Neoliberalism, COVID-19 and conspiracy: pandemic management strategies and the far-right social turn

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  • 1 Deakin University, , Australia
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Neoliberal pandemic management strategies during the 2019–2022 COVID-19 virus pandemic rendered vulnerable to the disease, people in precarious work, with underlying health issues, and experiencing other forms of social discrimination and disadvantage. Herd immunity strategies designed to address the economic growth imperatives of neoliberal societies were often contrary to scientific advice, leading to high infection rates and the mass death of, in particular, essential workers in manufacturing, healthcare, and service provision. At times, health policies and political rhetoric scapegoated marginalised communities for the spread of the disease, subjecting them to the pandemic’s more harmful social and economic effects. These ideological-political environments also provided context for accelerationist and conspiratorial narratives about COVID-19 communicated among wider political networks, within economically-driven environments of counterfactual mass news and social media. Responding to this situation, this paper examines how certain pandemic responses from government and non-government actors collectively contributed toward racialised, classist social discrimination in responses to COVID-19, such that they might be said to constitute an intra-pandemic far-right ‘social turn’.

Abstract

Neoliberal pandemic management strategies during the 2019–2022 COVID-19 virus pandemic rendered vulnerable to the disease, people in precarious work, with underlying health issues, and experiencing other forms of social discrimination and disadvantage. Herd immunity strategies designed to address the economic growth imperatives of neoliberal societies were often contrary to scientific advice, leading to high infection rates and the mass death of, in particular, essential workers in manufacturing, healthcare, and service provision. At times, health policies and political rhetoric scapegoated marginalised communities for the spread of the disease, subjecting them to the pandemic’s more harmful social and economic effects. These ideological-political environments also provided context for accelerationist and conspiratorial narratives about COVID-19 communicated among wider political networks, within economically-driven environments of counterfactual mass news and social media. Responding to this situation, this paper examines how certain pandemic responses from government and non-government actors collectively contributed toward racialised, classist social discrimination in responses to COVID-19, such that they might be said to constitute an intra-pandemic far-right ‘social turn’.

Introduction

Pandemic management strategies introduced by several neoliberal governments during the international 2019–2022 COVID-19 virus pandemic rendered vulnerable to the disease, people in precarious work, with underlying health issues, and experiencing other forms of social discrimination and disadvantage (Carr, 2020). In some cases, ‘herd immunity’ strategies were designed to address the economic growth imperatives of neoliberal societies, while their implementation was often contrary to scientific advice, leading to high infection rates and the mass death of in particular, ‘essential workers’ in manufacturing, healthcare, and service provision (McClure, 2020). At other times, health policies and political rhetoric scapegoated marginalised communities for the spread of the disease, subjecting them to the pandemic’s more harmful social and economic effects (Sobande, 2020). These ideological-political environments then provided context for accelerationist and conspiratorial narratives about COVID-19 communicated among wider political networks, within economically-driven environments of counterfactual mass news and social media (Maly, 2020).

Responding to this situation, this paper considers how certain pandemic responses from government and non-government actors collectively contributed toward racialised, classist social discrimination in responses to COVID-19, such that they might be said to constitute an intra-pandemic far-right ‘social turn’ (see also Laster Pirtle, 2020; Stewart, 2020). It does not argue for an approach of moral equivalence or comparison applied to discrete professional political actors alongside politically violent groups. Rather, it seeks to highlight how socially prejudicial domains of COVID-19 management and response exhibit reflective resonance with one another; and how governance frameworks in neoliberal societies can provide ideological context for the societal prevalence of impactful, exclusionary far-right sentiment.

The analysis commences from the premise that countries with neoliberal economic systems before the COVID-19 pandemic often had financial markets attached to long, deregulated supply chains, a prevalence of insecure, temporary, and contract work sustaining domestic labour market ‘flexibility’, and state policies of fiscal austerity (Wallis and Zhuo, 2020). It considers how, rather than culminating in neoliberalism’s failure and eradication, the pandemic typically led to neoliberal state capitalist reforms wherein ‘half-baked Keynesian’ policies were introduced, featuring varied degrees of social welfare and economic supports primarily for major industry (Saad-Filho, 2020).

Emphasising the international influence of wealthy neoliberal states, the analysis explores how, while protectionist reforms in the context of the pandemic combined with neoliberal forms of governance in heterogeneous ways, they often reinforced Western cultural chauvinism historically resonant with the neoliberal-nationalist interventions of, for example, Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society (Slobodian, 2021). Neoliberal mechanisms of responsibilisation in these settings placed the onus on individuals for their capacity to weather the pandemic, subjecting unproductive workers and already-marginalised communities in particular to its most pernicious effects, while undermining effective collectivising pandemic management strategies. As the examples in this paper demonstrate, within and beyond the Global North, neoliberal governmental approaches to pandemic management also worked coterminously with a ‘far-right social turn’ in international politics, where formerly deplored political ideas were rendered popular through far-right news and social media discourse, and within neoliberal ideological-political frameworks. It examines how through this turn, public consciousness of the possibilities for resistance to neoliberal pandemic management was suppressed, while the intra-pandemic suffering of already-marginalised communities was constructed in racist and hyper-nationalistic political messaging as ‘common sense’ (Gramsci, 2011).

