The Furnace

Wuhan is known colloquially as one of the “four furnaces” (四大火炉) of China for its oppressively hot humid summer, shared with Chongqing, Nanjing and alternately Nanchang or Changsha, all bustling cities with long histories along or near the Yangtze river valley. Among the four, Wuhan, however, is distinguished by its literal furnaces: the massive urban complex acts as a sort of nucleus for the steel, concrete and other construction-related industries of China, its landscape dotted with the slowly-cooling blast furnaces of the remnant state-owned iron and steel foundries, now plagued by overproduction[1] and forced into a contentious new round of downsizing,[2] privatization and general restructuring—resulting in several large strikes and protests in the last five years. The city is essentially the construction capital of China, which means it has played a particularly important role in the period after the global economic crisis, since these were the years in which Chinese growth was buoyed by the funneling of investment funds into infrastructure and real estate projects. Wuhan not only fed this bubble with its oversupply of building materials and civil engineers but also, in so doing, became a real estate boomtown of its own. According to our own calculations, in 2018-2019 the total area dedicated to construction sites in Wuhan was equivalent to the size of Hong Kong island as a whole.

But now this furnace driving the post-crisis Chinese economy seems, much like those found in its iron and steel foundries, to be cooling. Though this process was already well underway, the metaphor is now no longer simply economic, either, as the once-bustling city was sealed off for over a month in the depths of winter, its flash-frozen streets emptied by government mandate: “The greatest contribution you can make is: don’t gather together, don’t cause chaos,” read a headline in the Guangming Daily,[3] run by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department. Wuhan’s broad new avenues and the glittering steel and glass buildings that crown them were cold and hollow, as winter dwindled through the Lunar New Year and the city stagnated under the constriction of the wide-ranging quarantine. Isolating oneself was sound advice for anyone in China, where the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (renamed “SARS-CoV-2” and its disease “COVID-19”) killed more than four thousand people—far more than its predecessor, the SARS epidemic of 2003, though far less than the 350,000 deaths in the US in 2020. The entire country locked down, as it did during SARS-CoV-1. Schools closed, and people were cooped up in their homes nationwide. Nearly all economic activity stopped for the Lunar New Year holiday on January 25th, but the pause was extended for about two months to curb the spread of the epidemic. The furnaces of China seemed to have stopped burning, or at least to have been reduced to gently glowing coals. In a way, though, the city become another type of furnace, as the coronavirus burned through its massive population like a fever writ large.

The outbreak has been incorrectly blamed on everything from the conspiratorial release of a bioweapon virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,[4] to the propensity of Chinese people to consume “dirty” or “strange” types of food — since the virus outbreak was originally linked to either bats or snakes sold in a semi-illegal “wet market” specializing in wildlife and other rare animals[5] (though this was not the ultimate source[6]). Both major themes exhibit the obvious warmongering and orientalism common to reporting on China.[7] A slightly more complex variant of the critical response at least understands the economic consequences, even while it exaggerates the potential political repercussions for rhetorical effect. Here we find the usual suspects, ranging from hawkish dragon-slaying politicos to the spilled-latte pearl clutching of haute-liberalism: press agencies from the National Review to the New York Times[8] implied that the outbreak may bring a “crisis of legitimacy” to the CCP, despite the fact that there was barely a whiff of an uprising in the air.

But the kernel of truth in these predictions lay in their grasp of the economic dimensions of the quarantine—something that could hardly be lost on journalists with stock portfolios thicker than their skulls. Because the fact is that, despite the government’s call to isolate oneself, people soon were forced to “gather together” to tend to the needs of production. In America, the consequences of this logic would take its fullest form, with hundreds of thousands literally sacrificed on the altar of the economy. But even in China, the epidemic caused the GDP growth rate to slow to an estimated 2 percent in 2020, below its already flagging growth rate of 6 percent in 2019, the lowest in three decades.[9] With its extension to Europe and the US, the pandemic triggered the global recession that had long been building. But in the midst of all this, a previously unthinkable question has been posed: what actually happens to the global economy when the Chinese furnace begins to grow cold?

Within China itself, the moment brought about a rare, collective process of questioning and learning about society. The epidemic directly infected over 96,000 people (at relatively conservative estimates),[10] but it delivered a shock to everyday life under capitalism for 1.4 billion, trapped in a moment of precarious self-reflection. This moment, while full of fear, caused everyone to simultaneously ask some deep questions: What will happen to me? My children, family and friends? Will we have enough food? Will I get paid? Will I make rent? Who is responsible for all this? In a strange way, the subjective experience is somewhat like that of a mass strike—but one which, in its non-spontaneous, top-down character and, especially in its involuntary hyper-atomization, illustrates the basic conundrums of our own strangled political present as clearly as the true mass strikes of the previous century elucidated the contradictions of their era. The quarantine, then, is like a strike hollowed of its communal features but nonetheless capable of delivering a deep shock to both psyche and economy. This fact alone makes it worthy of reflection.

Of course, speculation on the imminent downfall of the CCP is predictable nonsense, one of the favorite pastimes of The New Yorker and The Economist. Meanwhile, the normal media suppression protocols ensued, in which overtly racist mass-media op-eds published in legacy outlets were countered by a swarm of web-platform thinkpieces polemicizing against orientalism and other facets of ideology. But almost the entirety of this discussion remains at the level of portrayal—or, at best, the politics of containment and the economic consequences of the epidemic—without delving into the questions of how such diseases get produced in the first place, much less distributed. Even this, however, is not quite enough. Now is not the time for a simple “Scooby-Doo Marxist” exercise of pulling the mask off the villain to reveal that, yes, indeed, it was capitalism that caused coronavirus all along! That would be no better than foreign commentators sniffing about for regime change. Of course capitalism is culpable—but how, exactly, does the social-economic sphere interface with the biological, and what lessons might we draw from the entire experience?

In this sense, the outbreak presents two opportunities for reflection: First, it is an instructive opening in which we might review substantial questions about how capitalist production relates to the non-human world at a more fundamental level—how, in short, the “natural world,” including its microbiological substrata, cannot be understood without reference to how society organizes production (because the two are not, in fact, separate). At the same time, this is a reminder that the only communism worth the name is one that includes the potential of a fully politicized naturalism. Second, we can also use this moment of isolation as an opportunity for a deeper reflection on the present state of Chinese society. Some things only become clear when everything grinds to an unexpected halt, and a slowdown of this sort cannot help but make previously obscured tensions visible. Below, then, we’ll explore both these questions, showing not only how capitalist accumulation produces such plagues, but also how the moment of pandemic is itself a contradictory instance of political crisis, making visible to people the unseen potentials and dependencies of the world around them, while also offering yet another excuse for the extension of systems of control even further into everyday life.


The Production of Plagues

The virus behind the present epidemic (SARS-CoV-2), was, like its 2003 predecessor SARS-CoV-1, as well as the avian flu and swine flu before it, gestated at the nexus of economics and epidemiology. It’s not coincidental that so many of these viruses have taken on the names of animals: The spread of new diseases to the human population is almost always the product zoonotic transfer, which is a technical way of saying that such infections jump from animals to humans. This leap from one species to another is conditioned by things like proximity and the regularity of contact, all of which construct the environment in which the disease is forced to evolve. When this interface between humans and animals changes, it also changes the conditions within which such diseases evolve. Beneath the four furnaces, then, lies a more fundamental furnace undergirding the industrial hubs of the world: the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization. This provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.

The basic idea here is developed most thoroughly by left-wing biologists like Rob Wallace, whose 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu[11] provides an exhaustive case for the connection between capitalist agribusiness and the etiology of recent epidemics ranging from SARS to Ebola.[12] Even if the cause of such epidemics all trace back to similar sources, they can be loosely grouped into two, often intermixed categories: the first originating at the core of agroeconomic production, and the second in its hinterland. In tracing out the spread of H5N1, also known as the avian flu, he summarizes several key factors of geography for those epidemics that originate in the productive core:

Rural landscapes of many of the poorest countries are now characterized by unregulated agribusiness pressed against periuban slums. Unchecked transmission in vulnerable areas increases the genetic variation with which H5N1 can evolve human-specific characteristics. In spreading over three continents, fast-evolving H5N1 also contacts an increasing variety of socioecological environments, including locale-specific combinations of prevalent host types, modes of poultry farming, and animal health measures.[13]

This spread is, of course, driven by global commodity circuits and the regular labor migrations that define capitalist economic geography. The result is “a type of escalating demic selection” in which the virus is posed with a greater number of evolutionary pathways in a shorter time, enabling the most fit variants to outcompete the others.

This is a point already made in the mainstream press: the fact that “globalization” enables the spread of such diseases more quickly—albeit here with the important addition that this very process of circulation also stimulates the virus to mutate more rapidly. The real question, though, comes earlier: prior to circulation enhancing the resilience of such diseases, the basic logic of capital helps to take previously isolated or harmless viral strains and place them in hyper-competitive environments that favor the specific traits which cause epidemics, such as rapid viral lifecycles, the capacity for zoonotic jumping between carrier species, and the capacity to quickly evolve new transmission vectors. These strains tend to stand out precisely because of their virulence. In absolute terms, it seems like developing more virulent strains would have the opposite effect, since killing the host sooner provides less time for the virus to spread. The common cold is a good example of this principle, generally maintaining low levels of intensity that facilitate its widespread distribution through the population. But in certain environments, the opposite logic can make more sense: when a virus has numerous hosts of the same species in close proximity, and especially when these hosts may already have shortened lifecycles, increased virulence becomes an evolutionary advantage.

