Green fields, gender, and globalism: Joining the discursive dots of “The Good Reset”
Hello IGALA community!
Summer is almost over and we are back after a break!
Next on our blog post series is our very own Scott Burnett. Apart from being our Communication Officer, Scott is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and a research affiliate at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Diversity Studies in South Africa. His research investigates the relationship between the (re)production of raced/gendered hierarchies in discourses of land control and ownership in environmentalist campaigns, and far right and anti-feminist discourses in online communities. His intersectional and decolonial approach to social difference is grounded in postfoundational approaches to discourse analysis, oriented within an intersectional anti-racist politics.
If you want to know more about Scott’s work, you can follow him on Twitter @bur_scott or check out his page here.
Don’t forget to get in touch if you want to share your research or thoughts about any language, gender and sexuality-related topics. We aim at publishing posts on our IGALA blog regularly, you could be next!
Now get comfortable and treat yourself to this read!
Green fields, gender, and globalism: Joining the discursive dots of “The Good Reset”
by Scott Burnett (University of Gothenburg)
On 28 July this year British cartoonist Bob Moran published a new artwork on his Twitter feed. The post went viral, quickly racking up over 42,000 likes and 13,000 retweets. Arguably, part of the reason for its rapid spread was how deftly it combined a number of themes (the family, the environment, good health, and local versus global politics) into a quasi-utopian vision. In this post, I will focus on the centrality of the cisheteropatriarchal sex-gender order to this depiction of “The Good Reset”.
Moran is a key player in an “alternative influence network” (see Lewis, 2018) on Twitter that opposes vaccination and lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. He made headlines in October 2021 when he lost his job at right-wing newspaper The Telegraph for tweeting abuse at an NHS doctor who had advocated wearing masks on public transport. He wrote that the doctor “deserves to be verbally abused in public for the rest of her worthless existence. They all do.”
A good place to start with analysing this image is thus his stance on the pandemic, and its effects on his career. His recent dismissal explains, for a start, the presence of a copy of The Telegraph buried in the dirt below the picnicking family. Opposition to COVID-control measures is indexed by the presence of a surgical mask, part of the familiar Stay Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives sign, and a smartphone (presumably with the NHS tracing app installed on it) buried alongside the newspaper. In the mass grave below these items he has drawn hypodermic syringes and depicted one of the skeletons in the characteristic blue scrubs of an NHS doctor. Above ground, children are depicted as playing carefree in a pastoral setting, with “functioning immune systems” while being “OK with risk” – both of which are standard canards about the harms of vaccination.
At this point the threat he is making is fairly clear: the unvaccinated children of the future will play on the graves of my enemies.
This concise, if mean-spirited, tableau is connected to a broader social and political vision with a distinctive ideological flavour. Indeed, critical Twitter users were quick to pick up on the “pastoral Nazi propaganda” of the image. One commented: “so what I can tell from this image is that… you’re a fascist now?”.
As a discourse analyst, I am not much interested in whether Moran identifies as a fascist or not, nor in proving his intention to advance a far-right political project. What is more interesting to me is uncovering how this image combines available discursive elements, including popular ideas about sex and gender, happy families, and good lives, along with widely-held values about the environment, in a novel articulation that quite brazenly presents itself as built atop the results of mass murder.
The puzzle, for me, is not that human beings do evil, but that they do so while earnestly believing themselves to be doing good.
In Moran’s case, the ethics of his political vision is indexed in the title of the artwork, a supposedly “Good” version of “The Great Reset”. This latter concept is advanced by advocates of “sustainable development”. Prominently associated with Klaus Schwab, president of the World Economic Forum (WEF), The Great Reset is supposedly an opportunity to recalibrate the world’s economy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to meet international environmental and development goals.
Various conspiracy theories have coalesced around The Great Reset. The anti-Semitic idea of a Jewish “globalist” elite secretly controlling the world (Grumke, 2013), fears of the United Nations using “Agenda 21” to depopulate the earth and control governments (Haltinner & Hogan, 2018), and other anti-establishment and counter-cultural seams within the left and right fractions of anti-globalization and environmentalist movements (see Wall, 2001) are all tributaries to a conspiracy theory whose most prominent proponent is Alex Jones. A similar convergence between traditionally left-leaning New Age “conspirituality” cultures and right-wing “alt. health” discourses has thrived on YouTube during the pandemic (Baker, 2022). Extreme distrust of authority, and governments in particular, is after all shared across the political spectrum in many contexts.
Moran’s counter to The Great Rest invokes numerous right-wing themes. These include an environmentalist programme inflected by pastoralism/anti-urbanism and the centrality of landscape to ethnic identity (see Burnett, 2019, 2022b; Forchtner, 2019; Mix, 2009). These are however given their particular meaning, I would argue, around the guiding value or “nodal point” (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985/2014) of the nuclear family at the centre of the image.
