Calling Anti-Lockdown Protests ‘Far-Right’ Is Like Your Da Calling All Crisps ‘Tayto’
On February 27th, 2021, a protest in favour of ‘reopening’ Irish society and against the lockdown restrictions currently in place was attended by several hundred people in Dublin City Centre. A week later, a similar though smaller demonstration took place in Cork, though noticeably, nothing in Dublin. While both positives and negatives can be derived from the protests themselves, the reaction in the aftermath of both protests can only be described as dreadful.
It ranged from prominent left-wing Twitter accounts openly praising violent Garda retaliation against all in attendance for the idiotic firing of a rocket by one, to explicit class-contempt exhibited by the liberal business elite. There was also the sad and uncharitable reaction of an Irish band, publicly shaming one of their fans for wearing their jumper without even the slightest consideration about what brought him to the protest.
In the aftermath of the Dublin protest, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris described those in attendance as both “far-right and far-left”. Indignant at the association, reputation-anxious members of the Left whined at Harris to correct his statement. These people should be ashamed.
This occurrence is akin to a school-scene where some brave pupils have defied the headmaster’s authority. They run riot for a while but once the ruckus dies down, the cranky headmaster sets out to punish those involved. In doing so, the headmaster implicates a random pupil. Rather than show solidarity with his class, the implicated pupil, worried about saving his own skin, obsequiously whines: “But I didn’t do anything! Punish them, not me!”
Ultimately, the Irish Twitter-sphere and media were in unison in their condemnation of the gathering, characterising the protest and the attendees as ‘far-right’, ‘fascist’, and ‘dangerous.’
Except that there is a problem with those characterisations. The problem with calling the protest “far-right” and “fascistic” is that anti-lockdownism, for lack of a better word, is not an inherently right-wing political view. That is, not unless the Left allows it to be. Accusations of the sort “but the National Party (NP) were present!” are only effective if you disregard the fact that People Before Profit (PBP) and other left-wing parties made a choice not to be present.
From the left-wing anti-lockdown point of view, it is a shame (and not a pity) that the NP were canvassing and that PBP et al. were not. Left-wing parties have effectively told the NP that they are welcome to have those supporters who would otherwise vote left-wing, and that such voters are not deserving of PBP’s canvassing time. In that way, the Left reneges on its duty to the Irish working class. The Left either inaccurately labels swathes of that same class as right-wing for opposing lockdown, or by being so patronising that they characterise those who attend as misguided and as being misled by the forces of the Right.
The social-media reaction to the protest reads like a playbook: make sweeping statements about the event which inculcate moral panic; dehumanise and publicly shame the attendees; forgo recognising the diverse political representation therein; call for the neoliberal state and private tech companies to crack down on the liberties of those involved; and finally, ignore the fact that those tactics will eventually be used against the Left.
Let us be clear: without a doubt there were right-wing supporters at the protest. It is likely enough that there were fascists in attendance. But the bare fact of the Right’s attendance at such a protest does not let the Left off the hook for their in-attendance.
There were also normal, ‘non-ideologues’, whose frustration at lockdown alone brought them to attend. And who, unlike the prestige-hungry naysayers on the Left who find themselves on the same side as RTÉ and the FF-FG-GP coalition, they do not give a toss about whether ‘civilised society’ deems them to be a Nazi or not. Whether or not you agree with a conservative pundit like John McGuirk, he put it aptly on RTÉ Prime Time when he referred to the protest coverage as a “Nazi Panic”.
Calling a group of people you don’t know fascists does one very convenient thing: it castigates all those on the ‘wrong’ side of a particular issue. However, lockdown is not like other issues. Unlike other political issues sanctionable by so-called ‘social democracies’ which hit negatively at our wallet (VAT, excise duty, USC, etc.) or which engender certain institutions (gay marriage), or forms of violence under the guise of liberation (abortion), lockdown has dramatically altered the way we live our lives by obliterating certain forms of social organisation altogether. Instead, we are offered a paltry replacement of reality in simulated, screen-based forms, while allowing consumption to continue through the use of online substitutes.
The working-class presence at the protest attests to men and women who care about their communities, who witness the effect which lockdown is having upon them, and who are unfazed by Trinity graduates who refer to them as misguided or worse. The weaponised meaning of a very particular word, “scumbags”, was not lost on this author when used by one Doug Leddin to describe those at the protest.
Instead of fighting on behalf of working-class communities, Irish left-wing parties and organisations find themselves in lockstep with the Government on the issue of lockdown, only quibbling with the unimportant particulars in order to give a semblance of dissent.
For example, many on the Left are supportive of the Zero-Covid strategy, which it is argued would see the total number of Covid-19 cases fall to zero. This however can only be achieved once we demand of people to continue to place themselves under effective house arrest and to give their lives over to a virtual surrogate.
