Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many people have become more aware of our ongoing reliance on care work. Here and there, the public has even noticed that care workers – the vast majority of them female – are ruining their own health to keep this whole thing going. After all, under capitalism, good conditions and adequate resources for care work are structurally undermined. And yet, its destructive spirit, which is driven not by care for human lives but rather by the cold calculus of profit, still cannot be exorcised even after a year of a globe-spanning pandemic. Instead of giving everyone access to adequate supplies of masks, tests, and vaccines and instead of pushing a short, but truly consistent lockdown, public and social life have been placed in a kind of permanent induced coma as the main response. At least in this respect, the situation is a neoliberal dream come true, as life has been reduced to work and consumption (online, that is) and increasingly withers away to nothing but private existence.
Those who go to coronavirus protests, voicing their resistance to what they claim is a dictatorial approach to vaccination and mask mandates, might style themselves as freedom fighters, but they are anything but. Their freedom is not born of a sense of social cohesion and concern, let alone solidarity. It is, to paraphrase Marx, the freedom of private individuals who perceive their reliance on society not as enabling their freedom, but rather as restricting it – and who will stop at nothing to defend this fictitious freedom. In their efforts, they systematically fail to recognize that concern for human lives is not a threat to freedom, but rather forms the very basis for freedom. Without it, there can be no liberty. Our leaders’ failures in managing the crisis thus lie not in caring too much, but caring too little. The decades-long neoliberal attack on the social foundations of our lives and the angrily displayed authoritarian freedom of the COVID deniers are two sides of the same coin. This means now more than ever, caring for freedom involves fighting on two fronts, struggling against both the ongoing destruction of our material and public living conditions and the creeping “fascization” of society in the name of freedom.
Mike Laufenberg is a sociologist who works in the Section for Political Sociology at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. His research focuses on the welfare state, critical social theory, analysis of capitalism, and queer and gender studies.