Regulating viral capitalism: four stages in a pathology of accumulation

Author: David Whyte1
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  • 1 Queen Mary University of London, , UK
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This paper analyses the ecology of SARS-CoV-19 as a phenomenon of capitalist political economy. It argues that the biological conditions that allowed the virus to emerge must be understood within a broader set of concrete political and economic conditions. At every stage in the emergence and spread of the virus, we can observe its mediation through the processes of capital accumulation. The paper therefore argues that the emergence and the spread of SARS-CoV-19 can be understood as a ‘pathology of accumulation’. Regimes of capital accumulation always depend upon complex regimes of regulation. Wherever capital seeks to accumulate, it must be nurtured and supported by states. The rate and scale of capital accumulation depends on how access to common resources, labour, public wealth and public infrastructures is guaranteed, regulated and policed by states. The paper therefore seeks to analyse the regimes of accumulation that produce zoonotic pathogens like SARS-CoV-19, across four ‘moments’ or stages: release (in predatory practices of capitalist development); amplification (in the upscaling of industrial farming); spread (in sites of social concentration); and medical intervention (in the commodification of testing and vaccination regimes).

Abstract

This paper analyses the ecology of SARS-CoV-19 as a phenomenon of capitalist political economy. It argues that the biological conditions that allowed the virus to emerge must be understood within a broader set of concrete political and economic conditions. At every stage in the emergence and spread of the virus, we can observe its mediation through the processes of capital accumulation. The paper therefore argues that the emergence and the spread of SARS-CoV-19 can be understood as a ‘pathology of accumulation’. Regimes of capital accumulation always depend upon complex regimes of regulation. Wherever capital seeks to accumulate, it must be nurtured and supported by states. The rate and scale of capital accumulation depends on how access to common resources, labour, public wealth and public infrastructures is guaranteed, regulated and policed by states. The paper therefore seeks to analyse the regimes of accumulation that produce zoonotic pathogens like SARS-CoV-19, across four ‘moments’ or stages: release (in predatory practices of capitalist development); amplification (in the upscaling of industrial farming); spread (in sites of social concentration); and medical intervention (in the commodification of testing and vaccination regimes).

Introduction

SARS-CoV-19 is one of many global tragedies we have witnessed in our lifetime. As we unpick the origins and causes of this tragedy, we also need to recognise a basic truth about our viral world; a truth that has been revealed very clearly to us since March 2020. The nuts and bolts of how zoonotic pathogens like this emerge, how they mutate in forms capable of infecting humans, and then how they spread around the globe, are not completely outside our control. It is not news to some of the more astute commentators on this subject (Davis, 2005; Wallace, 2016), but our understanding of the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-19 has also revealed very clearly to us that the chances of such pathogens germinating and proliferating are always mediated by circuits of capital: predatory processes that involve the investment of capital in order to accumulate profits.

A number of key authors analyse the ecology of SARS-CoV-19 as a phenomenon of capitalist political economy (Wallace, 2020, Davis, 2020; and Malm, 2020; Knox and Tzouvala, 2021). Those authors argue that the biological conditions that allowed the virus to emerge must be understood within a broader set of global political and economic conditions. We cannot understand the emergence and spread of this virus – or any other zoonotic pathogen for that matter - without understanding how patterns of investment shape its emergence and spread. At every stage in the development of the pandemic, we can observe its mediation through the processes of capital accumulation.

The paper therefore seeks to analyse the regimes of accumulation that produce zoonotic pathogens like SARS-CoV-19, across four ‘moments’ or stages: release (in predatory practices of capitalist development); amplification (in the upscaling of industrial farming); spread (in sites of social concentration); and medical intervention (in the commodification of testing and vaccination regimes). The article will further indicate how each of those moments mirrors stages in the regimes of capital accumulation that now threaten the planet’s climate and ecosystem.

