On Saturday, up to 10,000 people, including Covid-19 denialists, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers gathered in Trafalgar Square to stage a ‘Unite for Freedom’ demonstration. Invited to speak were a wide array of so-called ‘health experts’, who peddled the idea that Covid was either entirely non-existent, or real but no worse than a common cold or flu, rejecting the established fact of over 850,00 registered deaths around the world and 41,000 in Britain (although both are serious underestimations).
To the conspiracy theorists gathered, the (chaotic and entirely insufficient) efforts of world corporations and governments to create a vaccine by 2022 represent a nefarious plot for world domination by a secret ‘New World Order’.
Also very prominent in the protests was a clear far-right element. This is not to say that every single person attending was a far-right or racist, but a big chunk of the main speakers and major endorsers were. Dolores Cahill, a disgraced professor at University College Dublin and chair of the far-right racist Irish Freedom Party spoke. The demonstration was praised and attended by Gerard Batten, the former UKIP leader who was responsible for deliberately pushing the party into the hands of the open far-right – particularly in drawing the dwindling organisation closer to the likes of ‘Tommy Robinson’.
One further flagship speaker at the event was David Icke – a former Coventry City goalkeeper and sports commentator who is now a conspiracy theorist, whose ideas contain a heavy current of antisemitic tropes – for instance in his idea that the world is controlled by a select group of ‘Zionist bankers’ in league with shapeshifting reptilians (actual lizards). One prominent image also shared on social media was of a protestor flying the flag of the British Union of Fascists – the Nazi-sympathising pre-WWII organisation that gained notoriety for leading violent marches through areas of London’s East End which housed the city’s working-class Jewish population. This says a lot about the layers this march for ‘Freedom’ attracted.
Unsurprisingly, the response from the Met Police has been one of arrests and clampdowns. Piers Corbyn (brother of Jeremy Corbyn), a well-known climate change denier now faces a possible fine of £10,000 for his role in organising the event.
Although socialists should have absolutely no sympathy for the views of Piers Corbyn and Icke, it would be a mistake to support state fines for protesting, even against conspiracy theorists and the far-right. One obvious reason for this is that it does not actually help in undermining the support for conspiracy theories – a response of this type merely allows Piers Corbyn to paint himself as a ‘martyr for the cause’!
But we also have to consider what the fundamental role of the state – and of the police – is under capitalism. Any act of repression carried out by the state, even against blatantly reactionary and dangerous forces, could also be used as a weapon against those fighting for real change, whether that be the trade unions, the Black Lives Matter movement or the climate strikes. Any laws or measures that could be used as a pretext for the suppression of the democratic right to organise and protest cannot be accepted. This is not about support or apology for the dangerous anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, but a matter of how much faith we can invest in the forces of the state.
Socialist Alternative supporters would also not respond to protests of this type by dismissing the right to protest altogether. Last month, thousands of NHS nurses and activists took to the streets with their own socially distanced protests to rightly demand a 15% pay rise from the government, who at every turn have endangered and undervalued essential workers under the pandemic. In almost every major city, Socialist Alternative intervened and even in some places played a role in organising protests.
In the case of the momentous protests against systemic racism and the government chaos around A-level results, the government sought to use cynical scare tactics to undermine the protests, blaming organisers for a second Covid spike, all while presiding over the worst death rate in Europe, and one of the worst in the world.
All of this poses the question: how do we undercut the support of the ideas peddled on the ‘Unite for Freedom’ march? One major part of this will mean organising ourselves. The surest way to drown out the reactionary conspiracy peddlers will be to build in our unions and NHS campaign groups like Health Campaigns Together and Keep our NHS Public to expose the government’s role in exacerbating the crisis through clinging to its rotten free-market system in healthcare.
Socialist Alternative has consistently argued that we need to urgently organise conferences of resistance to tie together a variety of struggles that have emerged over the last year, and prepare for a new wave of mass struggle by workers and youth in the coming months and years. Through preparing, organising and getting ready for new battles against racism, Johnson and the climate crisis we would be able to expose how much of a fringe element the conspiracy theorists are, and how their ideas are at this stage rightly rejected by the vast majority of ordinary people.
Capitalism breeds these ideas
In one sense, we can dismiss many of the ideas on these protests as nonsense, and most ordinary workers will do the same. All we need to do is listen to the experiences of the thousands of health workers who have risked their lives and endured traumatic experiences to cushion the blow of the virus.
We can also ask some obvious questions. Why would the ruling class choose to engineer a fake pandemic to close down their own markets, triggering the worst economic downturn seen since the 1930s Great Depression? Given the struggles emerging in Lebanon and Belarus, and looming on the horizon elsewhere, why would the ruling class actively sabotage their own rule, especially since 2019 was accurately seen by many as a ‘year of revolutions’?
While asking these questions, we also need to understand where conspiracy theories come from, and how the system we live under breeds them. Capitalism, by its very nature, is a system based on the hoarded wealth and power of a super-rich elite presiding over society. Our political system is run and rigged by elite capitalist interests. Economic decisions that affect workers the most are made behind closed doors. Look no further than the government’s own response to the pandemic: blaming ordinary people (particularly BAME people) for going to parks and gathering outdoors, while the Tories have at every corner forced workers back into offices, students and teachers back into schools and kept non essential businesses open while sending confused and conflicting guidelines.
The power of this capitalist class stretches into every corner of society. Karl Marx once said:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch (era) the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
We can see this especially when we look at a media dominated by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, and even in the so-called ‘impartial’ news outlets like the BBC, who blatantly act as mouthpieces for either the Tories or Keir Starmer, as he forces the Labour Party back towards Blairism.
This creates feelings of alienation among working class and young people, which can generate massive class anger, struggle and even revolutions. But, when nothing is provided to give a lead to workers in their workplaces, youth on the streets etc., from the trade unions and Starmer’s Labour, this alienation can be channelled into the false avenues of conspiratorial thinking. The ‘theorists’ like Icke will provide a convenient and quick explanation for all the problems of the world – even if this means going along with Icke’s ideas of an elite ‘lizard people’ running the Earth. This is a product of the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism can develop when workers haven’t built a clear leadership.
Genuine socialists reject conspiracy theories for a number of reasons. What always defines these ideas is a tendency to posit a ‘hidden’ elite, existing in the shadows and centred only around a set of key individuals, whether this be Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, George Soros or ‘Rothschild bankers’. But the existence of the capitalist class is not secret and goes beyond these individuals. While they do indeed conspire and plot to increase their wealth and power – even in world crises like this, they reflect a broader system of economic exploitation and global crisis, that is there for all to be seen and can only be challenged when we organise consciously and confidently through our unions and movements against oppression.
This is why Socialist Alternative exists. Only on the basis of a socialist society, based on public ownership and workers control and management of the economy, will conspiratorial ideas be genuinely undermined.