Coronavirus: nature fights back

As I write, the new deadly coronavirus 2019-nCoV, related to SARS and MERS, and apparently originating in live animal markets in Wuhan, China, is starting to spread worldwide. According to the latest data as of today, there are just under 10,000 cases globally with just 130 or so outside China.  So far, there have been 230 fatalities, none outside China, or about a 2% death ratio, compared to 10% with the SARS virus back in 2009.  The rate of spread is about 1.5, a figure that appears to slowing, although it may be too early to say.

This infection is characterized by human-to-human transmission and an apparent two-week incubation period before the sickness hits, so the infection will likely continue to spread across the globe.

As epidemiologist Rob Wallace from the Institute for Global Studies, University of Minnesota says in Climate and Capitalism, “Outbreaks are dynamic. Yes, some burn out, including, maybe, 2019-nCoV. It takes the right evolutionary draw and a little luck to beat out chance extirpation. Sometimes enough hosts don’t line up to keep transmission going. Other outbreaks explode. Those that make it on the world stage can be game changers, even if they eventually die out. They upend the everyday routines of even a world already in tumult or at war.”

Wallace adds: “The SARS outbreak proved less virulent than it first seemed. But it still quietly killed patients, at magnitudes far beyond these first follow-up dismissals. H1N1 (2009) killed as many as 579,000 people its first year, producing complications in fifteen times more cases than initially projected from lab tests alone.  Under such widespread percolation, low mortality for a large number of infections can still cause a large number of deaths. If four billion people are infected at a mortality rate of only 2%, a death rate less than half that of the 1918 influenza pandemic, eighty million people are killed.”

But unlike for seasonal influenza, there is neither ‘herd immunity’, nor a vaccine to slow it down. Even speeded-up development will at best take three months to produce a vaccine for 2019-nCoV, assuming it even works. Scientists successfully produced a vaccine for the H5N2 avian influenza only after the U.S. outbreak ended.  These unknowns—the exact source, infectivity, penetrance, and possible treatments—together explain why epidemiologists and public health officials are worried about 2019-nCoV.

But whatever the specific source of 2019-noV, there appears to be an underlying structural cause: the pressure of the law of value through industrial farming and the commodification of natural resources.  Commoditizing the forest may have lowered the ecosystemic threshold to such a point that no emergency intervention can drive any outbreak low enough to burn out.  For example, in relation to the Ebola outbreak in the Congo (which is also happening again), “Deforestation and intensive agriculture may strip out traditional agroforestry’s stochastic friction, which typically keeps the virus from lining up enough transmission.” 

The blame for the 2019-nCoV outbreak is supposedly open markets for exotic animals in Wuhan, but it could also be due to the industrial farming of hogs across China.  And anyway, “even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains: among them ostriches, porcupine, crocodiles, fruit bats, and the palm civet, whose partially digested berries now supply the world’s most expensive coffee bean. Some wild species are making it onto forks before they are even scientifically identified, including one new short-nosed dogfish found in a Taiwanese market.”

All are increasingly treated as food commodities. As nature is stripped place-by-place, species-by-species, what’s left over becomes that much more valuable. Spreading factory farms meanwhile may force increasingly corporatized wild foods companies to trawl deeper into the forest, increasing the likelihood of picking up a new pathogen, while reducing the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains.

There has been much academic discussion among Marxists and ‘green ecologists’ recently on the relation of humans to nature.  The argument is around whether capitalism has caused a ‘metabolic rift’ between homo sapiens and the planet ie disrupting the precious balance among species and the planet, and thus generating dangerous viruses and, of course, potentially uncontrollable global warming and climate change that could destroy the planet.

The debate is round whether using the term ‘metabolic rift’ is useful because it suggests that at some time in the past before capitalism there was some metabolic balance or harmony between humans on the one hand and ‘nature’ on the other.  But nature has never been in some state of equilibrium.  It has always been changing and evolving, with species going extinct and emerging well before homo sapiens (a la Darwin).  And humans have never been in a position to dictate conditions in the planet or with other species without repercussions. ‘Nature’ lays down the environment for humans and humans act on nature.  To quote Marx: “Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.”

What is clear is that the endless drive for profit by capital and the law of value exert a destructive power not just through the exploitation of labour, but also through the degradation of nature.  But nature reacts periodically in a deadly manner.

The coronavirus outbreak may fade like others before it, but it is very likely that there will be more and possible even deadlier pathogens ahead.  And the outbreak may have only a limited effect on capitalism, through a fall in the stock market and perhaps a slowdown in global growth and investment.

