The ‘supercharged champions’ of free trade versus lockdown: imperialist discourses in times of pandemic

This is an edit/update of my previous blog on these themes from last April

‘…in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role…’

A B deP Johnson, Greenwich, 3 Feb 2020.

It’s wearisome and dispiriting – but supremely predictable – that, throughout the present pandemic, the two decadent imperialist Anglo-Saxon democracies of the West have been gliding, in synchronised steps, in and out and round about to that old country waltz whose tune we all know so well. You know the one I mean – it goes like this: “blame the exotic, inscrutable and untrustworthy Orient”. The (temporary?) fall of Trump has not had much impact on the rules of this particular game (Guardian, May 2021).

In this present case the fall guy is supposed to be China; its particular ‘villainy’, the COVID-19 pandemic. As always, with all the most effective lies and projections, there is some kind of hook to hang this on: in this case, the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan where the zoonotic calamity of COVID-19 is understood to have originated. A recent refinement of this dynamic presents a neat either/or: the idea that the virus might have originated in a laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology rather than in the horseshoe bats sold for meat to market. However, once it becomes clear that the particular example is but a manifestation of the general discourse, the details don’t matter so much.

To offer an example of what I’m getting at: at the height of British imperialism, in the days of Lord Palmerston and ‘gunboat diplomacy’, China was also the Oriental villain. At the time of the Opium Wars it was demonised for having the immortal rind to put the welfare of its own population (protection from substance dependency) above the principles of Free Trade (drug dealing, as we would now call it) espoused (down the barrels of its cannon) by the Occidental merchant classes (who of course considered it their God-given right to control the terms of engagement).

Not the least of what it is about the COVID-19 catastrophe that enrages the neoconservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, is precisely that it causes them to lose control of the terms of trade. They are entirely prepared to see large swathes of their own populations as expendable and sacrificial; but deferring to ‘the Orient’ on matters of commerce is more than they can bear to swallow (Amitav Ghosh writes wonderfully about this in his Ibis trilogy).

The great founding theorist of post-colonial studies, Edward Wadie Said, wrote beautifully and incisively about the long and toxic tradition of ‘othering’ (“disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region”) that characterises the West’s historical relations of domination towards and over the ‘East’. This is what was happening when people were muttering about ‘other’ people eating ‘exotic’ animal meat that they wouldn’t fancy, or referring to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese’ virus (something equivalent happened around the ‘Indian’ variant before the WHO went back to the Greek alphabet: the ‘Delta variant’ is a trickier hook upon which to hang racist tropes).

It’s 5500 miles or so from Wuhan to London as the crow physically distances. Even in globalised late modernity, that’s a long way. But it’s not just that the distance breeds contempt and that it describes fertile ground upon which the populists may sprinkle their toxic seeds of othering. It’s more precisely that Empire, whether in its economic or its political or its symbolic dimensions – the British Empire, for example, of the second half of the eighteenth century, or the fossil capitalism that fuelled it, the profits from chattel slavery that launched it, or the doctrine of white supremacy and colonial domination that structured it – Empire defines itself as a system where the ‘darkness’ is always ‘at the edge of town’, even if that darkness sometimes makes itself felt by means of tendrils slithering inwards towards the centre.

The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, 1978-79, in the UK? Must have been those pesky Russkies that fomented it! It can’t have been anything intrinsically problematic about our own system of government. The Bay of Pigs; Checkpoint Charlie; the Vietnam War; Bikini Atoll; the Roswell UFO ‘sightings’: all of them extemporisations over one single repeating riff. “Peace at the center is dependent on the successful maintenance of conflict at the periphery”, writes Jonathan Lear, in his brilliant essay on JM Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. Border skirmishes, in this view, be they minor or major, are not only distractions and exotica – they are necessary, sine qua non; and, to borrow from Bob Dylan, if you lean your heads out far enough from Desolation Row, you’ll always be able to hear their dog whistles.

The Empire must expand, so it must clash with whatever lies immediately beyond its pulpits and parapets – especially if what lies beyond its pulpits and parapets, across a hundred yards of no-man’s-land, are the parapets and pulpits of some other Empire, committed to the exact same doctrine of never-ending expansion, fuelled by the very same fossil fuels that power the delivery trucks and the battle tanks of its rival, and underpinned by a looking-glass replica of those very doctrines of mission and Providence propounded from the pulpits of its rival.

So the COVID-19 pandemic cuts a lethal lighthouse beam of illumination through the darknesses of wet markets, boundary violations, cynicism (with a small ‘c’), venality and hubris – but it’s not the venality of the ‘feckless Oriental’, nor the cynicism of the embattled frontier towns and outriders of Western mercantilism and extractivist imperialism. No: COVID-19 shines its light upon the epicentre of Empire; upon the darknesses we try to expel to the edge of town, that our cosy streets may feel safely lit and peaceful; the peoples and landscapes we give up in sacrifice in order that we may continue tightly to cling to those twin illusions of surplus and sustainability. COVID-19 strips bare, with its laser lens, the hubris of human relations of imperialist and supremacist dominion over the animal ‘kingdom’.

As the UK government stands poised to put dates over data and ‘open up the economy’, while projecting responsibility for pandemic management into the individual choice of the neoliberal subject as to whether to wear a mask on public transport (the mantra of ‘common sense, not diktat’), COVID-19 shows us clearly that Free Trade remains the ideological imperative and that Johnson and his cronies have learned nothing from experience of the intervening year and a half of devastation (and the four millions who have died of the virus) since he made that speech in Greenwich.

Above all, the pandemic exposes the illusion at the heart of Empire: the illusion that humankind, or some part or portion of humankind, may in actuality wield dominion over anything at all. This illusion rose up in the ultimately futile campaign to overthrow the knowledge that on some level we all began with: the awareness of belonging as interactive components within a wider Earth system, living in attunement with all other components of that system, ‘animate’ or otherwise.

Much has been mumbled, along the way, of COVID-19 as the revenge of Gaia. This position is not persuasive – Gaia has no intentionality, pursues no telos, upholds no greater good. Gaia is vast and intricate and we are in it and of it.

COVID-19 simply shows us how small we are.


Bob Dylan (1965) ‘Desolation Row’, from Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia Records.

Amitav Ghosh (2009) Sea of Poppies; (2011) River of Smoke; (2015) Flood of Fire – The Ibis Trilogy. London: John Murray.

Guardian (2021)

Jonathan Lear (2018) Wisdom Won From illness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

James Lovelock (2007) The Revenge of Gaia. London: Penguin.

Edward Said (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Edward Said (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.

Bruce Springsteen (1978) ‘Darkness on the edge of town’, from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Columbia Records.