Capitalism vs. The Laws of Nature
Capitalism organizes the most basic social activities in ways that clash with the natural world.
Two years ago, a scientific paper on bats and wild habitat loss stated that “an ecological threshold has been crossed.” Such a topic might seem pretty esoteric, pretty minor in the bigger scheme of things, but as it turns out it is not. The world working class, including the socialist movement within that class, had better pay attention. It signals the dawn of a new era in world capitalist development, an era in which capitalism is sharply colliding with its own contradictions. But in this case, the nature of the contradictions are fundamentally different from anything we have seen before.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, a similar new era had opened up. That was the era in which imperialism had spread all over the world, and had conquered the entire planet. All that was left for it to do was fight to re-divide the world among the major imperialist powers. Coupled with a subsequent economic crisis (the Great Depression), this spelled disaster for tens of millions. That disaster came in the form of two world wars and the rise of fascism.
Today, in addition to these sources of crisis, there is a new one that is fundamentally different: While all the laws of motion of capitalism itself are still creating crises in and of themselves, there is a new development, a new cause: This crisis is caused by the collision of capitalist development with the laws of nature. That is what the COVID-19 pandemic represents.
The capitalist class and its leaders are divided into two camps on how to deal with this first outbreak of this global crisis, just as they were divided at the outbreak of the Great Depression. At that time, the position of one wing of the capitalist class was expressed by the banker and “robber baron” Andrew Mellon, who advised President Hoover: “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. Purge the rottenness out of the system.” FDR and his wing, however, understood that steps had to be taken to mitigate this crisis, and this they did with the New Deal. Neither wing, however, was able to prevent the greatest capitalist disaster the world had seen up until that time – the rise of fascism and World War II.
Similarly, today, there is a wing of the capitalist class that is inclined to simply let COVID-19 through society, which will end up with “herd immunity,” they hope. This wing is represented by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Politicians like Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump have also been inclined in that direction, as is Richard Epstein of the conservative Hoover Institute. The other, somewhat saner wing, is best represented by the conservative, anti-labor governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, the state where the pandemic hit first and hardest. Every day, Cuomo is on TV, explaining the statistics and what steps are being taken to mitigate the disaster. He seems like the voice of sanity and reason.
In the 1930s the reform wing of capitalist strategists sought Band-Aids while they ignored the basis of the crisis – the laws of capitalist economic development. Similarly, today the Cuomo wing ignores the basis of this disaster. That basis, as we said, is the collision of capitalism with the laws of nature. And by ignoring this, this wing is allowing the cause of the crisis to continue unchecked. This will only lead to a new and even more devastating crisis in the future.
One would think that socialists would be on the cutting edge of recognizing this new era and the unique nature of this crisis. Sadly, most are not. Nor is that unprecedented. In the then-new era of the domination of world imperialism at the turn of the last century, the majority of the socialist movement was caught flat footed. They were unable to adjust. The great majority ended up supporting their own capitalist class in World War I.
Today, we see a similar failure to catch up. The overwhelming majority of the socialist left is focusing exclusively on the struggles of workers for safe work places, the way that the federal government is putting prisoners (including undocumented immigrant prisoners) at risk, and similar issues. Of course the daily struggles must be fought. But at the same time, it is necessary to discuss the basis of this crisis and bring this into the wider working class movement.
Over the last 30 years or so, we have seen the “neoliberalization” of nature, as evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace put it in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu. Like everything else, the natural world has become simply another source of immediate profit with the longer term costs “socialized.” Economically, that means postponing the payment of the economic costs and ultimately making society, meaning mainly the working class, pay the longer term costs economically. Nature, too is being treated the same way, except it’s not “nature” that will pay the costs; human society as a whole, and especially the working class, will be made to suffer. In the collision between capitalist development and the laws of nature, the laws of nature will win every single time. As we will see, no amount of new technology, no number of new medicines and vaccines will ultimately “conquer” nature. The laws of nature are more powerful than capitalism. Period. The operation of the laws of nature might be temporarily suppressed in one realm, only to reassert themselves ever more powerfully and in an even more devastating form in another.
