In this talk given at rs21’s recent national meeting, Brendan Montague, rs21 member and editor of the Ecologist, looks at how capitalism, colonialism, ecological devastation co-evolved and at what we can do to cure our societies and our planet.
The talk in the video gives a condensed version of the article republished below, originally published on the Ecologist website.
Capitalism is the virus. I present this as both a literal and metaphorical statement. My aim is to supplant the ‘humans are the virus’ claim.
Let’s begin then with a very brief and rough definition of ‘virus’.
A virus is in essence a string of DNA or RNA encased in protein. This object can enter living cells, and then change their behaviour so that the victim or host will reproduce the virus DNA, until it spills out and then goes onto infect the rest of the living organism.
There is much debate about whether a virus is itself a living thing. We can define life as something that is self-replicating, or autopoetic. Viruses meet this test.
Others argue that a living thing also practices metabolism, it uses energy to sustain its own existence. This viruses do not by themselves do.
But they do co-opt living things to do this on their behalf. Some claim that viruses in one state, independent and out in the wind, are non-living but come alive once they have found a host.
Some viruses – but not all – kill their host, stealing too much energy or overwhelming the living organism as a direct result of its exponential growth. This to me sounds very similar – indeed pretty much the same – as capitalism.
The DNA of capitalism is identified by the philosopher and political economist Karl Marx in his Capital as the sequence M-C-M’, or money, commodity, money. This is the logical inception or beginning of capital.
Previously, our body politic manifested as feudalism. The feudal economy can be described as a process of making a commodity, bringing it to market, exchanging it for money which is then used to buy another commodity.
This is the C-M-C relation. It makes sense and seems fair. If you are a farmer producing wheat, and you have more wheat than you need you can use the market and money to obtain some apples.
But this relation existed in a real world characterised by appropriation: slavery, indenture, tithes, taxation all supported by extreme violence.
Capitalism as a virus begins when this host is infected, and instantly changes its behaviour. We move from C-M-C to M-C-M’.
As Marx points out in Capital, there is really no point in exchange unless the money you invest is augmented or valourised, and that you leave the process with more cash in the bank than when you left.
This is ultimately why capitalism grows exponentially. You enter the market on Monday with £100 and leave with £110. On Tuesday, you enter with £110 and expect £121. And on it goes.
Those who have watched David Harvey’s films will have seen his diagrams setting out Marx’s dialectical presentation of the capitalist production and circulation of the commodity. This looks something like the double helix of DNA, adding a nice touch to the metaphor that Capital itself has a code, a DNA, that it replicates and is self-making, as it grows exponentially.
Marx’s analysis of capitalism, which begins with the commodity and the M-C-M code, is also particularly important for our understanding of the impact of capital on the natural environment.
Marx is clear that almost every commodity contains within it both human labour and other natural resources. Use value and exchange value are dialectically sublated into the commodity: two forms of nature – natural resources such as wood, iron, plastics and also as human labour, what we do when we go to work – are also dialectically sublated into the commodity.
Capitalism is by definition profit making. It functions by and through the production of the commodity and therefore the exploitation of human labour and the rest of nature.
What we see is that capitalism infects a living host like a virus, changing its behaviour so that energy is diverted to keeping the virus alive and indeed so that it can be reproduced exponentially.
Like those viruses that are pathogenic to humans (and not all viruses are) capital exhausts its host, causing it to be overwhelmed, and making both the individual worker and the body politic sick, even to the point of death.
This is what I mean when I say that capitalism is literally a virus. At the same time, Marx’s analysis suggests that capitalism is hard-wired to destroy the natural environment and also hard wired to colonial exploitation.
The virus of capitalism is sustained on the body of the human species but also on natural resources and most especially on the energy stores in the form of fossil fuels of the earth.
The claim that we can ‘decouple’ commodity production from environmental extraction have proven false: unsurprisingly even non-material commodities like services – going to see Disney – rely on the massive expenditure of natural resources – the flights, the driving, the food, the costumes.
Capitalism is a virus that has infected the biosphere (or if you are a deep ecologist, Gaia) and will eventually kill it. It is not a particular kind of capitalism – neoliberal, free market, statist, industrialised – it is capitalism itself. At the same time, the growth of capitalism means only a neoliberal, monopolised, extractivist capitalism is possible.
