Pandemics, capitalism, and the ‘metabolic rift’

Marx identified a rupture between nature and humanity caused by capitalism’s relentless drive for growth and profit. Mehdi Kia explains.

20 May 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unravelled the close structural links between the climate crisis and the global capitalist mode of production. This is a scenario that the socialist left should own as a central platform in its campaigning and organisational activities.

The climate catastrophe not only has an immensely broad appeal to young and old, but is gender neutral, differentially effects the most deprived sections of society, and is by its nature international. The climate crisis directly links what is immediately affecting most people’s lives with anti-capitalism, internationalism, and socialism.

In short, global climate catastrophe has the potential to unite all ages, mobilise the young, is inherently anti-capitalist, and does not recognise national borders. It is thus central to the revolutionary socialist agenda.

How epidemics spread

Humankind has lived with epidemics since the dawn of history. Central to their driving force is the passage of a micro-organism, whether a virus or a bacterium, from one individual to another. Hence at the core of all epidemics is the social nature of our species, homo sapiens.

Social organisation at any historic juncture determines the character of an epidemic facing us at that moment. From that perspective, the nature of epidemics and pandemics of modern times are, at their core, different from epidemics of the past because social organisation is predominantly determined by the nature of production.

Let us take the example of HIV as a model. This virus originated by the recombination of two monkey viruses and entered the human host some time in the early 20th century. However, it remained confined to small pockets in West Africa until the building of railways and roads and the growth of mining in central and southern Africa attracted large numbers of migrant workers.

Two essential elements in the spread of HIV were mobility of people, including labour, and changes in social behaviour, both of which facilitated person-to-person transmission. The initial spread of HIV was predominantly along the routes of population movement – migration of labour, urban-rural migration, trucking, drug smuggling and widespread use through injection, and social disruption caused by regional wars.

The role of sex workers serving miners far from home in crowded single-sex dormitories surrounding mines in the Congo, KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, the Zambian copper belt, industrial areas of Uganda, and among agricultural migrant workers in Cote d’Ivoire has been well documented.

High prevalence of HIV was also found along the route from the mines to the ports of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, and a direct correlation was observed between prevalence of HIV in the general population and their distance from the highways. The closer the village to the stopping site of the lorries, the higher the prevalence of HIV.

In South-East Asia and the countries of the former Soviet block, the major driver of the epidemic has been injected drug abuse. The result to date has been a global pandemic, with nearly 75 million infected persons and over 32 million deaths by the end of 2019, driven by unprotected sex (commercial or otherwise), injected drug use, and mother-to-child transmission.

The close links between the neoliberal model of globalisation, the unfettered movement of capital, including the feeding of the illegal drug trade, the evisceration of the health systems of many countries under the IMF’s ‘Structural Adjustment’ Programmes, and the spread of the HIV pandemic have been reviewed in detail elsewhere.


The Covid-19 pandemic has followed a similar trajectory to HIV, riding on man-made routes of transmission. The virus almost certainly originated in the bat, as had previous forms of coronavirus, including SARS, which caused a smaller pandemic in 2003.

Both SARS and Covid-19 probably passed to humans (either directly or through an intermediary animal) in a wet market where there is sale and slaughter of wild and domestic animals in close contact with humans. But from a wet market to a pandemic we need further vehicles. This include:

1. A global communication network

Our planet has been shrunk through communications. Globally we now have over 5,000 airports, 1.2 million kilometres of rail, and over 30 million kilometres of road.

2. Mass mobility

We live in an age of mass movement. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, in 2017 international tourism ranked third (after chemicals and fuel) in international exports, with 1.5 billion arrivals. In addition, we have the huge mobility of labour within and between states.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there were 164 million migrant workers in December 2018. These figures do not include internal migrants within states like China, estimated at 288 million, and India, estimated at 139 million.

Add to that the movement within and between states of refugees and other displaced persons from conflict. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 41 million internally displaced persons, nearly 26 million refugees, and 3.5 million asylum-seekers.

3. Concentration

Currently, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Huge numbers are living in close proximity to the slums and shanty-towns that are mushrooming everywhere. From migrants living 20 to a room, to crowded refugee camps, to sports stadiums and places of worship, our species is squeezed into closer and closer proximity.

But when talking of zoonotic organisms (microbes and viruses originating in other species) as the source of epidemics, another form of population density is often overlooked: domestic animals crammed together in factory farms. According to estimates worldwide, we currently have 1 billion cattle, 1 billion pigs, and 20 billion chickens on our planet – equivalent to all domesticated animals over the last 10 thousand years put together.

Moreover, they have been progressively concentrated in even bigger farms. In 1967 there were one million pig farms in the USA, which shrank down to 100,000 in 2005. Currently, over half of all the meat being cultivated globally is in factory farms. One single processing plant slaughters 20,000 hogs a day, supplying 4-5% of US pork. On 15 April 2020, that same facility had the largest cluster of Covid-19 cases in the US.

4. Breakdown of barriers

The breakdown of barriers between wild animals and humans, predominantly through the agricultural industry’s expansion into previously wild areas, such as the rain forests of Amazonia and elsewhere, is another factor. At least 60% of novel human pathogens emerge by spilling over from wild animals to local human communities.

