Roman head. Photo credit: Juan Aunion / Shutterstock.com

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the severe curtailment of civil liberties and the lockdown of billions of people worldwide. Some states’ reaction to the pandemic has been seen as more effective than others. In particular, authoritarian governments, such as China, now boast about their efficient management of the crisis and are providing support and advice to European and other nations.

Consequently, many citizens are questioning the purported advantages of democratic governance. As both democratic and authoritarian states have imposed exceptional measures restricting political and civil liberties, there is a nagging suspicion that democracies might not turn out to be inherently superior regimes. Some radical thinkers, such as the influential Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, have recently claimed that states of emergency are the permanent condition of modern political life, regardless of regimes.

This, however, ignores the difference in the quality of freedom between democratic and authoritarian states.

Some political philosophers distinguish two notions of liberty: liberty as non-interference and liberty as non-domination. The first notion assumes that someone is free insofar as no one interferes with the choices one can make; understanding liberty as non-domination instead stresses that one is free to the extent that others do not exercise arbitrary power over one.

We live in a time where our liberty as non-interference is drastically reduced, with basic freedoms — to work, to travel, to associate in public — taken away. Any infringement of these new restrictions can result in interference by public authorities.

Under such — regrettable but necessary — conditions, we should be vigilant not to relinquish a no less important liberty:  liberty as non-domination.

In the classical Roman tradition of republican liberty, to be free meant not to be subjected to arbitrary rule: to the uncontrolled power of the slaveholder or the tyrant, the two classical figures of oppression. Self-governing republics enjoyed liberty as non-domination because the power exercised over citizens was a power that citizens ultimately controlled. It was power exercised “on the people’s terms,” to borrow the title of an important book by the civic republican philosopher Philip Pettit. It was also power exercised for the public good: In extraordinary times, this can require extensive restrictions of ordinary liberties. On the civic republican view, state interference is not always a form of domination (a lesson perhaps forgotten by today’s anti-state libertarians).

How can we best preserve liberty as non-domination in today’s increasingly restrictive state of emergency?

There are three main considerations. First, in today’s liberal democracies the state of emergency should be the exception, not the norm. In classical republics, the rule of dictators — unlike that of tyrants — was justified as a temporary concentration of all powers in wartime conditions with the explicit aim of eventually restoring the full regime of civil liberties. It is crucially important that emergency powers be periodically reviewed and renewed (only if necessary) through parliamentary and judicial oversight. They should not be presumed to be indefinite. Normal democratic mechanisms of accountability — including elections — must be maintained as much as possible during the crisis.

Second, in liberal democracies, non-domination is secured through the quality and transparency of public information. Democratic accountability depends on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. The public needs to be able to trust crucial sources of information, such as scientific experts and professional journalists. A well-informed public can then robustly scrutinize governmental initiatives. All government actions in a crisis should be subjected to public discussion and contestation — even to the threat of enquiries in the case of grave mismanagement. Freedom of expression and public criticism often slows down and even disrupts political action, but it is crucial to guarantee that the exorbitant powers of the state do not go unchecked.

Third, in a liberal democracy, power should be exercised for the benefit of all the people, not a restricted faction. This truism becomes salient once we take the measure of the hugely unequal effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has revealed how our social fabric is maintained by low-paid, working-class members of the labor force, such as nurses, social care workers, supermarket cashiers, delivery workers, and bus drivers. They now face the risk of sickness and even death on a daily basis.

The socially regressive impact of lockdown is also clear in the way that it disproportionately hits families living in confined spaces and in precarious financial, bodily, or psychological health. Further, the pandemic’s effects are intensified for struggling young generations like gig-economy workers, indebted university students, and urban renters. Only a renewed democratic social contract can ensure that the long-term costs of the pandemic will not (as was the case after the financial crisis of 2008) be paid for by the most vulnerable.

The Indian economist Amartya Sen once observed that democratic governance is the best antidote to the destructive effects of famine in developing countries. In a similar vein, democratic governance should — ideally — immunize us against the devastatingly unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With this knowledge, should we be hopeful about the future prospects of non-domination in actual democracies? Some scepticism — though not Agamben-style pessimism — is warranted.

One problem is that the conditions of democratic resilience have slowly been eroded over the last couple of decades in existing democratic states. The post-9/11 era has seen the uncontrolled development of anti-terrorist legislation, of which current emergency powers are often derived from. The populist assault on scientific experts, traditional media, and other countervailing institutions, such as courts, has weakened the public sphere and its ability to oppose the exercise of arbitrary power. And many democratic governments worldwide have undermined public services, while scapegoating immigrants, Jews, Muslims, or the European Union for the economic and social despair of their core constituencies.

States such as the United States, Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, and Israel have gone furthest into this dangerous democratic backsliding. Many liberal democratic states, including France and the United Kingdom, have seen the weakening of the very mechanisms that have helped protect their citizens from authoritarian or arbitrary rule.

It is one thing for our liberty as non-interference to be suspended under the exceptional circumstance of a public health emergency. It is quite another thing for our liberty as non-domination to be eroded, for this loss is not so easily reversed. This is all the more dangerous because, as the Roman republican writers knew well, liberty as non-domination is the best guarantee of the secure, resilient protection of our ordinary liberty as non-interference.

Cécile Laborde is the Nuffield Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

3 thoughts on “Liberty in the Time of Corona

  1. Treating “the people” as something concrete is highly problematical. Being dominated by the armed representatives of a democratic majority is hardly less arbitrary than being dominated by a benignly neglectful aristocracy.

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