Anti-quarantine protesters – a toxic brew of racists and free-market-fundamentalists

Earlier this month, in Michigan, Minnesota, Texas and other states in the US, anti-social distancing protests occurred, demanding an end to the compulsory quarantine and lockdown measures implemented in the face of the pandemic. It is worth examining the character of these protests – staffed by neoconservative and ultranationalist Tea Party people.

These ultra-rightist protesters are actively encouraging those most exploited by the ruling class to adopt the outlook of their exploiters. Let’s unpack this brief observation.

The far right protests were small; some were armed with semiautomatic weapons – were characterised by participants occupying the lower ends of the intelligence spectrum. There is no shortage of idiots in the United States. But to dismiss the political significance of these anti-quarantine protests would be a serious mistake. They represent not just a ragtag coalition of white supremacists, right wing militias and science denialist anti-vaccination zealots. They are billionaire-funded astroturf (fake grassroots) neoconservative formations, designed to turn workers’ anger at existing inequalities into neo-fascistic channels.

Professor Joel Wendland-Liu, writing in Common Dreams magazine, captures the main reasons why the anti-quarantine protesters are doing the bidding of the capitalist class:

The energized campaign to force people back to work and back into the public puts the lives of workers and their families at risk of infection, illness, and death. It dovetails with right-wing callousness and resistance to public interventions during times of social crisis. It highlights the worst characteristics of neoliberal political strategies that aim to privatize public entities and energize the predatory nature of the corporate sector to profit from disaster.

The political composition of the anti-social distancing protests is neither new nor original, but sheds light on the white supremacist – and religious fundamentalist – underbelly of American society. Not only did US President Donald Trump tweet his support for the ultrarightist protests, major conservative news outlets, such as Fox News, actively promoted the neo-Confederate and conspiracy-theory ideology motivating the protest organisers.

Earlier I used the phrase billionaire-funded to describe the recent anti-quarantine protests. This is neither an exaggeration nor hyperbole. It is well-known that billionaires have financed the campaigns of presidential candidates – and a billionaire made it into the White House. What is not-so well known, is that billionaires, through varied front companies and dummy corporations, have funded these far right ostensibly ‘grassroots’ organisations which purportedly speak for the ‘ordinary American.’

T J Coles, writing in Counterpunch magazine, elaborates how various multi billionaire figures have financed, and actively promoted, ultrarightist groups to pursue an ‘antigovernment’ agenda. The reasons that the billionaire class is ‘antigovernment’ are entirely different from the reasons why working class people protest. Pursuing an anti-immigration, neoliberal agenda, the billionaires want to achieve liberty – for big business. The rhetoric of liberty and freedom is deployed precisely against those government agencies that deploy measures in defence of public health and safety.

Occupational health and safety measures, environmental protections, restrictions on private corporate acquiring state assets, are all produced as evidence of government intrusion’ into liberty. Billionaires have long funded fake ‘citizen climate groups‘, all of which are – funnily enough – involved in promoting the denial of human-induced global warming, and advocate opening up ever-larger areas of the environment to the requirements of transnational corporations.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, one of the groups behind the anti-quarantine protests, is financed by various billionaire donors, including the Trump administration’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. Allegedly speaking for ordinary citizens, the Michigan group advocates the age-old right wing populist slogans of limited government, free enterprise, the rolling back of state laws restricting business – but asking for government bailouts when big business fails.

One of the motivating factors in these protests, encouraged by the Trump administration, is white supremacy. It is no accident that Confederate flags, along with the old conservative Gadsden logo, were on display in the anti-quarantine actions. White racism has long been a feature of ultranationalist antigovernment agitation. White supremacist groups have long utilised arms – and the threat to use them – to undermine even moderate attempts by US legislators to implement anti-racist measures.

The anti-lockdown protesters trace their political lineage to those whites who resisted racial integration and desegregation efforts in the 1950s and 60s. Trump himself embodies the decades of white racist backlash against moves by federal and state authorities to racially desegregate the nation. In 1866, armed white supremacists – including Confederate veterans, stormed the state legislature to stop that body from passing voting rights for newly emancipated black Americans. Scores were killed.

Trump and his ultrarightist supporters seek to preserve the racial hierarchy of capitalist America. Mississippi governor, Republican Tate Reeves, declared April to be Confederate Heritage month. This decision is not merely an exercise in preserving historical memory. It is a deliberate falsification of the causes of the US Civil War, and a repudiation that racism is a major divide in American society. It is no coincidence that Trump and his supporters have ramped up anti-Asian racism, thus empowering the ultranationalist base of the Republican Party – a subject requiring an examination in another article.

When an intricate and clandestine network of billionaires is financing right wing militias and ultranationalist groups, it is time to call out the ideology of corporate neoliberal fundamentalism that underpins them. Let’s listen to the demands of workers, such as at Amazon, or the health care workers and those employed in essential services, for better conditions and a more equitable society.

