Rise of the Covidiots
How can pandemic-sceptics deny the reality in front of their eyes? Paul Demarty investigates
Great prominence, it seems, attaches to small groups who deny in some sense the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Exactly what is denied varies - perhaps it is that the disease is viral in origin (tear down those 5G masts ... ) or even that it is anything more than an incomprehensibly vast piece of theatre orchestrated by the government. Attention is uniformly drawn to the extension of police powers, the purpose of the ‘hoax’ being to further erode civil liberties.
In this country, several small protests were broken up by police over the weekend, with attention drawn in the press to the arrest of Jeremy Corbyn’s half-daft brother, Piers, among a dozen or so others in the capital (presumably certain family Zoom calls in the Islington area are getting particularly awkward). Far more serious is the situation in America, where more substantial gatherings of the far right are multiplying, demanding an end to what passes for lockdown in that wounded nation. The liberal media and activists share images of militia types in full combat armour, assault rifles at the ready - half in amusement and half in fear of how close the United States seems to be to a mass, quasi-fascist movement breaking out over this.
The protests are not terribly interesting on their own (except, perhaps, in the USA). In this country and elsewhere in Europe, the numbers involved are utterly trivial. The British demonstrations seem to have been organised by a far-right micro-splinter called the UK Freedom Movement, about which little is known but which seems to have flaked off from Britain First (itself a fragment of the British National Party, which fell to pieces over the course of the last decade). There is a permanent hard core of irrationalist, right-leaning, conspiratorial thinkers in capitalism, for whom every passing event can be incorporated into the narrative structure. David Icke’s shape-shifting lizards are the most eye-catching, perhaps, but similar theories abound about Freemasons, global institutions and (once we get into the far right proper) Jews. It could hardly be expected to ignore an event like the current pandemic.
The more interesting questions hinge on a battle taking place, so to speak, elsewhere. The bourgeois establishment is deeply divided - faced with the possibility of mass deaths, on the one hand, and economic ruin, on the other, the scope and length of quarantines are fiercely contested. The right divides into pro- and anti-quarantine parties. What role do our denialists play in this struggle?
With regard to the anti-lockdown party, it is worth noting first of all that the ‘It’s a hoax’ idea gives us a subset of conspiracy theories floating around about Covid-19, and not at all the largest subset. That would be the ‘It’s X’s fault!’ story. American rightwingers claim that the disease escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, or indeed was a bioweapon manufactured in that lab. The Chinese government, for its part, has allowed the story to spread that it is an American bioweapon. Elements of the Iranian regime blame Israel. So it goes on.
The only version of this that is even remotely plausible is ‘It escaped from the lab’, and there is no more evidence for it than there is that the nerve agent that nearly killed Sergei and Yulia Skripal was a product of Porton Down. It enjoys a great deal more penetration into the mainstream thanks to a certain Donald J Trump, of course. Trump vacillates between the different conspiracy theories, but the one that really resonates - given how vociferously he has denounced China over the years - is the ‘China’s fault’ version. His insistence on calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus”, along with other acts of chauvinist grandstanding, is gleefully picked up by his adoring fans (many of whom have prime-time cable news slots), just as they obediently repeat his miracle cure announcements, and cover for his most outrageous gaffes. In this country, the Tory right clamours to follow Trump’s lead, and Boris Johnson is likely to face his first major rebellion over the role of Chinese company Huawei in expanding the 5G network.
On the face of it, then, the denialists phase rather smoothly into the conspiratorial end of the anti-lockdown party - which makes them an embarrassment to the latter, and an asset to the pro-lockdown party. Just as, in the case of the 9/11 truthers, the fact that some among them attribute ultimate responsibility for the destruction of the World Trade Center to extraterrestrial visitors reflects poorly on the more ‘moderate’ elements, who claim merely that intelligence was deliberately ignored to provide a pretext for military mobilisation and home-front tyranny, so the motley crew of fascists, anti-vaxxers and lizard-botherers who deny Covid-19 cast an unflattering light on ‘libertarian’ demands for a return to economic normalcy.
