Austria COVID protests: no to division and demagogy, the bourgeois are to blame!

Last weekend saw mass demonstrations in Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, Bregenz and other Austrian towns, involving tens of thousands of people. These protests were a response to the recent announcement of a fourth national lockdown due to an explosion of COVID-19 cases. This will be followed by mandatory vaccination next year. The rotten Austrian establishment has totally bungled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dividing the working class by blaming ‘stupid’ individuals for dragging out the crisis offers no solution, and neither does denying the importance of vaccination. Only a class analysis can explain what is going on and put the blame for this disaster where it belongs: with the ruling class and its criminal policies.

Most of the demonstrations last week were called by the far-right FPÖ, and one by a reactionary ‘anti-corona’ outfit that made it into the regional parliament. Their political character was openly reactionary. The Viennese protest was headed by a Nazi group. Their main banner read: “Control the borders, not your people”. The main symbols on these demos were national flags: not only Austrian, but from neighbouring countries, mainly in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where vaccine scepticism is high. There were also chauvinistic displays of “Alpine traditions”, like cowbells and so forth. Additionally, we saw religious symbols of all kinds: from Shamanism to Catholicism. Identifiable groups included everything from policemen, to army personnel, and even nurses.

The mass of the people present however, were clearly not used to attending demonstrations and had no organised connection to the reactionary leadership. To underline this: a supporter of the International Marxist Tendency approached the nurses’ bloc on one of the demos and started to shout loudly that people could buy a communist paper from him, and sold a dozen in a matter of minutes.

Herbert Kickl Image Michael Lucan Wikimedia CommonsThe demonstrations were called by the far-right FPÖ. Its new leader, Herbert Kickl has been demagogically linking political attacks against Kurz with an increasingly obscurantist COVID-policy / Image: Michael Lucan, Wikimedia Commons

The mass character of the 21-22 November demos is a result of the efforts of the government to blame the people for the course of the pandemic crisis. The opposition to mandatory vaccination, the lockdown, a host of broken promises, combined with the double standards of the measures taken thus far, pushed people onto the streets. In order to scapegoat for their constant failure, the government finally apologised, not for its own misconduct, but for that of unvaccinated individuals.

The narrow-minded incompetence of the Austrian bourgeoisie has led the country into this grim political, social and health crisis. In order to hold their new administration together for a few more months, the Conservative-Green government is trying to divide the working class on the question of mandatory vaccinations. This follows a litany of abject failures in dealing with the pandemic.

Constant political crisis

Since June, the government has repeatedly declared the pandemic “over”. Thanks to their self-declared “superior” political leadership, we “would all be having a great time by now”. This media spin was an attempt to bolster the flagging approval for Conservative ex-Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, whose popular support entered into decline this year, and with it the support of the establishment also fell, culminating in his removal over a corruption probe.

In the 21st month of the pandemic, it is noteworthy that a board of 60 PR consultants is still in place, working side by side with the Prime Minister, yet there is still no government board to oversee and counteract the pandemic. There is not even a functioning central national database to collect basic infection data. The fourth wave of the pandemic caught society totally unprepared. Even the government-friendly newspaper, Profil, ran a headline that read, “The state has failed: Cowardice, negligence, premeditation. From laissez-faire seamlessly to lockdown and mandatory vaccination.”

kurts Image European Parliament Wikimedia CommonsOne part of the judiciary believes that Kurz used public money to pay for the massive production and publication of falsified exit polls in friendly media outlets to inflate his popularity / Image: European Parliament, Wikimedia Commons

The acute health crisis in recent weeks cannot be understood in isolation from the wider political context. Sebastian Kurz and a gang of his friends, cronies and acolytes organised a successful putsch in the Christian-Democratic Conservative party (ÖVP) in 2017. They used this momentum to conquer the leadership of the party and to win the two general elections that they triggered in 2017 and 2019.

