Capitalism, Wars and Epidemics (I)

What is behind the calls for national unity against the Corona-virus pandemic?

As the Corona-virus pandemic rapidly extends its devastating effects over the globe, government leaders have successively declared themselves “at war”, and impose “sanitary emergency measures” at different grades of “lock down”, varying from restricting social life and imposing self-isolation (as in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands) up to establishing veritable military curfews (as in Italy, Spain and France). They all call upon “national unity and solidarity” to combat the “invisible enemy”, while trying to enforce state control over the population, as a new global recession is unfolding.

The following contribution develops on the relation between the wars and epidemics of capitalism, drawing some parallels with the plagues in the early stages of its emergence (the 14th Century) and with the Spanish flu during World War 1. It situates the stakes of the present “Corona-virus crisis” in an ideological preparation for a global war.

 “This is a war we must all fight together”.

(Xi Jin Ping, 10 February 2020)

Macron, 16 March 2020: “We are at war”.

Trump, March 18, 2020: “I am a president in time of war”.

Merkel, March 18, 2020: “This is serious. Take it seriously too. Since German Reunification, in fact since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge to our country that has not depended so much on our common solidarity”.

Berlusconi, former Italian Prime Minister, 20 March 2020: “We are at war. Let us stay close to those who govern”.

Despite its formidable technological and medical advances, capitalism is no more capable of stopping the spread of epidemics than the class societies before it, based on exchange and commerce. It has in fact favored them by destroying the natural environment, by seeking immediate profit and pleasure (such as drugs), and by inexorably allowing the entire health system to collapse through “budget cuts”, as long as it is a reality for two thirds of humanity. By turning housing into hens’ cages (like for batteries of laying hens), in which billions of human beings are crammed in the worst promiscuity, and are raised, trained, fed, and ideologically subjected to the “power and glory” of the media war machine of Capital.

Since immemorial times war has been a multiplying factor, favoring the spread of epidemics. These, in turn, generate wars against the internal “scapegoat” who is condemned to be eradicated like rats and fleas in the times of plague and typhus. Worse, epidemics can be used as a weapon of war against the “internal” as well as the “external enemy”.

1. Commodity, Commerce and Confinement

The case of the plague (in its two forms: bubonic and pulmonary plague) illustrates the political, economic, social and ideological reality of a pandemic.

In the case of pulmonary plague, the incubation period is very short and the great reaper can be up and running in two to four days. The first pandemic known by its scale, which came from Ethiopia, known as Justinian’s plague (named after the Byzantine emperor), devastated the shores of the Mediterranean from 541 to 767, spreading thanks to coastal and river shipping, without going too far inland.

It can never be stressed enough that the most deadly epidemics arose as a result of the take-off of commercial capital and the explosion of commodity exchanges at the end of the Middle Ages. It was via the silk and spice routes – to which the capitalist (so-called “communist”) China of dictator Xi Jinping this time wants to give a planetary dimension – that the plague passed from Central Asia to Caffa in the Crimea, (1) where colonies of Italian merchants were established.

As usual, the plague pandemic will follow the paths of merchandise, commerce and war. In 1347, the Mongols – who made the Russian principalities pay tribute and raided the Slavic populations, selling them to the Ottomans as slaves – came to lay siege to the Genoese trading post of Caffa. When the plague spread among them, before withdrawing, their generals ordered the corpses of the plague-stricken people to be catapulted into the city. The Genoese hastily reembarked, but they took the terrible bacillus (Yersinia pestis) with them. Their ships reached Sicily and then Italy (Genoa, Florence and Venice). From there, the infection spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and then northwards to Paris, London and Flanders, spreading to Ireland, Poland, the Baltic and Scandinavia. If it took three years for the plague to spread from the Crimea to Norway, in the era of the globalization of capital… and the corona-virus we have to count in weeks.

