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FP Masks ;

White Skin, No Masks: Libertarianism, the UK anti-lockdown movement and freedom

Feminist Perspectives
Claire Crawford

Deptartment of Political Economy, KCL

26 May 2021

Grounded in my experience of lockdown in South West London, this short piece begins with observations on the practice of mask-wearing on a busy metropolitan high street. Reflecting on the past year in politics in the UK and USA, I will consider how and why the practice has become racialised, with new (and old) libertarian ideologies gaining popularity. The anti-lockdown movement has prospered on social media but has an increasing presence in the streets. Thinking through postcolonial and critical race theory, this piece will consider what is meant by the demand for ‘freedom’, and who that freedom is for.

I live just off a busy South London high street. Tooting is often described as a great example of a thriving multicultural community. There is an Irish pub nestled into the side of the Islamic Centre. There’s a guy selling imported honey mangoes right outside the Oxfam. English, Pakistani, Indian, Polish, Somali and Irish communities have lived side by side for decades – the liberal vision of multiculturalism. The high street is usually extremely busy all day long, and although lockdown did make it a little quieter, it is still the kind of road where maintaining a two-metre distance between people is impossible. This, combined with the fact that London’s largest hospital is here, and its thousands of staff commute through every day, means that many people choose to wear masks most of the time, not just indoors. Over the past year, however, I noticed that “many people” usually did not mean “white people”. Although this was an anecdotal observation, I was curious to understand the disparity. What was going on?

Tooting High Street

When the Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage in mainstream political conversation last summer, it became easier to see the relationship between the politics of pandemic and the politics of race and racism. As a white researcher of postcolonial politics, I had not previously paid enough attention to the racial politics of my home environment. I re-read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; I learnt about methodological whiteness; I interrogated my own position in my community.[1] I realised that the liberal multiculturalism that I was raised to celebrate was not just masking structural inequalities but denying political legitimacy to Black activists. Having to respond for the first time to abolitionist arguments, for example, the mainstream liberal narrative was that this was “nonsense”, and also that racism is a thing that happens in the USA.[2] As these struggles unfolded in the same historical context as the politics of pandemic, it became increasingly evident that there is something very racialised about the politics of masking, or more accurately, there’s something very white about the politics of not masking.

Lately, I have regularly drifted into the anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown UK Twittersphere. Popular hashtags include #MasksOff, #NoToLockdown and #KBF (‘Keep Britain Free’). There are references to “muzzles” which discursively link the issue to free speech debates, and appropriation of the abortion rights movement’s language with hashtags like #MyBodyMyChoice and #ProChoice. There are frequent comparisons between mask-wearing and slavery, and yellow stars embellished with ‘I am exempt’ or ‘no vaccine passports’ in font intended to resemble Hebrew. Many of these accounts will make statements about freedom and liberty: of speech, of thought, from lockdown, from the state, from lies, from tyranny. While this is an ideologically mixed, or even confused, digital space, many here identify as “libertarian”.

Libertarianism is not typically associated with contemporary UK politics. It brings to mind people toting guns and refusing to pay any taxes, and those people are Americans. While this image is just one modern manifestation of libertarianism (which actually has its roots in left-wing anarchism), this is the dominant definition today.[3] As the word implies, libertarians centre individual liberty above all else. Contemporary right-libertarianism extends this principle to mean freedom of the market, and freedom to own property. Any action by government to ensure equality, justice, or community health is a potential threat or limit to this freedom. Of course, libertarian thinking is not new in the UK; Thatcherism opened the floodgates of privatisation in the name of small-government, welfare cuts in the name of dismantling the “nanny state”. In the mid-2000s, there was heated and polarising discussion about personal freedoms in the lead up to the 2007 smoking ban. The leading pro-smoking group “Freedom 2 Choose” rooted their arguments are rooted in classic libertarian ideas about the role of government and the market.[4] However, the anti-lockdown movement is not a clear intellectual descendant of this type of libertarianism, though there are surely links. There is something different in the discursive and political identity of the movement: something Trumpian, a US-style preoccupation with ‘freedom’ and, perhaps above all, no asserted political allegiance with the UK Conservative Party.

The UK anti-lockdown movement is undeniably informed by US politics. The 10,000-strong “Unite for Freedom” march in central London in late April saw widespread messages of support for Trump, Q Anon, and the police, and opposition to Bill Gates-sponsored vaccine programmes, 5G infrastructure, and globalisation in general.[5] This is not unique to the anti-lockdown movement: the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement in the UK was galvanised by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA last year. It is inevitable in the digital age that politics will traverse the English-speaking world. If we consider libertarianism through Edward W. Said’s concept of a traveling theory: the idea may be transformed by its new context, cut off from its historical grounding but nonetheless newly generative.[6] It does not matter if this process of translation is a misinterpretation or misreading. It is not enough to say that these ideas have no meaning here, because as soon as they are politically mobilising, meaning is created. The theoretical libertarian foundations and the more outlandish conspiracies theories fuelling the anti-lockdown movement are from the US context, and more specifically, they are white supremacist.[7]

