This article was first published in DiY Culture No.08
By Richard Parry, anarchist lawyer
I have been sceptical of the need for mass lockdown, and alarmed by the degree of obedience to it, especially where it goes beyond anything necessary to defeat the rate of transmission of the coronavirus. When the police were out with drones, threatening people who wanted to go for a walk, while the media was shaming people who went to see parents or lovers, where was the rage against the sudden imposition of what, in normal times we would have regarded as fascism? I found that some Italian and German anarchist groups did protest, in Venice and Berlin, what what was most shocking is that almost nobody was posting this in social media. All the rage was directed against the government for not doing enough, not acting more decisively, as tough as governments in Germany and New Zealand. These have become our new model states, with Sweden as the pariah.
The response from the Left was understandable, always a cry for more state intervention, praise for the Chinese Communist Party and their handling of the virus, looking with envy to the stricter lockdowns imposed in Europe.
It was too easy to follow this simple narrative – protecting the vulnerable and the NHS is a simple rallying cry, that is very seductive. As the death rate was always bound to fall more heavily (eventually) on the working class and the poorest members of that class, then calling for a tough lockdown appeared to be a justified response based on class politics. Unsurprisingly therefore many anarchists have followed the Left from this perspective, attacking the government’s mishandling of the crisis and pointing out failures in the capitalist market in the supply of PPE etc.
Unfortunately, this has had the effect of surrendering, almost entirely, the terrain of protest against authoritarianism to the Right wing populists. Only a tiny disparate group of anarchists and former Marxist revolutionaries have attacked the lockdown, but they themselves have been infected with some of the conspiracy theories floating around mainly US libertarian circles. For this reason anybody, even from an anarchist perspective, who is sceptical of the need for strict lockdown, for authoritarian solutions to the crisis, now becomes “an enemy of the working class.”
This is the way anarchists have always been demonised by the Left, as “bourgeois individualists” who care more about abstract notions of freedom than the interests of the working class as a whole.
Nothing could be further than the truth. The lack of freedom always falls more heavily on the working class, whether in Pinochet’s Chile, Franco’s Spain or Stalin’s Russia. Anarchists recognise that oppression is the same whether from Left or Right. We cannot and must not allow our natural sympathy for the working class to fall into the trap of authoritarian solutions. And we must look out globally for what is happening in India and Africa where the threat of mass famine, the spread of tuberculosis, and the fanning of xenophobia by governments, may create a crisis for working people that makes what is happening in the “developed world” look rather tame by comparison.
There is a false opposition between the “economy” and “saving lives.” The economy is also our own social economy, it is all of us living, working, socialising. That is the essence of human society. It is where humans intersect, protest, raise their collective voices. “Staying at home” is fundamentally counter-revolutionary. It is atomisation and isolation, it is anathema to working class life.
While we can agitate for “no return to normal” we need to be very clear about what we want, and not tail end the Left for authoritarian solutions to the crisis.