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(Image: AAP/James Ross)

The Australian response to the coronavirus should be, by any rational assessment, a cause for pride. We’re not a boutique little island like New Zealand. We’re a continent nation with two major global travel hubs in Melbourne and Sydney.

Had we had a fully anti-science populist prime minister — i.e. the one we will have, gifted by Murdoch, in 10 years — or a couple of premiers of the same stripe, disaster would have been possible.

Terrible mistakes have been made but then corrected. The virus has revealed gaping holes in state process with regard to such emergencies, and they’ve been responded to, in varying degrees, in real time.

If there’s any fault, it’s been in an insufficiency of response, and the failure to elaborate plans for the next, tougher virus (unless it’s being done in secret). 

So why is the right doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on the notion that we are groaning under the harsh yoke of authoritarianism?

In The Australian, Paul Kelly — the governor-general of News Corp — laments the collapse of states into quasi-medieval fiefdom, and wonders why they can’t lock down but also … erm … let interstate people through, describing it as “pandemic protectionism”.

In The Age/SMH Chris “the Lizard Man” Uhlmann is back describing Victoria’s lockdown as East German in style. And the wilder shores of the right, such as, hahaha, James Bolt (yes, those Bolts) of the, hahaha, IPA, talking in Spiked of a “dystopia”.

The desperation of the right is an obvious response to the continued widespread public support for state government measures erring well on the side of caution.

That support has held up into what is now the pandemic’s six month. There’s a lot of grousing, but no actual protest, save from the growing number of Australian QAnon crazies, which is the direction in which the whole right is heading. 

‘Pandering to the mob’

So the only way in which the pandemic measures can be attacked is to utterly mischaracterise them. Kelly’s cute notion of “pandemic protectionism” is lip-smacking Hawke-Keating vintage — the notion that stopping the spread of an R0>1 virus is akin to protecting Morphy Richards toasters with a tariff wall.

Uhlmann’s happy-clappy circular logic is even better. Victoria is a parliamentary democracy which empowers its leaders to make collective decisions but is akin to the restrictions placed by East Germany, a cold war dictatorship.

The inconvenient fact that the Andrews government enjoys widespread support despite its blunders? This, according to Uhlmann, is “pandering to the mob”. So you’re a dictatorship betraying the country by pandering to what people want done, viciously imposing on them what they enthusiastically support. Very rational.

How is the right getting it so wrong again and again? For anyone who’s paying attention COVID-19 has opened up the largest rift to date between its projected claim that it represents “quiet Australians” and how most Australians — and really every population — think about life and the world, and the priorities within such.

It goes to the very roots of the right’s founding philosophy and the degree to which it isn’t one — a philosophy that is. It’s an ideology, reverse-engineered to intellectually justify a given politics.

The cracked nature of the classical liberal-conservative mix, responsible for much of our inability to rationally debate the problems we face, is being made vastly visible by the COVID-19 emergency. 

The right’s implicit and explicit argument is that individual freedom is the baseline of human existence, and that any limits on it, even by an elected government, is tyranny.

The sovereign individual

I’ve previously noted how this is an American import, projected on to a country which has never made it a big theme of our self-imagining.

But let’s go one stage deeper. The liberal notion of the sovereign individual, arising in the 18th century, and expressed in the US constitution, has many concrete sources — chiefly, the search for a way to justify slavery as an institution (if freedom is the right to dispose of the property of your selfhood as you wish, who’s to stop you trading it away?) — but most importantly it’s an abstraction from real life. 

Little we do that really matters in our life, at the base of our life, where meaning is made, is done by acting as a sovereign individual indifferent to given connections, obligations, the welfare of those we care about etc.

We live in webs of accepted unfreedom, and it is these obligations that anchor life as a meaningful activity. On top of that, we add a degree of individual choice on selected matters.

The classical liberal fiction is that we choose our life again and again every morning — that you make a decision every evening to return to the family home. But of course you don’t. You chose the obligation some time previously and the obligation simply reproduces itself. That’s why making the choice to leave such a home really is a dramatic thing, an event. 

So the real basis of life for any society has always been “protection” before “freedom”. Protection is a type of freedom. By being able to assume that others are safe, we are free to do something other than attend to the most basic security and protection ourselves.

Risk is OK — but not too much

We are only capable of being full humans — rather than scared, hypervigilant isolates focused on mere survival — when that protection is secured. We accept risk, but most societies are keen to err on the side of limiting such. 

Through much of modernity, this drive to positive freedom has powered politics from the rise of social liberalism and socialism in the 1850s (Marx is a British social liberal, in the last analysis).

The intellectual rebellion against that began in Vienna in the 1920s, largely as a response to the success of social democracy.

People such as Mises and Hayek purported to be terrified of bolshevism. What really scared them was Hjalmar Branting’s increasingly popular social democracy in Sweden, founded in 1920, and the same in Austria. They feared not the failure of socialism, but its success.

From complex liberal traditions, the “classical liberals” distilled a simplistic, abstract ideal of liberty drawn from a simplistic analytic philosophy and offered it as the “true” picture of life.

Hayek noted it would take decades to get a chance to implement such a philosophy, and it was only with the political crisis of social democracy in the 1970s they got their chance.

The “negative” view of freedom (as nothing other than restraint of the state) has been able to gain mass popular support only by serving as the ideological justification for a consumer capitalism based on a decades-long bubble economy.

The right’s ideologues have become so wrapped up in the philosophy that they can no longer see outside it, or measure the degree to which it is diverging from broader social judgements.

Corporatist populism and socialism have returned as movements because that philosophy has delivered a life so precarious for so many that fully lived life becomes impossible for ever greater numbers, and “positive freedom” makes a comeback.

The COVID-19 crisis in Australia has revealed, utterly, how deep the priority of “positive freedom” over “negative freedom” runs here — and everywhere.

The lockdowns and limits here are based on a rational understanding of the need for collective measures. The proper hedge against authoritarian drift in such circumstances is not your right to screw up the attempts to prevent a virus getting out of control.

It is creating institutions and bodies that monitor the state and can ask questions of officials — consultative citizens bodies to which governments must explain their reasoning.

If one effect of COVID-19 is to hasten the discrediting of a simplistic philosophy that ran like a virus through the past decades, we will be on the way to a hard-earned immunity.

By which point, of course, the right will be comparing us to North Korea or the Death Star, or political fantasies beyond even that.

Are conservatives wrong about Australians’ support for lockdowns? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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