In accounting for institutional and non-institutional forms of political activity collectively, this paper aims to chart the broad strokes of a new research agenda, inviting further analysis of how different far-right actors cast ‘facts’ of inequality among varied social groups in respect of health and welfare during the pandemic as teleologically both ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’ (see Mitropoulos, 2020). The cases and examples drawn on also illustrate that far-right political tendencies toward spurious natural hierarchies reflect and exacerbate existing political climates of exclusivism, elitism, and supremacy (see Lukács, 1952). These are the broad dimensions of thought called upon in this paper’s analysis, extending in the context of the pandemic to connections between the professional activities of political parties, within networked, conspiracy-predicated social movements, and within the extreme-right agitating of politically violent groups.

This introduction is followed by a brief review of existing research on far-right connections between government and non-government actors during COVID-19, including consideration of the political-ideological environments in which these connections occurred. Next, there is a discussion of the health and social impacts of neoliberal pandemic management approaches introduced by national governments in 2020, including in the administrations of Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel – selected because of the neoliberal policy responses employed there and in light of those countries’ devastating experience of COVID-19. The following part of the analysis then considers how racist and exclusionary conspiracies were promoted in 2020 and 2021 by accelerationist, neo-Nazi, and other politically violent groups, including from neo-Nazi organisations such as Atomwaffen Division, alongside QAnon and other conspiracy proponents, further contributing to socially discriminatory environments impacting marginalised communities. Reflecting on different cases of far-right policy and prejudice, the paper concludes by considering how these seemingly disparate developments contributed respectively to what might be understood as a ‘far-right social turn’ in the context of COVID-19.

Background and literature

Far-right responses to COVID-19 were recognised since the first international spread of the virus in early 2020 to extend to several state governments’ introduction of ‘herd immunity’ and other health-discriminatory policies (Matthewman and Huppatz, 2020). This was primarily by virtue of their subjugation of lower socioeconomic status communities, including, among others, insecure workers, temporary migrants, and refugees (Appleman, 2021). Herd immunity strategies in early 2020, then, referred to national governments’ resistance to societal lockdowns and other virus mitigation measures, often entailing governments’ quasi-Malthusian justifications of health policies resulting in population culling (Aschwanden, 2020). In such approaches, the virus was permitted to spread through national populations, placing at risk people in precarious work and living conditions, and with underlying health conditions, principally in the service of protecting economic industry (Alwan et al, 2020). At times, the adoption of herd immunity was also paired with or supplanted by racist and eugenicist portrayals of pandemic-related illness and disease, targeting marginalised communities. Roma were targeted in Central Europe, while Western European politicians blamed the pejoratively labelled ‘migrant crisis’ of Middle Eastern and North African refugees travelling to Europe from 2015 (Bieber, 2020). In India, as Bieber (2020) shows, Muslim people were likened to ‘suicide bombers’ in the national media for protesting the introduction of a religiously discriminatory citizenship law, while anti-Chinese propaganda proliferated within professional and amateur political arenas in Australia, Europe, and the US (Stavrakakis and Katsampekis, 2020).

Hyper-nationalist responses to the pandemic were in fact common within both autocracies and liberal democracies, reinforcing local prejudice, but also competitive unilateralism among countries regarding treatments and vaccines (Mitropoulos, 2020). Early in the pandemic, some viewed China as having ‘bought the world time to prepare’ for COVID-19 with its strict, albeit variously repressive social control governments, while other governments in New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam were seen as relatively successful with ‘more or less intrusive policy alternatives’ (Saad-Filho, 2020: 2). To a greater extent than in some other countries, in several (neo-)liberal democracies, health and financial risks incurred through managing the pandemic were displaced in neoliberal fashion from publics onto individual households (Mitropoulos, 2020). Combined with those governments’ scapegoating of oppressed populations to excuse high infection rates (Wheeler, 2020), this served as a political distraction from public health failures brought about by eroded public services, stemming from years of national governments’ neoliberal austerity policies.

Although there was incidence of contradiction between the public health strategies of governments and anti-government sentiments expressed by conspiratorial or accelerationist political networks and groups, the promulgation of conspiratorial views during COVID-19 broadly at times also coincided with degrees of denialism about the gravity or reality of the disease expressed by some politicians. Wondreys and Mudde’s analysis of far-right responses to COVID-19 in the European Union illustrated, for instance, how Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League Party promoted the fringe theory that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, while the Spanish far-right VOX party’s general secretary Ortega Smith stated, ‘my “Spanish antibodies” fight the damn Chinese viruses’ (2020: 3; see also Wheeler, 2020). Members of Slovakia’s L’SNS party also asserted that government societal lockdowns there had ‘enslaved’ the people (Wondreys and Mudde, 2020: 4), while far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) spokespersons declared that ‘freedom of speech was “the clearest victim of corona”’ (Wondreys and Mudde, 2020: 4).

