A Socialist Defense of Vaccine Mandates

I was slightly surprised to see that Richard Wolff opposed vaccine mandates. C. Derick Varn thought Wolff wanted to support the position of the working class and this was why he opposes the mandates. I don’t agree with Wolff but it got me thinking about the assumptions around the persistence of the pandemic. Wolff is right to question the common assumptions but he comes up with the wrong solution.

The reason I support vaccine mandates is that all policies are in a vacuum. It may very well be a violation of certain freedom to mandate vaccines and in a socialist utopia on our horizon we would not have a profit making machine that creates pandemics nor would we have an authoritarian state to mandate treatment for them by profit-making companies. But in our world, where our immediate choices are capitalism with vaccines and capitalism without vaccines I’ll take the former.

Our lives aren’t free under the current tyranny of the employer-employee relationship, according to Mr. Wolff. He’s correct. What’s one more unfreedom to add to the list when it saves the lives of the working class?

Noam Chomsky has a better argument in favor of vaccine mandates. Professor Chomsky compares vaccine mandates to traffic lights. Sure, in a vacuum traffic lights restrict freedom. But they also make us safer.

To counter Wolff let’s be more specific with this analogy. If the assumption of the opposition to the vaccine mandate is that it oppresses the working class more than the ruling class then let’s say the same dynamic holds for traffic lights. In fact the same dynamic holds for everything, including both sides of this debate. If someone runs a traffic light they get a ticket. Billionaires wouldn’t be punished by a small fine. A poor person could not be able to pay the fine, or they could miss a bill or go into debt or jail.

However, if we simply gave freedom without considering class the same thing happens. Poor people don’t have affordable health insurance in case of a car accident without lights. They’re more likely to be on the road working and more likely to be charged with a crime for running someone over, assuming we still had laws about that in this hypothetical.

The question Chomsky poses for us is not who is worse off from a policy, the working class or the ruling class. Because the answer for every policy is that the working class will be treated worse. The question is which is better for the working class, a world with traffic lights or a world without? Assuming of course that abolishing traffic lights wouldn’t lead to a socialist revolution. If that policy could lead us to such grand heights then we could have an argument about it.

I’ll apply the same logic to the vaccine mandates. Yes the rich can more easily cheat their way out of the mandates and they are more likely to have money independent of a job requirement. On the other hand it’s irrefutable that poor people are far more likely to die of coronavirus than rich people are. So the question is the same. Which is better for the working class; a world with people vaccinated or a world where people can choose not to be?

If we assume Richard Wolff is right, and that today is not a time of freedom for most people because of their relationship to the capitalist class, then it seems to me that freedom to choose to get a vaccine is a small liberty in a world where you can’t choose whether or not you have protection from the virus. Either way freedom is violated. The question is which is worse for freedom?

If Wolff is saying we spend too much energy trying to get fascists vaccinated and not enough energy to provide access of the vaccine to the working class then I would agree with most of his framing. It seems to me that the obsession over getting American fascists vaccinated while completely letting the entire rest of the world get infected reflects the ruling class’s attitude in general about the Republican’s small and bourgeois base.

Remember how much effort was wasted spewing nonsense about how Democrats just needed to cater a little more to the fascists and they would win? All of this while the working class, who don’t or can’t vote at least half the time, is completely ignored. The same can be said for the vaccination question. There is no effort by governments or corporations to vaccinate the vast majority of the global working class and the entire effort is spent convincing American fascists that they should listen to liberals.

There is so much cynicism around vaccinating the working class that left liberals are proclaiming Omicron, by all accounts a far more contagious version of the virus, some sort of victory. This position bothers me for a couple reasons. The assumption is that this variant is more contagious but is not as bad for your health. Perhaps. But this second part is less certain. What happens for the following variant? If the virus continues to get more contagious won’t we all be infected? Isn’t this the exact same position as the conservative herd immunity proposition that renders people disposable rather than address the pandemic through policy?

What does this supposed new reality of extremely contagious virus mean for the unvaccinated?

In a similar vein while the virus itself might be the most damaging part of the pandemic for the rich, the poor face an even greater economic threat if the pandemic continues. I’ll explain why this makes opposing vaccine mandates a reactionary position in a minute. My first point on this front is that the implication of a more contagious disease even if it is less deadly means more economic shutdowns and thus more money being funneled upwards to the rich.

The reactionary position is that opening up the economy saves the working class. This isn’t true. That’s because ultimately the economies running in a way that allows people to continue to work regular hours relies on people voluntarily spending. If the pandemic persists then the economy won’t open up because people will choose not to buy things for their own protection, not because the government prohibits them from doing so. Therefore opposing vaccine mandates on the basis that it helps the working class makes no sense because a prolonged pandemic just squeezes the working class more.

