Why we need to take a stand against the fake ‘freedom’ of the far right

16 November 2021
James Plested

On 20 November, in cities around Australia, anti-fascists will rally against the far right—coinciding with right-wing, anti-vax protests planned for the same day as part of the “world wide rally for freedom”. It’s an opportunity for everyone who has watched with concern as the far right has latched onto and attempted to influence and grow out of the so-called freedom movement against pandemic-related public health measures to make a stand.

In Melbourne, protest organisers from the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) have chosen to hold the rally at the Eight Hour Day Monument. The monument is hallowed ground for Victoria’s union movement. It celebrates the eight-hour day campaign of the nineteenth century in which workers—starting, on 21 April 1856, with stonemasons at the University of Melbourne—downed tools and marched under the banner of “888”, symbolising “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest”.

“In the 1800s most Victorians worked up to fourteen hours a day, six days a week”, reads a short history of the campaign by the State Library of Victoria. “There was no sick leave, no holiday leave, and employers could sack employees at any time, without giving a reason ... In 1856 the stonemasons won the right to a 48-hour working week, which entitled them to Saturday afternoons off. While this doesn’t sound like much today, it made a big difference to working class families in the 1850s. It was a pivotal point in Victoria’s history and paved the way for other industries to fight for the same rights in the workplace.”

As long as a twelve- or fourteen-hour day was the norm, it was impossible for workers to get an adequate amount of rest, never mind engage in educational or recreational activities. It’s a well-known saying on the left that you should “thank a unionist for the weekend”. This is the kind of freedom that is taken for granted today. But the fact that we now have a more or less standard five-day, 40-hour working week, is the result of the determined collective action of unionists and socialists over many decades.

The anti-fascist activists in CARF stand firmly in this tradition. “The monument represents everything that we, in CARF, hold dear”, a statement on the CARF Facebook page explains. “We are proud to stand in the footsteps of those who saw the value of collective action and of fighting for a better society for all, rather than just the competitive and selfish struggle of the individual seeking to maximise their own personal interests at the expense of everyone else.”

The kind of “freedom” that activists in CARF stand for—just like those stonemasons who downed tools in 1856—is the freedom of a society in which everyone has a chance to lead a decent life. It’s the freedom that comes from having a secure job with decent wages and conditions, from having access to a decent education, affordable housing, a welfare system, public health care and so on. It’s the freedom to not live in fear of violence or persecution due to your race, gender or sexuality. And it’s the freedom that comes from knowing that there are certain basic health and safety rules in place in workplaces and other public spaces that lower the risk of injury or death from preventable causes (such as, for example, a virus like COVID-19).

The kind of “freedom” that those in the so-called freedom movement are fighting for is very different. Theirs is the “freedom” of the individual to pursue their own ends without thought for the consequences for society as a whole. The freedom not to abide by public health measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 is the most obvious example. They are very concerned about their freedom not to be vaccinated. Those who haven’t fully gone down the “plandemic” rabbit hole might justify this on the basis of the small risk of adverse reactions. But how many of them have given thought to the fact that their personal desire to refuse vaccination would come at the cost of a higher level of death and disease across the population as a whole?

It’s a simple equation. More people will die from COVID-19 than otherwise would have because of the “freedom” exercised by the anti-vax minority, and not just among those who have chosen not to be vaccinated. When they march through the streets with nooses hooked-up to a makeshift gallows, as they did in Melbourne on 13 November, they no doubt mean it as a threat to those (like Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews) they regard as their oppressors. It should really be seen as a visual metaphor for the impact of their anti-vaccine stance on the rest of society.

This example is just the tip of the iceberg. In a workplace context, their version of “freedom” is the freedom of bosses to exploit, and to hire and fire their workers at will. In economics, it’s the freedom of the rich from taxes or other redistributive measures—a freedom that’s bought at the cost of things like public education, welfare and healthcare on which the freedom of the mass of ordinary people depends. It’s the freedom of Clive Palmer to sacrifice the future of the planet to his personal desire to profit from the construction of a new coal-fired power station. It’s the freedom, in sum, that comes from recognising no bonds of social solidarity or responsibility to act in a way that contributes to the construction and maintenance of a decent society.

If participants in the movement really stood for freedom—for everyone in society and not just for themselves—then you would expect to have seen them rallying around a variety of other causes over the years. What better way to show your commitment to freedom, for example, than to protest for the release of refugees suffering the torture of indefinite detention at the hands of the Australian government? Since December last year a number of those refugees have been locked-up right in the heart of Melbourne in the Park Hotel on Swanston Street. How many “freedom movement” participants have thought to join any of the many rallies that CARF and other left-wing activist groups have organised to fight for those refugees to be released?

Of course when it comes to the far-right and fascist elements in the movement, the idea that they have any real commitment to “freedom” of any kind is laughable. Were these people actually to come to power again, as they did in Germany and elsewhere in the first half the twentieth century, we can expect many of the basic freedoms we enjoy today to be rapidly and violently suppressed.

The hatred shown by the far right for the Labor premier is a hatred of the social democratic politics they see him as personifying. It’s a hatred of the notion that the interests of working-class people should ever be allowed to get in the way of the most sanctified of capitalist “freedoms”: the freedom of businesses (big and small) to make a profit.

Beyond the far-right participants, to the extent that the current “freedom movement” influences politics in Australia, it will be in the direction, not of greater freedom for the majority of people, but of less. The sight of Trump flags and other Trumpian regalia at “freedom movement” events says it all. They, their aspirant political figureheads (right-wing Liberals, Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly’s right-wing United Australia Party, Pauline Hanson and so on), and their supporters in the Murdoch press, want to “make Australia great again” in the same way they think Trump “made America great”.

They want to see Australia shifted yet further away from what remains of its hard-won social democratic traditions, and down the path of the meaner, more dog-eat-dog brand of capitalism in the United States. They look at a society characterised by extreme inequality, mass homelessness, astronomically expensive health care, and, in the past two years, mass death from COVID-19, and they set-about trying to fashion Australia in its image.

If the rest of us stand aside and do nothing, they will, over time, succeed. The right-wing anti-vax crowd make up a small minority of Australian society. But the longer we allow them to march through the streets with no public opposition, the more they’ll be able to organise and grow. The vast majority of Australians oppose everything they represent. If only a small fraction of us mobilised against them, we would win. The rallies on 20 November are where this movement of resistance to the far-right agenda needs to begin.

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