The plague pandemic killed nearly 30 million people between 1348 and 1350, a quarter to a third of the population. The innumerable processions and collective prayers that took place in Europe only fueled the evil. Brotherhoods of flagellants in the West gathered massively in public squares to whip each other (in the manner of the Shiites of Iran and Iraq), chanting “Mother source of love/Let me savor the violence of pain/Let me weep with you/Press the wounds of the crucified”. The evil of the plague only became greater. Medieval superstitions can be mocked, but what can we say about their present mustiness, where the grotesque quarrels with impotence? One can read on the website of the church of Saint Rita in Paris this prayer at the time of the corona-virus, distilled as an elixir by the Catholic Church. Whether we replace Our Father by Allah, Jehovah, the polytheistic gods of Hinduism and Buddhism, etc., it will always be the same prayer wheels:

Our Father,
We confidently ask
that Wuhan’s
do no more harm and that
the outbreak is brought under control quickly,
that you bring back health
to those affected
and peace in the places where it has spread.

Welcome the people
who have died from this disease,
comfort their families.
Help and protect staff
of health that fights it,
and inspire and bless those
who work to control it.

With its accumulation of mountains of corpses, quickly thrown into mass graves, the black plague pandemic let all sorts of hatreds explode: it was about finding scapegoats, demonizing religious and national minorities. For four years (1348-1352), unruly crowds attacked the Jews. The Jews of Basel were confined and then burned in a barn. The Jews of Strasbourg and the South of France were massacred without mercy. The synagogues burned in spite of the fulminations of the pope Clement VI of Avignon against such senseless acts. (3) Neither the leprous, nor the “heretics” (Vaudois and others), nor the “vagabonds” (the migrants of that time), nor women judged as witches, all condemned as “sowers of plague” were spared. The plague victims were “confined” to barns and eventually burned. All of them were slaughtered as servants of the “devil”. (4)

When it was not the explosion of hatred or religious delirium, it was, especially in the “land of Islam”, the apology of martyrdom, rich in the promise of “paradise”, demanding from the believer resignation to his fate, and therefore to the social order, that of mercantile societies already subjected to merchandise: “The plague has the value of martyrdom for Muslims and mercy is granted to those who die from it. For the infidels, it is nothing but a calamity… [One must] turn to God, asking for healing, resignation, and by thanksgiving”. (5)

In the times of Covid-19, when the ancient medieval hatreds against the “foreigner”, the “other”, the “stranger” are vomited, the soup of hatred simmers in the cauldrons of national capitalism, a hatred carefully cultivated by the ultra-nationalist parties of every obedience. Xenophobic feelings are growing in Europe against anyone resembling a Chinese person. The atmosphere of racism in the America of Donald Trump, who calls the corona-virus: “Chinese virus”, could soon become pestilential. Victor Orban thunders against migrants who test positive and threatens to deport them. Those resisting confinement could face eight years in prison. (6) In countries like China – but in many others, so-called “democratic” countries as well, such as Scott Morrison’s Australia (7) – all migrants or repatriates suspected of being carriers of the “new plague”, political or social opponents, could end up in concentration camps, where the corona-virus will strike with much more force than in the European homes for the elderly. (8)

Capitalism in times of the corona-virus announces with loud media trumpeting that the containment measures will transform the glorious homelands of Capital (from China to the USA) into internal prisons for every block of houses, into detention places or concentration camps, if necessary. Capitalism in times of the corona-virus no longer promises a “bright future” – with the announced economic collapse – but a return to the good old social Darwinism of the 19th Century bourgeoisie, that of selecting the most capable of ensuring the survival of the system and its watchdogs.

2. The Precedent of the Spanish Flu:
Defense Secrets, Brainwashing and
War Economy to better cut up the Cannon Fodder

The Spanish flu owes its name to the scissors of Anastasia, the patron saint of military censorship. As Spain was neutral during the First World War, its newspapers appeared without being reviewed and corrected by military censorship. In 1918, the Spanish press was the only one to speak openly about the disease. The name Spanish flu originates from this press revelation. From then on, France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States got into the habit of speaking of Spanish flu. A name that made history.

The Spanish flu, which affected between a third and a half of the world’s population, is a combination of a strain of human flu and a strain of bird flu, anticipating to a lesser degree the flues that appeared in the early 2000s. As often in pandemics, it spread in three rebounds: one in March and in October 1918, one in early 1919. The international death toll is terrifying: about 40 million deaths. This death toll, largely disguised by a muzzled press, became clearer thanks to the work of demographers and historians more than 70 years later.

