The clear link between capitalist forms of production and the ecological disaster facing our species is becoming more visible by the day

Interlocking phenomena

What is the connection between the coronavirus pandemic, ecological catastrophe and global capitalism? Mehdi Kia investigates

The Covid-19 pandemic has unravelled the close structural links between the climate crisis and the global capitalist mode of production.1 This is a scenario that the socialist left should own as a central platform in its campaigning and organisation activities. The climate crisis has an immensely broad appeal to young and old, but differentially impacts on the most deprived sections of society, and is by its nature international: it directly links what is immediately affecting most people’s lives with anti-capitalism, internationalism and socialism. In short, the global climate crisis has the potential to unite huge numbers on an inherently anti-capitalist basis, and does not recognise national borders. It is thus central to the revolutionary socialist agenda.

As for Covid-19, humankind has lived with epidemics since the dawn of history. Central to their driving force is the passage of a micro-organism, whether a virus or a bacterium, from one individual to another. Hence at the core of all epidemics is the social nature of our species, homo sapiens. Social organisation at any historic juncture determines the character of an epidemic facing us at that moment. From that perspective the nature of epidemics and pandemics of modern times are, at their core, different from epidemics of the past, because social organisation is predominantly determined by the nature of production.2

Let us take the example of HIV. This virus originated by the recombination of two monkey viruses and entered the human host some time in the early 20th century.3 However, it remained confined to small pockets in west Africa, until the building of railways and roads and the growth of mining in central and southern Africa attracted large numbers of migrant labour. Two essential elements in the spread of HIV was mobility of people, including labour, and changes in social behaviour, both of which facilitated person-to-person transmission. The initial spread of HIV was predominantly along the routes of population movement - migration of labour, urban-rural as well as international, trucking, the smuggling of drugs and their widespread use through injection, and social disruption caused by regional wars.

The role of sex workers - serving miners far from home in crowded single-sex dormitories near mines in the Congo, South Africa, Zambia, Uganda and Ivory Coast - has been well documented.4 A high prevalence of HIV was also found along the route from the mines to the ports of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, and a direct correlation was observed between its prevalence in the general population and their distance from the highways. The closer the village to the loading sites used by lorries, the higher the prevalence of HIV. In south-east Asia and the countries of the former Soviet bloc the major driver of the epidemic has been injected drug abuse. The result to date has been a global pandemic, with nearly 75 million infected persons and over 32 million deaths by the end of 2019,5 driven by unprotected sex (commercial or otherwise), injected drug use and mother-to-child transmission.

The close links between the neoliberal model of globalisation: the unfettered movement of capital, including the feeding of the illegal global drug trade, the evisceration of the health systems of many countries under the International Monetary Fund’s ‘structural adjustment programmes’, on the one hand, and the spread of the HIV pandemic, on the other, have been reviewed in detail elsewhere.6


The Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the Sars-CoV-2 virus, followed a similar trajectory to that of HIV, riding on man-made routes of transmission. The virus almost certainly originated in the bat, where another coronavirus (with 80%-90% homology with the virus that caused the Covid-197) had previously been identified, as had a previous coronavirus, causing a smaller pandemic (Sars) in 2003.8 Both Sars and Covid-19 probably passed to humans (either directly or through an intermediary animal) in a wet market, where wild and domestic animals in close contact with humans were slaughtered. But from a wet market to a pandemic we need further vehicles.

1. Global communication network: Our planet has been shrunk through communications. Globally we now have over 5,000 airports, 1.2 million kilometres of rail and over 30 million kilometres of road.9

2. Mass mobility: We live in an age of mass movement. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, in 2017 international tourism ranked third (after chemicals and fuel) in international exports, with 1.5 billion arrivals.10 In addition we have the huge mobility of labour within and between states.11 According to the International Labour Organisation, there were 164 million migrant workers in December 2018.12 These figures do not include internal migrations within states such as China, estimated as 288 million,13 and India (139 million).14 Add to that the movement within and between states of refugees and other displaced persons from wars and social conflicts. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, there are over 41 million internally displaced persons, nearly 26 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum-seekers.15

3. Concentration: Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas - a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050,16 while huge numbers are living in close proximity in slums and shanty towns that are mushrooming everywhere. From migrants living 20 to a room, to crowded refugee camps, to sports stadiums and synagogues, churches and mosques, our species is squeezed into closer and closer proximity.

