The Anti-Vax Movement: Another Socialism of Fools

The Anti-Vax Movement: Another Socialism of Fools

In 1889, the Left-liberal German politician Ferdinand Kronawetter proclaimed that “antisemitism is nothing but the socialism of the idiot of Vienna – for what reasonable person can believe that the future will be better if people are led back into the darkness of the Middle Ages?” The phrase “antisemitism is nothing but the socialism of the idiot of Vienna” was soon shortened to “antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” It rapidly became an expression of vexed exasperation within Germany’s social democratic movement. Despite socialism’s progressive promises, there remained a tendency within leftwing movements to get sidelined into reactionary politics. Indeed, the phrase’s popularity can be attributed to its ability to succinctly capture the complex relationship between antisemitism and revolutionary movements. Unlike other “isms,” which degrade a social group by assuming their inherent inferiority, antisemitism others Jewish people by constructing a world based on their superiority. For antisemites, Jews—unlike African Americans, immigrants, or homosexuals—are not considered a degenerate lower class. Rather, they are assumed to be a degenerate upper class that controls the world through an elaborate conspiracy. Like socialism, antisemitism is a political philosophy in rebellion. However, instead of understanding this rebellion in class terms, it conceptualizes it as a conflict of racial essentialism. The behaviors of oppressors and oppressed are determined, not by material forces and institutional imperatives, but by group moralities. By virtue of their class standing, members of the lower class are inherently good, while members of the upper class—that is, the Jews—are inherently bad. Furthermore, the only remedy from this situation is a return to some mystical begone period before the conspiratorial elite took power. 

Since the early twentieth century, especially in the United States, antisemitism has significantly declined. While events like the United the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have made it clear that antisemitism still exists, including among factions of the Left, it is not comparable to one hundred years ago. Unlike in Germany at the dawn of the twentieth century, it is hard to find an area of the country where antisemitism is a serious barrier to working class organizing. Still, while antisemitism in substance has faded, antisemitism in form—that is, a belief in a conspiratorial elite that rules over a virtuous oppressed, and the need to return to a bygone era—remains. Richard Hofstadter has noted the “paranoid style” of America’s political culture, but these “paranoias”—such as anti-Catholicism, Cold War hysterias, Satanic panics, and recently QAnon—have had some of their greatest consequences in being barriers to leftwing mobilizations. In this regard, they can best be understood as Americanized versions of the “socialism of fools.”  

In the context of COVID-19, the rise of anti-vax sentiment can also be included among this group. Unfortunately, it is a sentiment that meaningful sections of the Left have joined. A slew of progressive (or formerly progressive) pundits has entertained, and sometimes outright championed, anti-vax talking points. Kim Iverson has become a regular spewer of medical misinformation and vaccine skepticism. Jimmy Dore has become one of the internet’s main proponents of anti-vax nonsense. Chris Hedges has implied that recent vaccine mandates are tied to the PATRIOT ACT and does not hesitate to scaremonger on the “long term consequences” of the COVID-19 vaccinations. Richard Wolfe has referred to vaccine mandates as a form of “madness” that drives the working class to the Right; no evidence is presented to demonstrate that this is actually the case. 

Such punditry is a “foolish” form of socialism; it is based on a profound ignorance of infectious diseases and the role of governments in protecting public health. Despite recent anxieties over “body autonomy,” vaccine mandates have never been considered an infringement on civil liberties in the United States. If anything, it is highly unlikely that Americans would have been able to end several pandemics without them. The United States Supreme Court first considered the constitutionality of vaccine mandates in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). Henning Jacobson, a Swedish minister, had refused to vaccinate himself and his family during a smallpox epidemic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court decided against Jacobson. Writing for the majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan concluded that “the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.” Since then, both the courts and America’s preeminent civil libertarian organizations have accepted Harlan’s reasoning when it comes to vaccine mandates. 

In 1991, two faith healing Christian churches, the Faith Tabernacle and the First Century Gospel, became the epicenter of a measles outbreak. After 1,400 cases, including nine deaths, six of whom were children from the religious communities, health officials got a court order to forcefully remove the children and vaccinate them against their parents’ wishes. The coerced vaccination worked. The pandemic was stopped, and there was little doubt that several lives were saved. Still, leaders of the communities believed that their constitutional rights had been violated. They asked the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to help them sue the state. The ACLU declined. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACLU has been consistent in its position on vaccine mandates. The contagious nature of infectious diseases means that vaccinations are an issue of social responsibility, not body autonomy. As a matter of social responsibility, governments can mandate citizens receive them. 