Wherever capital seeks to accumulate, it must be nurtured and supported by states; regimes of capital accumulation always depend upon complex regimes of regulation. The rate and scale of capital accumulation depends on how access to common resources, labour, public wealth and public infrastructures is guaranteed, regulated and policed by states. The point of this paper is to describe and analyse the emergence and the spread of SARS-CoV-19 as a kind of pathology of accumulation, and to show how the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-19 was shaped at every stage by particular forms of regulation that uphold and help shape the conditions of capital accumulation.

This paper will thus demonstrate that this pathology of accumulation is dependent upon processes that are not outside our control. Before it develops a systematic description of the four ‘moments’ or stages noted above, the paper now turns to understanding the basic dynamic at work in the regulation/policing of regimes of accumulation.

System preserving regulation

There is a tendency in criminology to conceptualise state power in one-dimensional terms – as the ability to exert coercive ‘power over’ subordinate groups (Whyte, 2009; Coleman et al, 2009). This tendency arises from a narrow understanding of how state power works: a reductionism that Gramsci (1996) calls the ‘state as policeman’. By this he meant that understandings of state apparatuses are often restricted to their repressive or ‘law-preserving’ aspects (Benjamin, 2007). Gramsci counter-posed the ‘state as policeman’ with the ‘ethical’ or ‘interventionist’ state, and argued that ‘[t]he concept of the interventionist state is of economic origin, and is connected on one hand with tendencies supporting protection and economic nationalism and on the other… the protection of the working classes from the excesses of capitalism…’ (Gramsci, 1996: 262). In a parallel description of state power in capitalist social orders, Michael Mann (1984) usefully distinguishes between the despotic and infrastructural capacities of states, whereby the former corresponds broadly to the ‘state as policeman’ and the latter to the ‘ethical’ state and to the organisation of the economy. Despotic powers are those powers that elites are empowered to take without routine, institutionalised negotiation with civil society groups. Infrastructural powers of the state, on the other hand, are those that enable the state to penetrate and centrally coordinate civil society. There are similarities here with the Foucauldian concept of ‘power through’ (as opposed to ‘power over’), whereby state power is not merely a matter of ‘a right of seizure’, of ‘things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself’ (Foucault, 1976: 136), but is understood as a complex disciplinary process that acts through the social body to organise and generate its force. At the heart of Foucault’s concept of biopower, we find a commentary on the proliferation, as capitalism develops in the 18th century, of forms of power that are productive, rather than power which is derived solely from ‘the right of seizure’. In a famous passage in the History of Sexuality, Volume 1, he begins to outline: ‘a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them’ (Foucault, 1976: 136). If the despotic capacities of power rely upon the right to seizure, then infrastructural capacities rely upon the right to produce.

This dual movement of state power – its despotic-controlling dimension or its right of seizure, and its infrastructural-enabling dimension or right to produce – provide us with a starting point for thinking about the regulation of markets and of the regulation of the key players in capitalist markets. It is important to note that either from a Gramscian/Marxist, or from a Foucauldian perspective, the distinctions we are drawing here are not strictly delineated. There is no clear dualism or apparent contradiction at the heart of the regulatory mix. The right of seizure and the right to produce are intimately connected; their relationship is dialectical, rather than purely binary.

This dialectical relation is visible in the distinctions that more critical scholars make between a process of ‘policing’ (the ways that police agencies and their representatives act to uphold a particular order (Neocleous, 2000) and ‘regulation’ (the ways that states intervene to guarantee market outcomes) are always, to some extent, about preserving stability in capitalist regimes of accumulation (Harcourt, 2011). This is not to say that ‘policing’ and ‘regulation’ are always directed at protecting elite interests. There is no viable ‘conspiracy’ theory of law, yet the effect of ‘policing’ and ‘regulation’ is always that it privileges some groups over others, and means some groups are over-policed and over-penalised (Coleman et al, 2009). Policing in all capitalist jurisdictions is sexist and racist, albeit to varying degrees. But at the same time, this is not to say that the purpose of ‘policing’ and ‘regulation’ is to directly intervene to protect a narrow set of interests. The state can sustain gendered and racialised forms of power merely by doing police work: by policing some forms of conduct and ignoring other forms of conduct (Vitale, 2017). Sometimes this is done with reference to law, but more often it is done as part of the routinised day-to-day practice of police work (Hall et al, 1978). The purpose of ‘policing’ and ‘regulation’ is, at its most basic level, reducible to a principle of maintaining the wider social order (as distinguished from the ‘public order’ or ‘law and order’ (Sim et al, 1987). In the context of capitalism, this means ensuring the integrity of the key institutions in capitalist state apparatuses, just as it means keeping social hierarchies in their place.

