The first wave of Australian anti-lockdown protests emerged in Melbourne in early July 2020. Since then, they have continued to grow in size and influence, extending their focus to vaccine mandates and other government public health policies. Most worryingly, this movement has drawn in disparate elements of the far right and has extended its reach to cities and states previously untouched by lockdown orders or restrictions.
It is true that public anxiety about the economy and frustration at the disruptive impact the pandemic has had on day-to-day life make up the context out of which the anti-lockdown movement has emerged. But these factors don’t tell the whole story. What has allowed the far right in particular to exert such a strong influence over the movement is the unique way it has sought to exploit these feelings. Right-wing forces in Australia have strengthened their alliances with the wellness movement and proponents of New Age self-help spirituality. This has allowed their ideas to appear more plausible in the eyes of ordinary people.
A Right-Wing Movement
We should not forget, despite the movement’s constant invocations of the threats that lockdown poses to our freedoms, that it is a right-wing political project. This was highlighted by the protesters’ attack on the offices of the Victorian and Tasmanian branch of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) on September 20. Mainstream and progressive commentators have suggested that these protests reflected political disagreements within the CFMMEU regarding how best to defend the interests of members during the pandemic. While some participants in the action may have been union members, or at least construction workers, it seems clear that many were bad-faith actors posing as unionists to give credence to their cause.
The attack on the CFMMEU’s office is part of a larger global trend of right-wing pandemic response activists targeting organized labor. This October in Rome, protesters opposing vaccine passports attacked the offices of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, as well as those of Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi.
As the anti-vaccine, anti-pandemic-response movement has gained confidence, it has grown and become more sustained than other far-right mobilizations in Australia in recent years. Indeed, the protests have continued following the end of lockdown by broadening their scope to oppose other pandemic responses. In particular, they have taken aim at vaccine mandates, which link exemptions from public health orders with vaccination status.
In part, the changes in the political landscape over the last two years has created a base for this development. The far right has seized this opportunity by changing its orientation and focus accordingly.
Understandably, financial dislocation and inadequate income support, as well as the disruption to social life caused by the pandemic and public health response, have frustrated many. While these measures relied on collective sacrifice, the sacrifices have been both prolonged and unequally distributed. In some cases, this has accelerated the individualism at the core of neoliberal capitalism, transforming it into an almost narcissistic rejection of the common good. This selfish frustration has allowed the forces of the Right, far right, and wellness communities to converge around a shared rejection of social reality and a paranoid analysis of public health measures.
Snake-Oil Salesmen Against Capitalism
The experience of the pandemic has not been uniform. Some Australians were able to continue working either remotely or on-site, depending on whether they were essential workers. Frontline workers — particularly health care workers — have had to deal with the crushing pressures of overwork and the ever-present risk of infection. The hundreds of thousands who were unable to keep their jobs had to face the threat of dislocation and financial uncertainty.
In the early months of the pandemic, the federal government ameliorated this anxiety by expanding welfare payments in the form of the JobKeeper wage subsidy and by doubling unemployment income support. These payments, which ended in March and April this year, respectively, provided many recipients with supports that were below the median wage. However, it was still a far better situation than the one faced by workers who weren’t eligible for support or who found themselves out of a job or with diminished income during the late 2021 waves of infection.
Beyond its financial impact, the pandemic has created social isolation and distress. Many people have responded to these challenges by simply denying the reality of the pandemic in favor of an alternative conspiracy-theory-informed narrative. Indeed, conspiratorial thinking is a common feature of the far right and anti-vaccination networks that have now come together. This is in line with the growing convergence between the far right and the New Age wellness movement over the past few years. The QAnon conspiracy is this realignment’s most notable by-product.
It’s sometimes possible to detect a form of vulgar anti-capitalism in the hostility expressed by the wellness and anti-vaccine movements toward the pharmaceutical industry. This can make the fact that they’ve come together with the far right seem counterintuitive. Although they reject the pharmaceutical industry, both these communities embrace the supplements industry.
