Notes on Freedom

We are social beings not numbers

The winner of the Italian elections Giorgia Meloni has criticised the war on traditional identities, and the shift towards those based on ‘number’:

They attack national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, they attack family identity. I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be citizen x, gender x, parent 1, parent 2. I must be a number.

There is indeed a war on traditional social categories. Even the categorising eye of society (of parents and community) in defining a child as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is seen as almost an act of abuse. This sex-based social category is replaced with the gender spectrum – the distinction based on number.

Yet this is not only a war on traditional identities, but on any socially integrated identities – any identity that is based on one’s relationships with a social group, including peer groups, subcultures or youth cultures.

For example, there is hostility towards the social world of gay culture, which existed in its own secret realm, in smoky bars in cellars and backstreets. The intense social worlds of gays and lesbians were based on friends, lovers, a social scene. These old cultures are being superseded – and attacked – by newer gender identities based on self-ascription and acronyms (LGTBQIA2S+). Here, it is not a relationship, or a culture, but the individualised identification with an identity schema.

There is the old and the new gay culture now: the old kind lives on in bars and backstreets, and the new kind has life mainly in the marketplace and the bureaucracies. The new kind lies in Stonewall consultancies with public institutions, in conferences and company press releases. (These two gay cultures were described on Unherd by Kathleen Stock).

The QR code-based vaccine passport was perhaps the most extreme example of numerical-based citizenship. The person with an active QR code could enjoy the rights of citizenship in their own and other countries. A vaccinated American could fly to go to cafes in France, while an unvaccinated French person could not go to cafes and could not leave the country. A person’s citizenship rights were not related to birth, or parentage, or culture, or civic obligations, but to whether they had received the bureaucratically recommended series of medical interventions.

In one sense, this shift from communal to numerical-based identities is a very old one. The sociologist Georg Simmel describes the shift in ancient Rome, from a kinship-based system of the gens, to ‘hundreds’ (groups of hundred men, each of which had a single vote in the assembly). The division of a citizenry into hundreds broke through the various organic relations of kin, neighbourhood, tribe and sympathy. Defining a group by a number gives it ‘an exactly delineated, rigorous contour’ which is ‘purely objective’ and ‘indifferent to personal features’ (1).

And yet Roman citizenship became a new integrating principle, a new basis for identity and allegiance and a cause for which people were prepared to die. It is part of the historical process that people are removed from certain identity categories and inserted into new ones.

What is unique about our times is the wholesale nature of the war on social categories – the wholesale attempt to extract individuals from all social allegiances and for them to exist only in relation to the marketplace and a bureaucracy.

We should therefore not only defend ‘God, country and family’, as Meloni said. Instead, we must defend all social groupings, all social worlds – and the principle that we are defined through our relations to others and our common lives and common cause.

(1) The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Free Press, 1950, p107 and p173

PayPal is acting like a feudal overlord

In the past, if a government wanted a bank to close or freeze a customer’s account it would have to come banging on the door with a court order. Now, governments have shown that they can close private accounts at the drop of a hat. During the Freedom Convoy protests, the Canadian government drew up a list of individuals – on grounds that were never made clear, although the Justice Minister said that Trump supporters should be ‘worried’ – and banks immediately froze their customers’ accounts, no questions asked.

Indeed, payment companies are taking the lead and freezing their own customers’ accounts, because of vague offences such as perceived ‘misinformation’. PayPal recently closed the accounts of lockdown sceptics, doctors for informed consent, critics of trans ideology, even the Free Speech Union (perhaps for defending trans critical feminists). Other companies such as GoFundMe, MasterCard, Stripe, Etsy, and Patreon have closed the accounts of gender campaigners, right-wing campaigners and critics of vaccine mandates.

PayPal’s recent threat to fine its customers up to $2500 for ‘misinformation’ was a new step. Now they are not only closing accounts but also potentially seizing funds. Although PayPal implausibly claimed that the new ‘acceptable use policy’ was published in error – it was up for several days as a link from its Policy Updates page – the principle of PayPal potentially seizing customers’ funds had already been established. When it closed recent accounts, PayPal stated that it would be holding funds for 180 days to see if any ‘damages’ were due. The idea of holding and perhaps seizing customers’ money was already established in practice.

Similarly, during the truckers’ protests in Canada, GoFundMe decided that it was not going to pass on 9 million Canadian dollars of donations to the Freedom Convoy, since the protests had violated its ‘terms of service’. Instead, it would pass the money to ‘credible and established charities verified by GoFundMe’ (donors could get a refund if they filled in a form). Millions of dollars that had been donated by the public for a particular cause were reappropriated and used for some other cause.

Companies are violating the rules of their own market system. Private property rights are supposed to be sacred, protected with a single-minded obsession that outweighs almost everything else. The sociologist Max Weber said that the operation of the market requires that all authorities work according to ‘calculable rules’ and ‘without regard for persons’ (1). When you put money in an account you need to know that it is safe; when you make a payment you need to know that it will go to its intended beneficiary and not someone else.

