The Burner Episode #230: Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

How will the lockdown end? James Butler asks: why is the US so intent on blaming China? Do states need ‘official enemies’?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Monday May 4, 2020. We are still in lockdown.

It is a new week and I hope your weekend was serene and peaceable, or at least that the lockdown isn’t wearing so hard on you as it might be.

I’m even starting to miss the Novara Media office, perhaps just a proxy for missing being around people there. Though, like so many, I’m finding the borders between work life and home life that little bit harder to draw as the lockdown wears on. The microphone sits always hungry on the desk and the blank page calls out at all hours of the day, and so on and so on.

Will it change any time soon? It doesn’t look like it. Over the weekend, Grant Shapps told the TV studios to say that even when the lockdown is lifted or eased it won’t be business as usual for the UK.

What will that look like? Well, Boris Johnson is supposed to reveal a roadmap out of the lockdown an in address to the nation next Sunday – presumably another one of those TV addresses from Number 10.

They are already some pretty clear indications that that won’t be tied to specific dates and will still involve some pretty significant disruption. Shapps said over the weekend that they’re still looking at quarantine for all foreign arrivals, and though he dodged questions over whether they should have been implemented earlier, as he also dodged questions about temperature checking or saliva tests on public transport, he also claimed the government would be incentivising active travel – that’s walking or cycling – in order to avoid a second peak.

This raises one question about how seriously the urban environment might be permanently, or in the long-term, altered by the pandemic, or about setting a presumption against the private car.

And there’s a kind of dual pressure here. One [pressure is] in the direction of private vehicles because you’re not sharing air and surfaces with the rest of the plebeian mass and their germs. [The] other direction is against private cars; as periods of lockdown reveal what a blight the car is on the city and how much more pleasant a city not prioritised for the car actually is. To really bed in a change like that would require – this appears to be happening in other European cities – bold action from local government, not at least in London with its hapless and quiescent mayoralty. So that’s a no.

Then, in any case, the reason for Shapps’ stressing that it wouldn’t be back to normal – which is after all the most fervent desire of most of the Tory benches – is, as we all should know, the risk of a second wave of infections.

The WHO is warning [a second wave] is certainly possible. NATO, among other organisations, decided it was too slow in responding to the initial pandemic, [as well as in] mobilising a coordinated response – quite what that response would actually have involved is a little hard to imagine as you can’t in fact bomb a virus. I suppose they could try and do something useful for once.

But so many few here believe it’s time to drop the lockdown – [although] less than a fifth of respondents to polling over the weekend wants the schools, pumps and stadiums [to be] reopened. The impetus isn’t quite there and the political appetite for it isn’t really there either. The only place it really seems to exist is in the billionaire-owned right-wing press. Funny that.

So, through the pandemic period we’ve seen waves of hostility to China crash over headlines in both Europe and especially in the United States. That was stepped up last night as Mike Pompeo, the non-too-bright US secretary of state, said this in an interview with ABC news:

Interviewer: Mr Secretary, have you seen anything that gives you high confidence that it originated in that Wuhan lab?

Mike Pompeo: Martha, there’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began. We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan in China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outset, but I think the whole world can see. Now, remember, China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories. These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab. And so, while the intelligence committee continues to do its work, they should continue to do that and verify, so that we are certain. I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.

Interviewer: Do you believe it was manmade or genetically modified?

Mike Pompeo: That the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade? I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.

Interviewer: Your office of the DNI says the consensus, the scientific consensus, was not manmade or genetically modified.

Mike Pompeo: That’s right. I agree with that. Yeah. I’ve seen, I’ve seen their analysis, I’ve seen the summary that you saw that was released publicly. I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate at the time.

Interviewer: Okay, so just to be clear, you do not think it was manmade or genetically modified?

Mike Pompeo: I’ve seen what the intelligence committee has said. I have no reason to believe that they’ve got it wrong.

