Individualism versus the common good | Covid-19

Throughout the West, since the onset of the covid pandemic, extreme right-wing forces have given political leadership and muscle to much of the anti-mask-wearing, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests. They do so by trading on a genuine distrust of Big Pharma and on an increasing alienation from bourgeois democracy, which is more and more exposed as rule by the rich for the rich.

The anti-restrictions movement has also pushed the fringe views of anti-vaxers into the mainstream. Anti-vaxers are an extreme manifestation of the individualism deified by capitalism.

The cult of the individual goes hand in hand with capitalism and is an increasing phenomenon within society. Individualism breaks the bonds of society and makes us into consumers, eager to snap up the “needs” created by capitalism as we attempt to create our own version of the ideal lifestyle manufactured by advertising companies. It is used to break the bonds of solidarity that are the only weapon working-class people have had in their struggle against capital.

Solidarity formed the basis of the trade union movement and the socialist and communist movements. In rural Ireland, solidarity was the basis on which the Tithe War and later the Land War were prosecuted. All progress has been the result of solidarity, of class struggle.

There have always been workers who rejected trade-union solidarity and scabbed on their fellow-workers. During the Land War, land-grabbers put their individual needs above those of the community. Today many workers will engage a solicitor to pursue an issue with their employer rather than rely on a trade union. They have come to accept the concept that they have an individual “relationship” with their employer. However, the working class can only make advances by acting not as individuals but as a class.

Anti-vaxers are an extreme manifestation of individualism. The “scientific” basis of the original anti-vaccination campaign has long been discredited and exposed as a sham; but it doesn’t matter that the pseudo-science on which they based their arguments has been discredited: they still claim that they are motivated by the desire to protect themselves and their children, and so they refuse all vaccinations.

That might be all right if they lived in isolated family units; however, they live in society, and, to paraphrase the poet John Donne, “No-one is an island.”

While they may not articulate it as such, their ideology is a rejection of society and the bonds of solidarity. They really are the children of neo-liberalism.

Anti-vaxers are prepared to pursue their right to stand against society even if it means pushing our health system to breaking-point, so endangering the well-being of others. Their pursuit of individualism leaves them open to the ideology of the extreme right. Like Thatcher, in deed if not in word, they believe there is no such thing as society.

The pandemic, and indeed the environmental crisis, has shown the danger to society of the individual’s “right to the pursuit of happiness” against the common good.

Instead of dismissing anti-vaxers as misguided innocents who are entitled to their opinions, the ideology behind the phenomenon must be confronted and defeated before it fuels an even bigger fascist movement.