As the delta variant rips through NSW and, increasingly, Victoria, the Morrison government continues to insist that we must learn to live with the virus. By denying adequate economic support, the Coalition is using the dull compulsion of economic relations to undermine the efficacy of lockdowns and coerce state governments.
In the face of this, most of the Left has stood firm behind the necessity of hard lockdowns, border closures and an elimination strategy. As New Zealand proves, this is realistic and can still work. However, just as Morrison’s sabotage of Australia’s pandemic response gains ground, some progressives have broken ranks to argue that the cost of elimination is simply too high.
The anti-lockdown Left
Perhaps the most histrionic contribution has been by University of Sydney Director of Culture Strategy Tim Soutphommasane and Sydney Policy Lab Director Marc Stears. Writing for the ABC, they argue that during year two of the pandemic, ‘the progressive consensus has become sharply more conservative. It has swung in support of ‘Fortress Australia’.’ They assert that the Left has abandoned cosmopolitanism in favour of economic protectionism. Having been seduced by the belief that ‘restrictions on people’s freedom isn’t [sic] just tolerable, but now normal,’ they accuse the Left of having ceded defending liberty to the Right.
With the breathlessness that usually belies over-hasty epochal declarations, Soutphommasane and Stears state that ‘COVID-19 has not only upended our daily lives in this country, but also the ideological political order.’ That we have abandoned the ‘language of hope’ and instead ‘fallen under the thrall of fear.’
Soutphommasane and Stears aren’t alone. The Sydney Policy Lab argued in May that vaccinations will be sufficient for dealing with the virus, and that border restrictions and quarantines harm multiculturalism. Writing in Junkee, Michelle Rennex defended the Berejiklian government’s decision to allow the Reject Shop and Bunnings to stay open because poor people shop there. Others have raised the alarm that border closures are creating a ‘Fortress Australia‘ and that the mental health costs of lockdowns are beginning to outweigh the public health benefits.
The Australian Left is an anxious bunch, and self-criticism is a house specialty. So perhaps it’s time to ask: are we losing our soul? Has the pandemic torn away the mask of tolerance, revealing a moustached General Secretary eager to sacrifice the individual on the altar of the state? Has our progressive superego passed out after too many lonely nights of sourdough and yoga, allowing repressed nationalism and racism to bubble up?
Have the ancient prophecies of horseshoe theory finally come to pass—are we just as bad as the conservatives?
Obviously, the answer is no. The problem isn’t that these analyses criticise specific measures. The Left has had no trouble pointing towards the disproportionate impact of lockdowns in working class and migrant areas. And we’ve had no trouble criticising specific measures or restrictions that are counterproductive or unnecessary.
Between equal rights…
Rather, critics of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions on the Left make two mistakes. The first is to isolate elements or consequences of Australia’s pandemic response from the broader social and political context. The second is to adopt a paranoid style of political analysis.
Take, for example, the question of civil liberties. Echoing American liberals who are in no position to lecture others about freedom and in particular, Glenn Greenwald, who thinks that quarantine facilities amount to state-run detention centres, Soutphommasane and Stears argue that the centre-left has abandoned defending human rights. Solidarity magazine argues that the authorities have used lockdowns to ‘restrict the right to protest’ and organise at work.
As the last thirty years prove, Australian governments can build prisons and restrict civil liberties whenever they like, without camouflage. John Howard built the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru openly. After the first Rudd government partly closed them, Julia Gillard reopened both camps—again, openly. Similarly, state and federal governments have progressively curtailed civil liberties and restricted the rights to protest for years, all without any need to conceal their actions. Protesters protest and the Saturday Paper exasperates—meanwhile, the government carries on.
Indeed, if restricting dissent had been the secret goal, we could say that it has not been achieved. Because the Left has largely supported pandemic restrictions, activist organisations have refrained from holding protests during outbreaks. It’s true that police have fined protesters during one or two socially distanced actions. And the NSW and Victorian governments have, at various times, attempted to block rallies. But the right to protest has not been lost. To the contrary—it was confidently reasserted by mass crowds at Invasion Day rallies, at protests in solidarity with Palestine and at smaller actions supporting refugees.
There’s a deeper problem with how the anti-lockdown Left has approached the question of rights. By abstracting certain rights (freedom of assembly, for example) from others (the right to health), the anti-lockdown Left misunderstands how rights work and separates them from their social context.
To explain this, take a pre-pandemic example. In 2018, the NSW government introduced laws banning protests outside abortion clinics, bringing the state in line with most of Australia. Some on the Left opposed this move, claiming it constituted an authoritarian attack on the right to protest.
They were wrong on two levels. Since the bans, anti-choice activists have continued to organise annual misogynistic rallies unimpeded. More importantly, anti-choice protests outside abortion clinics infringe upon women’s right to access medical services without harassment or shame. So, two rights were in conflict: freedom of assembly and women’s right to bodily autonomy. Banning protests outside abortion clinics successfully balanced between these two rights. The restrictions constitute a marginal imposition on the right to assembly, with no broader consequences. More importantly, the ban upholds women’s rights.
The same logic applies to the pandemic. All freedoms are subordinate to life because the dead are not free. Last week, Berejiklian made this point explicitly, although she disagrees with prioritising life. As she argued:
Death is horrible but we also need to put things into perspective. At the moment, there are eight million citizens who don’t have a choice in how they spend their free time, who don’t have a choice about what they can do, when they can leave their homes. That is no way to live … So we have to get very real about what we’re facing. And I know sometimes it’s difficult to hear. But this is what will get us through, this is the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s accepting that Covid is part of our lives, accepting that unfortunately people will die.
As this makes clear in the negative, 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. Attempting to balance these books leads to grim utilitarian calculations. Should 1000 people die for our freedom of movement? Precisely how many should die so we can shop at the Reject Shop? Like market relations, these calculations thrive on abstraction. It’s easier to assert that 1000 deaths are a tragic necessity if dying of Covid-19 is normalized—and if you don’t know anyone at risk or who has died.
This isn’t to say that pandemic restrictions are consequence-free. On one level, it’s true that when we closed our borders, we acted in step with Australia’s history of isolationism. However, it’s a leap to suggest that this is building a ‘Hermit Kingdom’ and encouraging xenophobia or anti-migrant sentiment.
Indeed, the opposite logic applies just as well: if Australia were to allow international travellers to enter without adequate quarantine facilities, rigorous testing and vaccine passports, this would inevitably seed new outbreaks and present an enormous gift to the racists. Just imagine the tropes about disease-bearing foreigners Pauline Hanson could resurrect. Does anyone think that British or American travellers carrying the coronavirus would be stigmatised as much as those from India or Asia?
And anyway, if we have to live with repeated new outbreaks, precisely which communities will be hardest hit? It won’t be wealthy, white ones.
Yes, we should consider the long-term cultural and political implications of border closures. But to elevate this consideration over all others in the name of multiculturalism or anti-racism is blinkered.
A similar set of considerations apply to criticising authoritarian, anti-working class or racist restrictions. When Daniel Andrews locked down nine public housing towers in Melbourne last year, the Victorian Left had no trouble condemning the move while upholding the necessity of other restrictions. By the same token, the NSW Left should criticise the militarised response and over-policing of poorer and predominantly migrant localities.
Yet the way we criticise these measures matters. The problem with NSW’s over-reliance on coercion is that it undermines the social solidarity necessary for a successful lockdown. Over-policing fails to address the underlying economic and cultural reasons why some people break regulations. As John Quiggin recently explained in the Monthly, these failings are the direct consequence of decades of marketization and neoliberal cuts and that have reduced the Commonwealth Government’s capacity to manage crises.
Should we jump from these appropriate criticisms to opposing all policing? Clearly, stronger non-coercive measures that build social solidarity are necessary, including income support and an expansion of health and welfare services. At the same time, it’s simply inconceivable that we could maintain lockdowns without coercive measures, primarily fines and criminal charges.
The other 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. A North Shore or Toorak business owner can easily absorb a $5000 fine, if they are issued with one in the first place. A precarious worker breaching lockdown cannot.
Left-wing conspiracy theories
At their worst, some anti-lockdown progressives have taken up with a paranoid, conspiracy-theory approach that’s reminiscent of anti-vaxxers and right-wing conspiracists.
For instance, in response to a recent Jacobin article advocating for a hard lockdown in NSW, C-list Twitter celebrity leftist Aimee Terese tweeted: ‘This is imperialism’ and went on to explain that the article—and the Lockdown to Zero campaign that it supports—is part of an international plan to push the ‘DNC/Davos party line.’
‘You see why none of this is a joke?’, Terese continued, before identifying a sprawling alliance of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, ‘middle class leftist activists’ and union thinktanks, cohered by ‘cultural, intellectual and activist ‘collaboration’ (infiltration/rewarding obedience).’
I work for Jacobin, so I can only assume my invitation to Davos was lost in the mail. For its part, the Lockdown to Zero campaign has a long list of signatories, including socialists, academics, health experts, trade unionists and the Balmain branch of the ALP. Clearly, the DSA’s imperialist tentacles spread deep and wide. Against such an overwhelming foe, what other course of action is there but to join?
Terese’s analysis is marginal and unhinged, but it illustrates an important point. Conspiracy theories, both right- and left-wing, meet psychological needs by projecting anxieties onto an imagined enemy in order to preserve a fantasy image of the world. The key difference is that the right wishes to preserve their fantasy world. Left-wing conspiracy theorists, by contrast, mobilise paranoia to dramatically simplify the barriers to achieving their fantasy world—and to bolster their own ‘one weird trick to end capitalism that the CIA doesn’t want you to know’ plan for the revolution.
This also reveals the individualism of conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theorists’ imagined enemies are also usually responsible for all the idiosyncratic—and obviously psychological—grievances that afflict the theorist.
Against this kind of thing, the Left needs to cultivate a realistic assessment of social and political realities. In contrast to Soutphommasane and Stears’ hyperbolics, Waleed Aly strikes a far more grounded note in a recent contribution to the Monthly. He argues that Australian politics have remained remarkably stable, and
the pandemic has offered no such ideological rupture [as has occurred in the USA] … It’s a form of emergency politics. That’s a different thing. Emergency politics is the temporary suspension of political norms, not necessarily the lasting embrace of new ones. It is meant to facilitate a return to normal, at least in theory.
It’s a desire to defend an exploitative normality that is driving the Coalition’s sabotage of Australia’s pandemic response. By denying adequate income support during the current lockdowns, Morrison is gambling that desperation will eventually undermine restrictions and pressure state governments into lifting them early. The result will be what the Liberals always wanted: endemic Covid-19 and the normalisation of thousands of deaths.
Those on the Left who fight against this scenario are entirely correct to do so. Those few who have opposed restrictions and lockdowns on this or that spurious grounds have lined up on the wrong side.
For once, the majority of the Left has not lost its way. However, those on the Left who have elevated this or that sacred freedom over the health of the vast majority most certainly have. If there’s soul searching to be done, it’s the anti-lockdown Left that should be doing it.
Image by BP Miller