Non-government, non-institutional political groups did contribute to a greater extent than government actors toward right-trending, ultra-nationalistic environments in the context of the pandemic through their promotion of conspiracy narratives, which also facilitated recruitment opportunities for white nationalist organisations; however, this was also not without exception. The Rupert Murdoch-owned news media outlets, Fox News in the US and Sky News Australia, for example, explicitly platformed politicians associated with white nationalist activism who also shared QAnon theories and counterfactual material about COVID-19. This included the statements of the US congressional representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert (Walters, 2020), and in Australia, the Liberal National Party of Queensland Member for Parliament George Christensen and former Liberal Party member turned independent Member for Parliament, Craig Kelly (Taylor and Davies, 2021). More widely, QAnon and other reactionary conspiracy movements, during 2020 and 2021 exploited widespread distrust among communities about efficacious public health policies and the reality of the disease itself. They variously offered ultra-nationalist and racialised interpretations of the pandemic as a hoax, drawing on such far-right conspiracy theories as the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) theory, The Great Replacement theory, and that of Judaeo-Bolshevism (Amaransingam and Argentino, 2020; Busbridge et al, 2020), as is elaborated further in the discussion below.

Other explicitly white nationalist media content also contributed to neoliberal ideological environments in the context of COVID-19, propagandising on the basis of widespread distrust of international political, financial, and media elites while leveraging popularised nationalistic conceptions of individual ‘citizenry’ rights through radically libertarian and neoliberal ideological frames of reference (Stavrakakis and Katsempekis, 2020). As Vieten’s (2020) analysis of far-right networks’ online-offline activism elaborates, the rise of ‘hygienic demonstrations’ in Germany during 2020 was characterised by crossover between the far-right activist organisations, Querdenken 711 and Widerstand 2020, with other social protest movements opposing the Angela Merkel administration’s lockdown measures, including in campaigns on the part of the AfD. According to Vieten’s (2020) account, their messaging was buoyed by a defence of perceived ‘normal entitlements’ and ‘normal consumer life’ in conditions of what he termed ‘digital pandemic populism’ (for an alternative account of ‘populism’ see De Cleen et al, 2018). ‘Data voids’, characterised by a dearth of reliable, comprehensible information about the disease, were then also exploited in such environments (Golebiewski and Boyd, 2018 in Maly, 2020), while media introduced to monetise human suffering during the pandemic variously drew on prejudice and/or conspiracy, soliciting viewer donations. This included through the media of Counter-Currents, InfoWars, Stefan Molyneux, Nick Fuentes, and Joseph Paul Watson, the propagandists of which variously advocated hard borders securing the US as a white ethno-state (Maly, 2020).

Some far-right networks and organisations with more explicit violent tendencies also capitalised on ultra-nationalistic, racist, and supremacist social attitudes within the context of COVID-19. Several neo-fascist and neo-Nazi actors, for example, propagandised on intra-pandemic environments of racial prejudice and social division, promoting eschatological ‘race wars’ though such conspiracy narratives as The Great Replacement and Eurabia (Jones, 2021). Lone actors on alt-media and far-right websites such as Telegram, Gab, Fascist Forge and its predecessor, Iron March, alongside members of networked organisations, such as Atomwaffen Division, exploited the pandemic for recruitment opportunities, either by manipulating the grave impacts of COVID-19 or through denialist, conspiratorial portrayals of the pandemic (Kingdon, 2020).

Extending on existing research about various intersecting far-right dimensions of COVID-19, the following analysis explores illustrative cases highlighting how different forms of vulnerability to the virus were exacerbated by both institutional and non-institutional actors’ responses to COVID-19. First, it explores neoliberal governments’ management strategies, before then examining reactions to those policies and the pandemic itself, among wider far-right networks that advocated elements of accelerationism and conspiracy. Statements and actions associated with specific government political actors are considered alongside the behaviours of groups of wider, non-government actors, primarily in light of the former’s institutional context in shaping the governance of neoliberal societies. The analysis considers the high-profile societal impact of their behaviour and rhetoric alongside the comparatively covert, de-institutional, and networked nature of wider far-right social movements that would, incidentally, often superficially reject influence from politically mainstream settings.

