A guest post from David Kenkel
What I am aiming to do in this piece is to connect some threads that I don’t see commonly linked and raise some questions about who benefits from the anti-mandate movement and the potential position of social work in managing our current situation.
Thread one – ideologies and who benefits:
I am always interested in who are the eventual beneficiaries of ideologies. One of the least commonly talked about aspects of neoliberal ideology is a deep loathing for anything resembling a collectivist approach. One of the most influential think-tanks in the world argued passionately that collectivist care approaches are not just deeply harmful to society but are also fundamentally immoral (Pilon, 2017). They (and many other think-tanks) spend tens of billions of dollars promoting such views to policymakers and politicians (Mayer, 2016). When that kind of money is being spent the question always needs to be asked, “who benefits from that way of thinking?”
Arguably, the beneficiaries of this kind of constant attack on collectivism are those who would otherwise be asked to help pay for collective care and who currently benefit from the financial ‘trickle up effect’ that is now understood to characterise neoliberally informed societies (Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). These are also the same people that argue that the greatest public good is best achieved when individuals are as selfish and self-interested as possible (Han, 2017; Saad-Filho & Johnston, 2005).
The accompanying note on the ideological song sheet is the strongly promoted notion that success or failure is due to individual effort (Han, 2017; Kenkel, 2020). This tidily lets the very rich off the hook of having to admit to inherited advantage / privilege and obscures the reality that our neoliberally informed economic systems are carefully tailored to increase the wealth of the already wealthy. Individual freedom becomes inextricably intertwined with the notion of everybody having ‘free’ individual choice. The need for individual freedoms to be weighed against collective well-being is hidden (and even made immoral) in this narrative.
Thread two – Twisting the perception of what is ordinary human nature:
Several authors argue that basically human beings are inherently decent. We like to take care of each other. We feel empathy for others and a collectivist approach to care seems to have characterised a great deal of human history (Fritz, 1996; Tomasello, 2016). What is also reasonably well understood is that people don’t like to be dominated or bossed around. Human beings seem to live reasonably well within hierarchies so long as these are characterised by respect and care. What we don’t do so well with is a sense of being unfairly oppressed (Haidt, 2012).
In the ‘freedom-centred’ opposition to current public health measures we are seeing an ideological appropriation of the sense of being bullied and oppressed. So, perfectly ordinary and sensible constraints on individual freedom (wearing masks, getting immunised) become re-construed as profound oppression. What is left out of the story is the collective harm that might be caused by everybody having individual choice. After 30 years of pervasive neoliberal discourse, this is an unsurprising vulnerability in the body politic.
Paradoxically this discourse of further oppression fits the experience of those who have already been marginalised by state systems and are particularly vulnerable to stories of how the state aims to further hurt them. While the anti-mandate movement arguably does nothing at all to better the well-being of individuals, it connects perversely with the broader neoliberal argument about the primacy and sanctity of individual choice. Vicious ideologies find support where they can, and this is perhaps just another example of how interest-serving political doctrines continue to mutate despite the cost to individual adherents.
Thread three – a metaphor and a concern:
I stopped owning and riding motorbikes when three things collided: I turned 30, my first child was born, and I had one too many scary near misses with cars. While I didn’t think about it much at the time, I did have the comfort of knowing that if I got smashed up in an accident, I would get good medical care under the public system. Having to wear a helmet was the ‘individual’ cost to me of living under a health system where the needs of the individual are at least partially taken care of by a collective care approach: an approach that uses taxation to pay for things like healthcare and gives at least some assistance to those unable to work. Compulsory helmets for motorbikes make logical sense when you apply a formula that says:
Yes, we the broader collective will take care of your health needs, but you have to agree to do things (like wear a helmet) to minimise the harm from the individual accidents that we all have to pay for.
If I happened to live in a country that didn’t take a collective care approach, then a very different set of logics would apply. The individual cost formula would go something like this:
You don’t have to wear a helmet. However, if you get smashed up, and get a head injury that might have been prevented by wearing a helmet then you will pay for all medical care out of your own pocket. (Through most of the United States wearing a helmet is not compulsory) and it doesn’t take rocket science to join the dots between a collective care approach imposing some limits on what individuals can and can’t do and an individualised care approach that basically says: ‘it’s up to you buddy’!