Capitalism is colliding with nature in several ways, but there are two developments that are driving this pandemic and are driving a whole host of new zoonotic diseases – diseases that jump the species barrier from other animals to human beings. These are wild habitat loss and factory farming. If these are not reversed, then the rise of even more devastating pandemics seems to be just a matter of time. We can, we must, find a way to start to raise this issue. If we do not, we will render ourselves as irrelevant as did social democracy in that era of 100 years ago.
Factory Farming and NAFTA Flu
One of the earliest warnings of the COVID-19 pandemic was the “swine flu” epidemic of the 1990s. This flu is caused by the H1N1 virus and, according to Wallace, it first jumped the species barrier in hog factory farms around Veracruz, Mexico. These are giant factory farms, in which hundreds, maybe even thousands of pigs are packed together like New Yorkers on the subway during rush hour, except that the pigs live out their lives like that, eating, breathing, shitting all packed in together, and with almost no genetic variation.
In Mexico, these factory pig farms drove out the small pig farmers, who couldn’t compete, through the process that NAFTA accelerated – the penetration of Mexico by huge U.S. agribusiness. These agribusinesses are, in turn, subsidized by the US government, largely through the farm bills, and the small pig farmers were unable to compete with them.
As Wallace explains in Big Farms Make Big Flu:
…Industrial livestock appear ideal populations for supporting virulent pathogens. Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput [see explanation of term below], a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles [those animals who can catch the virus], the fuel for the evolution of virulence [deadliness of virus].
Let’s break that down. First, genetic monoculture. If there are wide genetic differences in the herd, and if a germ gets a foothold in some of the herd, the genetic differences can prevent that pathogen from sweeping through the entire herd, just like a fire break stops a fire from overwhelming an entire forest. Monoculture, the breeding of genetically identical animals, eliminates the genetic differences that slow the virus and prevent its spread.
Another factor is crowding. The larger and more dense the population, the faster the pathogen will spread.
Closely packing the population together weakens the immune system, also making the spread easier.
“High throughput,” refers to the slaughter of the animals at an ever younger age. According to Wallace, for example, chickens used to be slaughtered at 60 days old. Now, it’s 40. This selects for viruses that can be passed on ever more easily and ever faster. All of these practices–monoculture, population density, and high throughput–contribute to spread of viruses and can lead to pandemic.
One might think that it’s in the virus’s interest to evolve in such a way that it doesn’t kill into not killing its host, since if it does, it can’t be passed on (which is what the uninformed Richard Epstein claims in the interview cited above). However, how deadly it is doesn’t matter, as long as it can be passed on before it kills its host. It is vital, as we will see, to remember this point.
So we see the treating of nature as one more exploitable, the rise of world trade (as exemplified by NAFTA), the domination of large capitalist enterprises in the production of food leading to the domination of factory farms have all encouraged the multiplication of new zoonotic diseases. Factory farming has also helped pave the way for wild habitat loss. The two interact, they multiply the effects of each other in the spread of zoonotic diseases.
This novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 seems to have originated in bats, although nobody seems certain exactly how it jumped the species barriers to pangolins and humans. But the role of bats is significant since it seems that they are the host to an unusually large number of different viruses. And bats are coming into ever closer contact with both human beings and domesticated animals.
Especially in Asia, but world-wide, wild habitat is being cleared for agriculture (from everything from palm trees for palm oil to cattle raising) as well as for real estate development. This is forcing bats to change their roosting habits. Whereas a bat might in the past have roosted in trees in the wild, now it might be roosting under the eaves of a barn or house.
Bats that eat fruit – fruit bats, also known as flying foxes – play a particular role. Known as messy eaters, they might drop a piece of partly eaten fruit, loaded with their saliva, over a pig farm, and a pig would then eat those remains.
Wild fowl and wetland loss have a similar dynamic. As wetlands are developed, wild fowl are forced into closer contact with monoculture domesticated fowl, thereby “exporting” their pathogens to their domesticated cousins.
In all such cases, the fact of the animals being all packed in together also has an impact. It leaves huge amounts of animal feces with which the factory farm workers come in contact, leading them to acquire whatever germs the animals had and excrete.
