As I begin to type this article, it has been 348 days since Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, over 120,000 people have died as a result of the disease, creating massive disruption, grief and anxiety for countless other people, and demonstrating the total inadequacy of the government and the Capitalist system that provides it with its power.
We’ve seen the government bungle its response to the pandemic, communities band together in admirable acts of mutual aid, right-wing conspiracies, and inspirational mass movements rise up against oppression. Now, with the development and mass distribution of a number of vaccines, many people envision an end to the pandemic in the U.K within a year. As the pandemic is gradually brought under control, and businesses and the government try to push people towards a return to ‘normality’, what threats and opportunities might face us, and what can we, as anarchists, do to prepare and respond to these challenges?
First, let’s assess the actual likelihood of the pandemic being brought under control here within a reasonable timeframe. The government promises that all adults will have received the first dose of a vaccine by the end of July. However, most research indicates that two doses are necessary for effective protection against the virus, and, in order to achieve this lofty promise, the gap between first and second doses has been stretched from a recommended 2 weeks to a maximum of 12 weeks; this lengthened gap has caused concern as it may potentially reduce the effectiveness of the vaccination and may even provide an opportunity for the virus to mutate and adapt against the vaccine.
The concerns about the potential reduction in the effectives of the vaccination have been further exacerbated by the fact that the second dose may consist of a different vaccine than that of the first. Although the threat of mutation may be somewhat inhibited by the fact that the virus cannot mutate in an overly extensive manner without compromising its ability to infect people, and that vaccinations could likely be developed against any new strains, the fact remains that new strains of the virus do have the potential to severely disrupt the vaccination process; for example, the AstraZeneca vaccine has been found to be significantly less effective against the South African strain. It must also be kept in mind that many people, such as those who have an autoimmune disorder, etc., will be unable to receive a vaccination; as it has not been confirmed for certain that vaccinations prevent transmission of COVID-19, there remains the potential that precautions will still have to be maintained for the benefit of these people, even after the bulk of the population has been vaccinated. In light of these factors, whilst it may not be entirely improbable that the pandemic will be brought under control by some point after October this year, it is also not entirely improbable that the pandemic will continue in the U.K for a noticeably longer period of time.
On a more hopeful note, the research and production of new vaccinations against COVID-19 has led to a number of exciting developments: mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, have now been proven to be effective and are cheaper and easier to produce than traditional vaccines; a trio of ‘biohackers’, Dariia Dantseva, David Ishee and Josiah Zayner, developed a DIY DNA vaccine that produced neutralising antibodies in all three of the trio when they tested it on themselves; a group of people, who met through their association with Harvard Medical School, formed the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative (RaDVaC) and developed a vaccine with the express intent that it could be produced with minimal equipment and distributed safely with a minimum of training (RaDVaC’s vaccination is delivered via a nasal spray, as opposed to via an injection).
The relatively low cost of production for each of these vaccinations (especially the RaDVaC vaccination, which is significantly cheaper and easier to produce than the mRNA and DNA vaccines) means that, through the pooling of funds and/or fundraisers, decentralised collectives could produce and distribute vaccinations against COVID-19 (and, with some modifications, against other diseases) throughout their local communities; this could potentially allow for the mitigation of any disturbances to the state vaccination programme, the shortening of the gap between first and second doses, and, in a more expansive view, it could lessen communities’ reliance on the state for healthcare). mRNA vaccines have another exciting potential for treatment as research indicates that the same technology could be adapted to treat most forms of cancer (in somewhat of an oversimplification, injections of mRNA could be used to cause cancer cells to produce antigens that would then cause the body’s immune system to target and destroy them); if this is the case, this has enormous implications for anarchistic models of healthcare as it could potentially allow decentralised collectives to effectively treat the leading cause of death worldwide.
Of course, we must refrain from being overly optimistic and avoid falling into the trap of techno-utopianism; this decentralised production and distribution of vaccinations, as well as the use of mRNA technology against cancer, has not been tested or proven to be effective in a statistically significant manner, there are a number of safety concerns that will need to be addressed, and it is likely that anyone attempting to produce vaccines will face harsh opposition from the State, who will act to protect the patents of corporations and to destroy any attempt to undermine its influence.
Vaccinations in all forms will continue to be opposed by a vocal minority of conspiracy theorists that have emerged throughout the pandemic. These conspiracy theorists consist of a diverse coalition of, amongst others, anti-vaxxers, QAnon followers, and vehement opponents of 5G technology. Whilst they, by themselves, are likely to remain a minority, and will probably never amount to a serious threat on a systemic level, they provide an excellent body of potential recruits and supporters for fascists, who have already begun to openly participate in their marches and demonstrations.
The conspiracy theorists are ideal targets for fascist recruitment as they, whether they are aware of it or not, hold a number of anti-Semitic beliefs and have an authoritarian mindset that views any deviance from their line of thought as the behaviour of mere ‘sheeple’ at best or a serious threat from allies/servants of their imagined shadowy cabal at worst.
Fascism in the UK, after the collapse of the majority of the EDL, has mostly been a disorganised, infighting mess, but it may be able to regain an organised presence on the streets if it continues to gain influence over the conspiracy theorists and takes charge of their movements. Even if they never become sufficiently organised to be a systemic threat, there is a serious risk that the conspiracy theorists and fascists may begin to commit isolated acts of violence and stochastic terrorism, which will largely be targeted against Jewish and Muslim communities.
