Don’t be fooled by the strange feeling that nothing is happening—whether it’s because you’re stuck in an indefinite lockdown, or because you’re in a COVID-free state seemingly unaffected by the east coast outbreak. Right now, Australia’s right-wing politicians, its corporate media, and many of its capitalists are fighting to injure and kill thousands of people by unleashing a virus that they deem too expensive and inconvenient to control.
Australian workers have been shielded from the worst of the coronavirus crisis; now, our bosses and “leaders” are trying to convince us that we’ve had it too good and now need to accept mass deaths like the rest of the world. We can’t let that murderous propaganda campaign go unopposed. We have to put up a fight. History will remember what side people stood on in this moment.
Most of the rest of the world has been ground down into accepting mass death, disability and the permanent presence of the coronavirus. Officially, the death toll is approaching 4.5 million; analysts at the Economist magazine estimate the number could be as high as 13 million. Some small or relatively poor countries have fought to control it—China, where the virus originated, is the most prominent example. But in the world’s wealthiest capitalist democracies, politicians and business elites have effectively gotten away with murder.
In Britain, at least 130,000 people have been killed by the coronavirus, with countless more left with ongoing disabilities and trauma. Their government allowed this to happen through a series of policy choices: downplaying the seriousness of the disease, encouraging people to keep patronising restaurants, and then introducing the world to the grotesque concept of “freedom day”, when all attempts to limit the spread of the disease would at last be permanently abandoned.
Similar scenes have played out throughout Europe and the United States. Who is in jail for these atrocities? Which politicians and corporate executives are on the run, in fear of mob justice for having allowed and encouraged the maiming of their own populations on such an incredible scale? None. Because, in most cases, the institutions supposedly intended to hold them to account have acquiesced, happy to encourage the belief that there’s no point trying to stop the spread of the virus. Much of the world has been conditioned to accept a horrible injustice.
Now, Scott Morrison, Gladys Berejiklian, and the rest of the leadership of the Liberal and National parties in Australia are embarking on an aggressive campaign to get workers to accept a similar fate. Their slogans—“live with the virus” and “Delta is different”—are calculated to get Australian workers to embrace the same horrors that have spread through much of the world. Morrison has tried to convince us that he is like the brave, bold cave-girl from DreamWorks' little-loved 2013 family adventure The Croods. But as he tries to lure us to our doom with a sick smile and a weird glint in his eye, he more resembles the demonic clown in the gutter from Stephen King’s It. Hairdressers, international holidays, picnics in the park: all these, he says, can be ours. But only if we accept some untold number of nurses, warehouse workers, children and the elderly dying alone, in agonising pain, as their lungs collapse. And, as a bonus, the bosses who back the Liberal Party will get back to making money without restraint or interruption, like their buddies in the US and Europe.
This campaign has been building since the virus emerged. All through 2020’s lockdown in Victoria, the voices of business owners fought against the Melbourne-based “dictatorship”, campaigning to demand “freedom” through their front groups like Unlock Hospitality, the Business Council of Australia and, of course, the Liberal Party. It was a naked campaign of capitalist self-interest, just like the tobacco and oil companies’ long-running campaigns to defend their right to kill their customers and poison the natural world.
The genocidal maniac that dwells within the heart of every little capitalist was put on open display, as the restaurant owners whose pretentious establishments are meant to define Melbourne’s culture threatened a campaign of civil disobedience, warning that if the lockdown wasn’t ended, they would open their restaurants in defiance and infect people anyway.
Now, with the New South Wales outbreak, that campaign to unleash the virus has gone national. It’s no longer about reopening from this or that specific lockdown: it’s about “living with it”.
You can see it in the pages of Murdoch’s tabloids. That’s no surprise: they can be relied on to issue propaganda in favour of the most appalling crimes of capitalism at every turn. But the class warfare at the heart of the campaign is made clearest in the pages of the Australian Financial Review, the bosses’ “sophisticated” paper. Its political editor, Phillip Coorey, has been widely mocked for declaring Gladys Berejiklian “the woman who saved Australia” right before the current disaster unfolded. In that article, Coorey praised Berejiklian’s handling of the last outbreak. He noted with pride that Berejiklian, more than any other premier, always “consulted business on key decisions”. “Servant leadership”: that's the astonishing phrase that the tech capitalist Scott Farquhar used to describe Berejiklian’s slavish obedience to her capitalist backers when it came to planning her coronavirus policies. Coorey quoted that with great approval.
