The Twisted DNA of Capitalism: Part IIa Disease and Capital


Disease and the Rise of Capital

Introduction: The Dance

They said the choice was simple. We could protect ourselves from the pandemic by shutting down the economy, or we could keep the markets going and just do the best we can with the disease. If we shut down the economy then the cure would be worse than the disease. Certainly, if people aren’t working and going out and spending their money on cheap plastic junk then there will be hunger in the streets, shutters on the factories and desperation on the soup lines.

They then passed a two trillion dollar stimulus package that completely wrecked their justification for forcing workers back into the economy.

Of course, even with the economy shut down, some workers were considered too crucial to keep home. They had to return to work and put their lives on the line for the greater good. Meat processing, for instance, was deemed so crucial to the economy that the exploited workers in these plants had to return even at the risk of their own lives. There was no choice. We couldn’t expect good, middle-class Americans to cut back on their fried chicken and bbq ribs.

Almost immediately, meat processing plants became ground zero for Corona-virus outbreaks.

Meat Industry Political Contribuitons (

That the meat processing industry made over $1.35 million dollars in political contributions the year before, two thirds of which went to Republicans, had nothing to do with the decision to keep them functioning, let alone the decision to allow owners to maintain labor standards that are unhealthy even at the best of times. After all, it’s not like there was an acutely fraught presidential election around the corner.

Nor did trade negotiations in which China, in the midst of a trade war, agreed to purchase tons of U.S. meat in exchange for tariff breaks have anything to do with the decision to force workers into disease ridden, overcrowded factories.

Now, as the pandemic is winding down and the nation is taking in a collective, mask-free sigh of relief, we can look back on the predictable response of our economic elite to the needs of their employees. As workers became sick and epidemiologists were warning us that we needed to stay home, to socially distance, to even put off hugging our own grandparents for fear of spreading the contagion, the corporate masters responded with near unanimity, “Oh, well.” Those people need to go to work. Teachers need to go back to school because kids need to return to class…because their parents need to get their tails back to the job place. Those dividends don’t come from nothing…um…for the most part…you know.

What can be said about an economy that requires an already exploited workforce to put their lives on the line during a pandemic in order to preserve the profits of an increasingly tiny investor class? It is clear that we can guarantee income for workers, provide supports for small businesses and keep the economy going with good, ol’ fashioned fiscal stimulus. In doing so, however, we’ll be revealing to all that there are functional alternatives to capitalism. Alternatives that capitalists already enjoy. But the minute we start thinking in terms of working people enjoying some long term benefits “earned” just by virtue of the fact that they are human and deserve a modicum of security, well the legislation stalls–deficits, you know.

Capitalism cannot be expected to survive a global pandemic without significant financial supports for investors and firms. However, capitalism cannot survive if those same financial supports are offered to working people. That’s called socialism, and capitalism can’t by definition survive socialism.

Obituaries for capitalism at the hands of Covid 19 and socialism, however, are premature. Capitalism can and will do just fine in the face of this or any other disease. Sure, there may be some setbacks as demand collapses and productivity face-plants. Shed no tear for the capitalist. The investor class will be just fine. Economic “readjustments”, from the point of view of the investor class, constitute nothing more than a shift in opportunity. That might mean selling off part of the portfolio today, but tomorrow there are new investments in…pharmaceuticals, PPE, health care and delivery, medical supplies, anti-viral treatments and, of course, vaccines.

The Petri Dish of Capitalism

The fact is that capitalism has a long and integral connection to disease. Capitalism emerged to prosperity and power in the face of two of the world’s most cataclysmic pandemics. Capitalism has also been the source disease among humans and the ecosystem since its inception. At the same time, capitalism has been at the forefront of combating disease since the advent of modern medicine–for a profit, of course.

The embryo that would ultimately lead to capitalism as the primary structure of the modern marketplace was planted from disease. Specifically, the Black Plague, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. For a thousand years, the political-economy was structured according to a feudal order by which a landed nobility, sustained by a military caste, and legitimized by The Church, extracted value from the labor of serfs tied to the land. The system was held together through a value consensus called vassalage, in which the lower classes deferred obedience to the upper and this deference was rewarded with a promise of security and protection in a very insecure world. This system was brutally exploitative, of course, as vassalage required a certain ethic on the part of the powerful which could be disregarded upon whim with little recourse on the part of the Demos. Regardless, feudalism provided the necessary stability with which to secure a predictable social environment. This all came to an end in the mid-fourteenth century as the Black Plague spread through Eurasia.

