One of the things that it is easy to forget while “we” are in isolation is that not all of us are so lucky. Those who have been designated “essential” workers have been out and about, putting themselves in potential danger in order to keep at least a minimum functioning of our normal lives. This is not just our medical workers, but it includes sanitation workers, postal workers, those working in power stations, food delivery, supermarkets, public transit, and childcare.
One of the things this apocalyptic moment is revealing is that it is often those who are paid the least who are the most necessary. We realise the degree of the alienation required—that is, what it is we take for granted—in order to be able to obey the moral and legal obligation to remain at home. Our society doesn’t work because of finance, it doesn’t work because of big multinationals, it doesn’t work because of Netflix, it works because we have a commons which is maintained every day by truly essential workers. Just imagine the complaints if all our rubbish and recycling wasn’t being picked up, or if the postal service wasn’t working.
This provides us with an opportunity to think carefully about what it is to live well together, and about what it means to be free. I want to suggest there are two ways we can think about freedom. In the first way, freedom is a bit like a capacity. We can choose to have a burger or a pizza for lunch, or we can choose to become a doctor or a lawyer (if we are so lucky). Or, as in America, we can “choose” a healthcare plan. Freedom is here something that is consciously available to us as a kind of capacity, or potential. The other way we might think about freedom is as something more like a collective condition. I am free in Australia because I know I don’t have to worry about healthcare, I can go to the doctor. I am free because I don’t have to worry about clean water or electricity. Freedom here is something accomplished together, and it is therefore something that can be lost together.
It is these essential workers who are the ground of our collective freedom, providing us with a common life in which we can enjoy a lack of worry. Of course, we still worry, and freedom is not accomplished. We live in societies founded on exclusions. However, we are seeing in this crisis that freedom is not a matter of the choices we are offered on the market, but of a collective struggle. If we recognise this, maybe we can act differently towards our essential workers.
Let me finish by suggesting that freedom might be thought of a little bit like falling in love. We say we “fall” in love because there is a very real sense in which we don’t choose it. When I fell in love with my wife, I didn’t do so because I chose her or because there were a set of attributes she had that tipped me over the edge into love. Something happens in love, something overtakes us as if from outside. There’s an event. We find that we have fallen into it. Freedom might be thought of as something like this. Not a matter of choice, but something that we fall into together, something that overtakes us as if from outside.
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.