Again, the avian flu example is a salient one. Wallace points out that studies have shown “no endemic highly pathogenic strains [of influenza] in wild bird populations, the ultimate source reservoir of nearly all influenza subtypes.”[14] Instead, domesticated populations packed together on industrial farms seem to have a clear causative relationship to such outbreaks, for obvious reasons:

Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence.[15]

And, of course, each of these characteristics is an outgrowth of the logic of industrial competition. In particular, the rapid rate of “throughput” in such contexts has a starkly biological dimension: “As soon as industrial animals reach the right bulk they are killed. Resident influenza infections must reach their transmission threshold quickly in any given animal […] The quicker viruses are produced, the greater the damage to the animal.”[16] Ironically, the attempt to suppress such outbreaks through mass culling—as in the recent cases of African swine fever which resulted in the loss of almost a quarter of the world’s pork supply[17]—can have the unintended effect of increasing this selection pressure even more, thereby inducing the evolution of hyper-virulent strains. Though such outbreaks have historically occurred in domesticated species, often following periods of warfare or environmental catastrophe that place enhanced pressure on livestock populations, increases in the intensity and virulence of such diseases have undeniably followed the spread of capitalist production.

The zoonotic transfer of disease is social in a broader sense as well. Urbanization has changed both eating habits and farming practices. China has to feed 1.4 billion people, almost 20% of the world’s population but with under 10% of the world’s arable land. These basic material facts have been made more complicated by the dramatic changes that China has undergone over the last several decades. In the late 1970s, the urban population of China was less than 20% of the total population; it is now around 60%. That is phenomenally fast urbanization. Nor is it just a distant phenomenon taking place in a far-off country. In many ways, we all come into contact with this urbanization in one way or another: For example, this process was driven by the migration of poor rural residents to new industrial complexes that were arising in places like the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province in the South. There, these new workers flooded into factories producing exports for foreign markets. This means that what seems like a simple purchase of some piece of cheap consumer electronics at Target or Walmart is also essentially a social connection to these spaces. Nor is this a fanciful metaphor: it’s a material link that manifests as a chain of social interactions between people and between people and their environment. Seemingly simple economic purchases have resounding consequences. In this case, fueling a wave of urbanization at a size and scope unprecedented in human history.[18]

Alongside this urbanization came changes in diet and in agriculture. We can call these changes the “livestock revolution.”[19] As incomes in China rose, the urban population began to eat more and more meat. This was already happening in many parts of the world, with meat consumption growing outside China as well. Setting the stage for this livestock revolution, dramatic increases in production density was a key innovation in the industrialization of meat farming, in which farms were integrated with large industrial meat processors through contracting, rendering the farmer as a mere chicken or pig “custodian” on highly concentrated animal warehouses. As Mike Davis puts it, “the superurbanization of the human population […] has been paralleled by an equally dense urbanization of its meat supply.”[20] And this concentration of animals has created new environments within which viruses can evolve. Urbanization within China only accelerated this trend. Guangdong Province isn’t just home to factories producing commodities for the West, after all, it is also now one of the biggest producers of poultry for the domestic market. As human populations became much denser in Guangdong so too did animal populations: humans, chickens, ducks, and pigs.

Flu or influenza viruses find their ultimate reservoir in birds, and the farms of South China, where domesticated ducks, chickens, and pigs often cohabit, are the perfect environment for their spillover into human populations. Villagers who once engaged in subsistence farming gradually shifted more of their production to serve the market. At first this meant increasing yields of grain and planting more vegetables, but as urbanization accelerated these villages were encircled by industrial development and increasingly incentivized to produce meat. The result was that many such farms have often replaced rice fields with ponds to produce ducks, leading to higher incomes. To place the scale of this shift into context: China now produces about 80% of the world’s ducks. But this production is not just a shift from one land use to another on isolated plots, because these plots exist within a larger process of urbanization, with all its accompanying environmental consequences. Most relevant here is the fact that the destruction of native habitat and wetlands have forced wild birds to make use of these duck ponds on their migrations, and from there influenza viruses spread from the wild birds into the farmed birds.

While many of the avian influenzas cannot spread directly to humans, these viruses do often infect local pigs, putting them in contact with human viruses that infect pigs at the same time. This leads to what can be thought of (in somewhat imprecise terms) as a process of hybridization, with the body of the pig acting as a bridge between avian populations, with their specific viral mix, and human populations carrying human-adapted viruses. Because pigs are often susceptible to both avian and human viruses, those viruses remix across pig populations to create new varieties of influenza that can lead to epidemic diseases. This process is happening continuously: in fact, a new version of the H1N1 influenza has been spreading among pigs on Chinese farms over the last few years and infecting workers on those farms. Luckily, at this point it doesn’t seem to be particularly virulent, nor is there any evidence that it is transmissible from human to human. Studies of Chinese pigs from 2011 to 2018, however, found 179 different influenza viruses. In 2009, another version of the H1N1 influenza virus killed between 150,000 and 575,000 people globally and afterwards spread back into world pig populations. China is home to half of the world’s pigs, raised to feed its increasingly urban population, so it’s no wonder that many of these viruses emerge there. But it’s worth noting that this is not an exclusively Chinese problem in any sense: the 2009 H1N1 virus was first detected in the US, after all. Like the 2009 version, this newly found variant of H1N1 contains gene reassortments from humans, birds, and pigs.[21]

Another example signals the potential for a truly devastating pandemic to develop, capable of causing an almost unimaginable number of deaths: the H5N1 avian influenza first emerged in 1997 in Hong Kong, and then again in South China in 2003, at the same time that the first SARS coronavirus was spreading globally. The H5N1 influenza is highly virulent—it kills a high percentage of the people infected—but it doesn’t spread easily to humans and almost never human to human. When it does spread to humans it comes from close contact with infected birds. The fear with H5N1, however, is that it might evolve in the bird or animal populations of South China to become much more transmissible from human to human. In fact, before the emergence of the first SARS coronavirus, most epidemiologists worried far more about the spillover of new influenza viruses than coronaviruses. This fear is more than justified, if we consider the actual death rate of H5N1, which has killed off roughly half of the small populations of humans it has infected. Even if that death rate were to diminish when spread across a wider, more varied population, it could still realistically result in more deaths than a nuclear war.

It was this fear that led to the upgrading of the Wuhan Institute for Virology (which was approved for construction a biosafety level 4 pathogen lab in 2003) and its pivot toward research on SARS-related coronaviruses. The lab would soon become the focus of conspiracy theories about “bioweapon” research, as well as more legitimate concerns that COVID-19 may have been accidentally released during the lab’s research on coronaviruses. In early 2021, interest in the lab leak hypothesis began to spike as investigations of a natural origin came to a standstill and new information about the safety standards and the health histories of lab employees at the Institute came to light. In March of 2021, eighteen scientists penned a joint letter in Science, calling for a renewed investigation of this possibility.[22] In the end, the exact origins of the virus will likely never be determined. But the lab leak hypothesis is consistent with the fact that such diseases are becoming more virulent and more prone to zoonotic spread. Indeed, this epidemiological trend—already evident in China after SARS—was the very reason that such research on bat coronaviruses was initiated at the Institute in the first place. Moreover, if a lab leak were found to be the cause, it would be due to a spectacular failure of oversight linked to a general dearth of state capacity, as we will argue below.


History and Etiology

The connection between urbanization and the cultivation of epidemics is itself an old one. While the particularly rapid generation of new plagues has attended capitalism specifically, the phenomenon as such is better identified at the urban-agrarian roots of civilization as such. Here, it becomes necessary to invoke the anti-civilizational underpinnings of communist thought, emphasized repeatedly by Marx and Engels. Civilization has always been a machine for extermination: the movement of settled agrarian states across mainland East Asia can be traced in the fossil record, as in the retreat of the elephants to the mountainous south,[23] and in the pollen record, which shows successive waves of deforestation like a tide ebbing and flowing with the rise and fall of dynasties.[24] The most devastating pandemics to date (as measured by share of the total world population that died), were gestated in the long-established urban civilizations of Europe and Asia, with their spread amplified by pre-capitalist mercantile networks. Neither the Black Death nor the swarm of pandemics unleashed across the Western Hemisphere by European colonization can be understood without reference to their basic origins in civilization’s agrarian structure, as intensified by global trade.[25]

The emergence of capitalism itself was facilitated by these pandemics. The bubonic plague had helped to induce a demographic and, subsequently, economic and political transformation in Europe. As the sheer number of dead resulted in a scarcity of labor in both city and countryside, labor shortages conditioned shifts in production that saw pre-existing class relationships reaffirmed, expanded and consolidated in some places (creating what would later be seen as ideal cases of “feudalism”) and overturned in others (as in the political ascent of merchant families in Northern Italy), all facilitated by shifts in agricultural practices to accommodate the scarcity of labor—in particular, the replacement of labor-intensive grains with livestock, most pronounced in England.[26] Similar phenomena occurred in East Asia, accompanying the rise of the Ming Dynasty. What was different in the European case was that the gradual turn to livestock-intensive agriculture among feudal landowners[27] and the turn to commerce among merchants[28] would ultimately fuse into what, retrospectively, can be identified as the first fully capitalist society in England.

