By Lorraine Pratley
Lorraine is currently working on a few projects: an analysis of the left response to SARS-Cov2 in Australia in relation to the composition of the modern workforce and modern union movement; an analysis of the nature of the public health system in a modern social democratic country like Australia and implications for the Left; an analysis of the class character of the Freedom Movement; and a history of medicine/health care in class society.
If you would like to be involved, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also leads free online history study groups to help people grasp the concepts of class in past struggles.
My intention with this article is firstly to celebrate Chris’s article and also to critique it as a contribution to further discussion, debate and clarification of the problems of the modern left. This discussion is years overdue and I predict it will therefore be rather messy and somewhat chaotic at times. I look forward to being challenged on my arguments, to providing sources and evidence for my claims upon request, and ongoing participation in further analysis and clarification!
I want to begin with Chris’s final words:
‘What is to be done about the Left’s role in this movement? The fact we need to ask whether the Left has a role to play in a global working-class insurrection probably renders that question redundant.’
The short answer to his question is: analyse and organise! This article will mostly focus on an analysis on the Left’s calamitous role in the Covid-19 ‘pandemic’. Before we move on to working out how to organise (i.e. take action), we must first understand what has gone wrong and how.
In terms of Chris’s conclusion of a potentially redundant Left: this sentiment demonstrates to me both the utter disgust and revulsion felt by left covid sceptics towards their former milieu, but also how demoralised many are. Adrift in the storm, abandoned by the traditional left, yet isolated in a vast sea of apolitical people who have no conception of Left vs Right or, understandably, no longer believe it is relevant, many principled leftists, in disorientation and despair, are struggling to stay afloat. However, I have no doubt that, without a Left, whether reoriented or rebuilt from scratch, little will stand in the way of the wider Fourth Industrial Revolution agenda, let alone a chance of a successful ‘global working-class insurrection’.
The principled left must regroup and forge a path forward. The task is not as formidable as one may think: the cutting edge research required to underpin our analysis of 21st Century capitalism is already being carried out – much of which on Covid is being done within the medical system by medical and scientific experts intent on saving mainstream medicine from itself (article on this forthcoming), and crucial work on other pressing issues is more marginal but voluminous and of excellent quality. The tasks for leftists are to learn the material, analyse it, and devise strategies for putting it into action to lay a foundation for the struggles ahead of us.
Part of my enthusiasm for Chris’ analysis stems from his repeated use of the term ‘Left’. After 3 years of being told by fellow activists in the freedom movement that ‘left and right doesn’t matter any more’, it is an immense relief to have found someone who seems to be arguing that Left is still is a thing; that its meaning needs to be clarified; that the issues it fights on need to be updated and extended; and that it is still relevant. For, as long as there is capitalist exploitation (in the Marxist sense i.e. workers’ labour adds value to raw materials and profit is creamed off the top by someone who doesn’t work), then Left and Right still applies.
The capitalists, their technocrats and functionaries know this – we need to know it as well. Even if many workers in a modern capitalist society don’t perform productive work of the sort that directly generates surplus value, I stand by the continued relevance of this still-fundamental feature of the system.
Chris acknowledges his contributions are somewhat subjective, based on experience. I will contribute my own, likewise, from insights gleaned through personal interactions with the far left during the pandemic period, preceded by decades of direct experience of and within left study, inquiry and far left activism. Due to a long and intimate involvement in Australian activist politics and with the group, Socialist Alternative (SA), I believe I too am in a unique position to comment with authority on the ‘philosophical, attitudinal and ideological factors that caused [the Left] to behave in this way.’ In late 1991, I was convinced, and remain so, of an unorthodox Trotskyist interpretation of capitalism and the precise nature of Stalinism within the capitalist system.
As such I was a member of SA, the largest far left grouping in Australia, and before that, until 1995, I was a member of SA’s forerunner, the now defunct International Socialist Organisation (ISO), sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain and part of the International Socialist tendency.
