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Epidemics and capitalism: Accurate Identification of Contradictions

Originally published: Economics and Political Weekly on May 2, 2020 by Sandipan Baksi (more by Economics and Political Weekly)  | (Posted May 05, 2020)

In the context of the spread of COVID-19, a number of left and progressive thinkers, scholars, and activists have deliberated upon the linkage between contemporary capitalism and epidemics. Many of them tend to argue that such epidemics originate due to tendencies inherent in the capitalist system of production. While these interventions present some useful critical analyses, they also tend to present a one-sided view of this relationship, founded on a deeper confusion regarding the human–nature relationship under contemporary capitalism.

The author would like to thank T Jayaraman, Senior Fellow Climate Change, MSSRF, Chennai, for his comments on suggestions.

On 11 April 2020, the United States (U.S.)—the world’s most economically developed nation, with access to the most advanced scientific knowledge, including the field of medicine—suffered the misfortune of becoming the first country to record over 2,000 deaths in 24 hours. As a newspaper headline highlighted the dic­hotomy: “COVID-19: U.S. Healthcare System, One of the Best in World, under Deep Stress” (PTI 2020). The news was sobering, coming as it did in the wake of the high death toll due to the disease in at least two ­European nations, Italy and Spain, or three, if France is included. The scale of the pandemic and the measures required to contain and manage it, as damaging in their impact on people’s lives as perhaps the disease itself, has
occasioned a great deal of commentary on the relationship between the global social and economic order, particularly in the deve­loped world, and the origin and nature of epidemics in this globalised world.

Especially among left and progressive thinkers, scholars, and activists, the ­ongoing battle against the pandemic across the world has set alight a vigorous debate on the linkage between contemporary capitalism and global pandemics, particularly those, like COVID-19, caused by zoonotic diseases, that originate due to pathogens jumping species, from other animals or insects to humans. Active figures in this debate include David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, Mike Davis, Rob Wallace, and Vijay Prashad, to name only a few prominent names among several others. Their writings clearly try to highlight the structural issues that ­underlie the origin and spread of the disease, and urge us to regard it as more than a unique emergency, which indeed it is.

These writings, between them, broadly argue for three distinct aspects of the linkage between capitalism and epide­mics. First is the systematic degradation of the public health institutional framework in the neo-liberal phase of capita­lism, particularly in the last half a  century (Prashad and Denis 2020).(1) The second aspect is the extreme levels of physical connectivity across the globe, made possible through advanced means of transport, following the needs of and the opportunities created by economic globalisation (liberalisation of fin­ance and globalisation of trade).(2) Third is the destruction of natural ecosystems, parti­cularly forests, by capita­lism, industrial agriculture (including livestock production) to be precise, in its relentless pursuit of profit.(3)

The first two aspects are concerned with the greater and faster spread of the disease due to the contemporary organisation of capitalistic production, and the systemic inability of capitalism to plan and prepare for risks and uncertainties that cannot be easily commoditised and, therefore, be made part of the circuit of capital. However, the third aspect tends to argue that diseases, like COVID-19, are fundamental to capitalism, as they originate due to tendencies inherent in the capitalist system of production. All these arguments seem to somehow draw from the notion of a “metabolic rift,” popularised by Marxist scholar John Bellamy Foster in his study of “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology” (Foster 1999).

While these interventions present some useful and critical analyses of the mechanisms by which the contemporary economic, social and political ­order is related to the possibilities of the emergence of epidemics and pandemics, I argue that several of these writings also tend to present a one-sided view of this relationship, founded, as they appear to be, on a deeper confusion regarding the ­human–nature relationship under contemporary capitalism.

Fundamental Contradictions

Capitalism as a system runs on the obje­c­tive logic of profit. It is this logic—manifesting as contradiction between capital and labour, as well as competition among the class of capitalists—that eventually leads to science, including the institutions and methods of science, becoming a productive force. Therein lies the source of an immense and never-ending development in scientific knowledge and technology. In other words, capitalism creates enormous potential for humans to intervene and shape the natural world external to their species, as well as their own
social worlds. However, the extent and nature of the eventual realisation of this potential that it engenders is, once again, significantly shaped and also undermined by the obje­ctive logic of profit. Capitalism creates the necessary capacities, which, however, might just remain idle in the absence of the requisite profit incentive. Capital, as Marx clarifies, is the “real barrier of capitalist production” (emphasis in original). Further, he states,

the means—unconditional development of the productive forces of society—comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital (Marx nd).

