My March reads

28 Mar

Just two reads this month. (You’ll see why when you clock the word count of the first one.) This past year I’ve been in an uncomfortable place vis-a-vis CV-19. On the one hand I’m impressed by sceptics like Germany’s Professor Bhakdi and America’s Professor Wittkowski. On the other I’ve been turned off by conspiracy takes that fail basic logic tests. Turned off too by shoddy thinking and armchair zealotry on all sides. My first recommend brings a radically different perspective. My second is for those who, mistrusting the hysterical outpourings of our venal politicians and deeply compromised media, genuinely want to know how China’s leaders view the world – and their nation’s role in improving it.


Cui Bono? The COVID-19 ‘Conspiracy’ (20,620 words)

A year into the covid thing it seems clear the pandemic isn’t all it was cracked up to be when it kicked off – roll over ebola & tell influenza the news!  Twelve months ago coffins laid out in the streets, and mass burial sites, seemed not so much on the cards as a done deal.

Dig around a bit (but beware those free enterprise zealots of Great Barrington) and you’ll find credible voices sceptical of the level of threat, and critical of lockdown. These for instance.

Below a post last month, one comment led me to this read. I don’t endorse it unconditionally. In fact I’ll start with what I don’t like, before moving to what I do. The first section – What We Know – irked me, once I’d checked its first few claims, in a way now familiar to me on all sides. Papers without peer review I can forgive. (Peer review I see as mainly good, but over-egged.) I do bristle though when gish-galloped by an armada of claims, each seemingly backed up with all due diligence, which turn out to deliver less than promised on the tin.

Here are the first six of forty-five claims listed in that opening section. All are UK-centric, though with wider relevance, and all begin with a litanic, “we know that”:

  • Government strategies for responding to a viral epidemic … were abandoned in favour of the historically unprecedented policy of national lockdown.

The linked evidence is a seventy page Department of Health document. No steer is given to the smoking guns which, it is darkly implied, lie within – though the author must know that of the few who download the doc, a vanishingly small fraction will read it.

  • Government contracts for the campaign of propaganda worth £119 million were signed with PR firms 3 weeks before the first lockdown.

I’m familiar with this claim, which I’ve seen slammed down like a royal flush to a pair of twos as proof positive that BoJo’s initial stance of ‘herd immunity’ was a smoke-screen.

This is poker, right?

Well if it is, the stakes are in the trillions. £119m doesn’t get us past the door and into the game. You see, once we get into the bluffing thing, there’s no end to where it can take us.

So? This too is a marginal sum. Its expenditure on advertising tells us nothing we didn’t know: viz, that the Cabinet Office thought (or said it thought) it justifiable; and that tory (and tory-lite) governments favour privatised outsourcing, in this case of PR.

Yes, the criteria were changed. As to the why, I’ve read explanations both sinister and innocent but mine is a different point on the conflation, sly or just sloppy, of a verified fact with an unverified motive. We’re being sold a tautology, the claim its own proof.

Think me one-sided? Not a bit of it. I’m as irked by the shoddy thinking of those who cite excess mortality rates as proof of Covid-19 severity, ignoring deaths from lockdown itself: primarily to other illnesses going unreported or untreated, but also suicides, homicides and the fatal results, coming on top of public services cut to the bone, of non medical but vital services diverted.

Crap arguments on all sides are one of many depressing symptoms of such turbulence. I see them as corollaries of the Illusion of Knowing, fervently if paradoxically embraced in inverse ratio to objective certainty. When we tell ourselves we Already Know, it seems we can buy – and sell – any old drivel provided it seems to back us up.1

95 per cent of the deaths attributed to the disease are of people with pre-existing health conditions like cancer, dementia, heart disease or diabetes.

I’m not sure what is being said here. They would have died anyway? They don’t matter? Or is it the altogether more tenable point that if – by means not spelt out – we find ways to protect such groups, lockdown can be lifted? Clarification would be good.

The same goes for this too, though it introduces a second claim (without evidence) which may be significant. My eyes glaze over on matters of statistical significance. I need hand holding on what it means if, as stated, average age of death to CV-19 is the same as that of all deaths. Since it is given as additional to the over-70s claim, I assume it a new point. What though? As a matter of arithmetic possibility, I suppose Covid deaths could rise a hundredfold without altering average age of death. But then, sums never were my strong suit.

Enough. I’ve no intention of going through all forty-five claims. My beef is that when we really get down to it, reliable sources – and this too is a corollary of the Illusion of Knowing – are rare as vaccine jabs on the Gaza Strip. So why recommend so long a read? Three reasons.

