Anti-Asian racism – the xenophobic virus accompanying the pandemic

The current pandemic has been accompanied by a disturbing resurgence of another associated virus – anti-Asian racism.

Dissecting the various pathologies of the Anglo-majority nations (namely, the United States, Australia and Britain) is almost a full time occupation. The white ethnocracies are the majoritarian spawn of English colonialism. This implantation of Anglo nationalism in the Asia Pacific region has produced its own virus – anti-Asian racism. The latter is the monstrous twin of the current Covid-19 pandemic. But racially motivated paranoia is not unique to our times.

Professor Tim Soutphommasane, political theorist and professor, has written that anti-Asian racism is not a new development in Australia, but arises from preexisting conditions and prejudices. This kind of pandemic racism exposes not only the kind of society we are, but also the problems of racism we collectively need to overcome to construct a new social order.

Blaming China – and by extension, Asian peoples – for outbreaks of disease is neither accurate nor original. Racially motivated hysteria regarding pandemics has a long and ugly history in Anglo-majority societies. In the early part of the twentieth century, Asians were singled out for blame following an outbreak of the plague in Honolulu, Hawaii. Despite the fact that Asian Americans were among the plague’s victims, authorities set about burning down the Japanese and Chinese quarters of the city.

What did that course of action achieve? The rats, responsible for spreading the plague-causing bacteria, were driven out by the fires. They served as a vector for the plague, taking it across the city.

While current lame-duck US President Donald Trump did his best to promote a racialised interpretation of the Covid-19 outbreak, he is not the first – and definitely not the last – to engage in Sinophobia. The Australian political class has a long history of anti-Asian racism, and 2020 provided a stark continuation of anti-immigrant xenophobia. As news of the novel coronavirus hit the airwaves in Australia, anti-Asian racism reared its ugly head.

Reports compiled by Australian universities and Asian Australian advocacy groups have documented a disturbing surge in anti-Asian attacks, racial incidents and discrimination. For instance, academics at the University of Melbourne compiled an extensive report into the eruption of anti-Asian racism, directed mostly at Asian Australians, but also targeting culturally and linguistically diverse suburbs of Melbourne.

Let’s also focus on the dissemination of anti-China Covid-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation. Social media has allowed the formation of toxic ecosystems of hate and conspiratorial fear-mongering, recycling harmful stereotypes of Asians as spreaders of disease. Criticism of Beijing’s policies has quick transformed into Sinophobic mud-slinging, especially in the context of China’s response to the pandemic.

Evaluating the effectiveness of China’s response to Covid-19 is one thing; portraying the Chinese – and Asians in general – as a uniquely cunning, manipulative foreign enemy ‘penetrating’ Australia is nothing short of racist paranoia. Australia’s effort to blame China – the so-called ‘Chinese virus’ – is the latest manifestation of a long-standing practice in targeting ethnic minorities for their alleged culpability for our problems.

It is easy to find foreign scapegoats for the current economic and social problems afflicting Australia. Blaming China is a convenient diversion, distracting us from the problems of our own socioeconomic system. The Covid-19 virus was first detected in China – its origin however, is still subject to dispute. This has not stopped the conspiracy theories – and attacks on Chinese dietary habits – from circulating harmful misinformation that only serves to undermine public confidence in the competencies of health authorities.

Shaoquett Moselmane, NSW Labour Party MP, praised the response of the Beijing government to the Covid-19 pandemic, and denounced the resurgence of ‘yellow peril’ stereotypes in Australia’s media characterisations of Asians. He was suspended from parliament, and was subjected to slanderously false accusations of being a ‘Chinese agent’. Returning to parliament some months after his trial-by-media, he has never actually been charged with any wrongdoing. So far, the same media which rushed to judgement has never issued a formal apology to Moselmane.

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, sociologist at the University of Technology, Sydney, writes that while it is all well and good to praise the multiculturalism of Australian society, that is no protection against outbursts of deeply-ingrained racism. He writes that:

Carrying a torch for multiculturalism is no guarantee of anything to do with defending the rights of slandered minorities. Instead, it reveals something about the way multiculturalism under the current government has become a shield for advancing ethnocracy’s prerogatives.

