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Revolution in the Era of Pandemics – Mark Kosman

Another contribution on the global COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t necessarily agree with everything that has been written in this text, but publish it as part of an ongoing discussion.

Submitted to Enough 14. Originally published by Libcom. Written by Mark Kosman.

The coronavirus pandemic, capitalist decline and the prospects for a carers revolution.

Infectious disease has accompanied the decline of civilisations throughout history. To what extent plagues contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire is a subject of some controversy.[1] Less controversial is the idea that the Black Death created labour shortages that encouraged the aristocracy of medieval Europe to replace feudal dues with rent. It was this development that weakened an already crisis-ridden feudal civilisation in ways that led, eventually, to the rise of capitalism.[2]

Epidemics of smallpox and other diseases did more than just weaken America’s indigenous civilisations, they helped European invaders destroy these societies and then colonise the entire continent.

The influenza pandemic that occurred at the height of the First World War didn’t weaken Western civilisation as a whole but it did weaken the armies of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires relative to those of the Allies. This contributed to the defeat and collapse of these empires in circumstances that led, eventually, to the rise of Nazism and another world war.[3]

By the early 21st Century, the idea that another pandemic might – in only a matter of weeks – severely weaken Western economies and societies relative to those of China and other East Asian countries was unthinkable. Yet, that is precisely what happened in the spring of 2020.

We now appear to be at the start of what the authors of a recent UN-sponsored report describe as ‘the era of pandemics’ – an era in which at least five new diseases are emerging every year.[4] This highly disturbing document concludes that:

Without predictive and preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and crash the global economy more often and with more devastating impact than ever.

The report also point out that the causes of pandemics are ‘the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change’ and that climate change itself will cause ‘substantial future pandemic risk.'[5]

Similarly dire predictions have been made by other commentators, including Noam Chomsky, who argues that pandemics are ‘very likely to recur, probably worse than this one.’ Chomsky also reminds us that climate change may ‘make much of the world uninhabitable within a couple of generations’ and that we still live under the shadow of the ‘growing threat of terminal nuclear war.'[6]

Considering all this, it seems far from certain that capitalist civilisation can survive the growing challenges of the coming decades. The world economy has yet to fully recover from the 2008 financial crash and, whatever happens in the present crisis, there are bound to be further economic downturns.

The fact that the Chinese variety of capitalism failed to contain the original outbreak – and that the rest of the capitalist system failed to cope in any way collectively with the subsequent pandemic – suggests that capitalism really is in a process of terminal decline, just as every other civilisation has declined in the past.[7]

A VERY BRITISH CATASTROPHE
It is, perhaps, telling that one of the first fully capitalist countries, Great Britain, has handled the pandemic with particular incompetence.

As early as 11 February 2020, the British government knew that 500,000 citizens could die from Covid-19.[8] By 3 March, they knew that, even if they brought in social distancing and other measures, there could still be over 200,000 deaths. The obvious way to avoid such a tragedy was to emulate China and to impose a full lockdown until transmission within the UK was eliminated. Yet, not only did the British government not start planning for such a lockdown, they didn’t even ask their scientists to investigate it as a possibility.[9]

Part of the explanation for this was that Boris Johnson was so enthusiastic about Brexit that he refused to consider anything that might hinder his plans for Britain to return to its 19th Century role as the world’s leading campaigner for free trade. Johnson outlined his plans in a speech in February 2020 in which he warned:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.[10]

Johnson’s determination to prioritise the economy over health was strikingly reminiscent of the British campaigns against foreign quarantine laws in the 19th Century. In 1817, the founder of these campaigns, Charles Maclean, warned that if foreign quarantine laws weren’t changed, ‘the most insignificant flags of Europe will prevail over us in the trade of the Levant.'[11] In 1833, another anti-quarantine campaigner declared that the injury that such laws inflict on ‘the commercial relations and maritime intercourse of the country is an absolute and uncompensated evil.'[12] And in 1891, James Cunningham, Surgeon General of India’s colonial administration, denounced quarantine as ‘a tyranny, obstructing commerce and interfering with personal liberty.’ Such misguided and self-serving attitudes inevitably led to huge death tolls in India, and in Egypt where cholera arose precisely because the British refused to impose quarantines on vessels from India.[13]

Yet, it would be a mistake to heap all the blame for government inaction on Brexiteer politicians and their yearnings for Britain’s ‘glorious’ past. After all, the government’s leading scientists also prioritised the economy. As one of them, Neil Ferguson, told a parliamentary committee:

There would be clear advantages economically to having [the epidemic] over by the end of the summer. … When it became apparent that actually there would be no way of managing the epidemic to the extent that healthcare demand in that first wave would not overwhelm the [National Health Service], we moved – in some ways slightly reluctantly – to looking at much more intensive strategies. I say reluctantly because, as I commented before, we would be paying for this year for many decades to come in terms of the economic impact.[14]

This reluctance to consider ‘more intensive strategies’ (i.e. a lockdown) is consistent with a Reuters report in which one of Ferguson’s fellow government scientists admitted that ‘”we had milder interventions in place,” because no one thought it would be acceptable politically “to shut the country down.”‘[15] A source close to these government scientists made things still clearer when they revealed that the lockdown took so long to implement because these scientists ‘knew what the economic and social costs of lockdown would be.'[16]

Unwilling to recommend an immediate lockdown, these scientists then had little choice but to suggest that it was really ‘not desirable’ to prevent people getting Covid.[17] This shocking comment from the government’s top scientist, Patrick Vallance, was soon echoed by his fellow science adviser, Graham Medley, who told the BBC:

We’re going to have to generate what we call herd immunity … and the only way of developing that, in the absence of a vaccine, is for the majority of the population to become infected.[18]

‘We want people to be infected with Covid-19,’ was how the director for NHS communications summed up the government’s strategy.[19] Meanwhile, another high-placed source revealed that the ‘mantra’ in Downing Street was, simply, ‘We’ve all got to get it.'[20]

Fortunately, by the middle of March, the government and its science advisers began to have second thoughts and a nationwide, though incomplete, lockdown did take place on 24 March. Neil Ferguson calculates that imposing a lockdown just a week earlier would have ‘reduced the final death toll by at least a half.'[21] But that wasn’t the worst of it because, as soon as the lockdown began, various right-wingers in government began trying to end it. Then, on 10 May, Johnson announced that ‘those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.'[22]

Since then, the government has continued to repeat its initial ‘mistake’ of only imposing lockdowns once the virus has already infected thousands of people. Of course, the more people a virus infects, the more chances it has to mutate.[23] It was therefore hardly surprising when a new, more infectious, Covid variant appeared in the UK in September 2020. By infecting more people, this new variant has caused many more deaths, not just in the UK, but across the world. And, as long as governments let the virus spread, new variants will continue to evolve, rendering vaccines less effective and allowing the Covid crisis to drag on for years.

By February 2021, the UK had the third highest Covid death rate in the world. The British Medical Journal wasn’t holding back when it suggested that the country’s politicians might be charged with ‘social murder’ over their handling of the pandemic.[24] The Lancet editor, Richard Horton, also wasn’t holding back when he railed both against a government that had ‘presided over the avoidable deaths of thousands’ and against the passivity of the British public:

Why are you not more angry? Why are you allowing this government to orchestrate the deaths of your citizens, your families, your neighbours? This is a mass delusion. Resist. Resist. Rebel.[25]

Horton tweeted these desperate words at the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June 2020. It’s easy to imagine that he was both inspired by the demonstrations and frustrated that were no similar demonstrations demanding a radically different approach to the pandemic. This discrepancy can partly be explained by the fact that young BLM protesters found it easier to identify with victims of police violence dying on the streets than with victims of health policy dying in care homes. But it was also because many people in Britain were still looking to the Labour Party to provide some sort of opposition to the Tories.

LEFT ALTERNATIVES
The 2019 Labour election manifesto clearly stated that a Jeremy Corbyn government would invest both in more nuclear weapons and in more police officers. The manifesto did promise to raise welfare spending. But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies said, Labour’s pledges would only ‘reverse around a quarter of discretionary cuts to benefits since 2010.'[26]

As for the more radical promises in the manifesto, it’s hard to imagine how any 21st Century Labour government could fulfil its promises more effectively than the Labour governments of the 1970s. After all, back then, there was a powerful labour movement that was a real counter to the power of capital. Yet, despite this advantage, the Labour governments of the 1970s presided over cuts in jobs and services that betrayed everything the Labour Party had promised in its manifestos of the time.

Although a Corbyn government could not have done worse than the Tories, Corbyn would have relied on many of the same science advisers, with their same reluctance to take radical action. And Corbyn’s hesitancy to confront the Tories in the first weeks of the pandemic suggests that, if he had been in power, he would have been similarly hesitant to take the urgent measures needed to prevent mass deaths.