Now, governments and companies are randomly freezing people’s accounts and they often won’t even tell you why they have done it. They are lording it over private interests. This has something of the Middle Ages about it, when all lands were nominally held from the king and could be seized at any time if a vassal was not sufficiently loyal; the lands would then be given to a more loyal follower. Now, the bureaucratic-corporate elite nominally holds the wealth of the world; we are graciously allowed to use it, so long as we do not use it for misinformation, in which case it will be taken back and reappropriated to a cause of its choice.

Here is another form of that nefarious principle that your ability to take part in public life is a privilege dependent upon good behaviour. With vaccine passports, you could only take part in society if you had obediently received the correct sequence of vaccines and boosters. If you didn’t get a booster on time, your QR code was deactivated and when you tried to buy a cup of coffee it would not work: ‘This code is no longer valid.’ Now, companies are taking it upon themselves to police the marketplace, so that you can only receive funds and make donations if you express the correct opinions on their flagship issues.

Public life is increasingly becoming subject to an ‘acceptable use policy’. If digital currencies go ahead, the potential for authorities to close accounts, freeze and reclaim funds and refuse purchases will be taken to a new level.

The public backlash against PayPal’s latest account freezes was phenomenal. Thousands of people sent complaints to Paypal and cancelled their PayPal accounts in solidarity, a pressure that led to some of these frozen accounts to be reinstated. The lordly presumption of the new corporate elite is terrifying; we must be prepared to fight it every step of the way.

(1) Max Weber, Economy and Society, Vol 2, Uni California Press, p975

The crushing of the French Freedom Convoy

The French ‘Freedom Convoy’ was met with an unprecedented and extraordinary degree of state repression and violence.

I saw off pensioners in their camper vans from south-west France on Thursday morning. On Friday evening, there were tanks waiting for them on the streets of Paris. Over 7000 highly armed police ringed the city to prevent people from entering.

The convoy spokespeople – a teacher at a Catholic school and a nurse – had chosen the path of non-confrontation and ‘dialogue’. They said that they would not enter Paris, but would rather meet at a picnic site outside the city, and they invited politicians to meet with them for a discussion and to hear their concerns.

In response, police blocked roads leading to the picnic site, meaning that many convoys were unable to arrive. Supporters bringing food and supplies were also unable to arrive.

A small group of vehicles that attempted a road block protest were dealt with violently, with the police smashing car windows and dragging out their drivers.

In pitched battles protesters were beaten by groups of police, and a young protester went into apparent cardiac arrest while the crowd shouted ‘murderers!’ at police lines. Tear gas was used liberally and hundreds of fines given out. The French state spared no expense, and no military hardware, in order to block protesters from arriving in Paris and to deal with them harshly if they made it through.

The second stage of the convoy was supposed to be Brussels, and the Belgian state lined up in similar military formation. French cars crossing into Belgium on Sunday night posted videos of lines of Belgian police vans and urged their compatriots to make it across the border that night: ‘Leave as quickly as possible, the cavalry is arriving!’

When a group of drivers arrived in Belgium the next morning, they were conducted under armed police escort to an area outside the city, and prevented from entering the city.

This degree of repression shows how covid politics represents an elite politics of public containment. The public must at all costs be kept from influencing the debate. Macron will change measures if and when he is good and ready. This is a question of executive diktat: it is not a matter for public demands, nor for the ‘dialogue’ that the convoy organisers hoped for.

You ask for dialogue, they will send tanks. That is the lesson of the French convoy.

The public sacrifice and solidarity shown in France over the past few days has been extraordinary. People set out for journeys of several days, heading into the unknown, prepared to sleep in their cars and paying hundreds or thousands of euros in petrol costs. They have been met with offers of bed and breakfast, tables of food, even money for petrol.

This was a movement put together on Telegram in a matter of days, with organisers working out maps marked with stopovers and breakfast breaks, and people posting requests or offers of bed and board. It was entirely self-organised, entirely spontaneous. And everyone involved in it has been changed by the experience.

The ‘convoi de la liberté’ may have been stymied, but this is not the end. A section of the public has gained the taste of solitary and making things happen together, and the extreme hostility with which their protests have been met has only strengthened their resolve.

Vive la liberté! Vive le convoi!

We need to live by Plan A again

The sizeable Tory rebellion in votes on ‘Plan B’ shows that something is cracking in corona politics.

Since the first lockdown, almost two years ago, social life has been assigned a merely provisional status. There is nothing in life that cannot not be cancelled at a moment’s notice – not schools, holidays, dentistry, demonstrations, Christmas, religious worship. Nothing is sacrosanct, nothing has a prior claim to existence.