Despite stating the relative non-lethality of Covid-19, “[causing] only a mild illness in 4 out of 5 cases”, PBP espouses a policy wholly disproportionate to the expected dangers. This policy would seek to place Ireland under further lockdown, including the “[closure] of schools until case numbers are brought back under control”. Whether this policy was feasible in March of last year is one thing, but to put in place a Zero-Covid approach after a year of rolling lockdown is laughable, considering the toll which the somewhat softer (though by no means less regressive) ‘rolling-lockdowns’ of the current Government have taken.
The Irish Left can count as strange bedfellows not only the bourgeois Irish Government, but also the forces of profit-driven medicinal science, who are being gifted a mandate to sell their vaccines at taxpayer expense to the Irish public. Nevermind that many of those who will end up receiving a vaccine will not need one. Disregard the eventuality that though many will receive a vaccine, the mutation of ‘new variants’ will require re-inoculation while sending the country back into further lockdowns. Ignore the fact that the lockdown has resulted in a gargantuan wealth transfer, causing the profits of the Irish and international billionaire class to swell, without the hoped-for reductions in the domestic cost of renting or the cost of living.
Those on the Irish Left would probably argue that if they were the ones in charge of lockdown, such a massive wealth transfer would not occur, or that the lockdown would be overall more humane. It is argued that the socialist way would be to give ‘proper supports’ for businesses and households who are to lose income in the pandemic, effectively a form of hush-money while people see their lives slip past them.
The question thereto must be asked: how would one enforce lockdown without the likes of Amazon and Deliveroo, and the exploited worker-caste at their disposal? What alternative has the Left offered for the simulated ‘schooling’ of children at home, or for socialisation outright, especially with cases of youth self-harm exploding since March 2020? Would the Left be able to provide a public and non-private alternative to the likes of Zoom, a profit-driven data-storing company whose stock price has skyrocketed since March 2020? Would PBP be willing to design their own state-backed video-call service?
Scanning their website, I find no plans toward such a service in the works. By no means should the posing of these questions be taken as a covert championing of the free-market. Such questions simply point to the way that the Left, unwilling (though, I believe, not unable) to posit alternatives, would have to rely on private entities for the realisation of their particular vision of lockdown.
Furthermore, how would one enforce lockdown so without the coercive threat of Garda violence? Would those on the Left be willing to momentarily drop US-imported “All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB)” sloganeering for the sake of “saving lives”?
It is incorrect to say that the Left were not present at the Dublin protest either. This author was there, and for what it is worth, this author considers themselves to be on the Left. That means, there were very likely others there who position themselves on the Left and also against lockdown. Lockdown is entirely different to the normal political issues which divide Left and Right. If one must put aside other differences for the sake of overcoming the most explicit form of neoliberal tyranny in history, then let it be done.
More fundamentally, what needs to recovered by the Left is a sense of vitalism which the Right seems all too happy to claim for itself. Lockdown must be recognised for the social death that it is, and health must be understood outside of the strict scientistic-medical sense which has been overemphasised.
The current trajectory of the Left emphasises social care over social freedom, safety over liberation, but it is one which history will not look fondly upon. The social, economic, and psychological impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, especially amongst the younger generations, who time and time again are the submitted to a form of public sacrifice for the benefit of their elders.
The effect of lockdown is not only to be grasped just monetarily – lockdown presents nothing short of a cultural, socio-psychological, and spiritual crisis. However unusual it is to have church doors be closed shut, one need not be particularly religious to apprehend this crisis, as mental health statistics indicate, and as our arts and cultural scenes are decimated. It is anti-democratic, life-denying, and an affront to constitutional liberties and basic human rights.
If this article comes off as unduly critical, or just plain mean, then it is only because my hurt is twofold: once for lockdown being in place, and another for the direction the Left has taken in regard to lockdown. I do not think the path of pro-lockdown is the only one the Left is bound to follow, nor should you. I would challenge everyone who considers themselves on the Left to question the support which lockdown has garnered by PBP et al., and whether that ought to be the case.
If one considers oneself to be on the Left, then it should follow in the tradition set by Marx, Luxembourg, Connolly, and others. This tradition opposes the forces of Capital, critiques and analyses the workings of Capitalism, and works toward the possibility of liberation for all. This tradition is one which the current Irish Left is in a mood for forgetting. It merely took lockdown to make that fact apparent.
It bears repeating that lockdown has done nothing if not served the whims of Capital. It has instigated a stranglehold on our collective consciousness, atomising us further, all while serving profit-hungry corporations. The ideological capture of this lockdown is something the Left has the critical ammunition to tackle, but is sadly being misdirected.
This article is by no means a call for a return to the ‘old normal’. The social contract of the pre-Covid-19 era, in which the rampant activity of neoliberal Capitalism is purchased with a nominal commitment to civil liberties, is no longer. Lockdown must be seen as an expression of Capitalism toward a more authoritarian form, and it is on that understanding that the Left must fight against it. It is incumbent on the Left to do all that it can toward overturning this manifold policy which has dramatically reconstructed our lives for the worse, whose effectiveness is doubtful, whose disproportionality is obvious, and whose lethality will only become clearer as the weeks, months and years go by.
(I’d like to thank Eric McMahon for helpful comments during the writing of this article.)