Since it is a new virus, scientists aren’t sure exactly how the virus that causes COVID-19 – SARS-CoV2 – evolved. At first it was thought that it evolved in the “wet market” in Hunan Province. If that is true, then what happened was that the wet market mimicked the conditions of food production, but in the distribution of food. More recent studies seem to show that the virus has some genetic material in not only pangolins (which were sold in that wet market) but also bats. That and a similar study suggest that the virus was years in evolving. In any case, since the virus has genetic material from different animals, it is highly unlikely that it was developed in a lab as some conspiracy theorists suggest.
It’s possible that researchers will come up with a vaccine for this virus. Then governments will say that the danger has passed and we can return to business as usual. But new zoonotic diseases constantly threaten. One such virus from the recent past – the Nipah virus – had a mortality rate of 40–75% according to the World Health Organization. Fortunately, it was not easily transmitted. Can you imagine the effect if a new virus jumped the species barrier that was as deadly as Nipah and as easily transmitted as COVID-19? Or take another example: With the feedlot method of raising cattle and their being force feed corn comes the necessity of giving the cattle antibiotics. That is because cattle naturally eat grass, not corn, which tends to make them sick. This is a major factor in the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. If such bacteria continue to spread, then such everyday operations such as an appendectomy or a knee replacement can become life threatening events.
We cannot escape the laws of nature.
Urbanization and “Conquering” Nature
So, basically, what we have is this: Centuries ago, millions of human beings were packed in together into large cities where they lived cheek by jowl in unsanitary conditions. This urbanization of society was what created the conditions for the first mass plagues. Now, we have the urbanization of other animals – pigs, chickens, cattle. A similar situation has thereby been created.
Urbanization – the driving of masses of people out of the country-side – also had a cultural impact. It opened the door to the illusion that we live outside of nature, that we can conquer nature like the capitalist conquers human labor power. And why not think that way since that is the view of the capitalist – that everything in the world is simply there for her or his conquest and exploitation?
Karl Marx’s co-thinker, Frederick Engels, disputed that view. In “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” Engels wrote “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
So we see how capitalism organizes that most basic of all social activities – food production – in such a way as to clash with the natural world.
Monoculture agriculture depletes soil fertility and health. Plowing enables it to blow away. Ever increasing use of pesticides poisons not only human beings but also the soil and wild animals from worms to bees. There is another method: What is known as regenerative farming. Basically, regenerative farming mimics nature, rather than trying to conquer it. Just as bison used to group together and keep on a constant move and find new grazing areas in order to avoid predators like wolves and grizzly bears, the regenerative farmer groups his or her cattle together and moves them from one field (“paddock”) to another every few days. They move into each paddock different animals – chickens, pigs and others – each of which plays a role in revitalizing the soil. Regenerative farmers do not plow the soil. Instead, they use seed drills. Through these and similar methods, they can actually restore soil health and also, these methods enable the soil to capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
These methods directly relate to the dominant cattle industry in the US. In the giant feedlots, cattle are more or less force-fed corn and corn derivatives, which is a food cattle don’t naturally eat (they naturally eat grass). Because of this, the cattle tend to get sick, and therefore it’s necessary to give them antibiotics. This then encourages the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
There are powerful forces aligned against regenerative farming. These include agribusiness and the chemical/pesticide companies. For it to really become the dominant form of agriculture, a mass movement would be necessary.
The main point, though, is that socialists – and Marxists among them – must start to raise these issues and raise some related transitional demands. This won’t be easy since it seems so foreign to the actual working class movement. The very fact that it seems so foreign makes raising these issues all the more important. So, yes, we have to deal with and help build the immediate struggles, but in the course of it, we have to find a way to link it to these deeper issues.
Some transitional demands would revolve around the steps the government should take to encourage regenerative farming, including ending the farm assistance programs (which are little but handouts to millionaires) as we know them and, instead, for the federal government to assist farmers to transition to regenerative farming. We also need programs to link up urban workers and youth with our rural sisters and brothers and encourage the urban workers and youth to participate in food production. In addition, linking up agricultural workers and rural workers worldwide. This is necessary to build a movement which stops and reverses wild habitat destruction from the Amazon rain forests to the jungles of Borneo.
Finally, the movement should call for the expropriation of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Cargill and plan food production under the democratic control and management of agricultural workers and workers/consumers themselves. This should be linked with the expropriation of the real estate and construction sector of the economy, both in the US and worldwide.