Firstly I share, albeit with less certainty, its understanding of Covid-19 as overstated; lockdown as a cure worse than the disease. (Though I see the more pressing issue as that of resisting the saddling, of those least able to pay, with the bill.)

Secondly this read marks for me a breakthrough. While I’ve long been sympathetic to sceptics like Bhakdi, Wittkowski and to lesser extent Gupta, one thing kept me from full endorsement. I don’t mean the evangelism, reductivism and bad reasoning of many ‘sceptics’. Nor the zeal of some who should have known better to leap between the sheets with interests they’d hitherto rightly loathed. Such things irk me but that’s all, and in any case ‘sceptics’ have no monopoly on bad thinking. At issue for me was that the conspiracy takes of many sceptics – not all, though a disconcerting number flip back and forth here – fail elementary tests cited in my February post.

One in particular:

If this is a devilish plot, how come China, Russia and Cuba are in on it too?

This read, for all its lesser faults, doesn’t so much break through that obstacle. (Other texts, this for instance, have tried and failed to do that.) Rather, it convincingly sweeps it aside:

Current framing of [the CV-19] question offers only two responses, successfully dividing [Britain] into two camps. Either we are facing a civilisation-threatening virus to which our governments are responding [albeit] with incompetence and opportunism to a genuine and real threat to public health; or the whole thing has been manufactured by a conspiracy of powerful individuals and organisations … whose immense wealth and influence enables them to grind the organ to which our various governments are dancing.

I don’t believe either of these answers to be correct … the statistical data, medical reports and coronavirus-justified legislation do not corroborate the veracity of the first answer. But I also don’t believe that the refusal to believe this blatant lie means believing the easily-dismissed second answer that there must — therefore — exist a conspiracy of political, economic and technological powers which have either manufactured this deadly virus in a secret lab in Wuhan or fabricated the effects of a virus whose genome still hasn’t been sequenced. On the contrary, I believe it is this binary response — a deadly virus or an even deadlier conspiracy, neither of which is supported by what we know about the world in the early Twenty-first Century — that has stopped the truth about this crisis appearing to those who are looking for it.

Which leads me to my third reason for recommending this read. In his break with conspiracist takes, author Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing delivers the first truly materialist – indeed, dialectically materialist – explanation I’ve seen of what is happening and why:

I want to start our awakening from the sleep of reason by looking at the social practices of the coronavirus crisis [to] correct the conspiracy theory of an elite with their hands … on the gears of history. Let’s [instead] look at the machine of history. We all know its name, and despite all the renewed predictions of its death it hasn’t gone away. On the contrary, it’s just going through a revolution … but its name is still the same. Capitalism.

Marx was right. When the material productive forces of society come into conflict with existing relations of production — its property relations — a period of social revolution begins. ‘With the change of the economic foundations’, he wrote, ‘the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.’ The expansion into new markets of the neoliberal capitalism that has dominated Western democracies for 40 years no longer has to accommodate liberal democracy. What we are undergoing — what we are colluding in producing — are the new political, legal and social forms for a multinational biosecurity state. And no elite, no matter how powerful, is in control of it for the simple reason that, despite immensely powerful international organisations increasingly divorced from and opposed to democratic process, capitalism is a dynamic process that develops by conflict and contradiction.

Capitalism has a grip on the world the like of which it has never had before, and as it faces the long-heralded limits to [its] expansion it is developing new forms and powers to extend that grip further over the world’s diminishing resources. But there is no single government or corporation ruling the globe, no secret society whose members sit on every cabinet and board. The US Government is the greatest military power the world has ever seen, and the United Nations has long been superseded by far more unaccountable coalitions of state and corporate powers whose activities are largely secret and getting more so. And the power of technology to monitor and control the world’s populations is expanding at an exponential rate in both breadth and depth. But the world is not a single, supra-political block. There is no invisible hand of the market-god ruling over us, for good or for evil; there are only devils competing for his crown. The world undergoing this revolution in capitalism remains a conflict whose battleground, now and for the immediate future, is the coronavirus crisis. What makes that conflict new for Western democracies is that the war being waged is a civil one, of governments against their own people, rather than against other countries. By looking at how this civil war is being waged, therefore, we can begin to understand to what ends it is being fought.