Marx very famously extolled some of the benefits of capitalism in the Communist Manifesto, and we understand that without the incredible advances in technology and social organisation afforded by this system we would not be where we are today.
That is not to forget the exploitation and appropriation of wealth. That is not to forget slavery. But in the same way, we can also recognise that viruses are not evil.
Indeed, the virus may have been the evolutionary bridge between the sterile mechanical universe, and the rich dialectical biology of life on earth. The nucleus of a living cell may in fact be an invasive virus.
So could capitalism – deadly capitalism – be the basis for a new way of living? Humans, conversely, are not a virus. If we can cure ourselves of capitalism there is no reason why a human cannot be a net contributor to their environments, producing the conditions necessary for plants to grow and provide food.
We as humans are conscious of the destruction capitalism is causing, and can imagine and we can create the alternative. Clearly a virus has no such potential.
I want to briefly summarise the history of capitalism using our new metaphor of capital being a virus, looking at three key stages: its beginnings, its middle and hopeful its end.
The Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of a statute in Bristol means the origin story of capitalism, and in particular British capitalism, is very much at the forefront of our minds. These events remind us that capitalism took hold because the body politic both here and around the world was already sick.
Capitalism could only have emerged within the context of class society, bondage, the dispossession of the majority of people, and of course the international networks of slavery and death.
The growth of London as the capital of capitalism depended on Britain’s self-colonialism: the dissolution of the monasteries; the enclosures in both England and Scotland.
The people were stripped from the land. The forest was stripped of its trees. These trees fuelled the furnaces at the birth of capitalism.
Something I have only come to learn recently is these furnaces were producing pig iron, and this was used for guns and cannon. It was the arms industry that devastated England’s forests and the people who lived within them.
Having burned all the wood on the island England began its history of imperial colonisation: Ireland. The quarry was forest, or wood for industry.
The pig iron produced enabled London’s colonialism. When the wood was gone the early capitalists turned to coal. The need to ship coal from Newcastle to London necessitated and funded an armada of heavy, strong vessels, which would be commandeered by the monarch for war.
The myth of British exceptionalism, and the corresponding myth of capitalist innovation is based on the concept of the invention.
It is claimed that Britain came to dominate the world because it invented the steam engine, the railway, and even the capitalism system itself. But such ‘inventiveness’ was in fact a response to the destructive power of capital.
The steam engine was invented as coal above the waterline was exhausted, the railway as coal had to be transported further from outlying mines to areas of production.
If Britain was exceptional, it was because of its willingness to burn its forests: it was first and foremost in its self-alienation from nature, its willingness to alienate the people from their land, and its keenness to then colonise the world.
Capitalism, colonialism, ecological devastation are all cause and effect of each other, and they coevolved together. The only way I can even begin to comprehend colonialism – the murderous brutality of Christopher Columbus, Edward Colston and their legacy today – is to assume that these men were literally driven mad by the accumulation of wealth.
The virus had taken hold, it had changed their behaviour, they were acting in the interests of capital, not in the interests of humanity, and not even in their own interests as human beings.
The next phase of capitalism can be understood to be the transition from wood and then coal to oil. Winston Churchill, whose reputation is now being re-examined, was responsible for transferring the British navy from coal oil. He was also a paid consultant of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now BP. The move to oil defined a new epoch of capitalism, and imperialism.
When I think about the founding of the United States, I inevitably fall back upon films from my childhood of white cowboys defeating Indigenous people in horse battles across arid planes.
Very often it is the families with American accents that have to circle their wagons, or hide in rocky mountains and shoot at horsebacked marauders. This is a disgusting misrepresentation of native Americans, but it is also a misrepresentation of the land.
America was almost entirely dense forest before the arrival of the Mayflower.
American capitalism was made in a foundry fuelled by the devastation of forest, and it was only after all the wood had been burned that it turned to oil.
This oil first came from whaling and then, when the oceans were emptied of these magnificent, empathic mammals, from fossil fuels in the ground.
Its enormous energy wealth powered its manufacturing and shipping, building the infrastructure for industrial scale slavery, domination and the appropriation of people and of natural wealth in Africa and the Caribbean.
The United States was already beginning to emerge as a global power before the Second World War. The British Empire transferred almost all of its wealth to the United States in exchange for oil for its oil burning ships.
The depletion of US oil in the process then supercharged the US’s ambitions as a colonial power, leading to the power struggle and conflict in the Middle East, which continues to today with the bombing of Syria and the sanctions against Iran.