The contradiction between the scientific and technological potential and its actuality plays out starkly today against the background of COVID-19 in the advanced capitalist world, epitomised by the U.S. The U.S. is the repository of the most ­advanced knowledge and technical capa­cities in all areas, including in the field of medical science, but was found completely unprepared to fight against the spread of COVID-19, despite an early warning (Lipton et al 2020). It lacked the material capacity to produce even the most basic medical supplies, like personal protective equipment, face masks, and test kits, to the extent the different states, local governments, and hospitals, were reported as competing with each other in order to acquire them. It even failed to place large-scale orders for medical equipment up until as late as early March. “In one short week,” announced a BBC report on 20 March, “the U.S. has gone from being the world’s superpower, to asking nurses to sew their own protective gowns and masks” (Kay 2020).

In a recent article titled “The Free Market Isn’t Up to the Coronavirus Challenge,” Leigh Phillips (2020) distinctly captures this deep chasm between the potential of scientific knowledge and
its realisation under capitalism, in the
context of the research on prevention and cure of coronaviruses. He refers to the “huge progress that had occurred into the function and structures of the
(severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus, including some research into vaccine development and evaluation on animal models.” The research, however, he clarifies, could never reach culmination as there was “no incentive to further develop SARS–CoV vaccines,” after the SARS outbreak subsided by 2005. Further, he clarifies, there was “no money either for development of antivirals (for people who have already been infected by the virus). That is, there is no money to be made.” The story of a grave neglect narrated by the article underlines the sordid fact that, in the absence of requisite profit incentive, the pharmaceutical industry has never been interested in developing medicines and vaccines for such infectious diseases.

A Conjunctural Crisis

While it is evident that the COVID-19 crisis has sharpened, amplified, and laid bare these contradictions within capita­lism, it is, however, critical to appreciate that this is a conjunctural crisis, one that did not originate due to tendencies that are fundamental to capitalism.

Crises, whether cyclical or historical, are an ever-present but latent feature of the capitalist system of production. The possibility of a crisis emerges from the ­assertion or amplification of the various contradictions that are fundamental to capitalism. However, capitalism, like anyother system, is also liable to conjunctural crises, contingent in nature. The latter is not an outcome of the assertion of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism; rather it leads to the sharpening of such contradictions. The COVID-19 outbreak falls into the latter category, and it has starkly highlighted the dicho­tomies of capitalism. As a matter of fact, as both supply and demand coll­apse, the whole ideological and policy apparatus of capitalism appears to be at a loss to understand and deal with the crisis. The capitalist ideologues seem to suggest that the pandemic will soon be over, following which the global economy will fall back to normalcy. They can, of course, afford to suggest, thus, in view of the fact that even a conjunctural crisis, such as the present one, operates through the existing socio-economic structures, implying thereby that it is the working classes that would eventually bear the real brunt of the crisis.

Nature–Human Dialectic

The origins of COVID-19 lie in contradictions that are foundational to human evolution. The human species has been consciously intervening in nature ever since it evolved to attain the capacity of applying conscious labour for material production. In fact, it can be argued that even before such an evolution, the ­pre-Homo sapiens, like every other animal species, would have been forced to
to unexplored territories due to sudden cal­amities and catastrophes. Such mig­ration and exploration of the unknown perhaps is a basic feature of the survival of life. This would naturally have implied an exploitation of a new ecosystem, disturbing the existing equilibrium therein. It would have also allowed various microorganisms to jump species and hijack the biological system of the newcomer. In fact, it is conceivable that, in many such cases, the in-migrating human communities, or animal groups, might have seriously taken to sickness. It is also quite possible that the contemporary empirical knowledge of healing might have been quite ineffective against a new disease spread. In such a scenario, one can argue that the morta­lity rates might have been significant. These are, of course, speculations and need evidence from history and archaeology; nonetheless, they are very well within the realm of logic.

What, however, changed with human evolution was the attainment of a degree of agency (we will come to the question of agency in a while), which has con­sistently expanded thereafter. While ­humans (or pre-humans), like all other animals, were initially compelled by various natural occurrences to interfere with other ecosystems with the newly acquired agency, they now also began to choose to migrate to unknown territories. As a matter of fact, this apparent agency and choice was also, in essence, driven by obj­ective principles, the logic of the system of material production itself. Nonetheless, the drive for intervening in the unknown was now, more often than not, social in character, and did not originate only due to ecological circumstances.

