Calling itself a “freedom movement,” the far right is on the attack, allegedly against dictatorial governments. But its actual targets have been unions, the Left and selected small businesses. Since September last year, anti-vaxxers mobbed the Melbourne office of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU), tried breaking into the home of prominent Sydney-based socialist and unionist Paddy Gibson and vandalised the front window of Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women’s organising centre, Solidarity Salon. They left a death threat at a Thornbury café, after smashing its frontage, as a warning against following COVID safety protocols. They’ve assaulted workers in health, retail, transport and media. They have infiltrated the First Nations movement to try turning this radical and growing resistance against itself. And they are setting up bogus unions, using opposition to mandatory vaccination as a recruiting tool.
Dressed up as the champion “of the people,” the movement has been gaining momentum in Australia since COVID began. Eighteen months of lockdowns made Victoria its epicentre. By mid 2021, shadowy groups were using social media to galvanise people into Melbourne’s streets. Through repeated organised protest, the “freedom movement” grew. Among QAnon symbols and slogans, Trump supporters and Australian flags are known far-right agitators and fascists.
Things came to a head when the Victorian government mandated vaccination for the construction industry in September. “Freedom” protesters and CFMMEU members not associated with them converged outside the union headquarters for a turbulent rally. Lockdown and vaccination mandates became the movement’s rallying point.
Another pandemic to squelch. The far right works like an opportunistic, lethal virus. It latches onto people whose defences against crisis are low. It feeds on helpless desperation and rage. Today’s conditions have been perfect for its rapid spread.
In Australia, it’s preying on the anger and hurt caused by governments’ handling of the COVID catastrophe. The chaotic vaccination rollout, fraught with secret commercial deals and profiteering; First Nations communities, prisoners, people with disabilities and workers on visas left exposed; the militarised and heavy policing directed at poor communities and protesters; snap-backs of childcare and job supports contrasted to generous handouts to corporate business are just some reasons people don’t trust government.
The far right skilfully crafts its rhetoric to draw in diverse groups of people desperate for answers. Stealing the language of movements for real justice, it sprinkles bizarre conspiracy theories with words, like “segregation,” “apartheid” and “sovereignty” to co-opt and destroy strong movements. “My body, my choice” and “Freedom” are its rallying cries.
COVID may be destabilising the profit economy, but this far-right movement is being built to rescue it. The money trail leads to big backers, the likes of Charles Koch in the U.S. and Clive Palmer in Australia, and a tangled web of “dark money.” Its real “freedom” agenda is to save big capital.
Far-right populism is not a fascist movement, but it could grow into one. Fascism is the ultimate weapon of capital to annihilate its nemesis — the working class — when it’s ready to revolt. So, we have to stop this “freedom” movement now. The question is how.
Only a working class-led united front can do this. History is rich with inspiring defeats of far-right and fascist attempts to gain a foothold. Melbourne’s northern suburbs of Brunswick and Fawkner are just a couple of examples, which Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women are proud to have been a part of. Through sustained, united organising, these working class, multicultural communities have expelled Nazis whenever they’ve shown their faces.
Past experience provides crucial lessons for combating the far right today. One is that we have to take it on: ignoring it, as out-of-touch sideliners like to advise, will not make it go away. Another is that organising on the ground is essential. We can’t turn to leaders in government or institutions of the capitalist state for protection: their role is to protect profit and property, not us. This is why Victorian Trades Hall’s call for a royal commission into far-right violence is badly mistaken. Ask CFMMEU rank-and-file veterans of state harassment or First Nations’ people who are still battling to end deaths in custody! Only the targets of far-right violence — unionists, radicals, women, LGBTIQ, people with disability, First Nations, immigrants of colour and people who are homeless — can do this!
This unity in action must be democratic. Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) initiated counter-protest against the “freedom movement.” But it is controlling all aspects of the organising. From the lack of information for ralliers about march details to “speakouts” without an open mic, people ready to act are treated like numbers of sheep. Criticism is not tolerated, as an activist found out when marshals threw her out of the march and into the arms of the cops: she had criticised CARF’s blanket denunciation of those attracted to the “freedom movement” as fascist. This is not how a thriving movement is built, especially one capable of trouncing the far right. Sectarianism — an organisation placing itself above the movement — holds back the class struggle.
Su Docekal, from the Freedom Socialist Party in Seattle, captures the essentials for building the kind of movement needed. After a huge Seattle demonstration against the far right, following the anti-fascist demo in Charlottesville, Virginia, she said: “The way to prevent fascism from taking root is through direct action and disciplined counter-demonstrations when they come out to recruit. Our goal is to build a broad, democratic united front to stop them in their tracks.”
Freedom Socialist author, Monica Hill, draws on the party’s experience in the United Front Against Fascism, which stopped Nazis from turning the Pacific Northwest into an Aryan homeland in the 1980s. Hill stresses that the union movement’s involvement is pivotal: “When capitalism takes the fascist route, it does so in a last-ditch bid to survive in a time of crisis by obliterating all working-class organizations. And, if labor leaders do more than just endorse the fight on paper, they can bring disciplined strength in critical numbers to the battle.”
Recently in Italy, we got a glimpse of what the union movement is capable of. In October last year, when hundreds of fascists attacked the Rome headquarters of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), over issues similar to anti-vaxxers’ assault on the CFMMEU, at least 100,000 from across unions and movements answered the CGIL’s call to take the streets. Hit by the brutalities of COVID, and now a fascist assault on the union movement, they united around the slogan, “No to fascism and violence, yes to work, safety and rights.”
Let’s do it. Imagine hundreds of thousands of unionists and communities answering a union callout to stand up to these “freedom” protests. Imagine a united front of unions, left organisations, community groups and anyone else committed to fight — brought together on agreed principles and working in serious, democratic collaboration. It requires a bold platform, clear in what it stands for and what it opposes. Such a program should prioritise mutual defence against assaults by the far right: no one, no café or organisation should have to fend for themself alone. The union principle, “touch one, touch all!,” demonstrates this strength.
Also important is engagement in the war of ideas. A key weapon against the far right is solutions, which these hawkers of “freedom” don’t have. Just some examples are job security and equal pay for comparable work so that no type of work is expendable; workers collectively determining safety in their workplaces; a liveable income for everyone, free from coercive restrictions; removing vaccine patents from the control of pharmaceutical giants; recognising that the pandemic can only be solved through global, internationally coordinated vaccination stripped of profit interests. Real, concrete answers such as these may win over some who have stumbled into the far-right camp. They would certainly galvanise the most clear-sighted to strike a powerful blow against capitalism.
Collaborative unity would be a welcome antidote to the dispiriting, distressing isolation of this COVID crisis. There is nothing like the feeling of collective power in working toward overcoming both pandemics. And there is no time like now!
We’d love to talk to you.
Debbie is a member of the United Workers Union and Maudie is a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.