COVID-19 and Catastrophe Capitalism

Commodity Chains and Ecological-Epidemiological-Economic Crises

John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi

OVID-19 has accentuated as never before the interlinked ecological, epidemiological, and economic vulnerabilities imposed by capitalism. As the world enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, we are seeing the emergence of catastrophe capitalism as the structural crisis of the system takes on planetary dimensions.

Since the late twentieth century, capitalist globalisation has increasingly adopted the form of interlinked commodity chains controlled by multinational corporations, connecting various production zones, primarily in the Global South,with the apex of world consumption, finance, andaccumulation primarily in the Global North. These commodity chains make up the main material circuits of capital globally that constitute the phenomenon of late imperialism identified with the rise of generalised monopoly-finance capital. In this system, exorbitant imperial rents from the control of global production are obtained not only from the global labour arbitrage, through which multinational corporations with their headquarters in the centre of the system overexploit industrial labour in the periphery, but also increasingly through the global land arbitrage, in which agribusiness multinationals expropriate cheap land (and labour) in the Global South so as to produce export crops mainly for sale in the Global North.

The circuits of capital of late imperialism have taken these tendencies to their fullest extent, generating a rapidly developing planetary ecological crisis that threatens to engulf human civilization as we know it; a perfect storm of catastrophe. This comes on top of a system of accumulation that is divorced from any rational ordering of needs for the population independent of the cash nexus. Accumulation and the amassing of wealth in general are increasingly dependent on the proliferation of waste of all kinds. In the midst of this disaster, a New Cold War and a growing likelihood of thermonuclear destruction have emerged, with an increasingly unstable and aggressive United States at the forefront. This has led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its famous doomsday clock to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to midnight since the clock started in 1947.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of increasing and more deadly pandemics is a product of this same late-imperialist development. Chains of global exploitation and expropriation have destabilized not only ecologies but the relations between species, creating a toxic brew of pathogens. All of this can be seen as arising from the introduction of agribusiness with its genetic monocultures; massive ecosystem destruction involving the uncontrolled mixture of species; and a system of global valorization based on treating land, bodies, species, and ecosystems as so many “free gifts” to be expropriated, irrespective of natural and social limits.

Nor are new viruses the only emerging global health problem. The overuse of antibiotics within agribusiness as well as modern medicine has led to the dangerous growth of bacterial superbugs generating increasing numbers of deaths, which by mid–century could surpass annual cancer deaths, and inducing the World Health Organization to declare a “global health emergency.” Since communicable diseases, due to the unequal conditions of capitalist class society, fall heaviest on the working class and the poor, and on populations in the periphery, the system that generates such diseases in the pursuit of quantitative wealth can be charged, as Engels and the Chartists did in the nineteenth century, with social murder. As the revolutionary developments in epidemiology represented by One Health and Structural One Health have suggested, the etiology of the new pandemics can be traced to the overall problem of ecological destruction brought on by capitalism.

Here, the necessity of a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” rears its head once again, as it has so many times in the past. The logic of contemporary historical development points to the need for a more communal-commons-based system of social metabolic reproduction, one in which the associated producers rationally regulate their social metabolism with nature, so as to promote free development of each as the basis of the free development of all, while conserving energy and the environment. The future of humanity in the twenty-first century lies not in the direction of increased economic and ecological exploitation/expropriation, imperialism, and war. Rather, what Marx called “freedom in general” and the preservation of a viable “planetary metabolism” are the most pressing necessities today in determining the human present and future, and even human survival.


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