“Science and socialism go hand-in-hand” Felicity Dowling
In today’s NY Times, the bard of neoliberalism, Thomas Friedman, wrote about how Trump cannot defeat “Mother Nature”, which as he explained “is entirely made up of chemistry, biology and physics”.
And in its own half-hearted and semi-conscious way, it’s a reminder of what Frederich Engels wrote: “we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but … we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst….”
Capitalist development vs. laws of nature
Over last 15 years or so, we saw developing in a general way the clash between capitalist development and the laws of nature – of the natural world – through the development of global climate change. But people could in the main only feel that impact indirectly. At the same time, what was developing “under the skin” so to speak was the rise of new zoonotic diseases. That term – zoonotic disease, meaning one that jumps the barrier from another species to humans – is a new one for me and will be for most workers, but I think it should be commonplace in the working class. It’s true that most infectious human diseases are zoonotic, but in recent decades the process of zoonoses has been accelerated and intensified.
New era in world history
We are seeing the opening of a new era in world history and a crisis based on this new era. And if we – meaning the working class and socialists within the working class – don’t understand the nature of this new era, we will not be equipped to deal with it.
The dawn of the last century also saw the rise of a new era. That was the era of the crisis of imperialist domination. In that situation, the working class was caught flat-footed, as was the socialist movement within the working class. The working class was punished for this by the resulting two world wars and the rise of fascism.
New form of crisis
Now, though, the nature of this crisis differs from all other crises under capitalism. Unlike economic and political crises, which arise from the laws of motion of capitalism itself, this crisis arises from the clash between capitalist development and the laws of nature – the natural world. And if we don’t start from that basis, if we only deal with the inequities, the injustices, and even the immediate struggles of workers under this crisis, then we are only dealing with the effects not the cause, with the symptoms, not the disease.
Rob Wallace in his book, Big Farms Make Big Flu, castigates the scientists for only dealing with the “science” behind zoonoses. He explains that we cannot understand Ebola, for example, without understanding not only the changes in land use that drove it but also which economic and political players were behind those changes. In other words, it’s impossible to really understand the disease without understanding the political forces that opened the door to its rise. This is exactly the failing of most scientists. But socialists often have the mirror image of that failing: They all too often only deal with the politics and economics without dealing with the science. In other words, the scientists deal with the science but not the politics and economics. Many, if not most socialists deal with the politics and economics but not the science. Neither is capable of really understanding or explaining the issue and, therefore, is incapable of proposing the long term solutions.
“Blizzard” of details
Wallace is trained in studying how viruses and other pathogens (germs) evolve, how they change. But his approach differs from most of his peers in that he says that scientists can get bogged down in a “blizzard” of details and lose track of the greater context – what were the conditions under which the virus (for example) evolved in this particular way. What’s necessary is to see the circumstances in which such a virus is not only likely to develop, but in which such a development is inevitable over the longer term. That is important because, as he explains, once a new pathogen – e.g. SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19 – is discovered, it’s already too late. The virus is already out there in the environment. It’s closing the barn door after the horses have escaped so to speak.
Series of new zoonotic diseases
In order to understand Covid-19, we have to place it in the context of the rise of a whole series of new zoonotic diseases – SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Aviary Flu, and a whole host of others.
And there are two conditions that have opened the door to regular zoonoses: On the one hand, we have wild habitat destruction, which is usually due to land development for megatourism, logging, or agriculture/factory farming development. This disturbs the wild species, often forcing them to come into closer contact with both humans and also domesticated animals.
In addition, we have the rise of factory farming. This means raising meat animals packed cheek by jowl, hundreds – maybe thousands – all packed in together. Not only are they packed together, they are also genetically nearly identical. So, once a pathogen – often a virus – can get a foothold in one of these animals, it can spread like wildfire.
This whole process is accelerated by the fact that the animals are slaughtered at an ever earlier age. So that puts pressure on the virus to evolve in such a way as to be able to be passed on ever more easily. In other words, to be ever more easily transmitted. Now, maybe the great majority of the virus mutations do nothing, maybe the great majority can’t be transmitted between the animals or from another species to humans. And maybe they do little or no harm to the host. It doesn’t matter if it’s only one out of 100 or one out of one million that can. In this situation, it’s like a forest dried out by years-long drought and where there are no fire breaks in the forest and in a region where there are regular lightning storms. Sooner or later, one lightning strike will set off the conflagration.
Bats and hogs
Now, one detail: Two species are often mentioned in this dynamic: Bats and hogs. The reason is that bats have a very powerful immune system and therefore are hosts to an unusually large number of viruses. And as far as hogs, the reason they are often involved is that apparently their immune system is similar to humans’, so a virus that can overcome their immune system is likely to be able to overcome ours.