It was particularly virulent, taking lung forms as virulent as those of the black plague: “One morning a pneumonic man was left in good condition with one or two foci of condensation, and in the evening he was found breathless, worried, wriggling in bed with blue lips. The man becomes blue, bathed in profuse sweat, starts to grumble and death comes.” (9)

It seems to be starting in the USA, especially in military camps, where troops are trained to prepare for intervention in the war. In the late summer of 1918, a much more virulent version of the virus appeared in several places. In North America, the military camp at Fort Devens, just outside Boston, Massachusetts, quickly became a slaughterhouse. Approximately 45,000 soldiers live there, crammed one on top of the other. Hygiene is non-existent for the future cannon fodder. In the immense dormitories, the sheets of a bed are very rarely washed. The progression of the disease is dazzling. On September 1st, four soldiers fall ill. They are 1,543 one week later. By mid-September, there were more than 6,000 bedridden soldiers. More than 100 men die every day from what looks like blistering pneumonia.

Between 1918 and 1919, the flu killed 550,000 Americans, both civilian and military, more than the two World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. (10) Life expectancy is much shorter than on the battle fields: four months after infection, 90% of the sick pass from life to death.

The medical profession is totally powerless to stop the pandemic and recommends: simple bed rest, the use of suction cups, repeated bloodletting to purify the “moods” (as in the time of Molière’s doctors), subcutaneous injections of oxygen, cardiac tonics (caffeine, digitalis, camphor oil, adrenaline, turpentine), the administration of antithermals (anti-malaria, etc.), the use of adrenaline, the application of anti-thermals (“anti-malaria”): quinine, cryogenics, citrophene, the application of cold chest wraps, a light, liquid, “therapeutic” diet that a policy of restrictions has already put in place. Health offices recommend rum on prescription, just as today’s French health authorities advise that protective masks be dispensed in pharmacies on prescription. Some, in 2020 as in 1918, advocate a “modern” antimalarial: chloroquine, a synthetic substitute for quinine, which could be a “gift from Heaven”, for the ignorant doctor Donald Trump, who wants to see “churches full at Easter”. (11)

In April 1918, the Allied patriot press claimed that the disease “comes from Germany”, that it is a Kraut disease: “There were rumors among the public that the disease had been caused by canned food from Spain into which German agents had introduced pathogenic bacilli”.

The lies (the fake news) are going a long way to revive a patriotic fiber already shaken by the formidable international echo of the Russian Revolution. The French propaganda service claims that Bayer, the inventor of aspirin, introduced the flu agent in acetylsalicylique acid (ASA) pills. Some very imaginative people claim that German submarines surface near the “Allied coasts” and bring bottles full of the flu virus, which are poured into water tanks or into the atmosphere, as in France and the USA, where “good patriots” hasten to gather for buying war loans. (12)

German propaganda, like Allied propaganda, deliberately minimizes the impact of the virus on the troops, who will have to maintain high morale. The Kaiser’s press claims that the flu arrived in Western Europe with battalions of Indochinese colonial troops. In the back-kitchens of imperialist propaganda, a toxic soup of racialism, the “yellow peril” (Gelbe Gefahr), is simmering, all the more so since imperialist Japan has committed itself to the side of the Allies to better round up the German colonies in Asia and the Pacific.

Today, the authors of today’s lies, the “sovereignists” of every stripe who are ready to take on anyone “foreign” – Jew, Muslim, Asian, refugee or immigrant – are having a lot of fun. Their conspiratorial paranoia is at the service of warmongering propaganda, which involves waging a war, with great drumbeats, against the “Chinese virus”, in other words against Chinese exports. In a certain press or in so-called “social” networks one can read that SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19) would have been manufactured in the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, and that patents would have been filed by pharmaceutical laboratories to profit from the sale of a life-saving vaccine, which would only be available on the market once its price had reached Himalayan heights after an accumulation of millions of deaths. (13)

The First World War saw the establishment in all countries of a war capitalism, known as “war economy”, in which the aim was to produce during more than 12 hours a day, six days a week, killing machines, shells, bullets and chemical weapons, at the expense of the consumption of the already starving and particularly weakened working masses. Except for the allied bloc of countries, supported by the exploitation of their colonial empires, this implied strict autarchy, tempered by ruthless banditry by the big capitalist groups: on every continent, energy sources, metals necessary for the arms industry, all food stuffs had to to reinforce the entire war effort, a war waged both militarily and economically.

