Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Neoliberal Agribusiness and Corona virus/COVID-19

He’s [Rob Wallace] got a great book — Big Farms Make Big Flu — that lays out exactly how this happens. And Rob’s been giving very informative interviews on the topic over the last few weeks. One of them was with Marx21, a German lefty journal, where he encapsulates the work he’s been doing. I highly recommend it.

I’ll just quote a few parts:

The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.
When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.
Who is to blame?
I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.
For which diseases is this the case?
There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.
What is the role of multinational companies in this process?
Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.
The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.
How so?
Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.
As for our xenophobic panic against the coronavirus? According to Rob, that panic should be directed at ourselves. “Capital centers — London, New York, Hong Kong, etc. — finance deforestation and development in capital peripheries around the world,” Rob wrote to me. “Look up Goldman Sachs buying into Chinese farms post-housing crisis. In a way the absurdity of blaming the U.S. for this isn’t that far off the mark once one reads between the lines of the nationalist sparring.”
Anyway, make sure you check out the rest of Rob’s interview here and read his book while you self-isolate. Take care of yourself!
Click here!

Full article (GrayZone).

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Coronavirus pandemic has led to a 900 PERCENT increase of hate speech toward China and Chinese people on Twitter, a new report reveals

The coronavirus outbreak has led to a 900 per cent uptick in hate speech toward China and Chinese people on Twitter, a new report has revealed.

L1ght, a company that specializes in measuring online toxicity, found hashtags such as #Kungflu, #chinesevirus and #communistvirus have become very popular among individuals tweeting about the pandemic.

The findings come as numerous US rights groups, activists and politicians have sounded the alarm about a surge in the number of racist incidents directed at Asian Americans.

L1ght analyzed millions of websites, social networks, teen chatting forums and gaming sites from December 2019 to today, along with images, videos and voice recordings to identify increases in hate speech, cyberbullying and general online toxicity.


Click here!

'People are spending more and more time on social networks, communication apps, chat rooms and gaming services, and the problems endemic to these platforms -- hate, abuse, toxicity and bullying -- have become accentuated,' the Israel-based company L1ght said in the report.

'According to our data, much of this hate and abuse is being directed towards China and its population, as well as individuals of Asian origin in other parts of the world,' added the startup that uses artificial intelligence to detect harmful content in social networks.

The report states that although there are some uplifting stories being shared online as people confined because of the pandemic first detected in China turn to the Internet, there is also plenty of hate being shared.

'Toxic tweets are using explicit language to accuse Asians of carrying the coronavirus and blaming people of Asian origin as a collective for spreading the virus,' the study found.

Certain media outlets have also been found to encourage backlash against Asians, pointing to a video on Sky news Australia titled 'China willfully inflicted coronavirus upon the world.'


Along with hate speech running rampant online, bullying and abusive language among children are also on the rise.

L1ght found a 70 percent increase of both between young children and teens.

Internet traffic to prominent hate sites has also increased 200 percent.

Along with using the internet to spread hate, users are also using to share conspiracy theories and misinformation about the deadly disease.

The UK-based charity the Center for Countering Digital Hate has been tracking 50 social media accounts that are peddling health-related misinformation.

These forums promote fake cures, question the risk from the current pandemic and peddle conspiracies suggesting that the virus was man-made for nefarious ends.

According to the center, tech firms like Facebook are not doing enough to combat coronavirus conspiracy theories and other fake information.

The spread of misinformation and fake cures has the potential to undermine efforts to tackle to coronavirus epidemic and could end up costing lives.

'Social media is currently awash with conspiracy theories, fake news, and incorrect medical advice about coronavirus and COVID-19,' said the CCDH's CEO, Imran Ahmed.

'Some of it is produced by extremists seeking to undermine faith in government and experts, some by grifters seeking to sell false cures and some are just sadly misinformed and think they’re doing the right thing by spreading the wrong advice.'

The CCDH — who counters hate and misinformation on a global scale — is presently tracking around 50 social media bodies with a total membership of 800,000 users promoting misleading information about coronavirus, the Telegraph reported. Source:

Daily Mail.

Friday, 27 March 2020

So the "magic money tree" DOES exist after all!

COVID-19: Our Leaders Are Terrified. Not of the Virus — of Us

Governments will try to conceal for a little longer the fact that capitalism is entirely incapable of solving the very crises it has created, writes Jonathan Cook.

You can almost smell the fear-laden sweat oozing from the pores of television broadcasts and social media posts as it finally dawns on our political and media establishments what the coronavirus actually means. And I am not talking about the threat posed to our health.

A worldview that has crowded out all other thinking for nearly two generations is coming crashing down. It has no answers to our current predicament. There is a kind of tragic karma to the fact that so many major countries — meaning major economies — are today run by the very men least equipped ideologically, emotionally and spiritually to deal with the virus.

That is being starkly exposed everywhere in the West, but the U.K. is a particularly revealing case study.

