Published 24 September 202128 October 2021 · Politics / Coronavirus Covid, the Left and radical democracy Jeff Sparrow Recent events in Melbourne confirm something many of us have been arguing for months: the far right is growing alarmingly during the pandemic. After the attacks on the CFMEU building, some union supporters blamed the violence on #faketradies, outsiders who donned high-viz vests to discredit a movement to which they didn’t belong. We shouldn’t shelter behind comforting fictions. The conspiracist mob certainly contained familiar numpties from the racist right. But they were backed by at least some blue-collar workers who in happier times would be associated with the union vanguard. ‘[T]he rage was not concocted by outside agitators,’ writes Ben Hillier. And the participants were mostly workers from the industry. … One protester, in the industry for twenty years, said that he has never seen a divide like this between the union leaders and a section of the workforce. He won’t be getting vaccinated because he just doesn’t trust it, but he was wearing a mask because he doesn’t deny the seriousness of the pandemic and “because I have respect for people”. Only people embedded within the industry and in the union will truly be able to gauge the balance of forces—that is, not just how widely felt anti-vax and anti-mandatory-vax opinions are, but how deeply felt. However, the size of the mobilisation against what is perhaps the tightest and hardest union machine in the country shows that there is a problem here. Some on the Left blame big business and its media allies for the rallies, suggesting the neoliberal push to open the economy regardless of consequences fans the far right. Again, that’s partly true. Certainly, the ‘let-granny-die’ free-market ideologues create space for genuine fascists. The far right worships death. As many commentators have noted, Nazi Germany was only ever going to end with piles of corpses. Not surprisingly, Nazis like Covid—a virus that, as they see it, winnows out the weak and the unfit. That should give the Left a tremendous advantage. The fascist murder cult repels normal people, who much prefer to celebrate life over death. The key left-wing responses to Covid are all innately popular. Every election survey rates health as a top priority for Australian voters. In the context of a pandemic, the simple demand for ‘more’—more doctors, more nurses, more medical facilities, etc—immediately resonates. The same might be said about financial measures to keep people safe. No-one likes to work when they’re sick. Right-wingers might compare Covid to the ‘flu, but normal folk don’t want to get infected and nor do they want to risk their families, friends or workmates. A demand for payments sufficient to stay home makes sense, and again shifts the debate immediately onto left-wing terrain about social security and welfare. We could go on, but you see the point. Much of what the Left says about Covid should be both straightforward and popular. Why, then, is the far right growing alongside anti-Left rhetoric? In my book Trigger Warnings, I explained the rise of Donald Trump by looking at the resonance of his attacks on so-called political correctness. I argued that Trump capitalised on the evolution of the Left. The social movements of the 1960s built via a ‘direct politics’ that identified grassroots mobilisations of working people as the antidote to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. The anti-war struggle; anti-racism campaigns; women’s liberation; gay liberation and so on: they shared (in the broadest sense) a belief that change depended on the masses overcoming oppressive structures imposed on them by the wealthy and powerful. By the mid-seventies, as struggles declined, direct politics increasingly gave way to a ‘delegated politics’ in which white collar intellectuals in various positions of power (say, in universities, NGOs or the public service) worked for a social change that no longer depended on mobilising the population but rather delivered outcomes on their behalf by deploying the state or semi-state institutions. In the 2000s, many progressives went one step further by embracing what I call ‘smug politics’: rather than treating working people as an agency for change or a constituency to be served, they publicly declared them a problem to be solved, and explained racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry as the consequence of the public’s lamentable ignorance. ‘Left-wing’ celebrities, writers and academics presented ordinary people as dangerous buffoons who needed to be compelled, by whatever means necessary, to abandon their backwardness. Trump recognised an opportunity. He rallied the traditional Republican base (essentially, the rich) but he also reached a new, more plebeian audience with his performative denunciations of political correctness. Smug politics meant that many workers primarily encountered ‘progressive’ rhetoric when a neoliberal politician or woke CEO contrasted their own virtues with the supposed idiocy of