Corbyn’s hesitancy back in March 2020 wasn’t due to any lack of knowledge about what the Tories were up to. As he revealed in an August 2020 interview:

We were involved in meetings with the government throughout the spring of this year and Jon Ashworth and I remember distinctly going to a meeting at the Cabinet Office, where we got a lecture about herd immunity. … It was absurd that actually [you] would build up herd immunity by allowing people to die. And so, while the government was going into eugenic formulas and discussing all this stuff, they were not making adequate preparations.[27]

Yet, despite knowing exactly what the Tory plan was, Corbyn failed to warn the British public about what he knew. He even failed to call for a lockdown, merely suggesting that people should ‘isolate themselves if they have the symptoms in any form and if they are vulnerable.'[28] Meanwhile, his colleague, John McDonnell, publicly admitted that Labour had given up opposing the Tories when he said that ‘this is not the time for any party politics or partisan behaviour.’ McDonnell made this statement in his final speech as shadow chancellor when he also declared:

We will support the government in implementing plans needed to keep our people safe and out of harm’s way. Anything we say or do will be to support constructively the policies and programmes we believe are needed to tackle this health emergency.[29]

The strategy of the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of ‘not scoring party political points’ was, in many ways, just a continuation of Corbyn and McDonnell’s approach to the pandemic.[30] Starmer has since been quite blatant, declaring in Parliament that ‘I have supported the government openly.'[31] Indeed, his repeated claims that the government was ‘in danger of being slow on their exit strategy'[32] and his call for ‘a roadmap to lift restrictions in certain sectors of the economy’ can only have encouraged the Tories in their reckless determination to end the spring 2020 lockdown as soon possible.[33]

By September 2020, this lack of political opposition meant that Johnson felt able to dismiss calls from the government’s own science advisers for another lockdown. When this scandal became public, Starmer had no choice but to differentiate himself from Johnson by supporting these advisers.[34] But when Johnson’s disastrous strategy led inevitably to another explosion of cases and another incomplete lockdown in January 2021, Starmer still refused to condemn the government’s handling of the pandemic. Instead, he just said: ‘Pull together, support the government and do your bit to make these restrictions work.'[35]

During the spring 2020 lockdown, people with incomes under £20,000 were six times more likely to have to work outside their homes compared to those with incomes over £50,000.[36] It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Covid mortality rate in Britain’s most deprived areas was more than double the rate in the least deprived areas.[37] Meanwhile Britain’s Black population, who often live in more deprived circumstances, were more than three times as likely to die from Covid as Britain’s white population.[38] In the light of all this, Labour’s refusal to propose a clear alternative on the pandemic makes any claim that the party stands for the working-class, or for ethnic minorities, little more than a fantasy.

The obvious alternative to the British, as well as the US and European, approach to the crisis was to impose a complete lockdown that closed all except the most vital workplaces such as food distribution and hospitals. This would have largely eliminated the virus in about two months. At the same time, millions could have been spent on providing people with access to counselling, online learning and home food deliveries to make the lockdown as stress-free and productive as possible. Meanwhile, billions could have been poured into healthcare, into test-and-trace, and into border control and quarantine systems, so any future outbreaks could be contained or prevented completely.[39] And billions more could have been spent not only to transform buildings and transport to enable better ventilation and social distancing but also to drastically reduce energy use.

Such an investment programme would not only have helped secure the world against both the threat of future pandemics and the threat of climate change, it would have also prevented yet another capitalist depression. So why were the Western capitalist class, and their political representatives, so reluctant to take the actions necessary to save their own system?

Well, the reason can’t have been because investing in the economy poses any technical problems. After all, European governments experienced no such problems when they spent billions subsidising firms and wages in the spring 2020 lockdown. The reason was, rather, that such spending poses political problems. As the Economist warned in its response to the British government’s decision to underwrite the entire economy in March 2020:

The novel notion that the government needs to preserve firms, jobs and workers’ incomes at practically any cost may endure. … The policy will formally end once the pandemic has passed, but political pressure for similar support schemes – from the nationalisation of tottering firms to the provision of a universal basic income – may well be higher the next time a sharp downturn comes along. If politicians are able to preserve jobs and incomes during this crisis, many people will see little reason why they should not try again in the next one.[40]

Or, to put it differently: once people see the government as being directly responsible for the economy – including everyone’s income and job security – there is nothing to stop them making more demands for welfare and secure employment. Such demands would not abolish capitalism. But they would provide workers with the ability to refuse work, to push the economy into crisis and to start questioning why, in the 21st Century, we still base society on something as miserable as wage labour.

The Western capitalist class may not see things exactly this way but they’ve not forgotten the strike waves and counter-cultural protests of the 1960s and 1970s. They know that once the economy is politicised, it is only a matter of time before they start losing control of their system.

That is the underlying reason why the UK government is still sabotaging its own test-and-trace system by refusing to give people enough money to isolate.[41] That is why the UK government – along with many others – will attempt to reverse as much state provision as they can once the pandemic is over. And that is why most Western governments will continue to hesitate to take control of the economy to the extent necessary to deal either with future pandemics or with climate change.

