How could a disagreement over a public health measure have escalated to the federal government invoking the Emergencies Act? We may need to look back, beyond the day when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, for an explanation. The roots of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests reach back to the early 1980s when governments in non-communist countries decided to embrace a 19th century economic philosophy supplanting money values for life values. The theory holds that tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will (eventually) trickle down to benefit the rest of us. British Prime Minister Thatcher reasoned that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”
A society has two sides: economic and social. Economics is concerned with visceral survival, politics with social survival. The struggle between economic and social interests is a struggle that distinguishes the human animal from all other species. That struggle had progressed to a stage where labour and capital agreed to pool their respective strengths by forming unions and corporations. These two parties negotiated society’s economic interests. Society’s social interests were debated and negotiated by democratically accountable governments. Benefits we take for granted today, e.g. education, health care, old age pensions, and unemployment relief – paid for by people and corporations for their common benefit – grew out of this arrangement.
To implement this old economic philosophy required capital to be liberated from government regulations and union demands. It required taxes on wealth and corporations to be sharply reduced. Unions could not be allowed to impose their will on workers, and government should not stand in the way of corporations. The no-such-thing-as-society idea was an easy sell; it held the promise of rich rewards. The mantra was that in a free society everybody wins.
Deregulation and tax cuts liberated capital from social responsibility. The new gospel allowed wealth to concentrate to a point where today the gap separating the richest from the poorest gives some the capacity to finance their own space adventures while others are left to stand in line at charity-funded food banks. The upside for the economy was that it was freed of social responsibilities. The downside for society was that social rights and services for its members had to be curtailed as an increasing share of their costs now fell on individuals. The philosophy, known as neoliberalism, is that everybody and everything – capital, individuals, and nature – should look after him/her/itself.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, along came COVID-19. The virus did not infect capital, it infected people. The pandemic’s impact forced governments to act. Stringent regulations were needed to modify people’s behaviours. After decades of deregulation, individuals (no such thing as society) found themselves to be regulated to the point where grandparents could no longer hug their grandchildren.
COVID-19 proved that society needs governments and that governments have the power to impose draconian regulations. But when capital was hit by a viral pandemic (banking crises), governments did not impose draconian regulations on the flow of capital. Big corporations were bailed out, deemed too big to fail, and tax havens remained untouchable. Neoliberalism’s greed went unpunished; people remembered. Public health mandates and measures did not cause protests to go crazy; they were the proverbial last straw.