Upholding the meritorious contributions of migrants and refugees to Australian society is commendable on its own merits. However, this approach does not tackle racism head-on. We require institutional policies and cultural changes to confront the pandemic of anti-Asian racism. Racism is not only a harmful ideology, but a tool of exploitation. While the Covid-19 virus will be brought under control, we need to create anti-racism strategies now to confront the simmering residue of racial paranoia.

Magna Carta is an important document – but let’s stop venerating it

The Magna Carta – great charter – signed in June 1215 by King John of England and the rebellious barons, has achieved contemporary fame unlike any other legal document. Ostensibly enshrining the rights of individual liberty, democracy and protections against arbitrary arrest, the Magna Carta has been cited as inspiration from people and governments across the Left-Right political spectrum.

The 800th anniversary of the charter – in 2015 – was the occasion for numerous official commemorative activities in Britain. While it was an important milestone in English history, let’s also stop venerating it, and understand its proper place in the context of competing social and class forces.

Magna Carta was not the product of a specific British/English predisposition for democracy, nor a peculiar British commitment to individual liberty, but of a particular convergence of conflicting intra-elite class forces. King John’s military adventures in northern France, attempting to reconquer English territories, ended in failure in 1214. The onerous taxes John had imposed to finance that ten-year campaign, were the target of grumbling protests by the baronial elite.

Not only was John asking for even more money, he also faced a nationalist Welsh uprising. Adding to John’s difficulties, the Church opposed his appointee designate for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church – an ecclesiastical wealthy landowning class – was watching the growing organisation of the rebellious barons with increasing alarm. A festering civil war was in the offing, and the barons seized London, pledging to compel the king to accept their terms.

King John’s dangerous mix of military failure in France, financial exactions of the baronial class, and harsh implementation of arbitrary justice finally combined to cause the Crown’s undoing. In June 1215, the barons forced John to sign the list of their demands – Magna Carta – at Runnymede.

This document does not actually guarantee individual liberties, or even mention trial by jury, or ensure that everyone is equal before the law. The original document, signed by King John, contained a list of demands resolving the specific grievances of the barons. The 1215 document was a failure; John repudiated its contents the year after it was signed, and asked the Pope to annul it. Later in 1216, John contracted dysentery and died. The still-unresolved conflict continued to simmer.

The charter was revised and reissued numerous times. The 1225 version is on display at the British Library. Its 63 clauses – in the 1215 original – dealt with various issues of aristocratic and merchant property rights. A number of clauses dealt with the removal of fish weirs, the abolition of outdated taxes, and demanded unrestricted trade for merchants.

However, the most well-known clauses, cited as protection against detention without trial, protection against arbitrary arrest and torture, and upholding the rule of law, are clauses 39 and 40. Translated into modern English, they state the following:

39 – No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

40 – To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

These are the proviso most often cited as a defence of constitutional gradualism, and Magna Carta was upheld by politically diverse forces since the end of the 1200s. Sir Edward Coke, in his struggle against the Stuart monarchs, cited Magna Carta as a weapon against unrestricted royal powers. Radical movements in the English Civil War referred to Magna Carta as a protective legal document against state repression. The American revolutionaries, in their fight against the English Crown, cited Magna Carta as a shield in opposition to government by royal decree.

The principle of habeas corpus, which prohibits detention without trial, is certainly under attack today. The capitalist system, as it decays and becomes more barbarous, is removing any vestige of civil liberties or democratic rights. The US and Britain, through various legalistic measures and control orders, have imprisoned persons without charge or trial for years, using the pretext of terrorism to do so.

The notion of privacy and civil liberties has been made a mockery of, with the rise of tech companies and surveillance capitalism. The algorithms in the search engines they own – and we use – have aggregated all kinds of data about our behaviour. Our searches, purchases, likes and dislikes, are all metadata, stored by the big IT monopolies. The personal data they collect is used to analyse our behaviour and predilections. The commercial imperative of mass surveillance on the internet has undercut any notion of individual privacy.

Magna Carta has contemporary relevance, and is a seminal event in English history. Rather than singing paeans to constitutional gradualism, let’s understand the competing class forces that resulted in its creation. Civil liberties have been won through hard struggle – let’s not forget that while highlighting the conduct of governments that violate the provisions of Magna Carta.

The metabolic rift and the ecological-economic crisis

Climate change, environmental destruction and the COVID-19 pandemic have all combined to drive home the importance of understanding ecology – human societal interaction with and impact upon the natural world – with renewed ferocity. Searching for a framework with which to understand the current compound crises, and navigating a way out of them, requires an anticapitalist and ecosocialist perspective.