So, if we cannot rely on governments to save us from the existential crises of the 21st Century, what can we do? Well, fortunately or unfortunately, we have only one option. We have to join together in a global mass movement to overthrow capitalism and create a completely different world. This, of course, raises numerous questions, not least of all the question of who might initiate such a movement.

REVOLUTIONARY VANGUARD
It was the Marxist historian Mike Davis who, back in 2005, warned the world about the risk of pandemics in his book, The Monster at our Door. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, when thousands of US healthcare and Amazon workers were protesting against unsafe working conditions, Davis said:

Nurses are the social conscience of this country. … We have to broaden the definition of who are frontline medical workers because it also includes nursing home staff, janitors, people who pick up garbage. It includes the Amazon warehouse workers without protection. … As socialists, we should recognise their historical agency. They’ve become an immensely powerful progressive force, working-class force, for change.[42]

In another interview at the time, Davis argued that nurses ‘really are becoming the vanguard of the proletariat.'[43]

Davis’s prediction was too optimistic. But, since then, the international wave of Black Lives Matter protests was larger than anyone expected. The same was true of earlier protest waves such as the Arab Spring and the MeToo movement. Indeed, even the US establishment think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describes our era as ‘the age of mass protests’ and calculates that the frequency of such protests has been increasing, on average, by 12% every year.[44]

Of course, for any protests to be really effective they need to motivate people to not only come onto the streets but to take more disruptive action, such as strikes and occupations, until their demands are met. The obvious minimum demands in the ‘era of pandemics’ are for expansions in healthcare combined with income and housing guarantees to cope with repeated lockdowns and mass unemployment. And the obvious leaders of any protests based on these demands are the frontline workers that Mike Davis refers to – especially nurses and other care workers, including teachers.

Paid carers, mostly women, now make up 12% of the global workforce, while unpaid carers, again mostly women, make up an even larger proportion of the world’s population.[45] Yet, this potential ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ is held back by the fact that they cannot take strike action without endangering the people they care for.

The one thing that might compel carers to take more risks is if the lives of those they cared for were under so much threat that they simply had to act in the hope of inspiring a mass uprising in the wider society. For example, imagine a situation in which a new pandemic or other environmental disaster broke out and governments again hesitated to act because their main concern was the economy. Imagine if this disaster happened at a time of collapsing living standards and repeated environmental crises that were increasingly discrediting the entire capitalist system. Wouldn’t that make a carers’ uprising at least a possibility – especially if this disaster was a disease outbreak that targeted children and not just the elderly and infirm?

This is all highly speculative. But something like it has happened before, in both the French and Russian Revolutions, when proletarian women – enraged that food shortages were risking the lives of the children they cared for – took to the streets and proceeded to turn the world upside down.

It was in October 1789 that the market women of Paris began calling the men ‘cowards’ and declaring: ‘We will take over!’ These women then marched to Versailles with soldiers following.[46] Once at Versailles, the crowd proceeded to force the King to return to Paris where, three years later, women were again major participants in the demonstrations that led to the abolition of the monarchy.

It was at the height of the First World War, when women initiated protests and food riots right across Europe. Then, in March 1917, the female factory workers of Petrograd spread the idea of holding a general strike on International Women’s Day. On that day, 8 March, hundreds of women dragged their fellow male workers on to the streets where the rioting crowds had no problems creating their own leaders.[47] Leon Trotsky describes the situation vividly in his History of the Russian Revolution where he writes that the women ‘go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the [soldiers’] rifles, beseech, almost command: “Put down your bayonets – join us.”‘[48] After that, it took only five days for the centuries-old Tsarist regime to collapse.

In his classic book, Trotsky writes that ‘a revolution takes place only when there is no other way out.'[49] And in both 1789 and 1917, it was only because the lives of those they cared for were in imminent danger that women carers took to the streets to demand that society prioritise life over everything else. When the forces of order hesitated to use violence against them, these women acted with such determination that many men felt compelled to join them to overthrow social systems that soon collapsed with surprising ease.

Rather less easy was the aftermath of these revolutions. Poverty, war and disease made it impossible to successfully transcend private property, wage labour or the sexual division of labour. These issues hardly arose in the French Revolution. And the Russian Revolution was soon followed by the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed over 17 million people and showed how quite unsuitable that period was for any attempt to transcend capitalism.[50]

Fortunately, things are different now. Back in 1918, the Western colonists who controlled much of the world were largely indifferent to the deaths of millions of peasants from influenza. But in today’s Asia, Africa and Latin America, local rulers now depend on a relatively healthy working-class. With obvious exceptions such as President Bolsonaro of Brazil, these rulers also realise that they can’t just let people die without risking mass opposition.

