In 1768, during the most prosperous period of the Qing dynasty’s rule, mass hysteria broke out in Jiangnan, the region of the lower Yangtze River that was the empire’s commercial capital, over rumours that a band of sorcerers were roaming the countryside chanting incantations, cutting off people’s queues and stealing their souls. The conspiracy permeated every level of society, from the peasantry, through the bureaucracy, right up to the Qianlong Emperor himself.

After an investigation, the central ministers reported to the emperor that the claims were baseless and condemned the local officials for their handling of the case. But suspicious of his bureaucracy and concerned about broader social unrest, the Qianlong Emperor ignored their recommendations and launched a nationwide campaign to find the “soulstealers.”

In his book Soulstealers, Philip Kuhn writes that the crisis served as fuel for running the political system: “The heart of the problem,” he argues, “was the relationship between routine and arbitrary power.” The Qianlong Emperor presided over what Kuhn characterises as a “bureaucratic monarchy.” The sorcery crisis was the catalyst for a political crisis that exposed the inherent tension at the heart of the system:

To the extent that it is “bureaucratic,” what scope is left for the monarch? To the extent that it is monarchic, how can one man’s autocratic power coexist with a system of universal rules?

The sorcery crisis, apart from being an urgent problem for the government, also provided an outlet for the Qianlong Emperors misgivings about the state. He detested sorcery and feared its effects, but his misguided response was driven by his long-held frustration with the bureaucracy. As the cases against the soulstealers collapsed, embarrassed and angry, the emperor looked for scapegoats in the bureaucracy. He punished some local officials for pursuing suspected soulstealers too zealously, while others were targeted for failing to prosecute cases vigorously enough.

In a sense, the sorcery crisis presaged the 1911 revolution and the overthrow of the Qing dynasty; both, while they took markedly different forms, were popular efforts to claim some sense of agency and power in a society in which they had none. Power, writes Kuhn:

was available to most people only in fantasy, or in the occasional opportunity to exploit such free-floating social power as a state campaign against deviants. Only extraordinary circumstances could give the powerless a sudden opportunity to better their lives or to strike at their enemies.

The Qianlong Emperor’s reign marked the pinnacle of the Qing dynasty; however, there were already signs of social unrest. Rapid population growth meant there was a worsening rate of resources per capita, and there was little hope of social mobility for the peasantry, who made up the vast majority of the population.

Kuhn argues that this late-imperial society resembled twentieth century America in one important respect:

Both societies find that their major problems can no longer be solved by increased production, but now require “loss allocation.” A major difference, however, is that in Thurow’s late industrial America, the sense of betrayal is sharpened by the very faith in progress and economic growth that led the West to believe that all difficulties must yield to human effort, with benefit to some and no loss to anyone.

The United States now faces not only a public health crisis, but also a production crisis and a political one. What economist Lester Thurow meant by “loss allocation” was, essentially, redistribution; an unequal society — whether imperial China or modern-day America — is a fragile one, prone to unrest and potentially unstable.

Guided by conspiracy thinking and distrustful of the bureaucracy, there are parallels between the sorcery crisis of 1768 and the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The emperor ignored the advice of his officials who had investigated the claims, knew the situation and had a better understanding of the local dynamics than he did. He was blinded by his obsessions and, in a time of crisis, rather than put these aside to deal with the urgent matter at hand, he was consumed by them, sure that there was a conspiracy to bring him — a Manchu ruler in a majority Han realm — down.

But, perhaps more significantly, there are also similarities in the role played by the masses. The accused soulstealers were almost all monks and lay beggars who wandered the countryside, considered dangerous outsiders by many Jiangnan locals and ready scapegoats for those who insisted all problems came from without. Those pointing the finger at these itinerant paupers were, in modern parlance, reactionaries.

Liberal commentators often wonder why Trump’s so-called “base” have hitched their wagon to a millionaire who lives in a gold apartment and often acts in ways that run contrary to their interests. The answer, I think, lies in understanding why some peasants falsely accused monks of sorcery: it was a way of participating in a civic and political community from which they were usually systematically excluded.

Many of Trump’s loyalist supporters — the MAGA hat brigade who attend his rallies, for instance — often say that, before he came along, they didn’t feel represented by any mainstream party or candidate. (This isn’t true of his evangelical supporters, who seem to have made a different pact with him.) Radicalised online and emboldened by Trump’s presidency, they have moved from the fringes to the centre. They act in increasingly bold and dangerous ways — like arming themselves and occupying the Michigan state capitol in May to protest lockdown orders — only for Trump to praise them as patriots who love their country. They, long ignored by those they derisively call “the elite,” have now formed something of an alliance — albeit mediated through Fox News, fringe websites like the Daily Caller and Breitbart and Twitter — with the most powerful man in the world.

In 1768, anyone could make an accusation of sorcery: in a society where merely forming groups to promote particular social interests was, for ordinary subjects, politically dangerous, the scapegoating of monks and beggars involved a certain collusion between the emperor and commoner. It was still an unequal relationship, though; the emperor ruled by the Mandate of Heaven and the peasants were his subjects.

While the dynamic is obviously different, the bond between Trump and his so-called base is just as unequal. The loudest voices for “re-opening” the economy have been wealthy politicians, pundits, and business leaders who’ve done so while safely self-isolating. They, of course, have no intention of jeopardising their own health. The people who huddled closely together protesting the restrictions were just the ground troops — first over the trench wall and, in that sense, also victims — for a class for whose demands they were being sacrificed.