Dragging Their Heels

It emerged at the weekend that Dominic Cummings, the ideological powerhouse behind Britain’s buffoonish Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was pivotal in delaying the U.K. government’s response to the coronavirus — effectively driving Britain on to the Italian (bad) path of contagion rather than the South Korean (good) one.

According to media reports at the weekend, Cummings initially stalled government action, arguing of the coming plague that “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” That approach explains the dragging of heels for many days, and then days more of dither that is only now coming to a resolution.

Cummings, of course, denies ever making the statement, calling the claim “defamatory.” But let’s dispense with the formalities. Does anybody really – really – believe that that wasn’t the first thought of Cummings and half the cabinet when confronted with an imminent contagion they understood was about to unravel a social and economic theory they have dedicated their entire political careers to turning into a mass cult? An economic theory from which — by happy coincidence — they derive their political power and class privilege.

And sure enough, these hardcore monetarists are already quietly becoming pretend socialists to weather the very first weeks of the crisis. And there are many months more to run.

Austerity Thrown Out

As I predicted in my last post, the U.K. government last week threw out the austerity policies that have been the benchmark of Conservative Party orthodoxy for more than a decade and announced a splurge of spending to save businesses with no business as well as members of the public no longer in a position to earn a living.

Since the 2008 financial crash, the Tories have cut social and welfare spending to the bone, creating a massive underclass in Britain, and have left local authorities penniless and incapable of covering the shortfall. For the past decade, the Conservative government excused its brutalist approach with the mantra that there was no “magic money tree” to help in times of trouble.

The free market, they argued, was the only fiscally responsible path. And in its infinite wisdom, the market had decided that the 1 percent — the millionaires and billionaires who had tanked the economy in that 2008 crash — would get even filthier rich than they were already. Meanwhile, the rest of us would see the siphoning off of our wages and prospects so that the 1 percent could horde yet more wealth on offshore islands where we and the government could never get our hands on it.

“Neoliberalism” became a mystifying term used to reimagine unsustainable late-stage, corporate capitalism not only as a rational and just system but as the only system that did not involve gulags or bread queues.

Not only did British politicians (including most of the Labour parliamentary party) subscribe to it, but so did the entire corporate media, even if the “liberal” Guardian would very occasionally and very ineffectually wring its hands about whether it was time to make this turbo-charged capitalism a little more caring.

Only deluded, dangerous Jeremy Corbyn “cultists” thought different.

Self-Serving Fairytale

But suddenly, it seems, the Tories have found that magic money tree after all. It was there all along and apparently has plenty of low-hanging fruit the rest of us may be allowed to partake from.

One doesn’t need to be a genius like Dominic Cummings to see how politically terrifying this moment is for the Establishment. The story they have been telling us for 40 years or more about harsh economic realities is about to be exposed as a self-serving fairytale. We have been lied to – and soon we are going to grasp that very clearly.

That is why this week the Tory politician Zac Goldsmith, a billionaire’s son who was recently elevated to the House of Lords, described as a “twat” anyone who had the temerity to become a “backseat critic” of Boris Johnson. And it is why the feted “political journalist” Isabel Oakeshott – formerly of The Sunday Times and a regular on BBC Question Time – took to twitter to applaud Mike Hancock and Johnson for their self-sacrifice and dedication to public service in dealing with the virus:

Be ready. Over the coming weeks, more and more journalists are going to sound like North Korea’s press corps, with paeans to “the dear leader” and demands that we trust that he knows best what must be done in our hour of need.

Saved by the Bail-Outs

The political and media class’s current desperation has a substantive cause — and one that should worry us as much as the virus itself.

Twelve years ago, capitalism teetered on the brink of the abyss, its structural flaws exposed for anyone who cared to look. The 2008 crash almost broke the global financial system. It was saved by us, the public. The government delved deep into our pockets and transferred our money to the banks. Or rather the bankers.

We saved the bankers — and the politicians — from their economic incompetence through bail-outs that were again mystified by being named “quantitative easing.”

But we weren’t the ones rewarded. We did not own the banks or get a meaningful stake in them. We did not even get oversight in return for our huge public investment. Once we had saved them, the bankers went right back to enriching themselves and their friends in precisely the same manner that stalled the economy in 2008.

The bail-outs did not fix capitalism, they simply delayed for a while longer its inevitable collapse.

“The story they have been telling us for 40 years or more about harsh economic realities is about to be exposed as a self-serving fairytale.”

Capitalism is still structurally flawed. Its dependence on ever-expanding consumption cannot answer the environmental crises necessarily entailed by such consumption. And economies that are being artificially “grown,” at the same time as resources deplete, ultimately create inflated bubbles of nothingness — bubbles that will soon burst again.

Survival Mode

Indeed, the virus is illustrative of one of those structural flaws — an early warning of the wider environmental emergency, and a reminder that capitalism, by intertwining economic greed with environmental greed, has ensured the two spheres collapse in tandem.

Pandemics like this one are the outcome of our destruction of natural habitats — to grow cattle for burgers, to plant palm trees for cakes and biscuits, to log forests for flat-pack furniture. Animals are being driven into ever closer proximity, forcing diseases to cross the species barrier. And then in a world of low-cost flights, disease finds an easy and rapid transit to every corner of the planet.

