Something strange is happening to our language of freedom. Perhaps an opportunity is being lost.
One of the curious ways we seem to have begun to speak during this pandemic is of “freedoms” (plural). Our freedoms, we are told, and tell ourselves, will return when things are able to get back to normal, when the “vaccinated economy” is up and running. Opt in for freedoms, or freely opt out for unfreedom. Freedoms here seem to be articulated as discrete possibilities for action. The possibility of going to the pub, the possibility of going for a hike, the possibility of visiting friends, etc., are all distinct “freedoms” we long to return to, and are given if we opt in.
Language often adapts to circumstance, it bends and shifts contingent upon the situation it is attending to. This shift, which pluralises freedom in order to break political freedoms up into discrete moments, however, seems to me to be an odd one. Freedom, determined in this way—as a set of discrete possibilities—becomes something only real insofar as it maps into already existing options. It is able to be managed, withdrawn, shaped, disciplined, encased. At what point are you, then, free? Are you free when the state allows you the full gamut of opportunities the “vaccinated economy” has to offer? Are you free when the state has the capacity to provision the economy with space within which to operate?
We are in a period in our history where the state not only has the responsibility to manage the health of the population, but the very health of the population is directly bound to economic competitiveness and success. This is what political theorists have come to call biopolitics: the power of the state to make live. Where classically the sovereign was the one with the power to take life, under biopolitical conditions the sovereign makes live.
This making live is not value neutral. The historian Adam Tooze has articulated very clearly in his new book Shutdown that very early in the pandemic there were cost-benefit analyses done on the effects of shutting down the economy vs letting the virus spread through the population. Economists and policy makers determined that the potential aggregate losses were significant enough for the economy to go into a shutdown, although much of the economy was already doing this without the directives of policy makers. Shutting down was as much about the health of populations as it was about economics, the two were bound up together.
Much of the debate surrounding our discussion of getting our “freedoms” back seems to be trading upon the idea of saving lives vs saving the economy. The so-called anti-vaxer is apparently the figure who simply wants to open up, without restriction. The vaccine enthusiast is often cast as the figure who cares for the vulnerable and the health of others before their economic interests. However, what we know is that preserving the life of the population (human capital, as we are often called) and preserving the economy were always bound up together.
“We’re all in this together”, or “staying apart helps us stay together” seem to be making less and less of an appearance these days. These kind of slogans have worn rather thin, I’d say. Perhaps what we are seeing is that, when the goal of all of this sacrifice seems to amount to reopening a “vaccinated economy”, and we begin to realise that our “freedoms” really were only ever ways of being in the economy, there’s an acute sense of disappointment. We may have lost an opportunity. Do, in fact, both the vaccine enthusiast and the anti-vaxer share a positive vision of whatever our “freedoms” are? Both want them back, just in different ways.
I’m not particularly interested in entering a vaccination debate. The point here is that I suspect that if we pay attention to the way our language is shifting, something of the cracks in what always and already was the case continue to show. The French philosopher Maurice Blanchot once wrote an essay titled “The Apocalypse is Disappointing.” It’s hard not to feel that way. We all felt the world come into view as a whole, we saw the dramatic inequalities, we saw the ways we are denigrating the natural world, as well as the blowback from that denigration. The complexities of the movements of global capital, flows of goods and persons, came into view in an unprecedented way. It’s hard not to feel that vantage point is being squandered, as we settle for “freedoms” and all too familiar exclusions, the world again receding from view.
Scott A. Kirkland teaches and researches at the intersection of political theology, philosophy, and theological ethics. He is also the Research Coordinator at Trinity College Theological School.