Fishing for souls: the right goes looking to harvest discontent

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Something disturbing is happening in Victoria and has been happening for a while — a growing extremism, a more active far right and, now, open death threats toward politicians. We know from the US and UK experience that death threats to politicians eventually turn into the murder of politicians; we know from the US experience that growing extremism leads to violence and anti-democratic insurrection.

The same disease is at work in other states, but it’s in Melbourne that some particularly pustulent tumours have been on display.

To prevent us from tracking the same path toward greater extremism and more political violence as seen in the US and the UK, understanding what’s happening is crucial.

The first step is to reject the stereotype of all protesters are part of some monolith. The argument of Labor trolls like Van Badham that every single protester against the Andrews government is a fascist or Nazi is both self-serving (if you don’t vote Labor, you’re a fascist) and self-defeating; it guarantees no rational engagement with the motives of protesters and therefore no way of addressing the causes of growing extremism. It’s in fact recklessly irresponsible to demonise all protesters that way.

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It is the very diversity of the protest movement that must be recognised, reflecting the ideological fragmentation and consumerism inflicted by decades of neoliberalism. And that diversity is deeply attractive to those who want to harvest the discontent that is the one unifying characteristic of different protesters.

What’s happening in Victoria, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, is a deliberate effort by different groups to harvest and monetise the discontent and anti-government sentiments of anti-lockdown/anti-vax/anti-Andrews/anti-waddya got movements.

The far right and white supremacist groups are working hard to cultivate, groom and recruit from the ranks of protesters. The same phenomenon has been observed elsewhere. Lockdowns and confusion about vaccines are an ideal opportunity for fascist groups to circulate conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic propaganda and calls to violent action in the name of freedom.

The Liberal Party is also seeking to exploit the movement. Much criticism has been leveled at right-wing Victorian Liberal politicians for joining the protests and for failing to condemn death threats, links to fascism and violent rhetoric, but that somewhat misses the point that they are engaged in the same process as fascist groups — trying to cultivate and groom protesters for their own political ends.

The tragedy of Victoria is that the very discontent and anger that swirls within the ranks of protesters is partly the result of the complete absence of an effective opposition party. Daniel Andrews and his scandal-plagued government — branch-stacking, misuse of taxpayer resources, links to Crown, the red shirts outrage — should be easy meat for any opposition worthy of the name after the 2020 COVID outbreak, but the Victorian Liberals are utterly worthless, and are now in effect trying to ride on the back of a more authentic and effective source of opposition to Andrews.

It’s not confined to the Victorian Liberals. Scott Morrison is keen to exploit the protest movement as well. After some pro forma condemnation of violence this morning, Morrison went on to make his main point: “Over the last couple of years, governments have been telling Australians what to do. Now, there has been a need for that as we have gone through the pandemic; the time is now to start rolling all of that back.”

It would be generous to call this a dogwhistle — in fact it’s an explicit appeal to protesters that Morrison understands them and agrees with how they feel, even if he must offer some token criticism of the more extreme amongst them.

Other political parties are looking to exploit it, including Craig Kelly, who inexplicably for a Sydney MP showed up to address Melbourne protest rallies on the weekend, as his current boss Clive Palmer looks to tap into more explicitly anti-vaccine sentiments within the community.

The other group looking to exploit discontent is News Corp and a growing clutch of online activists who have effectively monetised the clicks of protesters and the disgruntled. News Corp has persistently demonised Andrews while failing to apply anything close to the same standards when the NSW government has done exactly the same things, while online activists pose as citizen journalists filming and commenting on protests.

Both seek to create a virtuous revenue circle in which they exploit, goad and energise the discontented into action, then cover that action and support it, and use it to expand their reach and potential sources of revenue, with a wider audience in turn encouraged into further action.

All of those looking to exploit the protest movement are relying on the fact that it isn’t a monolith, but contains a wide variety of ordinary people who can potentially be groomed to become fascists, Liberal voters or Sky News viewers and Herald-Sun readers.

There’s a lot of anger and energy out there to exploit. Understanding how the exploitation business model works is a first step to addressing it.

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Jack Mananta
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