the public. Rather than a movement empowering ordinary people, social justice manifested as something your university-educated boss invoked in PR statements from the company that didn’t pay you properly. A proportion of workers thus embraced a plutocratic president governing more-or-less openly for the wealthy because they liked how he trolled progressives. By denouncing political correctness, Trump could, at least for a time, rally some blue-collar workers against a ‘cultural elite’—a nebulous enemy that extended from woke movie stars all the way to ordinary people with white collar jobs. The pandemic facilitates a very similar manoeuvre. When the virus first emerged, every advanced country implemented unprecedented shutdowns. After spending so long under these restrictions, it’s easy to forget how sudden and dramatic it all was, with leaders from Macron to Trump adopting previously unimaginable strategies using a rhetoric of war and emergency. The Left played very little role in the adoption of policies driven almost entirely from the top down by those in power. Without question, those measures saved lives (though not nearly as many as they could have). We know now how deadly Covid can be. The regimes—generally those associated with the authoritarian right—that continued with business-as-usual caused millions of unnecessary deaths. The lockdowns and other interventions were also overwhelmingly popular, especially at first. Again, ordinary people care about each other. They don’t want to die; they don’t want their loved ones to suffer; they want action against a pandemic. At the same time, their support was largely passive, as governments implemented health measures from above. By and large, Covid safety wasn’t something you did—it was something done to you, with regulations imposed by politicians or health officials that you then followed. Moreover, the consequences of following those regulations varied tremendously. Obviously, the wealthy, in their comfortable homes, found lockdown much easier than the poor. Yet the division was not simply between haves and have nots. Lockdown also widened the cleavage between blue- and white-collar occupations, blurring and confusing actual class relations. Those who worked in an office—whether as managers or employees—could do their job via Zoom. Those who performed physical labour (as workers or small-traders), had their lives suddenly upended—as a result of restrictions announced on television by a well-spoken expert in a suit and a tie. There is a parallel between the conditions created by Covid and those prevailing in America in 2016. The pandemic has facilitated a revival of a rhetoric that had been on the wane since the defeat of the so-called alt right and the collapse of Trumpism. Yet to really understand the danger of this moment, we must factor in the relationship between Covid and the state. Immediately prior to the Covid outbreak, the Black Lives Matter campaign had helped mainstream something akin to a Marxist critique of the state. BLM—at its best, a movement based on direct politics—called not for police reform but for police abolition. It presented the police—the most coercive element of the state—as an institution designed and maintained to protect a racist status quo with their guns. ‘There is not a single era in United States history,’ Mariame Kaba explained to the New York Times, ‘in which the police were not a force of violence against black people.’ BLM radicals did not deny that crime plagued poorer neighbourhoods. They acknowledged that ordinary people needed safe streets and secure homes and gun-free communities. But they made the direct politics argument that such outcomes could only be achieved by the people themselves. When liberal anti-racists argued to retrain or diversify the police force, BLM activists insisted that, no matter how it was branded, the police would not and could not deliver for the population. They were designed for repression, not protection. The state, they said, was the problem—and so it would not provide a solution. As BLM spread internationally, in Australia, as elsewhere, leftists repeated and amplified the call for police abolition. Then came Covid—and the implementation of emergency measures relying on enforcement by the police. Did a commitment to BLM’s abolitionism mean we should have opposed health policies because they were enforced by an agency we wanted to demolish? Under the circumstances, no. We might think of the outbreak of Covid as akin to an anti-racist protest at which demonstrators suddenly found themselves massively outnumbered by Nazis seeking to kill them. If, at such a moment, a contingent of police arrived, it would be unhinged not to accept their protection. Only those with a death wish would interpret a critique of the state as requiring them to wave the cops away. By extension, it would have bizarre to oppose the public health measures introduced when Covid first hit, even though they meant an expansion of police powers. Campaigning against the lockdown would have entailed embracing