But when talking of zoonotic organisms (microbes and viruses originating in other species) as the source of epidemics, another form of population density is often overlooked: domestic animals crammed together in factory farms. According to estimates worldwide, we currently have one billion cattle, one billion pigs and 20 billion chicken on our planet - equivalent to all domesticated animals over the last 10,000 years put together.17 Moreover, they have been progressively concentrated in even bigger farms. In 1967 there were one million pig farms in the USA, which shrank down to 100,000 in 2005.18 Currently over half of all the meat being cultivated globally is in factory farms. One single processing plant in the USA slaughters 20,000 hogs a day, supplying 4%-5% of US pork.19 In April 2020 that plant had the largest cluster of Covid-19 cases in the US.20

4. Breakdown of barriers between wild animals and humans: This has become about predominantly through the agricultural industry’s expansion into previously wild areas, such as the rain forests of Amazonia and elsewhere. At least 60% of novel human pathogens emerge by spilling over from wild animals to local human communities.21

Climate catastrophe

Marx talks of the metabolic rift between society and nature, and elsewhere defines ecological crisis as the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”: capitalism has undermined “the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the workers”.22 There is abundant literature on the link between climate change and the capitalist mode of production, particularly that of neoliberal capitalism.23

Agribusiness and cross-species passage of organisms: The relation between capital flow and Covid-19 and other epidemics has recently been discussed by Rob Wallace et al in Monthly Review.24 In their study they highlight the role of agribusinesses in linking domesticated animals and micro-organisms in the wild:

If by its global expansion alone, commodity agriculture serves as both propulsion for and nexus through which pathogens of diverse origins migrate from the most remote reservoirs to the most international of population centres. It is here, and along the way, where novel pathogens infiltrate agriculture’s gated communities. The lengthier the associated supply chains and the greater the extent of adjunct deforestation ...25

They go on to list numerous food-borne pathogens, originating from across the anthropogenic domain. The polluting effects of the production process are too obvious to require further comment. The growing inequality within countries and between countries26 also has ecological consequences.

Two aspects of capitalism are central to its destructive effect on our natural world: profit and growth. Both are central to the metabolism, and hence the survival of capitalism.

Marx derived his theory of value from classical economics. Capitalism, according to Marx, cannot exist without profit, which to him is the extraction of surplus value from labour-power. Surplus value is the difference between the cost of reproduction of labour and the value of the product in the market. Capitalist profit is generated through the gap between these two values, and it is here that one of the central built-in contradictions of capitalism resides.27

Marx argued - and empirical data confirms - that changes in the organic composition of capital (the ratio between fixed capital, the costs of the means of production and variable capital) created a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The fall in profits over the last two to three decades has been objectively documented28 and there is a concomitant reduction in investment in production.29

Vast amounts of capital looking for alternative targets have, among other avenues, turned to real estate, where prices have sky-rocketed - with a knock-on effect on rents, homelessness, overcrowding and consequent pollution,30 but also the relentless rise in the production of luxury products.31

Growth is closely linked to profit: without inexorable growth, capital cannot ensure continuing profit, and without profit there is no investment. The fall in profits and the push for growth has caused capital to encroach further and further into fields it previously avoided. So we have seen the privatisation of many state organisations, like health services (totally devastated in Africa and other areas, and more recently in the UK). There is, indeed, no area that has been overlooked. What was essentially free for capitalists (what Marx called the “free gift” of nature to capital32) is now increasingly being transferred into private hands. Capital cannot but privatise, commodify, monetise and commercialise all aspects of nature that it possibly can - down to our very DNA.33

Rent extracted from the ownership of land, the possession of mineral resources and of rare items (such as art works) is part of the redistribution of nature. The rise of rentier capitalism - and the stranglehold that private ownership of land, minerals, agriculture and intellectual property rights gives the rentier class - allows the manipulation of and speculation on scarce resources.34


The over-accumulation of capital accelerates the global ecological crisis by propelling capital to find new ways to stimulate consumption. The result is a state of planetary Armageddon, threatening not just socioeconomic stability, but the survival of the human species itself.35

Clearly humankind requires manufactured goods and food production for its survival. What the left needs to focus on is the link between the profit motive and environmental pollution. To be more precise, the delinking of use-value and exchange-value. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark argue,

In Marx’s explanation of the commodity value system under capitalism (and in classical political economy in general), wealth consists of use values, which have a natural-material basis tied to production in general. In contrast, value (based on abstract social labour) under capitalism is derived solely from the exploitation of labour power, and is devoid of any natural-material content. Nature is thus deemed by the system as a “free gift…to capital.36

This contradiction gives rise to what is known as the Lauderdale Paradox, named after James Maitland, eighth Earl of Lauderdale, an early 19th-century classical political economist. Lauderdale pointed out that the accumulation of private riches (exchange-value) under capitalism generally depends on the destruction of public wealth (use-values), so as to generate the scarcity and monopoly essential to the accumulation process.37

Thus central to Marx’s critique of capitalism is the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value.38 Socialism requires that the associated producers rationally regulate the metabolism of nature and society and it is in this context that Marx’s central concepts of the “universal metabolism of nature”, “social metabolism” and the metabolic “rift” have come to define his critical-ecological world view.39 Marx’s approach in this respect is inseparably related to his ecological value-form analysis.40

The clear links between capitalist forms of production and the ecological disaster facing our species, which becomes more visible by the day, have unleashed a revolutionary climate.41 It is time for the socialist left to take ownership of the ecological question - not just as another slogan, but by making it central to its programme for global revolutionary change.

