The sight of MAGA morons holding anti-mask rallies and generally freaking out because they believe that their freedom is being curtailed by private and public entities demanding that masks be worn as a preventative to contagion from Covid-19 got me to wondering if those people truly understand what so-called democratic freedoms entail. It seems that the stupid is strong in the US–not just in the White House–and people simply confuse convenience or personal interest for “freedom.” Similarly, there are those in NZ who refused to accept the rules and regulations of the pandemic lockdown and complained that they too were being “oppressed” by a “totalitarian” police state. Not surprisingly, most of these people are on the right side of the political spectrum, where sophomoric interpretations of Ann Rand-style libertarianism overlap with alt-Right ethno-nationalism and other aberrations posing as political ideologies.
Given that I spent a long academic career reading and writing about both the theoretical and practical aspects of democracy and democratisation in previously authoritarian states, and worked in the security bureaucracy of a major democratic state, let me try to deconstruct into a simple primer what democracy really means when it comes to “freedom.”
Democracy as a social and political form can be seen as a two by two box with four cells. On one axis there are rights, which are individual and collective. On the other axis are responsibilities, which are also individual and collective. Rights can be formally enunciated and codified in Constitutions and a Bill of Rights but they can also be a matter of custom, usage and social norms that are are enshrined in civil law. Conversely, in some democracies such as those that use Roman Law systems, responsibilities are codified and rights are assumed: the law specifies what cannot be done rather than what can be done, with the latter being anything otherwise not prohibited.
What rights are conferred bring with them responsibilities when they are exercised. Take for example speech. An individual has the right to freely voice an opinion, but only so long as it does not cause injury to others. Yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater may seem funny to some, but disregards the responsibility to consider the context in which the yelling occurs. Likewise, hurling racist insults and threats may be part of everyday discourse for white supremacists hanging out in their trailer parks, but it is quite another thing for them to be directed towards people of color on the street. In both instances, the exercise of an individual right violates the responsibility to do no harm to others.
The balance between individual rights and responsibilities is crystallised in the act of driving a motor vehicle. People have a right to freedom of movement in democracies. But they do not have a right to drive a car. That is a licensed responsibility that entails learning rules and regulations, physical, practical and intellectual testing, and then behaving as responsible members of society when operating potentially lethal conveyances. Should they not, then the privilege of driving is curtailed or removed. The right to freedom of movement remains, but just not in a certain way.
Likewise, there are collective rights that are considered sacrosanct in democracies, be it of assembly, organization, or representation. Those also come with the responsibility to exercise those rights in way that do not injure or impede others from doing likewise. Peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic racism is one thing; a Klan or boogaloo boys rally is quite another. Forming unions, business associations and political parties is (theoretically) a democratic collective right. Forming irregular armed groups for the purposes of intimidation or insurrection is not.
As with individuals who in the exercise of their self-defined rights do harm to others, collective violence is a breach of peace, and social peace is what civilised societies are founded on. In some societies social peace is imposed by authoritarian measures (which can result in mass collective violence against unjust rule). In democracies it is achieved by voluntary adhesion to individual and collective notions of rights and responsibilities, which presumably avoids the need to take up arms against oppressive government.
That is the difference between rule by consent and rule by acquiescence: one is given voluntarily while the other is given under duress. The consent that underpins democratic societies is double-sided. It is consent to exercise rights and responsibilities, not one or the other.
That may no longer hold true.
It appears that, encouraged and supported by the proliferation of rightwing media, many have lost sight of the responsibility and collective sides of the democratic equation. Now, everything is about individual rights and nothing about individual or collective responsibilities. The erosion of the responsibility side of the democratic equation can be traced to the advent of what has come to be known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism originated as an economic theory that posited that finance capital was the best allocator of resources in a society and hence needed to be unencumbered by laws and restrictions that impeded finance capitalists from operating in unfettered fashion. It morphed into a public policy approach–codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus”–that was based on the privatisation of public assets and the withdrawal of the State from its economic macro-manager role in society. The downsizing of the State as a physical and regulatory entity created space for “entrepreneurs,” who in turn carried the values of “free” enterprise and competition into society and resulted in emulative behaviour on the part of others. This led to the ideological expansion of neoliberalism as a social construct, where it is no longer confined to the economic realm but extends into conceptualisations of the proper social order and the role of individuals within it.
The result, to coin a phrase, is a form of hyper-individualism that on the one hand is manifest in survivalist alienation and on the other in predatory and cowboy capitalist practices in which enrichment and greed are considered attributes rather than vices. Solidarity is for suckers, and society prospers because the uncoordinated and unrestricted pursuit of freedom and profit by self-interested maximisers of opportunities, be they individuals, firms or collectivities, is believed to act as the invisible hand of the market in modern times. Or so they say.