Saudi Arabia’s ceasefire in Yemen, Opec oil and Covid-19

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire in their war on Yemen in early April. While this is a welcome development providing a measure of relief for Yemen’s people, it comes as the Saudi offensive in that nation teeters on the brink of military defeat after five years.

Sadly, the entire Middle East nations, including Yemen, have recorded outbreaks of Covid-19. The Saudi royal clan has witnessed at least 150 of its members infected with the Covid-19 virus. While the pandemic is serious, it is only one of a number of reasons why Riyadh decided to change its long-held course in Yemen. The latest unilateral ceasefire is not only a major climb down from the stated goal of outright military victory in Yemen. It also represents the declining ability of the Saudi regime to influence political events in the region.

The Daily Beast’s world news editor wrote about the ongoing war on Yemen, and how Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) gamble in that nation has spectacularly backfired:

When MBS entered that conflict in 2015 he thought he could win in a matter of weeks with his vast arsenal of American weaponry, but the war has since become a suppurating wound on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. His Houthi adversaries there have taken to launching Iranian-built missiles at targets as far away as Riyadh, and hit the enormous Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq last September with devastating effect. 

There is no mistaking the enormous calamity that this US and British supported Saudi war has inflicted on the Yemeni population. From the same Daily Beast article:

Since 2018 the United Nations has identified Yemen as the scene of Earth’s greatest humanitarian crisis, with some 80 percent of the population in need of assistance, hundreds of thousands of malnourished children, and a rampant cholera epidemic that has infected more than 1 million people. Such conditions make effective monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic extremely difficult or impossible.

Opec, Russia and Saudi Arabia

It is impossible to discuss Saudi Arabia, and its war on Yemen, without discussing the crucial role of the oil industry and Opec. Saudi Arabia has seen its oil revenues tumble dramatically in the first quarter of 2020. The drop in demand for oil, the huge reductions in airline flights, cargo shipping and individual car commuting, have left a gaping hole in the petroleum industry.

Opec, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, was formed in Baghdad in 1960. Headquartered in Vienna since 1965, Opec has expanded from its original five member-states (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Venezuela) to incorporating numerous oil-exporting nations. Its role is to coordinate the petroleum prices and policies of the member states. Prior to its formation, each oil-exporting nation would compete against the others, bidding in an oil competition for the best price on the open market.

Operating as a cartel, the Opec nations have bargained collectively, rather than individually, with the major Anglo-American multinational oil corporations. This collective approach has provided Opec member-states with a degree of bargaining power, something they lacked previously. Setting the world price of oil per barrel, the role of Opec is, in many ways, to even-up the otherwise lopsided playing-field. The oil and energy giants have long exploited oil-rich nations, to maximise their profits.

Opec has had negative press in the Anglo-American sphere of the world. Opec cartel represents an expression of resource nationalism – the exertion of national sovereignty over natural resources. Iran’s oil resources belong to the people of that nation. The wealth generated by that income should go towards improving the lives of the Iranian people. Anglo-American imperialism has intervened in Iran to monopolise its oil resources for the enrichment of their own multinational corporations.

While not anti-capitalist, asserting resource nationalism is strongly opposed by the major imperialist powers. Saudi Arabia acts as a stalking horse for the United States inside Opec – a Wahhabist theocracy sustaining its alliance with a theoretically-secular capitalist power.

The second-largest exporter of oil in the world, a nation with enough economic weight to exert pressure on the global economy is a non-Opec nation: Russia. While Russia has been invited to join Opec, the Kremlin has consistently refused.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have had a mini-Cold War, dueling with competing oil prices, for decades. Occasionally, that rivalry has erupted into an openly ‘hot’ war, such as earlier this year. While both sides were cooperating under a new charter of cooperation since 2016-17, relations fractured in March this year when Riyadh decided to cut oil production in response to slowing demand for oil. Moscow disagreed with this move, and Riyadh responded with an oil price war.

Moscow was in a stronger position to weather the oil price rivalry – its economy was stronger, and the Kremlin had larger foreign currency reserves. However, Moscow was also hurting, as oil prices declined and the revenue stream slowed down. The recent decision, arrived at by Russia and Saudi Arabia, to agree on a 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) reduction in oil output temporarily halted the oil industry’s slide into total collapse. However, the humanitarian and societal collapse in Yemen is ongoing, albeit partially relieved by the ceasefire.

The dramatic reduction in oil revenues, its deepening military defeat in Yemen, and the added problem of the Covid-19 pandemic have all placed Riyadh on the backfoot. As Imad Harb explains on the Al Jazeera channel, the coronavirus outbreak is the ostensible reason why Saudi Arabia is seeking an exit from the Yemen quagmire. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, has all but disintegrated. The Emiratis withdrew their troops in July last year.

The humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Yemen today would not have been possible if it were not the unwavering support provided to the Saudi offensive by the United States and Britain (and also Australia). Intelligence sharing, refuelling of Saudi warplanes, military coordination of drone strikes – all these features implicate the deep complicity of the Anglo-American alliance in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.

It is time to hold to account those politicians whose decisions have resulted in disastrous and criminal consequences.

The current pandemic shows us we ignore science at our own peril

The news cycle over the recent months has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the health and wellbeing of the wider society. One important lesson that gets lost in the mass coverage is the importance of the public understanding of, and engagement with, science. With that in mind, let us highlight one long-standing obstacle in the public’s awareness and understanding of science – the religious Right’s ongoing and persistent science denialism.

Let’s unpack these issues. Science, and the promotional of science journalism, has been relegated to secondary status, not only by politicians who zealously advocated free-market supremacy as the ultimate arbiter of a society’s general health. Public engagement with science has also been sidelined by the sustained campaign of political ignorance by the evangelical Christian Right, particularly in the United States.

Over at the New York Times, Katherine Stewart has written an op-ed piece stating that the religious right’s decades-long science denialism has contributed to the current failure of the US authorities to adequately tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. The ulttaconservative evangelical religious base of Trump supporters did not arise out of nowhere.

They have nurtured and promoted an evangelical Christian nationalism that has resulted in, among other things, a dogmatic refusal to critically engage with the important science issues of our times – whether it be evolutionary biology, human-induced climate change, or ecological sustainability.

Rather than promoting an understanding of, and education in, these scientific issues that impact our communities, the evangelical Christian Right has attacked these subjects, and science in general, as ‘doctrines of unbelief’. Trump and his ultraconservative supporters are located firmly in the tradition of 19th century proslavery theologians who campaigned against the abolition of slavery as a Satanic-inspired measure contrary to God’s teachings.

The evangelical Christian nationalist preachers are not denying that Covid-19 is a problem – at least, not anymore now that the pandemic has spread its lethality to the United States and Europe. They have a long track record of opposing any branch of science, or scientific understanding, that conflicts with their political and theology underpinnings and goals. Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon magazine, states that:

The Christian right has always been a threat to public health. They were a threat during the AIDS crisis, when they successfully exerted pressure on Republican leaders to minimize the disease, which conservative Christians saw as a punishment for sinful behavior. They have contributed to the spread of all manner of STIs, in fact, by convincing schools to replace sex education with programs meant to discourage the use of condoms.

It is not only in the area of public health in which the conservative evangelical Right has been waging a politico-cultural war. The belief in supernatural capacities to overcome, or indeed provide a cause, for natural and/or material realities has provided a traditional blockage to scientific inquiry. The denial of evolutionary biology by theologians and faith-based groups is a huge subject to cover, however, we can observe the underlying trend of science denial running through to today’s evangelical Christian nationalist advocates.

Since at least the 1980s, the evangelical Christian Right has campaigned against the teaching of evolution in schools. Adopting a cynical tactic, they have promoted the pseudoscience of ‘intelligent design‘, portraying their efforts to marginalise evolution as simply advocacy of ‘teaching both sides’. The latter is a wonderful principle; teaching both sides of a controversy is great. But it is not a cover for surreptitiously introducing supernatural concepts into a science course. Intelligent design is properly understood as a religiously-based alternative, and belongs in religion class.

A number of Christian denominations have declared a truce, or a kind of peaceful accommodation, with evolutionary biology. The Anglican Church has taken a hands-off approach when confronting scientific subjects, and indeed Pope Francis has advised his Catholic followers to accept evolution, stating that is the monotheistic god is not a magician with a magic wand. However, the American Christian nationalist Right is not interested in scientific debate, but the reshaping of US society along theocratic lines.

It is no secret that the evangelical Christian Right has been a staunch reservoir of climate change denialism, viewing environmental concerns and green issues as the thin edge of the dark Satanic wedge. Deriving from the conservative Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, these ultrarightist disciples of Reagan reject ecological issues as an ostensible ‘leftist-Communist’ plot to destabilise the current system. Denying the evidence for human-induced climate change, nevertheless accept ecological breakdown as part of the fulfilment of apocalyptic Biblical prophesies.

In the current pandemonium about the Covid-19 pandemic, my fellow Australians have largely forgotten that we have only just emerged from the most catastrophic bushfire season the Australian continent has ever experienced. Longer, hotter summers along with more sustained and widespread bushfires are the result of human-induced climate change. Rejecting the evidence for global warming has lethal and economically devastating consequences. The scope and intensity of the fires were unprecedented, and it will take decades for the local ecosystems to recover.

When rejecting the cumulative scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming, the evangelical Christian Right provides a buttress of support for continuing current neoliberal economic practices – the very economic model responsible for inducing the current climate emergency. The road to hell was not caused by the Christian nationalist Right – but they are doing their utmost to ensure that we get there as quickly as possible.