In most of Europe, the Feudal order collapsed as the bodies piled up. Serfs often found themselves bereft of noble protection as the parasite respected no class boundaries. Or manorial lords found their fields fallow without serfs to tend the crops. As populations collapsed the price of grains fell. Workers once tied to the land were uprooted, looking for landlords who needed labor and could afford to pay a wage. With few healthy hands to choose from, a laborer could ask for more than a subsistence wage, giving him economic opportunities that come with holding limited supply, in this case of labor. “…the plague concentrated wealth, often substantial family fortunes, in fewer and often younger hands, a circumstance that, when coupled with lower prices for grain, left greater per capita disposable income.” The roots of capitalism were set in ground made fertile by mass graves.

By freeing labor, weakening the nobility and the authority of The Church and shifting that power into the hands of a merchant class the ground was cleared for the expansion of modern capitalism. This ground was cultivated by banking interests like the Medici in Florence, well situated by the city’s much valued currency, the Florin. Later, the Fuggers and other banking interests emerged in the fifteenth century from the rubble of the Plague. Capitalism is, however, an extractive enterprise. Value is extracted from labor and natural resources and turned into capital that can be exchanged as pure value. In fifteenth century Europe there were natural limits to how much capital could be gleaned from the subcontinent and corresponding Afro-Eurasian trade routes. This was about to change in the sixteenth century thanks in large part to diseases incubated in European trade cities.

Columbus had no way of knowing the magnitude of the connections he had established. He also had no way of knowing that with every boot print in this new world millions of microscopic pathogens were released into an ecosystem poorly prepared for the microbial onslaught. All too often these pathogens traveled with the explorers and conquistadors. In many instances, the viruses, bacilli, and parasites spread faster than European explorers could travel. These organisms became the unofficial vanguard for European invasion. Regardless, the new world Columbus discovered was one with uncounted hundreds of powerful and populous cultures well positioned to resist foreign incursion. Then the microbes came.

Within fifty years of Columbus’ filthy boot on the Western Continents’ soil, most of these cultures were reeling from unfamiliar diseases. Pizarro, for instance, was able to conquer one of the most powerful empires in the world with only a small contingent of men because Smallpox was his vanguard. “…the Incas were at that time hit by an epidemic of European diseases, such as smallpox, which had spread from central America even faster than the European invaders themselves. Such a disease killed Wayna Qhapaq in 1528 CE and in some places a staggering 65-90% of the population would die from this invisible enemy.” Nor was this spread of disease merely consequential. Europeans became aware of disease’s value as a weapon. “During the wars of conquest, it appears as if they did not consider the Indians as a valuable asset. This is indicated by the fact that diseases were often spread intentionally by Spaniard soldiers to ease the conquests.” (Okuno)

Weakened by disease even the most powerful cultures of the Western Continents were hobbled to resist European incursions. By the middle of the fifteenth century the political economy of much of the Western Continents was reshaped into the encomienda system. Later, slaves were brought into the Western Continents to compensate for labor lost to disease. By the seventeenth century vast stretches of the Western Continents were left bare, abandoned and ready for European extraction. We see this reflected in the journal of Captain Thomas Dermer exploring the east coast of the north Western Continent with Tisquantum, a member of a local Patuxet tribe. “

“[We] passed along the coast where [we] found some ancient [Indian] plantations, not long since populous now utterly void, in other places a remnant remains, but not free of sickness. Their disease the plague, for we might perceive the sores of some that escaped, who descried the spots of such as usually die. When [we] arrived at my savage’s native country [we found] all dead.”

