count of which wave this is (the sixth), they do calculate the days, the weeks and the months since it all began. Very soon, it will have been two years since the first case was discovered in Europe and states went into one or other version of lockdown. Naturally, fear that everything might once again have to be brought to a standstill prompted anxiety.
Politicians have been reluctant to introduce new regulations, preferring to talk about a ‘flu’-like experience—whatever the experts may say—and hoping that alternatives will keep the situation under relative control, the risks of infection minimised and the most vulnerable alive. They know that public services, on which they need to rely in the event of another peak, are simply drained—with burnt-out staff and absences through infection and isolation. But they are also aware that any further lockdown would bring enormous social and political costs.
They hear very clearly the protesters, who in recent weeks have taken to the streets in Europe, devastating the park of Cinquantenaire in Brussels and even trying to take the parliament in Sofia, to rally against the Covid-19-measures. This resistance is forged in the name of ‘freedom’, which those behind the demonstrations claim to be an unwavering right of each citizen since at least the French Revolution of 1789.
The reactions of governments in Europe to the Covid-19 ‘freedom-fighters’ have been diverse. Some have given in to the pressure or exploited the mounting discontent to avoid more severe limitations.
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For example, the government in Poland claims it can neither oblige the population to abide by new safety regulations nor even require citizens to be vaccinated. Its officials repeat the assertion that the latter remains vastly unpopular. This may be true among voters of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), who even before the pandemic had included vocal vaccinate opponents and who, surveys show, still tend to believe that Covid-19 is nothing but a big conspiracy—in the face of the over 100,000 real human victims.
In any case, should the unpopularity of protective measures be an excuse for the government not to act? This seems hypocritical, given in Poland the same politicians have shown contempt for other social protests, such as the rallies against the reform of the Constitutional Tribunal and the protests against the ever-tightening ban on abortion, which has just claimed another victim.
On the other hand, there are governments who are simplying say Basta!.A bold example is the Italian ‘national unity’ government, which took office in February 2021. It includes, next to the populist Five Stars Movement and the right-wing Forza Italia and Lega, the once-communist Partito Democratico, Italia Viva (a PD splinter) and the left-wing Article One. This last is represented by Roberto Speranza, minister for health.
Speranza has led the fight against the pandemic, which especially at the outset seemed to have hit northern Italy hardest in Europe. When the current wave started to rise, there was no hesitation on the government’s part in demanding additional tests of anyone travelling to the country—regardless of their possession of a Covid-19 certificate—and making vaccination mandatory for various social groups.
These two national examples illustrate the diversity of approaches adopted. Yet there has been very little debate among and within the traditional political families about what these choices would mean in the larger European context. Underlying this reticence is uncertainty as to what freedomas a concept should entail today.
When the pandemic began, and citizens turned to their governments for help, progressives anticipated a revival of collectivism and the welfare state. Yet the rallies, even if they began as minority protests, exploited mistrust—of ‘politics’, ‘the politicians’ and ‘Brussels’—thereby enhancing support for the populist parties which position themselves against the ‘elite’.
In Britain, progressives have sought to redirect that méfiance by exposing the unacceptable behaviour of the prime minister, Boris Johnson, throwing parties at 10 Downing Street while severe restrictions on social gatherings were in place. This has proved powerfully evocative—being not only in surreal contrast with the deprivations faced by the rest of the population but also highly disrespectful towards Covid-19 victims, their families and care workers giving their all to fight the pandemic. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has led by example, going into isolation when there was a chance he could be carrying the virus.
Sadly the demarcation line differentiating left from right has not been so clear elsewhere in Europe. Social democrats too have been caught by the media not wearing masks in public, joining larger gatherings and giving in to other temptations. Yes, politicians are human—but they need to do as they say, to realise the collective approach on which bringing the pandemic finally to a conclusion depends.
In this light, progressives need to embark on a serious conversation about what they nowadays consider freedom to be, to change the terms of political trade. The Bulgarian parliament may not be as symbolic in popular imagination as the US Capitol, but any citizens’ attack on an elected public institution is equally worrisome. And the coming months will be crucial in defining what freedom is and how it interacts with other concepts such as responsibility.
This is not an easy task. Social democrats have always believed that values acquire meaning in connection with one another—becoming part of a connotative chain—and freedomhas always been at the core of their convictions. Yet, to return to the French-revolutionary triad, freedom has been somewhat more challenging and less instinctive for them than equality or solidarity (‘fraternity’). The solution may be to embrace this complexity, understanding freedom during and after the pandemic not as a libertarian laisser faire—freedom is not the right to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded room—but as a notion of emancipation.
Reorientating the discourse around emancipation could create a new opening while anchoring the progressive narrative in an existing public discourse. Of course, the protests are just an extreme form of expression of what everyone feels to a certain degree at this stage—exhaustion with the confinement, the insecurity and the deprivation of ‘normality’. For the moment, they have been embraced by the right wing—which will not shy away from accruing political capital from them—but the battle is not yet lost.
Progressives should use the notion of emancipationto show that they hear and understand the concerns. But they are convinced that the answer to a collective problem lies in responsible collective behaviour, individually and consciously supported for the greater good.
In that sense, universal uptake of vaccines, strict compliance with preventive measures, respect for the Covid-19 certificate and so on are the means to set people free again, in a profound way, and in fact the opposite of imposition. They are the necessary commitments we all need to make jointly—and sooner rather than later—to be able to enjoy all the great things the world and life have to offer us: they give us a better choice of choices.
Putting the emphasis at this point on emancipationand its progressive connotations would also give social democrats a fair chance to prove that, no matter what trial they face, they always do so with a commitment to their values. Integrity is, in the end, what ensures political credentials, predictability and trustworthiness—all so hard to sustain in these uncertain times.
While there is clearly a momentum behind popular sentiments which shouldn’t be ignored, progressives should respond with a bold narrative which busts the myths and once again brings to the fore their political proposals. They must show that freedom is very much what they believe in and that they know how to govern—to be able to say all through the pandemic these important words: ‘We won’t let you down.’