There is a deep conflict in these two ways of approaching societal well-being and like all countries influenced by neoliberal policies we as a nation have experienced a push toward the individualisation of responsibility for personal outcome. The difference between wearing helmets, or not, and fighting against a mandate for vaccination is that unlike a bike accident head injury which might simply affect me as an individual, being anti-vax / anti-mandate risks creating a reservoir of infection for Covid. This reservoir also increases the risk of the virus mutating and creating ever more dangerous forms. This is an instance in which individual choice detrimentally affects collective well-being.
Neoliberal economics is buttressed by some carefully laid down ideological scripts. The emotive lure of individual freedom is used to support a system that funnels money up to the rich. Disenchanted people within the anti-mandate lobby are not themselves necessarily benefiting from this arrangement. What is happening though is the recruitment of many people who would be otherwise horrified to think of themselves as supporting a neoliberal capitalist system (that is primarily designed to serve the rich) into aligning with fundamental neoliberal discourses.
The tragedy in Aotearoa New Zealand is that is so often those who are already marginalised articulate the sense of being oppressed in any way they can. Because quite frankly they have been oppressed over the last 35 years and that is to all our shame! It is all too easy to imagine wealthy hands being rubbed with glee and crowing that: “Hey – we have a bunch of new recruits, and we have the poor suckers arguing our side here guys”!
Implications for the social work profession:
Social work has always been the Umm? Err? profession, uneasily shifting back and forth between working toward collective well-being and a focus on promoting individual responsibility for fault, harm, and damage. Social work under a 35-year neoliberal regime has not been easy. There have been significant pushes towards hyper individualisation of responsibility for problematic behaviours, perhaps best characterised by the push towards trauma informed practice. There is nothing inherently wrong with recognising and acknowledging the impact of trauma. There is something deeply problematic about not linking this to broader systemic issues that cause social suffering.
The anti-vax movement and the anti-mandate movement could very easily be seen as an opportunity to blame individuals for making poor choices. A better and wiser perspective would be to see this kind of social resistance as an unsurprising response to a generation marinated in neoliberal stories of the ability of individuals to make choices despite social context, and a generation of marginalised peoples who quite understandably have very little faith in traditional systems of state health and welfare provision.
Social work as a profession needs to respond with compassion and respect to those on the margins who have doubts about what health services provide. We need to find every way possible to defuse misinformation that has its roots in the oppressive neoliberal dogma of context-free / consequence-free individual choice.
Image credit: Duluoz Cats
Fritz, C. (1996). Disasters and mental health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies. Historical and comparative disaster series #10. University of Delaware Disaster Research Centre. USA
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
Han, Byung-Chul. (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (Verso Futures). Verso. Kindle Edition.
Kenkel, D.J. (2020). Social Work in the Face of Collapse. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8, 1 – 14. doi:10.1332/204986020X15810733591637. Bristol University. United Kingdom.
Mayer, Jane. (2016). Dark Money: how a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Pilon, R. (2017). Cato Handbook for Policy Makers. 8th edition. Retrieved from: https://www.cato.org/cato-handbook-policymakers/cato-handbook-policy-makers-8th-edition-2017
Saad-Filho, A & Johnston, D. (2005). Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader. Pluto Press. London. UK
Tomasello, M. (2016). A Natural History of Human Morality, Harvard University Press.
8 replies on “The anti-mandate movement: motorbike helmets and neoliberalism”
Kia ora David,
A great piece (one of the best) and a perfect link between the ‘devils’ ideology and the current anti-mandate / Vax movement!
This is one of those articles that would be great to discuss over a bottle (or two) of wine, cheese and crackers (all vegan obviously).
There are a couple of points I’d like to make but first a disclaimer:
While I am NOT anti-vax – I’m currently fully vaccinated and will continue to do so – I do believe quite strongly, when it comes to my clients, in body autonomy and individual thought and individual empowerment; never forgetting about the structural inequalities we all must live and work in.