Journal of Cpt. Thomas Dermer

Disease made possible what is most probably the most massive value extraction and redistribution in history. The vast resources of the Western Continent, later to be named The Americas, became the bedrock for modern capitalism. On one hand, the great resources, especially silver from the slave-worked mines in Mexico, were converted into capital held by European investors. On the other, the potential for profit from expeditions into the Americas and into the East Indies became fodder for investment capital in and of itself. Every ship that left port from Spain or Portugal in the sixteenth century had a potential value for profit should it return with a shorter freeboard. Investors would take stock in such vessels and these “stocks” could be traded with value in and of themselves. This is the birth of capitalism as we know it.

Modern capitalism was born in a petri dish of European diseases.

The State and the Cost/Benefit of Disease

Disease wasn’t just about opening opportunities for resource extraction. Disease was also a cost of doing business that had to be contained. In other words, the costs had to be externalized. The most common way to do this was to place the costs of disease on the kitchen tables of the working class. If you get sick, you can’t work, you don’t get paid. Pay what you can to get healthy and come back to work (probably with a pay cut, but that’s how it goes). Or starve.

However, as is standard operating procedure for capitalism, costs that could not be shifted to the Demos was to be picked up by the state. When disease made investment in the Panama Canal project too risky, for instance, that task was picked up by the United States government. Of course, this state intervention was not without its fair share of private profit. The United States used J.P. Morgan as the financial middleman, or as Ed Vulliamy pointed out in The Guardian, the “fiscal agent” between the U.S. and the new nation of Panama. In return, “JP Morgan led the American banks in gradually turning Panama into a financial centre – and a haven for tax evasion and money laundering…” It was the standard arrangement. The state takes on the risks and much of the costs, but parcels the profits to private enterprise via government backed contracts. This was summarized by Elliot Turner, writing for ValueWalk,

“What started as a privately financed enterprise collapsed miserably, taking down the entire French economy and nearly the entire French empire with it. In the wake of this collapse, the American government took over the project and outsourced its completion to private contractors. Over three years, these private contractors failed to meet their deadlines, effectively forcing the U.S. government to take over the project entirely. When this happened, the military’s oversight of the project worked so well that some feared this would tip the U.S. towards socialism.

Elliot Turner, ValueWalk (Boldface mine)
Dr. William Gorgas, the public servant who made the Panama Canal possible

One of the most significant factors standing in the way of private capital and the completion of this potentially lucrative canal was disease. Yellow fever and malaria made operational costs too expensive for investors. But the returns were too tempting to ignore. Hence the state would pick up the costs for building the canal and private enterprise could reap the profits. The Panama Canal was made possible because of a public servant. William Gorgas, an officer with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was put in charge of sanitation in the Canal Zone. Gorgas eradicated yellow fever from the Canal Zone and contained the spread of malaria. This despite the fact that “[m]any viewed the fight against malaria and yellow fever as costly wastes of resources in an expensive undertaking.” (Turner) It’s likely that the “many” referenced were safe in the board rooms far from any chance of actually contracting these diseases. These people would have been perfectly happy watching as many working people die as was necessary to complete the project, concerned only with the costs of securing regular labor. Fortunately for everyone involved, the Panama Canal became a public works project.

Of course, we don’t have to go so far back to confirm the cost/benefit thesis. We need only examine our contemporary dance between disease, the economy, and the state to see the game played in real time. As Covid 19 spread the state opened the valves to virtually unlimited funding for private companies to bring vaccine technology, most of which was previously funded by taxpayers, to market. Facing a catastrophe with potentially apocalyptic consequences for the the capital market, the state guaranteed the funds for research and distribution for private enterprises. The state also guaranteed markets and negotiated trade to expand these markets to other countries. That this worked as well as it did is a testament to the profitability of established practices in biomed. As David Mitchell pointed out in the New York Times, “the government often funds research and development and then hands off the ownership of vaccines and medicines to companies that can charge whatever price they think the market will bear. Drug companies often demand a premium price to compensate for early risk that was actually borne by taxpayers.”

As it stands, this arrangement seems to have worked out quite well. State funded research was transferred to private firms. These firms did not have to take on the costs of early, foundational research, most of which fails. They had established technology that they could further develop, using mostly state funded methods, into a marketable product. The state then guaranteed the market by picking up the tab at between $10 and $19.95 per dose. This is perfectly reasonable as the greatest concern among Americans in the face of a potentially deadly disease was “how am I going to afford this?” It should be pointed out that this mindset is unique to a nation that does not guarantee health care for all citizens–while at the same time guaranteeing a market for health care corporations.

