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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Flickr | Phil Roeder

It Turns Out the Right Just Believes In Power

The conservative tantrum on workplace vaccination shows why their ideas are wrong

Americans may be hoarding the vaccine, but getting everyone vaccinated has been a challenge. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued a somewhat controversial new policy, affirming that employers can require workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be barred from the workplace. Exemptions exist for religion or disability, but management can additionally require that any unvaccinated workers follow accommodations like mask-wearing and physical distancing. 

The EEOC also said bosses can merely incentivize vaccination (Kroger is offering one HUNDRED dollars), or propagandize to workers about the benefits. Leftists are used to seeing this power used for smothering workers in one-sided information and breaking union drives, but hopes are high that America’s big employers can spur enough shots to get the U.S. over the threshold for herd immunity. A survey of U.S. and U.K. companies found 88 percent plan to require or encourage the shot. Many employers, especially in health care, have required them for some time. 

Vax Romana

It’s the Right that’s been most vocally opposed to the vaccine-workplace connection, having grown increasingly antagonistic to public health measures over the course of the pandemic and with 27% of Republicans “definitely not” willing to get the shot, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Outrage at the idea of unqualified managers demanding to see vaccination cards is burning on talk radio, while the cool heads at Red State decried “the purported right of an employer to make a definitive judgment about whether an unvaccinated employee presents a direct risk,” furious that “insurance companies are almost certain to require vaccinations in order to retain liability policies.”

Despite centuries of applauding large-scale private property rights, from refusing customers gay wedding cakes, to firing organizers, to fighting lunch counter integration, the Right is melting down that it might have to get inoculated by the boss. The cheap comedy of this hissy-fit is easy to see—“Sure, I the business entrepreneur should be able to refuse transgendered customers or ban union organizers, but now they’re making me give my part-timers evil shots that put Jeffrey Epstein’s DNA into your body with the 5G technologies!”  

So suddenly the Right has rediscovered the value of regulation, demanding laws that interfere in the market, in order to protect their workers from the evil of useful public health tools. The EEOC guidance indicates that businesses requiring shots don’t violate federal law, but states can pass their own controls. And sure enough, state laws doing so are already getting signed—Florida now legally bars companies (including cruise lines) from requiring proof of vaccination (from customers if not employees), while Texas does so for public agencies and private entities that do state business or require a state license. 

This abrupt lapse into support for Big Government regulations reflects the limitations of a conservative view that leaves private business tyrants in charge of our working lives.

Sticks and Stones

The Right has famously been pro-business, except when they aren’t. Lately, the Right has been railing against the evil power of Big Tech. Conservatives are fully up in arms against the tech platforms over offenses like booting Trump from Twitter and Facebook, along with fairly endless claims that conservative views are suppressed or “shadow-banned” from public view—even though the most-shared links on Facebook day after day are from Ben Shapiro and other cookie-cutter online conservatives.

Of course, from their emergence in the 1980s and 1990s until a few years ago, these private online companies were seen as free market success stories. Former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, for example, said in opposition to the antitrust investigation against Microsoft that:

“A company develops a new product, a product consumers want. But now the government steps in and is in effect attempting to dictate the terms on which that product can be marketed and sold. Pinch me, but I thought we were still in America.” 

Crucially, from Microsoft’s Windows to Google’s YouTube, the platforms have developed within the strong economic power of network effects—the tendency of leading companies in network-based markets to attract the most new users and developers. This results in market-wide monopolies or oligopolies (markets with just a few companies, like Apple and Google’s two smartphone operating systems). Once a company has cornered the market, network effects make it almost impossible for anyone else to launch a viable competitor, meaning that the entire theory of competition creating innovation breaks down. 

These hyper-centralized outcomes were well and good with the Right when they were bringing forth fun products and creating new markets, but it went south once their power came to occasionally impinge on other right-wing priorities. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can now utterly ban a person or media outlet from public life, as this magazine is well aware. The platforms are now so central to public life that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that convicted sex offenders can’t be fully barred from Facebook, since so much of society’s business and public affairs are communicated there, so the stakes of a ban are no small thing. 

Right-wing media pushing naked conspiracy theories have been down-ranked or barred from advertising on various platforms as they came to develop minimal moderation policies, fanning the flames. But above all, the ongoing suspension of former U.S. president and notorious catty gossip Donald Trump has permanently infuriated the Right against the free-market platform monopolies they helped nurture. 