The truth is that in a time of collapse, like this decade-long one, capitalism has only “magic money trees” left. The first one, in the late 2000s, was reserved for the banks and the large corporations – the wealth elite that now run our governments as plutocracies.

The second “magic money tree,” needed to deal with what will become the even more disastrous economic toll wrought by the virus, has had to be widened to include us. But make no mistake. The circle of beneficence has been expanded not because capitalism suddenly cares about the homeless and those reliant on food banks. Capitalism is an amoral economic system driven by the accumulation of profit for the owners of capital. And that’s not you or me.

No, capitalism is now in survival mode. That is why Western governments will, for a time, try to “bail out” sections of their publics too, giving back to them some of the communal wealth that has been extracted over many decades. These governments will try to conceal for a little longer the fact that capitalism is entirely incapable of solving the very crises it has created. They will try to buy our continuing deference to a system that has destroyed our planet and our children’s future.

It won’t work indefinitely, as Dominic Cummings knows only too well. Which is why the Johnson government, as well as the Trump administration and their cut-outs in Brazil, Hungary, Israel, India and elsewhere, are in the process of drafting draconian emergency legislation that will have a longer term goal than the immediate one of preventing contagion.

Western governments will conclude that it is time to shore up capitalism’s immune system against their own publics. The risk is that, given the chance, they will begin treating us, not the virus, as the real plague.

Source: Jonathan Cook.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

San-O-Rub: the New Hand Rub Gel

Check out our NEW San-O-Rub hand sanitising solution, compliant with WHO/EN 1500 requirements - Click below for all information and stay safe:



Thursday, 19 March 2020

Monday, 16 March 2020

Friday, 13 March 2020

The Most Shocking Discoveries About ‘Slumlord’ Jared Kushner in Netflix’s ‘Dirty Money’

The president's son-in-law is the subject of Alex Gibney's docuseries, in an episode titled "Slumlord Millionaire."

Throughout his filmmaking career, documentarian Alex Gibney has made it his business to expose egregious abuse of power at the hands of the moneyed; from the corporate boardroom (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), to religions that behave like pyramid schemes (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”), and most recently to unbelievable medical hoaxes (“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”). In “Dirty Money,” an ambitious Netflix docuseries for which Gibney serves as executive producer, the filmmaker takes aim at a corrupt landlord who has bewilderingly become one of the most powerful men in the world: Jared Kushner.

The investor and real estate developer now serves as chief adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald J. Trump. But before he was the favorite child of our reigning megalomaniac-in-chief, Kushner was the head of Kushner Companies, the massive real estate company bequeathed to him by his father, Charles Kushner. The third episode in “Dirty Money” Season 2 is titled “Slumlord Millionaire.” In it, one interview subject refers to Kushner as “tier one predator,” as the rest of episode attempts to dissect exactly how Kushner may have used his position in the U.S. government to secure business deals for his private company.

The episode premiered Wednesday, March 11, along with six other equally compelling one-hour investigations. For anyone who cares about government transparency, corruption, and housing rights, “Slumlord Millionaire” is well worth checking out. In the meantime, here are some of the most shocking revelations from the episode:

Charles Kushner once hired a sex worker to frame and intimidate his brother-in-law out of testifying against him.

Most people know Kushner’s father went to federal prison for 14 months in 2005. Following an investigation led by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, Charles Kushner pled guilty to 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. What most people don’t know, however, is the witness tampering charge came about because Charles Kushner hired a sex worker to seduce his brother-in-law, filmed the interaction, and had the tape sent to his sister, the man’s wife.

Kushner’s rental properties have received hundreds of health code violations, including the presence of lead paint, lung carcinogens, and fire safety hazards.

In many cases, the New York City Housing Authority issued violations but never followed up on collecting fine payments, much less to check whether or not Kushner Companies fixed the dangerous living conditions. In one case, a woman’s ceiling collapsed directly over her bed, leaving brick and cement debris. She was not home at the time, but had she been in bed, she could have been severely injured or killed.

Kushner Companies sued a single mother for breaking her lease three years after she had received written permission to do so.

In 2010, a home health care worker named Kamiia Warren got written permission from the building’s on-site manager to break her lease early after an elderly neighbor began behaving erratically. Kushner Companies did not even own her property in 2010, but sued her for breaking her lease when it bought the property three years later. Unable to find the document proving she had permission to leave, Kushner Companies got legal permission to clear out her bank account and garnish her wages.

Kushner Companies did not have Certificates of Occupancy for many of its New York City rental buildings, and the government looked the other way.

A Certificate of Occupancy, or CO, must be obtained by the New York City Health Department proving that a building is safe to live in. In many cases, Kushner Companies was renting units to people to live in without obtaining CO’s, and the city looked the other way. It hasn’t been proven why the city is so loose with Kushner Companies, but Charles Kushner has donated to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and there are known emails between Kushner and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

“Dirty Money: Slumlord Millionaire” was directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme. “Dirty Money” Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Free Chelsea Manning!