mass infections and mass deaths—a criminally irresponsible course. Yet the acceptance of necessity doesn’t invalidate general positions. It just means recognising that, in certain circumstances, the balance of forces sometimes limits the options available. In the vignette about the anti-racist rally, no-one would conclude that a temporary dependence on the police transforms the analysis of the state. Yes, the protesters might accept police protection. But they would still argue that only mass mobilisations could defeat the far right. They would still recognise the state as more likely to be deployed against anti-fascists than on their behalf. The response to Covid should have been similar. Unfortunately, many leftists seem to have transformed a temporary retreat into a new principle. By way of example, let’s consider a recent Overland piece by Daniel Lopez, the Australian editor of Jacobin and one of the smarter writers on the Australian Left. Daniel’s got a thick skin. He will, I hope, take what follows in the spirit in which it’s intended, as a comradely attempt to tease out a broader political problem. Daniel polemicises against what he calls the anti-lockdown Left, calling for progressives to maintain a commitment to the elimination of Covid. In doing so, he presents an attitude to the state quite different from BLM’s radical critique. He writes: It’s simply inconceivable that we could maintain lockdowns without coercive measures, primarily fines and criminal charges. The … problem with a blanket opposition to police authority—or any authority for that matter—is that it dulls our criticism of disproportionate or egregious authoritarianism. The problem with fines isn’t fines per se. It’s that the police don’t issue fines equally and fines don’t impact everyone equally. In other words, Daniel makes precisely the social democratic case BLM opposed, implying that lockdown proves that state repression can, in the right hands, become a tool of progress. He says that, when it comes to police, we should eschew ‘blanket opposition’ (and what could be more blanket than a call for police abolition?). Rather, he says, we should urge cops to be more even handed—while not ‘jump[ing] from … appropriate criticisms to opposing all policing’. Now let’s think about how that argument—basically, the position held by most Labor Party members—might be received by blue-collar workers during the pandemic. As we’ve discussed, at the best of times, such people might well see lockdown as a misery imposed upon them by white-collar workers who don’t share the suffering it entails. Furthermore, in the working-class suburbs of Australian cities, Covid meant—as Daniel acknowledges—an unparalleled escalation of policing: curfews, extra police powers, intimidatory patrols and so on. Those already predisposed to hate the police could thus understand Covid politics in terms of overly-educated progressives deploying state coercion against the kind of people who never went to university. Again, you can see the opportunity arising for the right. In normal times, its rhetoric about cultural Marxists supposedly controlling the world sounds bizarre and fanciful. In a pandemic, it gains a new purchase, especially when even those on the far left seem weirdly enthusiastic about the cops. Daniel describes Covid as an ‘emergency’ so deadly as to render considerations of civil liberties and democratic rights moot. ‘All freedoms are subordinate to life,’ he tells us, ‘because the dead are not free’. For him, then, ‘to oppose lockdowns and restrictions on the basis of this or that right is to counterpose that right to the rights to health and life.’ This is not a new argument. ‘The most important civil liberty I have and you have,’ said John Howard as he granted ASIO extraordinary new powers after the London bombings, ‘is to stay alive and be free from violence and death.’ Freedoms, he told us, were subordinate to life, and the end—preserving innocent people from terror attacks—justified pretty much any means at all. More importantly, Howard used a similar formulation to justify his Northern Territory Intervention. When horrifying claims of sexual abuse emerged from remote indigenous communities, Howard sent in the cops and the army, declaring that only monsters indifferent to the wellbeing of children would oppose such a deployment. In backing the Intervention, the conservative Indigenous leader Noel Pearson used a version of the freedoms-are-subordinate-to-life line: I’m amazed that anybody would put the protection of children secondary to anything, particularly when those children are subject to imminent abuse, abuse that takes place on a regular basis that’s the subject of binge drinking, week in, week out. I’m just amazed that anybody would put the protection of children secondary to anything else. In response, the Left insisted that the means used to fight sexual abuse determined the ends obtained; that lasting solutions would emerge only from the community itself; that the crisis made grass roots participation more rather than less