Climate catastrophe and capitalism

Marx talks of the ‘metabolic rift’ between society and nature. He defines ecological crisis as the ‘irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism’. He argues that capitalism undermines ‘the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the workers’.

There is abundant literature on this conception in relation to climate change. The current pandemic has revealed the importance of another dimension of the ecological crisis. It concerns modern agribusiness and the cross-species passage of organisms.

The relation between capital flow and Covid-19 and other epidemics has recently been discussed by Rob Wallace et al in Monthly Review. In their study they highlight the role of agribusinesses in linking domesticated animals and micro-organisms in the wild:

By its global expansion alone, commodity agriculture serves as both propulsion for and nexus through which pathogens of diverse origins migrate from the most remote reservoirs to the most international of population centers. It is here, and along the way, where novel pathogens infiltrate agriculture’s gated communities.

The lengthier the associated supply chains and the greater the extent of adjunct deforestation, the more diverse (and exotic) the zoonotic pathogens that enter the food chain. Among recent emergent and re-emergent farm and food-borne pathogens, originating from across the anthropogenic domain, are African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola Reston, E.coli O157:H7, foot-and-mouth disease, hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipah virus, Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, and a variety of novel influenza variants, including H1N1 (2009), H1N2v, H3N2v, H5N1, H5N2, H5Nx, H6N1, H7N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9, and H9N2.

The polluting effects of the production process are too obvious to require further comment. The growing inequality within countries and between countries also have their ecological consequences

Profit and growth

Two aspects of capitalism are central to its destructive nature on our natural world: profit and growth. Both are central to the metabolism, and hence survival, of capitalism.

Marx derived his theory of value from classical economics. Capitalism, according to Marx, cannot exist without profit, which to him is the extraction of surplus value from labour power. Surplus value is the difference between the cost of reproduction of labour and the value of the product in the market. Capitalist profit is generated through the gap between these two values, and it is here that one of the central built-in contradictions of capitalism resides.

Marx argued, and empirical data seems to confirm, that changes in the organic composition of capital (the ratio between fixed capital, the costs of the means of production, and variable capital, the cost of hiring labour) creats a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. A fall in profits over the last two to three decades has been objectively documented. With an inexorable fall in the rate of profit there is a concomitant reduction in investment in production.

Vast amounts capital looking for alternative targets have, among other avenues, turned to real estate, where prices have skyrocketed, with knock-on effect on rents, homelessness, and overcrowding and consequent pollution, and also to increasing production of luxury goods.

The second issue, growth, is closely linked to the first. A fall in profits imposes a need for growth; without growth, capital cannot ensure continuing profit, and without profit there is no investment.

A fall in profits and a push for growth has caused capital to encroach further and further into fields it previously avoided. Such were the privatisation of many state organisations, like health (totally devastated in Africa and other areas, and more recently the NHS in the UK). There is, indeed, no area that has been overlooked.

What was essentially free for capitalists (what Marx called the ‘free gift’ of nature to capital) is now increasingly being transferred into private hands. Capital cannot but privatise, commodify, monetise, and commercialise all aspects of nature that it possibly can – down to our DNA.

Rent, extracted from ownership of land and mineral resources, is a process of appropriation and redistribution of nature. The rise of rentier capitalism, and the stranglehold that private ownership of land, minerals, agriculture, and intellectual property right gives the rentier class, allows them to manipulate and speculate on scare resources.

The over-accumulation of capital accelerates the global ecological crisis by propelling capital to find new ways to stimulate consumption. The result is a state of planetary Armageddon, threatening not just socio-economic stability, but the survival of human civilisation and the human species itself.

Clearly, humankind requires food and manufactured goods for its survival. But this process has been distorted by the profit motive to the point where it is causing environmental pollution at a level which threatens the survival of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems. The delinking of what Marx called ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ has now become an imperative of survival. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark argue:

In Marx’s explanation of the commodity value system under capitalism (and in classical political economy in general), wealth consists of use values, which have a natural-material basis tied to production in general. In contrast, value (based on abstract social labor) under capitalism is derived solely from the exploitation of labor power, and is devoid of any natural-material content. Nature is thus deemed by the system as a ‘free gift … to capital’.

This contradiction gives rise to what is known as the Lauderdale Paradox, named after James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale, an early 19th century classical political economist. Lauderdale pointed out that the accumulation of private riches (exchange value) under capitalism generally depends on the destruction of public wealth (use values), so as to generate the scarcity and monopoly essential to the accumulation process.

The contradiction between use value and exchange value is, of course, central to Marx’s critique of capitalism.

Socialism requires that the associated producers rationally regulate the metabolism of nature and society. It is in this context that Marx’s central concepts of the ‘universal metabolism of nature’, ‘social metabolism’, and the ‘metabolic rift’ have come to define his critical-ecological worldview.

The clear links between capitalist forms of production and the ecological disaster facing our species, which becomes more visible by the day, have created a revolutionary climate. It is time for the socialist left to take ownership of the ecological question, not just as another slogan, and place it at the centre of its programme for global revolutionary change.

Mehdi Kia is a retired clinician and political activist with special interest in global health. This article was first posted at To Join the Mutiny, CLICK HERE


© 2019 by Mutiny. Proudly created with Wix.comTerms of Use  |   Privacy Policy