Now someone may respond that freedom to not take the vaccine is freedom for the working class. Even if that is their position then I have to ask why not advocate for the majority of the world to get that same choice of whether or not to take the vaccine. The reality is that most people are forced not to get the vaccine while very few people are forced to get it.

Now comes the rebuttal. These drug companies are all about making money! Yeah, duh. That’s why they don’t distribute the vaccines to most of the world where they can’t make a profit. The problem with capitalism isn’t necessarily that it makes faulty products.

Capitalism creates technological advances, including the vaccine. The issue is more that the technology can’t be distributed unless it’s done in a profitable way. Solar power is way cheaper than fossil fuels but it’s too cheap to make a profit off of. That’s why capitalism is stupid and the economy should be organized around human needs not profit. That’s the argument for socialism and on that logic alone I don’t know why one would be against vaccines.

Still let’s continue in good faith. The vaccines clearly aren’t keeping up with the virus in the way we would want. So new vaccines keep needing to be made and new profit is being made. These vaccine companies don’t want the pandemic to end because they make money from it continuing. So as all of this goes on not only do they lack the original incentive to vaccinate poor countries because that on its own this is not profitable but they also have a broader incentive not to vaccinate poorer countries because that keeps the pandemic going.

And yes I’m sure there are some medicinal methods that help combat the virus that isn’t profitable and therefore aren’t being distributed either under the logic of capitalism. I really doubt that any of them are nearly as effective as the vaccine but in the face of no distribution of the vaccine, we should not be opposed to looking at these alternative methods as supplements to our larger goal of universal vaccination.

Would a better goal be universal freedom of choice to vaccinate? I don’t know. It sounds so bourgeois to me. In the fascist USA we tend to define our ideal of liberal democracy not by the universalism of liberal democracy. Instead, liberal democracy is seen to be liberal democracy only when it bends backward to accommodate fascists who aren’t interested in liberal democracy. Giving those interested in abolishing liberal democracy an equal say to those who want it seems to be the way liberal democracy cannot sustain itself.

Likewise, I question if obscuring the main problem of vaccine distribution with a question of vaccine choice is really helping anyone. The pandemic continuing will have awful health and economic implications for the global working class. I think opposing vaccine mandates is the wrong answer but even worse, it’s the wrong question.

The term “working class” in the US is generally code for white male middle-class Americans, likely even small business owners. But I will use the word below without those assumptions.

The left should be for the working class, rather than frame itself as of the working class. Proclaiming that the left is of the working class denies people agency to make their own decisions. The working class relates to economic production and should be able to choose for itself, as a whole, what it wants. The task of the left is not to tail this position and decide for the working class what it wants.

The task of the left rather is to empower and support the working class, regardless of their political positions, real or imagined. In a democratic society the working class will dictate political economy, but in reality this seldom happens. However, no matter what else is going on the left should be for the working class rather than try to be of the working class as a form of postured authenticity.

I understand the left and working-class almost entirely overlap. My point is that the left is a political position while the working class is a class position. One can be both but they aren’t the same. Trying to have the left simply follow around an imaginary working class consensus not only most often misreads the working class but it also is by definition an apolitical position.

What the left should be doing is politics, for that is what the left is. The politics of the left should be to support the working class no matter who they are or what we think of them.

In this case, supporting the working class does not mean fulfilling bourgeois ideals of free choice but rather it means providing full access to vaccination in order to get people safe and healthy enough to confidently demand more from the capitalist class without fear of losing work, which is the leverage the working class has over the capitalists, who need to exploit the workers to compete with other capitalists.

A prolonged pandemic means that companies will continue to cut hours and wages sporadically, unions will run out of money, working people will organize less, travel to escape economic hardship will be restricted, violence against women will rise, and health care will be harder to access.

Opposing lockdowns, vaccine mandates and the like assumes that it is an authoritarian state that is pulling the strings behind these trends rather than people collectively taking less risks in order to protect their health. The overreach from the government comes from their handouts to corporations, including vaccine producers. Socialists generally oppose all authority, state included, upon the working class.

In that spirit, I oppose all authority of the left to represent the working class. Each person should have the right to represent themselves. Especially the working class. The left-wing position, in my opinion, is to get as many people protected from the virus as possible. Until I see material proof that vaccine mandates provide anywhere close to the same threat as the virus, I don’t see how there’s an argument.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com