One key difference that enabled this fusion in Europe, but not East Asia, was the bloody process of conquest and colonization in the Western Hemisphere and the accompanying rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Here we find a second major pandemic—really a wave of multiple pandemics—facilitating the emergence of capitalism, as diseases produced in the heart of civilization finally obtained channels for their transmission across the globe. On the one hand, the old conservative position that deaths in the Americas can be purely attributed to disease is a clear falsehood: disease was accompanied and enabled by warfare, induced famine, enslavement and numerous instances of the intentional pursuit of local genocides. But all of these things also amplified the spread of the pandemics. They’re fundamentally inextricable, composing a single wave of mass extermination that traces the spread of Eurasian civilization throughout the world. This laid the immediate groundwork for the emergence of capitalism in England and its spread through later waves of colonization and an intensification of the transatlantic slave trade.

Plagues are very much the shadow of capitalist industrialization, then, while also acting as its harbinger. The cases of smallpox and other pandemics introduced to North America are, however, inadequate to illustrate the specificity of capitalist pandemics, since they were intensified by the long-term separation of populations through physical geography—and such diseases had, regardless, already gained their virulence via pre-capitalist mercantile networks and early urbanization in Asia and Europe, having been one of civilization’s most enduring exports. If we instead look to England, where capitalism arose first in the countryside via the mass clearing of peasants from the land to be replaced by monocultures of livestock, we see the earliest examples of these distinctively capitalist plagues.[29] Three different livestock pandemics occurred in 18th century England, spanning 1709-1720, 1742-1760, and 1768-1786. The origin of each was imported cattle from Europe, gestated in prototypical, pre-capitalist epidemics that followed bouts of warfare. But in a rapidly urbanizing proto-capitalist England, cattle had begun to be concentrated in new ways, and the introduction of the infected stock would therefore rip through the population much more aggressively than it had in Europe. It’s not coincidental, then, that the outbreaks were centered on the large London dairies, which provided ideal environments for the intensification of the virus.

Ultimately, the outbreaks were each contained through selective, smaller-scale early culling combined with the application of modern medical and scientific practices—in essence similar to how such epidemics are quelled today. This is the first instance of what would become a clear pattern, mimicking that of economic crisis itself: ever more intense collapses that seem to place the entire system on a precipice, but which are ultimately overcome via a combination of mass sacrifice that clears the market/population and an intensification of technological advances—in this case modern medical practices plus new vaccines, often arriving too little too late, but nonetheless helping to mop things up in the wake of devastation.

But this example from capitalism’s homeland should be paired with the effects of capitalist agricultural practices on capitalism’s periphery. While the cattle pandemics of early capitalist England were contained, the results elsewhere were far more devastating. The example with the largest historical impact is probably that of the rinderpest outbreak in Africa that took place in the 1890s.[30] The date itself is no coincidence: rinderpest had plagued Europe with an intensity that closely followed the growth of large-scale agriculture, only held in check by the advance of modern science. But the late 19th century saw the height of European imperialism, epitomized by the colonization of Africa. Rinderpest was brought from Europe into East Africa with the Italians, who were seeking to catch up with other imperial powers by colonizing the Horn of Africa through a series of military campaigns. These campaigns mostly ended in failure, but the disease then spread through the indigenous cattle population and ultimately found its way into South Africa, where it devastated the early capitalist agricultural economy of the colony, even killing the herd on the estate of the infamous self-professed white supremacist Cecil Rhodes. The larger historical effect was undeniable: killing as many as 80-90% of all cattle, the plague resulted in an unprecedented famine across the predominantly pastoralist societies of Sub-Saharan Africa. This depopulation was then followed by the invasive colonization of the savannah by thornbush, which created a habitat for the tsetse fly which both carries sleeping sickness and prevents the grazing of livestock. This ensured that the repopulation of the region after the famine would be limited and enabled the further spread of European colonial powers across the continent.

Aside from periodically inducing agricultural crises and producing the apocalyptic conditions that helped capitalism surge beyond its early borders, such plagues have also haunted the proletariat in the industrial core itself. Before returning to the many more recent examples, it’s worth noting again that there is nothing uniquely Chinese about the coronavirus outbreak. The explanations for why so many epidemics seem to arise in China is not cultural, it’s a matter of economic geography. This is abundantly clear if we compare China to the US or Europe when the latter were hubs of global production and mass industrial employment.[31] The result was essentially identical, with all the same core features. Livestock die-offs in the countryside were met in the city by poor sanitary practices and widespread contamination. This became the focus of early liberal-progressive efforts at reform in working class areas, epitomized by the reception of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, originally written to document the suffering of immigrant workers in the meat-packing industry, but taken up by wealthier liberals concerned about health violations and the generally unsanitary conditions in which their own food was prepared.

This liberal outrage at “uncleanliness,” with all its implied racism, still defines what we might think of as the automatic ideology of most people when confronted with the political dimensions of something like the coronavirus or SARS epidemics. But workers have little control over the conditions in which they work. More importantly, while unsanitary conditions do leak out of the factory through contamination of food supplies, this contamination is really just the tip of the iceberg. Such conditions are the ambient norm for those working in them or living in nearby proletarian settlements, and these conditions induce population-level declines in health that provide even better conditions for the spread of capitalism’s many plagues.

Take, for example, the case of the Spanish Flu, one of the deadliest epidemics in history. This was one of the earliest outbreaks of H1N1 influenza (related to more recent outbreaks of swine and avian flu), and it was long assumed to have somehow been qualitatively different from other variants of influenza, given its high death toll. While this appears to be true in part (due to the flu’s ability to induce an overreaction of the immune system), later reviews of the literature and historical epidemiological research found that it may not have been that much more virulent than other strains. Instead, its high death rate was probably caused primarily by widespread malnourishment, urban overcrowding, and generally unsanitary living conditions in the affected areas, which encouraged not only the spread of the flu itself but also the cultivation of bacterial superinfections on top of the underlying viral one.[32]

In other words, the death toll of Spanish Flu, though portrayed as an unpredictable aberration in the character of the virus, was inextricable from social conditions. Meanwhile, the rapid spread of the flu was enabled by global trade and global warfare, at that time centered around the rapidly shifting imperialisms that survived the first world war. And we find yet again a now-familiar story of how such a deadly strain of influenza was produced in the first place: though the exact origin is still somewhat murky, it’s now widely assumed to have originated in domesticated swine or poultry, likely in Kansas. The time and location are notable, since the years following the war were a sort of inflection point for American agriculture, which saw the widespread application of increasingly mechanized, factory-style methods of production. These trends only grew more intense through the 1920s, and the mass application of technologies like the combine harvester induced both gradual monopolization and ecological disaster, the combination of which resulted in the Dust Bowl crisis and the mass migration that followed. The intensive concentration of livestock that would mark later factory farms had not yet arisen, but the more basic forms of concentration and intensive throughput that had already created livestock epidemics across Europe were now the norm. If the English cattle epidemics of the 18th century were the first case of a distinctly capitalist livestock plague, and the rinderpest outbreak of 1890s Africa the largest of imperialism’s epidemiological holocausts, the Spanish flu can then be understood as the first of capitalism’s plagues on the proletariat.[33]


Gilded Age

COVID-19 can’t be understood without taking into account the ways in which China’s last few decades of development in and through the global capitalist system has molded the country’s health care system and the state of public health more generally. The epidemic, however novel, is therefore similar to other public health crises that came before it, which tend to be produced with nearly the same regularity as economic crises, and to be regarded in similar ways within the popular press—as if they were random, “black swan” events, utterly unpredictable and unprecedented. The reality, however, is that these health crises follow their own chaotic, cyclical patterns of recurrence, made more probable by a series of structural contradictions built into the nature of production and proletarian life under capitalism. Much like the case of the Spanish Flu, the coronavirus was originally able to take hold and spread rapidly because of a general degradation of basic healthcare among the population at large. But precisely because this degradation has taken place in the midst of spectacular economic growth, it has been obscured behind the splendor of glittering cities and massive factories. The reality, however, is that expenditures on public goods like health care and education in China remain extremely low, while most public spending has been directed toward brick and mortar infrastructure—bridges, roads, and cheap electricity for production.

