In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story The Masque of the Red Death, Prince Prospero retreats inside his Gothic palace and leaves the pestilence to rage beyond its walls. After several months of seclusion, he entertains a thousand elite friends ‘at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence’.
But an uninvited guest appears – ‘tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave’. No sooner is he noticed than the revellers begin to drop, until all have been struck down. ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all’.
The international political class is replete with Prince Prosperos – rulers who imagine they can retreat inside their nation-state silos, secure behind militarised borders, leaving the rest of the world to fester in the clutches of the disease.
The lords of capital who control global medicines, who privatise public health systems, who turn life itself into a commodity, they too are Prince Prosperos. Elevated above common humanity by their penthouses, yachts, and private jets, they look down from sanitised heights on the teeming millions in disease-infested rustbelts and shantytowns. For them, of course, disease is profit.
The abnegation of responsibility is absolute. When Johnson, the British Tory Prime Minister, announced that transit down his ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown might be delayed because of the Indian variant, he gave the impression of a man suddenly confronted by a mysterious Act of God. You might have imagined that the Indian variant had arrived as unexpectedly as the spectral stranger at Prince Prospero’s party – and not on the packed aeroplanes that Johnson had allowed to land in Britain.
He appeared equally hapless at the speed with which the new variant had spread, as if the failure, fifteen months into the pandemic, to set up an effective test-and-trace system was nothing to do with him – nothing to do with the crony-capitalist contract given to rich Tory friends at Serco, a security company that runs prison-camps.
As for broader pandemic-related matters, the indifference of Prospero-Johnson is monumental. In the recent Queen’s Speech, the Tories set out their programme for government. Listening to it, you were in a time-warp. The disconnect with the real world – the world of coronavirus, global warming, and escalating social crisis – was absolute.
The NHS is facing meltdown. There may be a third surge. There may be new pandemics a little further down the road. An estimated one in ten of those infected may end up getting Long Covid. Isolation, poverty, and stress due to the pandemic has caused mental illness to rocket. A record five million people, their treatments delayed by Covid, are on the NHS waiting list. The Tory response? A pay cut for NHS workers, fast-track privatisation, and no additional funding. For social care? Zilch.
Of course, the Johnson regime is notably corrupt and reactionary. It is headed by a narcissist and opportunist who believes in nothing but his own career. It is stuffed with flag-waving nationalists, corporate lobbyists, and authoritarians. It panders to a brain-dead mass base that includes anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers, conspiracy theorists, Islamophobic racists, and outright fascists.
Anthropos and Gaia
But look around the world for some rationality and decency among the political class and you struggle. We all thought New Zealand had done well in controlling the disease and offering a model to the world. True enough. But the cost has been high: ruthless lockdown whenever the disease appears, and now growing pressure to ease up, especially so that families can be reunited. It turns out that New Zealand is involved in a holding operation so long as Covid rages in the wider world.
Nor is that all. Covid anxiety has fed an ugly right-wing undercurrent in New Zealand, and the Labour administration is peddling its own version of anti-migrant racism and social apartheid. The rich, seeking a haven, are welcomed. Those classed as ‘low-skill’ are not. ‘The government is looking to shift the balance away from low-skilled work,’ says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, ‘towards attracting high-skilled migrants and addressing genuine skills shortages.’ The plan is to cut net migration by a third. The rich are invited to the masked ball; the poor can be left outside to rot.
It is not just the ‘nasty’ bourgeois regimes – the ones with ‘world-beating’ death tolls like Johnson’s Britain, Trump’s America, Modi’s India, and Bolsonaro’s Brazil – but also the supposedly more liberal and social-democratic that are barricading the doors against the Red Death. For this is the sinister logic of a world owned by transnational capital and administered by 200 separate nation-states. The dysfunctionality of both the global economic system and the global geopolitical order has never been more apparent.
Meantime, everyone is travelling hopefully. Hoping for what? To be able to meet up again. For a return to normality. For an end to the pandemic.
But there is no end in sight. This is actually a new beginning. Covid is not some sort of aberration: it is the new normal. It marks the dawn of a new epoch. Scientists have even given it a name: the Anthropocene – the age of human-made ecological devastation – the age defined by the collision between Anthropos and Gaia – the age of the ‘dual metabolic rupture’.
The pandemic shows no sign of abating. There have been almost 170 million recorded infections and 3.5 million recorded deaths, but these are certainly gross underestimates, and infection and death rates today are higher than ever. Only around 10% of the world’s population has been vaccinated. The vaccines, anyway, do not provide total protection, we do not know how long protection will last, and we cannot predict if and when new, more transmissible, more vaccine-resistant variants will emerge.
Covid has become an endemic disease. This is not a war of manoeuvre in which the virus will be annihilated in a medical blitzkrieg. This is a war of attrition in which the virus, deeply embedded, entrenched in human populations the world over, evolves in its battle to survive, to spread, to sustain itself. Scientists estimate that a single infected person carries 10 billion virions, and that, as each replicates, the range of possible genetic variants stretches towards infinity. The simplest of life forms – a microscopic sub-cellular parasite – has become an enduring mortal threat to the most advanced.
The disease is far from being the deadliest in human history. But it is deadly enough, and, for many of those infected, disabling enough, to throw health systems into crisis and economies into lockdown each time it surges. The total cost to the United States alone has been estimated at $16 trillion – compared with $22 trillion for the 2008 financial crash. And there is no end in sight as the disease rises to new peaks on a global scale.