In the course of their rise to power, they wreaked havoc on the Social Democrats, provoked a split in the nationalist FPÖ, and are now squeezing the Greens. All this has been accompanied with brutal, reactionary leadership. The traditional power centres of the ÖVP (interest groups and regional administrations) took a step back and eagerly embraced Kurz’s leadership as long as he could win elections, and carry out some important counter-reforms against the working class. These included a 12-hour working day and a reform of social security, as well as an increase in state subsidies during the pandemic to enrich private profiteers. This helped the bosses increase their profits by €5.5 billion in 2020 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, disgusting racist demagogy was constantly being poured out by this government to divide the working class.

The Kurz leadership led to open conflicts and splits in the state apparatus: first in the secret service, then in the judiciary. The state attorney’s office collected a mass of evidence that the Kurz regime, besides the usual cronyism and nepotism, also misused public money to further a personal political agenda. One part of the judiciary believes that Kurz used public money to pay for the massive production and publication of falsified exit polls in friendly media outlets to inflate his popularity.

It was this affair, and a month-long leak of juicy text messages revealing the level of corruption in Kurz’ government, which forced him into retreat in October of this year. Kurz handed over the chancellorship to his Foreign Affairs Minister Schallenberg, but kept his position as parliamentary and party leader of the Christian Democrats. But now, these fair-weather friends have no desire to be connected to their former hero. Yet Kurz is stubbornly sticking to his remaining positions, and is already hatching a plan for a comeback as leader of the government.

Constant mismanagement

In January, Kurz appointed himself chiefly responsible for Austria’s vaccination campaign, believing he could easily win some laurels by delivering the much-desired and expected vaccine to the people. He made a lot of noise against the EU, grouping around him notoriously incompetent and corrupt heads of state like Janez Janša from Slovenia, and Bojko Borissow of Bulgaria in order to blame the EU for an unfair distribution of vaccines. Shortly after, it was revealed that the Austrian government abstained from buying the full contingent of vaccines for cost-saving reasons.

He then travelled to Israel to negotiate vaccine supplies, and then he promised to get a supply of Sputnik vaccines from Russia. In reality, he was simply concealing the ill-preparedness of his administration in dealing with the vaccination campaign. Up until now, not one single Austrian has received a personal invitation for a vaccination. And just at that moment when the government managed to get hold of enough vaccines, in July Kurz even decided to halt the (frankly rather ridiculous) media campaign for vaccination and declared that “the societal pandemic is over”.

The pandemic was now declared a “personal” problem – and this is precisely how it has been dealt with in recent months. Not a single precaution was taken in the autumn. Belatedly, in September, the government finally approved a “plan”, which was immediately overrun by the upsurge of infections. In contrast to everything that the government had previously said, a fourth (and in some areas, fifth) lockdown was forced upon the country on account of the fact that the health system is collapsing due to a lack of funding and provisions from the government.

The constant worsening of working conditions, plus the non-fulfilment of promised bonus payments (€500, an insulting amount in itself) is causing growing numbers of nurses to abandon the sector – more than can be found to replace them. The new lockdown began on 22 November. This was preceded by (from 15 November) and is to be followed by (from 13 December) a “lockdown for unvaccinated people”. Mandatory vaccination is planned to come into effect from 1 February. This was the plan presented by an emergency meeting of regional governors and the federal government on 19 November in Tyrol.

The government had repeatedly pledged there would be no more lockdowns, and over the course of several months mandatory vaccination was declared “incompatible with democracy”. One night on the shores of lake Achensee apparently changed all that.

There are many contradictions and double standards in the application of these new measures. School lessons, including exams, are to go on. School students and parents are nevertheless advised to stay at home, and no online education is being provided. The argument goes that families know best about the needs of their kids. This meant that, on the first day of lockdown, around 70-80 percent of pupils attended school, and as such the ‘lockdown’ had to be “readjusted” by the administration. And while the youth are informed that their sports and leisure activities are cancelled for 2022, on 3 December Austria’s main ski resort, Ischgl, is opening its slopes and cable cars as part of a special exemption for the tourism industry. The tourism lobby is also arguing to open the ski-bars, because “skiers need the protection of the huts when weather conditions in the mountains swiftly change”.