1) Your point regarding wearing of helmets etc is a good one however I was thinking about one wee point that I think needs to be aired. The efficacy and safety parameters of wearing a helmet is borne out with years of data and years of testing. That is; wearing a helmet definitely saves lives and wearing of one does not give the individual side effects. Whereas the same cannot be said for the efficacy and safety of these vaccines (just yet). Again, I go back to my disclaimer. I am just airing some thoughts here.
2) There has not been anywhere near enough testing of these vaccines prior to market release and we do NOT know what the long terms effects to our generation will be, and in regard to efficacy; the argument for the anti-mandate / vax movement is that double vaccinated people still catch it, still transmit it and still die. It’s a good argument that I cannot argue against.
Your point in the second to last paragraph stating:
“A better and wiser perspective would be to see this kind of social resistance as an unsurprising response to a generation marinated in neoliberal stories of the ability of individuals to make choices despite social context, and a generation of marginalised peoples who quite understandably have very little faith in traditional systems of state health and welfare provision”
Nails it for me however, I think we also need to bear in mind that we’re all having this thing thrust upon us and we’re frighteningly walking up to the vaccination centres without too much thought about it.
Another way to think about it may be that those who have been ‘marinated in neoliberal stories of the ability of individuals to make choices despite social context’ are actually the ones who are critically thinking about what is happening and actually are right.
I only say that because there is a nagging thing in the back of my mind that says ‘Luis – there has not been enough testing and what have you just allowed into your body?’
I am swallowing my bile while I write this but what if the neoliberal onslaught of the last 35 years actually created a slice of the populace who ended up being right about this whole mess, we find ourselves in?
Love the piece, kia kaha brother
Thanks Luis, and you’re absolutely right about the known long-term known efficacy of wearing motorbike helmets. And, of course in this situation We do not have those decades of data to Call upon.
What we have here is a rapidly evolving situation where the best medical data is being pulled to the forefront With no particular reason to distrust the professionals in charge of trying to make sense of an evolving situation.
I have a deep sense of empathy with those who have been most marginalised by current state institutions, and, am very aware of how vulnerable they are to the harnessing of a perfectly legitimate sense of rage and anger against the government machine.
One of the points that I would have made if I had more time/space in this article Is that the harnessing of the rage of the oppressed, very seldom has much to do with the well-being of the oppressed, and much more to do with solidifying a story that suits the interests of those already well entrenched in terms of power.
The USA is a case in point. So yes, I take your point, that it is entirely possible that those who have been oppressed and are now angry Have a legitimate case. Alternatively, it seems likely to me that their outrage Has been hijacked for purposes that have very little to do with their well-being.
One of the phenomena that seems to be reasonably well understood is that us human beings continuously search for meaning. In particular, we search for meaning to do with causation by other human beings. This kind of means that we are deeply vulnerable to conspiracy theories that place the blame on other people rather than the random miseries of history and germ evolution. My own feeling is that this is one of the situations where tendency to place blame on other people is easier than simply accepting that we are in a crap situation with a nasty virus.
I really appreciate your thoughts, and would welcome further dialogue.
Excellent and succint.
As a motorcycling social worker I could, but will refrain from, commenting on the errors re helmets and the fact that had it not been for Bikeoi and the collective motorcycle demonstrations re ACC levies we may no longer have a fault free ACC system. Collective change comes from the strangest places at times.
My own reading has lead me to the Canadian structuralist Bob Mullaly for a sociatal wide understanding of my peoples issues. Precarity edited by Groot, Van Ommen, Masters- Awatere and Tassell-Matamua for some deeper Aotearo specific issues, to Micheal Kendrick for his deep reflections on the ethics of service provision and the functional heart of individuals being able to effect change.
Your ideas regarding Trauma Informed Care hit a nerve, yes, patholagising the individual, out of context. However, trauma, be it individual, historical, cultural or of any kind can never be discounted. I know you are not doing so, but bears restating. A focus on eitiology may be, on occasions, useful in the service of our people.