Unlike in 1918, when most of the world’s population were still peasants, today’s world really is ready for a global proletarian revolution. All we need now is a series of disasters that completely discredit capitalism so creating a situation in which there is ‘no other way out’ except revolution.

Such a series of disasters – economic, political and environmental – is, unfortunately, very likely to hit us in the coming decades. This situation may lead more towards potential extinction than to social revolution. But it is, at least, some consolation to know that humanity has been at a similar life-and-death crossroads before – a choice between potential extinction or revolution – deep in our evolutionary past.

THE FIRST AND NEXT REVOLUTION
Although the specifics are unclear, it seems likely that our prehistoric ancestors came close to extinction on several occasions during their evolution in Africa. Disease probably wasn’t a major factor in this.[51] But climate change affecting food supplies was important, as were economic issues – that is, if by economic one means our ancestor’s need for extra nutrition to supply their offspring’s growing brains.[52]

Our uniquely large brains require both extra nutrition and extra-long childhoods. So, while other apes can care for their offspring individually, early humans had to both share childcare and to follow strict cultural rules that obliged male hunters to share hunted meat.[53] Such rules clearly benefited women more than men which suggests that women were more motivated to invent these and other cultural rules in the first place.[54]

The lifestyles of contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers are the closest approximations we have to the lifestyles of our earliest, fully human, ancestors.[55] The cultures of nomadic hunter-gatherers vary widely but their social organisation is often maintained by autonomous individuals who actively resist any form of personal domination.[56] Such assertive attitudes are almost certainly a product of the fact that the care of children by nomadic hunter-gatherers is more indulgent, and involves far less discipline, than that in agricultural and early industrial societies.[57]

Nomadic hunter-gatherers insist that no one can become a permanent leader and that everyone shares as much as possible.[58] In fact, many nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are so egalitarian and communistic that even a non-Marxist anthropologist like Christopher Boehm argues that the earliest human societies probably originated in rebellions against dominant males.[59] There is also intriguing evidence from studies of mythology and genetics that supports the idea that these prehistoric uprisings may have been led by women looking for collective support to ease their childcare burdens.[60]

In other words, the process that created the first-ever human societies may have been something like a revolution that was initiated by women carers.

It was this revolution that invented the cultural rule that male hunters must share their meat with women, children and the elderly. It was this revolution that put the feeding and care of children at the centre of society. And it was this revolution – or series of revolutions – without which our ancestors might not have survived the various climate shifts that threatened to wipe us out during our evolution in Africa.

The crises facing us in the 21st Century have many differences with those of our ancient ancestors. But there are also similarities in terms of the need to overcome the threat of climate change and the need to put care at the centre of society.

Another similarity between the social upheavals of the ancient past and those of the present is the central involvement of women. It is well known that the Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests were often led by women activists. But, it’s less well known that the crucial event which led, eventually, to the Arab Spring was a strike started by women workers at the Malhalla textile factory in 2006. By walking out and chanting, ‘Here are the women! Where are the men?’, these women successfully shamed their male colleagues into joining the strike. And it was this strike that revived the Egyptian labour movement enabling it to play such a crucial role in the Arab Spring in 2011.[61]

With similarities to their role in the French and Russian Revolutions, the role that proletarian women played in the Arab Spring was never quite as prominent as it was at the very beginning of the struggle in Malhalla in 2006. But imagine a 21st Century revolution in which proletarian women kept mobilising, again and again. Wouldn’t that lead to far deeper social transformation than that in 1789, 1917 or 2011 – one that might actually put care at the centre of society?

Care has always been at the centre of every human society – from prehistoric egalitarianism right through to modern capitalism – otherwise society simply couldn’t survive. But non-egalitarian, class-based societies have invariably hidden this reality by denigrating care-work and care-workers who are, and were, mostly women. That is why, when proletarian women act in revolutionary situations, everything is called into question in a way that really can turn the world upside down.

Karl Marx wrote little on care-work but he did write that ‘the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of … modern capitalist societies.’ Like Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, he was intrigued by the idea of a return to ‘primitive communism’, by what he called a ‘return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type.'[62]

Marx was also intrigued by the idea that the potential for science and technology to benefit humanity would become increasingly restricted by the social relations of capitalism. Indeed, his 1881 description of the crises of that time can now be seen to be even more appropriate for the crises of the present era:

The capitalist system … in Western Europe as well as in the United States, [is] engaged in battle both with the working-class masses, with science, and with the very productive forces which it engenders – in a word, in a crisis which will end in its elimination, in the return of modern societies to a superior form of an ‘archaic’ type of collective property and production.[63]

For many decades now, capitalist societies have been shifting back towards the greater gender equality – as well as towards the apparently more indulgent childcare practices – of our hunter-gatherer past. This has not been done by recreating every aspect of hunter-gatherer society by, for example, recreating their particular gender roles.[64] Rather, it has been done by recreating what Marx called a ‘higher’ or ‘superior’ form of earlier social relations.

