Conspiracy theories and the road to Fascism (Or: a strange day in Oxford)

If you had wanted to visit a parallel universe today, you could have walked down Broad Street in Oxford. Hundreds of demonstrators had temporarily created a world in which Covid is not real, climate change is a hoax and the biggest threat to human freedom is a proposal to introduce some minor restrictions on which roads you can drive a car in Oxford. In that world, you can also stand next to someone with a placard reading “Keep Britain white” while claiming that you are not allied with racists.

The protest was supposedly about the traffic-calming policies of Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) have become a controversial issue in Oxford. I’m broadly in favour of them, while having some objections to the details, but I’m happy to hear the views of people who disagree. There are legitimate concerns about who is most effective and how they can slow down buses by pushing more cars onto main roads.

I also broadly support proposals to limit the number of days on which cars can be used in certain parts of the city, but I can respect people who disagree with this policy. I’ve got less time for people who talk as if driving a car were a human right. They accuse the councils of reducing “freedom of movement” as if driving a car were the ony way of moving about. I think it’s important that (for example) blue-badge holders are exempt, and possibly people who need a car for certain jobs. This is completely different from confusing freedom of movement (which is a right) from freedom to drive a car (which is not).

But even most of the “right to drive” crowd would seem moderate compared to the hundreds of people who descended on Oxford today. It was clear that few of them were actually from Oxford. From their banners and leaflets, and from conversations with them, it was clear that many of them had little knowledge of Oxford or of the background to the LTN controversy (or that they knew that none of the anti-LTN candidates who stood in last year’s City Council elections had managed to win any seats).

By Carfax Tower in central Oxford was a group from the Heritage Party, the organisation set up by far-right posh boy Laurence Fox. They waved union flags and placards denying the reality of climate change. One of them shouted insults about refugees. A Jewish speaker at the counter-protest reported that when she had spoken to the Heritage Party people, they had come out with an anti-semitic conspiracy theory within a minute of the conversation beginning. No wonder that she said she was frightened by what was happening in Oxford today. I was sad to see far-right banners waved on the streets of our beautiful, diverse, welcoming city.

Fascists groups such as so-called Patriotic Alternative had encouraged people to attend today’s protest. Several anti-LTN campaigners in Oxford, after initially backing the protest, had withdrawn their support after realising who was involved.

I was repelled but not surprised by the far-right placards and the anti-LTN leaflets. What was less expected was the huge number of placards and leaflets promoting Covid conspiracy theories. I had optimistically hoped that at least a few people on the protest were local people with genuine concerns about LTNs who may not have realised the agenda of many of the groups there. But as I tried to talk with people in Broad Street, it became apparent that many – perhaps most – of the protestors were part of Covid-conspiracy and climate-denial groups. While they denied being racist and said they did not belong to groups such as Patriotic Alternative, they mostly seemed unconcerned when I pointed out the fascist banners around them.

The conspiracists held placards objecting to things that are not even happening. They were against “climate lockdowns” – as if not being able to drive in certain areas on certain days is the same as not being allowed to move about at all. They objected to people being forced to stay in their own area of the city – it is a complete fantasy to suggest that anybody will be. These ludicrous claims actually prevent any serious debate about the rights and wrong of particular traffic reduction measures, just as Covid conspriacy theories undermined attempts to call for fairer Covid regulations.

When I spoke to a group of people with such placards and pointed out that the council is not proposing such things, they responded by saying “well, not yet” and “they say they won’t”.

It’s a baffling approach. You hold a banner saying that something is happening. You admit when challenged that it isn’t. You then say that it might happen at some point, so you’re going to protest against it anyway. I could perhaps have held a placard reading “Stop Oxford City Council allowing hippopatumuses to rampage down Cowley Road!”. If someone pointed out that the council were doing no such thing, I could have responded, “Well not yet they’re not!”. They worrying thing is that some of the people there today might actually have taken this seriously.

Determined not to be intimidated into avoiding the centre of my own city, I walked down the middle of Broad Street, through the ranks of fascists, conspiracists and car-worshippers. When I politely pointed out an inaccuracy on a placard, I found two people pretty much shouting in my face.

Almost straight away, they moved from talking about cars to talking about Covid. When I drew their attention to the far-right groups involved, they looked really suprised, as if they hadn’t noticed the banners around them. They both insisted that climate change is not real. One of them described herself as a “socialist” and said she was “Jeremy Corbyn’s number one fan”. She also said she worked in a hospital and didn’t believe in Covid vaccines. Her friend told me to listen to her because “she works in a hospital”. I mentioned that one of my best friends is a nurse.

“And what does she say about it?” he asked.

“Why do you say ‘she’?” I asked.

“Well, you assume, don’t you?” he said.

“Do you?” I asked.

Before we wondered too far from the point, I asked why, if he wanted me to listen to his fellow-demonstrator because she works in a hospital, I should not listen to the many other hospital workers who believe in Covid vaccines. Because any nurse or doctor who said anything different must be lying, he said.

By this sort of logic, you can prove anything: it’s all a conspiracy, anyone who says otherwise is part of the conspiracy, anyone who disagrees is lying. On this basis, you can prove that circles are square and that the Moon is made of Irish cheese.

This is why there is nothing progressive about conspiracy theories. Conspiracists claim to be challenging the powerful, but they typically talk in vague terms about “elites” without offering any sort of structural analysis. People in Oxford today attributed the presure on the NHS to Covid vaccines, rather than to years of Tory underfunding. They claimed that climate change is a hoax to benefit the powerful. In reality, most powerful people are doing little or nothing to address the climate emergency and are only acknowledging it at all because of years of campaigning and pressure from below. Despite the lip-service of the fossil fuel corporations, it would be much easier for their profits if we all believed the people marching in Oxford today.

The far-right typically claim to be on the side of the working class, while usually being led by well-off people such as Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson. They divide the working class, through stirring up hatred of migrants, Muslims, Jews, trans people or whoever their target of the moment may be. They divert attention from the responsibliities of the wealthy by claiming that left-of-centre policies promote the interests of the elite. And they undermine attempts to acheve structural change by pushing simplistic explanations that easily fall apart.

More often than not, injustice and inequality are visible and obvious. Most of the world’s wealth and power is in the hands of a tiny number of people. We don’t need conspiracy theories to notice this.

Conspiracists are not challenging the powerful. Often, they are indireclty helping the powerful. Conspiracists are not marching against injustice. They are walking along the road to Fascism.

2 responses to “Conspiracy theories and the road to Fascism (Or: a strange day in Oxford)

  1. It’s pretty disgusting how welcome the racists and xenophobes are at these protests. But it’s also pretty disgusting how the more left-leaning anarchists and abolitionists are totally fine with governments having more control over people’s freedom of movement.

  2. Pingback: It’s True – The Climate Fanatics Are Coming for Your Car — Torches and Pitchforks

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