Massive state investment in a temporary emergency, especially one with such a costly potential from the point of view of the investor class, can be justified. The emphasis, however, must be on the “temporary” nature of the crisis. Crises are costly and standard profit motive in the face of crisis is delegitimizing. A truly dedicated capitalist may be able to justify in purely rational terms profiting on the distorted supply and demand curves of crisis. Anyone with even a surface sense of human decency, however, is appalled by such a motive. Antipathy to the “greed is good” concept of capitalism was demonstrated in the near unanimous public opprobrium directed at Matt and Noah Colvin when they tried to corner the hand sanitizer market at the outset of the pandemic. On one hand, they were acting in accord with the basic principles of capitalism. On the other hand, it was a shitty thing to do to other human beings.

Crises end, however. When things return to normal there is a great deal of profit to be made for those who were able to use the crisis to position themselves in the market. David Mitchell points out that “Executives at Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, the three companies whose coronavirus vaccines have been approved for emergency use in the United States, have said they will maintain their current pricing models during the pandemic but expect to raise prices after it ends.” According to a transcript of a February 2021 Pfizer Earnings meeting, corporate executives expect massive returns once they are freed from “pandemic pricing.” Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amilio stated, “So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 per dose. So pandemic pricing.” CEO Albert Bourla pointed out that “…this is not an open market…it is a market that it [sic] is controlled by governments…” Ultimately, however, COVID offers great potential for “cash flow” as a normal vaccine and booster market develops…for those who can afford it.

The Takeaway

It is the thesis of this project that the twisted dance between capitalism and disease is not just a contingency, it is incorporated into the DNA of our political economy. Everyone reading this post right now is, in some way and to some extent, the beneficiary of a system born from the disease ridden ruins of cultures trammeled by nascent capitalism. Some of us may have a closer affinity to these lost cultures than others, but we are all building our lives in the shadow of biological calamity going back hundreds of years. When we pursue economic opportunities, even when we fight for economic justice, we are negotiating a share of the profits acquired by centuries of grave robbers.

It’s not our fault. At this point in our social evolution, there are no other resources available. Whether you are a capitalist or a socialist, a realist or the most utopian idealist, the world we strive to build, must of necessity be constructed upon the graves of our ancestors. This is as it has always been. We cannot lay the ghosts of our past to rest any more than we can purge the traces of our most undesirable forefathers from our genome. The best we can do is to dedicate ourselves to doing better going forward.

I first conceptualized this project, The Twisted DNA of Capitalism, in mid-December of 2019. My first post, my opening brainstorm, was offered as an introduction to the three part series on December 28th, 2019. In this introduction I suggested that the DNA of Capitalism is composed of three building blocks: Dehumanized Rationalism, Slavery and Disease, in which the former was the centerpiece. At the time, my plan was to elaborate each in a theoretical way, drawing upon history as my support material.

Three days after my initial post, news started to trickle out of Wuhan, China about a novel strain of pneumonia. I paid little attention. At the time I was involved in a protest in Tallahassee. I was putting together a video on what turned out to be the first impeachment and a post on the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. I was also collecting information and taking notes on Part 1 of this series, Dehumanized Rationalism.

I figured the series had to start with Dehumanized Rationalism, as this was “the axis of the molecule” within this DNA Model. I then contemplated whether I would elaborate slavery or disease next. I was leaning toward disease for the sake of chronological continuity.

By March, this editorial decision was made for me. I was teaching from Zoom. My family vacations were cancelled. We had shut down our therapy center and were looking at the leading wall of what would be the first of four waves to hit the U.S. as cases were starting to shoot up to 10,000 a day–a number that seemed appalling at the time. It was clear that this was no longer an historical analysis. I would see the interplay between disease and capitalism in real time.