The recently-discovered right-wing hysteria about the online platforms is pretty rich, considering not just the dominance of conservative media on the platforms, but also Facebook’s Oversight Board’s recent ruling that the company must outline its suspension and banning policies, opening the door for Trump’s eventual return. Also often cited in the now-endless ocean of conservative whining about tech is the claim of liberal bias among tech leaders, but as explored in the international record-shattering smash book Bit Tyrants, it’s not the CEOs but the companies’ rank and file that tends to be more progressive. It was Google’s workforce that collected thousands of signatures opposing the company’s work with the Pentagon on weaponized drones, and which walked out in 2018 over claims of widespread sexual harassment and forced arbitration practices. 

A similar cognitive dissonance turns up when the right wing considers borders. The libertarian branch of conservatism has long advocated freedom of movement across borders, for money, ideas, and people. Libertarian godfather Ludwig von Mises wrote that “Without the reestablishment of freedom of migration throughout the world, there can be no lasting peace.” The freedom of money has been the most successful in this corporate-dominated neoliberal era of relaxed controls on capital, with trillions in liquid capital now surging across the world daily. But conservatives have never accepted the free movement of people—Germany’s acceptance of a mere million migrants in 2015 was itself enough to act as a major catalyst for the far-right in Germany and Europe, and the U.S. media remains focused on the ongoing “crisis at the border,” mostly the result of America’s destruction of Central America over decades of military coups, wars, and devastating climate change-fueled storm systems. As explained in the pages of the explosive global publishing phenomenon Current Affairs magazine, open borders are a basic question of not only human freedom but basic justice for the region. But the traditional right-wing love of national territory easily creams their libertarian streak. 

Freelance Tyrants

The Right’s centuries-long resistance to rules on the private sector has had its ups and downs. A particular target of theirs has been the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA), for its interference with private businesses. Of course, many conservatives opposed the racial integration on more fundamental grounds, like the anonymous National Review column (believed to have been written by magazine founder and major conservative intellectual William Buckley) that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically…because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

Conservatives have historically been relatively open about their view that it’s the employers’ lunch counter, and if they want to segregate it on the basis of racist ideas—or just for shits and giggles—that’s their call. As a result, libertarians in particular have become notorious for continued opposition to the CRA, which created what are today called “protected categories” of workers, creating hated exceptions to employers’ power of at-will employment, although still leaving most workers fireable on the spot. 

Congressman Ron and Senator Rand Paul, national libertarian leaders, have repeatedly indicated their opposition to the original law, and even voted against a 2004 resolution celebrating it. They have both repeatedly indicated their view that the CRA shouldn’t extend beyond public institutions, leaving private institutions unmolested. The conservative substitute for centuries of institutional U.S. racism has been to claim that good-hearted people will oppose discrimination, and thus withdraw their business from companies guilty of it, despite the steady success of segregated Southern lunch counters. Senator Paul said “I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant—but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership,” and called his opposition to the law the “hard part about believing in freedom.”

But of course, that goofy version of “freedom” seems to mean tons of power being wielded by the private sector—a boss freed from any controls can make you do anything under threat of your job and health insurance. The traditional concept of the relationship between power and freedom has been to see them as broadly antagonistic, since power centers can tell you what to do, a threat to your “negative” freedom. This means that the entire conservative picture of the world is utterly wrong, since as they are admitting in the present case of compelled vaccination, companies and bosses have a great deal of leverage over us humans who must regularly eat and pay rent, an argument developed in the worldwide smash hit book Capitalism vs. Freedom. And even worse, as Nathan Robinson has written, the fact that frequently a company’s private demands actually get enforced by cops, like kicking out intrusive integration activists or union organizers.

It could be argued that the current pants-pooping by the Right about workplace Covid shots is predictable, a result of conservative support for the hierarchy of the private corporate workplace colliding with conservative support for the hierarchy of ableism. “I won’t get a shot that lets Bill Gates control my sperm just to help protect some AIDS patient!” Likewise for Senator Josh Hawley and other arch-conservatives opposing the online platforms, which they formerly praised as free-market success stories, until they crashed against the hierarchy of power they worshipped in Trump. 

This hierarchy-based worldview is really only compatible with the “freedom” of people at the heads of hierarchies–in family, business, the church, the military. Sometimes called “hegemonic freedom,” it means power, and so it’s not surprising that the Right so often is opposed to people exercising freedom. This includes right-wing horror at men growing their hair long in the Vietnam era to trans athletes today. As soon as something goes against traditional hierarchies, when corporations make statements supporting black lives, when schools teach critical race theory, the talk of “freedom” abruptly dematerializes. 

Luckily a vaccination does exist for the condition of being an utter reactionary jerk-off. Consciousness-raising is no easy thing, but if civil rights laws can be passed in America, unions won in hostile workplaces, and socialists elected, there is hope. 

Photo by Phil Roader via Flicker. Licensed using CC BY 2.0.

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