Article initially published on the website Middle East 4 Change
14 May 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has unravelled the close structural links between the climate crisis and the global capitalist mode of production. This is a scenario that the socialist left should own as a central platform in its campaigning and organisation activities. The climate catastrophe not only has an immensely broad appeal to young and old, but is gender neutral, differentially effects the most deprived sections of society, and is by its nature international. The climate crisis directly links what is immediately effecting most people’s lives with anti-capitalism, internationalism and socialism. In short global climate catastrophe has the potential to unite all ages, mobilise the young, is inherently anti-capitalist, and does not recognise national borders. It is thus central to the revolutionary socialist agenda.
Humankind has lived with epidemics since the dawn of history. Central to their driving force is the passage of a micro-organism, whether a virus or a bacterium, from one individual to another. Hence at the core of all epidemics is the social nature of our species, homo sapiens. Social organisation at any historic juncture determines the character of an epidemic facing us at that moment. From that perspective the nature of epidemics and pandemics of modern times are, at their core, different from epidemics of the past because social organisation is predominantly determined by the nature of production. Let us take the example of HIV as a model.
This virus originated by the recombination of two monkey viruses and entered the human host some time in the early 20th century. However, it remained confined to small pockets in West Africa until the building of railways and roads and the growth of mining in central and southern Africa attracted large numbers of migrant labour. Two essential elements in the spread of HIV was mobility of people, including labour, and changes in social behaviour, both of which facilitated person to person transmission. The initial spread of HIV was predominantly along the routes of population movement— migration of labour, urban-rural migration, trucking, drug smuggling and their widespread use through injection, and social disruption caused by regional wars.
The role of sex workers serving miners far from home in crowded single-sex dormitories surrounding mines in the Congo, KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, the Zambian copper belt, industrial areas of Uganda, and agricultural migrant workers in Cote d’Ivoire, have been well documented. High prevalence of HIV was also found along the route from the mines to the ports of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, and a direct correlation was observed between prevalence of HIV in the general population and their distance from the highways. The closer the village to the stopping site of the lorries, the higher the prevalence of HIV. In South-East Asia and the countries of the former Soviet block the major driver of the epidemic has been injected drug abuse. The result to date has been a global pandemic, with nearly 75 million infected persons and over 32 million deaths by the end of 2019 driven by unprotected sex (commercial or otherwise), injected drug use and mother to-child transmission.
The close links between the neoliberal model of globalisation: the unfettered movement of capital, including the feeding of the illegal global drug trade, the evisceration of the health systems of many countries under the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes on the one hand, and the spread of the HIV pandemic, on the other, have been reviewed in detail elsewhere which I will not repeat.
Covid-19 pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus followed a similar trajectory of HIV, riding on man-made routes of transmission. The virus almost certainly originated in the bat, where another coronavirus with 80-90% homology with the virus that caused the Covid-19 had previously been identified, as had a previous coronavirus causing a smaller pandemic (SARS) in 2003. Both SARS and Covid-19 probably passed to humans (either directly or through an intermediary animal) in a wet market where there is sale and slaughter of wild and domestic animals in close contact with humans. But from a wet market to a pandemic we need further vehicles.
1. Global communication network. Our planet has been shrunk through communications. Globally we now have over 5,000 airports, 1.2 million kilometres of rail and over 30 million kilometres of road.
2. Mass mobility. We live in an age of mass movement. According to UN World Tourism Organisation in 2017 international tourism ranked third (after chemicals and fuel) in international exports with 1.5 billion arrivals. In addition we have the huge mobility of labour within and between states. According to the International Labour Organisation, there were 164 million migrant workers in December 2018. These figures do not include internal migrations within states such as China, estimated as 288 million, and India, 139 million. Add to that the movement within and between states of refugees and other displaced persons from wars and social conflicts. According to UNHCR there are over 41 million internally displaced persons, nearly 26 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers.
3. Concentration: Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050, huge numbers are living in close proximity in slums and shanty towns that are mushrooming everywhere. From migrants living 20 to a room, to crowded refugee camps, to sports stadiums and synagogues, churches and mosques, Friday prayers and religious pilgrimage our species are squeezed into closer and closer proximity.
But when talking of zoonotic organisms (microbes and viruses originating in other species) as source of epidemics, another form of population density is often overlooked: domestic animals crammed together in factory farms. According to estimates worldwide we currently have 1 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs and 20 billion chicken in our planet – equivalent to all domesticated animals over the last 10 thousand years put together. Moreover they have been progressively concentrated in even bigger farms. In 1967 there were one million pig farms in the USA, which shrank down to 100,000 in 2005. Currently over half of all the meat being cultivated globally is in factory farms. One single processing plant slaughters 20,000 hogs a day supplying 4-5% of US pork. In April 15, 2020 that same facility had the largest cluster of Covid-19 cases in the US.
4. Breakdown of barriers between wild animals and humans, predominantly through agricultural industry’s expansion into previously wild area, such as the rain forests of Amazonia and elsewhere. At least 60 percent of novel human pathogens emerge by spilling over from wild animals to local human communities.
Climate catastrophe and capitalism.