On the other hand, it could be a trigger for a new economic slump because the world capitalist economy has slowed to near ‘stall speed’.  The US is growing at just 2% a year, Europe and Japan at just 1%; and the major so-called emerging economies of Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Argentina, South Africa,and Russia are basically static.  The huge economies of India and China have also slowed significantly in the last year and if China takes an economic hit from the disruption caused by 2019-nCoV, that could be a tipping point.

Eurozone slows to 1% a year in 2019.

35 thoughts on “Coronavirus: nature fights back

  1. Hi! Rectifiy the two spellings in the title: coronavirus, not corina, and in second quote from Wallace, it is “mortality”, not morality.

  2. Hi Michael,

    The commodification of nature, or better said, advanced plans for the global privatization of nature and the oceans are being pushed by the major “climate capitalists,” linked international agencies and NGOs, – those who are exploiting public sentiment about global warming to ramp up their Keynesian plans to save capitalism in the name of saving the planet (Bill Gates, World Economic Forum, WWF, EU, UN, World Bank, Mick Carney, Paul Polman, Prince William, etc. etc.)

    We do not know if there is any connection to specific industrial processes in farming that we can link to the virus, these may or may not exist. In modern China, the issue not really about the emergence of a virus (unless we imagine we can prevent out all such future outbreaks) rather the big issue is the vast movement of hundreds of millions of people from rural to urban and the consequent density of urban life. The recent increasing spread of the virus is related to the mass movement of people over the new year holiday period, which is the world’s biggest annual migration involving hundreds of millions of people.
    Wallace seems unaware that exotic food markets in China which used to be present in many big cities and were like vast zoos in the 1980s and 1990s, were closed down, and this was rigorously enforced by the state. True there are big food hygiene and safety issues in China but there is no evidence that this is the cause of the virus.
    Although it was and is widely assumed that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan food market as many of the early cases came from there, it seems there was an earlier case that was not connected to that market.

    1. To be fair to Wallace, he also says that there was a case before not connected to the wild food market. And let’s be clear, industrial farming is huge in the capitalist economies and your first para is certainly correct.

  3. This outstanding article by Rob Wallace, the author of ”Big Farms Make Big Flu” (2016), can also be read at Monthly Review Online. it is worth contrasting with the article by Peter Hudis posted there on 2/1/20. Hudis asserts ”Marx invokes neither the market nor the state as the medium by which this is achieved. He instead envisions a planned distribution of labour time by individuals who are no longer subjected to socially necessary labour time. Abstract labour is abolished, since actual labour time—not socially necessary labour time—serves as a measure of social relations. Distributing the elements of production on the basis of actual labour time represents a radical break from capitalism, since it signals the abolition of its peculiar form of labour: abstract labour. This form of organising time is the core of Marx’s concept of communism and the basis of his discussions of the new society in his other works.” Well and good, but even if correct, is it at all what is needed?

    Wallace concludes,”If we must partake in the Great Game, let’s choose an ecosocialism that mends the metabolic rift between ecology and economy, and between the urban and the rural and wilderness, keeping the worst of these pathogens from emerging in the first place. Let’s choose international solidarity with everyday people the world over.

    Let’s realize a creaturely communism far from the Soviet model. Let’s braid together a new world-system, indigenous liberation, farmer autonomy, strategic rewilding, and place-specific agroecologies that, redefining biosecurity, reintroduce immune firebreaks of widely diverse varieties in livestock, poultry, and crops.”

    Hudis claims to be breaking with ‘stalinism’ but the Stalinists, Bukharinites etc themselves claimed the law of value had only limited application outside capitalism. We need to break with a view of communism that sees its realisation in outproducing capitalism. Capitalist industrial agriculture has certainly raised living standards but at the cost of bringing into question whether this agriculture is at all sustainable and society consequently able to reproduce itself.

    1. All history shows that Malthus was wrong. When agricultural malpractice makes raw materials and foodstuffs unavailable or unavailable at prices that enable profitable production capital tends to respond, though normally after a crisis has emerged. In fact, it has been much better at doing that than Stalinism, which allowed grotesque pollution and desolation to continue for years, and simply hid it, and denied it, in order to protect bureaucratic empires.

      Capital has an incentive to address such problems because its profits and capital depends on it. As Engels points out, even in the 19th century it began to clear up some of its mess, to create Environmental Health Departments of local authorities, to establish Public Parks for the better health of its most important resource (labour-power), and even in the process of environmental action, profits are to be made by sections of capital that are paid to engage in that activity.

      I doubt the answer lies in concessions to Malthusianism and the Green Lobby, whose solutions are generally reactionary. The answer lies in greater production and productivity not attempts to constrain it. Certainly if you live in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America that is the case. The answer does not lie in a malthusian/Sismondist anti-production mentality, but in demanding workers control over the production, and thereby the means to marry the need for increased production and productivity with the needs of workers and the environment.