Policing and regulatory agencies have one overarching goal in common: they generally seek to maintain a stable and uninterrupted system of production, distribution and consumption. Scholars who adopt a dialectical approach to policing/regulation explicitly acknowledge the contradictory dynamics of the regulatory process; policing/regulation is a contradictory regulatory mix of policies. A range of scholars from different perspectives stress that the outcome of the totality of the regulatory process is to protect the basic hierarchy and therefore reproduce the existing social order (Aglietta, 2000; Haines, 2011; Bittle and Stinson, 2019). There is a system-preserving dynamic in capitalist regulatory regimes that sets limits on despotic-controlling types of intervention (Tombs and Whyte, 2014; Khoury and Whyte, 2021). Those limits are not always clearly visible, and they are always riven with contradiction and often produce unexpected outcomes. Yet the overbearing force of the political outcomes of regulation in capitalist social orders (in the form of court decisions, domestic political processes, the deliberations of international financial institutions and institutions of governance) is based on a deceptively unitary logic. This logic proposes that the market must be constrained to prevent social and environmental harms. However, such constraints can only be imposed in ways that are ultimately system-preserving. In capitalist social orders, the system that must be preserved is the system of capital accumulation. Of course, occasionally, some powerful individuals and institutions may be punished or banned from doing particular things at particular times. But even in cases where states intervene to protect the environment, those interventions are rarely allowed to seriously disrupt regimes of profit accumulation.

Look, for example, at how the most deadly forms of pollutant are produced under the conditions of a set of controls or limits agreed with a regulatory authority. As well as being responsible for controlling pollution and ensuring air and water quality is protected, the UK environment agency also issues 14,000 pollution licences every year. The holders of those licences are permitted to produce waste, or to discharge substances into the air or into waterways. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of the regulatory process. This assertion of the right to produce means that corporations are at the same time licenced to pollute, albeit within government-defined limits (Whyte, 2018).

When it comes to the subject of this paper, the things that governments do to control markets and to control corporations are not merely about the task of trying to control the spread of disease. The process of regulation also gives corporations permission to engage in risky activities that might also greatly expand the prospects for releasing or spreading deadly diseases. They must, of course, do this within certain limits, since the spread of a deadly disease not only threatens human life and therefore the capacity to protect the health of the population, but also threatens the capacity of the systems that enable all of society’s functions to carry on as normal. The spread of a deadly disease threatens the social capacity for capital accumulation. This means that pandemics threaten the general interests (the general health of entire economies) as well as the specific interests (particular sectors and particular corporations) of capital. As we shall see, this much is obvious in the current pandemic.

Regulation is a process that acts as a necessary control on the self-destructive tendencies of unchecked market activity. We see this principle in action at every moment of economic crisis when states intervene to bail-out banks, ensure the liquidity of markets, impose capital controls and so on. And we saw this principle in action in most advanced capitalist states’ response to SARS-CoV-19. The various forms of wage guarantor schemes, of government-backed loan schemes, suspension of some requirements (such as business taxes or some reporting requirements), and direct bail-out payments, amounted to substantially larger expenditure than the response to the 2008 crash – in the developed world, six times the value of the post 2008 bail-outs (UNCTAD, 2020). While much of this financial commitment was welcomed across the political spectrum in the Global North, because the aim appeared to be the protection of jobs, markets and the prevention of the worst economic fallout, in reality those reforms were primarily directed at preserving the integrity of corporations. Emergency loans at low interest rates were provided to profit-making corporations on a scale that more than matched the 2008 bailouts. ‘Furlough’ and wage offsets were paid directly to corporate payroll departments, who took key decisions about the distribution of those funds. Unprecedented ‘blank check’ deals were done with big Pharma, with logistics and with medical firms in the scramble for specialist personal protective equipment (PPE), treatments, testing and vaccines. Put simply, the system of economic ‘stimulus’ was, at the same time, a system of life support for profit-making corporations.