While the anti-vax sentiment within the Left is misguided, its popularity does speak to a real and highly problematic phenomenon. A significant section of America’s working class—specifically rural and non-college educated voters—has slid further to the Right, especially as more Republicans cloak themselves in an aesthetic of “American First” populism. Frustrated by decades of neglect from mainstream liberal institutions and completely alienated by the cultural aesthetic of the Left—the DSA especially—much of America’s working class has found refuge in Trumpian demagoguery and conspiratorial thinking. 

In response to this phenomenon, the aforementioned socialists and progressives have concluded that the working class exodus from class politics is simply another one of the Left’s self-inflicted wounds. They have argued that a stubborn dedication to post-modern identity politics, including a celebration of a bohemian middle-class lifestyle, has convinced large swaths of the working class that anyone left-of-center is a fanatical snowflake. Indeed, many working class people have come to see socialism as a cultural signifier for liberal extremism rather than a call for class struggle. For certain sections of the working class, even if a “socialist” claims to support working class causes, their true intent is to create a nanny state that will usher in a woke hellscape. Comedians will be canceled, safe places will be mandatory, and reverse racism will be the norm. It is not surprising that all the commentaries mentioned above are also fierce critics of cancel culture, identity politics, and the Democratic establishment.  

For many socialists, the only way to win back the working class from the ostracizing obnoxiousness of wokeness is for the socialist movement to adopt an “anti-Left Marxism” that refuses to operate within the “the subjective differences of the political compass.” Instead, socialists should favor the “objective class antagonisms” of classical Marxism. They should eschew the contemporary products of “the ideological factories of the Left,” specifically, “Russiagate and various other Trump derangements to the endless liberal panics around fascism, racism, sexism, and domestic terrorism to COVID-19 vaccine fanaticism.” And, apparently, “vaccine fanaticism” includes the belief that mandates are a necessary public health measure, as opposed to just being another form of Leftist virtue signaling

The argument is not without its truth. A ferocious critique of post-modern identity politics and other various forms of wokeness is long overdue, but the idea that the working class will be won over by an “anti-Left Marxism” — especially one that sees vaccine mandates as a form of “fanaticism” — is highly dubious. The problem with “anti-Left Marxism” is that equating nearly all forms of social liberalism — including an appreciation for science and scientific expertise — with the pathologies of America’s contemporary professional middle class is lazy and not reflective of America’s working class. If anything, the divide over social liberalism in the United States has to do more with urban and rural divisions, specifically how de-industrialized areas have produced a reactionary lumpenproletariat, than a class divide between working people and the professional middle class. It only appears as a class divide because of the concentration of America’s professional middle class in urban areas and their outsized cultural representation. The numerous cultural pathologies of America’s professional middle class occupy much of the country’s media landscape. It often gets equated with social liberalism due to the peculiarities of American politics but is, in actuality, highly illiberal. Regardless, it remains a minority opinion, especially among the overwhelming majority of working class liberals, and only negligibly factors into their political choices. 

The working class as a whole, but especially in urban areas, is far more reasonable and willing to accept the views of medical experts on COVID-19. In many working class areas, vaccine mandates are not at all divisive. A significant plurality, nearly a majority, of employees favors vaccine mandates. Even as Biden’s popularity has waned, a majority of voters still support his vaccine mandate. The only way socialist support for vaccine mandates could be construed as “fanatical” was if it is juxtaposed to a mythical caricature of the working class. It is important to recognize that belief in such a caricature is often propagated by America’s professional middle class and the nation’s conservative movement. Despite both forces often occupying separate political spaces, they share a similar conviction that the country’s working people are a horde of nincompoops who cannot be trusted with the vote. It does not serve the working class to flip then elevate this caricature in an Elysian appeal to down-to-earth populism. Subtly, the romanticizing of an anti-intellectual working class undermines the conviction that ordinary people can grasp complex scientific concepts, or defer to experts when appropriate, in a democratically planned economy. By playing into the caricature, even if well-meaning, socialists undermine the conviction that “every cook can govern.” And, that conviction is — and should remain — at the center of working class empowerment.

