Is Australia’s Anti-Lockdown Movement a Creature of Corporate Dark Money?

‘Mainstream media’ is the bugbear of choice for the anti-lockdown movement; it associates the facts of epidemiological science with media propaganda, and so avoids having to address the rationale for lockdowns in its own legitimising narratives.

In sociology, the process of constructing an exclusionary binary between the known and unknown is called ‘Othering.’ This is a facet of moral panics, or episodes of social hysteria characterised by preoccupations with more or less spurious existential threats.

To the anti-lockdown movement, tendencies in ‘mainstream media’ towards what Herman and Chomsky famously called the ‘manufacture of consent’ is the known. The lies of the US government around Iraqi WMDs are one example of mainstream media being complicit in the manufacture of consent, leading to the Iraq War. Epidemiological science is the unknown.

Othering gives rise to moral panics through what sociologists call ‘the production of deviance.’ This is significant insofar as deviance is characteristically subjective and depends on who has the power to impose their interpretation of what or who is deviant on public discourse.

In reflecting a very black and white worldview, the anti-lockdown movement reflects this process. It engages in the production of deviance. In effect, it reflects the construction of a moral panic. ‘MSM’ is the deviant because it allegedly never reports facts; this is patently untrue. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, it reports the facts of epidemiological science.

The mainstream media can be complicit in lies, as in the case of neoconservative pretexts for the Iraq War, but this is not universally true. The manufacture of consent is far more nuanced and subtle than the moral panicking of the anti-lockdown movement allows.

Moral panics are not new; they are, on the contrary, as old as the hills. What is new about the anti-lockdown movement, and the burgeoning moral panic over lockdowns as well as vaccines, is the strategy behind it.

As I argued in my book The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgave Macmillan 2020), moral panics are an elite-driven phenomenon; the atmosphere of panic provides ideological cover for political scapegoating.

As I demonstrated in The Oldest Trick in the Book, this was as true of the European Witch Hunts as a political reaction to social instability in early modern Europe as it was the Stalinist Purges as a pretext to cement the totalitarian power of the eponymous dictator.

The architect of moral panic invents a conspiracy theory to justify cracking down on threats to power (‘brides of Satan are trying to destroy Christendom,’ ‘reactionary terrorists are trying to destroy the revolutionary state’). The emotions are elevated. Evil is coming to destroy us all right now, act now or be damned.

In innumerable instances throughout history, this has been carried out by political actors in defence of the status quo—with one exception. Recent scholarship in moral panics notes the use of ‘charismatic moral entrepreneurship’ (Joosse) in deploying the ‘production of deviance’ for the purposes of fascist insurgency. His subject: Donald Trump.

The use of ‘deviance production’ by the antivaxxer movement mirrors Trump’s insurgent use of moral panicking to attack and overthrow the status quo for reactionary purposes. The black-and-white moral absolutisms and the ‘doubting my judgement gives aid to the evildoers’ logic are exactly the same.

In the case of the anti-vaxxer movement, however, there is one notable difference—it has little or no grounding in politics. Donald Trump used ‘charismatic moral entrepreneurship’ to win the US presidency. The anti-vaxxer movement has its fair share of grifters, but it has no discernible political leadership.

From whence then does it come?

For an answer to this question, we need to ask ourselves who else is pushing the same line as the anti-lockdown protesters? There is one clear answer to that: corporate think tanks.

The Institute for Public Affairs is the largest extreme-right think tank in Australian politics. It promotes an extreme free-market ideology, libertarianism, which equates the vested interests of extreme corporate power with the common good.

In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the IPA is staunchly anti-lockdown. It uses its anti-lockdown message to promote its fundamental operating assumption that what is good for corporate power is good for everyone. Opening up the economy, whatever the social cost, is good for business; similarly, any check on corporate power is a threat to ‘freedom’

As a partisan ideological outlet for US-style libertarianism, the IPA is part of a growing global movement attached to this ideology. In her 2018 book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean documents its growth, along with its deep hostility to political democracy as a potential check on corporate power.

The corporate-sponsored libertarian movement is centred around the Atlas Network, a global network of extreme-right think tanks funded by the Koch Bothers—paragons of the global dark money network. It has been linked to Donors Trust, a clearinghouse that Mother Jones has described as the ‘Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.’

The ideological narratives of the anti-lockdown movement here in Australia and those of the Atlas Network-linked IPA are the same. The driving assumptions of both are consistent with the core beliefs and value systems of US-style libertarianism and its dark money ATM in Donors Trust. The organiser of the ‘freedom’ rallies in Melbourne is a self-identified libertarian.

The use of deviance production by extreme-right corporate think tanks is not new. As the Guardian has reported, the Exxon-Mobil funded American Policy Institute is responsible for hysteria over the UN Agenda 21 programme, a very mild attempt to encourage national governments to promote ecological sustainability.

In the case of the anti-lockdown movement, what is new is that the corporate-sponsored attacks on both lockdowns and epidemiology are gaining enough traction to take on the dimensions of a panic. Rather than coming from the political sphere, as they have done historically, this panic is coming from the corporate sector.

This appears to be a novel development in the history both of moral panics, and of corporate propaganda. By the same token, however, it is not without forerunners, and is not inconsistent with what is already known about the latter.

As Australian academic Alex Carey demonstrated in his seminal study of corporate propaganda, attempts by corporations to defend their power from regulation and democratic accountability have been a feature of politics in the west for most of the last century. The rise of corporate think-tanks, and of US-style libertarianism, appear to be a new stage in a broader continuum.