One of the main themes I will explore is the concept of the Left i.e. what exactly is it and who does it comprise of? The term ‘Left’, in most articles I’ve read on the topic of Covid, including Chris’s, is in my opinion applied too broadly. When discussing the targets of our disgust, i.e. the Left and progressive intelligentsia, I believe it is important to separate them into three distinct, albeit overlapping, social groupings: liberals/progressive elite (who are not actually left wing), the mainstream Left, and the far Left. It’s a kind of trifecta within progressive and/or left attitudes and thought.
Seeking explanations for the grand-scale sell-out these people perpetuated, Chris claims that, in the mind of the progressive elite and the Left, the economy exists solely for the bosses’ benefit and this is why they were oblivious to the suffering caused by shutdown. I think Chris is onto something here, and it’s because the personnel of the trifecta are generally products of the university system and are therefore mostly members of the ‘laptop class’. Even teachers, professionals who actually have quite challenging jobs in normal times, mobilised their irrational fear, and cruel neglect, of their young charges to successfully impose school closures and thereby join the laptop class for a time. These layers largely overstate their contribution to normal material social life and understate the contributions of vast numbers of blue collar and low paid workers. More specifically, union bureaucracies and the far left see the economy as something that the bosses ‘do’ to workers. As Chris puts it,
Only by thorough alienation from economic reality can such a position be arrived at [that lockdowns are laudable]. The economy is everything – toothpaste, buses, pavements, art, hospitals, bicycles, cheese and gyms; it sustains relationships, homes, intellectual enquiry and public and private health.
Let’s explore the trifecta further by considering them one by one:
There have now been many good articles written by freedom advocates exploring the psychology of the authoritarian mentality of liberals i.e. progressive elites1. Yet their Covid-mania was totally unsurprising to me. As a Marxist I had long understood the nature of the educated middle classes. They exercise their social power ideologically through their dominance of the reproduction of the dominant ideas, while giving them a progressive slant – through academia, the press, social commentary media, the public service and government policy settings, health and education infrastructure, welfare state infrastructure, NGO’s, and progressive parliamentary parties and their peripheries, e.g. Green parties. These people do not have the social power of big capitalists – they can’t use their control of industry to pressure government – nor the potential social power of organised workers, they can’t strike and stop profits in their own defence or in solidarity with other oppressed groups.
The liberal ideal is a rational, respectable, ‘inclusive’ society in which their opinions are sought and valued because they know better than the ‘uneducated masses’. They play their part in helping the state to further corporate and imperialist interests. They do not wholeheartedly support the oppressed and play an important role in justifying ruling class agendas. A few examples:
- The racist Northern Territory intervention in 2007, which quarantined (limited) the places where income support payments of many Aboriginal people could be spent, along with other methods that decreased Aboriginal autonomy, and strengthened mining corporations in remote areas. This was lobbied for, and championed by, the liberal media and welfare groups.
- They played a key role in garnering public support for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 under the guise of ‘liberating women’.
- Their embrace of classless identity (‘woke’) politics has led to useless distractions and obstacles for the oppressed in their struggles for meaningful solutions, facilitating corporate ‘woke-washing’ and even harmful trajectories, in the case of the predation of the medical and psychology industries on trans people.
Chris calls the attitude/philosophy of the whole trifecta ‘bourgeois’. I would reserve this term for the capitalist class (big capital). Or perhaps Chris simply means that the trifecta have taken on pro-capitalist ideas which, in the case of Covid, has made them the servants of big Pharma? Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to understand liberals’ attitudes as expressions of their middle class identity, attempting to exert influence on society in their own interests. They almost never take an interest in unions and industrial issues, in fact, they regard the masses with trepidation and are often outright hostile when ordinary people take things into their own hands without asking for guidance from the educated classes. These educated layers of the middle classes mainly exercise their power through their positions in the media, the public service, the education system and by lobbying the state.
