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COVID-19, Marxism, and the metabolic rift

COVID-19, Marxism, and the metabolic rift

Originally published: Red Flag by Sagar Sanyal (August 10, 2020)   | 

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from a purely natural occurrence. Respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that exist in populations of birds and various mammals such as pigs, horses, cows and humans, are nothing new. But the circulation of these viruses between species, and the frequency of viruses spreading from animals to humans, has increased in recent decades, and changes in the relationship between human society and nature have been the main driver of this.

The origin of COVID-19 and the vector for its spread to humans are still under investigation by scientists. The closest variant of the virus has been identified in bats, and it’s possible it was transmitted to humans through wild meat or bush meat markets, perhaps via pangolins. Whatever the exact origin and vector, however, the jump from animals to humans fits a familiar pattern, one long understood by epidemiologists.

The destruction of nature by capitalist industry plays a big part. As forests and other areas untouched by human development are destroyed, wild species like bats are forced out to forage for food in urban centres. Those wild species carry diseases that previously remained confined to forests and only rarely infected humans–never enough to cause an epidemic. But now this migrating wildlife comes into more frequent contact with large human populations. Sneezes and droppings from wild animals spread the virus to other animals that humans handle more often–like pigs, chickens or, as with the MERS outbreak in the Middle East a decade ago, camels.

Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, is among the writers who for years have warned of the increasing likelihood of such epidemics. On COVID-19 specifically, Wallace and his collaborators emphasise how the wild meat sector fits into the broader context of industrial food production. “How did the exotic food sector arrive”, he asks, “at a standing where it could sell its wares alongside more traditional livestock in the largest market in Wuhan? The animals were not being sold off the back of a truck or in an alleyway”.

Increasingly, according to Wallace, wild food is being integrated into the mainstream of the capitalist food market. “The overlapping economic geography”, he writes, “extends back from the Wuhan market to the hinterlands where exotic and traditional foods are raised by operations bordering the edge of a contracting wilderness. As industrial production encroaches on the last of the forest, wild food operations must cut farther in to raise their delicacies or raid the last stands”.

Right wing news outlets more interested in racist scapegoating than in facts made a big deal of the wild meat issue, as if the world would have been spared the virus if only Chinese consumers had stuck to eating chicken or pork. But that is a false narrative. Since the 1990s, several deadly strains of bird flu and swine flu have developed and spread from industrial farms of chickens or pigs, including in North America and Europe, as well as in China.

It has long been understood why these places breed disease. The animals are crowded into feedlots under conditions that run down their immune systems. The genetic monoculture of these populations takes away the natural diversity that reduces the prevalence of diseases. As farmers try to minimise time from birth to slaughter, this has the perverse consequence of acting as a natural selection pressure for pathogens that can survive more robust immune systems. All these things mean diseases can spread very fast within industrial herds and flocks. The cost cutting imperative means that work conditions (like protective equipment) are so poor that farm labourers are highly vulnerable to catching viruses from these animals.

The danger to humanity from such practices was reinforced in June, when scientists discovered a number of new strains of swine flu with pandemic potential circulating among pigs on farms in China. Although the strains, collectively referred to as G4 viruses, don’t appear currently to be able to spread between humans, around 10 percent of blood samples taken from farm labourers showed evidence of prior infection. All it would take is a small mutation and one or other of these viruses could start jumping from human to human and spread rapidly through the broader population, just as has occurred with SARS-CoV-2.

Marx and Engels’ groundbreaking work on the relationship between human society and nature in the context of the emergence of capitalism as a global system in the 19th century can help us understand the destructive dynamics underlying these developments. Central to their work in this area was the idea of the “metabolic rift”. All living things have a metabolic relation with their ecological surroundings, taking in certain things and putting out waste. When it comes to humans, Marx and Engels noted that our metabolism with the rest of nature is not due to our biology alone, but also to the kind of society we’ve built. To understand human metabolism with nature, we thus need social science in addition to natural science.

The metabolic rift has both historical and theoretical aspects. On the historical side is the displacement of peasants and peasant farming methods from the countryside, and their corralling into towns to create the modern working class. Workers, unlike the peasantry, had no means of livelihood of their own, and therefore had to move around to find waged work, crowding into the cities where that work was concentrated. One consequence of this was that, instead of being reabsorbed back into the local environment, human waste now collected in vast pools in the cities.

This process was the main driver of the soil fertility crisis that struck Europe in the late 19th century. By displacing the peasantry, and forcing more and more people into the cities, capitalism, Marx wrote, “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil”.