      1. “When agricultural malpractice makes raw materials and foodstuffs unavailable or unavailable at prices that enable profitable production capital tends to respond, though normally after a crisis has emerged. ….

        Capital has an incentive to address such problems because its profits and capital depends on it…”

        Capital has an incentive to address such problems– only after it has reproduced them on a scale large enough to warrant addressing, and that is to say, the defect threatens the very foundation of accumulation and the security of private property.

        Our modern Doctor Pangloss, Boffy, to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s a price to be paid for the way “capital addresses such problems” and that price is that capital’s solution is temporary, restrictive where it is not formally rationed, and allow for subsequent manifestations of even greater problems.

        Not all “green” solutions are “Malthusian” although it suits Boffy to lump them together, because for him, capitalism is the “best hope” for 80% of the world’s population. Did you hear that miners in South Africa and Zambia? Did you hear that survivors of Brumadinho, and the Camp fire? Quit your whimpering, capital– and that’s what PG&E and Vale are– is on it. I feel safer already.

      2. ”The answer does not lie in a malthusian/Sismondist anti-production mentality, but in demanding workers control over the production, and thereby the means to marry the need for increased production and productivity with the needs of workers and the environment.” Boffy, can you not comprehend that what you have affirmed here is merely empty rhetoric? ”workers control over the production and thereby”; but this is the fallacy of petitio principii. You have assumed what needs to be demonstrated. In what ways will workers’ control (which itself needs to be explicated) marry( which also needs to be explicated) the need for increased production with the needs of the environment?

        Dr William Rees, who developed the ecological footprint analysis , has described modern cities as entropic black holes and sustainable cities as an oxymoron. The seas are dying, the forests are burning, the aquifers are draining, the deserts are advancing, the soils are being degraded, the ice caps are melting and the clathrate gun beneath the Siberian permafrost might fire any time soon, releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. I do not need to refer you to Engels and dialectics.

        It is to hide one’s head in the sand to make anachronistic references to Malthus or Sismondi, as if that resolved the matter.

        Who said on this blog that I always seconded Boffy? You owe us an apology!

      3. J,

        “Boffy, can you not comprehend that what you have affirmed here is merely empty rhetoric? ”workers control over the production and thereby”; but this is the fallacy of petitio principii. You have assumed what needs to be demonstrated. In what ways will workers’ control (which itself needs to be explicated) marry( which also needs to be explicated) the need for increased production with the needs of the environment?”

        But, even sensible environmentalists recognise that the effective road to dealing with the kind of issues you raise actually comes from the development of new green technologies! The answer to the problems that Malthus prophesied on the basis of cod science in the 19th century did not come from his proposals to hold back industrial development, by ensuring that the landlord class that paid him as their apologist, were able to draw off a larger share of the surplus value in rents and taxes, but actually came from the rapid development of industry, and of the technological revolutions it brought with it, as first Anderson and then Marx on the basis of his work, also predicted.

        I’d suggest reading James Connolly’s writing on the Ralahine cooperative to indicate how the issue of workers ownership and control of that technology, even within the context of a capitalist economy is not at all empty rhetoric or irrelevant. Indeed, I’d recommend reading what Marx says in Capital about precisely why it is that capital owned and controlled by workers acts differently to capital owned and controlled by capitalists, i.e. the capitalist only has an incentive to introduce new technology when it is cheap enough to undercut the wages it saves, whereas for the worker technology can be introduced effectively, when the labour required to produce it is less than the labour it saves in its application.

        And, I would have thought that its obvious that capitalists can feel free to introduce machines without immediate regard to their effects on workers or communities, because they are not workers, and often live in different communities, whereas workers are immediately affected by those decisions. That’s why in the 1980’s, as trades unionists we demanded to negotiate technology agreements, for example. The demand for workers control, and industrial democracy only recognises that such agreements are not sustainable without it.

        The problem is not technology, but the mode of production within which that technology is applied. As Marx put it,

        “They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages.”

        And that is the ideology of the Sismondist, and of much of the environmentalist movement, as well as the reactionary nationalists of the Stalinist parties and their fellow travellers.

        As Marx points out, the solutions to the problem do not come from less development, less technology, but more. Capitalism itself, in its own chaotic manner achieves that – as it has repeatedly done over the last 200 years – but the more rational solution is for workers to themselves to have ownership and control of that technology, and thereby to harness its benefits not just for development an the advancement of the working-class but to do so in a way that addresses long-term needs for protection of the environment etc.