Furthermore, despite what anti-Leftist Marxists claim, no human being can be understood purely in the terms of “objective class antagonisms.” Class struggles exist within a social framework that includes the vagrancies of politics and culture. The idea that Marxism, or any form of socialism, can somehow be lifted from its political context, specifically its placement on the political spectrum, and drained of its cultural implications is idealism in the extreme. It is a theoretical maneuver that Marx himself would have rejected. He and Engels willingly acknowledged that cultural forces could awaken reactionary impulses among oppressed classes. Marx and Engels believed that the proletariat’s historic mission to create a classless society was entirely conditioned on the realpolitik of its majoritarian power. In previous eras, the transition from one system of political economy to another was initiated by a class that constituted a minority of the population. However, with the development of capitalism, it was possible that a majoritarian class, the working class, could restructure society. As they make explicit in the Communist Manifesto, “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” 

The proletariat’s ability to properly wield its majoritarian power was not solely dependent on its awareness of its class position relative to the bourgeoisie. Rather, it required a willingness by the working class to accept democratic values, something that is highly dependent on the “subjective differences of the political compass.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels warned that revolutionary movements would be easily thwarted if sections of the working class, specifically the lumpenproletariat, fell under the influence of reactionary forces. Unfortunately, they were soon vindicated by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup in 1851, which Marx attributed to Bonaparte’s ability to prey on the cultural prejudices of the lumpenproletariat and the small landholding peasant. It was France’s “historical tradition” that caused its peasantry to be captured “in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them.” In trusting in this demagogue, Marx observed, the coup “represents not the enlightenment but the superstition of the peasant; not his judgment but his prejudice; not his future but his past.” 

In our contemporary era, Marx’s phraseology is still applicable. Despite still constituting a minority, the rebellion against public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic represents the working class’ superstition, not its enlightenment, its prejudices, not its judgment. This is especially the case in so far as such “rebellions” are instigated by the intellectual and moral cesspool of the anti-vax movement. What socialists and progressives who give credence to the anti-vax movement fail to realize is that the movement, regardless of its anti-corporate aesthetic and posturing, is deeply reactionary. The goal of its most vocal proponents is to undo the progressive accomplishments of the last century, especially as they relate to the regulation of medicine and public health. The endgame is to go back to a premodern nineteenth century America; it is a time when government oversight of medical professionals was minimal, regulation of medical products was nonexistent, and Spenserian Social Darwinism was the intellectual norm.  

Anti-vax propaganda in the United States overwhelmingly originates from the confused smorgasbord of the so-called alternative medicine movement. Since the nineteenth-century alternative medicine practitioners in the United States — naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, homeopaths, herbalists, and so on — have desperately tried to convince the public that their “alternative” modalities — as in an alternative to science — should be treated with the same validity as science-based practices. Before the Progressive Era, specifically the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act — the predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — and the 1910 Flexner Report, such alternative practitioners were the norm throughout the United States. Nevertheless, with the rise of science-based medicine, including a regulatory infrastructure that required medical professionals to justify their decisions and serve the public, alternative medicine practitioners were forced into the margins. 

However, with the neoliberal assault on the regulatory powers of the welfare state, alternative medicine was able to come back with a vengeance. With the passage of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which exempted supplements and herbs from aspects of FDA oversight, several alternative medicine practitioners saw an opportunity to make a fortune. The business model was simple. Scare the public away from science-based medical treatments — such as drugs and vaccines — by associating them with an iniquitous and out-of-touch establishment. After a thorough lashing of the status-quo, offer a buffet of overpriced and often worthless supplements, herbs, and tinctures that are promoted as being “natural,” “holistic,” and “complementary.” The consequence is that nearly two-thirds of Americans take dietary supplements, often without any medical need to do so. Of that total, 84% believe that they are safe. The reality paints a different picture. Many of the supplements on the market in the United States are contaminated with heavy metals or adulterated with synthetic drugs. In June 2019, US Marshals seized 300,000 supplement containers from the Chinese herbal company Life Rising because they were contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. While many of the advocates of alternative medicine are true believers, the ability of the industry to produce easy money has meant that it has attracted an entire class of charlatans and frauds. In some cases, such as the infamous fraudsters Joe Mercola and Mehmet Oz, these practitioners have managed to create multimillion-dollar empires of misinformation.    

Unsurprisingly, such anti-regulatory fraudsters have developed cozy partnerships with free market ideologues. The “health freedom movement” — which sprouted out from the John Birch Society in the 1990s — combines dubious medical claims and outrageous conspiracy theories with a hyper-libertarian doctrine. The result is an entire movement of people, embarrassingly including many socialists, who seem to believe that the greatest achievement of the Progressive Era — the creation of public health agencies — are simultaneously edicts from pharmaceutical corporations and nefarious tools of the nanny welfare state. For this group, the entire progressive project of public health — especially the regulatory powers of the FDA — is inherently fraught. The only solution is to replace government regulations with consumer choices. Individual patients, or more specifically the free market, should decide the quality, safety, and efficacy of medical products and modalities. 