This is Covid-19. What of Covid-20? Or perhaps it will be Covid-21. Or perhaps the next pandemic will be a new and deadly variant of Influenza A. Or perhaps it will be something different again. Worth recapping what I wrote not so long ago in ‘Permanent Pandemic’:
- Disease X could kill 100 million people. The problem is, we don’t know what it is, where it is, when it will strike.
- It is the World Health Organisation’s name for the ‘known unknown’ lurking somewhere on corporate agribusiness’s forest-felling frontline. It is the next, more deadly pandemic that might start anytime soon.
- There have been 40 new infections in the last 50 years. Some of the names have become familiar words – Ebola, HIV/AIDS, MERS-CoV, SARS, Zika.
- Of special note are various strains of Influenza A, some of which, over the last century, have swelled into pandemics that have killed hundreds of thousands, even millions. We now have what epidemiologist Rob Wallace calls ‘a veritable zoo of influenza subtypes that have proven themselves capable of infecting humans’.
Why is this happening? Because Anthropos is reinventing Gaia. Human civilisation – let us give its contemporary form a technical definition: globalised, financialised, digitalised monopoly-capitalism – is destroying old ecologies and creating new ones. But the new is in fact a synthesis, a remodelling of the old into new configurations.
Death has been waiting, hidden deep in the forest for eons of time, but trapped there by the ecological diversity of its environment, cocooned behind row upon row of natural firebreaks. Then come the loggers to fell the forest, the planters to create prairie monocultures, the breeders to set up factory complexes packed with tens of thousands of genetically-engineered identikit animals. Death – the virus in the cocoon – is set free.
It evolves, it transits from wild animal to domesticate, it spreads like a bush fire through the animal factories. It evolves again, it transits from domesticate to human, and it surges through the transport networks of globalised capitalism to infect the entire world. Bedding down in ten thousand breeding-colonies scattered across the globe, it evolves again, and again, forever testing new variants for faster transmission and greater vaccine-resistance.
So the pandemic is endemic, and the next pandemic is imminent. Carbon capitalism means global warming. Covid capitalism means pandemic disease. These are two aspects of a ‘dual metabolic rupture’ – a potentially catastrophic breakdown in the Earth’s ecosystems due to atmospheric pollution on the one hand and the destruction of natural wilderness on the other.
What can we do?
What needs to happen is obvious. There should be international public funding of (patent-free) vaccines, test-and-trace, and economic support. Billions should be invested in building production facilities, recruiting health assistants, monitoring and containing outbreaks, provisioning those compelled to self-isolate, and so on. What should be happening is the greatest collective mobilisation of personnel and resources to deal with a health emergency in human history.
But this is only part of what needs to be done: it is the immediate emergency programme necessary to deal with the pandemic. Something even bigger in scale is required to tackle the root causes. Nothing less, in fact, than a global programme to heal the dual metabolic rupture – by shutting down both carbon capitalism and covid capitalism, both the fossil-fuel nexus and the agribusiness nexus.
In 1960, 66% of the world’s 3 billion people lived in the countryside; a large proportion of these were independent peasant farmers. In 2020, only 44% of the world’s 7.8 billion people still lived in the countryside; and a much higher proportion of the latter were now agricultural wage-labourers.
This is the measure of urbanisation and proletarianisation that has taken place in the last two generations. The independent peasantry of the Global South has been largely destroyed by a global process of dispossession and displacement driven by land privatisation, appropriation of the commons, and corporate takeover. Hundreds of millions of peasant families who once tilled their own land have been replaced by mega-rich agribusiness corporations serving global markets. This global ‘enclosures’ has created ‘a planet of slums’ – and, amongst so much else, engineered ‘the feminisation of poverty’.
The ecological rupture, then, is rooted in a social rupture. The destruction of the wilderness, of natural diversity, of balance and sustainability, is inseparable from what Marx called ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ – the dispossession of the peasantry of their land, their means of production and consumption, and their conversion into a class of workers which nothing to sell but their labour-power.
To save ourselves, we have to end the rape of Nature by Profit. We have to restore control over the land and its produce to the people, to local communities. We have to ‘rewild’ the wilderness and restore a multitude of ‘micro-ecologies’, where there is balance in diversity, where most production is for local consumption, where the land is worked so as to be ‘kept in good heart’.
And of this is all hopelessly utopian, right? For none of this is possible under the present economic, social, and political order, right?
Yes to both. As the old Sixties slogan had it, we must ‘demand the impossible’. So long as the wealth of the world is controlled by an ever-reducing number of giant corporations, as long as it is exploited and degraded for the profit of a few, so long as it is used for the further enrichment of the already fantastically rich, none of what needs to be done can be done.
And, equally, so long as the world is divided into 200 separate nation-states, with their silo-mentalities, their festering prejudices, their boneheaded flag-waving, their militarised borders, their corrupt political elites, their selfish middle classes, their vast waste on armaments and wars, none of what needs to be done can be done.
The contradiction between the needs of humanity and the planet on the one hand and the dysfunctionality of both the economic system and the geopolitical order on the other has never been greater.
The dual metabolic rupture, combined with an unprecedented and deepening social crisis, make international revolution a historical imperative.
One option is to don a Union Jack mask and join Prince Prospero’s revel. The other is to help build a global movement for people power and red-green transformation.