Meanwhile, the quality of domestic-market products is often dangerously poor. For decades, Chinese industry has produced high quality, high value exports, made to the highest global standards for the world market, like iPhones and computer chips. But those goods left for consumption on the domestic market have abysmal standards, causing regular scandals and deep public distrust. The many cases have an undeniable echo of Sinclair’s The Jungle and other tales of Gilded Age America. The largest case in recent memory, the melamine milk scandal of 2008, left a dozen infants dead and tens of thousands hospitalized (though perhaps hundreds of thousands were affected). Since then, a number of scandals have rocked the public with regularity: in 2011 when “gutter oil” recycled from grease traps was found being used in restaurants across the country, or in 2018 when faulty vaccines killed several children, and then one year later when dozens were hospitalized when given fake HPV vaccines.[34] More mild stories are even more rampant, composing a familiar backdrop for anyone living in China: powdered instant soup mix cut with soap to keep costs down, entrepreneurs who sell pigs that died of mysterious causes to neighboring villages, detailed gossip about which street-side shops are most likely to get you sick.

Before the country’s piece-by-piece incorporation into the global capitalist system, services like healthcare in China were once provided (largely in the cities) under the danwei system of enterprise-based benefits or (mostly but not exclusively in the countryside) by local healthcare clinics staffed by plentiful “barefoot doctors,” all provided as a free service.[35] The successes of socialist-era healthcare, like its successes in the field of basic education and literacy, were substantial enough that even the country’s harshest critics had to acknowledge them.[36] Snail fever, plaguing the country for centuries, was essentially wiped out in much of its historical core, only to return in force once the socialist healthcare system began to be dismantled.[37] Infant mortality plummeted and, even despite the famine that accompanied the Great leap Forward, life expectancy jumped from 45 to 68 years between 1950 and the early 1980s. Immunization and general sanitary practices became widespread, and basic information on nutrition and public health, as well as access to rudimentary medicines, were free and available to all. Meanwhile, the barefoot doctor system helped to distribute fundamental, albeit limited, medical knowledge to a large portion of the population, helping to build a robust, bottom-up healthcare system in conditions of severe material poverty. It’s worth remembering that all of this took place at a time when China was poorer, per capita, than your average Sub-Saharan African country today.

Since then, a combination of neglect and privatization has substantially degraded this system at the same time that rapid urbanization and unregulated industrial production of household goods and foodstuffs has made the need for widespread healthcare, not to mention food, drug and safety regulations, all the more necessary. Today, China’s public spending on health is US$323 per capita, according to figures from the World Health Organization.[38] This figure is low even among other “upper-middle income” countries, and it’s around half that spent by Brazil, Belarus and Bulgaria. Regulation is minimal to non-existent, resulting in numerous scandals of the type mentioned above. Meanwhile, the effects of all this are felt most strongly by the hundreds of millions of migrant workers, for whom any right to basic health care provisions completely evaporates when they leave their rural hometowns (where, under the hukou system, they are permanent residents regardless of their actual location, meaning that the remaining public resources can’t be accessed elsewhere).

Ostensibly, public healthcare was supposed to have been replaced in the late 1990s by a more privatized system (albeit one managed through the state) in which a combination of employer and employee contributions would provide for medical care, pensions and housing insurance.[39] But this social insurance scheme has suffered from systematic underpayment, to the extent that supposedly “required” contributions on the part of employers are often simply ignored, leaving the overwhelming majority of workers to pay out of pocket. According to the latest available national estimate, only 22 percent of migrant workers had basic medical insurance. Lack of contributions to the social insurance system is not, however, simply a spiteful act by individually corrupt bosses, but is instead accounted for largely by the fact that slim profit margins leave no room for social benefits. In our own calculation, we found that coughing up unpaid social insurance in an industrial hub like Dongguan would cut industrial profits in half and push many firms to bankruptcy.[40] To make up for the massive gaps, China has instituted a bare-bones supplementary medical scheme to cover retirees and the self-employed, which only pays out a few hundred yuan per person per year on average.

This beleaguered medical system produces its own terrifying social tensions. Several medical staff are killed each year and dozens are injured in attacks by angry patients or, more often, the family members of patients who die in their care. Such an attack occurred on Christmas Eve, 2019, when a doctor in Beijing was stabbed to death by the son of a patient who believed his mother died from poor care at the hospital.[41] One survey of doctors found that a staggering 85 percent had experienced workplace violence,[42] and another, from 2015, said that 13 percent of doctors in China had been physically assaulted the previous year.[43] Chinese doctors see four times the number of patients per year than US doctors, while being paid less than US$15,000 per year—for perspective, that’s less than per capita income (US$16,760), while in the US an average doctor’s salary (about US$300,000) is almost five times as much as per capita income (US$60,200).[44] Before it was shut down in 2016 and its creators arrested, the now defunct unrest-tracking blog project of Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu recorded at least a few strikes and protests by medical workers every month.[45] In 2015, the last full year of their meticulously collected data, there were 43 such events. They also recorded dozens of “medical treatment [protest] incidents” each month, led by family members of patients, with 368 recorded in 2015.

Under such conditions of massive public divestment from the healthcare system, it’s no surprise that COVID-19 took hold so easily. Combined with the fact that new communicable diseases emerge in China at a rate of one every 1-2 years, conditions seem primed for such epidemics to continue. As in the case of the Spanish Flu, the generally poor conditions of public health among the proletarian population have helped the virus to both gain footing and, from there, to rapidly spread. But, again, it’s not just a question of distribution. We have to also understand how the virus itself was produced.


There is No Wilderness

In the case of the most recent outbreak, the story is less straightforward than the cases of swine or avian influenza, which are so clearly associated with the core of the agro-industrial system. Despite initial speculation about the involvement of other animal vectors, the virus is now clearly identified as having originated in bats, which are usually harvested from the wild (although the particular path from bats to humans is as of yet uncertain). One reason why this origin was not immediately clear, however, was precisely because the wet market in Wuhan where the first transmission to humans occurred trafficked in a number of species, including both domesticated animals like pigs and various wild animals also known to be host to coronaviruses (such as pangolins or various bird species). Even here there is a relationship, however, since the decline in the availability and safety of pork due to the African Swine Fever outbreak has meant that meat prices rose, which led to a boost in the harvest of wild game and in the farming of other species, including those sold in wet markets as “wild” game meat. But without the direct factory farming connection, can the same economic processes really be said to bear any complicity in this particular outbreak?

The answer is yes, but in a different way. Again, Wallace and his numerous collaborators point to not one but two major routes by which capitalism helps to gestate and unleash ever more deadly epidemics: The first, outlined above, is the directly industrial case, in which viruses are gestated within industrial environments that have been fully subsumed within capitalist logic. But the second is the indirect case, which takes place via capitalist expansion and extraction in the hinterland, where previously unknown viruses are essentially harvested from wild populations and distributed along global capital circuits. The two are not entirely separate, of course, but it seems to be the second case that best describes the emergence of the current epidemic.[46] In this instance, the increased demand for the bodies of wild animals for consumption, medical use, or (as in the case of camels and the MERS outbreak in 2012) a variety of culturally-significant functions builds new global commodity chains in “wild” goods. In others, pre-existing agro-ecological value chains simply extend into previously “wild” spheres, changing local ecologies and modifying the interface between the human and non-human.[47]

Wallace is himself clear about this, explaining several dynamics that create worse diseases despite the viruses themselves already existing in “natural” environments.[48] The expansion of industrial production itself “may push increasingly capitalized wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens.” In other words, as capital accumulation subsumes new territories, animals will be pushed into less accessible areas where they will come into contact with previously isolated disease strains, all while these animals themselves are becoming targets for commodification as “even the wildest subsistence species are being roped into ag value chains.” Similarly, this expansion pushes humans closer to these animals and these environments, which “may increase the interface (and spillover) between wild nonhuman populations and newly urbanized rurality.” This gives the virus more opportunity and resources to mutate in a way that allows it to infect humans, pushing up the probability of biological spillover. The geography of industry itself is never quite so cleanly urban or rural anyways, just as monopolized industrial agriculture makes use of both large-scale and smallholder farms: “on a [factory farm] contractor’s smallholding along the forest edge, a food animal may catch a pathogen before being shipped back to a processing plant on the outer ring of a major city.”

The fact is that the “natural” sphere is already subsumed under a fully global capitalist system that has succeeded in changing baseline climatic conditions and devasting so many pre-capitalist ecosystems that the remainder no longer function as they might have in the past.[49] Here lies yet another causative factor, since, according to Wallace, all these processes of ecological devastation reduce “the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains.” The reality, then, is that it’s a misnomer to think of such areas as the natural “periphery” of a capitalist system. Capitalism is already global, and already totalizing. It no longer has an edge or border with some natural, non-capitalist sphere beyond it, and there is therefore no great chain of development in which “backward” countries follow those ahead of them on their way up the value chain, nor any true wilderness capable of being preserved in some sort of pure, untouched condition. Instead, capital merely has a subordinated hinterland, itself fully subsumed within global value chains. The resulting social systems—including everything from supposed “tribalism” to renewals of anti-modern fundamentalist religions—are wholly contemporary products, and are almost always de facto plugged into global markets, often quite directly. The same can be said of the resulting biological-ecological systems, since “wild” areas are actually immanent to this global economy in both the abstract sense of dependence on the climate and related ecosystems and in the direct sense of being plugged into those same global value chains.