        For example, has the development by capitalism of things like wind-power and solar power been beneficial for the environment, or not? A clue, an acre of wind turbines reduces carbon in the atmosphere by more than an acre of forest. Would it have been more beneficial if workers had ownership and control of that technology so that it could have been introduced sooner, and on a larger scale so as to replace fossil fuels? Traditional forms of energy in less developed economies for heating and cooking use things like animal dung and wood. They are highly polluting and inefficient. Is it better to replace these forms of energy by the kinds of energy sources and means of energy usage that capital has developed? Would i be better still if workers were able to facilitate the introduction of such methods?

        In fact, even in the US, carbon emissions were reduced even by switching from coal to shale gas and oil, and now the latter is being replaced by solar and other forms of renewable, because rapid development of those industries by capital brings the usual economies of scale.

        On cities, I entirely agree. I have been writing for more than 20 years about the need to break up cities, and to aim for the goal of the CM to merge the countryside with the town. But to do that effectively requires a massive expansion of production and use of technology. It requires a much greater application of technology to develop faster and more extensive broadband networks, and almost certainly – definitely for geographically large countries with dispersed populations – development of wireless networks. Again although capitalism can and is doing that in its usual chaotic manner, the answer is not to look to turn the clock backwards, but to turn it forward more quickly, and in a planned and effective manner which requires workers ownership and control.

      4. “A clue, an acre of wind turbines reduces carbon in the atmosphere by more than an acre of forest.”

        Assuming it’s not sourced from global warming denialism and is at least plausable, I’m curious what argument this claim is based on.

        “In fact, even in the US, carbon emissions were reduced even by switching from coal to shale gas and oil, and now the latter is being replaced by solar and other forms of renewable, because rapid development of those industries by capital brings the usual economies of scale.”

        Without getting into a debate about the supposed benefits of fracking (methane emissions, land and groundwater contamination), a reduction of a single nation’s emissions would only be notable if it contributed to a global decrease, not offset by import emissions. Historically, global emissions have only fallen during recessions, not expansions.

      5. J,

        I note that the reason for the outbreak seems to be linked to the fact that the market involved also contained live animals, which are slaughtered on the spot. It reminded me of the situation that used to exist in London in the 19th century, when the streets similarly flowed with blood and excrement, and diseases like cholera were rampant. That was before capital, of course, introduced local Environmental Health Departments, introduced large scale sewage treatment networks and drainage, as well as piped clear water supplies, flushing toilets and so on.

        I have recently been watching Michael Buerk’s TV series on How The Victorians Built Britain, that describes that process, and the creation of the Victorian city parks and so on. One interesting point related to cholera outbreaks in Liverpool. It was rampant, and 1 in 4 babies died from it. That didn’t provoke any action. But its interesting what did.

        It turned out that ships going from Liverpool to New York and Boston, also ended up carrying passengers and crew who had cholera. It reached a point where the authorities in the US then demanded that the ships be quarantined for around a month. This meant that the shipowners capital, and the commodity-capital of the manufacturers being transported was tied up during all this time, which represented a significant cost to them, and reduction in the rate of turnover and annual rate of profit. It was that which led the manufacturers and shipowners to demand that the Liverpool authorities take action, which they then did in 1851, by passing local laws, and creating a new drainage and water system, which brought the problems of cholera to an end.

        Its an indication of the point that Marx makes in his Preface to Capital I, where he describes the way that countries that undertake capitalist development later suffer not just from the effects of that capitalist development, but also from the inadequate development of capitalism.

        “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.

        But apart from this. Where capitalist production is fully naturalised among the Germans (for instance, in the factories proper) the condition of things is much worse than in England, because the counterpoise of the Factory Acts is wanting. In all other spheres, we, like all the rest of Continental Western Europe, suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.”

        That is the problem that China and other countries developing capitalist production face, but as Marx says.

        “Apart from higher motives, therefore, their own most important interests dictate to the classes that are for the nonce the ruling ones, the removal of all legally removable hindrances to the free development of the working class. For this reason, as well as others, I have given so large a space in this volume to the history, the details, and the results of English factory legislation. One nation can and should learn from others. And even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement — and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society — it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”

        It is the same point that Lenin made against the Sismondists of his own time.

        “And from these principles it follows that the idea of seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism is reactionary. In countries like Russia, the working class suffers not so much from capitalism as from the insufficient development of capitalism. The working class is therefore decidedly interested in the broadest, freest and most rapid development of capitalism. The removal of all the remnants of the old order which are hampering the broad, free and rapid development of capitalism is of decided advantage to the working class.”

        (Two Tactics of Social Democracy)

        Engels makes the same point. He argued that if a socialist revolution were to take place in the West, then the workers in those countries could assist workers and peasants elsewhere, but the degree to which such assistance could be given would depend on he level of development also in these other countries. As Marx also said in the Preface,

        “There it will take a form more brutal or more humane, according to the degree of development of the working class itself.”

