Immunity, Community, and Libertarianism

We seem to be going through an immunitary moment.

This is especially interesting, since some philosophers and political theorists have for more than a decade been using the language of immunity and autoimmune disorders to shed light on contemporary politics. It’s also not surprising because there are some strong echoes and resonances between the two fields: immunity, after all, is a collective response to a threat or crisis. And autoimmunity is a response that becomes reflective, aiming not only at the external “enemy” as it invades the (social or corporeal) body, but which turns and attacks the body itself. Both are excellent metaphors for what can happen in the highly divisive and excessively paranoid political world we inhabit. It may also be possible that the specific issue of immunization – or more specifically the government’s role in immunizing its citizens – can expose the conceptual bankruptcy of libertarianism.

I suggest this after reading a recent story that explores Rand Paul’s link to an anti-vaccine organization, as well as Chris Christie’s (non-libertarian, probably cynical) comments that immunization should be rendered an act with multiple options for exit and exception. This is the already shaky logic of the Hobby Lobby case applied to public health. Unlike Hobby Lobby, however, we’re talking about matters of immediate sickness and health, and potentially life and death. Immunity requires a comprehensive, truly collective response. The problem is that libertarians believe one of two things: either communities don’t exist at all (no whole is anything more than the sum of its parts), or community does exist but is made up of individuals who may opt out whenever they feel that their “freedom” is endangered.

A multiplicity of microbiological forces operate in the world around us (and in us) at all times. These forces allow us to live or even thrive, or they can cut us down. We need a collective response to manage them. This is not new information; it is wisom gleaned from much suffering and an edifice of knowledge at least two centuries old. Neoliberalism and its contemporary counterpart libertarianism have for decades attempted to privatize all forms of social security, including the protections of public health. They have done so, moreover, perhaps ironically, in the name of immunity. In other words they have mobilized one conception of immunity – that of the individual who desires to be “immune from” the state’s requirements – as an attack on another type of immunity, that of the collective which wants to be free from contagion and deadly disease. This is the insight of Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito among others.

I am concerned that what Freud called the “reality principle” will in the end decide which side wins this conceptual battle. A few of us may admire Ayn Rand’s writing on ethics, but this doesn’t make her an expert on public health. The virtue of selfishness will not and cannot stop contagion.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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