Chris points out that the progressive elite is made up almost entirely of members of the laptop class who tend to live comfortable lives in leafy middle class suburbs. Christian Parenti makes a similar case in the early section of this incisive piece. As such, they lack awareness of the lives of productive workers: the ‘essential workers’ who kept things going during lockdowns, and barely even give them a thought, except when the social commentators were demanding an extension of income support for low-paid and casual workers in case these workers were tempted to ‘work while infectious’ – shock horror!! – an instance when the existence and plight of these workers did seem to briefly enter their consciousness. They seemed to have only ever banged their pots for their colleagues in the medical profession. For this class, the productive economy must seem to just happen all by itself, or, at least, they don’t tend to trouble themselves to think about it much.
So, where I differ from Chris, in the use of the term ‘bourgeois thinking’ applied to liberals, is that I regard them as a social grouping that expresses a particular kind of middle class interest. As discussed, they try to exert influence on society in their own interests, and they have a very keen interest in giving the system, in which they have such a comfortable place, a respectable veneer to match their educated, Enlightenment tradition social status, shown in their marked preference for statesman-like Obama over oafish and embarrassing Bush; refined and articulate Turnbull over crass and religious Abbott, for example. Having no industrial power themselves, they look to the state to enforce things: e.g. equal opportunity and other outcomes of the social movements of the 1960’s, and they seamlessly expected the state to protect them from a scary virus while elevating members of their class – doctors, allied health professionals, public health bureaucrats and scientists i.e. ‘experts’ like themselves. They are indeed more credulous than the less formally educated, explored in work on the PMC, the Professional Managerial Class, and in this long but excellent LLS article.
These are the union officials, labour party politicians and their functionaries. Let’s not be too wide-eyed about who these people are. They are not mythical saviours, guided only by an intrinsic desire to uphold human rights. Despite strong historical and contemporary connections to progressive social movements, forged through solidarity; without pressure from below, in the form of active union members and large activist social movements, they are simply people with leadership abilities who have usually been willing and able to outwit, or even ruthlessly crush, their competitors on their way to the top. Indeed, it was state Labor parties that imposed most of the lockdowns, border closures, mask mandates and vaccine ‘passports’ and mandates in Australia. Furthermore, labour politicians tend to be more bureaucratic than their conservative counterparts. Historically in Australia, Labor governments have been more draconian on health, bringing in more deleterious measures. Victorian Labor banned raw milk; state Labor governments imposed childhood vaccine mandates for childcare before the Liberals imposed it.
Reinforcing its bureaucratic character, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has important political connections with the union bureaucracy, factors that go far beyond financial donations. Labour politicians are electorally dependent on the unions to mobilise the vote, and the unions expect certain protections in return, although they are satisfied with very little2. Despite the central role they play in electoral politics, and with some influence in the industrial landscape, it’s naive to think union officials would have stuck their neck out, of their own accord, on the global pandemic phenomenon. Many contemporary Australian union officials are university graduates who started off in student politics, went on to work for unions and end up with parliamentary careers i.e. they’ve never done a day’s work in their lives. MP’s understand clearly that they are running the system in the interests of the capitalist class, which includes taking direction from the Deep State of Australia’s closest ally, the United States, and the co-opted authority of the WHO. Union bureaucrats, with their eye on future lucrative jobs in parliament or industry, understand this too. Union leaders had nothing to gain and everything to lose from entertaining Covid scepticism let alone resistance.
Furthermore union officials are under very little pressure from below anymore. I have read many articles in which freedom leftists are lamenting the collaboration of the ‘unions’ – ‘how could they?’, ‘they’re supposed to support human rights’ etc. Even Chris does this to a certain extent:
I am sorry to say that there is probably something more sinister going on and that many Left organisations and institutions have been captured by hostile interests, and that there are individuals in leadership or influencing positions who are not acting in good faith. How else to explain the perverse strategies and inexplicable campaigns?