Neoliberal governments’ pandemic management strategies

Public health policies introduced by many national governments in early 2020 were designed to ‘flatten the curve’ of the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the number of people infected with the virus at one time, often under the guiding rationale of preventing health systems from becoming overwhelmed. While these measures typically included social distancing, the wearing of masks, and tracking and tracing systems for people infected with COVID-19, at the same time, strategies of ‘herd immunity’ were adopted in some countries for the purpose of avoiding total economic shutdowns wherever possible (Aschwanden, 2020). Neoliberal countries in particular, seeking to preserve and maintain economic industry, more and less explicitly adopted policies of herd immunity that variously reinforced preexisting circumstances of socioeconomic precarity. Far-right governments, concerned with maintaining national economies and protecting only select social demographics from COVID-19, also employed other policies that targeted vulnerable communities through selective vaccinations and health treatment, or that scapegoated marginal population groups for the spread of the disease (Gao and Sai, 2021). Indeed, the racialised, gendered, and socioeconomically-stratified distribution of work in caring professions, transport and sanitation, and services such as delivery work, meant that herd immunity and other discriminatory management strategies introduced in neoliberal societies during COVID-19 generated the harshest impacts on people of colour, migrants, low-income and temporary workers, international students, and refugees (Alemezzadri, 2020).

As mentioned, herd immunity strategies typically entailed political leaders’ reticence to introduce societal lockdowns and their plans to allow increase to virus exposure, while the strategies were designed to increase national populations’ resistance to the disease. In traditional herd immunity approaches, successful implementation would result in the virus coming into contact primarily with people already having antibodies through mass vaccinations, such that it could no longer spread through the general population. During COVID-19, the terminology was more often than not applied erroneously, in light of the scant development or production of vaccines, with reliance instead being placed upon organic population-wide responses of developing mass immunity (Randolph and Barreiro, 2020). Sweden was often cited as a successful example of herd immunity strategy, where through the first half of 2020, the national government policy permitted individuals to continue about their lives more or less as usual in order to preserve economic and public industries and minimise disruption to everyday social life. As Orlowski and Goldsmith (2020) outlined in an impactful article for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, scientifically unsupported policies reliant upon the population organically developing antibodies to COVID-19 discernibly underwrote the national governments’ strategy, and in November 2020, as that paper showed, Sweden’s mortality rate was around three times that of other Scandinavian countries.

In the first year after the international spread of COVID-19, wealthy countries often following the example of Sweden were seen to suffer devastating public health outcomes. Those worst affected were, moreover, often the targets of far-right violence, including aged populations and people with disability, among culturally diverse communities, and others employed in precarious work or essential services (Appleman, 2021). Notably, countries with neoliberal economic systems and class-stratified labour models, including in India, Brazil, the UK, and the US, experienced adverse health impacts from the rapid spread of COVID-19, resulting from a lack of societal lockdowns, and structural features of neoliberal societies, including their overstretched privatised healthcare systems (Heenan and Sturman, 2020). As of June 2021, then, there were a documented 3.82 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, including in the numbers of thousands, 600 from the US, 377 in India, 491 in Brazil, and 128 from the UK. Owing to the deliberate underreporting of COVID-19 infection cases and deaths in several countries, and a lack of healthcare and administrative capacity in others, the actual numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19 are also likely much higher than official documents suggest.

Societal debates about the efficacy of different health strategies, discussed in balance with maintaining neoliberal economies, reflected the international industry of public health pandemic management during COVID-19. Despite evidence of the inefficacy of herd immunity strategies at reducing the spread of the virus, these approaches were endorsed by influential figures in the international scientific community even until late 2020. The Great Barrington Declaration, released 4 October, comprised 12,000 signatures of scientists and researchers and was sponsored by the neoliberal economic ‘libertarian’ think tank, the American Institute for Economic Research. It stated:

As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity. (Kulldorff et al, 2020)

Within the several weeks of that publication, a response in the form of the John Snow Memorandum appeared, also coordinated in Massachusetts, stating:

Any pandemic management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections for COVID-19 is flawed. Uncontrolled transmission in younger people risks significant morbidity and mortality across the whole population. In addition to the human cost, this would impact the workforce as a whole and overwhelm the ability of health care systems to provide acute and routine care. (Alwan et al, 2020)

Debates about public health and sustaining economies during the pandemic also corresponded to the sentiment of dominant political environments, manipulated by internationally influential politicians, often from within neoliberal countries (Abbasi, 2020). Certain far-right administrations, such as the Trump and Bolsonaro governments in the US and Brazil during 2020, were particularly overt in their communication of prejudicial stereotypes and counterfactual opinions, sacrificing the health and lives of vulnerable people in the interests of national economies. Statements made by former US President Donald Trump included that the virus would ‘disappear’, that COVID-19 case numbers were (fallaciously) declining in several US states, that 99% of cases in the country were ‘totally harmless’, and that migration to the US from Mexico was to blame for COVID-19 cases in the South-West (Paz, 2020). His promotion of dangerous health misinformation, meanwhile, also included statements that hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID-19, and that injecting bleach could cure people of the disease (Paz, 2020).