It was then that we as a society started to debate what should be, in any enlightened society, beyond reasonable dispute. Should we sustain human life by shutting down the market and putting the economy into what Paul Krugman described as a medically induced coma, or should we sustain the economy by continuing to work and to consume in as close to a “normal way as possible? Of course, the word “we” requires some elaboration. The “we” who constitute the economic elite, the shareholders and their upper managers, would be taking no chances at all. That “we” would be safely isolating in their mansions and/or summer houses. The “we” who would be required to take chances were the people who actually made the economy work, the producers and the service providers who don’t have summer homes within which to shut away. It turns out, the “we” also included children who needed to take their chances in school so their parents could be freed to take their chances in the workplace.

The debate played out much as the analysis central to this project predicts. The investor class and their political lap-dogs were on team “take OUR chances” with workers; lives. Yes, people would die and be debilitated for life, but they would have the knowledge that they sacrificed for the greater good–namely the greater good of rising dividends. Working people, of course, were on team “Fuck That!” They were clearly being unreasonable as they chose to stay home and take care of their elderly relatives, their sick family members, and most selfishly, themselves. The propaganda machine, owned and operated by the investor class, immediately went into high gear to convince people that the virus wasn’t so bad, that they had an obligation to keep working, and we couldn’t let the cure, shutting down the market, become worse than disease.

Shortages are serious economic challenges during a pandemic. Grist

Indeed, it is true that much of the proper work done by the market, the distribution of resources, is necessary for health and survival. We need food, water, medicine, functioning waste management, security, housing. These are economic resources. Certain people had to continue working to ensure that everyone was able to get what they needed. We all remember driving around town looking for toilet paper. Furthermore, poverty is also deadly.2 If the economy fails, people die. Hence the underlying debate of capitalism, work or death. For most economic actors, the focus is on meeting our needs. For owners, however, the only questions during a pandemic is which choice is the most costly, and where are our opportunities. Of course, dividends must be considered.

Again, consistent with this analysis, this dance between capitalism and disease took place around the pole of the state. We tend to see the state as the top of the hierarchy in a given nation. The government makes its decision and the citizen, regardless of class, accept the final rules of legitimate, legal-rational authority. However, its analytically more useful to understand the state as a negotiator between the Demos and the economic elite. In normal times, the state serves the interests of the elite. During a crisis that could upturn the economic elite, that state serves as an intermediary. This was its role during the pandemic.

The state negotiated the balance in predictable ways. First and foremost with huge bales of cash to both economic elites and the Demos. This was necessary as cash is the medium of exchange on which capitalism is built. If resources were to be distributed, no other more direct system would do. Secondly, ours is a consumer society. We had to give people the ability to not just meet their needs, but also to purchase cheap plastic junk. That’s what drives the market. Much of this cash went into Jeff Bezos’ pockets as his company was best positioned to take advantage of pandemic conditions. He sheltered almost all of this money.

So, there were those designated as “essential” workers who had little choice but to risk their health for the sake of the economy. Yes, safety procedures were put into place. After all, they were essential. These essential workers, it turned out, happened to be some of our lowest paid, most exploited labor. Everyone from hospital orderlies to grocery cashiers to meat packers and Amazon warehouse workers had the honor of being recognized as essential for once in their lives. This recognition did not come with a commensurate increase in wages. An increase in the national minimum wage died in congress–again.

We are now coming down from the fourth and, hopefully, last wave of this pandemic. And capitalists are scared. This particularly acute dance between capitalism and disease exposed the flat-footedness of our market principles. This is what the Davos Set has always feared. A harsh spotlight was placed on just how incompetent and out of tune capitalism is to basic human dignity.

It’s not like we were completely unaware of the putrefaction of our economic system. We remember the bonuses doled out to those whose greed and incompetence literally collapsed the global economy–given for the expressed purpose of “quality retention.” We remember how our so-called representatives stumbled all over each other to bail out the banks while working people lost their homes–often to the same banks being bailed out. We remember what it was like to slog through years of anemic recovery–or what was called recovery–while the wealthiest experienced record growth in the stock market. It’s no secret that Main Street takes a back seat to Wall Street in the halls of government. So, there is no surprise when the corruption underlying our system is exposed.

This latest crisis of capitalism, however, turned out to be more revealing than the last. The last crisis revealed just how much rot is metastasized in the political economy. No doubt. But the pandemic revealed two major elements of the disease that is capitalism.