Even though the practical benefits of neoliberal thought have proven mixed at best and much of its theoretical foundations repudiated, its impact on non-economic aspects of social life remain strong and wide-spread. With the megaphoning of its hyper-individualistic ethos in rightwing corporate and social media, it is a major reason why the notion of democratic responsibilities both individual and collective has been superseded by the exaltation of individual rights. In a sense, this is the lumpenproletarianisation of the democratic world.
There is more.
Given human nature, people are more inclined to prioritise their rights over their responsibilities. Different forms of democracy have been in part defined by the emphasis that they place on individual and collective rights. Liberal democracies put a premium on individual rights. Social democracies put a premium on collective rights. In all democracies the law primarily focuses on enforcing responsibilities of both types. Laws codify responsibilities down to minute detail and enumerate the penalties for failing to adhere or discharge them. To be clear: laws are inherently coercive, as they detail what is and is not permitted and use penalties and disincentives to enforce compliance. Although rights are recognised within the law, it is responsibility that laws are directed at because failure to be responsible as a member of society and a polity has deleterious effects on social order. Even so, there is a difference. Civil law includes various aspects of democratic rights, for example, property rights, along with its enforcement of responsibilities. Criminal law addresses transgressions of basic responsibility, both individual and collective, with the notion of rights being limited to those that strictly apply to suspects, defendants and those convicted and sentenced.
Enforcing individual and collective responsibility has long been the mainstay of democratic security policy. The police exist in to guard against individual and collective transgressions against individual and collective rights. That is, repressive state apparatuses (to put it in Althusserian terms) not only enforce the broad overall ideological project that is democracy as a social construct, but also punish those who challenge the responsibilities inherent in that project. For that to happen, the elected representatives of a democratic polity and the public bureaucracies that serve under them must agree and commit to enforcing responsibility as well as protecting rights. In other words, there must be an ideological consensus on the limits of rights and the extent of responsibilities in a democratic society.
The consensus on enforcing responsibility has eroded amongst the political class due to the same reasons that have undermined the balance between rights and responsibilities in society as a whole. That has allowed the expansion of what is considered to be an inherent “right” at the expense of what is a democratic responsibility. The arguments about “free” versus “hate” speech illustrate the erosion. The (mostly rightwing) contemporary champions of “free” speech believe that they can say anything, anywhere without concern for context or consequence. They reject the notion that the right to speak freely includes the burden of doing so responsibly. They do not care about causing offence or injury to others and complain when laws restrict their ability to do so.
This is symptomatic of the larger problem. Freedom is now equated in many circles as unfettered exercise of individual rights. Anything that constrains freedom so defined is considered an infringement on natural, God-given or universal rights, even if in fact the notion of democratic rights is a human construct that is materially and intellectual grounded in specific historical moments in time and place. In the US in 1776, democratic rights were reserved for white slave and land owning men, yet today the concept has been widened to include others (well, in theory anyway). In other words, there is nothing immutable about the notion of rights. They are a product of their times, as is the notion of what it is to be a responsible member of a democratic society.
Unfortunately responsibilities have become the unwanted stepchild in post-modern democratic societies. The erosion of notions of collective solidarity and death of empathy under the weight of ideological hyper-individualism have resulted in what might be called the “atomisation” of democracy where responsibilities are to oneself and chosen in-groups and rights are whatever one says they are.
Given the prevalence of neoliberalism as an ideological underpinning of many post-modern democratic societies, it will be difficult to reverse thirty years (and a generation) of its inculcation in the social fabric. Restoring the balance between democratic rights and responsibilities therefore entails a new form of counter-hegemonic project that works to promote the idea that “freedom” is as much a product of individual an collective responsibility as it is the exercise of individual and collective rights. The success of such a project will only occur when not only is neoliberalism replaced, but when the new ideological consciousness is internalised to the point of inter-generational self-reproduction. That is a tall order.
That does not mean that it cannot be done. Given the compound failures of governance and international economics in the lead up and responses to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, the post-pandemic world offers the opportunity to redefine basic notions of democratic citizenship. Unlike classic notions of counter-hegemonic projects, which always emanate from the grassroots and which are based on opposition to an elite-centric hegemonic status quo, the re-definition of democracy as a balance between rights and responsibilities can include enlightened government working from the top down. This can occur as part of a public education campaign and can be incorporated into school curricula that also emphasises sustainable development along with traditional “civics” notions of equality and fair play.
In fact, the re-valuation of responsibilities as well as rights and re-equilibration of the balance between them can easily piggy back on traditional notions of fairness and burden-sharing in pursuit of social peace. Neoliberalism is hierarchical at its core and therefore antithetical to the ideological myth of equality in democratic societies. A counter-hegemonic narrative based on a return to principles of equality and fairness embedded in the balance between rights and responsibilities would therefore seem to be a more natural “fit” for mature democratic systems.
If that is true, then its time is now.