Comparatively, in Brazil, COVID-19 was described as a ‘weapon’ President Jair Bolsonaro used against Amazon-based indigenous people (Charlier and Varison, 2020). This can also be interpreted in the context of his earlier expressed view that ‘it’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians’ (Tomassoni, 2019). In March 2021, by which time Brazil had witnessed 226,000 COVID-19-related deaths, Bolsonaro had denounced local political representatives’ imposition of societal lockdowns in the previous twelve months, describing the virus as a ‘measly cold’ (Londoño et al, 2020). When announcing testing positive for the virus on 7 July 2020, Bolsonaro echoed Trump’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine, citing his own experience of taking the ineffectual COVID-19 pseudo-treatment as evidence of its efficacy, appearing in public without a mask, and emphasising concern that lockdown measures ‘kill’ and ‘suffocate’ the country’s economy (Mandl and Benassatto, 2020).

While some neoliberal governments were less overt in their use of rhetoric seeking to justify sacrificing the lives of people in the interest of sustaining economic industries, in resisting the introduction of efficacious policies they also subjected vulnerable populations to extreme health risks. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, in May 2020 provided vague policy advice to ‘stay home if you are feeling unwell’, ‘avoid cruises if you are over 70’, restricting only ‘educational trips’ for students to other countries (Yong, 2020). While, on 4 July, Johnson eased existing national and travel restrictions (including to COVID-19 hotspots), he also introduced the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, incentivising people to dine out at local hospitality venues with the aim of stimulating domestic economic activity. At the start of a second wave of increased infections in September 2020, then, upon Johnson meeting with notorious proponents of herd immunity pandemic management, including Professors Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan, and Anders Tegnell, the UK government chose again not to impose a further nationwide closure of businesses and services (McNally, 2020). By the end of January 2021, at which time lockdown measures in business and educational institutions were belatedly in place, Britain had recorded 100,000 deaths, and the Chief Executive of the National Health Service stated: ‘… we are seeing over 800 patients a day admitted to London hospitals with coronavirus. That is the equivalent of a new hospital full of coronavirus patients every day’ (Sim, 2021).

Death and infection statistics emerging from mid-2020 provided context for discriminatory rhetoric on the part of political leaders, indicating the devastating and clear health impacts of herd immunity policies, particularly on communities of colour. Demonstrating this within the US, a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that from January to October in 2020 the country had seen more than 299,000 additional deaths than in previous years, with at least two-thirds of those deaths attributable to COVID-19, the most significant percentage increase being seen among ‘Hispanic or Latino’ adults aged 25 to 44 years (Rossen et al, 2020). In March 2021, the CDC reported that ‘African American’ persons were 1.9 times likely to die from COVID-19 and 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalised relative to ‘White Non-Hispanic persons’, while ‘Hispanic or Latino’ persons at that time were 2.3 times more likely to die, and 3.2 times more likely to be hospitalised (CDC, 2021). Data from the Office for National Statistics in the UK, in May 2020, then revealed a 2.5 to 4.3 times greater likelihood of mortality for ‘Black’ and ‘South Asian’ groups relative to other social groups (Platt and Warwick, 2020).

In the light of structural vulnerability to the virus for populations in neoliberal societies, including people working in essential industries, with underlying health conditions, the elderly, and others without the opportunity or resources to work from home, the implications of certain policy measures placing economic interests before the health and lives of individuals were that the decision makers in question ‘exposed certain people to death’ (Ølgaard, 2020). This was not only the situation with explicit herd immunity responses, however; in cases where the endorsement of herd immunity strategies was not as overtly expressed, other governments responded to the pandemic relatively swiftly, but their policies and rhetoric also subjected certain demographics to greater health risks from the virus, and exacerbated the pandemic’s injurious social and political effects.

In several explicit cases where national governments implemented pandemic management measures that benefited only select members of the national population, they targeted population groups explicitly on the basis of religion or ‘race’. Pandemic management measures introduced by Narendra Modi’s administration in India during 2020, for example, included the herding, brutalisation, and humiliation of majority-Muslim populations, alongside other precarious workers. Those who sought to travel to the countryside, after the institutionalisation of societal lockdowns, were forced at the direction of the police to ‘frog jump down the highway’ and others were ‘hosed down with chemical spray’, while people in even more dire situations of precarity who remained behind, suffered visibly in the streets (Roy, 2020). In another national situation demonstrating institutional-governmental targeting of Muslim people, then, a Médecins Sans Frontières report in February 2021 revealed that, as a result of the Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli government policy, residents were 60 times more likely to be vaccinated in Israel relative to Palestine. According to the Israeli government’s official projected vaccine numbers, along the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, only 0.8 per cent of the Palestinian population were understood to eventually be eligible to receive a vaccine (Kennes, 2021). This circumstance then preceded a military assault on Palestinian territories from Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) from May 2021, and the IDF’s June raid on the Palestinian Union of Health Workers Committee headquarters resulting in its forced six-month closure – an organisation vital in COVID-19 responses within the occupied Palestinian Territories (Al Jazeera, 2021).