JB: Now, as I say, Pompeo isn’t a bright man and it’s unclear quite what was going on in that interview. He appears to argue very strongly there’s evidence for the virus’ origin in a Chinese lab, and then appears to agree with the intelligence rhetoric that there is no evidence for that.

These kind of sentence to sentence contradictions are obviously very common in the Trump administration, but it does point very strongly to the impetus coming from the Oval Office down to find a way to blame China. This is something that Trump has made increasingly clear over the past week as stories have emerged of active pressure to find a connection just like that.

Pompeo of course is therefore performing over the airwaves for that constituency of one, which might explain some of the contradictions, which matter less when your job is to please Trump.

Of course, the very strong evidence to which he referred… Well, that of course we can’t see. It’s worth saying, I suppose, that one way of tracing changes and shifts in political history is looking at who becomes the official enemy of a polity at a given time.

In the post war period in the 20th century – this for the West and for the US in particular – was communism. At times this became a discourse of dual totalitarianisms with liberalism – the kind of vital centre of sanity between fascism and communism. But, even this argument, which was really a common feature of cold war liberalism, was usually invoked to transfer the hatred of fascism, which emerged during the Second World War, over to a hatred of communism; with all the sad and miserable consequences, from McCarthyism to this [inaudible] proxy war.

But, in a sense, this was the ideal enemy; it was an enemy that had a geopolitical reality, at least nominally [and] it was a competing superpower. The risk of ideological infiltration in places high and low from the classroom to the Pentagon… Well, that was a perfect recipe for a mid-century American paranoiac.


[Marco: Mister Secretary, I’m kind of new at this job, but I don’t think it’s good public relations to speak that way to a US Senator, even if he is an idiot.
Sen. John Yerkes Iselin: I am United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin, and I have here a list of two hundred seven persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party!
Secretary of Defense: [amid shocked reaction from the crowd] What?
Sen. John Yerkes Iselin: Who nevertheless are still shaping the policy of the Defense Department!
Secretary of Defense: Senator who?
Sen. John Yerkes Iselin: I demand an answer, Mister Secretary! There will be no covering up, sir! No covering up!


From The Manchurian Candidate, 1962]


JB: Now, that was a hardy and durable model right up until communism collapsed. And actually, for a good long time thereafter. Although it had the occasional crumb of reality in its basis, it really needed very little fuel to keep it going. In fact, the logic of anti-communism continues to be the intellectual basis for much of the response of the right and the US permanent state even to this very day; even though it’s become anti-communism without communism to respond to.

In the absence of a communist enemy, the state has to cast around for a suitable replacement. For a couple of decades, it settled on shuttling between Islam and terrorism. With one becoming the other as the best candidate for an official enemy; from the so-called “axis of evil” through to its disastrous war in Iraq and its aftermath, with which of course we are still living – all the while newspapers here and elsewhere with were festooned with stories about Al-Qaeda’s mountain lair and very strange things like that.


JB: This was a serious effort, but it was one hampered by the obvious global dominance of the US and the absence of any serious contending power at the state level. Nonetheless, there’s a whole generation of us who sat and watched in horror the hard and very obvious work of ideological manufacturing in the early part of this century and who have been permanently soured on much of the press and the political system as a result. That was especially true around the march to war in 2003, but had a much wider halo, a kind of Corona effect, around that period as well. And as a side note, it’s worth remembering that when the well is poisoned like that, it has longer term political consequences that many of them merry poisoners realise, some of which I think we’re living through right now.

So, are we seeing a shift to China as the new official enemy? Well, it certainly only offers things that Islamic terrorism doesn’t. As a – at least nominally – communist country, China offers the ability to revitalise lots of that dusty old anti-communist logic with added paranoia that Beijing is spying on us all through the 5G network.