BREAKING! Chelsea Manning ordered to be freed!

Here's the GoFundMe page that will hopefully pay for her fines.

Chelsea Manning’s legal team said that the former intelligence analyst had tried to take her own life on Wednesday but was transported to a hospital where she was recovering.

In 2010, former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning disclosed earth-shattering information about the nature of asymmetric warfare and U.S. handling of global affairs. And she paid dearly for it. Chelsea was incarcerated for years, including long stretches in solitary confinement, under conditions that the United Nations condemned as torture.

After millions of people around the world spoke out and demanded her release, Chelsea’s sentence was commuted. But the US government did not stop persecuting her.

Now, Chelsea has been back in jail for nine months, and faces nine more. Not because she has committed any crime, but because of her conscientious objection to participating in a secretive grand jury investigation into the publication of her 2010 disclosures.

Between their original forensic investigation and Chelsea’s detailed statement at court martial, the government gained exhaustive knowledge about her role in the disclosures. They have no need for her testimony—they obtained at least one indictment a full year before she was called to testify before the grand jury, and disclosed another two months after she was jailed for her refusal to do so.

Chelsea’s refusal to participate in this process is part of a long history of resistance to grand juries, which are routinely used to harass and entrap activists, journalists, and truth tellers. In a shocking move, the judge in the case has imposed massive fines on Chelsea, charging her $1,000 per day while the US government holds her in “coercive confinement,” ostensibly to convince her to agree to their demand that she give testimony to the grand jury.

We know Chelsea Manning’s name because she is a principled and fearless advocate for her beliefs. She is prepared to spend another nine months in confinement, and to bear the crushing debt of these unprecedented fines. Senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State and the President himself have publicly expressed their hostility toward her. It could not be more clear that the government wishes to punish Chelsea further for her 2010 disclosures. It could not be more clear that she will never comply with the grand jury.

Chelsea has already served half of the 18 month maximum that the government can hold her. She’s about to spend another birthday in a jail cell. The US government has no legal justification for continuing to imprison her. This must stop. Sign the petition now to send the following letter to Judge Trenga demanding Chelsea Manning’s immediate release.

Monday, 9 March 2020

US: Obsession with Elections but no Democracy

"In our election-obsessed culture, everything else going on in the world -- war, hunger, official brutality, sickness, the violence of everyday life for huge numbers of people -- is swept out of the way, while the media insist we watch every twist and turn of what candidates say and do. Thus, the superficial crowds out the meaningful, and this is very useful for those who do not want citizens to look beneath the surface of the system. In the shadows, and hidden by the dueling of the candidates (if you can call it a duel when the opponents thrust and lunge with plastic swords) are real issues of race and class, war and peace, which the public is not supposed to think about, as the media experts pontificate endlessly about who is winning, and throw numbers in our faces like handfuls of sand...."
The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is a much bigger conflict that the two parties jointly wage against large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party and against powerless millions around the world."

Howard Zinn

Saturday, 7 March 2020

US Vapology: Requiem for an Industry?

American vapers and vaping businesses will shortly enter a period of chaos and existentially threatening regulation. First will be a ban on almost all flavours – everything except tobacco flavour and possibly menthol and mint. That is likely to shut down nearly every vape shop and e-liquid company that isn’t part of a tobacco company. Then by 12 May next year, any surviving vaping companies and will have to comply with the hugely burdensome, opaque and unpredictable pre-market tobacco application process. Going into 2020, the industry will be in crisis and vapers and smokers will be in danger of losing one of the most important innovations of the century.

This post focuses on the first of these – the ban on flavours. Here are twenty things you should know about the US vaping flavour ban.

  • 1. What is happening about flavoured vaping products in the United States?
  • 2. Why is this happening now?
  • 3. The big question: does the FDA have any idea what it is doing?
  • 4. Kiddie-flavours are now defined as all flavours except tobacco flavour – but it wasn’t always that way
  • 5. Flavours are an important part of the appeal to adults
  • 6. Flavours as a whole are attractive to adolescents (but this is trivially obvious)
  • 7. Activists have moved from targeted youth-orientated measures to indiscriminate prohibition
  • 8. But don’t kids like (non-tobacco) flavours more than adults?
  • 9. Research suggests broader causes for youth vaping uptake than flavours
  • 10. Other research focuses on the initial choice of flavour but this offers a poor explanation for youth vaping
  • 11. Why not just ask adolescents why they vape?
  • 12. Do flavour descriptors attract teenage non-users? Hardly at all.
  • 13. Does teenage vaping justify banning (almost all) vaping products? What is the precedent?
  • 14. Could measures against vaping flavours make things worse for adolescents (as well as adults)?
  • 15. FDA does not care if vaping works as an alternative to smoking for adolescents – and this is deeply unethical
  • 16. Is there an elitist bias at work here?
  • 17. Does adult vaping have benefits for kids?
  • 18. What are the likely marketplace consequences of a flavour ban?
  • 19. What if we actually wanted to do the right thing for adolescents?
  • 20. Could the anti-vaping moral panic actually be a cause of youth vaping?

