Looking under the Hood - The Instrumentation of a Pandemic
We have seen demonstrations in several countries containing a strange mixture of COVID deniers, anti-Vaxxers and hardcore Fascists. Hari Kumar explains what is bringing these people together
by Hari Kumar
Over the pandemic year a repeated pattern was seen. People joining aggressive right wing demonstrations, whose slogans are ‘COVID is a myth’, ‘vaccinations kill’, and there is a ‘swamp’ of power and corruption against ‘the people’. Marx tells us that the validity of observations, is only proved by the test of practice.1
Here repetitive observations (often called reproducibility) become a key ‘proof’ of an undeniable association. The repetitive associations between anti-vaxxers and the far right forms a distinct pattern. What binds these groups? This is an international phenomenon. But here I give some thoughts particularly citing examples from the USA and Germany.
The essential backdrop identified by ‘socialists’ of all brands, is that obvious class antagonisms are rising. It was untenable that the ruled majority would forever allow themselves to be exploited uncomplainingly. But in the post-austerity, post neo-liberal ‘consensus’ a new high plateau of exploitation has been reached. A mere 1% of the metropolitan countries owns over 97% of the country’s wealth, bringing a harsher, more overt class war. This politicises whole layers of society excluded from the supposed ‘gravy train’ and benefits of capitalist society. They develop intense alienation against any authority.
An editor at the Financial Times – Rana Foroohar - puts it this way:
Anyone with a pulse knows that in the US today the system is rigged in favour of the wealthy and powerful. One particularly illuminating paper published this month by the Institute for New Economic Thinking quantifies the problem. Building on a persuasive 2014 data set, it shows that when opinion shifts among the wealthiest top 10 per cent of the US population, changes in policy become far more likely.
Look no further than the way in which Uber, Instacart, Lyft and other digital groups this month got their way with Californian labour law. Together they spent $200m to push through Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that exempts many gig workers from benefits. These companies may well now take their efforts to other US states. 2
We examine the association between the anti-science deniers and fascism, by identifying its separate parts. We start at the simplest and naïve level and end at the most sinister and conscious. At the outset we flag an intent to foment a deliberate chaos and sense of crisis.
Three Volatile Components mix - 1. The Anti-Vaxxers
The least conscious political agents are the anti-vaxxers and anti-science lobbyists. Often they are pretty naïve. But at their leadership some articulate an ideology seeing the medical profession manipulating and controlling the truth. What is this ‘truth?’ It is claimed that vaccinations kill, and that modern science is dangerous. Prestigious journals like the Lancet were hoodwinked by fraudulent researchers into publishing bogus claims linking autism and vaccinations. Those have fueled this camp.
Their ‘research’ in fact was funded by lawyers angling to claim fiscal damages in a case of autism. This was a failure of the journals and peer review process, to unmask frank fraud but also a conflict of interest. This was only revealed by a curious lay journalist. Although the fraudster Andrew Wakefield was finally exposed, it took 12 years to scientifically retract the paper – as a fraud. 3
Meanwhile measles exploded out of control, and this remains a renewed risk in many countries from where it was previously a rarity. In the UK: “Cases of measles rose from 56 in 1998 to nearly 1,400 in 2008. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person in more than a decade to die of the disease in Britain.” 4 The responsible charlatan – Andrew Wakefield – was formerly a doctor, but is now forbidden to practice. However he has a thriving career as a TV based promoter of the anti-Vaxx movement in the USA.
What explains the appeal of this grouping? Undoubtedly the medical hierarchy was very slow to strip that bogus researcher of claims to the truth. In addition, a mantle of authority was assumed by the upper echelons of the medical professions, wrapping it in protection from criticism. This was resented.
In addition, undoubtedly the failure to reveal the causes of autism to date, inflames a smaller but very vocal section who legitimately claim to be a vulnerable section. The real problem of insufficient targeted funding for research at root causes, does not carry such an appealing thrust for action. They become so alienated they tend to drift into the second and third groups below.
2. The COVID denialists
There are several groups within this category. A small ultra-left-wing contingent continues to make absurd claims that death rates from COVID are no greater than that from influenza, and to laud mistaken attempts such as in Sweden to ‘raise herd immunity’. I have replied to these myths very early during the pandemic 5, and for now I leave further response to these left wing deniers to one side. For they are dwarfed by much larger right wing elements.
But both the left and right wings in this grouping use the fallacious arguments of infringement of personal rights and freedoms. The appropriate response seems to me to be along the lines of ‘Is it my freedom to kill you and should society condone that’? This fits in well with USA mythology of ‘independence’ and the Second Amendment so-called – to enable gun carriage etc.
But this camp also includes elements of the petit bourgeoisie who are (or were) self-employed and previously had a measure of some independence. In the absence of an effective vaccine, the old tried and true anti-pandemic measures of isolation, distancing, avoiding congregating, and masks were the only effective protections. This hit small business and shop-keepers. Especially where the capitalist state does not adequately support those suffering in the pandemic accentuated recession, this social class will turn into an ‘anti-state’ extreme individualist mentality.