important; and that state coercion, however well intended, would prove entirely counterproductive, with police themselves posing a direct and immediate threat to black communities. The disastrous outcomes of the Intervention confirmed everything we said. We need similar arguments in the current circumstances. If communities need empowerment to fight sexual abuse, they need it even more to fight Covid. The virulence of the Delta strain makes effective health measures incredibly disruptive. The more that ordinary people control that disruption themselves, the more likely successful containment becomes. Compare a community that organises itself to facilitate vaccination, prevent transmission and ensure isolation with one subjected to a huge police contingent mobilised to enforce lockdown from without. We’re not looking at contrasting ways to achieve the same outcome but rather different means producing qualitatively different ends. In the first case, the community owns the process. The fight against Covid relies on and thus strengthens solidarity between families, workmates and individuals. People feel an ownership of the campaign against the virus. They devise solutions to problems that arise; they care about the results they achieve; they emerge from the experience bonded by their collective achievement and thus more prepared for future crises. The second community experiences something quite different. Its people encounter the campaign as measures imposed upon them by outsiders they mistrust. At best, they sullenly acquiesce; at worst, they actively resist. Either way, the longer restrictions continue, the more disaffected and alienated they become. If there’s still a chance to eliminate Covid, it won’t be through the kind of lockdowns we’ve seen to date. In Victoria, the change of tack by the Andrews’ government reflected, in part, its assessment that the population was barely tolerating existing restrictions and certainly had no appetite for more extreme measures. The fight against the virus now depends on direct politics: the democratic mobilisation of the entire population. That’s the only way we might sustain popular enthusiasm for the measures required. A radical response to Covid means the self-organisation of working people: in their unions, in their universities and schools, and in their communities. Such a response would unleash the extraordinary creativity of ordinary men and women to find new ways to keep each other safe. It would rest on employees deciding for themselves whether their industries could or should operate or close down; it would entail neighbourhood groups providing mutual aid; it would refocus the entire economy on people’s basic needs. Obviously, that all sounds fanciful, in a context in which community groups and unions have never been weaker. But it’s far more fanciful to imagine that an entirely marginal Left could somehow compel the state to act on its behalf. Again, we did not shape the initial response to Covid. Anders Malm provides a useful explanation of the unique pressures at work when the virus first hit. In its early phases, he notes, Covid infected wealthy white people (including celebrities and politicians) who’d contracted it via travel, while the speed of the pandemic wrongfooted the vested interests who might otherwise have launched a campaign of climate-style denialism. Today, the situation is different. Covid now mostly infects the poor, while the rich are increasingly well insulated. More importantly, big business has been able to organise, with the industries most financially affected by lockdown triumphing over the section of the ruling class that sought to contain the virus. In that context, there’s precisely zero prospect of the Left forcing the state into a harder lockdown. By calling for intensified state lockdowns, we’re demanding something that’s not going to happen. We’re also associating ourselves with failed policies carried out by forces hostile to us, just as the architects of those policies abandon them. What kind of strategy is that? Yes, we’re in a terribly weak condition. But that makes articulating, as best we can, our own, independent positions even more important. The response by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism to the attack on the CFMEU provides a good example. Using the hashtag, #DontScabGetTheJab, the group is encouraging workers to circulate pics in which they display the slogan ‘pro-vax, pro-union, anti-fascist’. Ok, it’s small beer: everyone knows that social media won’t, in and of itself, change the world. Conceptually, though, there’s an important difference between neatly-coiffured politicians belittling vaccine-hesitant communities as ignorant morons and ordinary workers presenting the fight against Covid as an expression of social solidarity by which we might keep each other safe. When it comes to fighting the right, methods matter as much as outcomes. The more we show that we’re for the self-empowerment of working people, the more we present a credible alternative to the fascist death cult. In his