        As Engels points out even if there were a socialist revolution in the West the degree of assistance that could be given to undeveloped economies, even those partly ion the way to development, like India would be limited, because the workers would have enough on their plate constructing Socialism.

        “How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, make a revolution, and as a proletariat in process of self-emancipation cannot conduct any colonial wars, it would have to be allowed to run its course; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, but that: sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g. in Algeria and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the half-civilised countries will of themselves follow in their wake; economic needs, if anything, will see to that. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, I think we today can advance only rather idle hypotheses. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing. Which of course by no means excludes defensive wars of various kinds.”

        (Letter to Kautsky)

        But, as Engels wrote to Danielson, the fact was that a socialist revolution had not taken place in the West, and so the best hope for these precapitalist societies was itself a more rapid development of capitalism and the modernism that comes with it, in the same way it had done in the West. And, without a socialist revolution having occurred still, that remains the case.

        ““But the West remained stagnant, no such transformation was attempted, and capitalism was more and more rapidly developed. And as Russia had no choice but this: either to develop the commune into a form of production from which it was separated by a number of historical stages, and for which not even in the West the conditions were then ripe – evidently an impossible task – or else to develop into capitalism; what remained to her but the latter choice?”..

        “But on the other hand, capitalism opens out new views and new hopes. Look at what it has done and is doing in the West.”

        (Engels Letter To Danielson 1893)

      6. ”On cities, I entirely agree. I have been writing for more than 20 years about the need to break up cities, and to aim for the goal of the CM to merge the countryside with the town. ” Then I hope you will post some of this on your blog, because last week I was discussing this with some socialist oriented youth who argued that urban life was more efficient than urban/rural communities, and I must confess I lacked the basic science to refute them. They even argued that high rise flats were the the cheapest means of housing, though none of them cared to live in such themselves.

        The point I have been trying to make is that we have to outline very precise details of what we mean by socialism. I will illustrate this by the disappointing experience I had on reading Pannekeok’s ‘Workers’Councils.’ I had anticipated this work with some pleasure after reading his “Lenin as a Philosopher.” At the price of gross oversimplification, his view is that ‘the workers of all factories’ express their will by means of delegates who get together in workers’ councils where they will express their opinions, identify the problems and come to a collective decision. Now on what basis do they get together? How about those industries with few workers? How about those workers who do not work in factories ? What if the workers cannot agree? What happens if the workers refuse to observe the the agreements that their delegates agreed to? Pannekoek assets, ”The general bookkeeping..and administrations of the separate enterprises combines them all into a representation of the economic progress of society…in uniting the results of cooperating enterprises of a sort into one whole…the administration is the simple task of a network of interconnected computing offices.” ( AK Press 2003 p 24-26).

        But bookkeeping and computing do not organise anything. They are merely a means of identifying and recording information. One can glean some idea at what he is getting at, but it so vague that one has to assume that he did not care to face up to possible difficulties involved in the precise organisation of production to meet social needs. For example In Cuba there is a shortage of agricultural labour. It actually imports canned pineapple from the Dominican Republic. Young people do not want to work in agriculture. So unless we have some form of militarisation of labour as at one time Trotsky advocated ( and with the possible collapse of capitalist agriculture in some countries it may come to this!), how is labour to be redirected to agriculture? All the more of a quandary for those Marxists who argue that under communism all labour will be remunerated equally or for those who argue even that it will be completely voluntary!

      7. J,

        I have written about that stuff on my blog. When i was a County Councillor, I frequently complained about the impression given that it was okay to continue to develop in cities – brownfield development – including all sorts of industrial production, energy production and so on, that it was considered too nasty to place in the countryside, purely on the basis that the towns and cities already contained a lot of shit.

        I also produced a schema of how development should proceed in order to accomplish some of that goal of greening urban areas, and developing rural areas, of limiting the size of residential developments and so on.

        On the other hand, I’m very wary of setting out detailed plans of what we mean by Socialism for the very reason Marx refused to do that. Marx attacked the idea that it was possible to put forward such plans, because the whole of his theory of Historical Materialism, is that it is a scientific analysis of what is. As Lenin points out in “What The So Called friends of The people Are”, when Marx describes the process of the expropriation of the expropriators, he is not describing some even that he foresees and predicts at some distant point in the future, he was describing a process that was already taking place in front of his eyes, with the creation of socialised capital, and the death of the monopoly of capitalist private property. That formation of socialised capital, a the transitional form of property, was itself the culmination, at that point of the very material process of the concentration and centralisation of capital that Marx explains.

