Speech, 1st of May 2020 during the corona crisis, by Ole Sandberg, IWW Ísland / Heimssamband verkafólks á Íslandi
Corona is the virus. Capitalism is the disease. What do we mean by that?
We could take it as a metaphor: that capitalism is a disease that has infested the world and is destroying human lives, societies, eco-systems and the planet. All of that is true.
Metaphorically capitalism is like a virus. Capital does not want anything – it has no desires, no emotions, no values. It does not care about human beings. Like a virus, all capital “wants” is to multiply, grow and expand. It will expand until it fills up as much space as it can, and it will kill the living beings that it needs. Because capitalism needs us to reproduce it. We are the hosts of capitalism. It lives in our minds and bodies, and we reproduce it in our relations with each other. It needs us to go to work and buy stuff so it can grow.
Capitalism often kills its host bodies. According to the International Labor Organisation, more than 2 million people die from work-related accidents or diseases every year – and hundreds of millions get injured or sick from their working conditions. But of course, capitalism could not spread and grow if it killed off all its workers. It needs us. If there were not enough humans to go to work, pay their rent, and buy stuff, capital would die too. It does not need us to be healthy or happy. It just needs enough of us to be well enough to keep it going.
This is also like a virus. A virus does not want anything as such, and it does not care about the bodies it infects. Its function is to grow, reproduce and expand. But in order to do that, a virus cannot be too deadly. If a virus kills too many of its hosts, or kills them too fast, then the virus cannot reproduce and it dies out. In general it is also not helpful if a virus makes its hosts too sick. If we are sick we stay home in bed and then we are not helping the virus spread. Like capital, a virus needs us to be just healthy enough to go to work so we can help it multiply. After that, it does not care if we die. But it needs us to be alive long enough to keep it alive.
So, yes. As a metaphor, capitalism and viruses are very similar.
But it is not just a metaphor. There is a direct connection between capitalism and deadly epidemics like covid-19 caused by the corona virus.
Capitalism is not just a metaphorical disease. It is the cause of literal diseases. Metaphorically, capitalism spread like a pandemic until it covered most of the planet. But in the process, it also caused real pandemics.
The Conditions for an Epidemic
A virus is a piece of genome that is constantly mutating and evolving. Some mutations die off while others reproduce, depending on the circumstances. Let us keep it mind that a virus that makes its hosts too sick to move around, or that kills its hosts too soon, will not spread. So it will die off.
The most efficient viruses are the ones that can live in their hosts and even become part of them. A part of the DNA comes from viruses and viruses have helped our evolution. There are viruses that we need to be healthy – they help us reproduce and we help them reproduce.
Other viruses make us sick. But only a little bit. The viruses that cause the common cold or the influenza typically don’t kill us and they do not make us so sick we stay home in bed. It needs us to be just healthy enough to move around so we can spread it. A virus that instantly killed its host would stop its own evolution. Under normal circumstances.
But there are circumstances where a virus can become more aggressive.
If there are plenty of host bodies stuffed together in very little space the virus does not need them to move around, and if most of them already tend to die early, it does not matter if the virus kills them.
In those circumstances, a virus that used to spread slowly without harming the hosts, can mutate to a form that aggressively spreads as fast as possible while leaving destruction and death in its trail.
Those circumstances are created by capitalism. They are created by the state. They are created by war and imperialism.
The Spread of Capitalism & The State
Both capitalism and the state came into being by putting increasingly larger territories under their control and destroying the parts that were not controlled. The wilderness that was of no commercial use had to be tamed and the “uncivilized” peoples had to be put under the states control. To form states, people had to be concentrated in cities – cities which became empires.
And for industrial capitalism to get started – first in England then in the rest of Europe – life in the countryside had to be destroyed so masses of workers could be concentrated in cities and factories where they would live short lives and die from diseases.
And for capitalism to spread and the state formation to become global, imperialist and colonialist wars had to be waged, in which millions and millions were killed, whole continents were destroyed and entire populations were concentrated into giant workforces for the global supply-chain.
Capitalist corporations and imperialist states killed millions upon millions in this process.
But they also created the perfect conditions for viruses to become more aggressive, more deadly, and to spread more rapidly.
A Contemporary Example
Let us take a modern example to illustrate: The avian influenza, or “bird flue.” This is caused by a virus that had several different mutations. We have had several rounds of pandemics caused by this flu. It spreads from birds to humans, and it can kill both.
But under normal conditions it doesn’t. Wild birds also get the virus. But it is rare and it normally doesn’t kill them. The virus needs them to be alive so they can fly around and help it reproduce.
But what happens if you take millions of birds and concentrate them in a very small space where they all live very short lives. Then the virus can mutate. It no longer needs them to move – they cannot move. And it doesn’t need them to live very long – which they don’t. It can become as aggressive as it likes, jumping from one host to another, killing them in the process. In the wild, the avian flu virus is relatively harmless. But under industrialized capitalist production, it can mutate and become deadly.
The same has happened to humans, as they have been captured and concentrated in cities, domesticated and turned into efficient producers and obedient subjects.
