Anti-vaccine movements, fuelled by Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs, are a notable political force in 2021. In Europe, the United States and Australia, lockdowns and vaccine mandates have been met with protests often accompanied by violence.
In South Africa, conspiracy beliefs, inflamed by social media disinformation, have substantially contributed to the slow pace of the government’s vaccination campaign. Anti-vaccine beliefs have a broad appeal, on a spectrum that includes New Age “wellness’’ advocates and conservative Christian ideas about immunisation policies being an attack on both bodily and spiritual integrity.
As noted in medical journal The Lancet, there is a key difference between vaccine hesitancy and outright opposition to vaccinations in general. With the former, people may often be hesitant because of poor experiences with medical systems in the past, but they can be persuaded with education and incentives. In contrast, true believers are fanatical and refuse compromise or discussion.
Different elements of the political right have aggressively capitalised on the proliferation of medical conspiracies. In Europe, far-right political parties such as the Alternative for Germany have courted voters by shifting their attacks from migrants to vaccines and mask mandates. Conspiracy theories have also proved a conduit to even more ideologically extreme far-right groups. Neo-fascists see the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate social tensions and broaden support for their hardline positions.
This is not to say that anti-vaccine beliefs are exclusively the province of the right wing, as there are liberals and leftists who have made badly informed and paranoid statements about them too. But practices like monetising disinformation online and organising street protests have most generally been used by the Right.
Anti-vaccine street protests may often involve only small numbers of demonstrators, but they have been characterised by angry tactics such as direct confrontation with police, brandishing nooses and burning effigies of politicians and medical establishment figures whom the protesters see as conspiring to steal their freedom.
Conspiracy beliefs are constantly in flux, but they have followed a general pattern since the introduction of global quarantines in early 2020. Their supporters believe that Covid-19 is either manufactured or not a serious disease. According to this logic, it was introduced by sinister elites trying to increase their power through fear. In turn, vaccines are considered harmful and claimed to cause other illnesses, while also being used as a cover for expanding state surveillance. It’s a heady mix of colliding, contradictory and connected beliefs.
Anti-vaccine beliefs often have anti-authoritarian and anti-systemic elements. Politicians and public health experts are depicted as out-of-touch elitists, and the actions of pharmaceutical companies are questioned because they are believed to be deliberately spreading dangerous and untested vaccines for profit.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically right-wing about a healthy suspicion of the powerful. Drug companies do indeed act in ways that prioritise profit over human health, with some using their political influence to ensure monopolies on vaccines. Additionally, some politicians have used Covid-19 for self-enrichment, as evidenced by the personal protective equipment tender corruption in South Africa.
But the right wing is not interested in cogent, evidence-based critiques. Instead, anti-vaccine sentiments are defined by a mythic sense of belief, the adherents of which are an elite of individuals who have become aware of the existence of a somehow invisible and yet also ubiquitous “new world order”.
This supposed “new world order” is using vaccine mandates to impose a totalitarian, global dictatorship. It is simultaneously capitalist and communist. For example, Bill Gates is seen as both a profit-seeking oligarch and a radical who is trying to abolish private property.
In stark contrast, anti-mask demagogues such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro are imagined as populist democrats who are resisting sinister elite plots.
Prolonging the crisis
Anti-vaccine believers argue that by refusing to be inoculated, they are asserting their own individual freedom and refusing consent to illegitimate authority. But this clearly omits how Covid-19 is a public health crisis and that mass vaccinations are vital to restoring any semblance of pre-2020 normality. By refusing to vaccinate, they are aggressively denying freedom to others and condemning the world to more miserable years of masks and lockdowns.
Adherents of the anti-vaccine movement are themselves helping to sustain a crisis that they claim does not exist. Unsurprisingly, these beliefs often overlap with climate change denial, which itself is perceived as another elite plot.
Anti-vaccine beliefs have a widespread appeal across right-wing politics. In South Africa, it has been embraced by conservative Black Christians and figures in the conspiracist wing of the radical economic transformation kleptocrat faction of the ANC. But, they have also been adopted by outright white supremacists like Steve Hofmeyer and alt-right cartoonist Jerm.