Thanks for the article, got me reflecting and thinking about my own practice again
You’re absolutely right – I don’t know much about the history of motorbike helmets in New Zealand. I’m also very aware over the last 20 to 30 years ACC has come under sustained attack. My suspicion is that the various attempts to run down ACC are part of the privatising agenda. A fairly typical approach of the privatising agenda that so inhabits neoliberal ideology is to underfund institutions and make sure they are run badly so then the finger can be pointed and statements made that argue for better provision being provided by the market.
The questions you raise about body autonomy and people’s individual rights to have choices are really important. And, and may well be in this instance, the accent on individual freedom that so inhabits neoliberal thinking maybe empowering people to ask good hard questions. I’m not so sure how these questions need to be addressed when the problem of individual choice creates risks for the broader collective? I think the last time the world faced this kind of global question around the rights of individuals versus collective well-being was during the polio epidemics and, the fight to eradicate smallpox. Certainly actions were taken at those times that had very little to do with individual choice. My mother lived through the polio epidemics, and described to me the paralysing terror of a population at the mercy of a dreadful infectious disease.
Talking about trauma, is always difficult. Particularly when one takes a critical stance to trauma informed practice. I very much agree that colonised countries such as New Zealand embody layers and generations of trauma that continue to profoundly affect individuals and communities. In groping toward a way of discussing a suspicious stance towards the prevalence of trauma informed practice, what I see is the co-option of a very good thing toward purposes that may not be so good.
So for me, the risk is that in placing trauma at the forefront of what needs to be addressed can mean backgrounding the structural forces that continue to traumatise. So yes, all social workers need to know about trauma and how to recognise its effects and work empathically with its impacts. At the same time, to my mind it is vitally important that we do not let go of a structural analysis that aims to unpack how a carefully crafted economic and social ideology continues to create trauma not just for individuals but for our global environment. I’m currently trying to complete a piece asking questions around why we don’t do more poverty informed practice. I’m finding it a tricky one to write is where my thinking is leading me is that it could as easily be called ‘wealth informed’ practice. That is, a social work approach that by working primarily with the poor and those on the margins and identifying their difficulties as primarily to do with trauma we risk unwittingly supporting economic and social systems designed to funnel more and more money to the world’s already wealthy. I’m not sure if that makes sense I’m having trouble finding ways of describing my currently muddled thinking.
Phil – I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response.
Naku noa, na
Hi David. Well….I would love to delve deeper into your thoughts on poverty or wealth informed practice. Have decided to re run my structural influences to remind myself of the origins of why I do, or did this work for so long. My immiedatw response was informed by a certain lecture I attended many years ago where the proposition was that poverty was not a result of lack of money, a post structural notion that, at the time, kept me laughing for hours.
Thanks for your erudite and thought proving reply
In my early motorcycling days in the 1970s uS based bike magazines argued for freedom and I thought at that young age how stupid. At an older age I still have those thoughts I hear people suggest those I vaccinated and sick get no free help and realise the connection made in this article
Ultimately we are individuals in. Society not free to choose many things. Seat belts age limits on driving and alcohol and prohibition on drugs. This is potentially a wide ranging discussion while we are looking in the face of a possible invasion from omicron and how overseas this is effecting youth now. How do they choose ?
I also hear those kind of angry comments that if people wont get vaccinated then they should have to manage their own illnesses if they do become infected. I’ve always been interested in the process of ‘othering’ – that is the tendency in society for us to create the dangerous ‘other’ who somehow is not as deserving or is to blame. I suspect we are at very real risk of this happening now in New Zealand. It is very tough to balance compassion and genuine fear and worry! I’m not sure what the pathway through for this is. I do hope as a broader society we find it though. The last thing we need is a new group of marginalised peoples.
Thanks again for your thoughts Peter!
Naku noa, na
Generally agree with the notion that anti vaxers are ( unwittingly) selfish. Neo liberalism has something to do with it. So does the civil rights movement , most notable in the 60s, and the American and French revolutions of independence. And more. I am as usual arguing that the origins of today’s legion of “I can do what I Want ” warriors are quite complex.