I believe unions’ conservatism can be understood through their integration into the structure of social democratic society. Union leaders occupy a social position between the working and capitalist class. As such, they are a middle class layer, they are not ‘of’ the working class. An honest review of Labour history reveals a union movement that once didn’t accept Aboriginal members until far left Aborigines and members organised a push from below, and didn’t fight for equal pay for women until far left and other women led protests from within, literally!. With union rank and file organisation now at rock bottom levels, left wing people have become complacent, with a kind of infantile attitude: ‘but the unions are supposed to look after us’. What was needed during the pandemic was for freedom activists to support sceptical union members to educate and agitate within their unions3.
Different ideological currents within the labour and union movement also need to be pointed out. The nurses and teachers’ unions, comprised of university educated members, were the most vehemently pro-authoritarian; whereas the blue collar unions fudged the issues, especially when it came to workplace mandates. This difference clearly reflects the attitudes of members, including the existence of a sizeable minority of Covid-sceptical blue collar unionists. However, as indicated by the growth of apolitical pro-choice Red Unions for nurses and teachers, there was scope for organised agitation in all the unions.
Another essential element to appreciate when understanding union attitudes to lockdowns is the power of the financial policies put in place in the West to buy workers off. In Australia it was the JobKeeper program, where businesses were paid to pay their furloughed staff (some people ended up with a higher income!), and JobSeeker: the doubling of welfare payments to the unemployed, sole parents and those on disability payments, who found themselves dramatically better off. The only workers who were financially impacted by lockdowns were casuals of less than 12 months’ duration of employment – mostly young and tended to rely on family support – whose mental health was impacted with young women worse affected, and international students and workers, who were destitute and reliant on charities until they left the country.
Unions found some relevance by (ineffectually) speaking up for those who missed out on payments. It cannot be understated how important these financial measures were in securing the complacency and acquiescence of the working class. Unlike the very small business people who were brutally thrown on the scrap heap, most workers had no material need to deeply question and check if there really was legitimate evidence to inform what was happening, no pressing need to shake themselves out of their media-fuelled state of fear. Furthermore, essential workers I knew: supermarket, construction and factory workers, were far too busy to learn anything new – they were all working really hard, doing overtime, to make up for disruptions in supply flows in the extra-chaotic, new pandemic economy4.
And let’s never forget how the Left’s embrace of (taxpayer-funded) lockdowns makes them culpable, not only for the cruel impact on people at home, but also on the people of poor countries, who were not so fortunate as to have their experience materially buffered; where lockdowns led to increased poverty and death, documented in this and numerous other articles by global public health insider, David Bell.
Also worth mentioning is the deal the Victorian Labor government did with construction industry unions during the arguably longest lockdown in the world – they kept the building industry open in exchange for daily PCR testing of workers.
The attention I will give to the far left (socialists, revolutionary socialists, left wing anarchists) might seem quite strange at first to anyone who has had nothing to do with them! I will flesh it out further in another article but suffice it to say here that the far left, though usually small in number, punches far above its weight when it comes to grassroots activism in getting movements off the ground, largely due to their high level of committed activity.
Socialist Alternative (SA) is the largest far left group in Australia (about 500 members before March 2020) and they will be my focus, although other smaller groups like Socialist Alliance and anarchists similarly considered themselves among the ‘enlightened ones’, despite very few of them having science backgrounds on the pandemic, and aggressively promoted the Pharma and surveillance agenda.
In short, the behaviour of SA can be explained very easily – they made a conscious decision to paint pandemic scepticism in its entirety as right wing and were deliberately disinterested in scientific rigour.
