As the pandemic drags on, anger and distrust towards the government is growing. Many are understandably sceptical of what they hear in the media or from politicians. The labour movement must channel this mood along class lines.
We are well into a second COVID-19 wave, and the government’s regulations are changing seemingly by the hour. In the absence of a clear class position and alternative from the left, conspiracy theories and scepticism about the nature (and even the existence) of the pandemic are spreading.
These rumours – fuelled by ineffective Tory policies and distrust towards the establishment – are a dead end. There is no grand ‘conspiracy’ at play beyond the prioritisation of profit over human lives, and the callous incompetence of Johnson’s bumbling clique.
Capitalism and its political representatives are to blame for this disaster. The struggle for socialism offers the only way out.
Plandemics, 5G and QAnon
On 29 August, 10,000 ‘anti-maskers’ descended on Trafalgar Square in London to protest ongoing social distancing measures. Similar demonstrations have been cropping up in the USA for months, and also recently in Germany, but they are now increasingly common in Britain.
These gatherings are a magnet for the most backward, hysterical, and paranoid layers of society. Alongside right-wing libertarians, these protests include a notable contingent of the far right, some bearing British Union of Fascist banners. However, there are also ordinary workers in the mix.
Many participants express understandable rage at the powers-that-be for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic. But more outlandish ideas also circulate, including the (non-existent) link between coronavirus and 5G data networks.
Public figures have fuelled some of these conspiracies. Recently, celebrity capitalist Lord Alan Sugar endorsed an equally baseless theory that COVID-19 is a Chinese-made biological weapon.
Moreover, rumours abound online that billionaires like Bill Gates plan to inject microchips into the public through antiviral vaccines, in order to track people’s movements. As if Microsoft doesn’t hold enough data on us already!
Placards referencing ‘QAnon’ are also common at anti-mask protests. This convoluted conspiracy theory (originating on Reddit messageboards) blames the world’s ills on an elite Satanic/Jewish cult of peadophiles that secretly controls society.
Conspiracy theorists within the anti-mask movement are united in their view that the pandemic has been either a total hoax or exaggerated.
In May, a YouTube video called ‘Plandemic’ was released, which claimed that the pandemic is a fix and that COVID-related deaths have been inflated. This received over seven million views before it was taken down. The title of this video has become a popular slogan among anti-maskers.
With the evidence of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of cases of COVID-19, how are people taken in by these claims? In truth, these conspiracies are the brainchild of a system in senile decline.
Crisis and conspiracy
Conspiracy theories thrive in periods of crisis, where all the old certainties are plunged into disarray, and people desperately seek to make sense of the chaos surrounding them.
It is no accident that conspiracies are more popular amongst the more petty-bourgeois layers of society: the small business owners, middle classes, and self-employed.
This layer has also felt the harsh impact of the coronavirus crisis, including the collapse of thousands of small businesses, precarious conditions for self-employed workers, and layoffs and wage cuts for white-collar professions. But, isolated and atomised, these individuals lack an alternative or perspective.
Conspiracies always involve a shadowy ‘elite’ pulling the strings. In a distorted way, this shows the resentment of the petty-bourgeoisie towards the big capitalists who rule society. But without direction from the workers’ movement, they gravitate towards reactionary and bizarre ‘explanations’ for this state of affairs.
And because most of these ‘theories’ are spread online, the pandemic has created ideal conditions for their propagation – shutting many people indoors for weeks on end with only their computers for company.
Such conditions are also fertile ground for demagogic politicians like Donald Trump, and shock jocks like Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, who peddle conspiracy theories in order to direct the public’s anger away from the actual cause of the crisis.
Petty-bourgeois conspiracy theorists obsessing over 5G and QAnon represent a small minority in British society. But scepticism about the dangers posed by the coronavirus is increasingly widespread amongst the working class.
A recent poll by Ipsos Mori and King’s College London found that 34 percent of respondents “believe the government is trying to control the population by getting them to wear masks”. And 36 percent think “too much fuss” is being made of the pandemic.
Considering the Tories’ chaotic mishandling of the COVID crisis so far, these results are hardly surprising.
In six months, Boris Johnson has vacillated from downplaying the dangers of COVID-19, to promoting ‘herd immunity’, to calling an abrupt lockdown, to urging a return to workplaces and the highstreets, to blaming the public for an inevitable second wave of infections.
This is in addition to palming off the provision of medical equipment, PPE, and test-and-trace to private sector parasites; and letting his advisors off scot-free for flouting lockdown rules.
Furthermore, the government’s new suite of social distancing measures (expected to last at least six months) is nonsensical. People cannot meet in groups of more than six, and have again been “encouraged” to work from home. But, of course, not everyone can work from home.