  1. See J Bellamy Foster and B Clark The robbery of nature: capitalism and the ecological rift’ New York 2020.↩︎

  2. See M Shahmanesh, ‘Coronavirus and capitalism” Weekly Worker April 17 2020.↩︎

  3. N Wolfe The viral storm London 2011.↩︎

  4. M Shahmanesh et al ‘Aids and globalisation’: sti.bmj.com/content/76/3/154.↩︎

  5. unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet.↩︎

  6. M Shahmanesh et al ‘Aids and globalisation’: sti.bmj.com/content/76/3/154.↩︎

  7. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7086482.↩︎

  8. sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171130141222.htm.↩︎

  9. N Wolfe The viral storm London 2011.↩︎

  10. e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284421152.↩︎

  11. migrationdataportal.org/themes/labour-migration.↩︎

  12. Ibid.↩︎

  13. clb.org.hk/content/migrant-workers-and-their-children.↩︎

  14. weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/india-has-139-million-internal-migrants-we-must-not-forget-them.↩︎

  15. unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html.↩︎

  16. un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html.↩︎

  17. N Wolfe The viral storm London 2011.↩︎

  18. Ibid.↩︎

  19. See A Little The fate of food New York 2019.↩︎

  20. bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52311877; forbes.com/sites/jennysplitter/2020/05/04/smithfields-pork-processing-plant-reopens-today-in-sioux-falls-heres-why-its-still-vulnerable/#6aa3b7fc5fd6.↩︎

  21. D Molyneux et al, ‘Zoonoses and marginalised infectious diseases of poverty: where do we stand?’: parasitesandvectors.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1756-3305-4-106.↩︎

  22. K Marx Capital Vol 1, p638.↩︎

  23. D Molyneux et al, op cit; RG Wallace and R Wallace (eds) Neoliberal ebola: modelling disease emergence from finance to forest and farm Basel 2016; M Davis The monster at our door: the global threat of Avian flu New York 2005; BA Jones et al, ‘Zoonosis emergence linked to agricultural intensification and environmental change’: pnas.org/content/110/21/8399; N Klein On fire: the (burning) case for a Green New Deal New York 2019; J Bellamy Foster, ‘Ecosocialism and a just transition’: mronline.org/2019/06/22/ecosocialism-and-a-just-transition; N Klein This changes everything: capitalism vs the climate New York 2014, pp31-63; J Bellamy Foster and B Clark The robbery of nature: capitalism and the ecological rift’ New York 2020.↩︎

  24. RG Wallace et al, ‘Covid-19 and circuits of capital’: monthlyreview.org/2020/05/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/#en28backlink.↩︎

  25. Ibid.↩︎

  26. D Harvey Seventeen contradictions of capitalism London 2014; T Piketty Capital in the twenty-first century Harvard 2014.↩︎

  27. D Harvey op cit.↩︎

  28. EE Maito, ‘And yet it moves down’: academia.edu/7876021; G Carchedi and M Roberts (eds) World in crisis: Marxist perspectives on crash and crisis London 2018.↩︎

  29. S D Harvey op cit; M Roberts Marx 200 - a review of Marx’s economics 200 years after his birth London 2018.↩︎

  30. R Weber From boom to bubble: how finance built the new Chicago 2015; M Davis Planet of slums London 2017.↩︎

  31. bain.com/insights/luxury-goods-worldwide-market-study-fall-winter-2018; PN Danziger, ‘4 Mega-trends ahead for the luxury market’: forbes.com/sites/pamdanziger/2018/12/18/whats-ahead-for-the-luxury-market-in-2019-expect-turmoil-and-slowing-sales/#66f2c3776578.↩︎

  32. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, pp732-33.↩︎

  33. D Harvey op cit.↩︎

  34. Ibid.↩︎

  35. See I Angus Facing the Anthropocene New York 2016, pp175-91.↩︎

  36. J Bellamy Foster and B Clark, ‘Marxism and the dialectics of ecology’: monthlyreview.org/2016/10/01/marxism-and-the-dialectics-of-ecology.↩︎

  37. J Bellamy Foster and B Clark The robbery of nature: capitalism and the ecological rift’ New York 2020, pp53-72; J Maitland An inquiry into the nature and origins of public wealth and into the means and causes of its increase Edinburgh 1819, pp37-59; K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 37, pp732-33.↩︎

  38. D Harvey op cit; J Bellamy and Brett Clark op cit.↩︎

  39. K Marx Capital Vol 3, London 1981,p 949; K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 30, pp54-66.↩︎

  40. J Bellamy Foster and B Clark op cit.↩︎

  41. N Klein On fire: the (burning) case for a Green New Deal New York 2019.↩︎