The bacteria that causes the plague has been around since the stone age. The strain that caused the black death has been found to originate in China, which also happens to be the one of the first state formations and empires. From there it spread: first via migration of the people that were pushed away as the state expanded and put more areas under its control. After that via trade routes – the early form of capitalism.
Even so, the first historically recorded plague pandemic didn’t come until another empire. The East Roman empire had concentrated its wealth, power and population in the city of Constantinople. This large city needed to import massive amounts of food to feed its rulers, nobles and soldiers. With the ships also came the plague and with the infrastructure of power – trade, capital and military – it could spread throughout the empire.
The black death ravaged Europe for several centuries, rising and falling as state power got more and less concentrated and trade routes expanded or retracted. We often see the fall of the powerful European empires as partially caused by the plague. But in fact, they might have caused it, and the collapse of power in effect led to a social distancing which caused the plague to disappear – only to come back again whenever power again became concentrated.
It spread across the world when capital and state empires started colonizing the world. With European colonisation and early globalisation came other diseases which ravaged continents and killed more people than the European soldiers ever could.
The Diseases of War and Capitalism
Let us jump to the birth of industrialized capitalism. In England, peasants were forced out of the countryside so they could be turned into workers in the factories of the city. Here they lived short lives and were concentrated in deadly conditions. Conditions that were perfect for viruses to mutate and spread. Besides dying from pollution, starvation and working conditions, diseases like cholera, typhoid, typhus, smallpox, and tuberculosis were also spreading in the cities of early capitalism.
But this new industrialized nation also needed to import a lot of food. In the rest of Europe, industrialization had not yet taken hold. And neither had the concentration of humans or animals.
There once was a virus that affect cows and causes the disease called “cattle plague” or “Rinderpest”. It had been around for millenia but in Europe big outbreaks of it came with the many wars of the 18th century. Large armies need large amounts of food which requires large concentrations of cattle.
But some of the worst outbreaks happened in the 19th century in England. In Europe cattle was still mostly raised the traditional way – free range in the countryside. But early capitalist England also concentrated its production of food in factories in the cities. Cattle was transported from early industrialized farms to centralized slaughterhouses in the cities, creating the perfect conditions for a massive outbreak.
From England, the empire brought the disease to its colonies. It depopulated most of Subsaharan Africa, and the loss of wild cattle changed the landscape, creating the conditions for flies and mosquitoes that carry some of the deadliest diseases for humans today: sleeping disease and malaria.
One of worst pandemics in human history was the Spanish flu. Between 1918 and 1920 it killed somewhere between ten and one hundred million people across the globe. It is not sure where the first outbreaks happened, but we know one thing: the pandemic was enabled by global capital and war.
It might have originated in rural America – in Kansas – where industrialized pig farms allowed a virus to mutate and jump to humans. It might have come from China with the many thousands of Chinese laborers who were brought to Europe work for the warring imperialist nations in the first world war.
But it spread because of the war where tens of thousands of enlisted soldiers were cramped together in tight spaces in muddy camps and trenches. It spread with the global supply lines needed to feed the armies.
Capitalism, concentrated state power, imperialism – these are not just diseases inflecting humanity in a metaphorical sense. They literally create and spread viruses and pandemic diseases.
The “Novel” Corona
The corona virus is no exception. The common story is that it came from bats to humans in some marketplace in Wuhan in China. In reality, that was just when it was discovered.
Viruses are common in all animals and usually harmless. When humans destroy the ecosystems where the animals live – which is a process of capitalism – animals get concentrated in smaller areas where it is easier for viruses to mutate and jump between species.
But to really get going, this evolutionary process needs perfect conditions. The virus could have come from bats that were forced into the city, but it needed industrialized farming to turn into its current deadly form. It probably jumped from bats to an animal host in one one of China’s many farms where animals are cramped on very little space to feed the growing work force of Chinese capitalist industrialization.
And not just Chinese. China is not just the production center of global capitalism, and therefore has to feed its own workers in the cities. It is also produces food for global capitalism. China is one of the biggest exporters of poultry, and global investment firms invest in Chinese industrialized farming.
So yes, the virus made have come from a bat somewhere in China. But it was capitalist production that created the conditions for it to mutate and become aggressive, and it was global capitalism that that caused it to spread around the world.
It literally flew on business class from China to America and Europe using the same transportation routes as the people who rule our lives while they go on vacations and business trips. The epicenter in Europe was a playground in the Alps for the privileged classes of contemporary European aristocracy.
That is how it came to Iceland. Probably carried by the same people who owns your home or your workplace. The same people who will throw you out because you cannot pay your rent now or fire you because they cannot extract profit from your work now.
We are now in a special situation. We are locked inside, we are in our homes, we are socially isolated, while we are waiting for this virus to disappear. Many of us are out of work and with no income. We are all eager for things to return to normal.
But things cannot go back to normal. As long as capitalism exists – as long as power and wealth is concentrated, as long as nature is destroyed for profit and humans and other animals are forced to live in unhealthy conditions – there will be perfect conditions for new diseases and new global pandemics. The normal we want to return to, is what created the situation we are in today.