Anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne in May, 2020 (Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

The caperings of Australia’s own sovereign citizens and other ideological anti-maskers recall an old Onion joke about a libertarian wondering how to travel to a conference with his fellow ideologues without using any roads.

The white people — they’re always white people — who insisted police have no legal authority to pull them over and force them to comply with pandemic restrictions seemed perfectly happy to drive on the roads provided by the government, which they insist has no legal authority over them.

Presumably they wouldn’t knock back a trip to the hospital in the event of an accident or prevent their garbage being collected by the local council. Likely they have no problem with violent criminals being jailed by the state.

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Then again no one ever accused these people of consistency. The now-notorious Bunnings woman — who presumably walked to the hardware store, carefully avoiding roads, footpaths and any government provided infrastructure — invoked the “1948 Charter of Human Rights”. That’s a document from the United Nations, one of the many forms of illegitimate government often targeted by right-wing groups.

Cherrypicking which laws, legal systems and legal doctrines they want to follow is the basis of the entire ideology. It’s an ideology best summed up as being happy to take the benefits provided by government, but being unwilling to accept any of the costs, such as taxes, or complying with the law.

The growth of such groups — which often begin in the US and then spread via lazy imitation, like a particularly lame reality show franchise, to other Anglophone countries — is a product of neoliberalism.

This is not because, as many on the left believe, neoliberalism is the cause of every social problem known to humankind, but in a way that reflects how neoliberalism and its consequences fit poorly in traditional left-right ideological divides and social hierarchiesl.

Neoliberalism is an alienating ideology, not merely for its relentless focus on individualism and its rejection of communitarian economic thinking or government activism, but because it creates a society in which the core message is an economic one.

In Anglophone economies, and especially in the US and the UK, populations have been told for several decades that their only worth is in their economic value (which they must maximise at all costs). Other forms of identity and community, especially class-based identity and community, are secondary to whether you are maximising your economic value.

The basic laws of maths mean that, at any time, half the population is therefore a failure in neoliberal terms, earning below-average incomes. Many people on above-average incomes but who are outside the top 10% of wealth may also feel like failures by basic social standards.

Inevitably, in response, people have sought out other forms of identity that don’t come with a 70% chance of feeling like a failure — and demanded recognition of them. This is not class-based identity — which has been suppressed and eroded — but religious identity, ethnic and racial identity, and sexual and gender identity.

But neoliberalism, at least in theory, also undermines other forms of social organisation than class. It is also antagonistic to white privilege. White workers in Western countries are expensive and unattractive to footloose international capital.

Workers from non-white, low-income countries offer a much cheaper workforce to exploit, either by relocating capital to where they are, or by convincing Western governments to allow high levels of migration either on a temporary (or better yet, permanent) basis.

Neoliberalism is uninterested in the colour of a worker’s skin, or their sexuality, gender, religion or political views; it is only interested in their economic value as a worker and consumer and how that can be maximised.

That’s why right-wing parties like One Nation are driven by middle-aged and old white people, and often old white males. Not merely have they had to endure the economic consequences of neoliberalism — a more precarious and competitive job market, less support for traditional industries in which their grandfathers would have been employed, a less reliable system of government support, services delivered by private providers rather than governments — but also the erosion of the privilege accorded to them as white people in Western countries.

They remain far more privileged than non-white Australians, of course. And minority groups and women still disproportionately suffer the consequences of neoliberalism, particularly when it is implemented by white people.

Even so, it is a harsher and more demanding economic and social environment for white people than 40 years ago — one closer to the kind of environment everyone else has always lived in.

Not merely do such people embrace their tribal and racial identities more as a result, they view the government that looked after their grandfathers now as an enemy that has abandoned them in favour of, as they see it, looking after others less deserving of support.

That’s why the thought of being lumped in with everyone else in being required to wear a mask, or comply with pandemic protocols, is so infuriating to anti-maskers and sovereign citizens. In the Australia of their imagination, that sort of treatment is reserved for Others (non-whites) while they are rewarded for being special by virtue of the colour of their skin.

The legal humbuggery, the vexatious litigation, the childish code words and magic phrases, the invocations of Magna Carta, the attempts to prove entire court systems that have no standing — these are all window-dressings for a resentment that racial privilege is no longer quite as central to society as it used to be.

Neoliberalism it turns out, sendeth rain on the white and the non-white alike.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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