Whether we can also recreate a ‘higher’ or ‘superior’ form of ‘primitive communism’ remains to be seen. And such a transformation will not occur just because something similar happened in the past. Twenty-first century labour struggles – even those of women and carers – are very different from struggles in prehistoric Africa. And ‘primitive communism’ or hunter-gatherer egalitarianism cannot simply be transposed onto contemporary societies. But the fact that human society and culture originated in such egalitarianism, and the fact that this egalitarianism worked successfully for tens of thousands of years, surely suggests that an egalitarian, even a communist, future is a real possibility.

The economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s showed that humanity was capable of ending scarcity and, since then, developments in computing have made a global communist society an eminently practical possibility. Of course, such a transformation requires more than just technological change. It requires people to realise that they can no longer rely on their individual ability to compete for a job or their individual ownership of property. They must, instead, take collective action alongside their neighbours and work colleagues. Such a radical transformation in attitudes requires a level of social and economic crisis that forces people to rethink everything and to risk breaking out of the isolation inherent to modern capitalism.

The coronavirus lockdowns have given us a glimpse of just such a crisis, while the Black Lives Matter protests have given us a further glimpse of what it might be like to end our isolation and to begin to come together to create a completely different world. At a time of assertive right-wing populism and apparent left-wing weakness, this all feels far too optimistic. But we should not forget how we felt back in the spring of 2020 when it appeared that, due to the pandemic, mass demonstrations were a thing of the past – and then, to everyone’s surprise, the Black Lives Matter protests exploded across the globe.

The capitalist class and their political representatives are desperate to return to the pre-Covid world. But, whatever capitalists and politicians want, we can be certain that ‘the era of pandemics’ and ‘the age of mass protests’ – with all their potential for disaster as well as for revolution – are far from over.