    Answers here, from the excellent Clive Bates.

    Estimated size of the US vape industry going up in smoke:

    $24.46 billion in economic activity, supported 166,007 jobs (direct, indirect and induced) and consisted of 380 liquid manufacturers, 2,012 vape shop manufacturers and 11,469 specialist retail outlets
  • Tuesday, 3 March 2020

    ‘New World Order’: The ‘Natural Family’ Franchise Goes Global

    First gay marriage, then liberal democracy… As a global ultra-conservative movement brings its war of values to the Balkans, autocrats are paying attention.

    At Saint Spyridon the New Church, the largest Orthodox church in Bucharest, the priest had an important message for his congregation.

    “This is one of those moments in history when true Christians are separated from the chaff,” he told worshipers during a two-hour mass, as children played on the floor in front of the altar. ‘Those who consider themselves Christians must speak out today.”

    It was the Sunday of a weekend-long referendum in October on rewording Romania’s constitution to redefine marriage as an institution only available to heterosexual couples. Turnout had been low and priests across the country were rallying the faithful.

    Outside a polling station in the bustling centre of Bucharest, some heeded the call. “I’m sure we’ll succeed,” Damian Joita, a 20-year-old law student, said after voting for the change. “I’ve never been prouder to be Romanian than today.”

    Madalin Costache, a 24-year-old father of two, said he was voting to protect his children. “If homosexuals adopt, their children will grow up thinking being gay is normal. But this isn’t right. It’s not how God meant it.”

    In the end, turnout was well below the legally required threshold of 30 per cent and the October 6-7 referendum was for nothing. The constitution’s gender-neutral definition of marriage as “between spouses” remains unchanged.

    But the campaigning exposed fault lines through Romanian society that had been quietly cracking since 2016 when a little-known group called the Coalition for Family collected three million signatures to trigger the referendum.

    Although Romania’s civil code forbids gay marriage, the coalition persuaded many that legalisation was just around the corner. Once gay couples were legally married, they argued, what would stop them from adopting and “converting” children to homosexuality?

    Made up of more than 40 local associations, the coalition depicted itself as a grassroots protector of Romanian traditional values. Its publicity materials made use of folk costumes and the blue, yellow and red of the Romanian flag.

    But far from being a home-grown initiative, the coalition is part of a global ultra-conservative movement dedicated to rolling back more than gay marriage, rights groups and academics say.

    From civil partnerships and abortion to assisted reproduction and sex education in schools, the movement is pushing to change laws and policies it sees as undermining what it calls “the natural family”.

    And it is getting organised. An investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, reveals how a growing network of ultra-conservative activists, lawyers and consultants is sharing strategy and resources across borders.

    The movement draws inspiration and expertise from sources far removed from the voting booths and church bulletin boards of the Balkans. These include US evangelical groups close to the Trump White House and Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin, according to insider documents and media reports.

    Meanwhile, European populist leaders with an increasingly illiberal bent are finding it pays to jump on the movement’s bandwagon. By imbuing their rhetoric with appeals to the so-called natural family, and crafting policies that seem to support it, they stand to earn votes and cement powers.

    The result is an erosion of political and civil liberties in democracies that are edging towards authoritarianism, political analysts say.

    Andrea Peto, a historian at the Central European University in Budapest, described the rise of groups like the Coalition for Family as “a nationalist neoconservative response to the crisis of the global neoliberal world order”.

    “It’s a fundamentally new phenomenon that was launched for the sake of establishing a new world order, so it should interest anyone who cares about democracy and human rights,” Peto said.

    Vlad Viski, president of Romanian rights group MozaiQ, put it more bluntly: “The homosexual body is now a battleground.”

    ‘Gender ideology’

    In an interview before the referendum, Mihai Gheorghiu, leader of the Coalition for Family, defended his organisation’s goals.

    “We have the right to defend our values and way of life,” he told BIRN. “The natural family based on marriage between a man and a woman is the anthropological essence of who we are and the fundament for the existence of children.”

    Gheorghiu, a 51-year-old philologist, was sitting in the cafeteria of the Bucharest Museum of the Romanian Peasant, where he is deputy director. As he warmed to his topic, a group of hip young Romanians relaxed nearby on traditionally carved wooden chairs.

    “We knew the cultural and sexual revolution happening in the West would eventually reach Romania and we had to be ready,” he said.

    Gheorghiu has a name for the decadence he is fighting — “gender ideology”.

    Not to be confused with gender studies or any other mainstream academic discipline, it is a term invented by ultra-conservatives to evoke a worldview at war with fundamentalist conceptions of the natural family.

    According to this line of thinking, gender ideology took root among elite Western intellectuals in the 1960s before infecting universities, courtrooms, parliaments and international institutions with what conservatives see as a dangerous moral relativism.

    Those in the “anti-gender” camp see the advancement of gay rights and pro-choice policies as symptoms of a kind of neo-colonial takeover of God-given social norms.