Accelerationism, far-right conspiracy and counterfactual media

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the intra-pandemic global influence of wealthy states with imperialist or neocolonial histories, there were many explicit examples of far-right, non-institutional and non-government media propagandising on the basis of prejudiced or inequitable government health policies. Rather than emphasise these explicit cases of connection, the aim of this analysis is to highlight illustrative examples of far-right media both operating within, and contributing to the socially and health-discriminatory political environments in which governments’ pandemic responses took place. Of influence were the political-philosophical ideas Western far-right actors integrated in propaganda responding to COVID-19, and different accelerationist and conspiratorial narratives promoted by far-right groups. Generally, these either erred toward denialist conspiracies about COVID-19 or reinforced xenophobic descriptions of the causes and spread of the disease. Far-right reactions to the pandemic were sometimes more explicitly violent and ‘extreme’ in nature, and at other times were contiguous with the wider counterfactual news media environments in which far-right narratives about COVID-19 were communicated.

Although far-right political ideologies are heterogeneous and often contradictory, violent actors in the context of COVID-19 variously advocated accelerationist ideas seeking mass death and the breakdown of social and political institutions, culminating in the would-be dissolution of so-called ‘corrupt’, ‘modern’, or ‘decadent’ societies (Ong and Azman, 2020). They were often inspired by the longstanding societal influence of far-right political philosophies stemming from Nietzsche and the Conservative Revolution to the European New Right, and contemporary neo-fascist pseudo-intellectualism. Conservative Revolutionary concepts that inspired the German Nazi regime in particular remain influential for contemporary neo-Nazis today. In the context of the pandemic, as in wider far-right media, they tended to associate the decline of the Occident, or West, with a particular Fall event and loss of a meaning of Being (Lukács, 1952). Nietzsche-esque far-right accelerationist and survivalist narratives also drew on National Virtues, the Will to Power, and providence or destiny, and were often connected with tropes of ‘blood’ or ‘race’, and efforts to restore cultural greatness ‘beyond Good and Evil’ through the ‘palingenesis’, or ‘rebirth’ of a nation state (Beiner, 2018).

Far-right individuals and organisations during COVID-19 therefore exploited ethno-nationalist accounts of ‘civilizational’ histories, also featuring contemporary conspiracy notions of a ‘Great Replacement’; a narrative referring to people of European or ‘White’ cultural descent being demographically replaced by people of different cultural backgrounds. The idea was first conceptualised by Renaud Camus, before its discursive repetition in European Identitarian networks, far-right Canadian-Australian activist Lauren Southern’s documentary, and in the title of the manifesto of the Australian, Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch in March 2019 (Moses, 2019). In the context of the pandemic, then, the Great Replacement narrative continues to form a dominant propaganda focus for far-right actors, including on the part of the US broadcast network host Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who stated in April 2021 that the US Democratic Party was ‘trying to replace the current electorate’ with ‘more obedient voters from the Third World’ (Michel, 2020). In more covert far-right media, across US, Germany, and Italy, far-right political actors on the messaging service Telegram during late 2020 and early 2021 also communicated narratives that COVID-19 vaccines were part of a ‘replacement’ conspiracy to sterilise ‘White’ populations, that the vaccines were actually lethal, or that they otherwise presented a means to detain people in concentration camps, in retribution for the Nazi regime’s murder of six million Jewish people during World War II (Koblentz-Stenzler and Pack, 2021).

Some other accelerationist narratives also saw an eschatological end to the pandemic, but rather sought to bring about societies’ collapse deliberately. Capitalising on social tragedy as a part of COVID-19, some were inspired by notions of palingenesis, and they also variously drew on the techno-dystopian theory of Nick Land (Beauchamp, 2019), combined with US neo-Nazi James Mason’s political ideology set out in his book, Siege (Gartenstein-Ross et al, 2020). While Siege was recently re-popularised on neo-fascist websites including the far-right Twitter imitation, Gab, Iron March, and its derivative Fascist Forge, the latter was host during the pandemic to the neo-Nazi organisations Atomwaffen Division, The Sonnenkrieg Division, and Antipodean Resistance (Kingdon, 2020). As Kingdon (2020) observes, examples of far-right accelerationism communicated via those sites during COVID-19 were not uniformly denialist about the reality of the disease. Usage of the slogan ‘Remain Indoors’ prevalent on Gab, for instance, referred to an instruction to stay home and read Mason’s Siege in preparation for the coming of an inevitable bloody ‘race war’. Doomsday ideologies across this media then were also seen to promote the coming of the ‘End Times’, in Biblical terms, or the ‘Day of the Rope’, drawing on William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, which described a neo-fascist plan of mass lynching journalists, politicians, and ‘White’ women in relationships with non-‘White’ men (Gartenstein-Ross et al, 2020).