        On workers councils etc., it is again why Marx says that Socialism cannot be imposed from the top down.

        “Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organisation of the total labour” “arises” from the “state aid” that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”. It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that with state loans one can build a new society just as well as a new railway!”


        In the workplace the socialised and cooperative nature of production fores workers to discuss and agree in the context of the production process. Even more is that the case if the shareholders no longer have a controlling say from the top down. Can all that be resolved amicably without any disagreements, strikes and so on, absolutely not. That is why the idea that such a system could arise overnight is utopian. As Marx himself says in The Grundrisse it can only evolve over a long period, just as did capitalist production. It is part of the function of the transition period during which cooperatives will dominate, and where commodity production will continue, and where wage labour will continue.

        To resolve some issues, prices will play a function. If no one wants to do a particular job, wages for that work would have to rise, or hours for it reduced and so on. To compensate, the price for such commodities would rise. In the longer term, its an incentive to develop and introduce machines to do that work. Again see Connolly’s account of the introduction of machines on that basis at Ralahine.

  4. Its interesting. however, to note what Marx wrote in relation to the development of capitalism and its relation to agriculture. He writes that capitalism first develops in the towns and cities. This development then of industrial capitalism puts pressure on the land and agricultural production.

    The reason for the existence of absolute rent (which Ricardo denied could exist) is that the average level of productivity in agriculture is lower than the average in industry, because there is a lack of investment of capital in agriculture and mineral production (the existence of rent which appropriates surplus profits, and the desire of landlords to go for ever shorter leases so as to appropriate any fixed capital invested in the land by farmers/miners, and to be able to hike rents on the back of the resultant higher profits is one reason that such capital investment is held back) resulting in a lower organic composition and higher rate of profit.

    The consequence, Marx says, is that this results in the land being over used, which then results in its fertility being stripped. Something similar happened in the USSR under Kruschev. Its only when this destruction of the fertility of the land occurs as a result of these more primitive production methods occurs, which then results in the supply of agricultural products and minerals for industry either not being available, or becoming ever more expensive that capital turns its attentions to these spheres, and begins to introduce the capital required to utilise the land in a more rational manner, so as to prevent such destruction. Its then that capital is used to restore fertility, and so on.

    In other words, as with all capitalist development it is not a matter of a linear development in one way or another of a continual move to sunnier uplands, or conversely to an inexorable decline into an ever greater catastrophe, but is characterised by uneven development, crises followed by recoveries and so on. As Trotsky points out, however, much like the curve of human development itself, the general path of development is upwards, and fortunately so too, because otherwise it means that the potential for Socialism itself disappears and humanity would be had back towards barbarism.

    1. ““It is in the nature of capitalist production that it develops industry more rapidly than agriculture. This is not due to the nature of the land, but to the fact that, in order to be exploited really in accordance with its nature, land requires different social relations. Capitalist production turns towards the land only after its influence has exhausted it and after it has devastated its natural qualities. An additional factor is that, as a consequence of landownership, agricultural products are expensive compared with other commodities, because they are sold at their value and are not reduced to their cost-price. They form, however, the principal constituent of the necessaries.”

      (TOSV, Chapter 21)

    2. ” Marx wrote in relation to the development of capitalism and its relation to agriculture. He writes that capitalism first develops in the towns and cities. This development then of industrial capitalism puts pressure on the land and agricultural production.”

      This not at all the actual development of capitalism in England, which Marx seemed to recognize in his writings. In England, capitalism arises in the countryside, making agricultural producers, and production, market dependent, exchange dependent, (one more reason and evidence not to make too much of the distinction between value and exchange value) and starts the the inexorable separation of the producers from the condition of production, creating an agricultural proletariat.

      Robert Brenner dealt with this 40 years ago. And there’s plenty of fascinating work in the area available in papers archived by the British Agricultural History Society (

      1. ‘In England, capitalism arises in the countryside, making agricultural producers, and production, market dependent, exchange dependent, (one more reason and evidence not to make too much of the distinction between value and exchange value) and starts the the inexorable separation of the producers from the condition of production, creating an agricultural proletariat.” You are right. This is the formal subsumption of labour under capital.

        ”But on this foundation there now arises a technologically and and otherwise specific mode of production-capitalist production-which transforms the nature of the labour process and its actual conditions…we witness the real subsumption of labour under capital” ( Capital 1 pp 1019 ff) i.e the factory system, which creates the cities. So Boffy is right too!

      2. Thanks for the compliment. I get so few nowadays. Seriously, why do you not develop at length your thesis, ”Marx says, continues to prevail in the sense that the regulation OF labor-time, not regulation BY labor time.” As I keep emphasising, we need to provide concrete and detailed plans of how we envisage a socialist society.