NOTES
[1]. John Gray, ‘How Pandemics Extinguished the Roman Empire,’ New Statesman, 17/7/20; Mischa Meier, ‘The “Justinianic Plague”: An “Inconsequential Pandemic”? A Reply,’ Medizinhistorisches Journal, Vol.55, 2020.
[2]. Claudio Katz, From Feudalism to Capitalism, 1989, pp.60-78, 128-32.
[3]. Andrew T. Price-Smith, Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology, and National Security in the Era of Globalization, 2009, pp.68-78; Oliver Haller, ‘German Defeat in World War I, Influenza and Postwar Memory,’ in Klaus Weinhauer, Germany 1916-23: A Revolution in Context, 2015.
[4]. ‘Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Media Release,’ October 2020 (available from ipbes.net/pandemics).
[5]. IPBES, Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2020, pp.2-3, 8, 51.
[6]. ‘Noam Chomsky – Father of Modern Linguistics – Cambridge Union Online,’ YouTube, 1min 53secs – 3mins, 12/5/20. According to the president of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Covid pandemic shows that governments ‘are unprepared to manage the truly civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.’ ‘This is Your Covid-19 Wake Up Call: It is 100 Seconds to Midnight.’ BAS Press Release, 27/1/21.
[7]. ‘China and Covid-19: What Went Wrong in Wuhan?’ Financial Times, 17/10/20; ‘China and WHO Acted too Slowly to Contain Covid-19, Says Independent Panel,’ CNN, 19/1/21; Luke Kemp, ‘Are We on the Road to Civilisation Collapse?’ BBC Future, 19/2/19.
[8]. Robert Peston, ‘Why Didn’t Boris Act Sooner against Coronavirus?,’ Spectator, 18/5/20.
[9]. ’22 Days of Dither and Delay on Coronavirus that Cost Thousands of British Lives,’ Times, 23/5/20.
[10]. ‘Boris Johnson – Britain Must Become the Superman of Global Free Trade,’ Spectator, 3/2/20.
[11]. Charles Maclean, Suggestions for the Prevention and Mitigation of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases, Comprehending the Abolition of Quarantines and Lazarettos, 1817, p.469.
[12]. Henry Gaulter, cited in Medical Quarterly Review, Vol.1, 1834, pp.345-6.
[13]. Sheldon Watts, ‘From Rapid Change to Stasis: Official Responses to Cholera in British-Ruled India and Egypt: 1860 to C. 1921,’ Journal of World History, Vol.12, 2001; Emma Grunberg, ‘The Rationality of Inaccurate Science: Britain, Cholera, and the Pursuit of Progress in 1883,’ Intersections, Vol.11, 2010.
[14]. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, ‘Oral Evidence: UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks,’ HC 136, 25/3/20. On the BBC’s Newsnight (15/6/20), Richard Horton described the relationship between the UK government and its scientists as a form ‘collusion’ in which ‘the scientists have wanted to do well by government.’ He also said that these scientists have ‘understood that there’s an economic context in which they’re giving advice.’
[15]. This Reuters report also reveals that, according to a senior Tory, Johnson ‘bottled’ lockdown for a week ‘because of concerns about the economy’. ‘Special Report: Johnson Listened to his Scientists about Coronavirus – But They Were Slow to Sound the Alarm,’ Reuters, 7/4/20.
[16]. ’22 Days of Dither and Delay …’. One Tory minister has admitted that the government ‘didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown.’ ‘No Strategy for Leaving Lockdown until Johnson Returns, Ministers Admit,’ Telegraph, 18/4/20.
[17]. ‘UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson Holds a Press Conference on Coronavirus’, 12/3/20, 10min 40secs. See also: ‘Coronavirus: Science Chief Defends UK Plan from Criticism,’ Guardian, 13/3/20, and: ‘UK Needs to Get COVID-19 for “Herd Immunity”,’ Sky News, 13/3/20.
[18]. ‘Coronavirus: Can Herd Immunity Protect the Population?’ BBC Newsnight, 12/3/20.
[19]. ‘Coronavirus: Did “Herd Immunity” Change the Course of the Outbreak?’ BBC News, 20/7/20.
[20]. ’22 Days of Dither and Delay …’. According to the Times, the attitude of the government’s chief adviser at this time, Dominic Cummings, was: ‘Herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.’ ‘Coronavirus: Ten Days that Shook Britain – and Changed the Nation for Ever,’ Times, 22/3/20.
[21]. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, ‘Oral Evidence: UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks,’ HC 136, 10/6/20.
[22]. ‘Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s Aides Were Told His Survival Chances were “50-50”,’ Times, 12/4/20; ‘Prime Minister’s Statement on Coronavirus (COVID-19): 10 May 2020,’ HM Government Website, 10/5/20.
[23]. Anthony Costello, ‘How a String of Failures by the British Government Helped Covid-19 to Mutate,’ Guardian, 22/12/20.
[24]. ‘Covid-19: Highest Death Rates Seen in Countries with Most Overweight Populations,’ BMJ, Vol.372, No.623, 4/3/21; ‘Covid-19: Social Murder, They Wrote – Elected, Unaccountable, and Unrepentant,’ BMJ, Vol.372, No.314, 4/2/21.
[25]. Richard Horton, Twitter Post, 9/6/20, 10.57pm.
[26]. It’s Time for Real Change, The Labour Manifesto 2019, pp.43, 101; ‘Labour Manifesto: An Initial Reaction from IFS Researchers,’ Institute for Fiscal Studies, 21/11/19.
[27]. ‘Jeremy Corbyn: Government Lectured Me about Herd Immunity,’ Guardian, 19/8/20.
[28]. ‘Coronavirus: Jeremy Corbyn Accuses Government of Being “Well Behind the Curve” on COVID-19,’ Sky News, 15/3/20.
[29]. ‘John McDonnell Speech Ahead of Budget,’ Labour.org.uk, 9/3/20.
[30]. ‘Keir Starmer Elected Leader of the Labour Party,’ Labour East website, 4/4/20. See also: ‘”Keir’s Got This Exactly Right,” Says McDonnell on Starmer’s Covid Response,’ LabourList, 21/8/20.
[31]. ‘Oral Answers to Questions,’ Hansard, Vol.676, 3/6/20.
[32]. ‘Keir Starmer to Urge Government to Outline Lockdown Exit Plan,’ Financial Times, 29/4/20.
[33]. ‘When This Is Over, We Must Give Our Most Vulnerable the Dignity They Deserve …,’ Mail Online, 19/4/20.
[34]. ’48 Hours in September when Ministers and Scientists Split over Covid Lockdown,’ Times, 13/12/20.
[35]. Today, BBC Radio 4, 5/1/21, 1hr 56mins.