Other far-right networked actors in more open and popular online media during the pandemic were sometimes less immediately physically violent, but they also variously incorporated culturally xenophobic, nationalistic, and conspiratorial explanations of COVID-19. As this paper seeks to show, these communications also worked to facilitate the normalisation of formerly anathema far-right social attitudes within wider counterfactual media environments. While far-right conspiracies during the pandemic were contributed to by anti-knowledge informational environments, then, they were also shaped by the political-economic imperatives of mass-mediated environments. The characteristic of neoliberal, so-called ‘surveillance capitalist’ technologies in observing, predicting, and ultimately influencing Internet users’ behaviour (Zuboff, 2019), might be said to have afforded the collective impact on Internet users of institutional and non-institutional far-right activity during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, such technologies facilitated Aggregate IQ and Cambridge Analytica’s large-scale psychological operations conducted via Facebook, which influenced voting patterns in the 2016 UK European Union (EU) membership referendum (Brexit), and the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump. Through these operations, supporters of Trump and Leave political lobbyists in the US and UK propagandised on the basis of unsupported links between microeconomic labour conditions in their respective countries and domestic and international migration (Barker, 2018). In some ways similarly, though through less explicitly ‘institutional’ means, the QAnon conspiracy proliferating during the pandemic fed into ultra-nationalistic, exclusionary, and accelerationist narratives, and this was coordinated using socially mediatised, monetised, and psychologically addictive platforms.

The QAnon theory was, moreover, communicated significantly through a neoliberal media apparatus which fomented social hatred and political division at the same time as it was controlled, in part, by Silicon Valley and other ‘Big Tech’ industries that share significant partnership arrangements with US institutions of national security. Demonstrating the far-right provenance of the QAnon theory, the followers of which on Instagram and Facebook grew to 4.5 million in August 2020 (Wong, 2020), briefly, it holds that an underground network of Satanic international child exploitation is run by Jewish global political and commercial elites, historically featuring Hilary Clinton via underground tunnels in ‘Pizzagate’, while microchipping through COVID-19 vaccinations was conducted by the Gates Foundation for mass surveillance (Busbridge et al, 2020). ‘Deep state’ operatives hostile to Donald Trump are also, according to this narrative, aligned with non-state political actors, such as anti-fascists in the US, who are themselves allegedly directed by the billionaire Jewish philanthropist (and World War II refugee), George Soros (Amarasingam and Argentino, 2020).

The potential for QAnon to facilitate the connection of susceptible individuals to far-right political causes, given the global geopolitical shocks wrought by the pandemic, also corresponds to its elicitation of neo-Nazi and white supremacist conspiracies. Further to its core themes, QAnon integrates elements of the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) theory, which posits a narrative of Jewish elites’ tyrannical control, with multilateral financial and media institutions, over a ‘globalist’ population, seeking to bring about a ‘one world order’. Notably in the context of COVID-19, Jewish people in ZOG content and far-right currents of QAnon were euphemistically characterised as rats or other rodent vectors enabling the spread of a ‘virus’ or ‘plague’. The ZOG-derived Great Replacement theory also finds space in QAnon media, as does the notion of Eurabia – another far-right conspiratorial belief that European political leaders seek to bring about the ‘Islamisation’, or significant repopulation of Muslim people, within Europe (Jones, 2021). Within a context of broader right-wing and far-right media ecosystems during the pandemic, references to Cultural Marxism in this media also drew on the pre-WWII anti-Semitic ideologies of ‘Cultural Bolshevism’ and ‘Judaeo-Bolshevism’, which described Jewish people as ‘borderless enemies’ associated with international communism, who sought variously to destabilise European values of traditionalism, nationhood, and Christianity (Hanebrink, 2018).

The relationship of accelerationist and conspiratorial narratives to wider environments of neoliberal governance is also illustrated by technological characteristics of online, anti-knowledge, and monetised social media environments. The uptake and usage of many such platforms increased significantly during the pandemic; particularly social media ones that can be understood as part of an ‘attention economy’ sustaining and commodifying influential public political opinions (Maly, 2020). Constituting this economy are recommender algorithms that reinforce media consumer biases, while psychologically addictive material proliferates, and is perpetually remediated via ‘likes’, ‘comments’ and ‘shares’ by both individuals and automated or computerised systems (Farkas et al, 2018). In the context of the pandemic, conspiracy ecosystems expanded, then, through both human and techno-social methods, encouraging social discrimination, cultural xenophobia, and widespread international communities’ distrust of reliable public health information about COVID-19.

While conspiratorial and counterfactual views related to COVID-19 were then mass-mediated across 24–7 digitised social and news media cycles, they were also at times endorsed by powerful politicians. As previously discussed, this was stark in the behaviour of far-right political actors, including Trump and Bolsonaro. It was also apparent in the voices of their political supports, such as Steve Bannon, and on the part of many other conspiratorial government spokespersons platformed across Australia, Europe, the UK, and US in particular by mainstream news media (Taylor and Davies, 2021).