    “Romanians have already lived through communism, when a minority thought it held the absolute truth and imposed it on others,” Gheorghiu said. “We cannot allow that to happen again.”

    The Coalition for Family is not alone in evoking the spectre of gender ideology.

    Between 2012 and 2015, campaigners triggered referendums in Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia to try to constitutionally define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

    They were successful in Croatia. Slovenians rejected gay marriage at the ballot box before politicians later made it legal. And in Slovakia, turnout did not reach the required 50 per cent.

    In Poland, a petition to tighten the country’s already strict abortion law forced parliament to take up the issue in 2016 until big protests prompted its rejection. This year, Bulgaria refused to ratify a Council of Europe treaty on tackling domestic violence after a social uproar, with conservatives saying its definition of gender relativized the boundaries between the sexes.

    But it was not just an Eastern European phenomenon.

    Since 2012, a French group called La Manif pour tous (The Protest for Everyone) has rallied supporters against gay marriage and assisted reproduction, inspiring similar movements in Italy, Germany and Finland.

    In Spain, HazteOir (Make Yourself Heard) has been militating against abortion, gay marriage and sex education in schools since 2013.

    ‘Agenda Europe’

    Experts say it is no coincidence that such initiatives sprang up at the same time.

    Rewind to January 2013, when around 20 leading anti-abortion campaigners and strategic consultants from around Europe and the United States gathered in London’s leafy Belgravia district for a two-day retreat billed as a forum for “developing strategies for the pro-life movement in Europe”, according to a copy of the event’s agenda obtained by BIRN.

    Participants also left time for “spiritual reflection” sessions, mass at Westminster Cathedral and dinner at the exclusive Royal Automobile Club.

    Agendas of three subsequent meetings — marked “strictly confidential” and also seen by BIRN — showed the London retreat morphed into an annual summit known as Agenda Europe. Summits took place in Munich in 2014, Dublin in 2015 and Warsaw in 2016.

    “Since its establishment, it [Agenda Europe] has grown to include the key pro-life and pro-family leaders in every European country,” the organisers wrote in notes accompanying the 2015 schedule.

    Well-known US anti-abortion activists were listed as star speakers at the summits.

    None of the attendees contacted by BIRN responded to interview requests.

    “The US actors bring knowhow,” said Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, EPF, a network of European parliamentarians promoting reproductive rights.

    “The US movement has 30 years more experience. They tested out all these things. They have policy norms at hand that can be adapted to the local context and outclass Europeans in strategic litigation.”

    During the early 1990s, several big US conservative Christian groups — many founded by evangelicals — came to prominence as they fought to roll back what they saw as unwelcome victories by civil liberty organisations, especially on women’s and LGBT rights.

    “Under the [US President Barack] Obama administration, the American Christian right felt it was losing the battle at home and expanded its commitment to ‘the culture wars’ overseas,” said Peter Montgomery, a contributor at Right Wing Watch, which monitors the US religious right.

    “US courts sometimes borrow arguments from Europe. Conservatives used to get upset by the use of progressive international precedents, but now they see winning conservative rulings internationally as an opportunity.”

    One of the biggest conservative Christian groups in the United States, the Alliance Defending Freedom, ADF, moved to expand its Christian lawyers network into Europe in 2010. For the past three years, its annual revenue has exceeded $48 million, according to its audited financial reports and tax filings.

    Annual forms filed to US tax authorities and available online show the organisation increased its funding to Europe to $2.5 million in 2016 from around $800,000 in 2013. During this time, ADF created ADF International, with offices in Belgium, Austria, France, Britain and Switzerland.

    ADF’s fortunes have since improved back home. In a 2017 investigation for The Nation magazine, journalist Sarah Posner showed how close the group is to President Donald Trump.

    US Solicitor General Noel Francisco, appointed by the White House, was an ADF-affiliated attorney, she revealed. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump ally, consulted with ADF when drafting Department of Justice guidance on religious freedom. And Trump appointed four federal judges with ties to the group.

    Meanwhile, US Vice-President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, is considered a high-level ally of groups trying to limit LGBT and women’s rights.

    “Mike is a solid believer and understands these issues,” ADF head Michael Farris told the Catholic News Agency last year. “I think we’ll have a listening ear in the Justice Department.”

    One of the few publicly known funders of ADF is the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who are also major donors to the Republican Party. Most of the remaining individual and charitable donations making up ADF’s revenue are secret.

    “American actors might give some money,” said Datta from the EPF. “That’s not in itself a bad thing. But the conservatives [right-wing groups in Europe] are decidedly discreet as to where they get their money from. While progressives do list their funders, the conservatives don’t. They engage in obfuscation of their sources.”

    Asked about the purpose of ADF’s expansion into Europe, Adina Portaru, a Romanian lawyer on staff at ADF International’s Brussels office, told BIRN: “ADF International protects religious minorities from being persecuted and promotes human rights through their network of allied lawyers throughout the world.”

    She added that ADF International co-hosted, together with the Coalition for Family and others, two conferences on family in the Romanian parliament, in 2017 and 2018.

