“Masks=Slavery”: Freedom In The Time Of Coronavirus

By Kwesi P. Dean

May 30, 2020

Coronavirus stay-at-home orders began in the United States mid March and ruptured a particular pact with some Americans who believed in an implicit promise, a promise that their lives would not be subject to, as Marx put it, a “relation of domination” that is inherent to direct forced labor and social control. Of course, none of them would put it that way since there is little redeemable in the Satan of capitalism but it makes sense nonetheless.

No matter the noble nature of the stay-at-home order or mandatory public masking, they are orders regulating public behavior enforceable by law. People who are not used to being told what to do by the state are being forced to do things, or not do things, they want to do.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Americans were told, changing their patterns of living may save lives. Americans in stay-at-home states were told to tolerate temporary inconvenience to “flatten the curve” of viral transmission to give society time and capacity to care for the sick and find treatments and cures. That didn’t matter enough for these so-called supporters of liberty to justify the limitations on their rights.

From the very beginning of the implementation of stay-at-home orders there was pushback on economic grounds. President Trump even said “We can’t have a cure be worse than the problem” on 23 March, 4 days after California set mandatory stay-at-home restrictions. The effect of economic hardship may be worse than the preventable loss of life, pitting a way of life for many against,for some, actually…living.

The stay-at-home orders definitely had direct and immediate economic consequences with thousands of businesses closed and 26.4 million newly unemployed in 4 weeks. This reaction is predictable in a country with a “hire and fire” mentality where employers’ well being is above that of workers at every turn. Unlike in many European countries where the state partially paid employees to keep their jobs, the US relied on a largely antiquated, state level unemployment system to deal with the deluge of new filings for benefits. Many people couldn’t even get through to file, let alone receive benefits.

All the while, many more Americans than normal were getting sick and dying. Reports of thousands of people dying daily is the norm as is the acceptance of those deaths.

This norm of the acceptance of death has lead to an inevitable conclusion by some that in the face of economic hardship, the US should accept even more death as a fair trade for prosperity. Sen. John Kennedy (LA) and Rep. Trey Hollingsworth(IN) claimed that ending stay-at-home and social distancing measures and opening businesses was worth the near certainty of more people dying from complications due to the accelerated spread of Covid-19.

They weren’t hiding behind the language of risk. There was no confusion about the causal relationship. It is simply worth it for thousands of people to die to protect the economy. Hollingsworth passionately noted on the Tony Katz radio show on 14 April “it is always the American government’s position that in the choice between the loss of the way of life as Americans and the loss of American lives we always have to choose the latter and this is what I push back on.” Kennedy on 16 April when talking to Tucker Carlson on Fox noted when “we end the shut down, the virus is going to spread faster…we got to reopen and when we do the Coronavirus is going to spread faster.” For Kennedy, reopening is justified to protect an American economy on the verge of collapse. He imagines a US collapse would lead to a global collapse.

By 15 April, protests against the stay-at-home orders with slogans like “Freedom over fear” had begun across the US with acts of civil disobedience that at the same time put protesters at greater risk of infection. We now know some protesters have tested positive for the virus. Yes, the protests were organized in some cases by conservative organizations with ties to the administration and encouraged by presidential tweets but that didn’t force people to illegally gather in defiance of state orders meant to protect them and others from illness.

So why would they do it? Though no one answer would cover it, one perspective is what’s at stake for them is much more than a an economic way of life. They are losing a social contract that entitled them to believe, despite the obvious precariousness of their economic well-being, their social freedom as Americans would be unquestioned. The so-called “nanny state” with the support of the majority of Americans was forcing them to act without their choice.

The concept of being controlled and tracked by the state is too much for some Americans to take, no matter the cause. Americans know instinctively the counterpart of freedom is social control. That social control was a part of the fabric of the state from the founding of the country with indentured servitude and slavery. It continues today with the criminal justice system that even extends to remove citizenship rights like the right to vote. That social control was and is acceptable to many Americans as long as they aren’t subject to it.

For a significant minority of Americans, stay-at-home orders should end. The risks are acceptable. It’s about more than the economy. The reality of state control is too much to tolerate as a reminder that they have a lot more in common with people who are unfortunate and underprivileged than they hoped to believe.

It didn’t help that the face of the coronavirus victim in the US was becoming black, brown, poor, old and sickly. People who would die anyway. Why should Americans suffer on behalf of the least of these? The answer for the anti stay-at-home protesters was, they shouldn’t.

Freedom from state control is an organizing principle for the American far right with hyper individualism and a lack of social responsibility as consequences. They thread is clear, they don’t want to serve people whose lifestyle they oppose in their businesses, go to classes or schools that teach what they don’t want to know, pay taxes that support programs with which they disagree or view protests that support people’s lives that don’t matter to them.

The desire to be free of social control in the US is more than inspiration for conspiracy theories or votes for a reality tv star to be president. It’s more than political, it’s a matter of life and death.


Wealth confronts direct forced labour not as capital, but rather as relation of domination [Herrschaftsverhältnis]; thus, the relation of domination is the only thing which is reproduced on this basis, for which wealth itself has value only as gratification, not as wealth itself, and which can therefore never create general industriousness. (We shall return to this relation of slavery and wage labour.) Grundrisse

At the end of the interview Carlson noted you know what kills more people each year than Coronavirus, a lot more? Poverty, poverty kills people in massive numbers and we should remember that.”

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