      3. I was referring to myself as the “blind pig.” As for developing my thesis– yes, I’m working on that— but I have something on the list ahead– which is the “transformation problem” and if there really is such a thing as the average rate of profit- or if its the capitalist equivalent of chasing the end of a rainbow. It seems like the thing to do, but you’ll never get there.

        Cockshott with whom I disagree a lot, and about a lot, argues, if I recall correctly that there is no “average rate of profit.” Again IIRC and that is his argument, then I am inclined to agree with him. Capitalists take their best shot at it, but in the end as Brando says in Last Tango in Paris, “Let’s just say we’re taking a flying *&^% at a rolling doughnut. ”

        If that is not Cockshott’s argument, then the error is all mine.

      4. ”Cockshott with whom I disagree a lot, and about a lot, argues, if I recall correctly that there is no “average rate of profit.” yes, I think following Farjoun and Machover’s ”Laws of Chaos” he does say that. My own understanding, which to be sure is not based on any empirical investigation, is that the equalisation of the rate of profit is a tendency i.e. it tends towards equilibrium but moves away again, but never reaches it. After all nothing could be further from Marx’s analysis of capitalism that its movements end up in equilibrium. ‘Capital’ as a critique in progress would certainly have been subject to further refinement. Marx himself I seem to remember excludes the profit from railways as being involved in the equalisation of the rate of profit; and with modern oligopolies why would they shift their long term investments generating huge mass profits to areas where the rate of profit is higher.

      5. J,

        Marx makes clear that capitalist production does not begin in the countryside, and its quite obvious why it cannot. Lenin explains it in detail in his application of Marx’s theory to the development of capitalism in Russia.

        For capitalist production to begin, you first need a large market, and generalised commodity production. So long as the vast majority are employed on the land, and produce their own requirements there can be no generalised commodity production, and no creation of a market for agricultural commodities. At best, some of the better placed peasant producers produce a larger surplus product, which means that their living standard can rise, their ability to accumulate additional means of production can increase, but it cannot be turned into capital, because it neither finds a large-scale market for agricultural products (peasants produce for their own needs and so do not need to go into the market for them) nor a significant number of wage labourers.

        Capitalist production in agriculture as elsewhere requires a mass market for the commodities to be produced. Without it, there is no basis for the kind of mechanisation etc., and economies of scale that capitalist production requires to give it a competitive advantage over handicraft production. That does not exist for agricultural products, which is why the organic composition of capital in agriculture is lower than in industry, other than for specific areas such as cattle rearing, Marx says. But, that is not true for the industrial products of the towns. Marx explains how these do find an increasing market, for specific commodities, which means that machines can be introduced for their production. This creates a competitive advantage in those commodities. The artisan producers of these commodities are ruined, and their means of production centralised and concentrated by capitalists – either merchants or else master craftsmen who turn themselves into capitalists. the former artisans are turned into wage labourers.

        It is this process, as the market in the towns expands, as more handicraft workers become wage labourers dependent on earning a wage to buy their needs, which then undermines the domestic handicraft industry that the peasants have always conducted alongside their agricultural production. Unable to supplement their income by such domestic industry, the rural producers must themselves use part of their available labour-time to become day labourers, now selling their labour-power to richer peasants. This is the process by which the differentiation of the peasantry discussed by Marx and Lenin occurs.

        Its useful to read Marx’s account of this process of primitive capital accumulation in TOSV, for example in the Chapter on Richard Jones.

      6. J,

        Again on the average rate of profit, read Marx in TOSV. The annual average or general rate of profit is always changing by productivity is always changing creating continual variations in the organic composition of capital, and the rate of turnover of capital is constantly changing, creating constant changes in the annual rate of profit of all capitals.

        But, that is irrelevant. Marx makes the point in Capital III, and TOSV III, that the whole point is that these variations in the average annual rate of profit, which are the manifestation of his law of the tendency for The Rate of Profit to Fall, explain the allocation off capital over the long term, i.e. over ten year periods at least. he emphasises that its not that capital particularly leaves areas where the rate of profit is lower than average, and vice versa, but that capital accumulates more rapidly in those areas where the annual rate of profit is higher than average, and does not accumulate so fast, or at all in areas where it is lower than average. This indeed is why we have seen capital accumulate much more rapidly in service industry, where the organic composition of capital is low, and rate of turnover high, compare to manufacturing industry, to the extent that the former now accounts for 80% of new value and surplus value production, and the latter has fallen to less than 20%.