Concluding comments

Instrumental contradiction between government health policies implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the far-right agitating of non-government political groups, did occur, including through anti-lockdown protests or conspiracies about a ‘globalist elite’ using the pandemic to implement totalitarian social control measures (Vieten, 2020). On the other hand, as this paper has sought to show, structurally impactful connections also exist between intra-pandemic governance strategies within neoliberal societies, and among the political activity of far-right politically violent groups, extending through popular, neoliberal media to the conspiracy-predicated thinking of broader social movements. Narratives promoted both by governments, and by conspiratorial and accelerationist networks, were argued to variously serve ultra-nationalistic and socially discriminatory political agendas, exacerbating the pandemic’s harmful effects on (often) already marginalised communities.

While some neoliberal governments’ policies entailed the sacrifice of human lives for the purpose of sustaining economic industry, as in the case of the US, Brazil, and the UK, in other cases, such as in India or Israel, they included the racialised (and in some cases explicitly eugenicist) scapegoating of marginalised communities to excuse illness and disease, alongside the withholding of vaccines or health treatments for those communities. In various situations, representatives of national governments concerned about the potential for reduced national economic growth also discouraged public health measures to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, the wearing of masks, disinfection and hygiene guidelines, and the closure of non-essential services – including, in particular, those services that contributed significantly to sustaining domestic economies, such as large-capacity business venues. Indeed, as the examples in this paper show, the policies of neoliberal, right-wing governments were heterogeneous and not always predicated on radical public health strategy inaction, extending prejudice and public health neglect in ways that reflected wider and preexisting dynamics in given political settings.

Despite the inclusion of specific government administrations, the analysis did not seek to draw direct linear comparisons between the policies of those governments and the political activity of explicit non-state political groups. Rather, it sought to highlight how neoliberal ideological-political environments for the articulation of intra-pandemic management strategies, in certain respects, provided context for non-state far-right social movements during the pandemic. The discussion emphasised how far-right policies and prejudice endorsed by institutions during the pandemic were in some ways contiguous with dimensions of far-right political thought advocated by non-institutional actors, despite such connections having to this point arguably been largely under-explored and under-addressed. Discrete examples of neoliberal policies and political practice in the context of COVID-19 illustrated, moreover, how the nature of the far-right turn during the pandemic was truly ‘social’ in nature. As the analysis elaborated, the gradual inculcation of counterfactual, formerly discredited far-right ideas into politically mainstream venues – facilitated by way of popular and culturally resonant, neoliberal news and social media – both encouraged violent prejudice and suppressed public awareness of the impact of neoliberal pandemic management responses, obscuring the structurally-determined devastation they caused, and weakening the possibilities for resistance to their most pernicious effects.

Although certain dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic are inextricably ‘modern’ in nature, the mechanisms of social control employed in these contexts also have significant historical precedence. They recall, for instance, both the Western cultural elitism of Austrian school neoliberal economics, and longer-standing sovereign responses to perceived social and economic crises. One might reflect on the racist and classist responses to economic crises that preceded the rise of the German Nazi and Italian fascist regimes before World War II (Alexander, 2004), or the historical individualisation and privatisation of social goods that, as Mitropoulos (2020) observed, underwrote early European capitalist societies, beginning with the introduction of property laws in the aftermath of the bubonic plague. For networked far-right actors, the breakdown of iniquitous institutional democracies has, moreover, long been exploited in proto-fascist terms as serving the political aims of palingenesis, translating in Social Darwinist terms to the eugenicist ‘rebirth’ of a nation state (Beiner, 2018).

Within the context of this history of nationalisms, the socially prejudicial effects of COVID-19 must necessarily also be understood on a global scale. It is important to recognise that the pandemic itself reflected intersecting threats to human and non-human life from ecological-environmental devastation, domestic and international resource and wealth inequality, and a rise in prevalence of exclusivist, nationalistic politics. The zoonotic COVID-19 virus itself took hold in human populations as a result of the anthropogenic destabilisation of natural ecosystems brought about through extractive and agriculturally intensive resource industries (Heenan and Sturman, 2020). During the course of the pandemic, then, residents of Global South countries, which had developed extractive essential resource and labour models under the neoliberal policy guidance of multinational corporations, nation states, and international financial institutions, experienced scarcity and a lack of access to education or research for virus treatments and the development or administration of vaccines (Stevano et al, 2021). At the same time, people residing in less wealthy countries, alongside those displaced or subjugated by the pandemic in wealthy states, found themselves subject to and not resilient against geographical border closures stemming the spread of the virus, for people, goods, and services (Fanelli and Whiteside, 2020).

This paper has not been exhaustive in accounting for the many harmful impacts resulting from neoliberal governance of the global pandemic, or the co-occurrent growth in prevalence of far-right policies and practice. It has instead sought to highlight some of the structural philosophical, geopolitical, and historical factors that might be observed in the relationship between different social oppressions exacerbated during the spread of the virus since late 2019. In doing so, it also invited further discussion of how less-recognised connections between pandemic responses on the part of governments and within non-government political networks respectively contributed toward a far-right social turn in the context of COVID-19.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 Deakin University, , Australia

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