Marx talks of the metabolic rift between society and nature, or elsewhere defines ecological crisis as the ‘irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism: and that capitalism undermined “the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the workers”. There is abundant literature on the link between climate change and the capitalist mode of production, particularly of neo-liberal capitalism.
Agribusiness and cross-species passage of organisms: The relation between capital flow and Covid-19 and other epidemics has recently been discussed by Rob Wallace et al in Monthly Review. In their study they highlight the role of agribusinesses in linking domesticated animals and micro-organisms in the wild:
If by its global expansion alone, commodity agriculture serves as both propulsion for and nexus through which pathogens of diverse origins migrate from the most remote reservoirs to the most international of population centers. It is here, and along the way, where novel pathogens infiltrate agriculture’s gated communities. The lengthier the associated supply chains and the greater the extent of adjunct deforestation, the more diverse (and exotic) the zoonotic pathogens that enter the food chain. Among recent emergent and re-emergent farm and foodborne pathogens, originating from across the anthropogenic domain, are African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola Reston, E. coli O157:H7, foot-and-mouth disease, hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipah virus, Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, and a variety of novel influenza variants, including H1N1 (2009), H1N2v, H3N2v, H5N1, H5N2, H5Nx, H6N1, H7N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9, and H9N2.
Globalisation of production. The polluting effects of the production process are too obvious to require further comment. The growing inequality within countries and between countries also have their ecological consequence.
Profit and Growth
Two aspects of capitalism are central to its destructive nature on our natural world: Profit and growth. Both are central to the metabolism, and hence survival of capitalism.
Marx derived his theory of value from classical economics. Capitalism, according to Marx, cannot exist without profit, which to him is the extraction of surplus value from labour power. Surplus value is the difference between the cost of reproduction of labour and the value of the product in the market. Capitalist profit is generated through the gap between these two values, and it is here that one of the central built-in contradictions of capitalism resides.
Marx, argued, and empirical data confirms, that changes in the organic composition of capital (the ratio between fixed capital, the costs of the means of production, and variable capital, the cost of hiring labour) created a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The fall in profits over the last two to three decades has been objectively documented. With the inexorable fall in the rate of profit there is a concomitant reduction in investment in production.
Vast amounts capital looking for alternative targets have on the one hand, among other avenues, turned to real estate, where prices have skyrocketed with their knock on effect on rents, homelessness, and overcrowding and consequent pollution, but also the relentless rise in the production of luxury products.
The second issue, growth, is closely linked to the first. The fall in profits imposes the need for growth; without inexorable growth, capital cannot ensure continuing profit, and without profit there is no investment. The fall in profits and the push for growth has caused capital to encroach further and further into fields it previously avoided. Such were the privatisation of many state organisations, like health (totally devastated in Africa and other areas and more recently the NHS in the UK). There is, indeed, no area that has been overlooked. What was essentially free for capitalists (what Marx called free gift of Nature to capital) is now increasingly being transferred into private hands. Capital cannot but privatise, commodify, monetise and commercialise all aspects of nature that it possibly can – down to our DNA.
Rent, extracted from ownership of land, mineral resources right up to possession of rare items (such as art works), is part of the redistribution of nature. The rise of rentier capitalism, and the stranglehold that private ownership of land, minerals, agriculture, and intellectual property right gives the rentier class, allows them to manipulate and speculate on scare resources.
The over-accumulation of capital accelerates the global ecological crisis by propelling capital to find new ways to stimulate consumption. The result is a state of planetary Armageddon, threatening not just socioeconomic stability, but the survival of human civilization and the human species itself.
Clearly humankind requires manufactured goods and food production for its survival. What the left needs to focus on is the link between the profit motive and environmental pollution. To be more precise the delinking of use value and exchange value. As John Bellamy Foster and Bett Clark argue:
In Marx’s explanation of the commodity value system under capitalism (and in classical political economy in general), wealth consists of use values, which have a natural-material basis tied to production in general. In contrast, value (based on abstract social labor) under capitalism is derived solely from the exploitation of labor power, and is devoid of any natural-material content. Nature is thus deemed by the system as a “free gift…to capital.” This contradiction gives rise to what is known as the Lauderdale Paradox, named after James Maitland, eighth Earl of Lauderdale, an early nineteenth-century classical political economist. Lauderdale pointed out that the accumulation of private riches (exchange value) under capitalism generally depends on the destruction of public wealth (use values), so as to generate the scarcity and monopoly essential to the accumulation process.
Thus central to Marx’s critique of capitalism is the contradiction between use value and exchange value.
Socialism requires that the associated producers rationally regulate the metabolism of nature and society. It is in this context that Marx’s central concepts of the “universal metabolism of nature,” “social metabolism,” and the metabolic “rift” have come to define his critical-ecological worldview.  Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949; Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 30, 54–66. Marx’s approach in this respect is inseparably related to his ecological value-form analysis.
The clear links between capitalist forms of production and the ecological disaster facing our species, which becomes more visible by the day, have unleashed a revolutionary climate.It is time the socialist left to take ownership of the ecological question, not just as another slogan, and place it central to its program for a global revolutionary change in society.