Britain effectively stopped being an empire after the war. The country could no longer depend on the spoils of a global colonial network fuelled by fossil fuels and extreme exploitation.
Inevitably, the continued accumulation of capital resulted in a transfer of wealth from the many to the few; and equally inevitably this resulted in a confrontation between the working class – and in particular the working class engaged in the devastation of nature in the production of coal – and the ruling class and their state.
The defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984 ushered in neoliberal capitalism, and in turn the gradual hollowing out of the welfare state.
The previous era of Keynesian economics could be understood as an attempt to contain and slow the virus of capitalism – to flatten the curve so that everyone would become infected but our welfare state would not become overwhelmed by unemployment, poverty and deprivation, so that the earth systems could recover between harvests.
Neoliberalism was the policy decision to let the virus rip.
What we now know is that long before the miners’ strike, oil companies including ExxonMobil in the US and Shell and BP here in the UK knew that capital’s dependency on fossil fuels, and in particular oil, would cost us the earth.
Climate scientists had established that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, that burning fossil fuels put CO2 in the atmosphere, that the world was indeed beginning to heat.
We now know that climate breakdown has already begun, that we are approaching terrifying tipping points, and that our progress to Armageddon will not be steady and smooth.
We now know, we now have proof, that the oil industry executives knew.
Shell planned a radical transfer away from oil and gas and towards renewable forms of energy. But the markets were spooked, the investors would not take the risk. And so we continued towards the collapse of civilisations, the collapse of our living systems, the collapse of the biosphere.
I can only comprehend this decision when I assume that once again in human history the virus had taken hold, changing the behaviour of the host to meet its immediate needs, but without the consciousness of animal life to know that ultimately it would kill its host, its habitat, and ultimately destroy its own future.
We need to pose the question: will the end of capitalism only arrive with the end of human civilization as we know it, and indeed the end of the human species and the biosphere?
It is at this moment that the novel coronavirus enters the story. We have a high level of certainty that the novel coronavirus – Covid-19 – originated in bats.
There is evidence that bats would never have become infected, the infection would not have entered the human population, and this infection would not have become a global pandemic, had it not been for the vector of capitalism.
It is at this point that capitalism not only is metaphorically a virus, but the system of capitalism metamorphosis into a real, material virus.
How is this so? In the first place, the decision of the Communist Party of China to introduce a form of neoliberal capitalist production into some areas of the country had resulted in the logging and encroachment of forest.
Bats become sick when stressed by industry and deforestation and are much more vulnerable to viruses, which then spread and mutate. The encroachment into new areas by the animal agriculture industry it seems created the pathways that allowed the infected bat to enter into other species, and then ultimately to us.
This exact process has been predicted by scientists for some time, as evidenced by the film Contagion (2011, dir. S. Soderbergh) which was written in consultation with scientists in the field.
The introduction of liberal capitalism into some regions of China had also exacerbated social inequality, creating a wealthy cohort who began to indulge in luxuries including ‘live’ and ‘wet’ meat markets, and exotic foods like bats and pangolin.
These practices are described as ‘traditional Chinese foods’ but would disgust working class people in Beijing in the same way it might disgust anyone in the UK.
The existence of a global hyper-capitalist infrastructure meant that the novel coronavirus did not impact a small, local population but instead within just weeks had become a global crisis.
The airline industry became a carrier of the disease into every continent and almost every country. Those centres of capital most connected through aviation were the first to be impacted. Britain is home to Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world outside of the United States, and is now the centre of the European pandemic.
The aviation industry depends on fossil fuels more than any other (there are no electric planes landing any time soon). But it also depends on subsidised fuels.
Flying is a form of tax avoidance, because planes can theoretically refuel in the country with the lowest tax. And relatedly, the aviation industry is based off shore. As such it not only escapes climate regulation and taxation, but does not contribute to the funding of the state.
These same airlines have been awarded hundreds of millions of pounds each in state subsidies in the UK alone. The parasite continues to feed even at the risk of killing the host. This is money diverted away from the NHS, from climate jobs.
Capitalism – and in particular neoliberal capitalism – created the perfect conditions for the pandemic. The ideology of neoliberalism undermined the status, the efficacy and well as the resource base for the state.
The ruling class gave up on politics, and focused entirely on capital production pure and simple. The financialisation of the UK.