Being a former member of SA, I tried to engage leading members of the organisation about the lack of science behind the pandemic. They simply refused to look at anything of substance and their stated reasons were quite revealing. When people, who’ve dedicated their lives to documenting and exposing the crimes of capitalism, ‘don’t have time’ to ‘look into’ the most profound disruption to normal life in a generation, we can reasonably accuse them of consciously avoiding the issue. The most revealing of all was from a (now former) longtime friend: ‘I love my [activist] life and I can’t guarantee I will do anything differently, even if you do convince me’. This person proceeded to be ‘too busy’ to look at evidence and went on to write slanderous articles about the freedom movement in Red Flag.
Leadership and rank-and-file alike, there was no way they were going to break with their milieu; they have an educated progressive audience for their publication, they produce a journal, they have members in the teachers and other white collar unions, they largely recruit on the university campuses, and they are a part of the progressive culture of the gentrified suburbs. That’s the psychology of it. But we can go further into the material reality of their lives. The more unsavoury element of the problem is that their leading members are paid organisers who also enjoy high social status as experts within the organisation. They have every reason to hold onto their livelihood and everything to lose – except their apparently dispensable principles – by becoming a self-imposed pariah. I understand why leftists in the freedom movement want to explain the far left’s motivations in some loftier way. However, their approach to the pandemic was pure opportunism.
Furthermore, we need to see their actions and orientations in terms of the constant pressure to recruit. They have a well-founded sense of urgency. Without a revolutionary party already in existence at a time of revolutionary upsurge, of a size capable of attracting a mass membership, the struggle will be crushed, militarily, or co-opted, by the trade union movement or a parliamentary formation. A small revolutionary group must therefore be constantly on the lookout for issues that may attract potential recruits. In some ways, the hyperactivity of members generated by this sense of urgency was a catch 22 – ‘I don’t have time to look into it Lorraine’, ‘It’s too complex Lorraine, we have to accept the scientific consensus’. But as outlined above, mostly it was about holding onto their jobs.
In the quest for members, ‘conspiracy theories’ thus play a useful role for them. Because some conspiracy theories are thoroughly right wing (e.g. ‘Jewish bankers’, the pseudo legal movement), giving all non-Left-ordained social and political theories a right wing stamp creates an audience for potential recruits. In normal times, which is most of the time, far left organisations are too small to lead a fight to take on the capitalist class. This means they rely disproportionately on the ever-present threat of the emergence of far right and fascist groupings, which are always present, albeit usually in embryonic state.
In times of crisis, the middle classes really are the social base for fascism, revolutionary socialists see the germ of a future fascist in every small business person5. SA turned what should have been a war against big business and its global pandemic-mongering into a war on small business people; who they routinely described as ‘odious’, ‘freaks’ and ‘nutjobs’ in Red Flag, disregarding what they knew: that workers and even unionists were present at anti-lockdown and anti-mandate protests (albeit in lesser numbers than other groups). But that would have been an inconvenient fact, getting in the way of their rank opportunism. In Trotsky’s brilliant analysis of fascism, he urges organised workers to create an alternative pole of attraction to the decimated middle classes. I don’t recognise his theory or teachings in SA members’ vicious hatred of small business people and the crazed ravings of their depictions of the Freedom movement.
So, in their opportunistic striving to keep their place in the wider Left – a low rank, but a place nevertheless – these socialists are tightly bound within their respected positions as union delegates as well as by the intellectual limits of their young and increasingly apolitical audience. They seem to have forgotten all about how Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, accurately predicting the outbreak of WWI, against the current of socialist thought at the time along the lines of, ‘don’t worry, war wouldn’t be good for industry and profits so the capitalists wouldn’t tolerate it’.