But this response is merely an intensification of the everyday, routine politics of regulation. Outside the immediate conditions and requirements of crises, states play a much more expansive ‘regulatory’ role that enables corporations to survive and thrive. States establish all of the complex rules that allow markets to exist (laws of contract and property, the rules that govern labour markets and commodity markets, and so on). States establish transport and communication infrastructures, organise diplomatic relationships with other states to enhance opportunities for import, export and investment, and set the rules for taxation and liability that provide major commercial advantages to corporate investors and financiers.

This ‘system-preserving’ dynamic of regulation is brought into relief most sharply when we consider the point at which regulatory controls intervene in the industrial cycle. In most capitalist states, there is a tendency for industrial processes to be controlled at the endpoint. That is to say, the greatest effort that is spent controlling greenhouse gases, poisonous substances, and harmful waste products happens at the end of the line of production, the point at which harmful production processes are already underway.

The start point in a production process is the point at which the primary or raw materials are extracted in their natural state, or the point at which raw materials are made into something else. The start point of fossil fuel production is the moment of extraction of coal, oil and gas from the earth; the start point of wood production is the planting and harvesting of forests; and the start point of agriculture is the preparation of land and of other raw materials (seed, feed and so on) to cultivate plants or reproduce livestock. In other (secondary) industrial processes, we can say that the ‘start point’ is similarly the point at which materials are deployed as part of a labour process which makes things. In chemicals, this means the processing of substances that are synthetically produced to synthetically produce other things; in paper production, this means using wood pulp derived from the harvesting of forests.

Environmental regulatory controls in all of those industries tend to be imposed at the very endpoint in the life cycle of their products. Fossil fuel regulatory controls impose limits on vehicle emissions or power station emissions or the emissions of other industrial plants. Such controls tend to come at the endpoint of the process. Until very recently, calls to leave oil in the ground or to abandon coalmining have barely been taken seriously. Indeed, endpoint control is so embedded in governments’ approach to dealing with climate catastrophe, it is the dominant approach taken in the main treaties and targets that seek to reverse the crisis. Witness the recent UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 conference, the key UN body for regulating climate change. There were no concrete agreements limiting either the extraction of fossil fuels or harvesting of the major ‘carbon-sink’ forests, just vague targets that relate to the ‘responsible management’ those resources. The solutions offered tend to control of outputs not the inputs.

Yet we rarely question why we don’t control the start point. Occasionally states ban or place restrictive limits on particular substances. But generally, controls placed on even the most harmful substances are imposed at a relatively late point in the cycle of production. Those controls are what we might call ‘endpoint regulation’. To return to the earlier discussion of the regulatory mix, intervening at the start point implies the despotic-controlling dimensions of power, or the right of seizure. Intervening at the endpoint enables the more infrastructural-enabling or productive dimensions of power to flourish. Productive power in this sense, is precisely that: the power to produce.

Intervention at the endpoint of the cycle is the least intrusive for the corporate model of power. Intervening at the start point means intervening to control the extraction of raw materials, intervening to limit chemical and other industrial manufacturing processes, as well as intervening to control the financing of corporate activities. Intervening at the start point as well as the endpoint in the production cycle fundamentally changes the way things are produced and sold, and most importantly restricts the possibilities for accumulation in any given industry.

When we inquire into the influence that regulatory systems have over the emergence and spread of viruses, then we need to ask core questions about how particular regimes of regulation have influenced the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-19. First, we should ask, is the tendency of the regulatory mix to produce controlling (based on the right of seizure) or enabling (based on the right to produce) outcomes? And how do we analyse this crisis in terms of ‘start-point’ and ‘end-point’ approaches to regulation. In the commentary below, the answers to those questions are sketched across four distinct stages in this pathology of accumulation.

