Politics Opinion

Anti-lockdown movement is nothing more than a hollow cash grab

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The value of many political protests nowadays is determined by social media popularity (Image by Dan Jensen)

Anti-lockdown and anti-vax protest organisers are thriving in a shallow world where success is measured in likes and clicks, writes Tom Tanuki.

RALLIES ARE NOW HELD around Australia at least monthly by the COVID-denialist protest crowd; the last nationwide event was the “Millions March Against Mandatory COVID Vaccination” in February. A Sydney Morning Herald headline, ‘Millions March rally against vaccine draws hundreds’, snappily delivered the one gag these events are destined to cop forever. What’s in it for the organisers of these events?

Now that 2021 is the year of the COVID jab, the anti-vax faction is destined to lure in the most converts from 2020’s broad anti-lockdown scene. But as that movement’s mainstream media coverage continues to dwindle, these events have become their own established network, with organisers less desperate to recruit outsiders and more focused on retaining the attentions of their existing support base. To do this, they must stage constant spectacles — rallies, crowdfunding campaigns and so on.

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, a 1967 critique of media-saturated consumer culture, offers a helpful way of interrogating social media and influencer culture.

One of the work’s main premises is that advancing capitalism reduces the way we navigate and interpret events to a series of spectacles:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.’

At the Sydney “Millions March”, an organiser said something that has been making me laugh for weeks. It tells you everything you need to know about their movement.

Here’s what he said:

“These events, these are Woodstock! This is the Berlin Wall coming down again, and you are here, and you are taking chunks! We’re all leaders in this. And you were there and you got the T-shirt. Well, you will if you buy one! They’re up the back for sale, for just $30 — that’s right, just $30!” 

The speaker compares the anti-lockdown movement to either an important rock concert from 1969 or an important moment in modern political history. And I suppose the two are interchangeable if you don’t bother to understand them; if all they are is popular spectacles, mined and stripped of any real meaning. Shut up and buy the T-shirt!

These rallies are showcases that either get the speakers on TV, or bagging bulk likes on the livestream footage. Everyone attending is livestreaming. (We’re all producers of the spectacle!) A successful spectacle itself – many likes, much reach – is now popularly regarded as a win. Whatever has reached the most eyes is obviously the most correct thing to do.

We’re all familiar with the rules of influencer culture by now. But why are entire protest movements now playing by the same rules as Instagram models? The answers are more tangible than simply saying, “everyone shows off for likes these days”. Consider the gradual change in modern activism, for one.

Over time, many political rallies have become unhooked from their original purpose, which is as a demonstration of their potential political power. Once, the idea was that if I have a million (or a hundred) people at my march, I’m showing you I can summon them for more serious purposes if you don’t meet my demands. For example, we can strike. Or hold a blockade to shut entire industries down, and so on. The power of a union.

But the union movement’s focus could be said to have shifted away from activist power to political power. Along with it, many rallies have become unhooked from any real threat to industry or government. In the absence of a threat, rallies are often little more than toothless media-harvesting spectacles.

This happens across the political spectrum. It was evident in 2019’s Extinction Rebellion events, such as their Spring Rebellion. They deployed sit-ins, die-ins, lie-ins and even shoe-ins, in which they’d put heaps of shoes somewhere and hope the media would love it. XR’s goals might have been noble, but these formulaic strategies to cultivate spectacle in the hope that it would turn into real change make activism look like a real-life Kony 2012.

The mainstream media aids in the process of further decontextualising activism. Watch Channel 7’s coverage of an environmental demonstration and you’ll know nothing of the protesters’ motivations. All you’ll learn is about the inconvenience they caused to police and passers-by.

The cumulative effect of all of this is that to the masses, activism is just spectacle. We’ve effectively passed around the message that activism is meaningless. You can see this tacit assumption in the anti-lockdown movement, which peddles stunts for stunts’ sake.

Going back to Guy Debord’s spectacle, he asserted that these are conditions that occur under advancing capitalism: the ‘modern conditions of production’. In our highly-casualised workforce, conditions are worse than ever — even before the coronavirus hit.

The vast majority of the more successful anti-lockdown influencers were multi-level marketers before the pandemic hit. MLMers learn how to manipulate and mine their existing networks for personal gain, which are handy tools for any grifter. But they’re also the products of a harsh gig economy, where people are left to wring every bit of mercantile advantage they can get out of even their friends.

MLM success fractured and crumbled for many when the pandemic hit and so we saw many of the more adept among them bring their talents to bear in conducting anti-lockdown spectacle. 

Leaders of the anti-lockdown movement have seen significant support from MLM leaders, such as we’ve seen in Pete Evans’ ongoing support from Doterra. These networks all stand to benefit from a gig economy that preys upon the vulnerable and sits outside of popular scrutiny, perfectly unaccountable.

The anti-vax scene is poised to receive them all. Australian Government nudge policy, such as No Jab, No Pay/Play, might be having the unintended long-term effect of nudging some vaccine-hesitant families into the eager arms of the growing anti-vax movement. Anti-vax childcare networks and home-schooling resources have been developing quietly so that people can dip out of the system into a community that’s actively recruiting them for that purpose.

This is ideal for the leaders of the anti-lockdown movement. They use spectacle to define their sham politics and line their bank balances. The leaders of this movement have made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year. That might sound impressive until you consider that there’s rumoured to be billions of dollars in anti-vax messaging.

So that’s what’s in it for the organisers. The promise of money and security in an insecure world. The end of Jobkeeper and the reduction of Jobseeker will likely bolster the anti-lockdown movement as lower-income workers run out of real options to stay afloat and their material conditions decline. They will be attracted to the hollow, meaningless spectacle of people promising them a world full of bogeymen, miracle cures and conspiracy theories. If we are to thwart the rise of these movements, the answer is, of course, to protect the welfare of the most vulnerable.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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