Far right hikes tension over vaccine passports
Lost children of neoliberalism adrift in a sea of disinformation
At every stage of the pandemic, Covid-19 has acted like a litmus test on both the state and civil society - identifying the weaknessess of every country it hits. It discovered which states were the most corrupt and inefficient (the UK, was high on the list). It showed which technology platforms were happy to make money out of disinformation.
Today it is revealing which parts of Europe are most susceptible to the new formula for far-right politics: those who mobilised against masks, lockdowns and vaccinations now mobilise against the imposition of passports for re-entry into everyday life.
The violence in Rotterdam, repeated at smaller scale in the Hague and small towns throughout the Netherlands, was led by football ultras with clear links to the far right. But it drew in thousands of ordinary young people.
In Vienna, 40,000 people marched in a demonstration called by the Freedom Party, but also mobilising far-right Identitarians and many simply outraged at the imposition of new vaccine regulations. The banners were a case study in the new thought-architecture of the far right.
"Control the borders, not your people" said one. "Great Replacement, Great Reset: Stop the Globalist filth" said another - overtly linking the far-right allegation that immigration is a form of “genocide” of white people, with the desire of the World Economic Forum for a greener, more equitable capitalism.
This week there were anti-vaxx/anti-passport demos in Brussels, Switzerland, Croatia and beyond.
Pipeline to the far right
If we underestimate the potential of these movements to become pipelines into the far right, we are making a big mistake. Because these mobilisations are playing out the central crisis of our time: what I've called "the crisis of the neoliberal self".
For more than thirty years all political decisions were framed around the economic calculus: is the decision "good for business", will it "please the markets"? The market was depicted as an all-knowing intelligent machine, more trustworthy than any individual or government. The more you believed in the market as the all-powerful machine regulating every aspect of your life, the happier you would feel.
Then, in 2008, the machine broke down. We kept it going with massive state intervention and trillions of Euros in quantitative easing. But while you can keep an economic model on life support for decades, you cannot do so with an ideology. The human brain demands coherence.
Because the left, and liberalism failed to provide that a coherent explanation of the new reality, the far right stepped in to offer theirs: migration is destroying the West; feminism, multiculturalism and human rights lawyers are its "collaborators" (they use the word in the wartime sense); liberal democracy must end, to be replaced by "the will of the people"; the liberal global order must collapse.
Over the past two decades, the ordinary, untheorised prejudices of right-wing voters have become structured by this new thought architecture. One of its central proposals is that both the state and the mainstream media are continuously lying to us: that behind this facade stands a reality in which you - the ordinary, white, heterosexual man - are the most oppressed person on earth.
Covid-19 provided the opportunity for the far right to take these ideas to a much wider group of people: people already dislocated, distrustful and feeling powerless.
Millions of white, Christian, European people had assumed that measures to limit freedom of movement and entry into spaces would only ever apply to migrants, criminals, ethnic minorities, sponti protesters.
Now, in order to protect public health, some states have introduced vaccine passports for entry to clubs, restaurants, football matches and the workplace.
The vaccine passport symbolises your obligations both to society and to every other human being - obligations that free-market ideology told us should not exist.
As a result, people who have never really thought about politics before, nor engaged with it, are having finally to ask the basic question of all political philosophy: what is the source of my civil rights, and on what authority does the state restrict them?
Many people find themselves ill equipped to address that question. For three decades the market was supposed to answer it. Neoliberalism was, as William Davies puts it, “the disenchantment of politics by economics” - the replacement of political judgement (and therefore political philosophy) with economic evaluation.
Davies explains that, for at least 30 years, the authority of the state derived from economic rationalism, and the expert voices dispensing it. Once the economic rationale is secondary, there is no anchor for political beliefs - especially among the young, who have only ever known the neoliberal system.
Excitement and purpose
What characterises the wider periphery of young people on the anti-passport demos is their ordinaryness. They are rarely part of a pre-existing youth subculture: they are the ones dressed in clothes from Primark xand TK Maxx - cut-price and unfashionable.
What the anti-vaxx movement brings to their life is excitement and purpose. One minute they are nobody, with an uninspiring job. The next minute they are on a demo through bourgeois Vienna, breathing the smoke of flares and fireworks, behind banners accusing the global liberal elite of being "filth" (dreck) and of enacting genocide against them, both through immigration and vaccination.
Hannah Arendt understood such people well. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she wrote:
"They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself".
We should debate the wisdom of vaccine passports, and listen to those who worry about the infringement of civil liberties they inflict. But this is not really about the passports: it is about identity.
The lost children of late neoliberalism are searching for a new persona and - if we do not fight hard for the liberal, tolerant persona, who accepts complexity, respects science and understands the basic idea of a social contract - the far right persona will flourish.
Thanks for subscribing. My book How To Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance is now out also in Italian as Come fermare il nuovo fascismo. Available here.