Reflections on Covid-19: a crisis of freedom, but to what end?

Alex Baxter 16 May 2020
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What is freedom? Is it the right to choose and determine all actions which we make, or the capacity to gain from actions which we partake in? What is the role of community in our understanding of freedom? For a community must have a radiant centre, a light which shines through all people involved. This needs an invisible altar with which all inside worship. An agreement of the common good which assists the vibrancy of encounters with one another. There has to be a realisation of our joint and united endeavour in our understanding of ourselves. But to what extent have freedom and community become entirely separate?

We look at our current circumstances against the backdrop of VE day. A time of remembrance of joint loss and suffering to prevent a greater evil. An example of sacrifice by a few on the behalf of the many. A just war, if it were. But in most of our lives we do not have a common enemy to define ourselves against. We may seek to create one, but that in itself becomes self-defeating.
No, most of what we face today is an evil of indecision, of refusal to find our invisible altar, the refusal to find the centre of our universe whether that hails from a God or within ourselves. We are the age of moral blindness. We have economic and political systems which remove and discourage responsibility to ourselves and to one another. We have a method of living which encourages fumbling without foresight or retrospection and removes the possibility of genuine encounter. Our attentions are grabbed from every angle, and so little of our time is truly well spent.

Coronavirus has taken away many of our fundamental human freedoms. Our freedom to go and see and embrace one another. It removed our vital element of relation which enables much of our understanding of the world around us. It decried us of our freedom to love many dear to us in their final moments of life itself.

But to what end? So we can survive just long enough to enable the reopening of the altar of work? So we can continue to support systems which refuse to support us in our most human of needs. How much of our lives do we spend doing the most vital elements of life in the first place? When was the last time we sat down with family members; to what extent are we zooming them now not out of longing for the norm, but out of retrospective guilt about how we often neglect them? How much of our normal lives can we honestly say when looking deep within ourselves is actually freedom? Indeed, I question, how much of our lives are genuinely given to love?

The frank truth is our freedom to choose has become freedom to differ. Liberalism, the ‘right’ to do what each individual see fit for themselves has created selfishness and a social blindness to that which is actually important. It has left us unaware of the radiant centre which ought to truly matter. Our neglect of relation and the responsibility that it carries has been ignored, and in doing so an innate disrespect for that which is truly human. Alasdair MacIntyre famously said in his 1981 book, After Virtue: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

Our history, indeed our humanity, is one of joint endeavour with shared existence. We encompass a world full of meaning which hails from our shared deliberation. Yet we have become blind to the honour which being a human carries, and the dignity that we ought to give ourselves, that to appreciate and to love one another in our speculative and creative capabilities.

For when our fundamental freedom returns, what will have actually changed? Many are supposing this will be a new age for capitalism, where we finally realise the ills of markets and the need for a strong state. They suppose that ‘nothing will ever be the same again’. Yet I have my suspicions as to what the point would be. To go through all this, to isolate from the world around, to have spent hours looking at the same walls and not encountering the beauty that the world has to offer, only to return to a world that has slightly higher tax. What sort of a utopia is this, that a great removal of our freedom to prevent death only changes a political element of our productive capabilities?

Why did we seek to prevent death in the first place? Was it merely to prevent Boris from being sentenced at the Hague for his auspicious ‘herd immunity’ plan? Or, rather, was it because as a common community we realised the innate importance of a human life. The grief that thousands of people are feeling around Britain is a reflection of the importance of meaning which all of us carry, however insignificant our lives may feel at times.

Yet, does the form of rationality that supposes that coronavirus requires an alteration of our economic system not rely on the same instrumentalism which supposes that we have to end lockdown to ‘get back to work’? Do they not rely on the same premise that human experience is of a cog within the larger machine, it just depends on the ordering of those cogs?
The truly plausible utopia is not one that seeks instrumental change about our economic or political relations. A true utopia could be one that re-evaluates the actuality of human encounter. One which focuses on the particular moment of interchange, of touch, of eye contact and of human emotional experience. One which encourages the realisation of the essential moments of our existence which truly free us.

As Martin Buber says in his seminal book, I and Thou: “Love is a cosmic force. For those who stand in it and behold in it men emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness; and the good and evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another become actual, and a You for them that is, liberated, emerging into unique confrontation”.  True liberation would not come from merely messing around with the jigsaw of economic or political life. It would come about through the tantalising re-moralisation of interaction, of returning to human dignity as a dialogic centre, and having an altar which does not worship ourselves or that which we labour to create; it would mean looking to those people and friends whom we have been denied the freedom to see, and finally realising the potential which can come from that lofty gaze which we can finally grasp.

Coronavirus has brought so much anguish and challenge to our lived experiences. It has led us to seek new means of communication, new means of occupying ourselves and perhaps some deeply inward-looking soul seeking. But as we slowly return to our communities, to our friends and to those things we once took for granted, let us look upon them with a fresh gaze, and a new altar of appreciation, where the essential meaning and freedom hail from a commitment and responsibility to the relation which our humanity can foster.