Lockdown Protest

The title of this short piece is of course a reference to Fanon, and that’s not just because I thought it was a good pun (although it is). In this classic work of postcolonial and critical race theory, Fanon demonstrates the depths of colonisation: racism is relational, sociogenic, and internalised.[8] Reading Fanon, I consider how there is something colonial in entering a space and refusing to protect the others, despite having the means to do so, in the name of personal freedom. In the final pages of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon reflects on freedom:

It is through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that men will be able to create the ideal conditions of existence for a human world. – Frantz Fanon [8]

It strikes me that this is a not the same freedom that the libertarian tradition speaks of, nor the freedom that the anti-lockdown movement demands. Fanon’s is a freedom from internalised racism, a freedom from the colonial past (and present) of exploitation and slavery, and a freedom from a future that is always defined in relation to whiteness. Most importantly, Fanon’s freedom enables the creation of something better.

Considering the politics of unmasking alongside the politics of racial justice reveals that these two movements demand very different visions of freedom. In his new book about the racial history of the concept of freedom, this distinction is described by Tyler Edward Stovall as “white freedom and freedom from whiteness”.[10] Freedom, for libertarians, is “an end in and of itself”; a return to the (often imagined) past. For most people however, freedom is just an enabler: it can grant security, shelter, movement, health. Stovall is not writing about the UK, but demands US white freedom has travelled and is thriving here too, sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly. This is not a reductive argument that not wearing a mask is racist, and of course, many people do not have this choice. However, the freedom that the anti-lockdown movement demands is a white freedom in the sense that Stovall describes: not freedom for everyone, and not an enabling freedom.

Walking around Tooting, I reflect on how masks can actually enable freedom. The shops are open again and the high street is packed with bodies jostling up against each other. We know that the benefit of wearing a mask is more to protect others than it is to protect oneself. If we accept the libertarian definition of freedom that the politics of unmasking hinges upon, then we can seek to justify placing individual preference above community health on those grounds. Yet, reading postcolonial and critical race theory uncovers how this definition of freedom is inseparable from whiteness; the freedom of libertarianism is a white freedom. If we instead conceive of freedom as enabling, measures to protect ourselves and each other are a step towards freedom, not an infringement upon that freedom. Without masks, we would be less free.

[1] Tyler Stovall, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2021), pp. 311–21.

[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, Inc., 1967); the article that introduced me to the concept of methodological whiteness was Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘Brexit, Trump, and “Methodological Whiteness”: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68.S1 (2017), S214–32.

[2] There are countless examples, but as Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer’s comments represent this narrative. Cited in Kuba Shand-Baptiste, ‘Does Keir Starmer Care If His Dismissal of Defunding the Police Has Lost Him Black Support?’, The Independent, 1 July 2020, section Voices <https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/keir-starmer-black-lives-matter-defund-police-protests-labour-a9596401.html> [accessed 18 May 2021].

[3] Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006), pp. 118–23.

[4] Information about the campaign is still available on the website ‘freedom2choose.org.uk’

[5] With thanks to Annie Kelly, PhD candidate at UEA, who attended and shared coverage of the protest on Twitter.

[6] Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 226–47.

[7] US libertarianism and white supremacy have been increasingly intertwined for the last decade, for example see David Weigel, ‘Libertarians Wrestle with the Alt-Right’, Washington Post, 24 August 2017, section Analysis <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/08/24/libertarians-wrestle-with-the-alt-right/> [accessed 18 May 2021].

[8] Fanon.

[9] Fanon, p. 222.

[10] Tyler Stovall, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2021), pp. 311–21.

Cited Works:

Bhambra, Gurminder K., ‘Brexit, Trump, and “Methodological Whiteness”: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class’, The British Journal of Sociology, 68.S1 (2017), S214–32

Chomsky, Noam, Chomsky on Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006)

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, Inc., 1967 [1953])

Said, Edward W., The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983)

Shand-Baptiste, Kuba, ‘Does Keir Starmer Care If His Dismissal of Defunding the Police Has Lost Him Black Support?’, The Independent, 1 July 2020, section Voices <https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/keir-starmer-black-lives-matter-defund-police-protests-labour-a9596401.html> [accessed 18 May 2021]

Stovall, Tyler, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2021)

Weigel, David, ‘Libertarians Wrestle with the Alt-Right’, Washington Post, 24 August 2017, section Analysis <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/08/24/libertarians-wrestle-with-the-alt-right/> [accessed 18 May 2021

About the author

Claire is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, and a Leverhulme Fellow with the doctoral programme 'Interrogating Visions of a Post-Western World'. Her research is at the intersections of social movement theory, postcolonial and feminist theory, with a focus on digital politics in India.

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Claire Crawford

Claire Crawford

Leverhulme Doctoral Fellow

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that uses gender as a category of analysis or…

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