Building on fellow revolutionary Bukharin’s work, Lenin thought it was important to keep up with developments in capitalism that Marx and Engels couldn’t have conceived of in their time. He stood up to those he recognised as becoming apologists for capitalism and applied a Marxist analysis to new phenomena; in this case, the complete colonial division of the world. He asked, to paraphrase, ‘Where to now for the capitalist class in their ceaseless competition with each other? When economic means are exhausted, military conflict is inevitable’. He exposed his contemporaries for their complacency and wishful thinking. It stood him and his supporters in good stead when the war broke out; they were amongst the very few on the European Left who opposed the war from the start. Such is our task: no matter how isolated we are, we must find each other and forge ahead with a left analysis of all the new areas of profit-seeking: Pharma, biotechnology, transhumanism, climate change, stakeholder capitalism etc. and of imperialist geo-political rivalry, given the far left has also disgracefully absolved itself of meaningful critique and action against the Ukraine proxy war. Covid has proved the terrible consequences for not studying all areas of society with intellectual curiosity and rigour. Without this, the working class is blind.
Lastly, all branches of the trifecta are compelled to constantly seek ways in which to promote their brand in order to recruit ideological members, to thereby increase their social role. To do this they must find ways to make themselves relevant to their potential audiences:
The progressive elite must make protestations about ‘the right way to go about thing’s. Identity politics have provided a lucrative means for this.
The mainstream unions look for safe ways to stand up to the conservative party and/or bosses and demand their seat at the negotiating table. Australia has relatively draconian laws governing industrial action, such that union leaders are very reluctant to call strikes. Unions found ways they could remain relevant during the Covid period by demanding things like school closures, money for nurses, indoor ventilation, anti – ’open up’ positions. After all, they weren’t paying for these things. And in Australia, they could shake their fists at a conservative federal government that failed to secure early supplies of vaccines, after the native version failed.
The far left finds ways to differentiate itself from progressive and trade union positions in order to carve out a space to the left. I would argue, this is the correct approach. However, due to their ignorance of mainstream medicine including vaccines, and therefore their profound ignorance of the nature of institutions like the WHO and GAVI, they could only delineate themselves by being the most rabid Covid-zero and vaccine mandate proponents. They got themselves deeper and deeper into this narrative so that they had to pose at the extreme edge of Trump Derangement Syndrome, brilliantly articulated by Max Blumenthal of The Grayzone, culminating in their mad ‘pro-union pro-vax’ campaign-which was so infuriating to me that I made this video to try to help people understand them.
Thus for all groups of the trifecta, political point scoring needs to be understood as the way they delineate themselves and line up their supporters in tight adversarial groups. No wonder the populist right is able to appeal on the basis of popular confusion and revulsion at the nasty, contradictory and downright silliness of partisanship that now dominates left and progressive thinking and behaviour. Of course the populist right does it as well, leading many to believe it’s better to take no interest in politics whatsoever.
1 In Australia, the conservative party is the Liberal Party of Australia. To save confusion between the fiscally right wing Liberals (whose MP’s are often but not always also socially conservative) and ‘small l’ liberals i.e. Democratic Party supporters in the US, I also use the term progressives.
2 In return for supporting the ALP, most benefits for the unions are in the form of maintaining the place of trade unions in the industrial legal framework of the country, rather than in direct material benefits to members.
3 I’m not saying this would have been easy. It would have required slow and patient work. It would also have involved navigating the image problem of the freedom movement due to the very real presence of right wing and backward ideas within it. But it was the only way to forge a stronger movement, with more teeth, and lay the basis for effective resistance to the wider Fourth Industrial Revolution agenda.
4 These public injections of funds also bought off businesses that didn’t directly benefit from lockdowns (the most giant corporations did well: food processors, supermarkets, fast food, tech companies, and any business with e-commerce either already set up or the funds to set it up quickly i.e. large business – thus gouging market share from small shops, cafes and restaurants).
5 ‘Labor insiders confirm their own polling shows a similar trend. While they are still expected to win, a growing number of voters who supported Labor in 2018 are walking away from the government but are unwilling, at this stage, to vote for the Liberals. Labor’s internal research shows the slip in support is what some are calling the torture effect whereby voters, particularly those heavily impacted by lockdowns, become more willing to turn their back on the government every time the state is sent back into lockdown.’ See here and here.