In this text, we talk about the spread of rumors regarding the coronavirus. We also discuss the current state of knowledge regarding the origin of pandemics and their link with capitalism.
Images, myths, fake news… Where do internet rumours come from?
Today, all over the internet, in individuals’ publications and even in parts of the self-proclaimed “militant” media, images are being shared and produced at an incredible speed. This is the result of the complete domination of social networks – with Facebook at the forefront – over the spread of information. But social networks are not just about spreading information. They also partly determine the production of content, not by direct instruction but by the way content is managed, and by the way the Facebook algorithm classifies content according to criteria, and particularly engagement.
Everyone who has had a Facebook page has experienced it, especially when they have a large audience. But this is also true at the level of personal accounts: we tend to keep our eyes glued to the engagement rates on Facebook, which draw a real-time map of influence, signified by likes, shares, and comments.
Ironically, we then say that this or that content has “gone viral”, and we are well aware of the forms that viral content takes in general. It’s all about sensationalism and arousing emotion. It appeals to a form of voyeuristic curiosity. You can post visually attractive or shocking images, sometimes even lying, just by playing with the truth and with the context.
Not all this content is disturbing. It doesn’t hurt anyone if you like this or that picture of a cat playing pranks. But when it comes to talking about the social and political situation, it is a serious problem that the verification of sources takes a back seat. That political or commercial “shops” employ these kinds of practices is evidence of a time when advertising and propaganda have merged entirely under the term “communication”. And the massive relaying of fake news, particularly by the extreme right, is part of the same logic: any means are good to sell their soup.
But on our side, let us ask ourselves the question: what is most useful to our comrades, what is the best way to support the struggles of our class? Is it confusion? Is it the frantic quest for short-term influence and buzz? We propose the opposite. Let us privilege reliability and sobriety. This also means accepting that sometimes we don’t know the truth, that we don’t have all the answers. Even if we can establish the overall functioning of the mechanism, we do not necessarily know all the details.
This way of thinking is the opposite of the conspiracy theory, a particular form of viral content that spreads with each new social event.
Theories about the origin of the coronavirus are legion on social networks. They often assume that this virus has a function – to destabilize one state or serve another. The Chinese state has been presented as victim and perpetrator in turn, before this it was the US or other dark forces. These theories, often presented as dissident, share a very conformist logic: they absolve capitalism of its responsibilities in the spread of disease.
The problem would then not be the system itself but the forces that conspire within its ranks. This willingness to point to identifiable culprits has often been used by States to absolve themselves of responsibility. They accuse spies from other states, or saboteurs. For example, a spokesman for the Chinese government accused the USA of being responsible for the coronavirus. Such actions are also a means to provide cheap support for nationalist ideologies.
Of course, this option is reassuring because if the problem is espionage then everything is under control – maybe not yours, maybe not mine, but somebody’s; if we say that people are pulling the strings we affirm that there are strings to be pulled.
But this crisis proves just the opposite. Neither the environment nor disasters are phenomena that can be reduced to the status of objects under control and responsive to commands. Capitalism constantly produces the narrative that industry controls the world, acts on physical and natural forces and controls them. It is the same for nuclear power, and this comparison is valid when we see how states react once the fiction of “everything is under control” gives way to “save who you can.” Think of Chernobyl or Fukushima.
But, you might say, some conspiracy theories also signal a refusal to believe states. The theories linking the coronavirus and 5G may be false, but they show a tendency to mistrust in a context in which states are constantly lying. The French State had declared at the time of the Chernobyl accident that the toxic cloud had been dissipated by the winds around the plant, and that this had certainly not crossed any borders. Here there is no need to even invent dubious theories; states are already giving us all the material we need for criticism. What’s more, the fact that lying is a weapon of the enemy is all the more reason to pay attention to what we say.
Further, let’s accept that we still don’t know the exact origin of Covid-19. But we can make hypotheses and, above all, examine how, in general, capitalism produces an environment which makes the appearance of this type of virus both more frequent and more dangerous.
Where do viruses come from?