Four stages in a pathology of accumulation

The moment of release (in predatory practices of agricultural development)

The process that biologists call ‘zoonotic spillover’ begins with interactions between the host carrier or reservoir species, and other species. For novel pathogens like SARS-CoV-19 to emerge, they must make the ‘leap’ from one species to another in a process of genetic drift or mutation. Some pathogens can be transmitted directly to humans; some need to make a ‘leap’ between another intermediate animal in order to mutate into a form that can infect humans. This process of mutation is generally necessary in novel pathogens: those diseases that have never previously affected the human species. This is the process that scientists believe happened in the case of SARS-CoV-19: that wild animals, perhaps bats or pangolins, were the reservoir for the virus, before it mutated and entered the human reservoir (Mallapaty, 2021).

This moment of release, which occurs when non-human hosts carrying novel pathogens come into contact with the human species, is generally the moment at which the industrial development of wilderness environments occur. Let us qualify this slightly. There are human societies that have existed in the same ‘wilderness’ environments for millennia. However, wilderness societies (typically characterised as those non-industrialised societies that exist in biodiverse areas) have evolved different types of natural boundaries within their environments which ensure that those biodiverse systems are kept intact (Kovel, 2002). Viral reservoirs in societies that are not commodified or developed for capitalist industry are relatively self-contained. The process of deforestation is very often the moment that humans come into contact with novel pathogens for the first time. Industrial development for timber production, for meat production, for bulk feed such as soya and for biofuels, are the main drivers of deforestation. When forest wildernesses are developed for those purposes, this is when both human and intermediate species come into contact with the reservoirs of novel pathogens. It is agricultural development, therefore, that drives the conditions that lead to the release of viruses like SARS-CoV-19. The moment of release is the moment of industrial development.

Regulatory systems that protect forestry tend to consist of highly complex and contradictory networks of voluntary standards underpinned by national regulation. In general, national permit systems encourage development at a particular pace; such systems are used to meet commitments set out in international agreements. The core regulatory issue for the states that manage forest areas that remain undeveloped is whether they are defined as ‘off limits’ for development, or, if not, how the regulatory system will determine the pace of development. Of course this changes over time, depending on the political economy that shapes the regulatory approach.

International agreements on forest management are voluntary (there are around ten, but there is no international treaty dedicated to the regulation of forests). In the major climate agreements, there is a glaring absence of binding rules to protect forests. There is no direct reference to jurisdiction over the forests that are major carbon sinks in the 2015 Paris Agreement, nor an enforceable system of regulation to ensure nations protect the biodiversity of their forests. The Amazon rainforest, for example, is protected by the various national regulatory arrangements. There is an international agreement signed by seven Amazon nations, but this is limited to coordinating response to forest fires, satellite monitoring, education and voluntary reforestation projects. Each nation has its own regulatory regime.

The largest jurisdiction with Amazon rainforest within its borders, Brazil, has like many other states hosting important areas of biodiversity, a Forest Code. This is the key regulatory instrument and requires landowners in the Amazon to maintain 35 to 80 percent of their property under native vegetation. Farmers can be permitted to buy land in the Amazon to develop, but they can only farm 20 percent of it. The problem is enforcement. The burning of the Amazon in August 2019 was a moment at which the regulatory system was exposed. Under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian environmental protection regulator IBAMA has had its budget slashed to the point that it is no longer credible as a law enforcement agency (Barlow and Lees, 2019). The agency is unable to process fines and penalties for unlicensed loggers (Spring, 2021). Even at pre-Bolsonaro levels of funding, the regulation of the Amazon had been an impossible task due to a lack of both enforcement powers and the capacity to enforce. On one hand, then, it might be said that this regulatory system represents a clear case of state ‘rollback’. However, environmental destruction on this level is not possible without the state actively permitting it, either informally or secretly. As Bolsonaro frenetically briefed against the G8 governments threatening trade sanctions in response to Brazil’s ‘inaction’, an internal Brazilian government powerpoint presentation was leaked to democraciaAbierta. This presentation revealed the Bolsonaro’s government’s planned strategy of using hate speech to isolate minorities of the Amazon, asserting that ‘a strong government presence in the Amazon region is important to prevent any conservation projects from taking roots’ (Libardi, 2019). Apparently, a great deal of intervention was being done to make sure that the Amazonian rainforest was not protected! Even in the remotest parts of the Brazilian Amazon, it is not the presence or absence of government authority that is decisive, but the type of presence the state adopts.

