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One of the questions that has occurred to me since the beginning of the pandemic is why governments seemed reluctant to actually mandate anything. By their nature, governments are not libertarian - despite the “small government” protestations of conservatives and populists - and they clearly relish the deployment of state violence in the form of militarized police, so why the reliance on “common sense” and trusting people to “do the right thing” which is the position taken, in various ways, by the British government and the Federal Canadian and Provincial government Albertan governments.

One of the foundations of liberal political thought (which even ostensibly conservative parties and governments tend to adopt) is that the state operates through policies and procedures (i.e. laws and regulations) which are neutral with respect to any particular conception of what is good. Drawing on the atomized individualism that lies at the heart of liberal thinking, every individual has their own conception of what the good life is, and in order to be fair and impartial, the state does not take sides in this. The application of universal laws and regulations, irrespective (ostensibly) of race, gender, class, sexuality, or disability, is what ensures fairness and equality in a liberal society (hence the liberal insistance, for example, on “post-racial colour-blindness”). This does not mean that a liberal society is egalitarian - indeed it relies on what is sees as “natural” inequalities, such as wealth - but that the state, conceived as a necessary evil, as the power of the collective over the individual, is constrained to a procedural equality, an equality of application of the law.

This idea was explicitly formulated in Ronald Dworkin’s 1978 essay on Liberalism, and was described succinctly by Charles Taylor in his 1992 essay on the politics of recognition:

The reason that the polity as such can espouse no substantial view, cannot, for instance, allow that one of the goals of legislation should be to make people virtuous in one or another meaning of the that term, is that this would involve a violation of its procedural norm. For, given the diversity of modern societies, it would unfailingly be the case that some people and not others would be committed to the favored conception of virtue.

Those who are not committed to the “favored conception of virtue” would then find the the equal application of government procedures (laws, regulations) did not apply to them; their “equal rights” would therefore be infringed.

We can see the connection to library neutrality here: the library, as an organ of the state, adopts this liberal proceduralism and stands aloof from any “competing” conceptions of the good (transmisia vs. trans lives, for example), assuming that by doing this - by renting meeting space to anyone, and giving everying an “equal” platform to express their views - it is achieving what Dworkin and Taylor think of as procedural virtue but not substantive virtue. Public libraries stick to their guns on this because - acknowledged or not - they believe in the individualistic and procedural commitments of liberal politics.

The pandemic challenges all of this. Early on, people were exhorted to think of more than themselves, to act in solidarity, to repress their individual desires in the name of the greater good. Many of us did just that. But that this has not, in the long run, worked - anti-mask sentiment is now widespread, for example, and for many people life has gone back “to normal” - should come as no surprise, given that the individual and their desire forms the basis of hegemonic liberal political thinking, and that the neoliberal period has been the exaltation of that individualism after a (in hindsight, brief) period of social solidarity and compromise after the second world war. The corrosive nature of individualism - the “me decade” of the 70s, the “decade of greed” of the 80s - has made any large-scale, concerted movement of social solidarity in the capitalist centres nearly impossible (one of the main obstacles to large-scale left-wing organization here). Countries in Asia have done better, and we have seen mutual aid groups pop up all across North America, but in general, the absolute individualism inculcated in North American citizens over the past forty years has proved an insurmountable obstacle to the kind of large-scale social discipline needed to quickly contain the outbreak (the US and Britain are the two worst offenders here, as they were the two most nakedly neoliberal of Western states). By leaving “virtue” as a matter of individual choice, social, collective virtue becomes almost impossible.

But the pandemic also challenged the idea of state neutrality with respect to any particular conception of the good. Public health, the avoidance of death on a mass scale, became simply one conception of the good among many, and the liberal state had to maintain its agnostic position with respect to it. My own provincial government, for example, has refused to mandate mask usage, leaving it to individual cities to pass unenforcable bylaws on their own. The sacred cow of individual choice remains inviolate (And of course, individual choice is a key component of the consumerism that must be deployed to “restart the economy”). Perversly, the implementation of public health policy to save lives is seen as an unwarranted infringement on individual autonomy - the weirdly logical conclusion of centrist “bothsidesism”. Unfortunately, this has led to other individuals - grocery checkout clerks, wait staff - having to take on the unenviable task of enforcing local policy, and having to deal with the angry face of entitled “rugged individualists” moistly spouting off about their rights. Liberal procedural individualism always comes at the expense of marginalized people.

I’m not arguing that the capitalist state ought to be deploying well-armed police to ensure the implementation of fascist policy, but I do want to point out the limitations inherent in the bourgeois conception of the state itself. Limitations meant to ensure the sovereignty of individual “freedom” make it impossible for the state to develop and implement vitally important policies and procedures when they become necessary.

But of course, the idea that the liberal state is in fact neutral or agnostic with respect to any substantive good is ridiculous. It simply takes certain goods for granted and (knowingly or not) supports them. Individualism, for example - individual “freedom” - is a good that the bourgeois state - and its organs, like the library - supports. But like so many “goods” of white supremacist, patriarchal capital, individualism is an “unmarked good”, the dominant side of an artificial binary: white, male, property-owning, cisgendered, straight, etc. The liberal conception of the neutral state, what Michael Sandel calls the “procedural republic” is absolutely committed to particular conceptions of the good: the good of racial capitalism. It is pure ideological mystification to pretend otherwise. In “normal” times this mystification operates fairly smoothly (the ideological machine is effective and efficient) but in times of crisis, such as the pandemic and the uprisings in the US, it becomes exposed as the naked mechanism of class, race, and gendered power that it is.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that this unwillingness to take a substantive position on the good is what underlies government’s reliance on “Behavioural Economics” (i.e. nudge theory). Jana Bacevic has written a really good piece on social theory, behavioural economics, and the pandemic: “No Such Thing as Society? Liberal Paternalism, Politics of Expertise and the Corona Crisis”


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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