Despite their substantial differences, what unites them is how they belong to what political theorist Roger Griffin calls “the populist radical right”. Their politics is highly reactionary and driven by a deep sense of “mistrust of political and economic elites”. They are the authentic “people”, the legitimate expression of popular democracy. But their definition of “the people” is highly constrained and based on a bigoted fear of outsiders and difference.
Again, given daily revelations of political and economic corruption and misrule, this mistrust is understandable. But the populist right has no interest in reforming or solving social problems, let alone radically changing the material miseries caused by capitalism and authoritarian state power. Instead, they have focused on scapegoating and denial.
The media conversation on vaccine conspiracy beliefs has been dominated by the question of public education and how to get people to suspend vaccine hesitancy for the social good. In a pandemic, this social outreach is vitally important. But it can occlude how hardline anti-vaccine groups are not really interested in facts or debate – their beliefs are primarily emotional, giving expression to deep-seated desires, fear and dangerous levels of anger.
Rather, they are attached to an image of themselves as freedom fighters, engaged in an operatic struggle with nefarious forces of control. They are awake, we sleep. Throughout history, times of plague and crisis have sparked political and religious movements fuelled by similar beliefs.
This sense of looming disaster existed well before the shock of Covid-19. The continuing crises of capitalism, extreme inequality and social hardship and environmental disaster fuel a very tangible sense of pre-apocalyptic fear.
The last period of such sustained global economic hardship and political turmoil was in the 1930s. In that crisis, political organisations like the Nazis based their propoganda on elaborate conspiracy theories about the “hidden hand” behind both Germany and capitalism’s failings. Notably, the Nazis were a relatively fringe organisation until the Great Depression shifted the political landscape in their favour.
Despite substantial evidence that neo-fascists have gained a foothold in the anti-vaccine world, they often frame medical doctors as “the real Nazis”. And while they share the 20th-century far right’s penchant for embracing pseudoscience and fabricating bizarre political fantasies, they are far more individualistic.
Far-right movements of the last century were rooted in extreme nationalism, and much of their appeal was based on a politics of mass collectivity. Faced with the alienation and dislocation of capitalist modernity, fascists offered what philosopher Erich Fromm called “an escape from freedom” by promising a new world of blood and honour, freed from the burden of personal choice.
In direct contrast, anti-vaccine groups are almost pathologically obsessed with individual freedom. They see no distinction between public health measures and extreme state terror and violence. But they have no interest in protesting against actual civil liberty abuses that have taken place during lockdowns, such as the murder of unarmed civilians by soldiers and the police during the first hard lockdown in South Africa in 2020.
Instead, their vision of freedom is completely solipsistic and disconnected from any kind of social good. Anti-vaccine groups are not protesting because they believe they can overthrow the medical elite they say is ruining the world. Instead, they use demonstrations as a chance to vent personal frustrations and demand that they can get back to shopping without masks.
They believe that all the social and economic crises of today are just hype and demand to be returned to a state of blissful, atomised consumerism. Such extreme narcissism reflects the neoliberal culture that has globally dominated the last half-century.
It has inculcated a harsh world-view that sees society as a battlefield on which there can be no middle ground between the social good and individual freedom. It is the world seen through the darkened windows of a fuel-guzzling SUV and everyone else is either an enemy or a mark to be exploited.
Like a religious cult – albeit without a central, domineering leader – the anti-vaccine movement combines an often contradictory mix of apocalyptic paranoia and irrationalist denial of scientific reality. Its adherents rage against some aspects of the social system, such as the pharmaceutical companies, but politically support authoritarian capitalism and ultra-nationalism.
Anti-vaccine ideology is dangerous because it connects feral consumerist narcissism with deeply reactionary political organising. It is imperative to understand how these movements think and operate because, if the last century is any guide, we should expect mass right-wing politics to flourish in the declining economic and social conditions of the 2020s.
Chaos, fear, social divisions and a general sense of collapse are historically the radical right’s greatest allies, making the late capitalist derangement of the anti-vaccine movement a harbinger of potentially even more extreme political cults in the near future.