An example of this process was a renewed outbreak of Ebola a couple of years ago in Guinea. There, several companies including a British-backed one called Farm Land of Guinea Limited obtained 99 year leases on “underused agricultural land” (as the World Bank calls wild habitat), among other things for the purpose of growing palm oil trees. As well, factory hog farms were set up in the region. This disturbed the natural roosting places of fruit bats, which started to settle in the areas around humans. Messy eaters, they would drop their partially eaten fruit where the hogs were and the hogs picked it up and ate it, together with the saliva from the bats, which contained a virus that evolved into this makona strain of ebola virus.
Wallace gives example after example. For instance, there was the Swine flu outbreak of the 1990s, renamed the H1N1 outbreak because the hog industry objected to the original name. Wallace explains that it was passed back and forth from birds to hogs, so in one sense it should be called the swine-bird flu. However, it would be more accurate to call it the Nafta flu as Wallace does. He explains that NAFTA drove the small hog farmers out of business in Mexico and the large factory farms – first and foremost Smithfield Farms – took over. Incidentally, part of the reason that these factory farms outcompete the small farmers is due to government support here in the US. Anyway, Wallace gives the evidence that a virus evolved among hogs in factory farms around Veracruz that was able to jump the species barrier to humans – those working around the hogs, cleaning up their shit and “caring” for them, and it was then passed on from one human to another.
Wallace names names
There are a few scientists who have studied and explained the role of habitat destruction in the rise of these new zoonotic diseases. One of the things that distinguishes Wallace is that he’s the only one who names the companies and the individuals that are driving the process. As a result of the failure to do this, the other scientists and scientific writers end up in effect blaming the victims. “Oh, it’s these people in Africa or in Indonesia who are encroaching on wild land,” is the implication.
In the case of SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19, Wallace’s view seems to be evolving. This is a new virus, and it takes a lot of detective work to figure out where and how this virus evolved. A few weeks back, he was saying that the virus clearly seems to have evolved in that wet market in Hunan. More recently, he seemed to be saying that a region in Guangdong province, some distance from Hunan, was where it might have originally evolved.
Or in any case that a part of its evolution seems to have happened there.
In any case, the fact that it has genetic material from different animals makes it highly unlikely that it was developed in a lab and escaped either by accident or intentionally – either in China as Trump claims or here in the US as the lunatic conspiracy theorists like Judy Mikovits claims.
There are dozens of other examples as well as other aspects of the science involved that really need discussing, and I hope we do discuss them in the future, but for reasons of time I want to pass on to some other political aspects, starting with the response of the capitalist class and their strategists.
“Insane” wing of capitalist class
On the one side, we have the more insane wing, as represented here in the US by Trump and the Wall St. Journal. Their view is to open up everything and allow the disease to rip through society unchecked, after which we will acquire herd immunity, meaning that enough people will have had the disease and be immune that it won’t really spread easily. We see the disastrous effects of this in, for example, Guayaquil, Ecuador, where there have been so many deaths that people were simply dumping the bodies of their loved ones out on the street, where they piled up like so much uncollected garbage. Completely aside from the massive suffering, though, there is no guarantee that herd immunity is even possible. That’s because we don’t know if once a person has had the disease they become immune and, if they do, for how long they are immune.
More “sane” reformist wing
We also need to take a closer look at the representatives of the more sane wing of the capitalist class. Here in the US, they are best represented by Anthony Fauci and the governor of the State of New York, Andrew Cuomo. He’s on TV every morning with his press briefings, and he’s an extremely talented and intelligent capitalist politician. He mixes humor and the human touch (talking about his daughter’s boyfriend, for example) with a lot of basic facts and science. His talent is in the fact that he’s actually able to make statistics interesting, and he stands in stark contrast to Trump, who bases himself on emotion and lies and appeals to the worst in people. Cuomo’s extreme popularity shows how many millions are really yearning for a politics based on science, reason and even solidarity. But he, too, has a fundamental weakness, and it’s the same weakness as FDR had:
Reformism will fail
FDR’s reforms were incapable of ending capitalism’s most serious economic crisis to date. It took an immense human disaster – the rise of fascism and WW II – to accomplish that. Similarly, Cuomo and the wing of the capitalist strategists he represents want to lessen the impact of Covid-19, but they totally obscure the cause – which is capitalism’s clash with – its looting – of nature through factory farming and habitat destruction.