        The importance is that because of this differential rate of accumulation, the supply of commodities in those spheres where capital is accumulating more rapidly, rises faster than the increase in demand, so that their prices fall further and further below their exchange-value. In other words, their price of production becomes much lower than their exchange value. The consequence here, for example, is that service industry output prices of production are much lower than service industry exchange-values. service industry thereby only appropriates a fraction of the surplus value it produces, as profit. The rest is transferred to the lower profit manufacturing industry.

        Because manufacturing industry has a lower annual rate of profit, capital accumulates less rapidly in this sphere. Therefore, supply grows at a proportionately slower rate than demand. That causes the prices of manufactured commodities to rise towards their price of production. Their price of production is much higher than their exchange-value, because in order to obtain the average rate of profit, their prices must be much higher, which means they appropriate some of the surplus value produced in service industry.

        Of course, this never happened in agriculture where the organic composition is much higher than in industry, because as Marx explains the landlord is able to appropriate any surplus profit by the capitalist farmer as rent, so the competitive drive to accumulate additional capital in that sphere is blunted.

      7. J,

        Incidentally, in a period when the dominant component of capital comprises corporations, I doubt Marx would have continued to make the argument about Railways that he does in Chapter 14.

        It only really affects the phenomenal form of the process as determined by competition, or as he sets out later in Capital III, and in TOSV, the effects of monopoly and of “grounds for compensating”. The point in relation to large corporations becomes this. If the annual rate of profit of these companies falls well below average, it eventually impacts on their ability to pay dividends. If they reduce their dividend yield below the average, their share prices fall – unless as with growth companies they can persuade speculators that the earnings are being diverted into capital accumulation, which raises the underlying value of the company and its shares.

        If the shares fall, that means the companies market cap falls. Its ability and cost of raising capital then rises, and it becomes open to other speculators buying up its shares, and thereby taking control of its capital.

        In essence, it simply shifts the process back a further stage.

  5. There is the Marx who, from the point of view of capitalism, makes the sort of observations you quote. There is also the Marx who intended a multi-volume critique of the capitalist mode of production from the opposite point of view–not to dismiss capitalism’s obviously positive contributions to human advancement, but to demonstrate its tendency toward stifling that advancement and even disrupting the metabolic relation between human labor and the natural environment, as with his elaboration on his agronomist friend’s (Leibig’s) concept of metabolic rift between capitalist urban development and industrializing agriculture in the country, that, for instance, the law of value applied to the land was degrading it for future generations and polluting the cities.
    Califonia is the world’s largest producer of many different, but genetically altered crops grown on super-sized, super-fertilized wastelands punctuated by (symbolically appropriate) giant prison-like Amazon warehouses that are specifically placed here to exploit the very cheap local wage slaves from culturally gutted, mall, car, and trick dominated towns with high unemployment. Yet despite an impressive amount and variety of foods produced in this way, California has a very unhealthy working population, too well fed, yet undernourished and sickly. The same can be said about the land being laid to waste: over nourished by nitrates, weakened by mono-cropping, and poisoned by fungicides and insecticides. Small, sustainable farms, coops, farmer’s markets, abound for those who can afford (about 10% of the working population) to eat better.
    I wonder at your technology-tinted (seemingly blind) optimism regarding the health and distribution of wealth in the imperial centers of a global economy. It’s true though that Europeans, even English) live better. There’s some low tech, old architecture there.
    It is common knowledge among agronomists that the “green revolution” (land grab) mono-crop agriculture foisted on India, Africa, and South America has created food crises there (to say nothing of the related health crises in overcrowded cities). You might be interested in reading (the by no means marxist or anti-technology) “A History of World Agriculture, from the neolithic age to the current crisis” by Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart.

  6. As Marxist theoreticians we have an obligation to be concrete. Michael is on the right track but we need to go further down the track if we are to note the more precise reason for viral outbreaks. In China, it is the way the Chinese working class has been structured in pursuit of profit, which explains its vulnerability to epidemics. One third of all Chinese workers are migrant workers amounting to just under 300 million (Statista 2018). This has led to the impoverishment of rural China and ghettoes of poverty in the cities where migrants are congregated. It is this phenomena that creates the reckless proximity of humans and animals in both rearing and marketing animals. All this could have ended years ago had the greed of Chinese capitalists not prevented it. From their point of view this is collateral damage for a workforce cheapened by its migrancy. The gap between the wealth of the metropolitan areas in China and the countryside can be found in this excellent article.

  7. Don’t blame capitalism for traditional pagan habits. Chinese people used to eat almost every living species for centuries.
    Stark contrast with muslims, also living in the capitalism! Quran (as well as Torah) strictly prohibit eating bats, snakes, crocodiles and other “Haram”. Not surprising muslims describe coronavirus outbreak as “Allah punishment” of China for Uyghurs opression.

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