This fact produces the conditions necessary for the transformation of “wild” viral strains into global pandemics. But COVID-19 is hardly the worst of these. An ideal illustration of the basic principle—and the global danger—can be found instead in Ebola.[50] The Ebola virus is a clear case of an existing viral reservoir spilling out into the human population. Current evidence suggests that its origin hosts are several species of bats native to West and Central Africa, which act as carriers but are not themselves affected by the virus. The same is not true for the other wild mammals, such as primates and duikers, which periodically contract the virus and suffer rapid, high-fatality outbreaks. Ebola has a particularly aggressive lifecycle beyond its reservoir species. Through contact with any of these wild hosts, humans can also be infected, with devastating results. Several major epidemics have occurred, and the fatality rate for the majority has been extremely high, almost always greater than 50%. The largest recorded outbreak, which continued sporadically from 2013 to 2016 across several West African countries, saw 11,000 deaths.[51] The fatality rate for patients hospitalized in this outbreak was in the range of 57-59%, and much higher for those with no access to hospitals. In recent years, several vaccines have been developed by private companies, but slow approval mechanisms and stringent intellectual property rights have combined with the widespread lack of a health infrastructure to produce a situation in which vaccines have done little to stop the most recent epidemic, centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and now the longest lasting outbreak.[52]

The disease is often presented as if it were something like a natural disaster—at best random, at worst blamed on the “unclean” cultural practices of the forest-dwelling poor. But the timing of these two major outbreaks (2013-2016 in West Africa and 2018-present in the DRC) is not a coincidence. Both have occurred precisely when the expansion of primary industries has been further displacing forest-dwelling peoples and disrupting local ecosystems. In fact, this appears to be true for more than the most recent cases, since, as Wallace explains, “every Ebola outbreak appears connected to capital-driven shifts in land use, including back to the first outbreak in Nzara, Sudan in 1976, where a British-financed factory spun and wove local cotton.”[53] Similarly, the outbreaks in 2013 in Guinea occurred right after a new government had begun to open the country to global markets and sell off large tracts of land to international agribusiness conglomerates. The palm oil industry, notorious for its role in deforestation and ecological destruction worldwide, seems to have been particularly culpable, since its monocultures both devastate the robust ecological redundancies that help to interrupt transmission chains and at the same time literally attract the bat species that serve as a natural reservoir for the virus.[54]

As with the spread of influenza in China, rapid urbanization in West Africa is also at the heart of the issue. And just as elsewhere, urbanization in Africa has led to a growing demand for animal protein. But in the context of general underdevelopment conditioned by a history of colonization and imperialism, the same resources leading to “livestock revolutions” in more heavily-industrialized regions meant that the process would take on a unique character. In West Africa, animal protein had principally come from ocean fishing. Beginning in the 1970s, however, large industrial fishing fleets, many from Europe but also other parts of the world, began to out-compete smaller local fleets, dramatically depleting fish supplies. Fish stocks off the coast of West Africa had fallen by half by the late 1970s. Absent the industrial base or reserves of investment required to facilitate the same livestock concentrations that emerged elsewhere, but still abutting large forests with large animal populations, the demand for animal protein within these new urban complexes induced a spike in the hunting industry and a heavier reliance on what is often called “bushmeat.” Alongside, it encouraged smaller landholders to raise more livestock at the margins of these forests, facilitating further potential for spillover between wild and domestic animals.[55]

The sale of large tracts of land to commercial agroforestry companies also entailed both the dispossession of forest-dwelling locals and the disruption of their ecosystem-dependent local forms of production and harvest. This often leaves the rural poor with no choice but to push further into the forest at the same time that their traditional relationship with that ecosystem has been disrupted. The result is that the survival of the rural population itself increasingly depends on the hunting of wild game or harvesting of local flora and timber for sale on global markets. Such populations then become the stand-ins for the ire of global environmentalist organizations, who decry them as “poachers” and “illegal loggers” responsible for the very deforestation and ecological destruction that pushed them to such trades in the first place. Often, the process then takes a much darker turn, as in Guatemala, where anti-communist paramilitaries leftover from the country’s civil war were transformed into “green” security forces, tasked with “protecting” the forest from the illegal logging, hunting and narcotrafficking that were the only trades available to its indigenous residents—who had been pushed to such activities precisely because of the violent repression they had faced from those same paramilitaries during the war.[56] The pattern has since been reproduced all over the world, cheered on by social media posts in high income countries celebrating the (often literally caught-on-camera) execution of “poachers” by supposedly “green” security forces.[57]

All of this becomes immediately relevant when inquiring into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The original SARS virus was first seen in humans in late 2002 in the Pearl River Delta region of China. In March 2003, a team of scientists from Hong Kong identified the cause of SARS as a coronavirus, now known as SARS CoV-1, and scientists quickly set out to find its reservoir host and infection path. This process was difficult. Early suspicion cast attention on the civet cat, a wild mammal eaten in South China and sold at “wet markets.” Authorities banned the sale of civets for a period of time, slaughtering over ten thousand animals due to be sold in live animal markets. After the outbreak died down, however, it was realized that civet themselves were not the ultimate reservoir host, but rather an intermediate amplifying host that facilitated the transmission of the virus to humans. Testing of wild civets turned up none that had the virus. In 2005, they found that bats were instead the most likely reservoir host of the SARS virus. In fact, bats in South and Central China carried a large number of SARS-like coronaviruses, all evolving and changing in the bat reservoir host. The version of the virus that infected humans in 2002, however, was not directly found among bats, and studies have suggested that the virus evolved in infected civets in a way that they could infect humans, similar to the way that influenza strains pass from birds to pigs and from pigs to humans. Because of the specific role of civets in this transmission chain, the wild animal trade was blamed for the spread of the virus. But this ignores the changing structure of agriculture in China and draws too harsh a divide between “domestic” and “wild” sources of protein. While the civet trade did begin as a wild animal trade—in part an outgrowth of the deforestation of areas within which they lived—civets had been increasingly raised in captive breeding (in other words: farmed) leading up to the SARS outbreak. The testing of the animals on farms that sold most of the civets to the infected market, however, did not find antibodies to SARS. This means that the most likely place in which the infection of civets occurred was not on the farms but instead within the overcrowded trading networks, at some stage of transit preceding their introduction to the wet markets where they were ultimately sold. While the wet markets themselves were the likely venue through which humans were infected with SARS, the farmed civets were probably infected during transportation or storage on the way to market, most likely by ingesting the droppings of infected bats that may have also entered the same market supply chain. In the end, the SARS CoV-1 virus infected over 8000 people worldwide, of which around 900 died.[58]


Containment as an Exercise in Statecraft

With 2.4 million total deaths worldwide within the first year of the pandemic, it now seems natural that the virus should have garnered such media attention.[59] But in the early months of the outbreak, this attention seemed less about the virus itself and more about the spectacular scale of the response, resulting in equally spectacular images of emptied-out megacities that stand in stark contrast to the normal media image of China as over-crowded and over-polluted. At a deeper level, though, what seems most fascinating about the Chinese state’s response is the way in which it has been performed, via the media, as a sort of melodramatic dress rehearsal for the full mobilization of domestic counterinsurgency. This gives us real insights into the repressive capacity of the Chinese state, but it also emphasizes the deeper incapacity of that state, revealed by its need to rely so heavily on a combination of total propaganda measures deployed through every facet of the media and the goodwill mobilizations of locals otherwise under no material obligation to comply. Both Chinese and Western propaganda have emphasized the real repressive capacity of the quarantine, the former narrating it as a case of effective government intervention in an emergency and the latter as yet another case of totalitarian overreach on the part of the dystopian Chinese state. The unspoken truth, however, is that the very aggression of the clampdown signifies a deeper level of state incapacity.

This itself gives us a window into the nature of the Chinese state, which is still very much under construction. The clampdown presented an opportunity to develop new techniques of social control and crisis response capable of being deployed even in conditions where basic state machinery is sparse or non-existent. Such conditions, meanwhile, offer an interesting (albeit more speculative) picture of how the ruling class in any given country might respond when widespread crisis and active insurrection cause similar breakdowns in even the most robust states. The viral outbreak was in every respect assisted by poor connections between levels of the government: repression of “whistleblower” doctors by local officials (contra the interests of the central government,) ineffective hospital reporting mechanisms and extremely poor provision of basic healthcare are just a few examples. Meanwhile, different local governments have returned to normal at different paces, largely beyond the control of the central state (except in Hubei, the epicenter). At the time of writing, it seems almost entirely random which ports are operational and which locales have restarted production. This bricolage quarantine has meant that long-distance city-to-city logistics networks remain disrupted, since any local government appears able to simply prevent trains or freight trucks from passing through its borders. And this base level incapacity of the Chinese government has forced it to deal with the virus as if it were an insurgency, roleplaying civil war against an invisible enemy.