[36]. Christina Atchison et al., ‘Perceptions and Behavioural Responses of the General Public during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Cross-Sectional Survey of UK Adults,’ medRxiv, April 2020, p.12.
[37]. ‘Deaths Involving COVID-19 by Local Area and Socioeconomic Deprivation: Deaths Occurring between 1 March and 31 July 2020,’ Office for National Statistics, 28/8/20.
[38]. ‘Updating Ethnic Contrasts in Deaths Involving the Coronavirus (COVID-19), England and Wales: Deaths Occurring 2 March To 28 July 2020,’ Office for National Statistics, 16/10/20.
[39]. ‘All Countries Should Pursue a Covid-19 Elimination Strategy: Here Are 16 Reasons Why,’ Guardian, 28/1/21; ‘Expert Recommends 5-Week Lockdown to Crush Covid-19,’ WebMD, 8/12/20. The great advantage of proper lockdowns is that they don’t need to last too long, whereas incomplete lockdowns need to be long and they need to be repeated. If, as well as having incomplete lockdowns, you also repeatedly delay going into lockdown you then end up with the British situation in which the population is ‘locked down for longer than almost every other nation in the world.’ Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, 2021, p.400.
[40]. ‘Building up the Pillars of State,’ Economist, 28/3/20, p.24.
[41]. ‘Huge Demand for Self-Isolation Support Sees Councils Facing Big Funding Shortfall, TUC Study Reveals,’ TUC News, 3/2/21.
[42]. ‘Mike Davis on the Politics of Coronavirus (Stay At Home #1),’ Jacobin YouTube video, 26/3/20, 42mins.
[43]. ‘The Dig: Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics,’ The Dig Podcast, 20/3/20, 67mins.
[44]. ‘The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding a Global Trend,’ Center for Strategic and International Studies, p.iv, 2/3/20.
[45]. Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work [Summary], International Labour Organisation, 2018, pp.3, 12.
[46]. David Garrioch, ‘The Everyday Lives of Parisian Women and the October Days of 1789,’ Social History, Vol.24, pp.231-2.
[47]. Gail Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18, 2003, pp.181, 190, 218-36; Laura Lee Downs, Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914-39, 1995, pp.119-144; Choi Chaterjee, Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival, Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology 1910-1939, 2002, pp.43-54.
[48]. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 2008, p.81.
[49]. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.740.
[50]. ‘Spanish Flu,’ Wikipedia, 5/2/21.
[51]. Charlotte Roberts et al., ‘What the Archaeological Record Reveals about Epidemics throughout History – and the Human Response to Them,’ The Conversation, 15/6/20.
[52]. ‘Climate Effects on Human Evolution,’ Smithsonian Institution Website, 2/11/20; Curtis Marean, ‘When the Sea Saved Humanity,’ Scientific American, Vol.4 No.25, Autumn 2016, pp.37-9; Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, pp.195, 218-9; John L Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey, 2014, pp.78, 86-9, 106-8.
[53]. Sarah Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, 2009.
[54]. Chris Knight, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, 1991, pp.122 ff.
[55]. Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are not perfect societies, nor are they ‘living fossils’ that show us precisely how our ancestors lived. However, there is evidence that present-day egalitarian African hunter-gatherers have maintained aspects of their ancestors’ culture for tens of thousands of years. Furthermore, the fact that we are happiest and healthiest when we live in more socially equal conditions suggests that our minds and bodies evolved in just such egalitarian conditions. And the fact that the white sclera of our eyes makes it difficult for us to conceal what we are thinking suggests that we also evolved under conditions of considerable trust – or, at least, more trust than exists amongst our primate cousins whose sclera are all black. Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hilary Callan, Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology, 2017, pp.182-99; Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Inner Level, 2018, pp.9ff, 131-5; Chris Knight and Jerome Lewis, ‘Wild Voices: Mimicry, Reversal, Metaphor, and the Emergence of Language,’ Current Anthropology, Vol.58 No.4, 2017, pp.438-40.
[56]. Richard B. Lee, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, pp.406-8.
[57]. Barry Hewlett and Michael Lamb, Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods; Evolutionary, Developmental, and Cultural Perspectives, 2005, pp.15-20, 31, 62-3, 407-15.
[58]. Richard B. Lee, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (See especially: John Gowdy, pp.391-7).
[59]. Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest…, pp.1-10, 84-9, 172-256.
[60]. Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian Watts, ‘The Human Symbolic Revolution: A Darwinian Account,’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal, Vol.5 No.1, 1995; Chris Knight, ‘Engels was Right: Early Human Kinship was Matrilineal,’ Libcom.org; Knight, Blood Relations ….
[61]. Marie Duboc, ‘Where are the Men? Here are the Men and the Women! Surveillance, Gender, and Strikes in Egyptian Textile Factories,’ Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol.9, 2013.
[62]. Marx, Engels Collected Works, Vol.24, pp.357-9, 350; Mark Kosman, ‘Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and the Return to Primitive Communism,’ Libcom.org.
[63]. MECW, Vol.24, pp.357-9, 350.
[64]. A good place to start reading about the latest hunter-gatherer research is: Richard Lee’s ‘Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution: New Light on Old Debates,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 47, 2018, and: Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology, 2017, edited by Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hilary Callan, especially Ch.7.

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