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In Australia, the Far Right Is Pushing COVID-19 Conspiracies

Last weekend, thousands of anti-vaxxers and COVID denialists marched across Australia to protest lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions. Behind the unhinged conspiracy theories and rhetoric about freedom stood a core of far-right and fascist activists.

An anti-lockdown protester shouts slogans during a rally on the streets of Melbourne on July 24, 2021, as people gathered to demonstrate against the city's COVID restrictions. (CON CHRONIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Last weekend, remarkably, large crowds attended COVID conspiracist rallies around Australia.

Politicians and the mainstream press condemned the protests, rightfully denouncing them as dangerous both to the participants and the community. The authorities went to extraordinary lengths to disrupt the marchers, in some places closing train stations and banning taxis and ride-share services.

Despite this, in Melbourne, perhaps four thousand people took to the streets for an illegal protest, risking arrest, repression, fines, and potentially charges. Especially given the circumstances under which the rallies were organized, the Left should be worried.

Covid Conspiracies and the Far Right

The bizarre, hallucinatory rhetoric of COVID conspiracism can obscure the extent to which the movement is organizationally and ideologically dominated by the far right.

Take the Telegram account Australia Awakens for example. It describes itself as a “normie friendly channel” that is “designed especially for your friends who are either on the fence or questioning the mainstream narrative” about the coronavirus. Despite its avowed neutrality, the memes, videos and announcements posted to the account regularly contain content from racists, fascists, and neo-Nazis.

As I’ve described elsewhere, the world of COVID conspiracism is fertile ground for ideological grifters.

Many COVID-conspiracy activists emerged from the old New Age movement, a scene always dominated by peddlers of quack medicines, cod spirituality, crystals, candles, and associated hokum. A degenerate remnant of ’60s counterculture, the wellness milieu has turned sharply to the right in recent times. Today, growing numbers of health influencers prattle on about the benefits QAnon’s peculiar brand of flapdoodle.

Simultaneously, mainstream conservatives have perfected a business model based on promoting culture-war politics. Former backbenchers and shouty shock jocks, who depend financially on monetizing far-fight anxieties, have recognized the ratings potential of COVID conspiracism. As media personalities like Craig Kelly, Rowan Dean, and Mark Latham have actively courted anti-lockdown activists, they have built the constituency for right-wing COVID protests.

The prevalence of hucksterism in the COVID-conspiracy movement is not necessarily a barrier to its growth. In the United States, for example, the Tea Party transcended its origins as a fringe movement cultivated by Glenn Beck and Fox News to become a force in Republican politics. Climate change denialism, conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s country of birth, and the 9/11 truther movement all fueled the Tea Party, which went on to form the political base of Trumpism.

At that time, right-wing populists directed an almost elemental rage about economic and social insecurity toward those they described as an elite. They successfully de-linked the concept from material wealth — like that possessed by Donald Trump — and connected it instead with a set of cultural symbols. By so doing, the Right obscured class divides in favor of geographical ones (between cities and the rural areas or suburbs) while weaponizing a blue-collar identity against white-collar workers and the Left.

Right-Wing Populism

We need to be careful to not overstate the extent to which this program succeeded — businesses and the wealthy were always Trump’s key support base.

Nevertheless, all over the world, right-wing populism exploited what some called an “educational cleavage.” Right-populists prized open fault lines associated with universities and the cultures they fostered so as to foment antagonism between socially conservative battlers and those they lambasted as woke, politically correct elites.

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the far right to revive and extend this project. The lockdowns do not affect everyone equally. Wealth is the biggest determinant of how easily one copes with a pandemic — but it’s by no means the only factor. Many people in white-collar occupations have found it easier to adapt to life under lockdown, far more so than those engaged in physical labor.

These differing experiences allow far-right activists to obscure the material conflict between employers and employees. Instead, they can stress the differences between an educated “elite” living large during lockdown and a blue-collar constituency (both workers and small traders) doing it tough. For example, a popular anti-lockdown meme features a picture of Daniel Andrews and the slogan: “We’re all in this together. You on Centrelink and me on $441,000.”

Out-and-out fascists have employed similar rhetorical strategies, associating lockdown measures with the out of touch and the wealthy. For instance, the Nazi leader Blair Cottrell has described the government’s response to the pandemic as “a war between citizens and the elites.”

The local fascists grew significantly out of the anti-Muslim Reclaim Australia rallies in 2015. When their attempts to build the United Patriots Front (UPF) into a mass party faltered, some of them threw themselves into the avowedly Nazi National Socialist Movement.

That project is also now collapsing. Yet the anti-lockdown movement is recreating conditions akin to those which initially helped build the UPF. Both Cottrell and the rival National Socialist Movement have described the rallies of the so-called Freedom Movement as opportunities to make contact with a fresh layer of potential recruits.

Last time round, militant counterprotests organized by the Left demoralized the fascists before the UPF collapsed when Facebook shut down the accounts through which it organized. Today, lockdowns prevent anti-fascist mobilizations — and the far right has moved from Facebook to platforms like Telegram, from which it will not easily be dislodged.

The Left Response

The Left should not give any ground to COVID denialism, a movement determined to sacrifice the health of ordinary people that is entirely compatible with fascist “survival of the fittest” principles. Indeed, one immediate task is to confront the soft supporters of anti-lockdown protests with the realities of what they’re backing. Every Sky News presenter and tabloid pundit flirting with the so-called freedom rallies should be held responsible for the fascist and antisemitic rhetoric which dominates the movement.

At the same time, the Left must oppose any response to the pandemic that places the burden of the emergency on the most oppressed sections of the working class. Everywhere, the virus has proved an affliction of the poor, most severely affecting the precariously employed, migrant communities, and the socially marginalized. Rather than providing such groups with the resources necessary to stay safe, governments have increasingly resorted to repression.

In Sydney, for instance, the New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller recently told his officers that they wouldn’t be held responsible if they wrongly issued COVID-19 fines. This is tantamount to an open invitation for them to harass minorities and working-class kids.

The persistent demonization of migrant and poor suburbs is almost calculated to build an audience for COVID conspiracism. When lockdowns are experienced as a form of state repression imposed from above, fascist denunciations of a global elite are more persuasive. And, as we know from Trump’s 2016 victory, the far right gains ground whenever it successfully associates the Left with paternalism and coercion.

As Jordan Humphreys argues, you can’t police your way out of a pandemic. If people must work to feed their families, they will attempt to do so, irrespective of the number of soldiers patrolling the streets.

An effective response to the crisis begins not with cops and the military, but with both blue- and white-collar workers taking collective control of their own lives and health.

Again and again, we’ve seen working-class people display an inspiring willingness to look after each other, even if that entails sacrifices. We need measures to facilitate and build upon that solidarity, providing ordinary people with the resources necessary to stay home safely while the industries through which the virus spreads are closed.

When union members directly shut down unsafe workplaces, right-wing “anti-elitism” loses its political credibility. A vaccination program centered on local communities and workplaces might break down the mistrust associated with politicians and pharmaceutical companies. If the precariously employed aren’t being forced into dangerous shifts, the dog-eat-dog philosophy espoused by the Right will lose its appeal.

In short, a pandemic response based on working-class politics would help marginalize conspiracists and fascists.

Conversely, the pandemic-related demonization of marginalized communities fosters a racism from which the far right grows. Empowering and engaging marginalized and poor communities will deny the bigots an audience, leaving them isolated.

We cannot allow the authoritarians of the fascist right to claim the rhetoric of liberty for their death cult. Nobody wants to get sick. No one wants to infect their loved ones. Real freedom emerges from mutual support, not from a sociopathic indifference to each other’s health.