As European nations finish commemorating a year of lockdowns, many have started to U turn along their previously proposed roadmaps to a new normality, toward a fresh wave of restrictions in the face of rising case numbers. The still lingering ethical questions raised at the advent of lockdowns one year ago now look to be dwarfed by those looming over the seemingly inevitable introduction of vaccine passports.
The dismantling of livelihoods, revocation of liberties, and rampant censorship that have accompanied restrictions in the name of public health, have all posed great threat to leftist and liberal values of workers rights, freedom of speech, and social equality. It has, however, been predominantly left-leaning media and intellectuals that have branded those raising opposition to restrictions, be it intellectually or through assembly, as extremists of the radical right, as well as a threat to democracy and life itself.
A CROOKED FRAME
In August 2020, thousands gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the impact of lockdowns on fundamental freedoms, quality of life and health, and the perceived inconsistencies and deceit inherent in the Covid-19 narratives espoused by national governments and supranational bodies.
In response, participants were branded “covid deniers” in The Times, “pushers” of right-wing conspiracy theories in The Independent, and perhaps more bizarrely “the cosmic right” by Novara Media. Similar demonstrations in November 2020 in Berlin were met by counter protesters led by leftist antifascist group Antifa, bearing banners denouncing skeptics as “Nazi Pigs”.
While centre-right parties and political figures have been more outspoken in their criticism of restrictions, it has been noted by reporters present that a plurality of political ideologies and concerns have been represented at demonstrations across Europe, including a minority from the far-right and causes more synonymous with the far-left. For the overwhelming majority of ordinary concerned citizens attending, the voiced indignations have been bipartisan, with no ulterior ideological axes to grind.
In addition to the mainstream and large swathes of the alternative press, prominent leftist intellectuals have also castigated such displays, with prominent neo-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek declaring the “new barbarians” to be precisely those who “protest against anti-pandemic measures on behalf of personal freedom and dignity”.
In October 2020, Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monibot suggested that “without nuance, without independent thought, without a diversity of views, there is no possibility of progress.” Yet more recently, he has also called upon the government to “criminalise the spreading of blatant disinformation about the pandemic. As in wartime, careless talk costs lives.”
As revelations on the devastating impact of lockdowns, institutional fraud of PCR test usage, and adverse effects of novel vaccines swell under a media blackout, the familiar mantras of “socialising kills”, “sheer necessity”, “people before profit” and “following the best science”, grow increasingly feeble.
With authoritarianism as a well established concept in relation to the far-right, in 1954 American sociologist Edward Shils observed that left-wing authoritarians, in particular, engaged in “exploitation and manipulation of comrades”, often “covered with expressions of solidarity”.
In a more recent 2020 study at Emory University, graduate Thomas Costello was able to identify tell-tale personality traits of left-wing authoritarians, including a belief that opposing views are immoral, which the state should also forcibly censor. He also concluded authoritarian personalities on the left and right were vindictive and lacked intellectual humility. More recently and specifically still, Joseph Manson’s 2020 study saw respondents read out 19 different authoritarian pieces of Covid legislation, and asked to indicate the extent of their support for each policy. He again discovered that authoritarians on the right and left, equally favoured policies such as enhanced punishment, restricted right to trial by jury, immunity certificates and mandatory tracking and testing.
Perhaps the most noticeable authoritarian attitudes emanating from the popular left’s response over the past year has been vehement support for lockdowns. In addition to the aforementioned examples and means of reasoning, campaign group “Zero Covid” has gone one step further in public health absolutism. Established and supported by trade unionists, NHS campaign groups, councilors and academics, the groups policies aim, as the name might entail, for the near if not total eradication of the virus, no matter the cost.
Posited as altruistic forward thinking, the group’s demands for more preemptive and sustained lockdowns, the compulsory quarantine of arrivals, and better mobile surveillance systems, might suggest flirtations with draconian rule becoming insatiable love affairs. The tacit support for the limitation and reorientation of NHS services around Covid, also comes at the tragic expense of patients now unable to access critical treatments for cancer and cardiovascular disease, and all those isolated suffering poor mental health.
In a series of essays since March 2020, Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has pondered upon why such measures across Europe have been largely accepted rather than resisted, choosing not to debate the “gravity of the disease” but investigate “the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic”.
Especially dismayed by the willingness to sacrifice “all normal conditions of life to the fear of getting sick”, Agamben describes what he also sees as the “collapse of every common conviction and belief”.
Such a disintegration of values in the name of biosecurity, he argues, has “proven capable of presenting the absolute cessation of all political activities and of all social relationships as the maximum form of civic participation.” Consequently, “it was possible to witness the paradox of leftist organisations” who have traditionally renounced constitutional infringements, now welcoming limitations and controls “which even fascism had never dreamed of being able to impose”, he continues.
Cessation, however, has not meant complete political apathy. True to Kropotkin’s philosophy, many leftist and anarchist groupings worldwide have organised into mutual aid networks to provide real alternative support networks to those most disenfranchised by restrictions.
Yet the unfamiliar concepts of lockdown and social distancing have indeed been marketed, by way of JS Mill’s harm principle, as an act of compassionate sacrifice and solidarity; but essentially working as Agamben points out, around the oxymoronic tenet of “renounce the good to save the good”. As such, many groups on the left are hypothesising the opportunities presented by lockdowns toward stunting the materialist excesses of capitalist society, reducing inequality through intergroup solidarity, and addressing climate change.
Whilst such causes are indeed deserving and meritorious, their untimely pursuit in rebuttal of the room’s elephant, constitute a naivety Agamben cites as down to an inability to see the exceptional measures in place “beyond the immediate context in which they seem to operate”. Contrary to notions on the utilitarian nature
of lockdowns, the ensuing state of emergency, he warns, is providing “the laboratory” in which humanity’s
future societal structures are being concocted, principally, the “new biosecurity paradigm, to which all other
needs will have to be sacrificed”.
A FRATERNAL KISS
In December, I attended an anti-lockdown demonstration in my city of Brighton. I didn’t see anyone promoting ethno-nationalism, authoritarianism or anti-semitism, just ordinary people fearful of the plans being made for the lives of their families in far away think tanks, and of a dystopic future they wished they might never have glimpsed.
The near inverted application of the left-right paradigm exhibited across the corporate press and amongst the popular left, has simply acted to smear what remains of public discussion, vilify vast numbers of concerned people, and uphold a perverse form of reasoning in maintenance of a persisting complacency.
In George Orwell’s 1937 novel The Road to Wigan Pier, he commented: “middle class socialists don’t love the poor, they just hate the rich”. A middle class socialist himself, Orwell and many like him held disdain for the technocratic and elitist “Sunday socialism” of many of his peers, who held great esteem for ideas, but no regard for people.
The working class and those trapped in the gig economy continue to suffer the worst of lockdowns, ethnic minority communities are patronised for their hesitancy to comply with totalitarian health policy, and high tech-surveillance threatens the freedom of movement and speech ever more.
All the while, dissent against the seemingly now forgotten “1%” that inflicts such miseries, in active practice, gets branded as extremist by those who preach its principles. As unconditional proponents of an imperious global health extremism, a formerly resolute left, now muted in their role historically, is increasingly embodying the indifference Orwell denounced, lacking the verity he pleaded for, and now too it seems, lacking even their disdain for the corrupt.
Patrick O’Reilly, an independent journalist based in Brighton, UK, who recently completed his postgraduate degree in journalism and documentary practice from the University of Sussex.