What follows is a materially grounded account of a ‘revolution in capitalism’ as its only way out of a corner its inner dynamic has painted it into. A way out which breathes new meaning into an old equation: socialism or barbarism. This capitalist revolution, an act of radical re-engineering,  has its “battleground, now and for the immediate future, in the coronavirus crisis”.

In the specific context of CV-19 and lockdown (I’m using this term as metonym for all restrictive acts of state in the name of pandemic) I spoke of Elmer’s bypassing a false either/or. At a wider level he sketches out – nothing too detailed; that would be hubristically premature at this stage – a much needed alternative way of thinking about modern capitalism and its demise, desired by all life loving and properly informed persons. Elmer rejects, as I do, ‘parliamentary socialism’ on the one hand; an obsolete revolutionary vanguard model – its underpinnings swept away by imperialism’s export of manufacturing to the global south – on the other.

And this my friends is why I urge you, whatever chapel you currently attend in what I have long called a religious divide on Covid, to set aside in the week ahead the three or four hours – not necessarily or even ideally as a contiguous block – you’ll need to read Mr Elmer’s thoughts.


The Long Game and its Contradictions (3,347 words)

Belt & Road plan (Africa and Western Europe nodes not shown). China’s challenge to US hegemony is clear, and a US or proxy presence in Afghanistan and Syria well placed to disrupt those parts its overwhelming naval power can’t reach.2 This is but one aspect of what ‘extremists’ like me mean when we insist that western imperialism, far from ending with colonialism, has assumed new forms.

Given my unusually long intro to the previous and uniquely long read, I’d best be brief here. For six years or more I’ve been a cautious admirer of the rise of China and Russia. A critic too of the narratives of demonisation – cheating at sports … Smershesque foiled poisonings of dissidents a stone’s throw from Porton Down … regional ‘aggressions’ which, even if they held up under close scrutiny (they seldom do) are eclipsed by Western imperialist carnage this century alone – peddled by media of right-wing and liberal stripe. Narratives oddly silent on motives far more credible for vilifying the two most important states declining – till now politely, though this is likely to change – Washington’s invitation for them to return meek and chastened to the fold of its toxic exceptionalism.

I’ve seen Eurasia’s resurgence in global terms, as a welcome check to a US dominance helpfully laid out, early this century, by a Dubya aide widely believed to be Karl Rove.3

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

And because I’ve seen Eurasian resurgence and its attendant demonisation in global terms, I’ve done little to gain internal perspectives. How does Russia see herself? How does China?

This lucid read, by Berlin based He Zhao, is a breath of fresh air; its shrewd but sympathetic appraisal of China realpolitik a worthy complement to the writings of two others cited more than once in these monthly despatches; the Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar and the American economist Michael Hudson.

* * *

  1. “We buy any old drivel if it seems to back us up.” This has little to do with the “critical thinking skills” universities fondly serve up as antidote; misdiagnosing a deep rooted emotional tendency, huge in all of us, as a lack of reasoning skills. How do we know? Because the moment critical ‘skills’ enthusiasts see their own interests threatened, impartial assessment of inconvenient arguments flies out the window!
  2. The military presence of US and lesser imperialisms in Syria and Afghanistan is by no means the only threat to China’s Belt & Road (aka One Belt One Road, aka New Silk Road) initiative. Central Asia’s former Soviet Republics, with Washington compliant regimes, do their bit too. (Not least in the century old game of weaponising Islamist terror, now in its phase of arming jihad among Russia’s Chechen and China’s Uighur youth.) Take Uzbekistan under kleptocrat and torturer Islam Karimov. Remember him?  When its then UK Ambassador Craig Murray blew the whistle on this unsavoury dude, Tony Blair sacked him. Mr Karimov may have been a venal thug but he was Our Venal Thug: allowing former Soviet bases to be used to launch and service coalition attacks on Iraq. It pushes credulity to breaking point, or should do, to deny that these empire salients will be aiding not just Chechen/Uighur terror but in other ways obstructing a One Belt One Road whose potential benefits extend way beyond China. Alas, most of the West still buys the fantastical notion that what Washington wants is good for all rightminded people that on earth do dwell.
  3. Rove has a record of nastiness impressive even by 21st century Beltway standards. As well as defending tortureplus an email scandal of the kind that later tainted HRC, rescue from Congressional subpoena by ‘executive privilege’ and dark ‘joke’ about murdering a senator (an obnoxious one to be sure, but it’s the thought that counts) – Rove’s role in the Valerie Plame affair earned him another subpoena. This he dodged by resigning on the ground that “I just think it’s time to leave.” That covers it, I guess. Oh, hang on a minute: Rove chaired the White House Iraq Group charged with bigging up the WMD threat as cover for – among a rich mix of criminal motives – an oil grab that left at least one million Iraqi dead and condemned the rest to years of sectarian terror.