Unfortunately, this movement is likely to be sustained even after it long becomes clear that vaccinations pose no major risk; due to its cult-like mentality, many of the movement’s adherents will double-down on their ideas in response to information that challenges them. As a result, there needs to be an active anti-fascist presence to protect our communities from violence and to prevent fascist organisation. Where possible, anarchists should do what they can to dispel conspiracy theories and ensure that people’s, often legitimate, opposition to the government is not misdirected in hateful, bigoted directions.
Anarchists should also act to help people whose opposition to the government and state is directed in more positive directions. During the Summer of 2020, there was a significant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to the murder of George Floyd in Amerika. This movement successfully popularised the positions of defunding the police and, more hopefully, police abolition. The disproportionate manner in which BLM protests and activists have been policed provides evidence of both the racism of the police as an institution, and the serious threat that the movement poses to the police. Unfortunately, the centuries of ongoing racism and police brutality are unlikely to end any time soon, so anarchists must be prepared to help the continued struggle against the police and support BLM in a variety of ways, whether that be through prison support or fundraising for BLM activists who face state repression, or opposing the fascist presence that often emerges to harass BLM protests.
Finally, what can we expect from the British state?
The government is under pressure from its capitalist backers to reopen businesses and kickstart the economy, and it will likely do this, as it has done previously, before it is actually safe to do so. At least for the immediate future, the government has indicated that it will attempt to offer support to mitigate the severity of the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic, but many people will struggle, and are struggling, as the result of job-loss and Brexit-related price increases; a reinvigoration of the many mutual aid groups that sprung up during the early stages of the pandemic would be incredibly useful in helping people to overcome this challenge, but we should be careful to avoid previous mistakes and take a stronger effort to push forward a radical message and reject the attempts of local political parties to co-opt the groups for their own agendas.
The growing influence of the state will not be limited to the economy as the government has announced its intentions to restrict and repress protests; as mentioned earlier, the state has felt threatened by movements such as BLM, and is therefore pushing forward a bill, the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’, that will allow the police to place more limitations on protests, and inflict harsher punishments on those who violate such limitations. The Labour Opposition, led by Keir Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, has so far voiced no objection to this bill and it is more likely than not that it will pass successfully. When it does, we can expect more harassment from the police at demos, and will potentially have to deal with more self-policing at demos from nervous liberal/NGO types; more attention will likely have to be given to the vital work of prisoner support, as, unfortunately, people will be facing more years behind bars due to harsher sentencing.
Further state repression is planned through the criminalisation of trespass; although the category of ‘people who trespass’ encompasses just about everybody, the criminalisation of trespass will disproportionately be used against gypsy, traveller and Roma communities in a violent attack against their way of life for the benefit of wealthy landowners.
An equally severe concern is the potential for an intensified legal persecution of trans people; although the government has made recent progressive steps, such as the inclusion of alternative gender identities in the 2021 census, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Elizabeth Truss has made a number of comments that parallel those commonly employed by TERF activists, and has announced plans to make it more difficult for trans youth to access support, to roll back long delayed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, and to endanger trans feminine people by forcing them out of women’s spaces. With a hostile media that actively discriminates against trans people and platforms transphobes, and a Labour Opposition that itself harbours many transphobic members, we cannot expect any ‘official’ opposition to such legal persecution and we should therefore prepare ourselves to provide our own opposition through a diversity of tactics.
The sheer volume of oppressive policies and positions that the government has planned is indicative of a ‘Shock Doctrine’. A ‘Shock Doctrine’, as defined by Naomi Klein in her 2007 book of the same name, is a political strategy involving the exploitation of large-scale crises, whether natural or artificial, to distract, preoccupy and overwhelm any potential popular resistance to oppressive/otherwise unpopular policies and developments. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity for this shock doctrine, as many anarchists and a significant portion of the political left’s membership base have been stuck combatting the pandemic’s effects, critiquing the government’s decisions, and dealing with the grief and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, with little time, resources, or capacity to organise effectively against the government’s planned repression. Not to mention the fact that COVID-19 itself significantly increases the risk of organising physically, and that many people have grown a heightened sense of ‘learned helplessness’ as they have felt unable to effectively act against the pandemic themselves, becoming reliant on following the orders and instructions of government ‘experts’ .
These problems, as demonstrated by the BLM protests, can be overcome and effective resistance against the state can manifest itself, even in the face of crisis. In addition, it is possible that we can utilise our experiences gained during the pandemic in mutual aid collectives and other support groups to effectively organise alternative structures to, at least in part, circumvent or mitigate the harms inflicted by the government’s Shock Doctrine; for example, if the State won’t support trans youth, then decentralised collectives should step in to fulfil that role, and if the government starts doling out harsher fines against protesters, then community solidarity groups can raise funds to cover the costs. The pandemic may even provide us with some advantages of our own as it has successfully exposed the inadequacy of both state and capital, and has left countless people distrustful of authority and eager for radical change.
In conclusion, the pandemic has disrupted society, allowing, and perhaps compelling, the government to increase its authoritarianism to preserve its own power. This disruption has also, however, allowed us to gain vital experiences and has opened up new opportunities.
Many people, now disillusioned with the status quo, have been misled to follow conspiracy theories and fascist influence, but many more have allowed their disillusionment to be a more enlightening experience, pushing them to take their first steps to build a better world. In face of the challenges created by this pandemic, and the overwhelming likelihood of future crises, it is perfectly reasonable to feel disheartened, but, in our darkest moments, we can take inspiration from the acts of resistance, compassion and solidarity that have arisen across communities globally.■
“The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”
~ Buenaventura Durruti