Viruses are ubiquitous across the globe such that scientific estimates regarding their number are astronomical in size. In the oceans, for example, the number of viruses is estimated to be 10 to the power of 30, or billions of billions, much more than there are stars in the sky. The body of a healthy adult person is home to more than three trillion viruses. No need to rush into the shower or cover yourself with hydroalcoholic gel! The number of dangerous viruses is much smaller: only a hundred out of the thousands interact more or less directly with humans and even these are mostly “beneficial”. A recent study has shown, for example, that the mucus you expel when you sneeze, and which you secrete into your lungs in large quantities when you are ill, contains bacteriophage viruses, i.e. viruses that feed on bacteria. These viruses thus contribute to strengthening our immune system!
It is useless and even harmful to aspire to sterilize the world. We have always lived in the midst of viruses. Nevertheless, this aspiration to sterilize everything is at the centre of capitalist industrial logic, and it is this logic that must be dissected in order to understand how it gradually transforms the world into an uninhabitable place.
Where do pandemics come from?
This article seeks to address this question in a fairly simple way. You will find more details in one of the latest articles in Chuang magazine or in one of their main sources, Big Farms Make Big Flu by Rob Wallace.
Here we focus on the two main explanations of pandemics. In the particular case of Covid-19, the origin is still unclear. The explanations that have been circulating, particularly those insisting on the passage from bats to humans via the pangolin, are not confirmed.
The first major cause of pandemics is the food industry. The mechanism is quite simple to understand.
By concentrating thousands or even millions of animals in small, confined, spaces 1, the food industry encourages the faster circulation of viruses within a given population, which increases the risk of mutation. In a way, it is comparable with humans living in huge megacities – or more precisely – with proletarian life in such places. For it is we who live crowded in on top of one another with pollution invading all our spaces, whose food is of poor quality, and whose health is degraded by work, The rich are largely sheltered from all of this. But, back to the food industry.
If concentration favours transmission, the high rate of production favours virulence. For example, in a chicken farm where chickens reach the weight required to sell them in 41 days, the only viruses able to reproduce will be the most virulent i.e. those that succeed in infecting new chickens very quickly. Yet, the higher the level of virulence, the greater the damage to the animal.
The capitalist industry is trying to solve this problem, but as it follows its own path, it is only making them worse.
The agribusiness industry reacts to epidemics by organizing mass slaughter. This stops epidemics in the short term. But, by making the environment even more hostile to viruses, it produces an environment in which the only viruses that will survive will be hyper-virulent ones, capable of jumping over the species barrier in order to reproduce.
The other cause of the development of pandemics, one also highlighted by Wallace, is the rapid transformation of wild animals into a globalized commodity, i.e. their integration within those famous “value chains” about which we hear a lot at the moment.
To put it more clearly, between the moment a wild animal is infected with a virus and the moment the same animal is processed into animal or human food in a city, there may only be a very short period of time, which means more risks of a much more rapid spread. The two pillars of the capitalist production of pandemics are virulence of the disease and speed of spread.
This model can be applied to many others, starting with the Ebola virus, which keeps resurfacing in increasingly deadly and lengthy outbreaks. We will not go into the description of the responses to outbreaks of haemorrhagic fever here. It is a logistical nightmare, based on the concentration of the sick in makeshift camps that are veritable death traps.
So who’s responsible?
What is at issue here is the way capitalism produces food. But also, how it transforms the world into commodities dumped on a global market. Whether these commodities are bats, pangolins, or even HIV-infected blood, we see the extent of the damage a little more each year.
So there is a whole system involved in the production of this virus. And indeed further, it’s the entirety of our current social relationships that are at stake. If the pandemic is producing a health crisis, it is because it is occurring in a particular context: that of the global failure of health systems. And of course, there are those responsible, behind such and such a decision to cut health budgets, for not having done anything to anticipate the demand for ventilators, etc., and for not having taken the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the disease.
But these politicians are just fuses. Outing them won’t be enough: we have to destroy the machine.
The harshness of capitalism, this cold machine, often makes us look away. This is also the meaning of conspiracy. We cannot afford it. This system is the opposite of a Medusa2: in order to shoot it down, we must look it in the eyes.
1] Some followers of vegetarian diets draw the conclusion that this is a superior way of life. Once again, it is a general logic that is to be criticized. Food production, the industrialization of meat, is only one of the many avatars of capital that is destroying this world and us, who are part of it. Stop eating meat if you want, it will not save our need for a revolution.
2] A mythical creature whose gaze must not be crossed or you will be transformed into a statue.