(Profits + Pathogens) – People

I tend to steer clear of biopolitics, what until recently have been Foucauldian investigations of the means by which human life processes are managed across regimes of knowledge and power. But the crux of sociologist Marc Aziz Michael’s more Marxian post is very much worth elaboration.

In contrast to evolutionary psychologists Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, and the fascistic and lobster-spined self-help guru Jordan Peterson, Michael describes the extent to which capital accumulation is almost entirely a cultivated sensibility, one in conflict with humanity’s long understanding our fates are tied to the state of the ecosystem.

Capitalism is no basic instinct housed in an already dubious projection of our biologies. A system teetering on its metaphysics and modes of social reproduction alike must promote the Pinkers and Petersons, the far stupider Webers and Nietzsches of our day, to claim otherwise.

“Spearheaded by Locke and his liberal progeny,” writes Michael,

the creditors’ attempt to grant life to money took more than three centuries to fully sink within collective capitalist imaginaries. An endless array of legal, institutional, financial, social and discursive means — falling far beyond the purview of this essay (but which I do explore in a forthcoming piece) — were deployed to blur the boundaries between the financial and the biological, the productive and the reproductive.

Living money entailed the possibility of limitless accumulation, but more importantly it meant that having money was already a justification for obtaining more, intentionally or not. The collective obsession with GDP growth as the ultimate pursuit of life; the continued belief that the rich deserve further wealth accumulation despite odds rigged in their favor — in education, jobs, security, health, or legal status; even the famous maxim “time is money”, all stem from this imaginary biological life of money.

The very ultimate consequence, was to provide a new imaginal possibility for the drive towards accumulation. To the question why do we accumulate?, it was now possible to respond: because it is part of the nature of things. Money brings forth more money, and humans are but the shepherds of this natural phenomenon. Questioning the “accumulatory” drive was now just as specious as questioning libido and the spontaneous proliferation of life. It meant to place oneself on the ascetic, monastic side of renunciation and necrotic theory (think Jacques Ellul), rather than on the joyful side of vitality, abundance and action (think Richard Branson).

Michael’s point–that, along the lines of Marx and Istvan Mészáros, capitalism separated out from Earth’s basic metabolism under an assiduously groomed ethos–can be followed up with an epidemiological application.

Pathogens, and microbes more generally, may be the only form of life now present with the generation times, mutation rates, and metagenomic shuffling capable of sure-bet adaptation to the new planet that accumulation is fast producing.

Certainly we aren’t. Can you drink polluted water? Eat plastic bags?

Assaults upon basic physiology needn’t be the burp that ends humanity. The population modeling, quietly churned out for decades, has been unforgiving (here and here, for instance). The more populations overshoot sudden drops in carrying capacity, the shorter the time to a crash and extinction.


As per our Ebola book, we can more explicitly model the relationships across relations of production, accumulation, and disease outbreaks.

We applied the Black-Scholes approach to option pricing in finance to modeling the cost in resources needed to control a biological logic gate by which pathogen populations explode in size or stabilize.

The model inferred that the overall financial cost of epidemic prevention and control depends on agroeconomic policy’s impact on environmental stochasticity. The inherent “frictional” variation in space and time of regional, farmer-led agroecological production, disrupting a straight shot in pathogen transmission, controls costs specific to an outbreak at a rate much lower than linear.

In contrast, industrial production produces very large constants of proportionality. That is, the inherently explosive epizoologies of commodity monocultures—however frequently biocontained—appear exorbitantly expensive as a matter of first principle.

The implications of these results can be led by the nose ring back around to Michael’s point about capitalism’s origins.

The economies of scale that agriculture, and commodity production more broadly, introduces extends to the pathogens and other metabolic rifts it incubates, producing outbreaks and other diseconomies of scale that are politically protected by the power profit applies upon its own accumulation. As value accrues to capital, economic and political power, including market access, is concomitantly reinforced, increasing capital’s hold on the governance of food systems and other sectors of production.

Agribusiness continues to exist even on its own terms as a capitalist enterprise only by externalizing the costs of its production to governments, consumers, farmworkers, livestock, wildlife, and the greater environment. It’s just about always that somebody else pays the bills of unsustainable production.

There’s nothing natural about that arrangement whatsoever, a circumstance many a pathogen confronted by acres of monoculture in plant and animal is best positioned to take advantage.


As we describe in our new book on Zika and other vecetor-borne infections, many an epidemiologist is happily paid to protect that outcome. The problem extends beyond the veritable libraries built out of cost-effectiveness models of disease that

organize an ethics of economism around minimizing immediate expenditures for particular institutions first, rather than protecting communities or addressing the structural expropriation that produces the very artificial scarcities these analyses ostensibly address.

Other models blanch at paying out even that pittance to public health:

Coleman et al. (2001) appropriate the agricultural concept of endemic stability for a broader range of diseases. The stability is defined as a population state in which clinical disease is rare even as the level of infection is high. In some parts of such a disease parameter space, partial intervention, retarding the force of infection, can exacerbate disease incidence by weakening herd immunity. Sometimes doing nothing may be the best intervention. Some groups have proposed just letting Zika, which causes little clinical expression in most cases, burn out as the best approach (Ferrara 2016).

While clearly the ecological damage in eliminating mosquito spp. need be avoided – from indiscriminate pesticide application to disruptions in food webs – the epidemic of poverty-associated microcephaly and the reciprocal activation Zika shares with dengue make “doing nothing” here unconscionable.

And yet doing nothing turns into a categorical imperative when it is easier, paraphrasing H Bruce Franklin by way of Fredric Jameson, to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

One Response to “(Profits + Pathogens) – People”

  1. Hi Rob,
    Has the recent emergence of African Swine Fever in Belgium and in a handful of Chinese locations crossed your radar? I saw something about transmission in feed sources – what’s up with that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: