On November 30, police arrested a man over an alleged hit-and-run outside a Covid-19 testing facility in Collingwood which resulted in a health worker suffering life-threatening injuries. The day before, anti-vaxxers had smashed up a café in Thornbury and left a note reading ‘do what Daniel Andrews says and we will burn your shop down and kill you motherfucker.’
These weren’t isolated occurrences. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported on a study of the retail industry that documented a sharp uptick in customer abuse. Anti-vaxxers have harassed, insulted and assaulted retail workers, disproportionately targeting female, non-white and younger workers. Doctors and nurses, too, have endured harassment, abuse, attempts at coercion and assault.
The pattern appears to have been accelerating following regular and sizeable protests against public health measures, themselves a dismaying new development in Australian politics. To respond, the left must develop a grounded analysis that answers the questions: what is the political content of the anti-vax movement, what is its social base, and what are its dynamics?
Let’s begin with the political content of the anti-vax rallies. Right-wing populist politicians and figureheads, including Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson, Peta Credlin and Craig Kelly have attended and spoken at the rallies. As for political organisations, in addition to online far-right populist outfits like Reignite Democracy Australia, leftist writers, journalists, activists and anti-fascist researchers have documented fascist and neo-Nazi leaders and organisers at the anti-vax rallies. As John Safran reported in the Saturday Paper, their anti-semitism is barely concealed with complacently ironic memes and smug evasions.
The rallies are also attended by many more esoteric varieties of conspiracists, ultra-nationalists, Christian fundamentalists and conservatives. At the September rally outside the CFMMEU’s offices in Melbourne, observers identified at least one speaker and a number of attendees as members of the Ustaša, the Croatian fascist movement dating back to the 1930s.
In photos of the more recent anti-vax rallies, you can identify national flags of Venezuela, the US puppet Republic of South Vietnam, as well as from former-Yugoslavian republics and former Eastern Bloc countries, including Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and others. What unites these nationalisms is the often virulent anti-communism present in these diasporic communities. This is not aimed at actual communists, but represents a paranoid, militant anti-leftism. It can be perceived in speeches and signs that accuse Daniel Andrews of being a Chinese agent, that compare public health measures to Stalinist totalitarianism and in t-shirts with the words ‘The final variant is Communism.’
The other non-Australian national flags at the anti-vax are rallies typically from countries that are currently host to right-wing or far-right nationalist movements—for example, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Greece. Interestingly, although people from the subcontinent make up a significant and growing proportion of recent migrants to Australia, flags from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are not visible. Perhaps this is because migrants from these backgrounds are over-represented among frontline and precarious workers.
In addition to ubiquitous Australian flags and occasional Aboriginal flags, you can see many Eureka Flags and Australian Merchant Navy flags. The Aboriginal and Eureka flags can be chalked up to confused participants or the cynicism of organisers who want to appropriate these symbols of resistance. The Australian Merchant Navy flag represents the Sovereign Citizen movement. Other flags replace the Union Jack in the Australian flag with America’s stars and stripes.
Protesters’ placards span a wide and repulsive spectrum. There are pro-Trump signs, United Australia Party campaign placards, Christian fundamentalist slogans and mass-produced corflutes urging us to save the children or declaring that we have shed enough blood. As has been reported, many signs at these rallies refer to the anti-Semitic ‘QUI?’ meme or the alt-right QAnon conspiracy theory.
As a rule, the more homemade a sign at these rallies looks, the more deranged it is. Many are bizarrely sexual, perhaps expressing a sadistic desire to see Andrews raped, or inadvertently betray the psycho-sexual roots of the demonstrators’ fear of needles. Others signs call for political violence against a democratically elected government. Among the more conventional slogans are ones urging ‘Truth, Love and the Eternal Self,’ or that seek to raise awareness about the ‘plandemic,’ the dangers of 5G mobile towers and microchips.
The social base of the anti-vax movement
Since political dynamics are grounded in socio-economic realities, we need empirical data to complete the picture. So far, there hasn’t been much to go on. But now, thanks to microchips embedded on the anti-vax protesters, we know a few things about who they are: social research company Roy Morgan has recently published a report profiling anti-vax protesters at the November 20 rally in Melbourne, using metadata harvested from their smartphones.
The protesters overwhelmingly came from Melbourne’s outer suburbs, including South Morang, Tarneit, Cranbourne, Langwarrin, Werribee, Caroline Springs and Sunshine. A heat map revealed particular concentrations of protesters came from Melbourne’s Eastern and South Eastern suburbs—the most loyal Liberal electorates—with smaller concentrations making the journey from Ballarat, Traralgon and Torquay, as well as other regional centres.
Beyond this, the report sorted protesters into one of six ‘Helix Personas,’ categories designed to ‘segment consumers into targetable groups.’ They incorporate demographic information as well as values and other beliefs that businesses find useful to determine consumer behaviour. Of the six Helix Personas, there were two that significantly over-represented among the anti-vax protesters, as compared to the proportion of the total Australian population they make up.
The first, ‘Hearth and Home,’ identifies people whose lives revolve around family and the home. These make up about 15 per cent of the general population, but 23 per cent of the anti-vax protesters. As home-owners and improvers, they are on average older, wealthier, whiter and more conservative than younger and less affluent demographics who are often locked out of home ownership. This demographic is suburban and, along with better-off workers, it includes many small business owners who were hard-hit by the pandemic.
The second over-represented category is called ‘Fair Go,’ who make up 5 percent of the population but about 14 percent of the anti-vax protesters. People in this category are poor, often locked out of work and marginalised. At only 5 percent of the general population, this category is no means a proxy for working class Australians—rather, it represents a particularly disadvantaged, alienated minority.
The other marketing categories—‘Metrotechs,’ ‘Aspirationals‘ and ‘Doing Fine’—were all significantly under-represented at the anti-vax rallies. In addition to covering many people who work blue- and white-collar working class jobs, these categories also cover many types of middle class professionals, business owners and well-off retirees.
Lastly, the ‘Leading Lifestyle’ Helix Persona made up 31 per cent of the anti-vax protests, in almost equal proportion to their presence in the general population. Roy Morgan’s website defines this category as ‘focused on success and career and family,’ as ‘proud of their prosperity and achievements,’ and as ‘big spenders’ who ‘enjoy cultured living to the max.’ Without more detailed information, we can only make educated guesses about how this category stacks up in class terms. At any rate, the point is somewhat moot given they were neither over- nor under-represented.
Geography and political economy
Roy Morgan’s research methods are not quite on the level of Marx’s Capital. Interpreting the data requires a bit of sociological imagination, and the conclusions drawn should be taken as provisional.
Firstly, given the preponderance of home-owners and improvers, the anti-vax protesters are comparatively—but not uniformly—better off than most. This, however, does not map neatly onto a class analysis. While many younger white- and blue-collar workers are effectively locked out of home ownership, an electrician or plumber in their fifties may well own an investment property on top of the family home. This also suggests that young people are somewhat under-represented among the anti-vax protesters.
The geographic factors interlock with economic ones, and are perhaps more important. Melbourne’s outer suburbs—where the anti-vaxxers are overwhelmingly concentrated—can be more affordable for younger families wanting to buy a home, and who will then face decades of mortgage repayments. At the same time, many of the Liberal-voting outer suburbs are home to relatively well-off families who prefer a larger block of land to an equally valuable, but small inner-city terrace.
Whatever the case, the outer suburbs are sprawling, under-serviced and atomised. The main cultural focal points are mega churches, shopping malls and RSLs and hotels full of pokies. There are very few meaningful progressive traditions in these areas, and they are among the most alienated from politics, which helps explain why many of Victoria’s swing seats are located there.
This helps us understand the overrepresentation ‘hearth and home’ anti-vax protesters. If you drive through Point Cook, for example, you will pass countless very new, very uniform and fairly substantial family homes. Many have security roller-shutters installed on their windows and large satellites on the roof. This is a hint. These suburbs both produce and reflect people whose lifestyle is profoundly atomised, insular and focused on the family home.
Interestingly, the spots in Roy Morgan’s heat map were less dense for Melbourne’s Northern and North Western outer suburbs, which are home to more migrants. These areas endured higher rates of policing during the pandemic, while linguistic and cultural barriers meant vaccine hesitancy was more prevalent. Despite this, residents of Thomastown, Broadmeadows, Fawkner or Deer Park seem to be relatively under-represented among the anti-vax protesters.
Connecting ideology with social reality
There are two points that help us understand the anti-vax worldview, as disparate and unhinged as it is, in light of these social realities.
Firstly, anti-vaxxers increasingly believe in totalising worldviews whose logic is fictive, and built on a usually unconscious rejection of reason. This is to say, the links they see between phenomena are illusory, and the resulting worldview is structured like a work of fiction. By contrast, the majority of leftist worldviews are committed to reason and evidence. We don’t need to posit conspiracies to explain the evils committed by banks, fossil fuel companies and, yes, pharmaceutical corporations.
Although anti-vax narratives can vary greatly, they suit both the psychological and political desires of those who hold them. The stories they have come to believe after conducting ‘their own research’ help them project their anxieties outward, away from themselves, their bodies, their families and their homes. This can help explain the anti-vaxxers’ hysterical rejection of evidence that doesn’t suit their conviction.
This also helps us understand why anti-vaxxers disproportionately come from atomised outer-suburbs. If your life revolves around family and home, perhaps the pandemic feels like an assault on your way of life. It’s therefore an effective defence mechanism to externalise real distress and anxiety away from the home, and onto an imagined other. This also helps explain the anti-vaxxer’s obsession with protecting the children from vaccines, the offensive appropriation of pro-choice slogans, as well as many of the bizarrely sexual sentiments in their propaganda. We should also remember that the outer suburbs were among the only areas where people bought into the Liberals’ fear campaign about African gangs, prior to the last state election.
The second common thread is a radical form of neoliberal individualism. Anti-vaxxers who follow particularly individualist lifestyles—from Yoga teachers, to wellness influencers, prosperity gospel Christians and café owners—are already practiced at elevating ‘their truth’ above that of the society upon which their lifestyles depend. For them, it’s not such a stretch to regard public health measures as a threat to their essentially libertarian self-determination. This also explains the anti-working class behaviour exhibited by many anti-vaxxers.
Three conclusions follow from this analysis.
Firstly, the anti-vax movement is a far-right movement. To be clear, this is not to say that every participant adheres to a far-right worldview. I grant that there might be one or two confused progressives among the crowd. Consciousness can be contradictory like that.
Rather, what I mean is that the anti-vax movement as a whole should be understood as far-right. Its social base is that of the mainstream right and the populist right. However, what makes it far-right are its radically conservative dynamics. Anti-vaxxers wish to preserve the status quo; before the pandemic they were more comfortable. Rather than outlining progressive solutions (rebuilding the welfare state, raising wages, etc.), they demand to go back to how things were. The paradox is, however, that as anti-vaxxers become more violent, anti-democratic and unhinged, they will increasingly threaten the status quo. Defeat may accelerate this—you can see the same trajectory with Trumpism. This also explains the tension within the Coalition between their anti-vax MPs and the majority, who hold business’ interests at heart, and are garden-variety conservatives.
Of course, it’s hard to make accurate predictions about what long-term impact the anti-vax movement will have. It seems likely that it will result in stronger vote for the UAP, which will likely flow through to the Coalition. Also, it has given the out-and-out fascists an opportunity to recruit, practice strategic positioning and build a more lasting organisational presence.
The second conclusion is about how the left should respond. The anti-vax movement is dangerous. Its should be defeated and its participants demoralised to the point of making them reconsider their militancy. A few on the left have argued that somehow, we should ‘relate’ to it, perhaps by attending rallies under acceptable slogans, or by staging our own rallies against Andrews’ pandemic powers bill. This is like saying that we should build support for Indigenous sovereignty by relating to One Nation voters. And anyway, to relate to a movement, you have to endorse at least some of its political content.
This leads to the third conclusion. Presuming the anti-vax movement doesn’t peter out, the only organisations with the social weight to counter it are the trade unions. This isn’t to disparage the important work being done by groups like the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which can build a longer-term movement. Rather, it is to say that a union rally with thousands of nurses, cleaners, teachers, retail workers, hospitality workers—and, yes, construction workers—could deny the anti-vax movement its populist mantle overnight. It would also confront a movement of dangerous narcissists and reactionaries with collectivism and solidarity.
Image: Ted McGrath