Capitalism, driven solely by the logic of profit, undoubtedly enhances the rate of exploration of newer avenues and ecological spaces, and, therefore, their exploitation to levels that are unprecedented. In effect, therefore, capitalism greatly expands the pace of something that is very fundamental to the living world, and particularly so for a species that is defined by the use of conscious productive activity through the use ­of labour.

The question that then follows is: Why is it at all critical to appreciate this feature as more fundamental than capita­lism itself? We live in a social system governed by its laws, and it appears natural to attribute characteristics that are foundational to our existence to the social system in which our lives operate. However, the failure to distinguish the features that are fundamental to us as a species from the characteristics that are foundational to capitalism, opens the gateway to the belief that such characteristics were, or would be, absent in any other system but capitalism. It, therefore, also opens the doors to the ­sentiment of romanticism with the pre-capitalist past, a past where it is assumed that the human–nature relationship was all harmonious, and that the conflict began only with the advent of capitalism. The human–nature contradiction—where humans are both part of nature and apart from it, by virtue of them being capable of applying conscious labour for material production—is fundamental to human existence. Since we live under the capitalist system, it is perhaps natural for us to ­believe that the feature is unique to the system, but it is important to appreciate that such is not the case. The exploitation of the material world for survival, and particularly for production, is fundamental to our survival and the trajectory of evolution that we have followed since the beginning of human history. It is also important to emphasise that this contradiction will not auto­matically wither away in a post-capitalist society.

The Degree of Exploitation

Once we agree to the fact that the ­human–nature contradiction is not unique to capitalism, and that its origins do not lie in the social system that ­defines contemporary human existence, it then leaves us to deal with the argument about quantity; that the pace and rate of exploitation of different ecosystems expands tremendously under capitalism, by way of increased commodification of the “wild,” and through the pursuit of a constant rise in productivity through promotion of genetic homogeneity over diversity.

These concerns emerging from the basic tendencies of capitalism are extre­mely important, but the argument in its explication invariably appears to become one-sided. It does not appreciate the fact that while capitalism has increasingly extracted natural resources in its relentless pursuit of profit, it has also played a significant role in reducing the rate of exploitation of such resources due to ­increased efficiency and productivity. For instance, it completely fails to recognise the significant gains made in terms of forest conservation due to the tremendous increase in agricultural producti­vity from the success of the much abused green-revolution technologies in the 20th century. While delivering the special 30th Anniversary Lecture, at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, Norman Borlaug (2000) underlines that

During the 20th century, conventional breeding has produced—and continues to produce—a vast number of varieties and hybrids that have contributed immensely to much higher grain yields, stability of harvests and farm incomes, while also sparing vast tracts of land for nature (wildlife habitats, forests, outdoor recreation).

He illustrates the point through a chart (reproduced as Annexure 1, p 31) that showed the land that was spared from being used for cereal production in the second half of the 20th century due to higher productivity attained through improved technology. He argues ­further:

There also have been important improvements in resistance to diseases and insects, and in tolerance to a range of abiotic stresses, especially soil toxicities, but we also must persist in efforts to raise maximum genetic potential, if we are to meet with the projected food demand challenges before us, without serious negative impacts on the environment.

The point being that growth in productivity, while arrived at solely due to the capitalist drive for profit, has played a crucial role in restraining further exp­loi­tation of the ecosystems like primary forests. It is also worth a mention that the need for higher agricultural productivity is to become even more critical in the face of changing land use patterns and growing urbanisation, as well as due to the yet unpredictable impacts of climate change. This nuance has somewhat esca­ped the analysis of a number of commentators and scholars from the international left and progressive sections. While criticising the agribusiness firms for the relentless destruction of natural ecosystems, particularly forests, they do not seem to appreciate the modern technologies that have developed under industrial agriculture, and the underlying potential therein. Their criticism appears to unequivocally target both, the technology and the question of its ownership.

