Freedom is a class question
Freedom is a class question

Scott Morrison smirked as he announced that he was removing the “heavy hand of government” while COVID cases soared in late December. Government would no longer be “shutting down people’s lives”. The repellent image was a metaphor for this inhuman society.

The one glimmer of hope has been the outpouring of bitter anger and cynicism against his calls for us to exercise “personal responsibility” to stay safe while every measure to protect people was being dismantled. He is guilty of the incompetence, hypocrisy and lack of empathy people accuse him of. But that is just the result of a determined, reactionary agenda. Morrison preferred all along to end support for people in their suffering and get back to business as usual.

The call for individuals to take responsibility for the safety of children, the aged and the sick is reprehensible. It is an open declaration that the needs of the many must be trashed for the untrammelled freedom of business to make profits.

There has been a chorus of denunciations of health measures as authoritarian, and for giving governments too much power to surveil and control us. But the removal of regulations to deal with COVID has not reduced government power—the emphasis of how that power is wielded has just shifted. Now, by decree, the government is denying individuals the information needed to stay safe, removing payments to make isolation possible and forcing people to work in unsafe conditions.

This gives capitalists added freedom to ignore the usual expectation of safety at work. As Marx argued, capitalists demand the freedom to employ workers without governmental limits on their savage exploitation. The demand for public health measures is just an extension of the battles unions have waged for centuries to win minimal legal health and safety standards. This time we’re losing.

Those who suffered most in lockdowns are now most at risk. They still work in essential industries with no option to work at home and can’t obtain RATs or afford to sacrifice income waiting in queues for PCR tests.

Those “responsible” enough to have clawed their way into the higher groups of wage earners can work from home or take paid leave to limit their exposure to the virus. Anyone who had the “foresight” to ensconce themself in a spacious, well-ventilated house with at least two bathrooms, balconies and spaces that can be shut off can isolate an infected member of the family.

The chaos and out of control spread of COVID is shutting down people’s lives. Many of the elderly or sick have never been as isolated as now for fear of infection. This is confirmed by the whining of the small capitalists in the cafe industry as people stay away in droves.

“This is worse than lockdown, because we have no support and the staff are really a lot more freaked out at the moment than they were last time”, said Melbourne bar owner Maz Salt to the New Daily, echoing many others formerly demanding freedom from state intervention. “There’s panic that they are going to catch [COVID-19], there’s panic that they can’t get tests, there’s panic that they won’t get any [financial] support.”

This boss dismisses as “panic” what for workers is a realistic understanding of the threatening situation.

The rhetoric of personal responsibility, of getting the government out of our lives, comes from the song sheets of the far right. It’s the cover to unleash an outright attack on standards of universal free health care workers have come to expect. The Liberals always have an eye for this opportunity. Their capitalist backers have never fully supported free health care and fight tooth and nail to reduce the tax rates required to fund it. Over the last few decades, after being the initiators and defenders of Medicare, Labor has shamefully also refused to fund it properly.

Labor premiers have followed NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Morrison down the path of unleashing COVID on the population. This is a serious defeat for the ideas of social and collective responsibility that have been the hallmark of the labour movement for centuries.

There is an ideological cleavage in society. The mantra of “personal responsibility” has always justified capitalists’ refusal to provide a decent, secure life for the mass of people they exploit.

Adherence to safety measures, helped by government payments to make isolation possible, generated a sense of social responsibility among the vast majority. But this is anathema to capitalists. It would never go on indefinitely without challenge.

The ideas of collective solidarity are associated with the workers’ movement. When workers are confident and militant and our side fights for decent conditions, that ethos is reflected in our slogans: “Touch one, touch all”, “Workers of the world unite!”

If we are to force governments to provide decent health care, we must rebuild a movement with a renewed fighting spirit.

But while this profit driven system of exploitation exists, it will be one battle after another to defend health over profits. Out of these struggles we need to build a socialist movement. The only way we’ll have genuine freedom is when society is no longer driven by the profit motives of a tiny minority who only support freedom for their class.

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