Much can be said about the way this family is presented. Firstly, they are quite clearly represented as white which, when combined with the rolling hills, river, church, and oak at the centre, likely identifies them as the ethnic “Anglo-Saxons” of the “green and pleasant land” so frequently invoked by English nationalists (see Burnett, 2022a).
The woman is offered up to the male gaze in a short skirt and revealing top, though her virtue is preserved behind demurely pressed knees. From her compactly seated position on a small corner of the picnic blanket she is ready to literally spring into action should her assistance be required. The man, on the other hand, is supine, taking up half the blanket. His legs are open, and he is at his ease, enjoying the scene as an onlooker: he has earned his rest and is entitled to his space. A clear division of labour is thus imagined. Where the woman’s work is within the family and thus never done, the man has worked elsewhere and is at leisure when spending time with his family.
The specific labels they are given (“A woman”; “A man”) are the key elements of religious and legal definitions of marriage as both heterosexual and monogamous. These terms however also invoke the sex-gender essentialism of transgender exclusionary “feminism” (TERFism) and related movements that have formed to oppose so-called “gender ideology” (Borba, 2022; Kováts, 2018). The sex characteristics of the figures as presented are thus important: she looks feminine because she is a “real” woman with a slim neck, big breasts, and shapely legs (as opposed to a transgender woman or a nonbinary person) and he is a “real” man with a visible bulge in his crotch and prominent facial hair. The image thus rearticulates a traditionalist, “anti-genderist” view of gender, sex, and marriage as central to the social and its future.
There certainly are “lots of children” in the image: five in total. As John Richardson and I have recently argued, gender is not at all a “secondary issue” (see Rydgren, 2018) for historical and latter-day fascisms, but the fundamental dynamic that structures the far right social vision (Burnett & Richardson, 2022). Virile leaders and passionately submissive women are ubiquitous in far-right discourse across national and temporal contexts (see Tebaldi, 2021), as is a preoccupation with reproducing a specific ethnic group understood to be threatened by cultural and population-level decline. The “14 words” adopted by various white supremacist organisations hinge after all on securing a “future for white children”. This future is understood as threatened by the forces of modernity and globalization, behind which lurk shadowy and elites, who are in turn implicated in separating white people from their ancestral homes, dissipating and miscegenating them, until they are eventually completely “replaced” (Siddiqui, 2021).
For the right, defeating ethnic enemies means engaging in competitive fecundity, a battle that can only be won by treating women’s bodies as battlefields (see Ophir et al., 2022) and by stoking moral panics over sex, sexuality and gender that shift public discourse away from more progressive visions of bodily autonomy, gender expression, and reproduction. This war on women and queer people is inseparable from other forms of violence against democratic institutions and ethnic others.
If we step back for a moment from weighty words like “fascism” and consider the attractive elements of this image, we might clarify why nearly 100,000 people who (one assumes) think of themselves as good people follow Bob Moran on Twitter. Consider the importance to preservationist and environmentalist discourses of preserving cultural and natural heritage landscapes. Who would not want clean water, healthy food, and happy farmers? Spending time outdoors without your family picnicking, climbing trees, and playing in a meadow seems like lots of fun. People might agree that turbines spoil the landscape, that lockdowns are counter-productive, or that a return to rural areas would reduce the release of carbon and allow for “naturally controlled CO2 levels”. Compared with the increasingly dystopian present visible on TV screens every day, Moran presents a vision of an idealised future that contains elements of an idealised past, or “retrotopia” (Bauman, 2017; Schleusener, 2020) that is, for many, profoundly desirable.
Following Hannah Arendt, Milani (2020) points out that there is nothing particularly profound, comprehensive, or monolithic about evil. Instead, it spreads on the surface of social life, like a fungus, “a web of communicable intertextual links” working to “create the illusion of an accurate and coherent account of society” (Milani, 2020, p. 11). For its adherents, the accuracy of this vision is buttressed by strong affective bonds to family, nature, and lived culture. Together, these elements generate a moral imperative to act now to secure a “better future” for their descendants.
Moran acts as an ideological entrepreneur (Dardot & Laval, 2017; Finlayson, 2021) who spreads a particular mycelial net that joins these compelling, if incorrect, ideas with panic over a supposed fight to the death between cis- and transgenderism and hetero- and homosexual marriage, and a confected battle for the survival of ethnically distinct peoples on their ancestral lands. The violence that will be required to “win” the future is implied clearly: the “globalist scumbags” must die. And so, after all, there is not that much to distinguish contemporary right-wing movements from the methods or outcomes of their historical counterparts. The mistake would be in thinking that we will always recognise them as “extremism” and that they have not already, and powerfully, insinuate themselves into the mainstream.
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