The national state machinery really started to roll on January 22nd, when authorities upgraded the emergency response measures in all of Hubei province, and told the public they had the legal authority to set up quarantine facilities, as well as to “collect” any personnel, vehicles, and facilities necessary to the containment of the disease, or to set up blockades and control traffic (thereby rubberstamping a phenomenon it knew would occur regardless).[60] In other words, the full deployment of state resources actually began with a call for volunteer efforts on behalf of locals. On the one hand, such a massive disaster will strain any state’s capacity (see, for instance, hurricane response in the US). But, on the other, this repeats a common pattern in Chinese statecraft whereby the central state, lacking efficient formal and enforceable command structures that extend all the way down to the local level, must instead rely on a combination of widely-publicized calls for local officials and local citizens to mobilize and a series of after-the-fact punishments meted out to the worst responders (framed as crackdowns on corruption). The only truly efficient response is to be found in specific areas where the central state focuses the bulk of its power and attention—in this case, Hubei generally and Wuhan specifically. By the morning of January 24th, the city was already in an effective full lock down, with no trains in or out nearly one month after the new strain of the coronavirus was first detected. National health officials have declared that health authorities have the ability to examine and quarantine anyone at their discretion. Beyond the major cities of Hubei, dozens of other cities across China, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai, have launched lockdowns of varying severity on flows of people and goods in and out of their borders.[61]

In response to the central state’s call to mobilize, some localities have taken their own strange and severe initiatives. The most frightening of these are to be found in four cities in Zhejiang province, where thirty million people have been issued local passports, allowing only one person per household to leave home once every two days.[62] Cities like Shenzhen and Chengdu have ordered that each neighborhood be locked down, and allowed entire apartment buildings to be quarantined for 14 days if a single confirmed case of the virus is found within.[63] Meanwhile, hundreds have been detained or fined for “spreading rumors” about the disease,[64] and some who have fled quarantine have been arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail time[65]—and the jails themselves are now experiencing a severe outbreak, due to officials’ incapacity to isolate sick individuals even in an environment literally designed for easy isolation.[66] These sorts of desperate, aggressive measures mirror those of extreme cases of counterinsurgency, most clearly recalling the actions of military-colonial occupation in places like Algeria, or, more recently, Palestine. Never before have they been conducted at this scale, nor in megacities of this kind that house much of the world’s population. The conduct of the clampdown then offers a strange sort of lesson for those concerned with the question of global revolution, since it is, essentially, a dry run of state-led reaction.



This particular clampdown benefits from its seemingly humanitarian character, with the Chinese state able to mobilize greater numbers of locals to help in what is, essentially, the noble cause of strangling the spread of the virus. But, as is to be expected, such clampdowns always also backfire. Counterinsurgency is, after all, a desperate sort of war conducted only when more robust forms of conquest, appeasement and economic incorporation have become impossible. It is an expensive, inefficient and rearguard action, betraying the deeper incapacity of whatever power is tasked with deploying it—be they French colonial interests, the waning American imperium, or others. The result of the clampdown is almost always a second insurgency, bloodied by the crushing of the first and made even more desperate. Here, the quarantine will hardly mirror the reality of civil war and counterinsurgency. But even in this case, the clampdown has backfired in its own ways. With so much of the state’s effort focused on control of information and constant propaganda deployed via every possible media apparatus, unrest has expressed itself largely within the same platforms.

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang, an early whistleblower on the dangers of the virus, on February 7th shook citizens cooped up in their homes across the country.[67] Li was one of eight doctors rounded up by police for spreading “false information” in early January, before later contracting the virus himself. His death triggered anger from netizens and a statement of regret from the Wuhan government.[68] People were beginning to see that the state is made up of bumbling officials and bureaucrats who have no idea what to do but still put on a strong face.[69] This fact was essentially revealed when the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, was forced to admit on state television that his government had delayed releasing critical information about the virus after an outbreak had occurred. The very tension caused by the outbreak, combined with that induced by the state’s total mobilization, has begun to reveal to the general populace the deep fissures that lie behind the paper-thin portrait that the government paints of itself. In other words, conditions such as these have exposed the fundamental incapacities of the Chinese state to growing numbers of people who previously would have taken the government’s propaganda at face value.

If a single symbol could be found to express the basic character of the state’s response, it would be something like a popular video which began to circulate shortly after the outbreak began, shot by a local in Wuhan and shared with the Western internet via Twitter in Hong Kong.[70] This video shows a number of people who appear to be doctors or first-responders of some sort outfitted in full protective gear taking a picture with the Chinese flag. The person shooting explains that they’re outside that building every day for various photo ops. The video then follows the men as they take off the protective gear and stand around chatting and smoking, even using one of the suits to clean off their car. Before driving off, one of the men unceremoniously dumps the protective suit into a nearby trash can, not even bothering to stuff it to the bottom where it won’t be seen. Videos such as this one have spread rapidly before being censored—small tears in the thin veil of the state-sanctioned spectacle.

At a more fundamental level, the quarantine led to deep economic reverberations in people’s personal lives. The macroeconomic side of this has been widely reported, with a massive decrease in Chinese growth leading to a new global recession, especially when matched with continuing stagnation in Europe[71] and GDP in the US declining over three percent for the year.[72] As the pandemic spread across the globe Chinese firms and those fundamentally dependent on Chinese production networks began looking into their “force majeure” clauses, which allow for delays or cancellation of the responsibilities entailed by both parties in a business contract when that contract becomes “impossible” to perform.[73] The mere prospect caused a cascade of demands for production to be restored across the country. When the revival of industry did occur, it happened in a patchwork fashion, marked by severe labor shortages and then immediately hobbled by sharp declines in demand from foreign markets (although demand for PPE and other goods increased) as lockdowns began to cascade across the globe.

But other effects have been less visible, though arguably far more important. Many migrant workers, including those who had stayed in their work cities for Spring Festival or were able to return prior to various lockdowns being implemented, were stuck in a dangerous limbo. In Shenzhen, where the vast majority of the population are migrants, locals reported that the number of homeless people increased. Even as of January 2021, cities across the country are now running winter homelessness clean-up drives to clear out those sleeping under bridges, hanging out around train stations, etc. Not only major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Qingdao, but also third and fourth tier cities like Hengshui and Huainan have sent out teams from “rescue centers” that are less homeless shelters and more corrals for those living on the streets.[74] The goal of these centers, in fact, is to send the homeless “home” to their place of household registration far outside the city where they are found (often a distant rural area or minor city), getting them off the books of the local government and making them someone else’s bureaucratic problem. Despite the relative recovery in output, the aftershocks of the pandemic’s effect on the labor market are still being experienced. Maybe the most stark example of this phenomenon was the fact that the new people appearing on the streets in the late winter and early spring of 2020 were not long-term homeless, instead having the appearance of literally just being dumped there with nowhere else to go—still wearing relatively nice clothes, unfamiliar with where best to sleep rough or to obtain food. Various buildings in the city saw an increase in petty theft during the year, mostly of food delivered to the doorstep of residents who were staying home for the quarantine. Across the board, workers lost wages as production stalled and those that were able to return have since been working overtime nonstop to make up for the loss. The best case scenarios during work stoppages were dorm-quarantines like that imposed at the Shenzhen Foxconn plant, where new returnees were confined to their quarters for a week or two, paid about a third of their normal wages and then allowed to return to the production line.[75] Poorer firms had no such option, and the government’s attempt to offer new lines of cheap credit to smaller businesses probably did little in the long run.[76]


The Surreal War

Meanwhile, the clumsy early response to the virus, the state’s reliance on particularly punitive and repressive measures to control it, and the central government’s inability to effectively coordinate across localities to juggle production and quarantine simultaneously all indicate that a deep incapacity remains at the heart of the state machinery. If, as our friend Lao Xie argues, the emphasis of the Xi administration has been on “state-building,” it would appear that much work in that regard remains to be done.[77] At the same time, if the campaign against COVID-19 can also be read as a dry run against insurgency, it is notable that the central government only had the capacity to provide effective coordination in the Hubei epicenter and that its responses in other provinces—even wealthy and well-regarded places like Hangzhou—remained largely uncoordinated and desperate. We can take this in two ways: first, as a lesson on the weakness underlying the hard edges of state power, and second as a caution on the threat that is still posed by uncoordinated and irrational local responses when the central state machinery is overwhelmed.

These are important lessons for an era when the destruction wrought by unending accumulation has extended both upward into the global climatic system and downward into the microbiological substrata of life on Earth. Such crises will only become more common. As the secular crisis of capitalism takes on a seemingly non-economic character, new epidemics, famines, floods and other “natural” disasters will be used as a justification for the extension of state control, and the response to these crises will increasingly function as an opportunity to exercise new and untested tools for counterinsurgency. A coherent communist politics must grasp both of these facts together. At a theoretical level, this means understanding that the critique of capitalism is impoverished whenever it is severed from the hard sciences. But at the practical level, it also implies that the only possible political project today is one able to orient itself within a terrain defined by widespread ecological and microbiological disaster, and to operate in this perpetual state of crisis and atomization.

