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Covid-19 and Capitalist Production: A Review of Rob Wallace’s Dead Epidemiologists

In Rob Wallace’s most recent book, he reviews what is known about the development of the virus that causes Covid-19 in the context of industrial farming combined with habitat destruction. Inherent in his critique is a condemnation of capitalist agricultural methods, some thoughts on alternatives, and what forces in rural society are doing to create these alternatives. His book is a must-read for anybody who wishes to truly understand Covid-19.

John Reimann

November 28, 2020
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An agriculture worker sprays pesticide on a farm.
PHOTO: Ben Stirton

There is currently a record 90,000 hospitalized with Covid-19, and over a quarter of a million people in the United States have died of the disease. Projections are that this will increase drastically. Meanwhile, nobody really knows the longer term health effects of the disease. So it is no wonder that the focus is on dealing with this immediate crisis. That has been the exclusive focus of those like Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Socialists go beyond what Fauci proposes and call for workers’ rights, economic support, and other demands, but this, too, only deals with the symptoms of the crisis. What Fauci obscures, and what socialists should consider, is the underlying cause for the increase in new zoonotic diseases (diseases that have jumped the species barrier to humans). The work of evolutionary epidemiologist Rob Wallace, who studies how diseases evolve, is essential to understand that, and the reason gets to how capitalism itself develops. That is why dealing with the symptoms alone is the scientific equivalent of reformism.

Most scientists in Wallace’s field rely purely on “reductionism” to explain diseases. In other words, they look for an agent — for example a virus — that causes a disease, and then examine how it is transmitted, how it affects the body, and so on. This is a necessary part of scientific research, but should by no means be the only focus. This is because we are living in the era of the increasingly rapid rise of new zoonotic diseases. Wallace links the reductionist method with the necessary task of studying the conditions under which the new viruses emerge. He explains that the cause of these diseases is not found simply in the pathogen’s evolution but in the relations that capitalism imposes between the process of production (especially food production) and the environment in order to maximize profit.  Nor does he shy away from explaining that these conditions are first and foremost political and economic. 

His first book, Big Farms Make Big Flu, was published in 2009, before Covid-19. He explains in great depth how industrial or factory farming combines with habitat destruction to open the door for viruses that previously only infected wild animals to evolve in such a way as to become infectious to humans. (This article, Coronavirus, a New World Historical Era and the Socialist Movement, explains the process in more detail.) Factory farming and habitat loss have given rise to a whole series of zoonotic diseases, including Swine flu, avian flu, SARS, Ebola, MERS, and many others. Other scientists have made similar arguments, but what distinguishes Wallace is that he explains how the circuit of capital — how capital is invested and where — is at the heart of the process. He doesn’t do this in the abstract: he names names (like Colgate-Palmolive, for example).

In his new book, Dead Epidemiologists, published in October, Wallace applies both a standard scientific method as well as a broader social/political/economic analysis to explain the emergence of SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19. As with his previous book, this one is a compilation of different articles, some co-authored. This has an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that the book tends to jump around a bit from one aspect of the subject to another. The advantage is that since the articles are in chronological publication order (from late January, 2020 to late July), the reader gets a sense of the development of Wallace’s thinking over time. That is very useful with a new virus like SARS-CoV2.

A major question is how and where this virus first evolved.

As with most, if not all, such evolutions, this was not a simple one- or two-step process. It neither made a single mutation and then jumped from pangolins to humans in the wet market in Wuhan, nor was it developed in a lab in that province from which it accidentally escaped (or, as conspiracy theorists would have you believe, was deliberately released). Wallace reviews a series of papers that examine the genome (genetic material) of the virus and compare it to other SARS viruses. He says that analyses of the development of this virus “place SARS-2’s proximate origins as far south as Guangdong, the province from which both SARS-1 and several avian influenzas, most infamously H5N1, were originally identified.” He shows evidence that similar viruses were passed from bats to pangolins in this southern province. Because bats have powerful immune systems, these viruses are not deadly. However, they were for the pangolins, and autopsies revealed similar lung scarring to that in human patients with Covid-19. 

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The pathogen that causes many of these new zoonotic diseases originated in bats, who are carriers of a whole host of viruses but have powerful immune systems. (One theory is that this is because they are the only mammal that can fly, they are more mobile and come in wider contact with others of their species.) As humans press ever deeper into wild habitat, bat colonies are disturbed and come into closer contact with both humans and farmed meat animals such as hogs and cattle. According to Wallace, a version of the virus was found among bats as early as 2004. It then apparently was transmitted to trafficked pangolins. CoV-SARS2 is “a recombinant of bat and Malaysian pangolin strains,” Wallace writes.

