The measures being taken to contain the coronavirus pandemic and buy scientists time as they develop a vaccine, like efforts to control climate change before them, have fallen victim to the ongoing culture war being waged by the extreme right.
More than a million people have died as a direct result of Covid-19 and many more have been infected and left with long term damage to their organs, so you would expect efforts to control it would have widespread support.
Polling suggests that support is there, but there are also many actively opposing the measures needed to protect public health.
The protests and rhetoric calling for an end to restrictions – whether on the grounds that the economy should come first, in the name of individual liberty or because the disease is either a hoax or no worse than a mild flu – come largely from the political circles who support Donald Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, the far right in Germany and Italy and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
When the British Conservative MP, Sir Desmond Swayne, during a debate in parliament in September, denounced being required to wear a mask to go into a shop as a “monstrous imposition” it was easy to laugh at the absurdity of his comment. Does Sir Desmond regard being required to wear clothes while in public in the same light I wondered at the time.
However, this same MP is a hard-line Brexiteer who has also said white people wearing black face is “just a bit of fun”.
What do opposition to masks, leaving the EU and belittling the significance of black face have in common?
They are all symbols to the reactionary right in the culture war that once seemed a peculiarly American conflict, but is now raging in Europe and Brazil.
When you zoom out from the day-to-day headlines and social media commentary to see the big picture, a pattern emerges.
People who are uncomfortable with many of the social and political changes that have taken place across western society in the past six decades are trying to turn the clock back.
A social revolution began in western societies in the 1960s that has seen women achieve greater equality, including access to legal, safe abortion; widespread acceptance of LGBT rights; greater acceptance of demographic changes that has seen people of colour become more fairly represented (though as Black Lives Matter shows there is a still a long way to go); as well as a wide acceptance of diversity of lifestyles.
When countries like the UK legislated for equal marriage in the past decade, for example, there was very little organised political opposition and many took that as a sign that society had changed – largely for the better.
But now it is clear that some parts of society were deeply opposed to such changes and they have rallied to the culture warriors of the right, be they Trump supporters in the US, Brexiteers in Britain – or England to be more precise – or the Bolsonaristas in Brazil who raise a phantasmagoria of communism to try to change the education curriculum to restore “traditional family values”.
These same people are now in the forefront of efforts to belittle the pandemic and oppose measures to contain it.
Many of their shibboleths are challenged by these measures – closing bars and restaurants are an attack on individual liberty, lockdowns are undermining the pursuit of wealth, the natural order – aka survival of the fittest – is being undermined by measures that put the health of the vulnerable ahead of prosperity.
While this is usually described as a culture war, given the scale and ferocity of the reactionary forces unleashed, combined with sophisticated use of up to the minute social media tactics, this could be seen as an attempted counter-revolution akin to the Counter-Reformation of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In a rational world, efforts to fight a lethal pandemic would be based on the best scientific advice and politicians would make decisions based on that counsel and the best interests of their populations.
But what is driving this wider counter-revolution is not rational for many, it is an emotional hankering for a mythologised past where everyone was heterosexual, women knew their place and white people were on top, both in their own countries and globally.
The lack of rationality motivating many who support this movement is underlined by how common conspiracy theories are among them and leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro have tried to take advantage of this. It seems many people do believe not just that Covid-19 and climate change are a hoax, but that pandemic control measures are a government plot to take away people’s freedom for good.
It is also striking how the leaders of these reactionary movements, despite mostly being from socio-economic elite themselves – Trump comes from money, Nigel Farage is a privately educated former City trader – portray themselves as victims and play on feelings of victimhood among their supporters.
2020 has been an exhausting year which is ending on a welcome note with the end of the Trump presidency, but that does not mean the attempted counter revolution will end – after all 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump
Even if we find a way to end the pandemic and Brexiteers can celebrate the UK being finally out of the EU, the reactionaries currently crying foul over masks, lockdowns and EU diktats will latch onto something else. The Counter-Reformation culminated in the Thirty Years War – Europe’s first devastating pan European conflict. We need to ensure the current culture war remains a battle fought with words, gifs and memes.
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