In a quarantined China, we began to glimpse such a landscape, at least in its outlines: empty late-winter streets dusted by the slightest film of undisturbed snow, phone-lit faces peering out of windows, happenstance barricades staffed by a few spare nurses or police or volunteers or simply paid actors tasked with hoisting flags and telling you to put your mask on and go back home. The contagion is social. So, it should come as no real surprise that the only way to combat it at such a late stage is to wage a surreal sort of war on society itself. Don’t gather together, don’t cause chaos. But chaos can build in isolation, too. As the furnaces in all the foundries cooled to softly crackling embers and then to snow-cold ash, the many minor desperations cannot help but leak out of their quarantine to gently cascade together into a greater chaos that might one day, like this social contagion, prove too difficult to contain.


[1] Neil Hume, Anna Gross, and Christian Shepherd. “Chinese Group Sparks Oversupply Fears in Steel Market,” Financial Times, Apr. 25, 2019.

[2] “Chinese Steel Trader Claims Wuhan Iron Slashed Workforce by 25%,” S&P Global Market Intelligence, Nov. 1, 2016.

[3] “不聚集不添乱就是最大贡献-新华网,” Xinhua, Feb. 5, 2020.

[4] Bill Gertz, “Coronavirus May Have Originated in Lab Linked to China’s Biowarfare Program,” The Washington Times, Jan. 26, 2020. These theories, spread in initially by social media, particularly via paranoid Hong Kong and Taiwan Facebook posts, have sometimes been conflated with the more reasonable theory that the pandemic originated in an accidental lab leak linked to research on bat coronaviruses. Michael R. Gordon, Warren P. Strobel and Drew Hinshaw, “Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin”, The Wall Street Journal, 23 May 2021.

[5] Christian Walzer and Aili Kang, “Abolish Asia’s ‘Wet Markets,’ Where Pandemics Breed,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2020.

[6] Zhu Bochen and Wang Yiming, “Research Excludes Wuhan Seafood Market as Origin of SARS-CoV-2: CAS,” China.Org.Cn, Feb. 23, 2020.

[7] Timothy Brook, “Opinion: Blame China? Outbreak Orientalism, from the Plague to Coronavirus,” The Globe and Mail, Feb. 13, 2020; James Palmer, “Don’t Blame Bat Soup for the Coronavirus,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 27, 2020.

[8] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “Where’s Xi? China’s Leader Commands Coronavirus Fight From Safe Heights,” The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2020.

[9] Amanda Lee and Cissy Zhou. “China’s Economy May Expand by 9 per Cent in 2021, Helping to Overtake US Sooner,” South China Morning Post, January 1, 2021.

[10] Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, Jan. 4, 2021.

[11] Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu. Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, Monthly Review Press, 2016.

[12] Much of what we will explain in this section is simply a more concise summary of Wallace’s own arguments, geared toward a more general audience and without the necessity of “making the case” to other biologists through the exposition of rigorous argumentation and extensive evidence. For those who would challenge the basic evidence, we refer throughout to the work of Wallace and his frequent coauthors, such as Rodrick Wallace, Luke Bergmann and Lenny Hogerwef. Below, we also draw from the work of historian and urban theorist Mike Davis and science writer David Quammen.

[13] Ibid., p.52.

[14] Ibid., p.56.

[15] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[16] Ibid., p. 57.

[17] Dan Charles, “Swine Fever is Killing Vast Numbers of Pigs in China,” National Public Radio, Aug. 15, 2019.

[18] This and the following four paragraphs are based on: Mike Davis, The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, Verso, 2005; Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu; and, David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, WW Norton, 2018.

[19] Davis, The Monster at Our Door, p. 81.

[20] Ibid., p. 84.

[21] Sun Honglei et al., “Prevalent Eurasian Avian-like H1N1 Swine Influenza Virus with 2009 Pandemic Viral Genes Facilitating Human Infection,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 117, no. 29, July 21, 2020, pp. 17204–10; and Mike Ives, “Scientists Say New Strain of Swine Flu Virus Is Spreading to Humans in China,” The New York Times, Jun. 30, 2020.

[22] Jesse D. Bloom et al., “Investigate the origins of COVID-19”, Science, 372(6543), 14 May 2021.

[23] Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, Yale University Press, 2004.

[24] Kam-Biu Liu and Hong-Lie Qiu, “Late-Holocene Pollen Records of Vegetational Changes in China: Climate or Human Disturbance?” Terrestrial, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1994, pp. 393-410.

[25] In the case of the bubonic plague, a certain Eurocentric focus has helped to obscure this relationship, since urbanization and agrarian expansion were relatively subdued in the “middle ages” of the European subcontinent. But the development and distribution of the plague was intricately linked to the urban, agrarian and mercantile expansions taking place across Asia in these years. In East and Central Asia, the groundwork was laid in the Tang dynasty’s (618-907 CE) revival of the silk road and the Song dynasty’s (960-1279 CE) more systematic colonization of the sub-tropical south, with both dynasties hosting some of the world’s largest cities and sitting at the helm of expansive trade routes. These trends were completed by the Mongol conquest, resulting in the rise of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE) in mainland East Asia, now integrated into a single imperium stretching all the way to Europe. After the fall of the Yuan, the Ming (1368-1644 CE) retained many of these mercantile connections and even extended them, as in the famous voyages of Zheng He, which reached East Africa in the early 1400s.

[26] Bruce Campbell, “The Demesne-Farming Systems of Post-Black Death England,” The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 44, Issue 2, 1996; Christopher Dyer, “Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: The Case of Harvest Workers,” The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 36 Issue 1, 1988, pp.21-37; Jessica Cordova, “Mortality and Meals: The Black Death’s Impact on Diet in England,” University of Washington Tacoma, Medieval History Commons, 2019.

[27] It is in this process that Robert Brenner identifies the specific origin of capitalism in England.

[28] The role of mercantile networks, such as those of Northern Italy or, later, Holland, are a key part of mainstream accounts of the origin of capitalism, most recently popularized by World Systems Theorists. These accounts, however, conflate commerce with capitalism as such and ignore the more definitive elements of capitalist production, which are found in wide-ranging transformations of production (and first agrarian production), not trade. Even more wide-ranging mercantile networks existed across the Middle East and East Asia, for instance, without leading to the emergence of capitalism.

[29] John Broad, “Cattle Plague in Eighteenth-Century England,” The Agricultural History Review Vol. 31, no. 2, 1983, pp. 104–15.

[30] Rinderpest is a viral disease that afflicts cattle, with a high mortality rate. It is thought to have originated in Asia and is closely related to measles and the canine distemper virus. It is now thought that the human measles virus may have emerged from rinderpest via zoonotic transfer in antiquity, since its genetic and geographic origins have been traced to the urban settlements that arose after the Neolithic revolution. For this history, see: Ariane Düx et. al., “Measles virus and rinderpest virus divergence dated to the rise of large cities,” Science, Vol. 368, No. 6497, June 19, 2020. pp.1367-1370.; And for its relationship to imperialism in Africa, see: Fred Pearce, “Inventing Africa,” New Scientist, Vol. 167, Issue 2251, Aug. 12, 2000.

[31] This is not to say that comparisons of the US to China today are not also informative. Since the US has its own massive agro-industrial sector, it is itself a huge contributor to the production of dangerous new viruses, not to mention anti-biotic-resistant bacterial infections.

[32] See: JF Brundage and GD Shanks, “What really happened during the 1918 influenza pandemic? The importance of bacterial secondary infections,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 196, No. 11, December 2007, pp. 1717–1718, author reply pp. 1718–1719; and: DM Morens and AS Fauci, “The 1918 influenza pandemic: Insights for the 21st century,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 195, No. 7, April 2007, pp 1018–1028.

[33] It’s important to note here and throughout that these trends coexist with the very real advances in medical science that have also attended capitalist development, including the capacity to eliminate numerous diseases long endemic to the human species. The case we are making here in no way denies this. Instead, we argue that, even if the technical-scientific capacity to serve human needs and eliminate scarcity is more developed now than ever, those capacities are artificially hindered by the imperative to accumulate. In fact, they are even threatened in the long term by capitalism’s tendency to repeatedly position humanity on the brink of extinction. In past decades, that extinction was threatened through global nuclear war. Today, it confronts us in the shape of an ecological catastrophe which is as much microbiological as macroecological. At a more mundane level, the limits capitalism poses to the further development of medical science are clear: endemic diseases that can be eliminated are not, so long as they mostly plague the world’s poor. This has been made only more apparent by the rapid, massive mobilization of resources and expertise in the name of developing a vaccine. As always, the communist critique of capitalism is that every advance in the social, scientific and technical ability of the species to serve human needs and close the metabolic rift with the non-human world is simultaneously hindered by the imperatives of the mode of production itself. Every catastrophe averted lays the ground for a larger one to come.

[34] Zhuang Pinghui, “Private Hospital Closed after Dozens of Patients given Fake HPV Vaccines,” South China Morning Post, Apr. 28, 2019.

[35] Youngsub Lee and Hyoungsup Kim, “The Turning Point of China’s Rural Public Health during the Cultural Revolution Period: Barefoot Doctors: A Narrative,” Iranian Journal of Public Health, Vol. 47, no. Suppl. 1, July 2018, pp. 1–8.