The millions of workers who were previously covered by the government’s furlough scheme, meanwhile, now find themselves at a loose end. In order to claim Rishi Sunak’s new wage subsidy, employees will still need to work a third of their hours.
This is a recipe for job losses. And even if workers do meet the requirement, between the government subsidy and the bosses’ contributions, they will only receive 77 percent of their normal wage.
Moreover, despite the rising cases, restaurants and bars remain open – just with a slightly earlier cut off time. And there have been no new restrictions on schools, workplaces, or public transport, where the majority of new infections are likely to take place. This is not to mention the totally different rules in different parts of the UK.
With the goalposts constantly shifting, it is understandable that many working people are getting fed up, desperate, and refusing to believe a word that comes out of the mouths of Tory ministers.
This is on top of mistrust towards the establishment across the board: from the media, to mainstream politics, to scientific authorities. All of this predated the pandemic, but has been accelerated by it, as callous and incompetent politicians create chaos in our lives.
The Ipsos-Mori poll also found that just under half of respondents would be uncertain about or unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine if one became available. Another poll by UCL found that a fifth would “definitely refuse it”. This is higher than the normal proportion of ‘anti-vaxxers’ one would expect.
For-profit medical production has clearly contributed to this aversion. Private pharmaceutical companies all over the world are racing to produce a viable vaccine as quickly as possible, so they can secure a patent and start generating profits.
These candidate drugs are all being trialled under intense secrecy. And regulations are being torn into confetti by capitalist governments in order to speed the process along, raising reasonable concerns about safety.
But aside from the risk of side effects, if the public lacks confidence in a new vaccination programme, then it might not be effective. There is growing evidence that COVID-19 immunity is temporary. As a result, scientists estimate at least 70 percent of the population would have to simultaneously achieve immunity in order to eradicate the virus.
If a vaccination programme is patchy, it might not have the desired effect. This will only intensify public distrust in ‘the scientific establishment’, creating a vicious circle that will make future attempts at vaccination and containment even more difficult.
Role of the Left
It should be the responsibility of the labour movement leaders to cut through the fog of misinformation, and channel the anti-establishment mood in a positive, class-based direction.
The workers’ leaders should explain that confusing, contradictory government policies do not mean the virus isn’t real or dangerous. Rather, they are the result of the Tories trying to suppress the pandemic while also keeping the profits of big business flowing.
The Labour and trade union leaders should hit back at the Tories for trying to scapegoat workers and youth. In turn, they must demand that the working class be given control over workplaces and communities in order to guarantee safety.
Alongside this, the labour movement should be demanding the nationalisation of the major monopolies and expropriation of the rich, in order to fight the pandemic and prevent ordinary people from shouldering the burden of this calamity.
Unfortunately, most of the big union leaders have only offered, at best, mild criticisms of the government’s measures. Meanwhile, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has consistently signalled its willingness to “help the government” in its response to the coronavirus – even praising the Tories where they “get things right”(!).
Starmer has made every effort to show the capitalists that Labour's “new leadership” is committed to protecting the interests of big business.
In addition to supporting the reckless reopening of schools, as a step towards restoring production, Labour’s leadership has “welcomed” Sunak’s replacement to furlough. Instead of supporting this class collaborationist approach, the labour movement leaders should be mobilising and organising workers around the slogan: ‘For work or full pay!’
Rather than proposing socialist policies to alleviate the impact of the crisis on working people, the Labour leadership currently offers only nationalist tub-thumping. Despite being aimed at the ‘Red Wall’ of post-industrial constituencies the party lost in 2019, Labour’s ‘patriotic’ fervour will be of little comfort when these areas are hit with a “tsunami” of unemployment and austerity.
Capitalism to blame
With nobody laying the blame for this disaster at the feet of the capitalists, the anger of the masses can – and will – erupt in a confused and distorted way. And while there are conspiracies and cover-ups under capitalism, they always serve the interests of the ruling class
Although billionaires like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos have increased their wealth during the pandemic, COVID-19 has overall been a disaster for the capitalists – dealing a body blow to a system that was already on the brink of collapse.
The establishment has absolutely no reason to invent this crisis. But it has undeniably been amplified and exacerbated by their arrogant actions and by their rotten system.
And it is, therefore, in the interests of the ruling class for ordinary people’s attention to be diverted away from the real source of the crisis, and towards elaborate conspiracies.
Marxists must clearly explain the real root of this disaster. The struggle for socialism is the antidote to the virus of conspiracy theories that riddle the capitalist system in its decrepit state.