What happens when the green left and the conservative right find themselves as strange bedfellows in their attempt to rattle the halls of democracy? Is it just a means to a shared end, does it run deeper than just this moment, and where have we seen this merger before?
Much has been made recently of the association between the far-right as it infiltrates some of the more conservative responses to the current pandemic, and new-age ideas that revolve around lifestyle choices, spiritual thinking, and health and well-being. As Carl Cederström, author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement was quoted in a recent Guardian article, ‘Wellness has very strong ties to the self-help movement … and what you find at the core of these movements is the idea that you should be able to help yourself.’ This same self-help mantra has come to underpin some of the responses of the alternative and sustainability movement to the current Pandemic moment, and it is a worrying sign.
What this association implies, as revealed through arguments against vaccine technology, and more recently against the broader mandates, government health policy and ‘Big Pharma’, is that the alternative (read OG countercultural) movement and its ideological descendants, one built on self-help, self-realisation and enhanced self-actualisation, should be very sceptical about the current mainstream response to the global pandemic. This messaging is firmly entrenched in the classical positioning to challenge, or counter the status quo, the precepts of industrial capitalism and its corollary aims, organisations and systems. As cultural critic Dennis Altman observed in 1977, the countercultural movement, as it arose in Australia, grew to reject an ‘oppressively conformist’ social and cultural landscape of the Menzies era, though he also drew attention to the return to ‘traditional rural values’ as a less-than-revolutionary position.
One of the major contributions of the Australian counterculture to the world is the inception of permaculture, an ideology and a movement that contained a distinct back-to-the-land self-help ethic, and which defined itself according to a philosophy and lifestyle that looked ‘to the hills’ when confronted by industrialisation. In their first book, Permaculture 1: a perennial agricultural system for human settlements published in 1978, co-founders David Holmgren and Bill Mollison aimed to re-design human settlement through small-scale self-production with a strong ethical component. Extending far beyond vegetable beds and companion planting, Permaculture has in the intervening years become a global movement that intersects with a range of projects, programs and social entrepreneurships, all premised on the three guiding principles of fair share, earth care and people care.
In his 2021 book The Politics of Permaculture, Terry Leahy observes that any ritual as performed by a social movement is translated into procedures which are ‘codified, through which a vision of the world is communicated, a basic historical experience is reproduced’ and which contribute towards the reinforcement of identity and of collective feelings of belonging. Such codification of behaviour is currently being demonstrated (and rationalized) through a convergence in Australia of the traditional left at the anti-lockdown, vaccine mandate protests with a broad-based alt-right agenda, the largest congregation of which happened over the past weekend across the major capitals.
As an accretion of sentiment that has evolved from anti-lockdown, into protesting the precepts and enaction of government policy, the crux of the protest is an objection to the perceived authoritarianism and over-arching reach of the government (and medical institutions and research programs in all forms) into daily, and bodily, affairs. An association of labour groups, welfare advocates, pro-choice and freedom groups were also inspired to join in. Banners that read, ‘Don’t scab—Get the jab’ were intermingled with ‘Coercion is not Consent’ amongst a plethora of objections, and refrains, some in competition, some in parallel. Many participants have vocalized their attendance as not ‘anti-vaccine’ but premised on defending an ‘attack on human rights’ as epitomized by the Victorian Government’s ‘controversial pandemic bill’, which according to the opposition and conservative news outlets, would give the state ‘sweeping powers to set public health orders.’
One thing that can be deciphered from this multi-faceted and increasingly complex moment, and which is being replayed across the country and the globe, is the problematic presence of a small but vocal sub-group with more extreme fascistic aims and whose presence and pretense is far more sinister. As journalist Myke Barlett observed, the anti-vax conspiracy conglomerate constitutes a form of fundamentalism ‘where what you believe isn’t as important as what you don’t believe in. Whatever is happening, isn’t happening. Whatever reality is, they’re opposed to it. Which, I suspect, makes the movement uniquely dangerous.’ That those who would identify as being on the traditional left, as embodied by ideas of ‘earth care, fair share, and people care’ have found ways to vindicate their participation alongside the conservative right has been shaped around a desire for bodily autonomy and a perceived ‘state authoritarianism’, and this junction has a long historical precedent in Australia and abroad.
As George Monbiot recently argued, this convergence is not new, nor particular to the current pandemic. The German National Socialists were indeed partial to ‘organicist’ ideas around the body, and embraced astrology, pagan festivals, organic farming, forest conservation, ecological education and nature worship. Historian Andrea Gaynor has also written of the involvement of far-right nationalists in the early English organic movement, and how this ideological congruence was transposed to Australian conditions. Gaynor documents the early links between the far right and the Australian organic gardening and farming movement from 1946 as based upon a set of immutable ‘natural laws’ enacted via a form of racialised progressivism that had also been a central premise of Nazi ideology. Such ideas extended to more proto-nationalist ideologies, sometimes eschewing the role of centralised planning and bureaucratic systems as small government thinking. Gaynor observes that though their working associations were not long lasting, the organic movement did provide a ‘happy hunting ground’ for recruits for conservative organisations such as the League of Rights.
Such co-opting of a shared scepticism and fear towards centralised systems, collectivism and centralised economic policy has strong resonance with the current situation. For weeks commentators have warned that further subversion of the rule of law, and by default, liberal democracies, as seen in the United States, can have far more problematic outcomes for the processes of democratic systems, and ultimately, faith in a government working to protect the whole. As Dr. Chamila Liyanage recent wrote for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, ‘the Great Subcultural Convergence’ of an anti-democratic disposition is a cultural battle, ‘forged for political reasons, manipulating social, cultural, and even religious/spiritual movements’. It does not inherently have a particular goal, but it is aiming for a ‘purely pragmatic authoritarian revival’.
From within the permaculture movement, the alignment or at the very least, proximity with the far right has also proven to be problematic. Some comments on high-traffic social media posts have challenged the basis of the leaders to continue to speak for the movement, while others have asserted that ‘people care’ has been transmuted into a form of libertarian hyper individualism. There is a call for more open-platform debates over the ‘branding’ of permaculture as it now represents a more diverse spectrum of ideas, people, communities and needs than the middle-class, white, hetro-normative founding fathers. Regardless of the internal conversations taking place, the left needs to reckon with its positioning as the waves of Eureka and nationalist flags, violence-inciting chants and QAnon slogans were not just a passive minority of the recent rallies.
What does this association do, or say about a green movement and its desire to rebuild the planet and protect it? What happens when communitarianism, the classical orientation of the left, falls in with the hyper-individualism of the neo-right, and where does this leave ideas of fairness, public good and collective, not individual, freedom and rights?
This is indeed a moment we need to take notice of.
Dr Rachel Goldlust is an Adjunct at the School of Archaeology and History, La Trobe University
 Dennis Altman, “The Counter Culture: Nostalgia or Prophecy?” in Australian Society: A Sociological Introduction., ed. A.F. Davis, S Encel, and A.M. Berry, 3rd Edition (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1977), 450.
 Margaret Smith and David John Crossley, The Way Out: Radical Alternatives in Australia (Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1975), 2.
 Andrea Gaynor, ‘Antipodean Eco-Nazis? The Organic Gardening and Farming Movement and Far-Right Ecology in Postwar Australia’, Australian Historical Studies 43, no. 2 (2012): 269.