Casting an unintended irony on the overall irresponsible handling of the crisis, the courts announced this week that they will not accept the case of several bereaved families who lost family members to COVID-19 in the skiing resorts. They wanted to hold the authorities of Tyrol responsible for keeping them open who even denied the virus was circulating in the skiing resort of Ischgl in March 2020, despite this already being proven. The official line however has been that the virus entered Austria only a week later, via two Italian migrant workers.

Vaccine scepticism

Constant corruption scandals, an inconsistent pandemic response, campaigns of half-truths (and pure demagogy), policies that always benefit the rich and the ski resorts, and a lack of any provisions for ordinary people have totally undermined popular trust in politics. 75 percent of the population say “I distrust the government”, and only slightly fewer reject all standing parties and their leaders. This is the decisive factor for the low rate of vaccination in Austria. The country entered the autumn with a fully vaccinated rate of 62 percent. Two months later, 70 percent of people have at least accepted their first dose: one of the lowest rates in the EU. Only in some Eastern European and Balkan states, where there is an even deeper anti-establishment mood, are there lower levels of vaccine uptake in Europe. As one person from former Yugoslavia explained to us: “In the wake of the last 30 years, people simply cannot grasp the idea of a politician advocating something beneficial for the population”. Now that the government is rushing to take these measures, clearly as a means to minimise the impact of the pandemic on the economy and as a manoeuvre to divide the working class, matters are no better.

Throughout the country, politics are highly polarised due to the constant crisis in the ÖVP. Levels of infections are highest in regions where the ÖVP rules. In fact, in these regions the partial lockdown for unvaccinated people collapsed, because there was no testing infrastructure prepared. Workers were driven to their wits’ end trying to get hold of their “green pass”. The bosses then gave a press conference, saying that because there were so many untested workers, and at the same time so much work to do, they had no choice but to ignore the rules.

night march Image fair use75 percent of the Austrian population say “I distrust the government”, and only slightly fewer reject all standing parties and their leaders. This is the decisive factor for the low rate of vaccination in the country / Image: fair use

In recent months, the right-wing FPÖ was the only party pursuing a consistent anti-government policy. The moderate wing lost the party congress in June, and the party’s new leader Herbert Kickl, ex-minister of interior affairs (2017-2019), is a clever demagogue. He linked the political attacks against Kurz and his government with an increasingly obscurantist COVID-policy, beginning with the rejection of the wearing of masks and ending (for now) by advocating the use of horse deworming agent, Ivermectin, to fight COVID-19.

He is politically profiting from an increasingly hopeless and mistrustful attitude towards the establishment among all classes and strata of the population. Obviously, the hard stand of Kickl boosts the morale of a small but vociferous gang of quacks, libertarians, Nazis, hippies, and religious believers of all stripes.

We fully reject the criminal left-liberal myth that it is the “stupidity of people” that leads to the deepening of this crisis. A society that cannot convince the people to protect their lives and those of their loved ones by taking the jabs is sick to the core. And the responsibility for this lies with the ruling class, which runs society for the benefit of profit, obscuring matters by campaigning on half-truths and outright lies, which are eagerly disseminated by their media.

Prior to the recent demonstrations, unease towards the government’s COVID policy first expressed itself in May/June in big, open-air parties of the youth. In order to get the youth in the “controlled and safe spaces of bars, cafes and discotheques”, the police unsuccessfully tried to crack down on these early summer celebrations. This spontaneous movement did not raise political slogans and did not connect to the more general struggles of the working class. Still, back then, the anti-vax demonstrations were small and composed largely of bizarre individuals, mainly drawn from the petty-bourgeoisie.