    Another major American group expanding into Europe is the American Center for Law and Justice, ACLJ, founded by evangelical minister Pat Robertson, with an annual revenue of almost $20 million.

    ACLJ set up the European Center for Law and Justice, ECLJ, in Strasbourg in 1998 and the Slavic Center for Law and Justice in Moscow around the same time.

    According to ACLJ’s publicly available forms filed to US tax authorities, the organisation has spent more than $1 million in Europe each year since 2009.

    Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for ACLJ, is on Trump’s legal counsel team and is in charge of dealing with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US election.

    Representatives of both ADF International and ECLJ have been regularly invited to Agenda Europe summits.

    People wave flags at a rally in Bucharest in support of Romania’s ruling coalition, which has promoted traditional family values as part of its political agenda. Photo by Mihai Stoica

    Anti-gender ‘manifesto’

    Prominent activists from the Balkans and Eastern Europe are also regular invitees to Agenda Europe summits.

    Bogdan Stanciu, head of the Pro Vita Bucharest Association, an influential member of the Coalition for Family, is listed as a speaker. So is Zeljka Markic, founder of In the Name of the Family, which triggered the referendum that constitutionally redefined marriage in Croatia.

    At the Warsaw summit in 2016, Markic was invited to chair a session on “current proactive marriage initiatives”.

    Neither Stanciu nor Markic responded to questions or interview requests.

    Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski, from the governing Law and Justice party, PiS, was also scheduled to speak at the event that year.

    Many of the ideas espoused by the conservative activists echo concepts found in a manifesto of more than 100 pages titled Restoring the Natural Order. An Agenda for Europe.

    In an English copy of the manifesto, seen by BIRN, the unknown author describes a “civilisational decline of the Western world” brought about by the moral relativism of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Gender ideology is the main culprit, it says.

    “It is thus, for example, perfectly legitimate to strive for legislation that criminalises abortion, euthanasia or sodomy, or that rules out the legal recognition of ‘same-sex marriages’, even if there be some citizens who believe abortion, euthanasia or sodomy to be morally acceptable,” it says.

    The document spells out concrete policy goals, including the repeal of all laws allowing for divorce, civil partnership or gay adoption; the introduction of “anti-sodomy laws”; and defunding of “the LGBT lobby”.

    The strategies it lays out include petitioning at an EU and national level, encouraging activists to “expose gay marriage to ridicule” and informing people “about risks associated with sodomy”.

    “When speaking about sodomy, consistently use that term,” it advises.

    Agenda Europe has no official spokespeople or officers but the agendaeurope.org website — registered to ADF International’s director of alliance relations, Sophia Kuby — contains a statement disowning the manifesto.

    Asked about the manifesto, Kuby reiterated that it had nothing to do with Agenda Europe and said the document had come to light via “illegal hacking” of Spanish organisation HazteOir. “A criminal procedure is ongoing,” she added.

    Meanwhile, the Pro Vita Bucharest Association published in 2016 a Romanian translation of the manifesto, retitled An Agenda for Romania. In an accompanying note, it says it “symbolically took ownership” of the text.

    In 2016, the Pro Vita Bucharest Association collected donations on behalf of the Coalition for Family. It has since been removed from the list of members on the coalition’s website.

    ‘Broad alliances’

    Whoever wrote the manifesto, experts say the worldview it expounds has been gaining ground in Europe since before Agenda Europe came into being, helped by a growing chorus of denunciation of gender ideology by the Vatican.

    “In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonisation taking place,” Pope Francis said in a speech to Polish bishops in 2016.

    “And one of these — I will call it clearly by its name — is [the ideology of] ‘gender’. Today children — children! — are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex.”

    In Catholic countries such as Poland or Croatia, journalists and academics have documented the church’s involvement in anti-gender campaigns. And according to the EPF’s Datta, intellectuals close to the Vatican were key in setting up Agenda Europe.

    Yet analysts say the anti-gender movement is neither exclusively Catholic nor even exclusively religious. In countries that are more secular or where the church’s reputation has been marred by scandals, campaigners often downplay their links to organised religion.

    According to Peto from the Central European University, gender ideology is the “symbolic glue” that “helped create broad alliances and united actors that have not cooperated in the past”, including the different Christian churches, mainstream conservatives, far-right parties and fundamentalist groups.

    The key calendar event for anti-gender activists from all over the world is the annual World Congress of Families, WCF.

    This year, the WCF took place in mid-September in Chisinau, hosted by Moldovan President Igor Dodon, who won elections in 2016 on a pro-Russian, pro-family agenda.

    The event kicked off in Moldova’s Republican Palace, replete with red marble and crystal chandeliers. For much of the opening ceremony, streamed online, dancers dressed in Moldovan folk costumes, or simply in white, carried a remarkably calm baby around the stage.

    Dodon then launched into a speech about the “erosion and destruction” of the family amid an “anti-family ideology, which deprives mothers and fathers of their natural roles in the family”.