Oddly, however, nobody seems to have told the pro-lockdown party. Instead, the reaction is in equal parts ridicule and fear - the latter especially present when anti-lockdown protests take their rootin’, tootin’, cowboy shootin’ form in the United States. Though Trump catches the flak for the fashion for flak jackets on the American far right, in reality things have been busily travelling in that direction since at least the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rise of the Tea Party nativist, religious-reactionary hysteria. Since then - apart from the usual array of spree-killings - we have had a revival of rightwing paramilitarism, which today rather ominously overlaps with pandemic denialism.
Seen from this perspective, the latter seems a natural outgrowth of the radical distrust of ‘the government’ that is deeply wired into the American right - especially the federal government. It frequently generalises to all public officialdom, all experts who think they know what is best for ordinary folks. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Christian fundamentalist, home-schools his kids, so that ‘the government’ does not get its hands on them. Anti-vaccination activists fear being sucked into a callous government experiment. So it continues.
A certain contradiction arises when the government itself adopts such an ideology. Ronald Reagan was the pioneer, in this regard; the coalition he built smashed working class organisations and deferred to states-rights dog-whistles on an anti-government conservative ticket. In the case of Trump, things are a little weirder: he is happy to be head of the biggest government ever, conducting his affairs through eye-catching executive action and demanding vast investments like his wall, but he encourages every particular far-right expression of that ideology. Foremost today are Covid-19 conspiracies - hence the farcical situation that the president gives vocal support to protests against what is notionally his lockdown policy.
Liberal-technocratic unease at the Covid-deniers reflects a fear that this diffuse suspicion of the government is stronger than the fear of death and bereavement that ought to obtain in a global pandemic. Just as many Britons chose the leap into the open sky of Brexit over the objections of various well-qualified economists, who promised it would all end in tears, some number of them are happy to take a chance on life returning to ‘normal’ - albeit a new ‘normal’ with a rather higher death rate.
This should not be overegged, especially in Britain, where opinion polls - for the time being - generally suggest overwhelming opposition to serious loosening of lockdown measures, far more proportionally than exists in the cabinet. Nigel Farage might pretend he speaks for the silent majority, and so even might his new bag-carriers over at Spiked - at one time the SWP with hair gel, today more Ukip with Just For Men. But they are doing the thing they are best at - lying.
It would not be terribly surprising to see denialism rise, however, and it certainly would not be unexpected for the ‘hawks’ in the government to gain popular support over the ‘doves’. This is, in the end, because of self-inflicted wounds by the technocratic elite. There are sound and unsound reasons to treat this layer with suspicion, but if the British people, as Michael Gove notoriously claimed, have “had enough of experts claiming they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”, it is not because that is an unfair judgement on the ‘experts’.
The steady erosion of trust in the technocratic elite is an inevitable outworking of the contradictions of capitalist social formations. Capitalists cannot rule directly without society descending into warlordism (despite his big boss image, Donald Trump is, of course, a trivial capitalist - essentially an actor). There is instead a caste of professional specialists - lawyers, civil servants, politicians and so on - who do it for them. The legitimacy of this layer is fatally entangled with the legitimacy of the overall system; but the overall system is contradictory, and - thanks to the vicissitudes of the boom-crisis cycle - intermittently cannibalistic. Trust in ‘experts’ is inherently unreliable. Govian demagoguery will work, sooner or later. The nest of officialdom must, ultimately, be invaded by cuckoos of the Dominic Cummings sort (to say nothing of Trump’s habit of appointing as secretaries of various departments people who object to the existence of their portfolio on principle).
Capitalism is ill-suited to dealing with pandemics for one obvious reason, which is that a high degree of coordination is necessary, and therefore the imputed behaviour of homo economicus - the rational maximiser of vulgar-economic fantasy - is drastically counterproductive. In the Covidiots, however, we meet the second reason.
That is: public health interventions are inherently ‘authoritarian’. A pandemic demands that we sign over large swathes of what personal freedom we happen to enjoy, and entrust our livelihoods to the more or less responsible authorities. Thanks to the mathematics of infection, that trust can mean tens of thousands of lives. Yet the nature of the capitalist system rots that trust from the inside. The legitimacy of the state machine is highly conditional, and subject to collapse. The monstrous failure of the American and British governments to deal adequately with the spread of Covid-19 are the fruit of this dialectic already; so, also, are the few pandemic denialists who demand they fail again, and fail harder.