Basically, there are now two bourgeois camps, both of which claim to represent the nation’s interests: the anti-vax FPÖ and the failed Conservative-Green coalition, which tries to organise support in society by advocating mandatory vaccination, while attacking “foolish people who are causing us to remain in the crisis”. The working class itself is politically divided along these lines.

We fully reject this manoeuvre and refuse to give any support or to side in any way with the government. The Marxists have advocated the use of the vaccine right from the start as the best instrument we have to minimise the deadly damage of the virus on people's health. We firmly believe that a rational and healthy society could easily convince everyone to observe responsible behaviour. In these conditions, we therefore stand firmly against mandatory vaccination, which only casts the blame on ordinary people. It seeks to atomise and divide the working class, and absolve the bourgeoisie of responsibility. Of course, there might be workplaces where it is deemed necessary to implement measures to protect workers’ health. However, that decision should be placed in the hands of the workers themselves, who ought to be able to debate and decide collectively on any such matters and if necessary exercise pressure on the unconvinced, rather than allowing the bosses or the government to do so under threats of reprisals.

There is not an iota of progressive content in either of the two bourgeois camps, and neither offer a way out. However, in this tumultuous situation, we will eventually see the re-emergence of working-class unity in the fight against the government and the bosses.

Working class and its organisations

As Trotsky so brilliantly explained: the crisis of humanity in the last instance resolves itself into the crisis of the leadership of the working class.

The Social Democratic Party never developed an independent position on this crisis. Its whole outlook was shaped by the desire to gain readmittance into a coalition government, to co-manage the crisis. This took various forms. At the beginning of the crisis, it stopped attacking chancellor Kurz altogether in the name of ‘national unity’. At every point when the situation was deteriorating, they came to the assistance of the government.

KPO victory Image KPO officialThe Communist Party, strengthened by their historic electoral victory in the city of Graz, has not put forward any position on the COVID crisis / Image: KPO official

During the power struggle in the Conservative Party in October, when the government was split, they openly refused the call for new elections, but rather tried to form a government through parliamentary maneuvers, for the sake of “stability”. When the Conservatives achieved a new equilibrium by ousting Kurz, they eagerly accepted the new change at the top. Now, with the situation once more in disarray, they strive once more to be involved in talks to enter the government.

The Communist Party, strengthened by their historic electoral victory in the city of Graz, has not put forward any position on the COVID crisis either.

The line of the union leadership is basically the same, although under pressure from an increasingly angry mood in the working class. This autumn saw a wave of working-class protest not seen in years. Health workers, kindergarten workers, metal workers, supermarket workers and others hit the streets, whilst meetings took place in factories and on the shop floor. In some hospitals and kindergartens in particular, participation was so high that the movement had the character of a de facto strike.

Given the new turbulence, the price hikes and the general instability in the world economy, it is clear that this process is just beginning. One teacher summed up the situation in the daily Der Standard:

“In general, the teachers are much too good and well-adjusted. We always swallow everything and we go with the flow of politics. But that has to end now. We have to be loud, we need protest. The teachers are also disappointed with the union. In such extreme situations, everyone always dives for cover. If you as a teacher need support, the union dives for cover.”

The desire to protest and fight back is implicit in these conditions of chaos, and the union leadership must grasp this new situation. Up to now, they have staged protests in such a way that the working class has been prevented from fully understanding its own role as an independent political factor. Given the depth of the crisis and the general malaise in society, recognition of the role that the working class can play as a class will develop sooner rather than later. In fact, this process has already started, and the leaders of the working class must get ahead of the newly radicalising mood and offer leadership. The Marxists of the IMT are highly optimistic about the situation in Austria. We understand the present process of turmoil and polarisations is a sign that the old stability, which has characterised this country for decades, is breaking down, laying the basis for an intensification of the class struggle and revolutionary developments in the future.