In the corona-virus crisis, political leaders, particularly in France, are in favor of a war economy, whose virtue, like that of Caesar’s wife, should be unsuspected. It is a question of waging a “sanitary war”, while keeping silent about the reality of an exacerbated commercial war, leading in the long run to a war against the external enemy. This is how the First Secretary of the Socialist Party Olivier Faure has demanded, on Sunday 22 March, in an open letter to his former party “comrade” Emmanuel Macron, the establishment of a “war economy”, advocating massive requisitions of companies to produce masks or tests for the corona-virus. (14)

French social democracy has a rich experience of war economy. The Socialist Party, which is the successor to Guy Mollet’s S.F.I.O., has in the past been able to establish a war economy to arm the regular troops in Algeria and mobilize a contingent of millions of young people to risk their lives in the Maghreb mountains.

Mitterrand’s former adviser, the kingmaker Jacques Attali, the very man who cut Macron’s presidential suit, agrees with the leader: “In the face of these countless viruses, we have to put ourselves definitively into a war economy and devote ourselves only to the essentials.” (15) That the essentials are the survival of the capitalist system as a whole and the maintenance of its profits, the preservation of the hunting grounds of French imperialism, Attali carefully does not tell. (16)

The rest of Attali’s discourse on the war economy is a grotesque incantation of a “happy economy”, very well knowing that all capitalists, and he himself in the first place, can only establish an economy of capitalist misfortune: “To avoid the return of these misfortunes, to ward off this virus as much as the next, we must finally admit that a society could function perfectly well, and be happy, by devoting well over half of its wealth-creating activities to industries and services in health, food, hygiene, education, the environment and culture. And to the technologies they require”.

All these politicians and appointed lackeys of the bourgeoisie, who are waving in front of the media microphones to their orders, know very well that the proclamation of war (“we are at war”) implies a real preparation of the population for the idea of a world war, in which everything will be allowed: from chemical and bacteriological weapons to nuclear arms.

PB/Pantopolis, March 25 & 26, 2020.

Source: Capitalisme, guerres et épidémies; Capitalisme, guerres et pandémies (suite)

Translation: H.C., March 31, 2020.

(The source references in the notes have been left untranslated)


1 Also called “Theodosia”, which means “gift of God”!

3 Cf. Dominique Lecourt (éd.), Dictionnaire de la pensée médicale, PUF, 2004 (article : « Peste »).

4 Jules Baissac, Histoire de la diablerie chrétienne. I. Le Diable, la personne du Diable, le personnel du Diable, 1882. Also available as e-book (BNF).

5 Jean-Noël Biraben, « La peste noire en terre d’islam », L’Histoire n° 11, avril 1979.

6 «Le premier ministre nationaliste hongrois Viktor Orban a lié immigration et pandémie», Le Monde, 25 mars 2020, p. 10.

7 «Coronavirus : évacués de Chine, les Australiens mis en quarantaine dans un centre de rétention pour migrants», Le Monde, 4 février 2020.

8 Nicolas Cheviron, «Si le coronavirus atteint les camps du Xinjiang, beaucoup de Ouïghours vont mourir», Mediapart, 9 mars 2020.

9 Olivier Lahaie, «L’épidémie de grippe dite « espagnole» et sa perception par l’armée française (1918-1919)», Revue historique des armées [online], n° 262, 2011.

10 Olivier Lahaie, op. cit.

11 Corona-virus. Donald Trump sees chloroquine as “a gift from Heaven” if the treatment works, Ouest France, March 24, 2020. Interview with Foxnews, where the billionaire says: “We have to go back to work, much sooner than people think”.

12 Jay Winter, «La grippe espagnole», in Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre 1914-1918, Bayard, 2004, p. 943-948.

13 Site of INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale), March 23,2020: ‘Fake news’ et désinformation autour du coronavirus SARS-CoV2.

15 J. Attali, March 24, 2020: Pensez et vivre positif

16 In his book Une brève histoire de l’avenir, Fayard, 2006, the futurologist Attali prophesies a radiant future for capitalism: “men”, in other words consumer-producers, will be “liberated” and nomadised under the leadership of a hyper-elite (“the transhumans”), carried by the mission to make “market democracy” triumph worldwide, under the leadership of social democracy. That social democracy and the market will be in complete disarray in 2020 does not seem to trouble our seasoned futurologist.