This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.
By Osvaldo Javier López Ruiz
Researcher, INCIHUSA – CONICET
Professor, Doctorate in Social Sciences – UNCuyo, Argentina;
Former Visiting Fellow, PSIG – Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies email@example.com
A little more than 201 years ago, in February 1819, Benjamin Constant (Lausanne, 1767 – Paris, 1830), gave his famous lecture “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” at the Paris Athenaeum. In the lecture, Constant, a prominent figure of 19th century liberalism, analyzed the revolutionary rhetoric of the French Revolution. He also uncovered the constant trace of the notion of “freedom” of the ancients — especially of Athenians — in the discourse of the Jacobins who, following Rousseau among others, aspired to recreate the public virtues of antiquity to give a moral content to the constitution of the modern republic.
The freedom of the ancients consisted in exercising sovereignty directly but accepting the submission of the individual to the authority of the whole. In this way, the price paid for the active and continuous participation in power — where the will of each individual had a real influence in the collective — had as a counterpoint that the authority of the social body often hindered the will of individuals in their particular affairs. Thus, according to Constant, for the ancients, the individual was sovereign in public affairs but a slave in private matters. This was, in his opinion, a notion of freedom based on the civic virtues that the French revolutionaries wanted to adopt and that produced so many atrocities.
That is why Constant denounced the untimeliness of this notion of freedom. The world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was very different from that of Classical Antiquity. Large communities had developed, the division of labour had diversified and slavery had disappeared — at least in Europe, we should add — and a mercantile or commercial society with modern characteristics had flourished. In the society of the 19th century the individual had much less possibility of influencing public affairs effectively with his will and, it didn’t escape Constant, he had less time and disposition to take care of them.
That is why the freedom of the moderns, unlike that of the ancients, had to be defined in terms of individual independence and security for private benefit and enjoyment, protecting individuals from the authority of the social body and from any advance on their freedom. For this reason, he reproaches the philosophers who had inspired the revolutionaries for not having taken into account the changes that two thousand years have brought about in the inclinations of the human race.
Quarantine: restricting freedom, a source of privilege, or universal right?
The COVID-19 pandemic, because of its global extension, presents a unique scenario to appreciate how much cultural construction is behind the notions with which we conduct our lives. For example, it has become evident to what extent the notion of freedom, which we like to think of as universal, can depend on the geography, culture and history of each community, as well as on the economic and political situation of each country.
In this sense, Switzerland is an interesting case because, being a small country with only eight million inhabitants, it allows us to appreciate the differences in sensitivity between those of Latin and those of Germanic culture — what has been called “Coronagraben”, referring to the differences in support for health measures taken by the authorities. While some cantons have shown their support for the containment provisions, others consider these measures as an intolerable limitation of their individual freedom and a violation of their fundamental rights.
In this context, among the different ways of reacting to the pandemic, one of the models that has been most discussed is that of Sweden — “a panacea” for the critics of restrictions on freedom of movement; a “risky experiment” for those who consider that appeals to civic conscience and individual responsibility are not sufficient in the face of the rate of spread of the virus.
At other latitudes, the measures taken against COVID-19 allow for very different readings. In developing countries — even in large economies like Brazil — quarantine can be understood as a privilege of a few to take care of their health. In a context where, because of the lack of social coverage, the great majority cannot stop working, being able to stay home to take care of the contagion is seen as a privilege. Many cannot stop their activity because of the risk of exposing their families to total abandonment. For them, those who can stay at home are privileged. In other words: in contexts like this, to have rights is to be privileged. Thus, faced with a situation of selective quarantine —only stop those who are able to stop — the idea of freedom is modulated in a different way.
This is an excerpt. To read the full article, visit The Global.
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