Right-wing anti-face mask activism has been a mass phenomenon in the US on the grounds of individual freedoms, but seems to be edging into left-libertarian discourse as well — this is not necessarily a good thing.
There’s several reasons why wearing a mask might not be a fair request. Very young children may struggle to breathe, similarly people with chronic asthma or other respiratory diseases, lung cancer etc (though most of these are advised to avoid potential Covid hotspots entirely rather than faff about with or without masks).
But asking healthy people to do it during a pandemic is not unreasonable, and it’s not some wild scheme about “normalising compliance,” as one meme which has been doing the rounds puts it.
Any time the government tells us to do something on pain of police intervention is of course something to be deeply suspicious about. The first response to any such activity should be to ask “what’s in it for them” followed by “how is this going to screw working people’s freedoms and interests.”
In this case the answer is not a straightforward one, and neither can our reaction be.
Motivations: It’s not about social control
What is happening with masks is not a government drive to make us habitually disciplined to the priorities of State and capital — there’s many other significantly more powerful tools they already use for that. Rather there are a number of competing drives going on around the concept which have played out over a six month period, leading to the current compromise.
Straightforwardly if the government’s actions were about tightening and normalising “compliance,” or making the public more generally supine then it would have enthusiastically legislated in March with the full weight of the initial panic behind it, rather than reluctantly (and with minimal attempt at enforcement) in June and July following extensive battles with the likes of the WHO.
That reluctance is itself actually a great deal more understandable than any passing of legislation, from a pure perspective of State control. The idea of mask wearing being an effort to ensure a more compliant populace is a total reverse of the experiences protesters have had for decades. In fact Freedom has been carrying articles urging protesters to mask up for their own safety for years prior to Covid in the face of extreme State hostility to the practice.
The State’s dislike of us wearing masks has historically been so extreme that there’s even a specific law giving police the power to demand you take yours off. And that’s because wearing facemasks actively undermines a wide slate of State priorities around social compliance which bosses really have been trying to normalise, in particular to do with data gathering. At a stroke it’s broken the burgeoning police facial recognition rollout which was slated to go London wide this year. The force’s Forward Intelligence Team has been finding it more difficult than usual to identify disruption targets when at long last masks have become normal in the crowds. Identifying persons of interest is generally far harder.
Within the Tory party itself the idea of legislating masks has not been terribly popular even at the absolute top — Johnson himself has been extremely reticent to wear one until recently and his effective third in command (after Dominic “Barnard Castle” Cummings) Michael Gove has been actively briefing against masks becoming mandatory. This fits strongly with the ideological basis of the Tory party — individual freedoms, minimal government intervention and laissez fair concepts over collective concerns. This has been reflected as well via their ideological stable mates, with the furthest-right administrations tending to be the ones most against it (from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro).
On the other hand has been the medical evidence, which seemingly has now largely been settled — higher rates of mask wearing have resulted in lower rates of Covid spread. This is primarily, for the right, an economic counter-argument to its ideological inclinations. The lower the Covid spread, the faster the economy can be re-opened and business as usual resumed. And over time that economic pressure, the pragmatism of profit, has won out over what passes for conservative ethics.
This direct clash of interests is partly why the government has been so fundamentally confusing on the subject over the last few months, attempting such ludicrous ideas as herd immunity, ending lockdown at the first possible opportunity, trying to send schools back well before it was even vaguely plausible etc. It’s competing priorities at work amid the spectrum of leverage available to varying ruling class tendencies which has belatedly come to a firm (if probably temporary) conclusion.
There are reasons to beware the apparent settling of the mask debate within the ruling classes and its translation into a law. It’s not to do with it being specifically used to try and turn us all into drones, but rather in the excuses it will provide for bosses, and for other authority figures, to act with impunity.
We have already seen companies up and down the country flouting safety and PPE rules on a near habitual basis, even to the point of making vaguely threatening statements over providing it to unionised staff. The likelihood that a focus on masks could provide cover for bosses to pretend PPE and expensive shop-floor reorganisations aren’t required is extremely high.
Health and safety laws (and watchdogs — the HSE has been quietly eviscerated since 2016) have been getting the Tory boot for some time. It seems likely last year’s uptick in injuries after a long decline, alongside a fall in enforcement, is going to be indicative of an ongoing issue.
The problem there will probably not be a sudden upsurge in people being dragged out of workplaces by faceless armoured cops (though no doubt they will take advantage in other ways), but the opposite — bosses dragging their heels on safety because they know officials won’t be round to fine them, or even tell them off.
The law opens the door to extensive misuse by capital, and of course as ever represents a reaching out of assumed power by the State itself that can and almost certainly will be abused both on a political level and on the ground floor by coppers indulging their institutions’ prejudices or simply because they can. To take protest as one example, which laws even take precedence, masks off (Section 60AA (Criminal Justice Act 1994) or masks on? One for our legal column to wrangle, no doubt.
As anarchists we are thus caught in a spot between multiple laws which conceptually both help and hinder us. We are in the bizarre position of having a Tory government legislate its support for slapping on an anonymising and potentially lifesaving mask everywhere from Marshall Meadows to Lizard Point. A law we have not asked for, from a body we do not support, enforced by an organisation we actively want to abolish, in ways which no doubt will be deeply unpleasant. It’s a through the looking glass moment.
In sum: Please do mask up for your own and everyone else’s protection — but not because the government says so. And keep an eye out for the inevitable slurry of exploitative practices which is sure to follow.
Pic: Anti-war anarchist by Mark Knobil