From the rows of nefarious looking protesters scuffling with police in Trafalgar Square to the absurdist rise of Ian Brown and Denise Welch as those offering their thoughts on the acceptability of science, few can escape the rising tide of those willing to forgo personal responsibility in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Collected from across a range of conservatives, science deniers, the far-right, QAnon cultists, conspiracy theorists and sadly even some proclaiming to be socialists, the prevailing ideology behind their stance is something foreign to these shores — American libertarianism.
The uncharitable might suggest that American libertarianism is the result of their nation going swiftly from the barbarity of the “free” Wild West to something approaching civilisation in an extraordinarily little amount of time. This rise to the status of world superpower came without the all-important period of growth and maturity, leaving America as a dysfunctional teenager trapped in the body of a supposedly mature adult society.
Equally, the American obsession with their perception of “freedom and liberty” has taken on an almost quasi-religious fervour, with the eternally flawed constitution fulfilling the role of religious text and libertarians taking the part of the orthodox absolutists. As such, the American Revolution has become a genesis event, one celebrated in the manner of any other religious observance.
Many of the real causes of the American Revolution are obscured by a romantic retelling of America’s birth. Children are told it was a struggle for liberty from the tyranny of the British empire. That it was the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor and the small over the mighty. A triumph of individuality over the machine. As with all history, the truth is far more complex, and as with most things in America, the revolution is the victim of marketing.
The American Revolution would never have succeeded without the vital contribution of the French, the conflict little more than a proxy war between the British and French empires. Ironically, the United States is now the leading proponent of such action. Despite the portrayal of a united front, the revolution was never backed by a majority of colonists. The truth is that number for and against the war was split almost 50/50, with many colonists pledging for the British who were still vastly outnumbered by the combined American and French forces.
Still too, the very causation of the revolution is open to debate. While the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” echoes through the ages, the truth is that the American colonists paid very little (if any) tax. A cynic might suggest that the real cause was American elites wishing to raise their own tariffs on the working population of the colonies. Yet, that is not to downplay the genuine and world-changing enlightenment ideals that fuelled the American and later French revolutions. These ideals, however, are not the same ideals of modern libertarianism, no matter how much its adherents try and convince themselves that they are.
This need to present an official creation myth for America’s birth has fuelled American exceptionalism for decades, the untrue narrative giving even those who proclaim themselves leftists an unhealthy conviction in American righteousness.
Take for example the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. A lavish and outstanding production, the show boasted a stellar and diverse cast, winning plaudits for putting black, Latino and immigrant actors front and centre of the production. While nobody would ever accuse writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda of being a Republican, the otherwise brilliant show is just as guilty of whitewashing America’s birth as anything coming from the right.
While some of the issues are briefly touched upon, particularly in scenes with Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton was, in reality, a proud elitist who idolised big banks and had an unhealthy disdain for the working class. He supported the idea of a monarchical presidency and a Senate that served for life, everything America had supposedly fought against. Yet, his status as a founding father allows the truth to be downplayed.
Criticism of the saints of the revolution doesn’t play well.
This quasi-religious demand for constitutional orthodoxy, adherence to the pillars of freedom and liberty and respect for Washington and his disciples has led libertarians to be the most easily manipulated section of American society. This exploitation comes from the interests of capitalism, Christian fundamentalists and far-right alike. A disingenuous actor only needs to declare that something is a threat to American freedom and democracy to instantly have millions eating from their hands. It is little wonder that the Tea Party gained such ground within the Republican Party, nor that the QAnon cult has reached such dangerous traction as to have followers potentially headed to the Senate.
Indeed, the past 60 years alone have given us the Russian threat to freedom and democracy, the liberal threat, the communist threat, the Chinese threat, the Muslim threat, the black threat, the environmentalist threat, the immigrant threat, the Latino threat, the anti-gun threat, the atheist threat, and dozens more “threats” besides. This weaponisation of libertarian ideals has led the ideology to become so debased as to no longer be the same one that was once espoused by John Locke and Thomas Paine.
Modern American libertarianism has little to do with freedom and liberty; instead, it is a useful tool of the far-right and capitalism. Pushed by the likes of Fox News, the American people are kept continuously fearful that the above “threats” will take away their liberty, that Democrats will take their guns, Satanists will abuse their children and Antifa will bring about a communist state. All while Donald Trump rolls the American military into cities, border walls are built, and immigrants enjoy the freedom and liberty of ICE detention camps.
With no organised socialist voice to counter the claims and offer alternatives, the arguments become persuasive. “Cancel culture” becomes an effort to “silence” criticism of the left, calls for tolerance of LGBTQ+ rights becomes an “attack” on Christianity, calls for refugee rights becomes “white genocide”, asking that citizens wear a mask is an “attack” on individual rights. And yet, those that believe in such absurdities cannot be held solely to blame, for what else would they feel when they have been socialised into this culture of individualism and American exceptionalism from birth. They are, after all, the children of liberty.
And now to British shores comes this cult of individuality.
While the anti-mask protesters proudly displaying their QAnon placards are perhaps the most visible sign of the ideology’s growing influence on in the UK, its lineage can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher. It was Thatcher who proudly declared there was “no such thing as society” as she took delight in laying waste Britain’s communities and socialist base. The 1980s obsession with individualism at the expense of collectivism is at the very core of neoliberalism, a philosophy that was shamefully reinforced throughout the New Labour years. Perhaps, however, even Thatcher would have been surprised that individualism has become so ingrained in the makeup of the hard-right that allowing a deadly contagion to spread freely in the name of liberty seems a normal thought process. It is Thatcherism taken to the next level.
It is no coincidence that the likes of arch-Thatcherite Michael Gove is said to be one of the leading voices behind both the first and proposed second national lockdown. Allowing COVID-19 to spread throughout the population, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives, will eventually create herd immunity. That is true. Yet, most sane and rational people would believe the cost to be too high. To international capitalism, no price is too high to ensure that the wheel of capital keeps turning. It might be approaching conspiracy theory to see the unseen hand of banks and corporations in the voice of libertarian anti-maskers and QAnon. Yet, the ends of The City and Wall Street seem to align perfectly with the means of the protesters.
While the original goals of enlightenment libertarianism are things that no socialist can stand against, this new libertarianism stands for neither liberty nor freedom. Instead, these things now become double-speak as libertarians back the hard-right restrictions of MAGA America and Johnson’s Britain. When they speak of freedom, they speak of a freedom to oppress, when they speak of liberty, they speak of the liberty to offend. Libertarianism in 2020 is merely another facet to the ever-growing influence of the international far-right, its unwelcome advancement on British shores is something that should be rejected by anyone who might still believe in the true ideals that once empowered the revolutions of 1775 and 1789.