“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” one placard read at the Michigan rally in May. Die for what, though? Freedom? Freedom to … go to work? This is subjugation as an expression of freedom, fetishisation of the shackles that bind them and a corruption, in essence, of what it means to be human.

“Today,” argues Byung-Chul Han in Psychopolitics, “we do not deem ourselves subjugated subjects, but rather projects.” She continues:

Although the achievement-subject deems itself free, in reality it is a slave. In so far as it willingly exploits itself without a master, it is an absolute slave. There is not master forcing the achievement-subject to work. Yet all the same, it is absolutizing bare life and labour. Bare life and labour form two sides of the same coin.

In the age of coronavirus, this takes on a newfound significance. The achievement-subject she has in mind — the entrepreneur of its own self — is not, perhaps, the stereotypical, conspiracy-minded Trump supporter; however, they share a blind adherence to the idea that freedom is exclusively about individual freedom (most commonly expressed in vulgarised notions about the freedom of choice).

But personal freedom is only attainable in the community; individual freedom is a kind of confidence trick of capital because what it essentially amounts to is free competition. “It is not the individuals who are set free by free competition,” wrote Marx in Das Kapital; “it is, rather, capital which is set free.”

This veil was lifted in late April when, with the virus ravaging parts of America, the Las Vegas mayor appeared on CNN to press her case that gaming floors in the city’s casinos should be re-opened as a “control group” for some kind of macabre Darwinian experiment, a cost-benefit analysis where the costs were measured in human lives and the benefits in casino revenue. When the anchor asked if she’d be happy to spend all day at the tables, as would be expected of the dealers, she replied that she wouldn’t — she had a family to consider, after all.

The assumption underpinning much of this anti-lockdown evangelicalism is that, once re-opened, there will be a V-shaped recovery, a return to pre-coronavirus normalcy and the current moment will be nothing but a brief flirtation with madness. The boosters of this myth were the same people who assured the public that the coronavirus was just like the flu, then spruiked hydroxychloroquine as a game-changing treatment and have floated the idea that the virus might actually be a Chinese biological weapon. They are, needless to say, peddlers of unreliable information. Some have vested interests, while others have been duped and genuinely believe the most outlandish nonsense — both are enormously dangerous.

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From the Qing era region of Jiangnan, the Yangtze River flows inland through central China, bisecting the capital of Hubei province, Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and, for some, ground zero of an ever-increasing number of conspiracy theories. These vary in absurdity — from ideas promoted by mainstream media outlets to the utterly bizarre — but they all reveal something about the anxieties and preoccupations that plague the societies in which they flourish.

It helps, of course, if these marginal and deranged views are shared and amplified by those with the loudest megaphones and their hands on the levers of power. The sorcery crisis would have quickly disappeared had it not been for the Qianlong Emperor. Trump, the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, also continues to lend credibility to the kind of lunacy that was, until recently, rarely found outside the most dubious corners of the internet. Indeed, in recent years, the internet has arguably played the most significant role in the proliferation and promotion of conspiracy theories. These technological drivers are opaque and complex and, for that reason, little understood by those who fall victim to them, but the fact that so many do also points to a more fundamental social and civic failure — a failure of education.

There’s an inability to think critically, to see beyond the charlatanism of these modern-day snake-oil salesmen pushing theories about the New World Order and 5G cell phone towers. This hasn’t happened by coincidence, nor should it be a problem reduced to the individual — a few dumb, gullible technologically-illiterates. Formal school education is structured to discourage children to think critically; instead, it enforces obedience, encourages rote learning and exalts competition (in the form of exams) as a mark of success/intelligence/hard-work or failure/unintelligence/laziness. The educational apparatus, wrote Louis Althusser, is:

the dominant ideological State apparatus in capitalist social formations … [N]o other ideological State apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven.

Students graduate from school and increasingly university as ready-made, compliant capitalist subjects, indoctrinated in the values of the market, prepared for life as a cog in the neoliberal wheel.

For many, the descent into conspiracism is an attempt, albeit ill-conceived, to push back against the status quo, to explain why the lies they’ve been sold as truths don’t check out (“I work hard, follow the rules … why, then, do I feel so miserable/unsuccessful/impotent?”). Conspiracy theories provide justifications for what many see as their own personal failures, while also providing believers with a sense of power, that they alone possess some secret Knowledge and Truth.

The primary difference between the modern, formally educated achievement-subject and the Qing era, illiterate feudal-subject is the way power and authority are exerted on him or her. The peasant is oppressed in a recognisable, top-down way: he or she is exploited (under-paid, over-worked and starved) and controlled (imprisoned, surveilled and subjected to corporal punishment) in ways that are now universally seen as cruel and inhumane. Today, there’s no longer the need for such coercive methods of control and discipline because everyone, writes Byung-Chul Han, “is an auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise. People are now master and slave in one. Even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.” Power rarely has to be brought to bear on the powerless by the butt of the gun or a crack of the whip; instead, it “cosies up to the psyche.”

The current crises in the United State — the pandemic, the coming recession, and the Black Lives Matter protests — are an order of magnitude larger and more significant than the Qing-era sorcery crisis and they are exposing the lies on which American democracy is built. When Trump was elected, many pundits offered assurances that America’s institutions could withstand his most undemocratic and authoritarian instincts. Approaching the end of his first term, only Trump’s most sycophantic devotees could deny that, having been tested, America’s institutions have been found lacking. Trump’s incompetence may not bring down the American empire, but he’s driven a wedge into its fault lines and shown how vulnerable it is.

This was originally published in ABC Religion and Ethics on 6th July, 2020.