This morning, on the first day masks became mandatory for shopping in the UK, I went into a plastic-free, sustainable grocery shop in Brighton. While paying at the till, I asked the sales assistant how the first day of mandatory mask-wearing was going,
Bearing in mind this was around 11am (only a couple of hours into the first day), I was surprised when she said that it had been really difficult. Lots of customers had made a real fuss about wearing their masks, she said. Many of them were heavily influenced by conspiracy theories and saw Covid (and by extension, mask wearing) as a way for the powers-that-be to ramp up social control.
Now this shop is at the very heartland of lefty, liberal Brighton. Everything is organic or Fairtrade. Shoppers there wear babies in slings, home-school, practise yoga, grown their own veg – I probably need say no more to capture the typical demographic. In this past, we might have assumed they’d be avid mask wearers, keen to signal their social conscience and community spirit.
But these labels and assumptions no longer work. What’s striking now is how the whole idea of ‘organic’ lefty liberalism is fading in relevance. Many of these erstwhile holistic liberals are moving towards forms of conspiracy-theory thinking and libertarianism that we’d be more likely to associate with the US alt-right.
It’s not the first time I’ve had a sense of this happening in Brighton. Last year, I went to a climate protest. We ended up in a park where I saw an acquaintance – a forest school facilitator. She ticked all the boxes you might expect from a traditional Brighton organic liberal – home-schooling, anti-vax, organic veg growing, and so on. I made a quick assumption that these characteristics meant she’d likely be on the protest. But no. She regarded the climate movement as a George Soros-instigated conspiracy designed to sow fear, control and distract the populace, and so on.
I was shocked at the time. But now the shift is plain to see. The idea of the holistic, organic liberalism (beautifully described by the Guardian as the ‘esoteric left’) is on its way out. This section of what used to be the left is moving towards the radical right.
Zooming out from Brighton anecdotes to the wider context, we can see some key themes propelling this shift. In the UK, it’s the anti-vax movement that has pulled a large section of the esoteric left rightwards. And that’s likely to be in part because of US influence. In the US, to be anti-vax is far more likely to align you with a radical, sceptical libertarianism than it is with holistic, pro-social, progressive liberalism.
At the same time, wellness more generally in the US is moving rightwards, and has been for a while.
For a long time, the wellness industry was dominated by the image of the ‘skinny white girl’ with impeccable (if superficial) liberal credentials, downing green juices and meditating in her warehouse apartment.
But then something happened to this feminine, liberal code: masculinisation. Male personalities such as Joe Rogan, Sayer Ji, JP Sears (pictured, in a typical yoga satire) and Charles Eisenstein began to rise to guru status in the wellness field – bringing with them a new discourse rooted in personal sovereignty, medical libertarianism, and a combative, sceptical approach to wellness. When Joe Rogan describes yoga as a ‘martial art you practise against yourself’, we get a clear view of the de-coding and re-coding taking place.
While this evolution has been most pronounced in the US, it’s happening in the UK too. The ‘esoteric left’ seems to be easy prey for the conspiracy theories of the alt right. The reasons for that are probably beyond the scope of this post. But what is really important to note – progressive holistic liberalism is uncovering new ideological affinities with the American radical right. In the process, a new appetite for conspiracy theory and a more hard-edged scepticism is emerging in the heartlands of middle-class liberalism.