While anti-vax talking points can be found throughout the political spectrum, the attack on the regulatory powers of the welfare state has meant that the movement has tended to congregate on the Right. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, political scientists were aware that adherence to a conservative ideology meant an individual was more likely to be suspicious of vaccines. In some cases, the cross-pollination between medical quackery and ultra-Right politics has produced borderline fascistic medical organizations. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons includes among its members archconservatives like Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky-R) and Representative Tom Price (Georgia-R) and fraudsters like Joe Mercola. It has not only been a leading voice for vaccine skepticism, but also opposes abortion and emergency contraceptives, gun control, laws prohibiting indoor smoking, and has denied that HIV causes AIDS. The organization’s leaders have referred to Barak Obama as a “witch doctor,” accused illegal immigrants of carrying diseases, and have claimed that engaging in homosexuality reduces a man’s lifespan. In their viciousness against the working class, the organization opposed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, opposed the Affordable Care Act, and claimed that the FDA and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are unconstitutional agencies that should be abolished.  

In utter ghoulishness, groups like the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons — including their legion of quack allies — appeal to natural herd immunity for humanity to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. The only way to defeat a virus with such a high infection rate is for a significant percentage of the population to develop antibodies, thus denying the virus the ability to spread. While a majority of people can be persuaded to develop immunities safely through vaccinations, there will always be a small minority who will refuse. Unfortunately, it only takes a small subset of the population to keep a virus like COVID-19 in circulation. Like all viruses, it will eventually exit the population, but without mass vaccinations, this process will only occur after multiple generations of mutations and countless fatalities. In an admittance to Social Darwinism, some on the Right have admitted that they find that situation entirely acceptable. They have argued that it is better to let hundreds of thousands die rather than slow down the economy or infringe on personal autonomy. However, highly infectious diseases are inherently social. The refusal to get vaccinated does not only impact one individual but all of society. In this manner, the decision to remain unvaccinated is no more a question of personal autonomy than the decision to pollute a community’s drinking water because a person’s edge of the river is private property. The reality is the longer people wait to get vaccinated, the more prolonged the pandemic, and the more economic uncertainty, restrictions on liberties, and needless death will occur. As usual in our unjust society, the weight of this destruction falls most heavily on the most vulnerable.

In all fairness, few people know that the anti-vax movement’s talking points come from such reactionary organizations or that the movement heavily crisscrosses with forces seeking to undermine the welfare state. Many people are uncertain about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, and their skepticism comes from a place of good faith. For these people, it is critical that the socialist movement be at the forefront of promoting science, especially regarding public health. After all, situations like this have occurred within the socialist movement before. When the Dayton, Ohio chapter of the Socialist Party of America was ousted from office by a regime of business-minded progressives, the chapter responded by regressing into anti-intellectualism. The local chapter decided to oppose smallpox vaccinations, pasteurized milk, and mandatory medical examinations for prostitutes. Far from rallying the working class to their party, the positions accelerated the party’s decline in the city. Unsurprisingly, the working class is less interested in a classless society if it means that everyone dies of infectious diseases once we get there.  

Anti-intellectualism on the Left must be opposed, but it is important to keep in mind that much of it is a reaction to the Left’s current cultural infatuation with post-modern identity politics and its fetishization of higher education. One of the many problems with the Left’s current malaise of wokeness is that it has convinced an entire generation of activists — who are overwhelmingly college educated — that they are absolved from sharing knowledge. The phrase “it is not my responsibility to educate you” to anyone who challenges a Leftist shibboleth has become a common activist mantra. This response is highly condescending and irritating, especially when it comes from someone with a four-year degree to someone who could not afford college. Contrary to what some activists believe, it is all our responsibility to share knowledge, and included in that sharing is having ideas challenged and being able to explain them reasonably. Without such open discussions, people will inevitably fall under the influence of fraudsters and demagogues. As Noam Chomsky observed: 

“There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “mathematics for the millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That’s not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That’s an organizer’s dream… It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.” 

Nearly thirty years from when Chomsky made these observations, his ominous implications have become a reality. If we want to avoid the reactionary tendencies of our current political moment, then Leftists need to offer the working class something other than the choice between condescending attitudes and audacious absurdities. It needs to celebrate scientific knowledge, expertise, and the belief that ordinary people can grasp complex ideas. Otherwise, we are surely headed towards more, and perhaps far more dangerous, versions of “socialism of fools.”