The Communist Bug

We Must Not Let Anti-CCP Discourse About the Pandemic Become Reason to Squash Socialism in The U.S.

The nation is infected. A bizarre statement that in recent days maintains certain amount of literality. As we have seen, pandemics have a certain way of both making borders more fuzzy—as infections move indiscriminately across nations—and making them more solid—as governments shut down travel. Pandemics make us more aware of our own bodies and contacts, and the body politic becomes more aware of global movements of goods and people. The way we use language also matters during pandemics: metaphors of “battling” the disease are show the inability of  pundits to think about public health as anything other than a war of factions. What does viral language and crisis have to do with the suppression of ideologies that can be connected with a foreign threat? And why is this such a constant tactic from establishment politicians in accomplishing a dual objective: shifting attention away from the mismanagement of a crisis while extinguishing the power of leftists?

In the past, rhetoric around pandemics in the U.S. has moved from germaphobia to xenophobia. Trump’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “China-virus” mirrors the naming of the Spanish flu, a tactic which gives isolationist voices platforms and works to scapegoat external populations that are viewed as threats.  The implications of the scapegoating of the Chinese as an attempt to direct the anger of the population have already been seen in hate crimes against people of East Asian descent in North America. But more recently, major publications like the Washington Post have published articles about the need to shift blame from the Chinese people to the Chinese Communist Party.

The rhetorical acrobatics that have moved blame from America’s hubris about infection to the external influence of a foreign power are not new in the landscape of U.S. thought. After the so-called Spanish Flu ravaged the country in the early 1900s and during the rise of the Soviet Union as a world power, nativist groups in the U.S. compared government mandated public health initiatives like vaccinations with ideological infection. Through propaganda “exposing” vaccinations and state-sponsored health routines as “world communistic plots,” as seen in the poster below from 1955, government response to viruses and sickness are associated with the specter of foreign control. The imbrication of public health and (foreign) ideological contagion took hold, at least within certain segments of the population.

I want to note that this is not an outright defense of the CCP, who themselves have treated strains of radical Islam as a “disease” to be treated in order to bring the Uighurs to heel; they might as well be pulling directly from the McCarthyite playbook. Instead, I want to warn against the movement from anti-CCP rhetoric to rhetoric against socialist and communist groups in the U.S. who have finally gained some measure of popular traction for the first time since before the brain rot of the Cold War. But anti-communist sentiments in the U.S. run deep, and politicians have used xenophobia from disease and the language of disease to suggest an internal corruption of the citizens of the U.S.

It would be a stretch to directly correlate the isolationism that resulted from a nation traumatized by disease with the red scare—but there was certainly a confluence of fear and nativism after WWI that paved the way. An article from Time Magazine in 1946 featured a graphic that showed the regions of exposure to Soviet communism that should be quarantined, an image that looks startlingly like the graphics being used to show the spread of COVID-19. The use of metaphors of contagion were used from the very beginning to stoke anti-communist sentiment in the states, and not just from posters—these statements came from the very top. In his 1947 address before the House Un-American Activities Committee, J. Edgar Hoover testified that Americans need to remain vigilant “so long as American labor groups are infiltrated, dominated or saturated with the virus of communism.”Instead of acting in accordance with Marxist principles, communists in the U.S. were viewed as being tainted by the foreign disease: the external threat becomes internal. Ronald Reagan, preaching  Cold War dualism that would make even the most the stalwart Manichean blush, warned of invisible ideological infections. In a 1975 interview called “Communism, The Disease” he asked “How many of us are aware of some of the differences between those who have the sickness and we who don't?” This invisible contagion divides families and friends against each other by spreading insecurity and fear. Xenophobia and anti-communist rhetoric was shifted to be wielded against agents inside of the U.S. body-politic.

In the current pandemic we may continue to see depictions of U.S. labor activists as threats of both literal and figurative contagion. The growing discontent over unemployment and poor health care has led to strikes by underpaid workers at companies like Amazon who fear, rightly, for their safety. But the blame has been shifted from corporate malfeasance to people like Chris Smalls, who has been criticized for organizing despite his exposure to the infection. Labor organizers who act during these times risk being viewed as acting against the good of the public. It wouldn’t be the first time that disease gave capitalists reason to turn public will against organizers. In the early 1900s, Seattle mayor Ole Hanson violently suppressed a general strike in the name of public safety, bragging about solving the pandemic as well as the “Bolshevik” threat within the city.

In the time of a pandemic, any attempt to improve the conditions of labor can be misconstrued as an attempt at undermining the public good. For it is the population that bears the responsibility and the blame for mismanagement; a full out government response being the Chinese response, and thus, unacceptable. When the roving eye of the Trumpian propaganda machine is seeking somewhere (anywhere, anywhere at all) to place the blame for their failed COVID-19 response and China is already facing growing contempt for being the root of contagion, it seems like only a matter of time before pundits start drawing tenuous connections between U.S. labor movements and unions and the CCP. Do U.S. labor groups and activists need to start disavowing the CCP? Or will strong responses of community solidarity in the face of the pandemic be enough to show what works and what doesn’t without a whole sale crack down on socialists and communists within the U.S.?

A glance at the broiling internet feuds over the political correctness of Trump’s “china virus” claims indicate a growing desire to place blame. Asian Americans have and will likely continue facing the consequences of the fear and xenophobia that has been festering throughout the Trump regime and has now broken out in full force at the onset of this global historical event. In the face of shameless corporate pandering by establishment politicians, communists and socialists in the US must brace themselves for increasing pressure being laid on labor action in the name of the public health. Cleansing the population of a disease can all too easily fall into more nefarious sorts of “cleansing” which need not be named. Peoples are not diseases, nor are ideas, no matter how persistent the rhetoric suggesting otherwise might be, and we must learn from the past by staying strong in this conviction.