More revealingly, the Financial Review stuck to its guns even as the new outbreak spiralled out of control. Its editors weren’t ashamed of their previous story. They had praised Berejiklian for supposedly proving that lockdowns weren’t necessary to control the coronavirus. But when the explosion of the Delta strain proved that they were, the paper revealed its real motivation.
Revisiting the earlier praise of Berejiklian, the Financial Review editors said that the real achievement of Berejiklian would be to “lead Australia out of the gilded cage: fixation with zero cases”. NSW’s great challenge, they wrote, was not eliminating the virus and saving lives. Instead, “the great political challenge for NSW will be to promote acceptance of the fact that now the virulent delta variant is out there and can never be eliminated, there will be more cases and deaths”. By tipping the scales in favour of the acceptance of death—by making it likely that Australian workers will accept more misery and pain—Berejiklian confirmed her status as a hero to the bosses.
And that propaganda campaign has been waged far beyond Murdoch’s outlets and the bosses’ papers. Since the outbreak began, liberal opinion leaders at the ABC, the Guardian and similar outlets have moaned about the excessive restrictions, the mental health impacts of lockdowns, the pain and agony experienced by cafe owners and hairdressers—the supposedly relatable and lovable personifications of the capitalist class as a whole. There has been little liberal interest in the likely mental health effects that would result from thousands of deaths, the effects on health staff watching their hospitals collapsing under the strain before they themselves fall victim to the disease, or the effects on frontline workers exposed to the virus to make profits for their employers. “Progressive” propagandists have recited from the same script as the business lobbyists.
Even more destructive, in many cases, has been the political passivity of the Labor Party and the trade unions. They have carped here and there and have made supportable demands around the edges. And, of course, Labor premiers have become most associated with strict measures to control the virus: the relatively tough stances adopted in WA, Victoria, and Queensland have helped prevent Morrison and Berejiklian’s attitude from taking root. But neither Labor nor the trade unions have waged any argument that the fight against the virus is a class battle, and that the campaign to reopen and “live with the virus” represents the interests of bosses.
Class collaboration has prevailed. The construction union, hand-in-hand with the construction industry bosses, even protested against NSW’s lockdown. Albanese’s Labor has been all but silent on how Morrison and Berejiklian’s “gold standard” is now fighting to convince the country to give up and accept the spread of the disease. There have been no union campaigns rejecting the call to “live with” the virus.
For the far-right lunatics who rally against lockdowns and for the bosses’ lackeys at the right-wing think tanks, the slogan is “freedom”. For the liberal middle classes whose biggest concern is their dream to open a third cafe, the slogan is mental health. The rest of us who want to keep fighting to save lives are told variations on the bosses’ favourite slogan: there is no alternative.
Given the complicity of the media, the trade unions and the political institutions, the deep common sense of the working class remains a marvel. The most recent Resolve poll shows an overwhelming 80 percent of the population thinks that the NSW restrictions are too weak, or were introduced too late. Only a tiny minority, 11 percent, think they are too harsh. As with so many previous crimes of the ruling class, the majority of the population has seen through the relentless campaigning of the corporate media and the ruling parties.
The responsibility of socialists is to help turn that common sense into resistance, to try to organise counter-campaigns with the same single-minded focus as that of our enemies. We don’t need to learn to accept mass murder. We can demand aggressive policies to close down businesses whose activities risk spreading the disease, to massively redistribute wealth so workers can easily and safely stay home, to refurbish essential workplaces to make them safer, to give workers more power over workplace health and safety, to expand quarantine facilities, and more. We don’t know how this current crisis will develop, but we know that Scott Morrison would love to achieve what Boris Johnson has in Britain: a population ground down into accepting a terrible fate. Let’s not let that happen without the fight of our lives.