8 Replies to “My March reads

  1. Hi Phillip, excellent stuff here, hope to follow up.

    I don’t believe that this current Covid 19 farce(because I’ve read volumes of infographs from many sources denouncing the existence of an exponential threat from the virus or the vaccine response and they vary so greatly as to reduce them to exercises of possibilities rather than probabilities)can be taken as a stand alone instance of any political/ELE or conspiracy but instead should be viewed as Elmer suggests, a furtherance of what has always existed because of the feeding frenzy by the capitalist and corporatist interests.

    What better way to insinuate their agenda into our mindset than by preying on our fears and zombie like acceptance of that which is not true, than to play up a threat that only marginally undercuts what has already been applied against us – the capitalist control of our lives. It seems to me that this Covid 19 is a windfall for the capitalists and just another means of control and we, as useful idiots, are being steered in the right direction by those who can take full advantage of it and of course, best exploit it.

    Cov/Sars, the common cold and flu are all viruses, I’ve never been vaccinated against any of them, I’ve never caught flu and therefore, don’t intend to put what I believe to be unnecessary poisons in my system, as contagions they are no more lethal than the spread of another contagion, that of the murderous capitalist disease.

    As for the rise of China and Russia, I like to read Pepe Escobar (In quest of a Multi-Polar World with Hudson – Consortium News, being the latest) and a few others(Zeusse, Giraldi, McGovern and a host of critical thinkers) I will now look into He Zhao to compare with my usual sources.
    Many thanks,
    Susan 🙂

  2. Hi Phillip,
    Loved the simple language and explanations He Jhao used in this excellent article. Although I was aware that China was not averse to the use of capitalist enterprise I had no idea how they were using it.
    Many thanks.
    🙂 Susan

  3. To answer a couple of points about the ASH site:

    The “gish gallop” remark isn’t called for since reading the entire document is unnecessary. The point was that the policy of national lockdown was historically unprecedented, something that can be seen just through a wordsearch to determine that the expression “lockdown” doesn’t appear.

    Talk of comorbidities doesn’t mean “They would have died anyway”. It means that their deaths cannot simply be attributed to covid.

    As for Marxist analysis from a sceptical angle, perhaps covid marks a transformation of capitalism from the consumer variety to a new “pharma phase” in which the latest commodification moves to the human immune system which can no longer be left to a sadly unprofitable natural matter but must be “bought in” via lucrative vaccines?

    Which means that the point about China, Russia and Cuba being in on a “devilish plot” is a straw man. There is a global capitalist system with various centres competing against each other. Now if there is a basic structural problem threatening a crash (the unprecedented dimensions of which I have been hearing about for some time now) then I don’t see why a general solution cannot present itself to all the parties. They are in effect jumping on the same bandwagon to solve their internal problems. And by “problems” I of course mean the matter of maintaining profits.

    This is one matter which I certainly disagree with re: the “libertarian” contingent whose moans about losing our freedoms are a red rag to Marxists – who have always, and quite rightly, viewed the word “freedom” with a highly critical eye. It isn’t a question of imposing some system of control over the masses – as if the ruling class cared about the masses as anything other than a source of profit. The rulers are happy to permit “freedoms” as long as they are consistent with profit maximisation. With that consistency gone, other avenues must be taken. We are seeing such new avenues emerging.

    Perhaps the argument about the origin of covid is irrelevant now i.e. whether is was “a con” or not. Everyone would surely agree that the ruling class is using the virus to serve its own interests.

    • Disagree with you on the gish-gallop but that’s a minor point. Disagree too on the China, Russia, Cuba point being straw-manning. (I’ll be posting more soon on China.) Elmer is convincing on the conspiracy claims being worse than a distraction, and those states are part of that conversation.

      That said, we may actually agree on the most important thing I say in this post:

      I urge [my readers] to set aside in the week ahead three or four hours to read Mr Elmer’s thoughts.

      Because that’s what I do on this site. I go outside my comfort zone and say to people, “I think you’re misled and here’s why”. It costs me not only in time, though I put in more of that than I did in full time jobs. It also costs me in friendships lost, mostly folks of liberal stripe, folks once dear to me, who find me too extreme.