At the same time [this shift] allows shuttling between that old anti-communist paranoia and a completely paradoxical and contradictory claim that China is also a threat; not because it’s communist, but because it has combined a form of capitalist production with social authoritarianism which limits the costs – like welfare, living wage, time off – that workers demand of capitalists in the West. Of course, such position links very nicely to efforts to roll back those kinds of protections in the West itself. But it also links very nicely to longstanding forms of anti-Chinese racism, including the idea that Chinese people are naturally obedient or deceptive in character.

It’s maybe worth noting that Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, the Bible for a [inaudible] of anti-Muslim racists, also contains a series of deeply paranoid asides about a similar clash with China.

Certainly, such a shift is in evidence. Trump focused on China quite heavily in his 2016 campaign. I’m sure you’ll remember. He even accused it at one point, very unpleasantly, of raping the US economy. Of course, his gutting of United States funding for the World Health Organisation was predicated on the idea that it’s too China centric.

Here in the UK – dutiful poodle of the US global order as of course we are – Dominic Raab has insisted that it cannot be business as usual with China after the pandemic. And a former MI6 boss has gone on the Today program to insist that “China is evading a good deal of responsibility for the origin of the virus and for failing to deal with it initially”.

It has been, however, Atlanticist warmongers, the Henry Jackson Society, who have been front and centre on the new anti-Chinese push. They have been for very long time one of the most Islamophobic organisations in public life in the UK, but they’ve amped up their media pushes in recent weeks to focus on the malign influence – one of HJS’s word – of China. And [they] demand for an inquiry, not into the UK government’s preparedness, not into UK government’s response, not unto its slowness, but [into] China’s behaviour.

One of its directors launched a slickly-produced video series for The Sun called Hot Takes, with the claim that coronavirus was China’s Chernobyl – hammering [on] that Cold War comparison. While very splashy, and frankly quite unhinged, the Henry Jackson Society’s report was the basis for a really bonkers Mail on Sunday claim that Britain should sue China for £35bn.

Another even shadier Islamophobic institution, the ludicrous Gatestone Institute, went one further [describing] the pandemic as another 9/11 moment for the West. Can you hear them salivating?

What’s frustrating about this is not only how blatant and misbegotten it is, but [that] it operates in a way that these constructions always have; by taking a few crumbs of reality as the basis and whipping them up into tottering paranoiac fantasies. It’s frustrating because there are real questions here about how China handled the initial outbreak, both in terms of domestic whistle-blowers and in terms of the figures that it gave to international bodies. There are difficult diplomatic questions about how the World Health Organisation intervenes while still being able to operate in China. None of this involves suggestions, always only lent towards, hinted at, implied [that] there’s some sort of Chinese lab failure at the root of it all.

Not only such a suggestion serves to exclude the real and evermore concerning roots of the pandemic, which are both less glamorous but – frankly to my mind – more concerning. [The roots of the pandemic] put, as they do, the entire way we live our lives under indictment. You can go back and listen to last week’s shows where we tried to think a bit about the roots of the pandemic in global food production in agriculture, and in the way in which human humanity is continually troubling that boundary between nature and human society.

But you might wonder, do states need enemies? That’s one for a much larger longer show than this. Though a sketch of an answer might touch on the assumption that enmity and fear is the preliminary basis for political society; that it’s the preliminary basis for social contract theory. Or it might touch on the distinction between friend and enemy, which some argue is the basis for all politics, right to its root. We might touch on the so-called populist structure of modern politics itself.

But it’s certainly striking that all modern states – and by modern here, I don’t just mean 20th century – seek for and define enemies very clearly and that they allow for, and indeed justify, all sorts of things from obedience to drives for national unity. Without clear enemies, the state might devolve or change from what it is now into something which simply organises and administrates welfare. Lots of people – from Lenin, to Hobhouse, to Sidney Webb – have thought that this might be a very good thing indeed, although it doesn’t ever seem happen in practice and one might wonder why that is.

