The Virology of Capitalism

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by Daniel Tarade

           In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, socialists insist that “Capitalism is the Virus!” Such a phrase is not a casual flip of the script or a ‘what-about-ism’. Popular discourse surrounding virology (and epidemiology) simply accounts for capitalist rhetoric. We speak of evolution— whether it be natural selection or survival of the fittest. Neo-liberals apply these concepts to viruses, to humans, to businesses, to ideas, and to our capitalist economy. By picking at these threads, the slogan — capitalism is the virus — becomes more analytical. Simultaneously, we critique capitalism by highlighting how the material conditions it fosters prompt pandemics, how capitalism is self-defeating, and how the solution is socialism.

Throughout history, viruses and bacteria — tuberculosis, pneumonia, small pox, polio, measles, influenza, cholera, etc. — killed more humans than anything else. It is only recently, in the last fifty to one-hundred years, that diseases of old age, like cancer and heart disease, killed more people than infectious diseases, at least in the so-called Western World. At the same time, life expectancy has soared from around 50 years to 80 years of age in countries like Canada. This dramatic shift is commonly attributed to scientific and technological advances, like the discovery of antibiotics, which entered clinical practice in 1942, and widespread vaccination programs that became common around the same time. By extension, these advances are credited to capitalism, the “free market of ideas,” and competition between corporations for profit. Although a tempting hypothesis, this relationship is not borne out in the data.

Mortality due to tuberculosis already declined a full 90% from its peak in the mid-1800s before effective antibiotics entered clinical usage. Measles killed fewer and fewer people despite no change in incidence level before an effective vaccine in the 1960s caused the number of cases to plummet. So, what was the cause of the decrease in infectious disease mortality in the years leading up to effective treatment and vaccines? Thomas McKeown, epidemiologist and historian of medicine, advanced a thesis in the 1960s that increases in population in the 1800s resulted from increases in nutrition due to improving economic conditions. This idea has since gained significant traction.

          What brought about improved nutrition? The industrial revolution, associated with more efficient agriculture and increased wealth generation, was necessary. However, it was not sufficient. The first wave of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s no doubt increased wealth. But it took at least fifty years before the working class gained any significant increase in wages. Why did wages increase? It is not a law of capitalism that real wages for the working class increase over time.  Quite the opposite. As rates of profit fall due to competition, workers get squeezed one way or another (by outsourcing, automation, stagnating wages, layoffs, slashed benefits). Instead, workers in industrialized, capitalist economies organized unions.  They fought for better wages, safer working conditions, and more democratic control. Mass organization, general strikes, and militancy redistributed some of the massive wealth accumulated in the early capitalist system. The resultant improvement in proletarian living conditions fostered resilience to pestilence and increased life expectancy.

          Today, the connection between poverty and mortality — the so-called social determinants of health — is taught in medical school.  The relentless austerity endemic in the capitalist system, necessary to combat declines in the rate of profit and to keep the capitalist machine humming along, promotes and maintains the poverty and malnutrition that makes people susceptible to dying from infectious disease.

This is not the only way capitalism is a virus. The profit-motive led companies to bury internal studies linking a diet high in sugar with diabetes, and smoking cigarettes with lung cancer. Instead, corporate-funded think tanks and industry groups obfuscated and lobbied against regulation. The ‘pandemics’ of lung cancer and diabetes would have been largely mitigated if profit did not factor into the equation. Similarly, the most pressing emergency in the world of microbiology, antibacterial resistance, springs from bowels of capitalism.

Although a redistribution of wealth decreased mortality from bacterial infections well before antibiotics were discovered, the new medications did save lives. However, pharmaceutical companies quickly obtained patents and aggressively marketed antibiotics. This essential medicine could be found in tooth paste, gum, and lipstick. Doctors were lobbied by salespeople to prescribe a company’s new antibiotic. Worse, antibiotics became entrenched in industrial agricultural practices, where they are commonly added to feed to promote animal growth. Unnecessary usage of antibiotics, driven by profit, selected for resistant microbes, which immediately became a problem. Antibacterial resistance now kills an estimated 700,000 people a year. If we do nothing to address this crisis, it is predicted that resistant microbes will kill 10 million people annually, some 400,000 in Canada, by 2050.

While humanity suffers, is Big Pharma re-doubling efforts to save us?  Not a chance.  Despite the pressing danger of antimicrobial resistance, company after company is shuttering their antimicrobial drug pipeline. Only four of the top 50 pharmaceutical companies, by sales, operate an active antimicrobial drug discovery pipeline. Why? It is not profitable. This is not a hidden conspiracy; these companies are very open about it.

Isn’t this the opposite of ‘natural selection’ in the so-called capitalist free market? Now that demand for antibiotics is increasing, shouldn’t corporations compete for solutions? I came across a discussion on the internet near the beginning of the COVID outbreak — a discussion on viruses and natural selection. One person commented to another that a virus capable of wiping out humanity would never evolve because it is self-defeating. Once all humans are dead, the virus too goes extinct. Instead, because of natural selection, via the survival of the fittest, only viruses that effectively propagate will come about. This idea that evolution has foresight and plans accordingly is widespread.

Similarly, proponents of capitalism misappropriate the concept of natural selection. In the free-market of ideas, there is a survival of the fittest. The best innovations make millions. The hardest, most intelligent workers get hired. Over the years, society improves through relentless competition. That, however, is a monstrous myth.

Evolution is not forward thinking.  Neither is capitalism. Evidence that evolution is not prescient is the fact that species go extinct all the time. A virus that can predict that it will cause the extinction of its host is no different than the dinosaurs evolving in anticipation of the asteroid.  Why has a killer virus not evolved yet? It simply isn’t probable given all the characteristics that such a virus would need. But, just like the evolution of viruses and bacteria, the “natural selection” seen in capitalism is reactive. It comes down to what is propagating, or profiting, most rapidly at a particular moment.

A rule of capitalism is that short-term profits are better than long-term losses. There is no purifying selection in capitalism that roots out companies that place human survival in peril.  Just the opposite. More profit is to be had from slashing workers’ benefits, selling antibiotics for animal feed, funding disinformation groups, and selling addictive and harmful products. In the pharmaceutical industry, the bigger a company gets, the less it spends on R&D — and the more it spends on lobbying. That is how to increase profit. Not by developing new drugs that help people, but by increasing market share and getting doctors to prescribe your costlier medication instead of other alternatives. The profit motive also rules the carbon sector, which is why catastrophic climate change is driving humanity to the brink of extinction. This is why life expectancy in the US is actually now decreasing. The gains of past working class struggles are being erased.

What is the solution? Socialism. Just like mass mobilization led to real material gains for the working class in the 1800s, which directly lead to improved nutrition and less death due to pestilence, it’s time to rise up again, reclaim our industries and put them to work for us, not for the capitalists who leech off social production. We can learn from the shortcomings of past socialist movements. They did win real reforms. But history teaches that simply relying on legislation or on the reform of capitalism results only in temporary wins.  In capitalist society the bourgeois class controls the means of production. What they lack is a superiority in numbers. That’s why it is vital to mobilize masses with the vision of workers’ control and workers’ democracy in mind. When the moment comes, and with many capitalist-caused catastrophes on the horizon it may be soon, we seek to elevate the working class to the role of rulers of society.  It is absurd to expect capitalists to play politely — to put the interests of the vast majority first. Have no illusions in phony class alliances with them. Capitalism is the virus. We must inoculate ourselves against corporate propaganda and wipe the system of exploitation off the face of the earth.