When fascists attacked the headquarters of an Italian trade union confederation this month, tens of thousands of anti-fascists responded by taking to the streets. We should take note in Australia.
The COVID-denialist, anti-vax protests around this country must be opposed publicly. Those organising and attending such events, including fascists and figures from the Australian far right, are not only denying the seriousness of the pandemic and undermining essential health measures—they are trying to build a reactionary political movement to live on beyond the pandemic.
Despite the strange brew of forces involved in the anti-vax mobilisations, there is no question that they have been driven by the far right. In Melbourne, the most prominent figure has been Avi Yemini. At the raucous protest outside the CFMEU in late September, a section of the crowd chanted his name. Harrison McClean, well known for sharing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, has been a central organiser.
Members of the Proud Boys have attended most anti-vax demonstrations. The Proud Boys, known to harass pro-refugee and Invasion Day events, have now added attacking supporters of public health measures to their repertoire.
In the west, Reclaim Australia Rally - Western Australia—one of the largest WA white supremacist pages on Facebook—has shared anti-vax “freedom” rallies with its followers and encouraged them to attend.
An anti-vax protest in Perth on 16 October was clearly a far-right mobilisation. Although many attendees badged themselves as “concerned citizens” the crowd included QAnon promoters and white supremacists. Beyond far-right core were members of One Nation, the AustraliaOne Party and the United Australia Party. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these far-right parties were advocates of alternative medicine who had no problem chanting alongside the likes of Dennis Huts, one of the state’s most notorious fascists.
The main chants at the demonstration were about “freedom of choice”. But speakers also railed against impending communism and urged supporters to “reclaim Australia”. White supremacism was thinly veiled; when the only non-white speaker announced he was Indian, a large section of the crowd tried to drown him out with chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!”
The broader arguments, it became clear, were not just about mandatory vaccinations, but any public health measures at all.
In Brisbane, alternative health advocates made up a significant portion of those attending another anti-vax rally. For years, the far right has successfully spread anti-Semitic and QAnon conspiracy theories into the “wellness community”. Without a coherent understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, alternative health advocates’ concerns about Big Pharma have evolved into conspiracy theory quackery. The term “conspirituality” has been coined to describe the phenomenon.
There is nothing left wing about alternative medicine, the rejection of scientific research or ostensibly anti-authoritarian stances against state regulation. The individualism, entrepreneurialism and “conspiritualism” at the heart of the wellness movement fits alongside the far right’s claim that state-enforced public health measures are totalitarian. Fascism is the apogee of the cult of the individual. And this is what wellness circles, small business owners and far-right opponents of vaccine mandates all support.
While some may laugh at their nonsense or consider their numbers to be non-threatening, we only have to look abroad to see the potential impact of far-right politics on public health. In the United States, several Republican governors are mobilising anti-vax ideas as justification for repealing mandates for vaccinations against all diseases.
The scale of the anti-vax rallies in Australia are a significant leap forward for forces opposed to public health measures. Their efforts help normalise the acceptance of mass deaths for some perceived sense of individual freedom. By contrast, the lesson the left should be drawing is that we are all connected and that collective participation in public health measures is necessary to save lives.
Not only have these demonstrations bolstered ideas hostile to social solidarity, but they have also opened yet another opportunity for far-right organisations to grow.
Globally, fascist movements have grown where street mobilisations are linked with far-right electoral parties. The official ties announced between Clive Palmer’s UAP and Reignite Democracy Australia—a branch of the international organisation behind coordinated anti-vax mobilisations globally—should be setting off alarm bells. The UAP now claims to have the largest registered membership of any political party in Australia. These forces must be confronted before they grow even more dangerous.
It is true, many of the rally-goers are not hardened fascists. They can be broken away if confronted about the fascistic company they keep. Successful counter-mobilisations against Reclaim Australia after its formation in 2014 offer some important lessons; while their initial rallies brought out thousands, most stopped attending when confronted for marching with fascists. Even as a minority, anti-fascist activists can have this effect when they stand united in opposition.
In Brisbane and Perth, where the COVID situation is markedly different from Melbourne and Sydney, anti-fascists have already taken to the streets to try to build counter protests. As the situation changes nationally, we must act urgently. The rise of fascism in our streets cannot be ignored.
As with far-right mobilisations historically, these ones will likely continue if they are not publicly challenged. We cannot allow them to feel a sense of ownership over the streets of our cities, or confidence that they somehow represent a silent majority.
We need to have more counter-mobilisations to discredit their movement’s ideas, highlight the involvement of the far right and put forward our own arguments: vaccination is about social solidarity, good unionists support workplace safety and COVID-19 is a serious threat. We need to counter them in numbers and with energy.