But you might also wonder whether it would be possible to shift the nature of the enemy. Whether one might make the enemy class structure, poverty or disease itself. It certainly confronts and more difficult political question: that it’s hard to fight against a nameless, invisible and faceless enemy. And that’s why perhaps the reach towards China is back on.

On a more prosaic level, the governments are watching their polling. Trump’s, of course, is not good. Some polling this weekend here in the UK, however, shows government approval – although not voting intention – dipping below 50% for the first time, with a week on week decline of about four percentage points each week.

Does this matter? Yes. Although it doesn’t necessarily spell good things for the Labour Party, it matters because governments are not looking right now at what their approval rate is at the moment. Governments everywhere seem bolstered by a surge of support for incumbents; they’re worried, in fact, about what it might look like or what part of that support might stick, when, as it will, that tide goes out again. And in such a situation you might be reminded of the last lines of Constantine P. Cavafy’s famous poem Waiting for the Barbarians.

What’s going to happen to us without the barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.


All right. Just a couple of quick things.


Headlines today


It looks like high on the agenda, in the coming weeks, is going to be this testing and tracing app, which looks like it’s going to be running off a centralised NHS server bank – something that should give us all kind of serious pause. I’m not a data nihilist, I think this stuff actually really matters. Perhaps more important though is an intervention by Bruce Schneier, a very famous cryptographer security expert – the kind of guy who you sit up and listen to when he makes this kind of intervention. He says: “My problem with contact tracing apps is that they have absolutely no value. I’m not even talking about the privacy concerns; I mean the efficacy. Does anybody think this will do something useful? […] This is just something governments want to do for the hell of it. To me, it’s just techies doing techie things because they don’t know what else to do.” Here’s a link to his argument, which is as you can hear about the scale and efficiency of such an app, and why it would fail to measure up and, implicitly, the danger of any so-called solution founded on them. In the UK, it looks like it will be.

On a similar note, lots of the stories this morning [are] on UK government talks with tech firms, as one possible solution to the crisis. It involves health, passports and facial recognition to ease the lockdown. That would, of course, be a very huge and really very worrying invasion into privacy and public order. At the end of last week, I outlined some possible future scenarios as a means of thinking about how this will end and that slots very clearly into the ultra-authoritarian bio surveillance society box. It’s not a road I think we want to go down, or well, go further down.

In any case, Matt Hancock will be speaking at the Downing Street press conference this afternoon to launch a massive test and trace operation, including the NHS app, at 5pm today. The first rollout of the study is supposed to be conducted on the Isle of Wight.

Now, one issue already raised this morning is that one aspect of the success of such a system in South Korea has been the establishment of quarantine centres; that’s where you put anyone who has the virus so that they can be separated from their immediate environment and separated from the possibility of spreading it. No word on anything like that yet. Ministers and the government will be very reluctant on that front, but under the fear of a second wave, can it really be avoided?

In other news on that, the human contact element of the test and trace program will be via call centres to be run by Circo, who I’m sure won’t completely fuck it up like literally every other outsource service that they ever touch.

The Financial Times this morning leads on some details from the forthcoming plan to reopen the economy, including draft papers, keeping office canteens closed, staggered shifts, social distancing enforced in offices and so on.

This is on top of the stories over the weekend about how commuting might work, or not, in the post lockdown period.

Lastly, today, the truly repellent Sarah Vine got some well-deserved social media grief after tweeting out a photo of a bookshelf in the Gove-Vine household bearing copies of the work by Holocaust denier, David Irving, the notorious work of scientific racism The Bell Curve and a turgid Ayn Rand bore-thon. Imagine telling on yourself quite that badly… God forbid you should be leader of the Labour Party though and write a foreword to Jay Hobson’s book on Imperialism.

Alright, c’est tout for this morning. As ever do drop me a line on [email protected].

Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t take photos of books by racist and proudly display them on social media, or in other words, don’t be a prick.

That’s it. This is The Burner, and I’ll be back tomorrow.

À bientôt.




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