piece, Daniel dismisses concerns about encroachments on civil liberties by arguing that the authorities have always cracked down on dissent and so there’s nothing unusual about what’s taking place now. In fact, the constancy of state repression should make us more, not less, concerned about the recent turn to extreme policing. Over the last week, we’ve seen the use of projectiles and OC foam canisters. Police have experimented with facial recognition technology and deployed armoured vehicles on the street. Most of all, they’ve repeatedly kettled, bashed and pepper-sprayed protesters, in ways that, in normal times, would have been met with outrage from the Left. On Saturday, for instance, footage circulated showing police throwing an elderly woman to the ground and then casually firing a pepper cannister into her face. By normalising such tactics against anti-lockdown demonstrations, police now have equipped themselves with new tools, which will be duly unleashed on environmentalists and the Left in the not-too-distant future. Furthermore, the remarkably muted public response has reinforced the far-right narrative, allowing fascists to present themselves as the sole opposition to a coercive regime backed by a white-collar elite. If you look at the various Telegram channels, you can see how the violence is having a radicalising effect on a blue-collar audience already inclined to mistrust both the police and the media. And it’s not just happening on the fringes. Almost everyone you meet has an anecdote about a Facebook friend suddenly sharing crackpot cures and alt right memes. Plenty of us can identify with George Monbiot when he bemoans the number of his former acquaintances who have embraced conspiracism, something he attributes to ‘despondency, confusion and betrayal’. He writes: After left-ish political parties fell into line with corporate power, the right seized the language they had abandoned. Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings brilliantly repurposed the leftwing themes of resisting elite power and regaining control of our lives. Now there has been an almost perfect language swap. Parties that once belonged on the left talk about security and stability while those on the right talk of liberation and revolt. Scientists tell us that ecological destruction increasingly exposes humanity to new and deadly viruses. We can expect more pandemics in the not-too-distant future, as part of the broader natural collapse of which climate change is merely one aspect. Covid has entirely demobilised the gathering momentum for climate action. If each fresh disaster atomises progressives anew, we will never get to grips with the underlying environmental catastrophe. Rather, the emergencies to come will, in and of themselves, spur some on the Left to abandon popular agency and throw their lot in with state power. Already, within the climate literature, there’s a minority (but not insignificant) tendency that presents global warming as a catastrophe so grim as to warrant the establishment of an emergency regime capable of deploying state power untrammelled by any parliamentary limits. James Lovelock, for instance, put the case like this in 2010: Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while. You can see, from our experience with Covid, how that argument might appeal, especially when things get really bad. Yet it’s precisely in the direst emergency that democracy becomes most important. As I’ve argued elsewhere, if we’re going to resolve the environmental crisis, we need more grassroots participation, not less. We need, in fact, the entire population involved in debating and discussing how the burden of rapid economic and social change associated with the climate emergency might be equitably shared. No-one should pretend that these questions are easy. We’re living through extraordinary times and confronting unprecedented dilemmas. There are no road maps to get from where we are to where we need to go. Nevertheless, basic principles still apply. We cannot allow the terms of debate to be set by others, resigning ourselves to opting between the bad choices presented by governments. More than ever, we need to present our own alternatives, based upon the self-mobilisation of ordinary people. If we don’t offer a clear direction, the far right will—and we all know where it will lead. Image: a workers’ mutual aid society in Isola del Liri, Italy (Wikimedia Commons) Jeff Sparrow Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland. More by Jeff Sparrow Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 1 June 20231 June 2023 · Politics Turning peaceful protesters into criminals—again Evan Smith So the Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Bill 2023 has been passed by South Australia’s Legislative Assembly and will become law. Fifteen hours of debate in the upper house, led by the Greens and SA Best, could not overturn the bill that was reportedly rushed through the lower house in just twenty-two minutes a fortnight ago. 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