Thinking the Pandemic: Compliance and Freedom

The pandemic offers an instructive lesson: individual action towards a social goal, in the absence of a social effort to coordinate the actions of all, is meaningless. As individuals we can pursue certain types of goals – we can perhaps build a garden, write a play, bake a pie, etc, but we cannot end poverty or stop violence against women or avoid catastrophic climate change. Or, as is the case right now, we cannot mitigate the effects of a pandemic. However, as organized people, people obeying rules, people respecting rightly held authority (as displayed in the characters of public health officers), and even in people fearing the sanction of peace officers, we can “flatten the curive”. We can only do this through coordination, through harmonious action. We cannot achieve it by “cheating”, as is exemplified in the uptick of cases in Ontario associated with people (including the leader of the province), breaking social distancing rules on Mothers’ day.

This context gives us a new opportunity to think about what it means to be “individuals” in a society with deep systemic problems – such as but not limited to, poverty, racism, sexism, and a climate crisis. All of these problems require individuals to act, but none can be solved by individual action. This is not because of some wordplay to be explored between different senses of the term “individual” (i.e. individual as political vs indivdiual as consumerist), but rather because no amount of even “political action” can lead to the resolution of any systemic problem, at least not in any romanticizable sense of political action as “taking a stand”, as “having a new idea”, as “standing up for ones ideas”, etc. Such acts are necessary, but never sufficient conditions even for the resolution of a systemic problem on a small, local scale. Even if the systemic problem were, say, dishes building up in the kitchen of a small group house. Resolving such a problem may require someone to come up with a new idea of how to organize the dishes cleaning work, but ultimately, the problem will only be resolved if the users of the kitchen acquiece and obey the proposed system. Submission to an order is ultimately the only means of social success – as former manager of a large student co-operative system in Ann Arbor Michigan is credited with saying “Any system will work if people believe in it”.

But what does doing the dishes in a group house have to do with the Covid pandemic, or with climate change and other large systemic problems that are harming substantial portions of our communities? Just as a new system of dish management requires close to universal compliance to create a functional kitchen environment, flattening the curve of the pandemic requires close to universal compliance with social distancing regulations. For the first time in generations, every member of our societies is having a direct experience of the relationship between compliance with a set of socially imposed rules and the success of their society in confronting a danger to that society as a whole.

And how is this all going? To a substantial degree, we must say, not well at all. Across North America we are seeing groups politicizing their refusal to obey social distancing guidelines. They are doing this, supposedly, in the name of freedom – but co-operators immediately understand that this is as hypocritical as a movement within a co-op to abolish payment – yes, technically the society has the right to freely decide not to pay its rent, taxes, etc, but this is nothing more than the social equivalent to an individual right to commit suicide. The co-operator can see and conceptualize something that folks outside systems of participatory democracy may not be able to as easily concieve – that any democratic system relies more on compliance than insight, more on obeying rules than creating them, we might say – more on social action than individual action.

Anti-vaxxers join coronavirus protesters to lift their cause - Los ...

The analogy with climate change is more than obvious. The discourse which has been dominant since I was a child – “If you care about the world, take personal action to save it”, is as absurd as the anti-social distancing protestors who say “if you’re frightened of COVID, quarentine yourself”. What it means for a problem to be systemic is that we do not face it each as individuals, such that we can each decide how much effort we will personally put into solving it, based on our personal preferences and willingness to sacrifice for our own future. We must recognize that this entire liberal discourse of individual gain-pursuit breaks down in the face of any systemic problem. To the extent that the belief in the public virtue of private greed has advanced any society forward, this has been to the extent that this society has had the luxury of being able to avoid confronting any systemic problems. If the last few hundred years are any instruction, what is more true is that unsolved systemic problems tend to disproportionately effect those with less power, and so it is easy to see our societies as successes while they fail great number of the forgotten.

The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits

As we move forward into a generation where our capacity to confront a systemic problem will mean the difference between a decent world and a dystopian one, we must begin to think not only about solutinos, but also about what forms of social solidarity, regulation, and of enforcement, will be adequate to putting those solutions into practice. While we can certainly debate the extent to which participation in decision making can be inclusive, one thing we cannot debate – we cannot be making decisions all the time. The time comes, when a decision has been made, to act upon it, and even if we all participate in the making of these decisions, far more of our lives must be spent complying with these decisions than with making them. We must build a culture of compliance, on in which we voluntarily accept restrictions on our individual and local pursuits in the name of goals of inter-generational signficance.

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