Let’s elaborate this multifaceted subject.

We can make some relevant observations which contribute to a wider national conversation on tackling the intertwined problems of environmental damage and capitalist-economy-induced runaway climate change.

Not everyone can be a full time scientist, but everyone can achieve scientific literacy, if only for the purpose of making informed decisions about policies when dealing with the ecological crisis. The ongoing economic downturn cannot be separated from the wider ecological destruction engulfing greater portions of the planet. It is equally true that the ecological crisis cannot be solved without addressing the socioeconomic inequalities. In fact, ecological destruction must be stopped by addressing the economic structures that generate ecologically destructive practices.

Economically driven incursions into previously undisturbed natural environments is increasing the likelihood and frequency of transmission of zoonotic pathogens to humans, and associated pandemics. The COVID-19 pathogen was first detected in China, though that does not mean it necessarily originated there.

Barry Commoner stated, cited by John Bellamy Foster that “if the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production”. How ironic that a zoonotic virus has been effective at exposing the structural weaknesses of the original economic virus, the rapacious expansion of the capitalist mode of production.

Environmental destruction and ecological disruption are not inevitable consequences of human existence, but rather the product of specific socioeconomic activities. It is the economic and consumption patterns of the affluent that have the most harmful impact, not the nations with higher birth rates. Much-hyped panic about overpopulation, while providing a simplistic explanation, distract us from the real causes of environmental destruction – the consumerist affluence of the wealthy and the industrial practices they sustain.

Pandemics will become more frequent with runaway climate change. The economic activities that exploit and destroy greater parts of the natural environment are also the socioeconomic practices that drive climate change. The intensification of mass agribusiness, deforestation, overfishing marine resources – not only contribute to the increasing levels of carbon emissions, but also increase the likelihood of zoonotic transmission of viruses as we encroach further into natural habitats.

It is not only a case of geographic proximity to natural environments. As humans upend forests and enter marine areas, the capitalist mode of production disrupts and demolishes ecosystems, exploiting the natural resources. The defences that these ecosystems have which prevent diseases from spreading are also undermined. The decrease in biodiversity has adverse impacts on human life.

What is the metabolic rift?

Marx employed the words ‘metabolism’ and ‘metabolic’ in the same way that we use the word ‘ecological’ today. The term ‘ecology’ was not coined until the 1860s. However, Marx spoke of the rift – the breakdown – of the relationship between humans and the natural world in the 1840s. He wrote:

Humans live from nature, ie: nature is our body, and we must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die.

To say that humanity’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for humans are part of nature.

The capitalist mode of production, and its inevitable class inequalities, was creating a breakdown in the natural cycles of human-nature interaction. Marx’s use of this concept – humans and nature forming a social metabolism – was cutting edge science in his time. We usually think of Marx and Engels as economic thinkers – and is correct. However, to limit ourselves to an understanding of Marxian political economy leads us to sadly ignore the crucial insights that Marx and Engels were also ecological thinkers.

Marx was responding to Malthus, the populationist pastor, who sought to exclusively blame the rising numbers of poor and unemployed for environmental problems. But he was also highlighting the inevitable disruption between the natural and social worlds that capitalism was producing. While human economic activity was portrayed at the time as ‘conquering nature’ – think of the conquest of the Australian continent by English imperialism – nothing could be further from the truth.

As humans exploit nature, our mode of production undermines the very basis of our material existence. We disrupt the earth’s natural cycles – it was in the 19th century that the greenhouse effect and its harmful impact on the climate were first beginning to be elaborated. As greater numbers of people live and work in cities, we have not only lost contact with nature, but are also ignoring the deleterious impacts our affluent consumptive is having on nature.

We have constructed an artificial dichotomy between ecology and the economy – what is generally simplified as ‘jobs versus environment‘. This false dichotomy stands exposed in 2020 – climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics cannot be cordoned off into a separate subject-area called ‘the environment’, distinct from the subject of ‘jobs’.

No economic system is worth saving if it is destroying the ecosystems that sustain life on earth. There is much more to be said on this topic in the future. For now, let’s make one recommendation – for further information on this topic, read John Bellamy Foster’s book, The Ecological Revolution.