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.