In essence, what Cuomo and his wing represent is the school of thought known as ecomodernism. That is the view that all society’s problems can be resolved by ever more modern technology – everything from the most modern light bulbs to nuclear energy. They basically advocate that, contrary to what Engels wrote, yes we do stand above and apart from nature and can overcome the laws of nature. In the case of Covid-19, all that’s needed is better social distancing, wearing masks and vaccines. In other words, some degree of social regulation and technology. The popular scientist Anthony Fauci is also in that wing as is Bill Gates.
Then there are the different public organizations themselves, foremost among them being the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump recently cut off US funding for the WHO in an appeal to his nationalist base, but we shouldn’t have any illusions in them. Wallace eviscerates these groups mercilessly. He describes a conference he attended when he was still in the in crowd that was organized by the three main such agencies, including WHO. He described how some of the scientists there were getting millions from the food giant Cargill, which is a major player in habitat destruction. He describes how One Health – the wing of the US’s Centers for Disease Control that is responsible for halting zoonotic diseases – is tied in with the major poultry factory farming industry in the US. He explains how another major NGO – the EcoHealth Alliance – is tied in with Colgate Palmolive, which apparently is also responsible for habitat destruction through its palm plantations used for producing palm oil.
There is a lot more to discuss, including the more wild conspiracy theories, some of which are gaining a following of millions. And it’s only through developing a thorough scientific understanding of Covid-19 that these theories can really be combated. However, I’ll conclude with some points on program and perspective.
No wing of capitalist class can provide solution There is no wing of the capitalist class that provides a solution. The reformist wing hides behind their reforms in order to continue to create the conditions that will cause new zoonotic diseases. On the other hand, our class is in ferment. While there has been a lot of press coverage of the extreme and potentially violent back-to-work protests, many of them armed, there has not been so much of the over 200 worker strikes, walk-outs and protests, one of which was that nurses’ rally that I opened up with.
Help build the workers movement & beyond
Of course we have to support and help build those protests and the workers movement in general. We have to raise a program that advances workers’ power on the job – the power of workers to set and enforce the safety conditions they feel are necessary – and also in the community… while we have to do that, we also have to explain that fighting for this is not enough, that capitalism is creating the conditions for new and even more devastating zoonotic diseases, and what those conditions are – factory farming and habitat destruction.
Failing to do that means dealing only with the symptoms but not the disease, dealing with the effect only but not the cause.
There are a lot of related issues that we have to find a way to raise.
- One is the alternative to factory farming, which is regenerative farming. (See Global warming, grass farming and a planned economy for an explanation.)
I think part of our program should be for linking up the urban working class – maybe especially the urban working class youth – with the rural workers and small farmers. Also, for direct links between workers throughout the world, and for direct links between agricultural workers and small farmers throughout the world.
- Another specific detail, at least for here in the US, is to call for an end to the Farm bills which come up every few years. These are multi-billion dollar subsidies to agribusiness and to fake-farmer urban millionaires , whose net effect is to enforce largely corn based monoculture and factory farming.
- And, of course, all of this aims at the dire necessity for the working class to play an independent political role – starting with the building of a mass working class party. One that will be born in struggle, that will develop out of an effort to coordinate and further the struggle of millions of workers themselves.
This is not the first zoonotic disease to threaten us, nor will it be the last. According to WHO, Nipah virus it killed between 40-75% of those it infected. Fortunately, it is not so easily transmitted, but it is in the evolutionary interest of every single pathogen to evolve in such a way as to become more easily transmitted, and capitalism has set the stage to make such evolution not only easier but even to put pressure on viruses to do so. Rob Wallace wrote: “HENDRA, EBOLA, MALARIA, SARS, SCR-TB, Q fever, simian foamy virus, Nipah and influenza. One of these bugs, or an as yet undiscovered cousin, will likely kill a few hundred million of us someday soon. It isn’t if, as many scientists… repeat, it’s when…”
To return to the column of Thomas Friedman: The problem with his comment is that, while he’s dimly aware of where he and his class are heading us all for, like an engineer on a runaway freight train, they are incapable of reversing course.
Disaster also an opportunity
But along side this disastrous pandemic comes an opportunity. The viewpoint of the capitalist class is that humans live outside of and apart from the natural world. Nature is simply there to be dominated and exploited at will, just as is our labor power. That is the meaning of the World Bank calling the wild savannahs of Africa “underused agricultural land.” Now, this pandemic is reminding us that we are not separated from the natural world. This is starting to force workers to look at the natural world in an entirely new way. We, as socialists and Marxists, must take advantage of that opportunity to encourage a different world view. First and foremost we must do that by leading the way in changing how we, ourselves, look at this planet which we inhabit. (Note, this article can also be heard on the oaklandsocialist podcast here.)