With a global revenue of approximately $120 billion — around 10 percent of the revenue of the pharmaceutical industry — the supplements industry is smaller, but it’s not an insignificant capitalist player. Some natural medicine and supplements companies have directly promoted hostility to vaccination and other public health measures.
As the protests in Australia grew during July 2021, a debate emerged about how to characterize the anti-lockdown mobilizations. Some experts — most notably Josh Roose — acknowledged that while the protests shared some features with the traditional far right, they should be understood as mobilizations of the marginalized and alienated. “What immediately distinguishes these sorts of protest groups from the far right,” Roose said, “is that they’re highly multicultural and they’re made up not just of angry men at a patriot rally but also women.” Since then, however, Roose’s analysis has evolved to take into account the influence the far right continues to exert over the anti-vaccine protests in Australia.
Even so, we can learn from the shortcomings of Roose’s initial analysis insofar as it points toward the limits of an overly rigid picture of the contemporary far right. For a long time, the Australian far right — as in most other developed countries — built within white-supremacist subcultures, most notably skinheads. Recently, however, there have been clear signs that the far right is diversifying its base and sanitizing its image. This follows similar attempts by far-right forces internationally to increase their appeal.
One of the keys to this has been to broaden its appeal to sections of the population it historically targeted with racist violence and vilification. This has meant shifting away from an explicitly racialized conception of nationalism. In the case of the far-right Rise Up Australia Party, founded and led by Sri Lankan–born evangelical preacher Daniel Nalliah, Christian nationalism and intense Islamophobia form the movement’s common identity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the far right is no longer racist. It does mean, however, that it is attempting to cohere a united movement by making space within its nationalist vision for some people from marginalized communities. We can find examples of this across the globe.
In France, for example, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, the far-right Front National sought to “detoxify” the party, renaming itself to National Rally (RN). As part of this, RN began appealing to France’s queer, Muslim, and Jewish communities and presenting itself as their only protector. Of course, these appeals are disingenuous and internally contradictory. They have been somewhat successful, however, as the RN has increased its base within these communities. Still, this electoral growth remains small when compared against the party’s white, ethnically French base.
Additionally, more traditional right-wing forces — particularly parties and figureheads on its lunar fringes — are attempting to harness the far right for their own ends. The right-wing United Australia Party (UAP), an electoral vehicle created by mining magnate Clive Palmer, has spent millions promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and anti-lockdown messages online. This is part of Palmer’s attempt to pose himself and the UAP as the only real alternative to mainstream Australian parties, including Labor, the Liberals, and the Greens. Although this may boost the UAP’s electoral representation, the more likely result will be to funnel votes back into the Liberal and National parties.
The Left Response
The new reality of larger, more coherent, and more sustained right-wing mobilization means that the Left needs to update its response. In doing so, we should recognize that the anti-vaccine, anti-public-health movement is building on very real anxieties with a material basis. However much the far right exploits these anxieties, however, their solutions involve denying reality and shifting blame for the problems we face onto scapegoats or, worse, those who are trying to help — for example, health workers. Consequently, the first step for the Left is to challenge the Right’s unhinged narrative by proposing our own explanations of the hardships people are facing. If we fail to do this, we risk reinforcing the legitimacy of the far right and bolstering its demagogic appeal.
At the same time, instead of trying to win the wellness gurus and New Age conspiracists back from the far right, our focus should be on those sections of society that understand the need for collective solidarity in the face of crisis. This includes working within the union movement to build the understanding that social solidarity will be a crucial part of the solution to the current crisis. We also need to boost government spending for public services and create jobs for working-class communities, starting with the poorest, most marginalized, and precarious parts of the population. And we will have to mobilize to reject any attempt to use the crisis to push new rounds of austerity.
If we’re successful, the anti-vaccine movement may remain relegated to the fringes of political life. If not, twenty-first-century fascism may be accompanied by fad diets, turmeric, and the return of infectious diseases long eliminated thanks to vaccination.