    Declaring 2019 the Year of the Family in Moldova, he said he would push for pro-family measures including an increase in maternity leave. He added that pro-gay “propaganda” should be “firmly condemned and even outlawed”.

    WCF President Brian Brown went on to read a message from Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister.

    “In an age when we are witnessing destructive and irrational attacks on the founding values of our cultures, the efforts you are undertaking to protect the natural family, as a vital element for the survival and development of human kind, are extremely necessary and worthy of appreciation,” it said.

    The Russian connection

    The WCF founded in 1997 by US anti-abortion campaigner Allan Carlson and two Russian academics from Moscow State University, Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov.

    Analysts say the Russian connection makes sense because traditional values chime with ‘Eurasianism’, an ideology that depicts Russia as a median between Europe and Asia and implies that ex-Soviet territories will eventually return to the fold. For the Kremlin, gender ideology is a feature of the decadent West.

    “This is a very interesting geopolitical offer,” Datta said. “Russia can now go to governments in its neighbourhood criticised by the West on human rights grounds and say to them: ‘Don’t worry, you are different.’”

    In a 2014 investigation for US magazine Mother Jones, Hannah Levintova revealed how US evangelicals, notably actors from the WCF, helped develop anti-gay rights language and arguments for Russian activists and legislators, resulting in the adoption in 2013 of a federal law banning “gay propaganda”.

    At the Agenda Europe summit in Munich in 2014, Alexey Komov, the representative of the WCF in Russia, was invited to share lessons from the “success” of the legislation, according to the agenda.

    That year, the WCF was set to take place in Moscow, financed by two people considered close to President Vladimir Putin, according to the Mother Jones investigation: Vladimir Yakunin, former president of the Russian railways, and Konstantin Malofeev, an investment banker and Orthodox philanthropist.

    Malofeev is also chairman of the board of directors of media group Tsargrad, a platform for Eurasianist ideas espoused by an influential far-right philosopher named Aleksandr Dugin.

    The Moscow WCF did not take place in the end because the oligarchs funding it were put on EU and US sanctions lists after Russia annexed Crimea that year.

    “In Russia, our trend is back to Orthodoxy, tradition and Christianity,” Malofeev says in a 2018 documentary by the Franco-German ARTE television channel titled Abortion: Backlash in Europe.

    “Europe is dying. The West, in [US President Ronald] Reagan [’s] time … helped for this communism smoke to get out from Russia. Now it’s our turn. We have to pray [for] the liberal smoke to get out from Europe and America.”

    ‘The future of Europe’

    Beyond Russia, illiberal leaders have declared war on gender ideology.

    Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hosted the WCF in Budapest and welcomed participants with a speech about “Europe, our common homeland, losing out in the population competition between great civilisations”.

    “In the struggle for the future of Europe, stopping illegal migration is imperative,” he said. “This struggle … is only worthwhile if we are able to combine it with a family policy that restores natural reproduction on the continent.”

    In October, in a move puzzling to many, Hungary banned gender studies degrees, calling the discipline “an ideology not a science”. The Trump administration is also pushing to remove “gender” from UN human rights documents.

    Italy’s Salvini is proposing a similar mix of nationalistic, anti-immigration and pro-family policies.

    “We will defend the natural family founded on the union between a man and a woman. I will exert all the power possible,” Salvini told Italian media in August.

    Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany entered parliament in 2017 with a manifesto promising a “commitment to the traditional family”, opposing “gender mainstreaming” and pledging to counteract a shrinking population with “large families instead of mass immigration”.

    In Poland, PiS came to power with a potent mix of nationalistic and pro-family measures. Its signature policy is known as ‘500+’, payments of more than 100 euros per child to families with more than one child.

    “The anti-gender groups active in Poland have been instrumental for the right-wing populists to win elections,” Elzbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist at Warsaw University, told BIRN. “They mobilised people on the ground, in the parishes. They helped depict the liberal party [arch rivals the Civic Platform] as elitist and insensitive to people’s needs.”

    Korolczuk continued: “The new illiberal forces conflate liberal cultural and economic elites, so there’s a sense that not only do those liberal elites want to take away your livelihood in economic terms but they also want to change your private life and turn your boy into a girl.

    “This sense of victimhood, of righteous anger, is a very powerful mobilising affect.”

    In 2018, former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon launched “the Movement” to help far-right and populist forces in next year’s elections for the European Parliament. Salvini has pledged support for the Movement and Bannon has held talks with Hungary’s Orban.

    Experts say the Movement’s likely participants can be defined by what they are against. They are anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-globalist, anti-elitist — and anti-gender.

    Back in Romania, critics say the fact that the government led by the Social Democratic Party, PSD, took up the referendum cause at all is a sign of its growing slide toward illiberalism.

    PSD has also ushered in sweeping justice system reforms that opponents say hurt judicial independence and make it harder to stop high-level corruption.

    “Romanians refused to legitimise a discourse meant to discriminate against the LGBT community and question fundamental human rights,” MozaiQ’s Viski said. “For the moment, we have managed to stem the conservative tide.”

    Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian journalist based in Warsaw. Editing by Timothy Large. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.