The crisis of 2008 was prevented from becoming a terminal global crisis because it was transformed into a crisis for the state, and in particular the welfare state.
Health services, social services, education systems, welfare systems have all been undermined by 40 years of neoliberalism accelerated in the last decade during 10 years of austerity.
The non-capitalist infrastructure that could have prevented the pandemic or at least reduced its impact. The British government recognised that a new flu virus was the greatest threat to national security, it established during planning exercises in 2016 that we were hopelessly unprepared.
But it spent the next four years depleting our stockpiles of PPE.
The logic of the market meant that there was no return on investment in buying masks and gloves, especially when tax rebates for the richest had meant the state would not buy PPE in order to keep it in store.
The virus of capitalism has infected the human species, changing its behaviour so that we devastate our natural environment, and also delete and destroy our own social wealth. This has made the body politic sick, and this has created a vector into which the actual virus, novel coronavirus, could spread so quickly and with such devastating consequences.
The crisis of novel coronavirus has led to 65,000 deaths so far in the UK. Scientists believe that less than 10 percent of the population has been infected so far.
This suggests that 600,000 deaths are possible in this country alone. That is significantly more than the UK suffered in the Second World War.
Clearly, the picture internationally is horrific. We will be talking about multiple millions of deaths. The world leaders could have stopped this.
They could have shut down the aviation industry the moment The Lancet and the World Health Organisation warned of a potential pandemic.
A global programme of test, trace, isolate and compensation could have contained the virus to a few hundred thousand people, where it would have simply died out.
The novel coronavirus has also caused the biggest economic collapse on record, and probably in the history of capitalism. In Britain we have seen economic growth fall by 20%.
We have seen 40 million people unemployed in the United States. This history of capitalism approaches the end of the final phase, where the virus overwhelms and exhausts its host, where the host dies and the virus dies with it.
The body politic, the biosphere is sick to death. If we do not cure the planet of capitalism soon, it may be too late. There are always limits to growth.
The novel coronavirus in its current form may go on to infect everyone, creating an immune response and simply die out. Capitalism may kill the biosphere and simply die out. The crisis of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse did not get resolved by the lockdown.
The end of the lockdown brings individual deaths from coronavirus and brings us to social collapse from carbon capitalism.
Even now, the only way I can understand the actions of our world leaders is to believe that they too have been infected by a virus, that they were acting in the interests of capital and not the interests of the human species, nor indeed their own long term interests.
The virus of capitalism is so entrenched in the UK, in its institutions such as private schools, elite universities, its Parliament and its media.
Everything is hijacked or hacked in the interests of the virus. There are some – Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Dominic Cummings – that may have been born infected and who have been so overtaken by the virus that there is clearly no cure. Test. Trace. Isolate?
We desperately need an immune response to the virus of capitalism – we have needed one ever since the first infection.
Indeed, when it comes to capitalism we do need herd immunity. The NHS, the care homes, the care workers, the bus drivers, the refuse collectors, the school teachers, those engaged in useful work are our antibodies.
Together they form our defence against both coronavirus and indeed against capitalism. Capitalism, neoliberalism, austerity had weakened this system and made us vulnerable when the real, material virus attacked.
To understand how hardwired environmental destruction, colonialism and vulnerability to the coronavirus is, it is worth doing a brief mental exercise.
What would a society based on human need rather than the accumulation of capital have that we did not have in November 2019.
You can assume any such society would have the following infrastructure:
- Huge areas of land reserved for non-human nature. This was implemented in Russia in 1918.
- A system for monitoring virus and disease in mammals and animals that are vulnerable to the same pathogens as humans. This exists today but is grossly underfunded.
- A fully transparent, global reporting system for any potential outbreak, similar but better resourced than that used by the WHO.
- An authority, preferably specialist and democratic, that can shut down the international aviation industry immediately if there is a threat of pandemic.
- A store of tests and PPE in every nation so that a test, trace and isolate regime can be instigated within ours – and not after months – of any infections.
- A comprehensive system for health and welfare ensuring that populations are fed, sheltered and well.
- A working culture that means that people are not already exhausted and stressed, and where anyone reporting symptoms of even a mild cold can take time off work to rest, isolate from colleagues, and recover with no loss of income.
If capitalism is a virus, we are going to need a vaccine. And that vaccine is Black Lives Matter. The vaccine is socialism.