Dr Ian Hyslop explains why it’s urgent we address the social and political divisions that enabled the Parliament protest rather than “disparage the feral mob and order another latte”

The recent ‘convoy’ protest encampment of people outside Parliament and the chaotic confrontation with police which eventually dispersed the camp has generated some disturbing questions in relation to the social and political landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand.

A variety of commentators have attempted to explore the roots of this event and many of us are struggling to develop a coherent analysis. What is it that has made people susceptible to the confused strands of ideology that we saw running riot? It seems clear that an eclectic mix of disaffected individuals and influences coalesced. I have been trying to make sense of all of this myself. I am not there yet, but some of the following is true.

The protest was, at least in the main, centred on opposition to mandated Covid vaccinations and the loss of ‘rights and freedoms’ associated with refusing this procedure – particularly the loss of jobs and access to social/commercial venues. The mainstream official counterargument, of course, is that the issue of wider communal health and safety overrides individual choice.

Within this stand-off there lies also the more nuanced argument that the time for vaccine mandates has passed since the Omicron variant is highly transmissible regardless of vaccination status. Public health advice that unvaccinated individuals are more likely to become infected, and once infected are more likely to become seriously ill and require hospitalisation, is relied on by the Government to argue that the spur of mandates should remain at least until the current (and increasingly rampant) wave of infections has waned.

However, it is also clear that this protest was about more than vaccination mandates – it was about Covid more generally, perhaps symptomatic of associated fatigue and frustration. It was also about disinformation, misinformation, and experiences or perceptions of social exclusion. The protest gathered an unusual and disparate group including alternative lifestyle adherents, some people affiliated with fundamentalist churches and, at the edges, radical Neo Nazi extremists. The conflation of individual freedom and national identity is reminiscent of the Trump phenomenon in the US and the rise of narrow right-wing populism globally: a populism often cynically supported by private capital.

As political commentator Chris Trotter has argued, the shared belief in the notion of ‘big government’ as a common enemy, distrust of ‘the media’ and tribal disapproval of the socially liberal values of what is viewed as a rich, educated  and generally privileged urban elite has characterised those drawn to alternative right politics – a politics of conspiracy, misinformation and generalised fear and loathing, according to US philosopher Nancy Fraser.

This sort of movement is ripe for the advancement of ‘strong’ authoritarian leaders and in its most disturbing incarnation, for the gestation of fascism. Much of the Trump constituency has been drawn from the rust-belt heartlands of the US and the small company towns devastated by the outsourcing that accompanied the globalisation of capitalist production: the use of the fractured working class as pawns in a self-interested game of power.

Ironically the associated prescription of freed-up business enterprise, minimal regulation, anti-union legislation, removal of environmental protections, sanctions against migrant labour – the ‘freedom’ generated by a marriage of capitalism and nationalism – ultimately does very little to advance the interests of the working-class people who are drawn to this propaganda. Alternative right interests have no desire for an active state that safeguards the material welfare of those without money, property, power, and opportunity. Distrust of government, complex deep-state conspiracies, racism, gendered bigotry, and homophobic beliefs are all grist for this divisive mill.

I am uncertain about how much of this analysis is valid in the Aotearoa New Zealand context. We clearly do have our own regional rust zones, our own glaring inequalities: towns that have lost their industry and infrastructure since the neoliberal turn of 40 years ago now. The current Government’s ‘team of five million’ concerned for ‘our most vulnerable’ is a thin political construction in a socially and economically divided society. Inter-generational working-class identities have fallen away, and we have adopted individualised, marketised and commodified personas in their place. Events such as the discordant anti-vax protest – with all its strange brew of differing constituencies – do, at least, provide a sense of common cause and solidarity.

Beyond the radical anti-collectivist right and the more ‘moderate’ position taken by vaccine doubters, we also saw bizarre denial of the Covid pandemic itself; beliefs difficult to fathom and mired in conspiracy. This seems to be linked, at least for some, to suspicion of mainstream health science and of state authority. I was born in 1958 – part of the ‘lucky’ post war generation.

I was influenced by the counterculture of protest and challenge to conservative life and politics that came (just a little later) to Aotearoa New Zealand from the US and Europe. The hippie generation of those times questioned the status quo, the authority of the state and orthodox power relations. After all, the political use and misuse of science gave us Hiroshima, thalidomide, agent orange, and many other horrors – so this sort of dissent does have a credible whakapapa.

Ironically the legacy of the collective rebellion of the 1970s also carried some of the seeds of radical individualism. This was surprisingly in tune with the contemporary project of the autonomous responsible neoliberal self – a self that is always free to choose. This is one of many intersections within the puzzling counter-factual realm of Covid denial and conspiracy: people who are conceptually primed to accept disinformation and to deny and disavow mainstream knowledge – to question it unquestioningly. I remember concerns about the legitimacy of vaccinations (and worry about the admission of low level electro-magnetic emissions from national grid power pylons) in the 1970s and 80s. For most, such hesitancies were overshadowed by the Covid threat, but not so for a core of true unbelievers in a post-truth world

All of this has created a puzzle and a challenge for a divided political ‘left’ in Aotearoa New Zealand. It may, in fact, be a wake-up call. There was something very strange about protest politics being commandeered and manipulated by the far right, something disconcerting about many on the left looking for firmer police intervention. There was something gobsmacking about dispossessed people whose needs would be much better served by a politics of redistribution being drawn so uncritically to the cause of market ‘freedom’, with signs misidentifying the moderate politics of the liberal centre-left as the work of the evil socialist bogey-woman Jacinda Ardern. As if this prescription could possibly serve the long-run interests of downtrodden humans? There was something deeply galling and gutting in all of this.

It does seem disturbingly likely that the protest spectacle will have strengthened and emboldened the extremist alternative right, broadening the toxic reach and influence of disinformation media platforms and increasing the risk of violent extremism.

Accordingly, those of us who would like to see a revisioned and reconfigured radical left politics have our work cut out. If nothing else, the events of the last three weeks should alert us to the urgency and the challenge of the task that lies before us. It is better to understand and organise than to disparage the feral mob and order another latte. Do we risk sleep-walking our way to an unstable and much less ‘free’ society: a repressive and fear-laced system powered by a new variant of high-octane capitalism? We owe past and future generations more than this.

This opinion piece was originally published in Reimagining Social Work in Aotearoa

Dr Ian Hyslop is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work. He worked for 20 years as a social worker, supervisor, and practice manager in statutory child protection...

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