Of course, there are further layers of complexity. It is too simple to blame the lack of stewardship of the Amazon and other major carbon sinks on a failure of national or local forms of regulation. There are powerful global regulatory forces that are not only irresistible in terms of the drive for uneven industrial development in the Global South, but also ‘progressive’, ‘green’ forces that impose so-called sustainable crops as part of a process of ‘reforestation’. So crops in biofuels and renewable wood – largely monocultural – are fundamentally destructive: they destroy local biosystems making replanted areas environmentally unsustainable and unstable, as well as destroying locally sustainable ways of life for the people that live in the Amazon.

In summary, this section has noted that ‘wilderness’ areas that are targeted for industrial agriculture (both for ‘deforestation’ and ostensibly ‘green’ forms of ‘reforestation’) are subjected to regulatory intervention that has failed to prevent development at a very fast pace indeed. Although the risks of zoonotic spill are growing, and the likelihood is that future pathogens will be more virulent and more deadly, the protection of the wilderness and the prevention of development is not contemplated in international policy fora as a viable strategy of preventing future, more deadly, zoonotic pathogens being released.

The moment of deforestation/reforestation in which capital sacrifices biosystems that have existed for millennia is the moment at which the human species faces a dual threat: the threat of ecocide which faces all animal species now, and the threat of zoonotic pathogens emerging from the wilderness. And yet, there is no serious discussion at an international level of tightening control over or limiting the development of wilderness forests as a means of controlling the chances of zoonotic pathogens emerging. Proposals to do so are similarly absent in climate change debates; there was no agreement to extend international protections to protecting forest wildernesses at COP 26. Rather, the form that regulation takes has the effect of ensuring continual development and reforestation for industrial agriculture. Indeed, the global rate of deforestation in 2020 was the highest in a decade (Silva Junior et al, 2021).

The moment of amplification (in the upscaling of industrial farming)

Much has been made of the complicity of the so-called ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, which sold a range of wild animal meats, sometimes alive, that may have been carriers of the virus. This is possible, of course. However, even if this were the case, the virus still needs conditions to mutate progressively though different species: it needs the conditions to make a zoonotic ‘leap’. Once wild animals carrying those pathogens are displaced, the pathogens then need to maximise the opportunity to leap from one species to another – markets can be sites of viral mutation, but it is industrial-scale farming that vastly increases the chances of a virus mutating into a form that can make the leap (Wallace, 2016). This is not an easy process. It requires multiple mutations before a mutation capable of making the leap evolves. There is a very simple principle at work here: the higher the concentration of animals that are carrying the virus, and acting as a reservoir, the more rapid the spread of mutation. And if those concentrated reservoirs are in regular contact with humans, then the greater the chance of making the leap to humans. There are some very big animal markets, but this issue of scale has become much more significant in the sphere of industrial animal production. Of course, it is possible that this process was short-circuited by the Wuhan lab. Yet, this seems unlikely (Maxmen and Mallapaty, 2021). Yet, this would be exceedingly rare, and certainly not the normal path of development for such novel pathogens.

H5N1, or avian (bird) flu emerged directly as a result of large-scale poultry farming. And in intensive poultry facilities today, there are frequent outbreaks of a virus that was in the poultry reservoir but almost nonexistent 25 years ago, because it did not have fertile conditions in which to spread (Greger, 2006). H1N1, or swine flu, which in 2009 was the first worldwide flu pandemic in 40 years, spread precisely because pigs are in many ways ideal ‘missing vessels’ for flu viruses, and factory farming, again, provides the perfect conditions for mutation and spread (Wiebers and Feigin, 2020).

