It’s something to see. A “freedom convoy” of anti-vaxxers and fellow travelers that ignites parts of the world with hints that the revolution began in an unlikely place: sleepy, frozen old Canada.
Donald Trump, among others, sent his encouragement, wishing his own gang had the courage of Canadian truckers. If that were the case, he wished, the US election would have been canceled and he would still be president.
The contradiction between defending “freedom” while undermining the political structure that guarantees it – democracy – is quite glaring here.
Let us look further, bearing in mind that “freedom” in this context has been reduced to a sticker slogan by the American right (and repeated by like-minded Canadians). At its most acute, this primarily means the freedom of “patriots” to go swaggering down the street with an assault rifle in hand.
What is at stake is the rights of society versus those of the individual, with the anti-vaxxer as the symbolic individual (and as many of those interviewed on the streets of Ottawa said – some of whom had actually been vaccinated – it’s not just about vaxxing; it’s about ‘freedom’, frustration, mandates, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ‘tyranny’ and generally all the aggravations of life, not to mention the misinformation and propaganda that drives it).
I checked with the classic statement on the matter – English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay on liberty, which foresight proclaimed that the power of society over the individual, having “divided mankind from the remotest ages”, is “a vital question of the future. ”
For our predicament, the following might apply: the individual is not responsible to society for actions which affect only himself, says Mill, but “for actions prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is responsible and can be subjected to one or the other social or legal punishment if the society considers that one or the other is necessary for his protection”.
Be careful, this comes up against the question of democratic majorities having to limit their own power to avoid the “tyranny of the majority”. It’s implicitly the anti-vaxxer argument – though in this case, riddled with misinformation and conspiracy as it is, it’s a weak argument. (Indeed, as the roads are blocked, some speak of a “tyranny of the minority.”)
Mill’s essay is still circulating. It’s on the Internet. Importantly, it reads as if it was written yesterday, not 163 years ago.
Trying to make sense of all of this – not just the Canadian stuff, but the protests of all kinds across Europe and Australia and Trumpism in the US – we could ascertain the fate of broadly similar movements in the past.
Most notable was the anarchist movement which peaked roughly between 1890 and 1910, scaring organized society. He wanted to abolish all governments and affiliated institutions, proclaiming the absolute right of the individual. Freed from laws and regulations, individuals would spontaneously organize in wonderful ways.
Beneath this joyous utopian discourse, supported by many personalities, notably artists and intellectuals dissatisfied with the authoritarian situation in Europe, individual anarchists (by definition unorganized) have made a reign of terror. They assassinated dozens of politicians and royalty – including US President William McKinley (1901), French President Sadi Carnot (1894), Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo (1897), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) – and dropped bombs in theaters. and other crowded places in Europe and North America, killing dozens of innocent people at once, much like more recent random massacres.
Before that, in the 1850s, there was the “know nothing” movement in the United States, a “nativist” anti-immigration movement sparked in response to a massive influx of poor Irish Catholics who were supposed to be the shock troops. of the pope for taking over America. There were anti-Irish riots and other mayhem.
In the 1856 election, as the American Party, anti-immigration candidate Millard Fillmore won 23% of the vote – not many, but they won a number of state legislatures, including Massachusetts , and many municipal governments.
The ignoramuses (named after their secrecy – when questioned, their agents replied “I don’t know anything”) disappeared during the next election cycle.
The anarchist movement died more slowly. In both cases, they were overwhelmed by larger events – Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War for one, World War I for the other.
But they were also destroyed by other realities. The absolute right of the individual does not exist, on the one hand. Also, as they grew, other issues crept into reality, again, along with internal divisions, until these movements were about everything and nothing, basically the image of what is happening now.
All of this indicates that the current indigestion – Trumpism, fascism, muddled anti-vaxxism – will dissipate, perhaps as the pandemic subsides. They will be overwhelmed by greater realities, if not by superpower conflict, then surely by climate catastrophe upon us. Alas, utopia is further away than ever.