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Jacobin - July 7, 2020

Mike Davis has good claim to being the most important Marxist historian of the past fifty years. While his work may not have the vast geographical or temporal scope of Perry Anderson, Ellen Meiksins Wood, or Robert Brenner, nor has it mined a particular period or subject with the focus of a figure like E. P. Thompson, Robin Blackburn, or Christopher Hill, its influence and its singular depth makes Davis’s work stand out.

On the surface, his writings may appear disparate, ranging from the early essays on the history of the US working class to his more recent studies of Third World slums, the history of the car bomb, and the radical history of Los Angeles in the 1960s, to name just three examples. Yet the diversity of Davis’s interests are linked by his near singular focus on global class relations and his writing is marked by a startling prescience. His oeuvre has opened entire continents of research, each one written in his typically sparkling, lucid prose.

Of his many books, none has been so darkly prescient as first published fifteen years ago, and now, amid the first wave of COVID-19, reissued by OR Books as The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism. In its original version, Davis sought to warn us of the impending threat of an avian flu pandemic, which, he argued, would likely have a catastrophic global impact.

If Davis’s warning was stark, then its reception was far more muted. In a characteristic example, the British newspaper the Independent began its review by asking, “Is this scaremongering? A lot of people seem to think so.”

The Monster Enters

In the mid-2000s, his predictions of the coming plague seemed eccentric to many, by early 2020, it was clear that Davis’s grave warning had been gravely overlooked. The pandemic has finally come in the proportions that Davis described, though from a different source than that he predicted.

Instead of avian flu — H5N1, or its even deadlier cousins H7N9 and H9N2 — we are confronted with the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As it tears through the global population, it has, as few need reminding, left a crisis of catastrophic proportions.

Our pandemic shares many traits with that which Davis foretold fifteen years earlier. Like the avian influenza, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (a disease that passes from animal reservoirs to human populations, and has no acquired or natural immunities to it) sourced in the particular nexus of human and animal populations that emerged following the revolution of industrial agriculture, and, like avian flu, its rapid global spread is facilitated by new technologies of transport and communication. In other words, pandemics of this size and scope are produced from, rather than being an external imposition on, contemporary capitalism.

Both influenza and coronaviruses have been with us for millennia. Both have an extraordinary ability to jump between species and to mutate at incredible rates — a process called “antigenic drift,” which is the reason why flu vaccines must be updated every winter. Yet, the pandemic potential in human populations of both is a recent phenomenon.

The new age of zoonoses is just over fifty years old, emerging first with outbreaks of Marburg virus, a Filoviridae (a family of virus that also includes the lethal Ebola virus) that was first seen in the late 1960s in the German city that gave the disease its name, as well as the near contemporaneous outbreak of Machupo virus in the villages of northeastern Bolivia.

Since then, we have seen outbreaks of many other zoonoses, including Lassa (1969), Sin Nombre (1993), Hendra (1994), Nipah (1998), West Nile (1999), as well as the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has so far killed an estimated 30 to 40 million people worldwide. The natural mutability of both coronaviruses and influenza (both the antigenic drift and the “antigenic shift,” when the virus mixes with genes of a human, signaling the imminence of a pandemic) is, Davis makes clear, tied in with the particular political, economic, and ecological conditions created in the past hundred years. This has turned the threat of deadly pandemic from a vague possibility to a near inevitability.

The Monster Enters tells the story of how we ended up on the verge of this viral apocalypse. If the book has a villain, it is private industry: from the pharmaceutical giants, whose market-led inaction has halted research into influenza, to the rise of factory farming, and the industrialization of nature.

If within living memory vast proportions of the world’s food supply were produced by peasant cultivators and small-scale farmers, now the global countryside is a vast nexus of industrial farms and intensive agricultural production. The “livestock revolution” of the past fifty years has seen the birth of giant factories on the land, each with animals packed tightly together in huge numbers and in artificial conditions before their rapid ferrying to the slaughter.

Alongside this, we have seen the destruction of wetlands and huge deforestation — meaning the destruction of animal habitats — plus the growth of Third World urbanism and booming overseas tourism. Each of these on their own are what Davis calls “human-induced environmental shocks”; taken together, they have created our current disaster.

Wild animals — natural reservoirs of these virus — live in increasing proximity to industrial farms. These farms then act as vast incubators of the disease, allowing the spread to occur from its reservoir species to humans. ...
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