Lockdowns asserted the state’s primacy over society; they declared social life to be ‘non-essential’. They often occurred with little warning, when people were in the middle of their holidays, or having lunch in a restaurant, and suddenly there was an announcement that at 12pm tomorrow all this would end. The process out of lockdown was a process of reintroducing life but now in a different form – no longer with a self-subsisting authority, but with the status of something provisional, depending on the state for permission to resume. The parts of social life were reintroduced like the sections of an orchestra, each with their own specific set of restrictions by which they must abide in order to exist.

And still, two years later, leaders want to carry on like this. They want to carry on turning social life on and off again, up and down. They take away then bring back masks. They have plans B and C, and no doubt through the entire alphabet, and they leak the contents of their considerations, so that we are aware that the future is entirely uncertain. We may arrange to see our family at Christmas, but we cannot be sure that it will happen; we cannot be sure if we can travel or not, or if we will be able to enter a pub in the New Year.

We are supposed to take our seats as spectators watching this endless serial of regulations, engaging in the prognostication and speculation about what the next rule will be. There is no certainty: when they say they will not do something this often means that they will do it. We are supposed to wait for the latest plans and then obediently follow them. We are supposed to put our lives on hold, to develop our own plan A, B, and C, and D, our own worst case scenarios, depending upon ‘what they decide to do’.

And yet something is cracking. Nearly two years on, people are tiring of it, we are wearying of the dreary show that has become what passes for politics. Nearly half of all Tory backbenchers rebelled on vaccine passports; they did not defeat plan B but they left it limp and without authority. The new mandates on facemasks on UK public transport are being very patchily obeyed. MPs now insist that parliament gets to vote on any new restrictions, rather than the usual method of publishing a statutory instrument the night beforehand.

It is the same in other countries. In France, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, many schools are ignoring the new rules on children wearing masks outside during breaktime. The children tuck their masks under their chins and the teachers say nothing.

Something is cracking – people are becoming restive, and many others are just switching off, they aren’t playing along anymore.

Politicians’ plans B and C can blow around in the wind, like useless bits of paper. They no longer have any gravity or compelling force.

We are starting to feel a different compelling force: to end this tiresome and pointless rigmarole, which turns us into the playthings of ministers and puts our lives indefinitely on hold. We need to live by our plan A again.

The European Union’s heart of darkness

The head of the European Union has said that the organisation should ‘lead the discussion’ on ‘mandatory vaccination’.

The first element is genial and sociable: it is a ‘discussion’ about ‘a common approach’. And yet the substance of the issue is brutal: it is the forced injection, against their will, of millions of Europeans.

Behind this statement lies the nature of the political arrangement that exists in the EU.

It is in and through the EU that national political elites affected a retreat from their publics, entering into an elite bureaucratic sphere of common policymaking. In this sphere, policy becomes a question of the administration of populations from above. The question is not what is wanted by people, or what is right, but what is expedient. This intra-elite world becomes the new source of pressure, censure and approval for national leaders, rather than their own publics.

Yet at the same time, there is a faux civic clothing that has been developed to cover the arrangement. Brussels is bristling with rights and civic organisations: there are constant conferences about ‘a soul for Europe’, about building bridges between people, human rights, respect for personal autonomy, understanding differences and diversity. This fine talk is rather like the monarchical trappings that clothed the modern British constitutional state and obfuscate the real operations of power. It is a dressing, a cover, used to disguise the new political arrangement; it serves to give the cold hearted machinations a civic air and democratic trapping.

So nobody should be surprised that those fine-talking European rights organisations are now silent. It is no surprise that those who talked of rights, and dialogue, and the dignity of people, are now silent as Austrians, Germans and Greeks have their Nuremberg rights violated, as the unvaccinated are consigned to their homes and there is a development of new grades of citizen status according to people’s precise medical situation.

The civic robes have been cast off, and the dark heart of the EU political arrangement is being revealed.

Here we see that it is not populism that leads to barbarism – it is elitism, and the elite management of people as if they were things, as if they were objects. The creation of independent bureaucracies turns people into things, their bodies become inert objects to be used and directed by policy. The political elites order people to be vaccinated, then discuss a fund to compensate those who are injured by the vaccination.

Yet the people of Europe are not inert bodies. We are not yet things. European citizens are burning police cars in Rotterdam, taking over Christmas markets in Luxembourg, blocking roads in the French department of Guadalupe, blocking ports in Turin. French towns and cities have had weekly demonstrations since the ‘pass sanitaire’ was imposed in August: every single Saturday, in almost every town, every city.

The French leader of ‘Les Patriotes’, Florian Philippot, is calling for the rebellion against the vaccine pass to be a rebellion against the ‘new oligarchy’, and the EU – towards a world that is ‘more just, more beautiful, more radiant, where the people are respected in their sovereignty, where the people of France can again stand on their feet’.

Philippot leading a demonstration in front of the Austrian embassy.

This points towards a new French revolution, which could lead not only France but also the European continent into a rupture and total disruption of the intra-elite ‘discussion’ – in order to reinstate people as the authors of their own bodies, and the policies of their nation.

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