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How the organized Left got Covid wrong, learned to love lockdowns and lost its mind: an autopsy

It is hard to destroy your own cause and feel righteous while doing so, yet the American left has done it. After more than two centuries at the vanguard of the struggle for freedom, the American left, broadly defined, executed a volte face and embraced anti-working-class policies marketed as purely technical public health measures.
 
by Christian Parenti
 
Part 1
 
For two years the left has championed policies of surveillance and exclusion in the form of: punitive vaccine mandates, invasive vaccine passports, socially destructive lockdowns, and radically unaccountable censorship by large media and technology corporations. For the entire pandemic, leftists and liberals – call them the Lockdown Left – cheered on unprecedented levels of repression aimed primarily at the working class – those who could not afford private schools and could not comfortably telecommute from second homes. 

Almost the entire left intelligentsia has remained psychically stuck in March 2020. Its members have applauded the new biosecurity repression and calumniated as liars, grifters, and fascists any and all who dissented. Typically, they did so without even engaging evidence and while shirking public debate. Among the most visible in this has been Noam Chomsky, the self-described anarcho-syndicalist who called for the unvaccinated to “remove themselves from society,” and suggested that they should be allowed to go hungry if they refuse to submit.

In Jacobin, a magazine claiming to support the working class in all its struggles, Branko Marcetic demanded the unvaccinated be barred from public transportation: “one obvious course of action is for Biden to make vaccines a requirement for mass transport.” Journalist Doug Henwood has scolded the unvaccinated with: “Get over your own bloated sense of self-importance.” But Henwood has championed shutting down all of society in the name of safety, while refusing to engage counter-arguments – a combination that suggests a bloated sense of self-importance of his own.

Other left intellectuals, like Benjamin Bratton, author of a Verso book on the pandemic called Return of the Real, are notable for hiding amidst academic blather: “the book’s argument is on behalf [of] a ‘positive biopolitics’ that may form the basis of viable social self-organization, but this is less a statement on behalf of ‘the political’ in some metaphysical sense than on behalf of a governmentality through which an inevitably planetary society can deliberately compose itself.” This is, as the late Alex Cockburn once said, “what dumb people think smart people sound like.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union – long a bastion of objective thinking and civil liberties absolutism – has supported the mandates, lockdowns, and censorship. David Cole, the group’s legal director, debased himself in the New York Times with a tortured op-ed explaining how everything the ACLU stood for over the last 100 years suddenly did not apply during the season of freakout and overreach.

When activist left influencers did stray from the official line, it was to occasionally harumph about how school closure would be ok if we just had “free childcare for all.” That argument is so flimsy one wants to respond with: “Yes, and let’s call these new socialist childcare centers: public schools!”  

All of this unmasks the Lockdown Left’s blue-city provincialism. Its adherents drink high-quality coffee and enjoy bike lanes, but have revealed themselves to be as narrow-minded, clannish, mean-spirited and faith-based as any group of small-town “deplorables” might be. If you don’t agree with the consensus in Cambridge, Brooklyn, Bethesda, or Berkeley, then you are very obviously insane. End of story.  For this set, Covid vaccines have become a fetish, a talisman to wave against the specter of “contagion”; while lockdowns and censorship are treated as purely technical, apolitical interventions. Prominent left intellectuals have embraced the weaponization of solidarity and made it into a lifestyle via their obsessive masking, scolding, and hiding. They pretend to care for society while actually applauding deeply anti-social and scientifically ungrounded policies like the indefinite shuttering of schools. 

All of this is contingent upon the status of Lockdown Leftists as relatively privileged laptop workers who can operate from the comfort of home, dependent on anonymous “frontline workers” ferrying food and Amazon packages to their doorstep. Prior to the pandemic quarantines, many left intellectuals already lived as if they were on lockdown. I know this because I am part of that class.

Never mind that we are in the tightest labor market in 40 years and should be encouraging workers to unite and fight the bosses for better conditions. Instead, most of the left – including some trade unions – has supported measures that divide, distract, and intimidate the working class. It is a tragic and disturbing spectacle.

The socialist left, which wants to use state power to discipline capital has instead accepted the negative image of its goal: state power used to bully, harass, and discipline workers. The left’s embrace of Covid hysteria makes a mockery of the left’s goals of planning, industrial policy, economic redistribution, worker empowerment, and environmental sustainability. This leftwing self-harm will have deleterious consequences for years to come. Indeed, the situation is worse than a mere political fumble. The left is now actively helping its own enemies. In its unwavering support for mandates, passports, punitive lockdowns, and censorship, the organized left has sided with technocratic elites, the one percent, and the repressive state apparatus everywhere

Even as politicians climb down from two years of pandemic overreach, the left continues to demand more covid repression and does nothing to oppose punitive vaccine mandates that have driven many thousands of workers out of their jobs – almost 3,000 public workers in NYC alone. For example, my union – the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY) and run by a self-consciously “left” clique – continues to demand that all CUNY workers submit to vaccination even as the administration had long ago settled into a workable “vax or test” system. 

Worse yet, the PSC seems not to realize that its crusade may invite lawsuits that could fatally undermine the ironclad protections of academic tenure. If the union were to prevail against dissident members in court, their victory would, in effect, reduce tenure to merely another form of routinely breakable contract.  University administrators across the country, eager to degrade and casualize academic labor, know this and will be watching with anticipation.  

At John Jay College, where I work, the PSC demands vaccination policies – take the jab or be fired – even as a staggering 44% of the non-teaching staff remained unvaccinated as of late February 2022. And the union remains obtusely fixated on vaccines despite the fact that not even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that vaccines stop or reduce Covid transmission. Director Rochelle Walensky volunteered this fact during an August 5, 2021 interview with Wolf Blitzer. These days, the Lockdown Left still clings to the vaccine myth.

Covid repression portrays itself as apolitical and purely “scientific.” Sadly, most leftists accept this canard. But class war from above is always masked as “merely technical.” Proponents of the War on Drugs never described their open-ended campaign of domestic repression and surveillance as a war on workers and the poor. Likewise, proponents of the War on Terror never described their campaign of forever wars as a permanent assault on the Global South and a war to maintain American hegemony. The left saw through those concoctions. We opposed drug testing not because we were in favor of sharing the road with stoned truck drivers, but rather because we saw the political utility and inherent value in workers having autonomy from coercion by bosses.  Alas, the War on Covid, has (at least temporarily) erased our side’s analytic capacities. For large parts of the left it is still March 2020.

Arguing reason against Covid hysteria is like attempting to put out a magnesium fire using water. But I will try anyway. 

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