First, we learned just how much our government can do when it really wants to–even a government as ineptly run as the last administration. For years now, every request made from the left for basic benefits, like publicly funded health care and tertiary education, a Green New Deal, a 21st century infrastructure, was met with howls from the right and laments from the center that there was no way we could afford such fiscal extravagance no matter how laudable the goal. How are we going to pay for all those things? After all, we can’t expect the wealthy to fund it all. They are the job creators.

We always knew this was bullshit, but in the last year we have seen just how bullshit the claim is. When we see Republicans–the party of Reagan–the government is the problem party–voting for trillions in fiscal stimulus even after massive deficits resulting from their tax “reform” we can interpret their sermons on fiscal responsibility for what they are.

If we can make massive investments during a time of crisis, we can make them during times of prosperity. If the state can pick up the tab for a pandemic, then why not other diseases and medical care? If the government can provide safety nets that literally lift people out of poverty during a recession, why can’t we provide such security when unemployment is 3%?

Now that the pandemic is drawing to a close and our elected officials are hoping for a return to normal, we understand the answer. If we provide these public goods and safety nets, then there’s no way to coerce people into doing alienating, low pay work. When working people are secure, the only way to get them into these mind-numbing, dead-end jobs is to incentivize them by increasing their pay, improving their work conditions and providing benefits. Incentives are for the job creators, not the people who fill those jobs.

We see this being played out with calls from Republicans and so-called moderate Democrats to cut the “generous” unemployment insurance in the face of so many alienating jobs that lazy working people are choosing not to fill because they can do better on the dole. Without the threat of destitution, it’s impossible to get people to do work at pay that does not lift them out of poverty. Higher wages is money that comes out of the quarterly dividends.

The second thing revealed by the pandemic is just how alienating our lives were before the pandemic. It turns out that spending more time at home, be it the result of reduced hours or remote work, improves the quality of our lives. It turns out that a lot of the things we were picking up those extra shifts for, or working those second and third jobs for, weren’t really worth the sacrifice. Slowing down, enjoying our families, having solitude, taking up hobbies, improve our lives. Further, we learned just how destructive social isolation is to our well-being and have become more acutely aware of the factors that isolated us before the pandemic. We don’t want to go back to the way things were before COVID turned our lives upside down. The relentless and often futile pursuit of consumer opportunities and material luxury did nothing to bring us happiness. The simpler things in life did.

Capitalism is in many ways a response to the costs and opportunities associated with disease. It was catastrophic disease that derailed the pre-modern world in such a way as to create opportunities for the merchant class and the holders of capital to set the norms and enforce the structures of the modern world. Disease was incorporated into capitalist models in terms of risk and return tabulated under the bottom line. Now, it is disease that has revealed the cracks and fissures of capitalism in stark relief.

However, capitalism isn’t just a structural response to disease. Capitalism is also a vector of disease. This element of the relationship between Capitalism and Disease will be explored in the next post in this series.3


  1. That is, of course, unless you happen to be one of those deadbeats on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). That legislation is still pending.
  2. This will be elaborated in a later post.
  3. This was intended to be a four post series, the Introduction, Dehumanized Rationalism, Diseases, and finally Slavery. It turns out that the topic of disease is more complicated than I thought as I started making connections. It’s likely that Slavery may be the same. At this point, I don’t know how long this series will be.

Sources Meat Processing and Products. Accessed October 19, 2020.

Polansek, Tom & Andy Sullivan. June 16, 2020. Meatpacking workers often absent after Trump order to reopen. Reuters.

McCarthy, Ryan & Sam Danley. June 23, 2020. Map: COVID-19 meat plant closures.

Dyal, Jonathan et. al. May 8, 2020. COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities ― 19 States. Center for Disease Control.

Plume, Karl. August 27, 2020. China books record weekly U.S. beef purchases, also buys U.S. corn -USDA. Reuters.

My sources for the Black Death also include the following. and and especially and

Cohen, Elizabeth and Dana Vigue. June 23, 2020. CNN.

Radcliff, Shawn. August 11, 2020.

Okuno, A., & Ventosa-Santaulària, D. (2010). Fall in the Indian population after the arrival of the Spaniards. Diseases or exploitation? Investigación Económica,69(272), 87-104. Retrieved June 5, 2021, from

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