Such mutations of viruses can happen naturally in the wild, but the complexity of wilderness conditions, and the fact that the different species don’t come into such close and prolonged contact, means that a particular mutation is likely to burn itself out, much like a forest fire does in an untouched forest which has natural fire breaks. He stresses that because of “the processes by which increasingly capitalized landscapes turn living organisms into commodities and entire production chains — animal, producer, processor, and retailer — into disease vectors…pandemic SARS [probably] emerged along the increasingly industrialized wild animal commodity chain from hinterlands and border towns as far south and west as Yunnan. On the last leg of its domestic tour, the virus made its way to Wuhan by truck or plane and then the world.” 

Lab Origin?

Some studies have concluded that the virus emerged from labs in Wuhan. While Wallace thinks present evidence makes that unlikely, he does not rule it out. He points out, though, that this does not support the anti-China propaganda of Trump and others. After all, it seems that these studies derived from a strain of the virus that the labs obtained from EcoHealth Alliance. Not only that, but such accidents are not that unusual in laboratories around the world. A particularly dangerous aspect of such studies in labs all around the world is “gain-of-function” experiments: studies in which a virus is encouraged to mutate into increasingly virulent forms. According to Wallace, present safety protocols are inadequate for such studies. And, anyway, what useful purpose can such studies serve — except, as Wallace suggests, for biological warfare?

Wallace returns to the issue of the origins of this virus in the last article of his book, To the Bat Cave. In this article, he raises some interesting issues. As we know, both the frequency and the negative outcome of Covid-19 tends to be greater among men than women. Several theories have been advanced as to why, including social ones — for example, men tend to smoke more, and visit places like bars more — and biological ones. The origins of the SARS virus may provide further explanation. According to Wallace, one study found SARS viruses in bats in China as early as 2002. Further study revealed that the viral “load” (the amount of the virus) tended to be greater among male bats than female bats and that was especially true during their mating season. Wallace explains that SARS2 enters the human cell through latching on to the ACE 2 receptors, and that these receptors are higher among male bats during the mating season. There may be implications for using androgen suppressants — drugs that block testosterone and similar hormones from affecting the body’s functions — when treating this disease among men. 

Rise of Industrial Agriculture

Another article in his book is entitled The Origins of Industrial agricultural Pathogens. In that article, Wallace explains that “agriculture itself is invasive” of nature. From homo sapiens’s earliest start in food production as opposed to food gathering, we started bending what we found in nature to the needs of our species in a way that no other species can. In some cases, this was destructive of the natural habitat. However, that destruction was small potatoes compared to what has developed.

The start down this road was the transformation of food production from producing a use value to producing an exchange value — in other words, from producing food for the producer’s use to producing food to be exchanged on the market. This was not a sudden shift; it took place gradually, starting with the development of class society. Part of this process was the alienation of the producer from the “fruits” of his or her labor. This is part of a more general process best known in the example of an industrial worker. In an earlier time, a shoe maker produced his own shoes at his own pace and was the owner of that commodity, which he sold on the open market. (And under feudalism it was almost always a “he.”) Under capitalism, that shoe maker is brought into a factory and her or his every motion is controlled by the owner of the factory — the capitalist. The worker doesn’t control the labor process any more than she or he owns the product of their labor. It is all alienated from the worker.

Something similar has happened with agriculture. One hundred years ago, food was largely produced by small farmers in the United States. Farmers determined what they would produce and how. Those determinations were set by both market conditions as well as the environment in which the farmer was working — whether they were working in the hot and humid Southeast or the Midwest plains, for example.

One of the main ways in which the small farmers were alienated from their labor was through the railroads. The farmers depended on the railroads to get their commodity to market, but these railroads were owned and controlled by a few giant monopolies, which gave them tremendous bargaining power over the farmers which they ruthlessly used to rip off the farmers. (This radicalized the farmers, many of whom were the greatest supporters of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party.)

Today, however, the process of alienation has been carried through to completion through the domination of industrial farming. In Bureaucracy and the Labor Process, Dan Clawson argues that the capitalist increased their profits by introducing the assembly line not so much because the assembly line was more efficient, but because it enabled the capitalists to increase their control over the labor process, including over the work pace. Something similar is happening in food production. In the past, the small farmer decided how they would cultivate their crops or raise their animals, for example by choosing which strains or breeds to use. To a certain extent, during this process they had to figure out how to harmonize with what nature provided – the amount of sunlight and rain, the type of soil, how to deal with whatever pests were common. Now, control over food production has been centralized, and a few giant corporations dominate, for example Cargill and Tyson Foods. These giant corporations provide the breed stock or the patented seeds, and the farmer is often obligated to raise it in the way dictated by the providers. However, the individual farmer bears the risks. If, for example, a disease breaks out in the farmer’s stock, it is the farmer, not the provider, who bears the cost, often alongside the taxpayer.

Just as the railroads consolidated into giant monopolies, we see a similar process in food production. According to Wallace, by 2006, the number of primary poultry breeders had declined to four and the number of providers of egg-laying chickens had declined to just two worldwide. A similar process is under way in other meat producing industries as well as in agriculture. Not only that, but the actual production itself has been centralized away from the small farmer. According to the Science Institute, 99 percent of farmed animals living in the United States are factory farmed. Nor is this confined to the United States: Wallace mentions the seven story “hog hotel” owned by Guangxi Yangxint Co. in China where 1000 hogs are raised on each floor.

In these factory farms, the animals are packed together cheek by jowl and are genetically nearly identical. In earlier methods of livestock raising, a mutation in some virus might sicken a few of the stock but since they varied genetically, that same mutation was less likely to spread throughout the entire flock or herd, and being more spread out meant the pathogen didn’t jump from one to another as easily. Today, animals are bred and fed to put on weight faster to allow for “high throughput,” which means the animal being slaughtered at an ever earlier age as is done now. This puts pressure on the pathogen — often a virus — to be able to jump from one individual to another ever faster so that it can spread before its host is slaughtered.

To summarize: Just as the production of food has been increasingly alienated from the producer, so it has been alienated from nature. The difference is this: The alienation of the worker from her or his labor results in a continual struggle between labor and capital over which class shall benefit in what proportions from the excess product that the worker produces. That battle flows back and forth as long as capitalism predominates. At times, under more favorable circumstances, the worker can emerge victorious from one particular battle or even a series of battles. The conflict between capitalism and the forces of nature is different. The laws of nature are and always will be more powerful. For a short time, capitalism may appear to emerge victorious, but nature will always have its revenge. That is what is happening with the rise of new zoonotic diseases.

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Today, the capitalist media promotes Anthony Fauci and similar scientists as heroes. The difference between them and people like Scott Atlas, a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, is that the former could be considered to be scientific capitalists as opposed to complete mystics. But what they advocate is at best a rearguard battle. Just as they accept without question the social relations of production (the worker vs. the capitalist), so they accept the relations of production of capitalism vs. the natural world. This means damage control at best. Wallace writes:

“The secret thrill (and open terror) epidemiologists feel during an outbreak is nothing more than defeat disguised as heroism. Almost the entirety of the profession is presently organized around post hoc duties, much like a stable boy with a shovel following behind the elephants at a circus…. [Scientists such as Simon Reid, professor of communicable disease control at the University of Queensland] ping from topic to topic, failing to weave a whole out of [their] technicist observations. Such folly isn’t necessarily a matter of incompetence or malicious intent… It is more a matter of the contradictory obligations of the neoliberal university.” 

Some Conclusions

Two hundred years ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted the clash between capitalist production (especially food production) and the natural world. They were political economists turned environmental scientists to a degree. (See, for example, Marx on Modern Industry and Agriculture in Capital and Engels’s “The Part Played By Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.”) Today, that clash has magnified to absolute crisis proportions. This is forcing the more serious scientists to turn to the political struggle. Wallace is following the examples set by the likes of Rachel Carson and, more recently, the wonderful zoologist and toxicologist Theo Colborn, who turned her scientific conclusions into political activism against fracking.

Until recently, aside from strictly scientific research, Wallace’s main political activity was speaking to different groups of socialists. In this, he provided an invaluable service. Now, he seems to have stepped it up. In his book, he mentions several different peasant and small farmer groups including Via Campesina and the International Panel on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). He seems to see the importance of the role of those involved in food production who have not been completely alienated from their labor and from nature. Wallace also briefly discusses regenerative farming as the alternative to industrial farming. Among other things, regenerative farming has the advantage of returning large amounts of CO2 to the soil. Those few courageous and dedicated scientists like Wallace can make a huge contribution to the struggle of the working class. It is incumbent on socialists within the working class to take advantage of what he and others like him have to offer and to help heal the breach between urban workers and rural food producers.

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John Reimann

John Reimann is the former recording secretary and an expelled member of Carpenters Union Local 713. He was expelled for fighting for the members. He is the administrator of the blog site oaklandsocialist.com

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