[36] Winnie Yip and William C. Hsiao, “What Drove the Cycles of Chinese Health System Reforms?” Health Systems & Reform, Vol. 1, no. 1, January 2, 2015, pp.  52–61. Vikki Valentine, “Health for the Masses: China’s ‘Barefoot Doctors,’” National Public Radio, Nov. 4, 2005.

[37] Donald P. McManus, et al, “Schistosomiasis in the People’s Republic of China: The Era of the Three Gorges Dam,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Vol. 23, no. 2, April 2010, pp. 442–66.

[38] Matthew Jowett, et al, “Spending Targets for Health: No Magic Number,” Health Systems Governance and Finance, World Health Organization, 2016, p. 34.

[39] China Labour Bulletin, “China’s Social Security System,” Oct. 15, 2019.

[40] Chuang, “Picking Quarrels: Lu Yuyu, Li Tingyu and the Changing Cadence of Class Struggle in China,” Chuang Journal, Issue 2, 2019.

[41] China Labour Bulletin, “Focus on Hospital Violence Obscures Basic Problems of Pay and Working Conditions,” Dec. 30, 2019.

[42] Ni Dandan, “Beijing Doctor Brutally Killed by Patient’s Son,” Sixth Tone, Dec. 28, 2019.

[43] “Chinese Turn to US Doctors amid Distrust in Health Service,” South China Morning Post, Jan. 29, 2018.

[44] Ibid.

[45]Archived at See also Chuang, “Picking Quarrels.”

[46] In their own way, these two paths of pandemic production mirror what Marx calls “real” and “formal” subsumption in the sphere of production proper. In real subsumption, the actual process of production itself is modified via the introduction of new technologies capable of intensifying the pace and magnitude of output—similar to how the industrial environment has changed the basic conditions of viral evolution such that new mutations are produced at a greater pace and with greater virility. In formal subsumption, which precedes real subsumption, these new technologies are not yet implemented. Instead, previously existing forms of production are simply brought together into new locations that have some interface with the global market, as in the case of hand-loom workers being placed into a workshop that sells their product for a profit—and this is similar to the way in which viruses produced in “natural” settings are brought out from the wild population and introduced into domestic populations via the global market.

[47] For an accessible overview drawing in part from Wallace’s work, see: Laura Spinney, “Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?” The Guardian, Mar. 28, 2020.

[48] Rob Wallace, “Notes on a Novel Coronavirus,” MR Online, Jan. 29, 2020.

[49] It’s a mistake to equate these ecosystems with the “pre-human” however. China is a perfect example, since many of its seemingly “primeval” natural landscapes were, in fact, the product of much older periods of human expansion which wiped out species that were previously common on the East Asian mainland, such as Elephants.

[50] Ebola is a blanket term for 5 or so distinct viruses, the most deadly of which is itself simply named Ebola virus, formerly Zaire virus.

[51] “Ebola Situation Reports,” World Health Organization.

[52] Doctors Without Borders – USA, “Ebola Response Failing Communities in DRC as Epidemic Continues,” Mar. 7, 2019.

[53] Rob Wallace, “Neoliberal Ebola: The Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak,”, Jul. 29, 2015.

[54] For the West African case specifically, see: Rob Wallace et al., “Did Neoliberalizing West African Forests Produce a New Niche for Ebola,” International Journal of Health Services, Vol. 46, No. 1 (2016); and for a broader overview of the connection between economic conditions and Ebola as such, see: Robert G Wallace and Rodrick Wallace (Eds) “Neoliberal Ebola: Modelling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm,” Springer, 2016; And for the most direct statement of the case, albeit a less scholarly one, see Wallace’s article, cited above: “Neoliberal Ebola: the Agroeconomic Origins of the Ebola Outbreak.”

[55]J. S. Brashares, et al, “Bushmeat Hunting, Wildlife Declines, and Fish Supply in West Africa,” Science, Vol. 306, no. 5699, Nov. 12, 2004, pp. 1180–83. Ahmed S. Khan and Sanie SS Sesay, “Seafood Insecurity, Bush Meat Consumption, and Public Health Emergency in West Africa: Did We Miss the Early Warning Signs of an Ebola Epidemic?” Maritime Studies, Vol. 14, no. 1, Mar. 11, 2015. Dyhia Belhabib, “Over-Fishing Is Strangling a Key Protein Source for West Africans,” The Conversation, Sep. 20, 2016. “Reduced Fish Stocks Linked to Increased Bushmeat Trade, Wildlife Declines in W. Africa,” Science Daily, Dec. 3, 2004.

[56] See Megan Ybarra, Green Wars: Conservation and Decolonization in the Maya Forest, University of California Press, 2017.

[57] It would certainly be incorrect to imply that all poaching is conducted by the local rural poor population, or that all ranger forces in different countries’ national forests operate in the same fashion as former anti-communist paramilitaries, but the most violent confrontations and the most aggressive cases of forestland militarization all seem to essentially follow this pattern. For a wide-ranging overview of the phenomenon, see the special 2016 issue of Geoforum (69) devoted to the topic. The preface can be found here: Alice B. Kelly and Megan Ybarra, “Introduction to themed issue: ‘Green security in protected areas’,” Geoforum, Vol. 69, 2016, pp.171-175.

[58] L. F. Wang and B. T. Eaton, “Bats, Civets and the Emergence of SARS,” Wildlife and Emerging Zoonotic Diseases: The Biology, Circumstances and Consequences of Cross-Species Transmission, No. 315, 2007, pp. 325–44 and Quammen, Spillover.

[59] Nsikan Akpan and Kennedy Elliott, “How Coronavirus Compares to Flu, Ebola, and Other Major Outbreaks,” National Geographic, Feb. 7, 2020. Though coronavirus technically has the lowest case mortality rate of all the diseases mentioned here, its high death toll has largely been the result of its rapid spread to a large number of human hosts, resulting in an elevated absolute death toll despite having a very low fatality rate. As is now clear in the American case, the final effect can be devastating regardless, especially when the response strains medical systems beyond their capacity.

[60] State Council of the PRC, “国新办举行新型冠状病毒感染的肺炎防控工作新闻发布会,” Jan. 1, 2020.

[61] France Médias Monde, “武汉肺炎 27城遭封 半个中国半封闭 下一个遭封大城会是谁?” Jun. 2, 2020.

[62] Viola Zhou, “Zhejiang Province next to Shanghai Adopts Draconian Quarantine Measures,” South China Morning Post, Feb. 6, 2020.

[63] See the additional articles and interviews printed in this volume for more accurate, updated detail on exactly what measures were taken in the midst of the lockdown and how they relate to larger trends in the development of local organs of government.

[64] “China: Protect Human Rights While Combatting Coronavirus Outbreak,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Jan. 31, 2020.

[65] “男子从疫情发生地到湛江不隔离,还隐瞒孙子等人行踪!被立案侦查,” Sohu, Feb. 8, 2020.

[66] Linda Lew and Kinling Lo, “China Sends in Top Investigators after Coronavirus Erupts in Jails,” South China Morning Post, Feb. 21, 2020.

[67] Tom Daly and Min Zhang, “American Dies of Coronavirus in China; Five Britons Infected in French Alps,” Reuters, Feb. 10, 2020.

[68] Laurie Chen, “Mourners Pay Tribute to Chinese Doctor Who Blew Whistle on Coronavirus,” South China Morning Post, Feb. 7, 2020.

[69] In a podcast interview, Au Loong Yu, citing friends in the mainland, said that the Wuhan government is effectively paralyzed by the epidemic. Au suggested that the crisis was not only tearing apart the fabric of society, but also the bureaucratic machine of the CCP, which would only intensify as the virus spreads and becomes an intensifying crisis for other local governments across the country. The interview is by Daniel Denvir of The Dig, published Feb. 7, 2020.

[70] The video itself is authentic, but it is worth noting that Hong Kong has been a particular hotbed of racist attitudes and conspiracy theories directed toward mainlanders and the CCP, so much of what gets shared on social media by Hong Kongers about the virus should be carefully fact-checked.

[71] Michael Roberts, “From Amber to Red,” The Next Recession, Jan. 15, 2019.

[72] “The Conference Board Economic Forecast for the US Economy,” The Conference Board, Dec. 9, 2020.

[73] Osborne Clarke, “Coronavirus: Force Majeure, Supply Chains and Contractual Performance,” Lexology, Feb. 17, 2020.

[74] “青岛拉网排查寒夜救助露宿人员 4名流浪人员被接回救助站,” Bandao, Dec. 30, 2020; “衡水市救助管理站为流浪乞讨人员寒冬送暖,” HebNews, Jan. 4, 2020; 淮南深入开展“寒冬送温暖”专项行动, HnNews, Jan. 4, 2020.

[75]Adam Rogan, “Foxconn Production in China below Normal Operations Because of Coronavirus,” Journal Times, Feb. 20, 2020.

[76]Lulu Chen, Jinshan Hong, and Bloomberg, “Coronavirus Hits China’s Workers as Businesses Say They Can’t Pay Wages Now,” Fortune, Feb. 19, 2020.

[77] Chuang, “A State Adequate to the Task: Conversations with Lao Xie,” Chuang Journal, Issue 2: Frontiers, 2019.