What has historical precedent, then, is the demonstrated hostility of corporate power to regulation and accountability, and its desire to protect itself from both through active efforts to influence public opinion. Corporate PACs and corporate lobbyists are, in this day and age, a normalised and accepted feature of political life.

What is new, as noted, is the use of deviance production within anti-lockdown political discourse to stir up moral panics—a strategy being perpetrated by the IPA and other devotees of US corporate-funded libertarianism at the grassroots. This is in fact entirely consistent with what MacLean demonstrates in terms of the willingness of corporate libertarians to work outside of regular democratic channels.

In the case of the anti-lockdown movement, this insurgent moral panicking is also consistent with academic scholarship around ‘charismatic moral entrepreneurship.’ In this case, as in the presidency of Donald Trump, the ‘Othering’ is perpetrated not to defend the status quo, as has traditionally been the case, so much as to facilitate radical change—backwards.

The Covid-19 pandemic has represented a major crisis for the whole world. It has been not only a public health crisis, but an economic crisis and, indeed, a crisis of legitimacy for the global conditions that wrought it. The novel coronavirus entered a world beset by a generalised political, economic and ecological crisis as it was. People around the world are very upset and are asking questions.

It is a well understood truism of politics that crisis and opportunity are different sides of the same coin. As I again demonstrated in The Oldest Trick in the Book, this has been a feature of elite crisis management throughout history.

What is the difference in this case? Arguably, it is that the interests of the transnational corporate classes who contribute to Donors Trust, the Dark-Money ATM, and sponsor organisations like Atlas Trust, are separate and distinct from those of the liberal capitalist who have enjoyed ideological hegemony since the end of the Second World War.

If Donald Trump was willing to sacrifice Hilary Clinton to his spurious ‘war on elites’ populism, so too is the corporate-sponsored libertarian movement willing to sacrifice political democracy to its own spurious populism? It is willing to sacrifice the liberal capitalist class as a whole to a much broader, and much more insidious project of illiberal capitalism?

Some sense of an answer to this question would appear to be reflected in the pretence of the anti-lockdown movement, as expressed by the Institute for Public Affairs, to anti-elitism, anti-MSM lies and social control, even as it parrots the anti-democratic values and belief system of transnational corporate power.

The project of lies and social control is, on this count, much greater and much closer in fact to the spectre of totalitarianism the anti-lockdown movement invokes.

In this age of increasingly overt generalised crisis, the question then seems to become whether the developments outlined above are consistent with the interests of extremely concentrated corporate power, and what we have already been able to establish about how it operates and what it wants. In that case, the answer is a clear yes.

On the same count, the mobilisation of large numbers of people who are tired and desperate also has no shortage of historical precedents. The national socialist movement in Germany was able to manipulate a nation purposefully destroyed by the Treaty of Versailles; as John Maynard Keynes very cogently argued, the economic consequences of the peace would be a new demagogue. The reasons for his arguments have not changed.

Transnational corporations have been running self-interested propaganda campaigns for the last century, mostly through their bought and wholly owned subsidiaries in national politics. It is hardly beyond them to start doing it directly. Far right insurgency to undermine and neutralise political democracy as potential threat to extreme class privilege and corporate power is entirely in their own interests.

As the Washington Post points out, the links between the anti-vaccination movement, the wellness movement and the far-right are coming increasingly impossible to miss. This constitutes an entry point for insurgent corporate authoritarianism; the interest of groups such as the IPA and the Atlas Network in the anti-lockdown movement is clear insofar as the political wedge it represents for prosecuting a hostile takeover of what remains of political democracy.

Despite times make desperate people; as every descent into authoritarianism in history would seem to suggest, desperate people are more easily manipulated. We are generally familiar with Orwell’s 1984, we know about the crimes of Nazism and Communism, we were all lied to about the reasons for the Iraq War. We have a healthy skepticism for political authoritarianism, at least in the abstract.

What we do not have enough of a healthy skepticism towards is private tyranny. Tragically, the anti-lockdown movement is halfway there in its demonisation of ‘Mainstream Media.’ The best lies contain an element of truth, and this one certainly does. In demonising mainstream media, however, the anti-lockdown movement misses the forest for the trees; it misses the much greater threat of corporate dark money.

If we are in desperate times and more easily taken advantage of, then, we are also off-guard. If the current state of affairs is a moral panic, it is an innovative one—arising from outside of the realm of traditional politics. In that sense, in the sense of being anti-political, it gains a measure of legitimacy and respectability. ‘We are not part of the old and corrupt,’ it says, ‘we’re outside of the ivory tower the same as you.’

The tragedy of this ideological bait-and-switch, then, is that those who fall into the holes laid out for them, who become caught up in the matrix of manipulation and deceit, become subject to the same co-dependent dynamics we find in abusive relationships.

We are loved as long as we believe and obey. We can be free as long as we believe we are, as long as we don’t acknowledge or question the fundamental assumption that the extreme power and privilege of corporate elites and the common good of all are the same thing and are served by the same actions—as long as we know our place.

If this is a novel political development, it is also only a variation on a theme with an ancient vintage. It is only a new page in the oldest trick in the book. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. In the midst of the present crisis, as in many past crises throughout history, falling prey to fear of the Other and acting out on those feelings, rather than dealing with root causes, can only ultimately lead to generalised destruction.

On this count, as in so many other counts before, one fact is true above all others: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in history at Western Sydney University, Bankstown. He is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).