The antonine plague of the year 165 inaugurates the decline of the Roman Empire by accelerating the essential contradictions that will lead to the overcoming of slavery. In 1379 the black Death marks the beginning of the decadebce of feudalism in Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1918, the Spanish flu underlines what the First World War has already left visible to the revolutionaries of the moment: capitalism has definitely entered a stage in which it has become a fetter on the development of Humanity.
The fact that pandemics have occurred at such important historical boundaries is not a coincidence. Decadent modes of production have quite a few things in common. They commonly react to the class struggle and the development of internal contradictions by expanding the state; they all force an agonizing growth of their own productive frontiers; they all exacerbate the forms of property that are characteristic of them in a final attempt to retrench themselves; they all suffer particular forms of militarism; and they all have an increasingly predatory relationship both with the exploited classes and with conquered territories and their resources. And, in one way or another, all these common characteristics contribute to turn infectious outbreaks into a systemic scale pandemic.
1 For strategic reasons – the promotion of the climate sacred union– the media have highlighted the relationship between the pressure on forests and virgin jungles with the emergence of new infectious diseases. The truth is that of 335 infectious diseases that appeared between 1940 and 2004, 76.4% originated in wild animals. But the problem is not, as we are told, that a reduction of biodiversity is directly feeding the emergence of new epidemics. The problem is that a mass of extremely impoverished farmers in Asia, Africa and America have been pushed to seek resources in the wild while remaining part of the national market. The example of Covid is illustrative: the origin of the epidemic turns out to be the gigantic but officially invisible wild animal breeding industry grown under the protection of the Chinese regional bureaucracy, which has been encouraging it for years, despite knowing the dangers involved, as a way to alleviate the constant impoverishment of the peasantry.
2 Wars are other great propagators. In pre-industrial societies where the majority of the peasantry barely had a hundred social contacts during their lifetime, military levies and the arrival of foreign armies meant exposure to new diseases. Today, armies keep bringing diseases from remote and relatively isolated areas to populated areas. In the 1980s, Cuban armies in Angola were one of the vectors of the globalization of HIV. Now, though less visibly, Covid has also been riding on the imperialist conflicts of the day, jumping between the wars in Yemen, Nagorno Karabakh, Syria, and Libya as mercenaries and expeditionary troops march through.
3 All modes of production at the end of their historical cycle generate deformed, monstrous variants of the property relations that characterize them and that in their day served to liberate the productive capacities of society. The constant hardening since the 10’s of the 20th century of the norms of intellectual property and the extension of its scope, which even today is able to patent living beings, is an expression of the need to create scarcity in order to feed speculative businesses in which to place huge masses of capital without profitable destinations. If the vaccine against Covid is taking so long nowadays, it is because the logic of intellectual property already completely conforms the pharmaceutical industry. It was that logic that, at the time, interrupted the funding for the SARS vaccine when it was about to be produced. Having a SARS vaccine available in this pandemic would have dramatically shortened development times for the COVID vaccine. Under the total divorce between the expectations of profitability and human needs then and now, lies precisely this twisted and deformed evolution of the forms of property that accentuates the anti-human and anti-historical character of capitalism in our time.
4 But the most characteristic feature of any decadent system is that it is a fetter on the development of the productive forces it sustains and which, in its origins, it allowed to develop freely. The main productive force of the capitalist mode of production is the working class. So the most evident relationship between the historical decline of the system and Covid occurs in the course of the pandemic, when almost universally, national capitals are extremely eager to sacrifice significant contingents of the main productive force in order to maintain the profitability of capital at all costs. What a difference with that young capitalism which gave rise to Epidemiology, a discipline which clearly expressed the moment in which the bourgeoisie was capable of generating human development and thinking about the social as something which aligned with its interests as the ruling class of society.