What about the theoretical aspect? The rift isn’t just about the natural effects they observed, but also their social cause. It is a rift in social relations: the forcible conversion of a peasantry into the modern working class.

Peasants farmed a plot of land to which they had customary right over generations. They controlled their own labour process, and this meant there was a feedback mechanism between their labour and its effects on the land. If they depleted the soil and thus threatened their livelihood, they could adjust their methods of work accordingly. Peasant farmers had, over many generations, developed practices to maintain soil fertility through crop rotation, cycling between crops and pasture to ensure manuring, and returning human excrement to the fields. Peasant methods of labour were the main factor in the metabolism between feudal society and the rest of nature. Feudal lords would leave peasants to farm as they wished, then take a portion of the produce.

By contrast, the capitalist mode of production involves the capitalist dictating the labour process, and then just hiring labourers to do what they are told. As capitalist farmers emerged, they realised more money was to be made by cutting out the aspects of peasant farming practices that had no immediate pay-off (even though they maintained soil fertility) and focussing just on the highest earning aspects.

Around the same time the first factories were being established in towns, and the emerging capitalist class and the state that served them realised that wages could be forced down if large masses of former peasants were concentrated in a handful of industrial areas rather than scattered across a large number of small population centres. During the 18th and 19th centuries, vast numbers of peasants were driven from the land by a combination of brute force and legal changes (such as the Enclosure Acts). Out of this uprooted peasantry, the modern working class was born.

A new dynamic began to shape social metabolism with nature. Unlike the peasants who worked the land directly, capitalist farmers and the new captains of industry were far removed from the destructive consequences of their activities. So long as they had workers prepared to exchange their labour for a wage (and the desperate poverty in which most people lived ensured that there was no shortage), they could turn a profit, even if their actions were detrimental to the natural world on which their business ultimately depended. If they destroyed the land, they could use the profits they had made to buy more land elsewhere. More often, however, the destructive consequences of their activities were simply externalised–the poisoning of the air and water in factory districts, which had a major impact on the lives of workers in this period, provides a clear example.

From this point on, what was produced in society and through which methods was determined by the profit motive and competition among rival capitalists and nation-states. The impact of production on the natural world became, at best, an afterthought. A new dynamic was driving society’s metabolism with nature–one that would create environmental disasters on an ever widening scale.

Scientists who study the origins of diseases have been telling us for decades that we will continue to have outbreaks of novel viruses that hop from other animals to humans because of how we farm animals and how we destroy wilderness. This advice is ignored, just as the advice of climate scientists is ignored, because acting on it would require breaking from the profit-driven logic of capitalism.

Where it’s a choice between booking short-term profits and taking a hit to profit to address potentially destructive consequences in the longer term, capitalists will always put profit first. They, after all, can escape the consequences of their actions. They spend their days in air conditioned offices, unlike the farm labourers who spend their days surrounded by hundreds of pigs riddled with swine flu. In a pandemic, capitalists can hide away in their country mansions and, in the event that they fall ill, can pay for the very best of medical care.

For workers it’s a different story. We’re the ones on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, not through our own free choice, but through economic necessity. For the vast majority of workers around the world, stopping work isn’t an option. We must work to survive, even if in doing so we are actually putting our lives at risk. This suits the capitalists very nicely. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived at a moment when the world economy was already struggling. The ruling class, whether in Australia, the U.S. or any other country, is desperate to limit the economic damage from the crisis, even if that means many more people will die.

If workers ran the world, it would be very different. It would make no sense for us to ignore the warnings of scientists about how industrial agriculture and environmental destruction are fuelling the emergence of new diseases, for the simple reason that we’re the ones who will suffer when they appear. We don’t have a stake in the relentless scramble for short-term profit that defines capitalism today. We can organise production–both what we produce and how we produce–with human health and environmental sustainability in mind.

In the current pandemic, that might mean shutting down all but the most essential parts of the economy to slow the spread of the virus, while ensuring other workers are paid to stay home. In the longer term, it would mean reshaping animal agriculture to limit the potential for it to function as a petri dish for the emergence of deadly diseases.

This is how Marx envisaged the metabolic rift being healed. “Freedom in this field”, he wrote in volume 3 of Capital, “can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature”.

Such freedom will never exist under a capitalist system in which the drive to profit rules. The first step in fixing the metabolic rift is to make our labour our own again. That means taking it back from the ruling class.

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