Conservatives are weaponizing the COVID-19 pandemic to promote nationalism

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Image: marke1996/Flickr

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the world, the dangerously unstable foundations of the globalized economy have been laid bare. Just-in-time supply lines have jammed up; once disposable minimum-wage workers have been recast as "essential"; and decades of cuts and underinvestment in health and care work have been revealed as the soft underbelly of our profit-driven society. Yet socialists and progressives must recognize that this crisis has already set the groundwork for a renewed and more openly authoritarian brand of conservative politics that will relegitimate failed neoliberal policies under the guise of national security.

On the surface it may seem as though this public health crisis can only benefit the left. The sudden recognition of the value of front-line workers and the unprecedented income support being extended to much of the labour force reinforce this impression. Yet, as authors such as Naomi Klein and Jeff Shantz have shown, neoliberal capitalism has repeatedly used the management of its own self-generated crises to extend and deepen its grip on society. In the absence of an organized working-class movement, any material and discursive gains made on behalf of working people will inevitably wither under a barrage of counterattacks.

In the short term, many conservatives have stumbled over the question of how to balance their fealty to the private economy with the need to protect human lives. The ever hapless Andrew Scheer has not done his party any favours with his open musing about whether income supports will discourage Canadians from returning to work. However, many conservative intellectuals anticipate that they will benefit from the fallout of the crisis in the longer term.

Conservatives are already maneuvering to recast the pandemic as a foreign threat exacerbated by a soft-headed and dangerously cosmopolitan liberal elite. As a trio of authors put it in a Maclean's magazine article titled "How China weaponized its supply chain," the true imperative of this crisis is that Canadians must "dispense with ideological fantasies of post-nationalism, and embrace the reality that nations are comprised of citizens, borders and interests." In practice, this would seem to mean that Canada must disavow refugees, expand state authority and funnel public money into bailing out private capital.

"Borders are back" declares one author writing in the right-wing C2C Journal about Greek militias intercepting "shabby" boatloads of refugees in the Aegean Sea and praising the border policies of Hungary's far-right government. The progressive reverence for human rights, argues the journal's editor in another article, "binds liberals to a full-bodied universalism" that will no longer resonate with the Canadian public in a post-COVID world where a conservative focus on security and nationalism will, he predicts, edge out progressive invocations of humanitarianism and inherent rights. 

Until recently, the authoritarianism of the Chinese state was a convenient safety valve for the global capitalist economy, externalizing the economic contradictions and environmental costs of western consumerism. Alongside other low-income developing nations, the Chinese government was allowed to economically integrate with western developed countries while maintaining its highly repressive political system, allowing western capitalists to shift production to low-wage workforces that lacked basic rights or political representation. Offshoring was a powerful tool that forced organized labour onto a defensive footing and compelled governments to abandon social-democratic policies in order to remain internationally "competitive," encoding neoliberal austerity into the DNA of the global economy.

Now, facing an increasingly chaotic and divided world, and with the economy in crisis, there is a growing recognition among conservatives that state power must be expanded to protect the interests of private capital. In many cases, these attempts to rehabilitate economic nationalism piggyback on arguments in favour of using Canada's "ethical oil" rather than relying on foreign energy. At the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a decade-old think tank at which all three authors of the above Maclean's article are fellows, traditional advocacy for supporting Canada's extractive industries are leavened with warnings about the danger of foreign state-owned enterprises.

Leftists underestimate the appeal of this new conservative messaging at their own peril. The election of Donald Trump demonstrates that a rhetorical combination of economic nationalism and raw xenophobia holds a powerful appeal for many disaffected voters. We have also seen how various provincial governments and even the federal Liberals have sought to assign themselves sweeping new legislative and economic powers under the guise of fighting the crisis.

As things stand, we face a future where we are asked to choose between a nationalist right that celebrates the brutalization of immigrants and foreigners, and a liberal centre that uses invocations of multiculturalism and human rights to paper over the injustices of our increasingly dysfunctional economy. The left must present a compelling and plausible alternative to these paths.

Nicholas Erwin-Longstaff is a graduate student at York University, where he studies labour geography.

Image: marke1996/Flickr​

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