In a similar vein, this line of argument also tends to ignore that as capitalism ­increases the pace of exploitation of ­nature, it also, in the process, generates the ideas and methods to deal with the ensuing disequilibrium. This is a feature unique to capitalism because, as earlier mentioned, it is under this system that science becomes a productive force itself. It must be appreciated that the idea of sustainability as a concept that accounts for intergenerational equity itself arose under capitalism. The remarkable achi­evements in healthcare and medicine in the last century give us the confidence that COVID-19 will not possibly be as severe and as long-lasting as the influenza of 1918, despite the almost complete dismantling of the public health institutions in the last 50 years. Capita­lism in its trajectory of development regularly engenders crises—economic well as environmental—due to its incapacity to readily account for factors beyond profit. Nonetheless, in the process, it also ends up creating the knowledge and technology to fight against such crises, and often to pre-empt the threats against its existence; the contradiction, however, lies in its realisation in actuality.

In Conclusion

The article seeks to re-emphasise that as capitalism exploits society and nature for its own expanded reproduction, it cannot but revolutionise the productive forces, in terms of science and technology. On the other hand, however, it also creates fetters to the realisation of the ­potential that it creates, by making it a slave to the logic of profit.

The need, therefore, is to imagine a social and economic system that all­ows for science and technology to flourish without these fetters; a system that can promote and utilise the developments in science and technology without giving in to the notions of private ownership. The foremost step towards imagining such a social system is to clearly differentiate between science and technology on the one hand, and the question of its ownership under capita­lism on the other, in our criticism of ­capitalism.

Such a social system, we argue, will also allow us to account for critical aspects like environmental sustainability and biosecurity as part of the development of science and technology, as it will not be driven by profit. At the same time, such a social system will not fall into the trap of imagining a romantic pre-capitalist phase with dismal levels of productivity. The latter, we must reiterate, will not be a pathway to sustainability.


  1. See, for instance, the commentary by Mike Davis (2020). These arguments voice the urgent need to “break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.” These writings have also highlighted the achievements of regions, like the Indian state of Kerala, in fighting the disease due to a strong public health infrastructure; see for instance Prashad and Denis (2020).
  2. For instance, David Harvey (2020) argues, “Earlier experience had shown that one of the downsides of increasing globalisation is how impossible it is to stop a rapid international diffusion of new diseases. We live in a highly connected world where almost everyone travels. The human networks for potential diffusion are vast and open. The danger (economic and demographic) was that the disruption would last a year or more.”
  3. See, for instance, Wallace (2020) or Foster and Chowdhury (2020).

Wallace, for instance, distinctly argues that the blame for disease outbreaks like the COVID-19, lay on “industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production.” Further, he says, “Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.”


Borlaug, N (2000): “The Green Revolution Revi­sited and the Road Ahead,” Special 30 Anniversary Lecture, The Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, 8 September.

Davis, Mike (2020): “The Coronavirus Crisis Is a Monster Fueled by Capitalism,” inthesetimes.com

Foster, John Bellamy (1999): “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,American Journal of Sociology, Vol 105, No 2, September, pp 366–405, DOI: 10.1086/210315.

(2000): Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, NYU Press.

Foster, J B and Farooque Chowdhury (2020): “Cat­astrophe Capitalism: Climate Change, COVID-19, and Economic Crisis: An Interview of John Bellamy Foster,” Monthly Review, mronline.org

Harvey, David (2020): “Anti-capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19,” Jacobin, jacobinmag.com

Kay, K (2020): “Coronavirus: Has America Ever Been This Humbled?,” BBC News, www.bbc.com

Lipton, E, David E Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D Shear, Mark Mazzetti and Julian E Barnes (2020): “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus,” New York Times, www.nytimes.com

Marx, Karl (nd): “Chapter 15, Exposition of the ­Internal Contradictions of the Law,” Section II, titled: “Conflict Between Expansion of Production and Production of Surplus-Value,” Capital Volume III, Part III, www.marxists.org

Phillips, Leigh (2020): “The Free Market Is Not Up to the Coronavirus Challenge,” Jacobin,jacobinmag.com

Prashad, Vijay and Subin Denis (2020): “An Often Overlooked Region of India Is a Beacon to the World for Taking on the Coronavirus,” peoplesdispatch.org

PTI (2020): “COVID-19: U.S. Healthcare System, One of the Best in World, Under Deep Stress,” Economic Times, 30 March economictimes.indiatimes.com

Wallace, Rob (2020): “Who Should We Blame for Coronavirus?—Rob Wallace Has Some Ans­wers,” Monthly Review, monthlyreview.org

Wallace, Rob, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace (2020): “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review, monthlyreview.org

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