3. The Fascists
The final major component is of course the open or near open fascists. This certainly applies to the AfD in Germany and the most aggressive Trump elements including the USA ‘Proud Boys’ etc. But all these actively ferment chaos – just as the Nazis did in their prelude to power in Kristallnacht. In chaos lies a chance for them to create a leadership. A direct fomenting of chaos was seen in the attempt to intimidate the USA Michigan legislature by armed militia, and the attempts to storm the Reichstag. Most recently in Germany there was the provocation by AfD members of parliament who invited aggressive thugs into the Reichstag.
How to combat this volatile toxic coalition
What is offered here is only a very rudimentary set of suggestions which need considerable amplification by the progressive and anti-fascist movement. However:
To undercut the anti-scientific attacks, a much more concerted and well mounted educational effort is needed. In the USA this is particularly urgent. In Germany it is also needed, despite the excellent podcasts of the Charite based Dr. Drosten. That series only targets the largely already medically savvy section of the population. Much broader efforts are needed. But ultimately only by improving social services, housing education and benefits will the anger that drives this anti-science lobby be assuaged. Such measures primarily assist the working class, but also would assist the small shopkeepers and business (petit-bourgeoisie). This is becoming increasingly difficult for capitalist societies to do while retaining their profit basis. Some are better able to do this than others (see 3 below).
To address COVID deniers, the same educational effort is needed. Here, however, the vaccine issue is more urgent. Ultimately vaccine research, preparation and funding would be much better done by states and public funding. There is considerable scientific and profit based distortion from private companies in this sphere. This is especially seen in the Astra-Zeneca vaccine effort of the UK, where bad science 6 is coupled with nationalistic bluster. 7 This type of ‘spinning’ of the news further reduces trust: “They have damaged confidence in their entire development program” Geoffrey Porges, an analyst at SVB Leerink Investment Bank, told the New York Times. The head of the Tübingen Institute for Tropical Medicine, Peter Kremsner, who is involved in a study by the German vaccine developer Curevac, finds even clearer words: "What we now read from the newspapers sounds miserable," he says. 8 State funding also applies in a major way to both the German innovative vaccine pioneered by the two scientists at BioNTech but coupled to Pfizer for production, and to Moderna. Both utilise approaches that were originally developed for anti-cancer therapies, but could be re-routed for COVID. 9 In both cases, the original work had not been funded by private industry. In fact the German scientist duo had been funded by the German government and developed much needed knowledge form that. The same is true of the USA based Moderna.
The message that a unified societal approach versus an individualistic approach is better to protect the public health is loud and clear. We can compare the USA and Germany – both are capitalist countries. But, there seems little doubt that the German system functions far better because its public health care system is enabled to take a societal perspective. As the Boston Globe says: “Germany’s health care system is world class and well funded. Germany is less politically polarized, which lets it respond to crises more quickly and effectively. It mandated a strict early lockdown, and it invested heavily in testing and tracing. The 16 German states also acted more or less in concert. But more fundamentally, looking at Germany shows us that the kind of COVID culture clash that continues in the United States - between individual rights and collective well-being - is actually a false choice. And basic protections for workers and citizens, in place long before the pandemic, shielded the country from the more serious outcomes experienced elsewhere. Germany offers an alternative model, a picture of what might have been possible if the United States had reacted quickly and coherently to the threat.” 10
Undoubtedly for the working class to ensure a socialist agenda, the intimidation of the openly fascist groups cannot be accepted. If it comes to a choice, how can the working class choose not to defend bourgeois democracy over fascism? Only if reformist agendas are not fulfilled, and if a socialist alternative party is not built. Even then, the reality of either the 70- million pro-Trump voters in the USA, of whom some unclear proportion is likely to be supportive of fascism. Hence the urgency of a truly anti-fascist broad united front. In Germany this is even more of a priority than it is in the USA.
Nonetheless, capitalist societies are finding it ever more difficult to reconcile the buying off of the working class with reforms while maintaining the enormous profits of the capitalist class. The ultimate choice will become a real socialism (not mere social-democratic reforms) - versus capitalism. In my opinion the working class and the petit bourgeoisie are not well placed to face that decision right now. This I believe is an urgent organizational task for all progressives.
Hari Kumar is a retired physician and a regular contributor to theleftberlin.com
1 Karl Marx Theses on Feuerbach; Volume 4; 5; p.4; Moscow 1976;
2 Rana Foroohar Corporate America’s deal with the Devil FT, Nov. 23, 2020
5 How should Marxists view the COVID19 Pandemic of 2019-2020? Berlin Left March 17, 2020
6 Rebecca Robbins and Benjamin Mueller After Admitting Mistake, AstraZeneca Faces Difficult Questions About Its Vaccine; New York Times; Nov. 25, 2020
7 Benjamin Mueller Britain Set to Leap Ahead in Approving Vaccines New York Times; Nov 27, 2020
8 Edda Grbar Pharmakonzern reagiert auf heftige Kritik AstraZeneca kündigt „zusätzliche Studie“ zu Corona-Impftstoff an; Der Tagesspiegel, 26.11.2020
9 Joe Miller Inside the hunt for a vaccine Financial Times (Europe), 11/14/2020;
10 AnnaLisa Quinn Germany has lessons about containing the damage of COVID-19. It’s not too late for us to start listening Boston Globe; Nov 27, 2020