      I mention this because I’ve been attacked for my writings on CV19. Often absurdly. Last month a comment on this site lamented my “silence” on the subject. Not only was this untrue, as I could easily show. It left my critic open to the question – “what, other than the occasional BTL hit and run on writers like me, and other than preaching to the choir in social media echo chambers, are you doing to act on/promote your views”?

      He might have replied, him being a writer, that he hosted his own site. He might have told me he was active in organised resistance to lockdown. He might have told me he was doing something else that involved risk – like my lost friendships. He might have told me he was doing things that involve sustained effort. But aside from said hit and runs, and FB echo chamber appearances, the answer was zilch. He’s not the only one, not even among CV sceptics I know personally.

      I say it matters not one whit what we believe unless it informs our work, our concerted and heartfelt work, to bring about change.

      • The only meaningful question is, as you say, what we can do. I’m afraid the answer, given honest consideration, is “Very little”. How so? Because through this covid matter with the lockdowns and the restrictions, the population is more atomised than it has ever been. And I don’t think the Left help if they suggest we should have even sterner lockdown rules.

        One effect of this – and it’s HUGE – is that people are now more dependant than ever on the TV news which has been like a monolithic juggernaut. I honestly thought that we would hear more demonisation of “anti-vaxxers” (“covid sceptics” being a too risky term). But I have been astonished at the sheer belligerent ignoring of all opposition. There have been anti-lockdown protests – which have either been ignored or reported in their worst light. “David Icke was there!” – smear by association and that is a tried and trusted technique.

        I would say that the only helpful thing in the media is to watch out for negative indicators of actual news e.g. when Lenny Henry feels obliged to urge the black community to take the vax, then it indicates that many of them aren’t. Well, refusal of the vax is one meaningful action. Lockdown protests (if possible) would be another. But don’t expect positive reportage of that in the media. Not even (especially?) the Left media. (The WSWS has already explicitly linked anti-lockdown protests to fascist forces.)

        Which I suppose brings us to the point where we must part. I still have the highest respect for Marx and the traditional Marxist writers. But I think the response of the Left to covid has been a disgrace. I can’t see meaningful opposition coming from this Left. All they can recommend is what the ruling class owned media are recommending which is pretty much what everyone is forced to do anyway.

        In the end I put a huge amount of faith on the regular folks in the street who aren’t taken in by the media’s own gish galloping charts and figures, who have caught the whiff of the biggest rat of them all, and who quite frankly don’t care about the Left since the last named has effectively “left the building” – if they were ever there in the first place.

  4. Thank you for wading through the Elmer article Phil, I don’t think I would have persevered to the end of the first section and overall feel that the piece could have been much more tightly written. But you are right to encourage a reading of a much needed dialectical materialist analysis of cv-19 and the response to it. I will need to re-read but my initial key takeouts are the reminder that capitalism adapts and regenerates through crisis, that the ‘superstructure’ changes to (largely) accommodate changed relations of production and (my favourite) that just because overarching conspiracy theories are un tenable doesn’t mean that those with all the power are not going to act as though they are.

    • … the piece could have been much more tightly written …

      Mark Twain, for my money the most elegant writer in the English language, famously ended a letter to a pal with this:

      Sorry this is so long. I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter.

      Your initial “key takeouts” are accurate and this is why, for all its lesser faults, the piece marks a brave new initiative that goes wider than how we understand Covid. Thinking people, with a soundly materialist grasp of capital in its advanced monopolistic and imperialist forms, know that the old conditions are outmoded and something big has to give. As Elmer puts it:

      The expansion into new markets of the neoliberal capitalism that has dominated Western democracies for 40 years no longer has to accommodate liberal democracy.

      That has been obvious, to those with eyes to see, for a very long time. The shift of real power from bourgeois state to corporate giant – the former still significant, but mainly as local fixer for the latter (one telling sign was TTIP, an even bigger one the EU itself) – makes the world unrecognisable to a Rip Van Winkle awakening not from a century of sleep but a mere four decades. As corporate entities leverage lockdown’s extraordinary conditions, while others go under, a Great Reset is indeed taking place in a way Marx and Lenin (but too few of today’s “Marx-Leninists”) would grasp. The superstructure of the West – a liberal parliamentary model – is increasingly a hindrance to relations of production decisively different from those we baby boomers grew up with. A revolution is indeed taking place but it needs no conscious agency; simply the (unaltered) logic of capitalism playing out in (altered) circumstances where the old rules have weakened to breaking point. This is far bigger than covid-19!

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