In those spaces of industrial factory farming, the chances of a zoonotic virus making the leap is amplified. And the evidence is that much more than the existence of ‘wet markets’, or the sale and distribution of wild animals per se, industrial farming has been the decisive factor in previous zoonotic leaps of this nature ‘across multiple animal orders’ (Wallace, 2016: 243).

As a general rule, the dominant work of food industry regulators is to guarantee a range of limited outcomes on environmental, animal welfare and food standards, and not to intervene in ways that might hamper the growth of the industry. Regulators do set limits relating to hygiene, animal welfare and food quality standards (see Tombs, 2016). And environmental regulators set standards for the disposal of waste at abattoirs, given their major impact on water and air quality (this is the major focus of regulation in the US system). Yet regulators do not place limits on the growth and structure of the industry itself, even though it is those structural features that are driving major problems for the control of pollution, animal welfare and food standards in virtually every jurisdiction. In other words, the dominant focus of regulation is on ensuring outcomes at the endpoint of the production process. As I have noted in this section, it is the upscaling of industrial animal farming that has immeasurably enhanced the conditions for the zoonotic leap of toxic and deadly diseases, and yet the main thrust of regulatory systems is to guarantee the upscaling and intensification of the industrial process within particular limits.

The vast majority of the world’s meat is now produced in farms that are classed as intensive, as defined by the US standard ‘large concentrated animal feeding operations’ (CAFOs). To be classified as a large CAFO, a farm must have warehouses with more than 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs weighing more than 55lbs, 125,000 broiler chickens, or 82,000 laying hens. In global terms, CAFOs account for three-quarters of poultry, around half of egg production, and over half of all pork production. Production on this scale has been rapidly growing in recent decades. In the UK in 2001, there were no farms on this scale; now there are around 1500 large CAFOs1, and 70 percent of UK farm animals are now raised in this system. In the US, the equivalent figure is as much as 99 percent.2

Since the outbreak of SARS-CoV-19, a number of countries, perhaps most notably China, imposed severe restrictions on wet markets. There has also been a similar move to tighten restrictions on the sale and processing of wild animals in some jurisdictions. A worldwide ban on the ‘bushmeat’ industry has been proposed, but is unlikely to gain traction.

The regulatory focus on industrial animal farming has been almost exclusively on the farming of mink, animals that are bred in captivity for fur. Strains of the virus began to infect mink farms in Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. Widespread culls in those countries followed, with Denmark killing 15 million. It is in mink farms that the right of seizure has been most clearly evoked as a response to SARS-CoV-19. Mink farms are typical of animal farming: containing highly concentrated numbers of animals in one place. SARS‐CoV‐2 has been found to spread quickly in farmed mink and cause clinical disease in infected animals. It became obvious in late 2020 that mink farms were a major reservoir for the virus. As a precaution, affected mink farms in some states implemented immediate mass culling. Although China did ban the trading of wildlife for human consumption early on in the pandemic, it did not intervene to stop its mink industry, perhaps because of a lack of known outbreaks (Maron, 2021). Indeed, other countries with big mink farming industries also declined to intervene, including Finland and Russia (both decided to pursue a policy of vaccinating mink). In the US, despite major outbreaks, the Department of Agriculture refused to order a cull (Maron, 2020).

In this context of uneven regulatory response it is highly significant that no interventionist moves have been made to restructure the mink industry on a global basis. Some countries, like Denmark, have begun to phase out production. But there is no attempt to change the basic structure of this hugely upscaled industry in countries where it survives. Some other European countries do plan to ban or phase out mink farming but, with the exception of Denmark, those are not countries with large industries, and they are not the countries that suffered the major COVID-19 outbreaks (Murray, 2020). In terms of the regulatory mix, the right of seizure has been invoked with varying veracity across states. This should not be surprising, given that there were big winners in the states that did not order a widespread cull due to the Danish cull considerably increasing the market price of mink (Lun Tian and Stanway, 2000).

In summary, whereas the previous section argued that the regulation of industrial agriculture has failed to prevent development at a very fast pace indeed, we can modify this argument in the context of intensive models of animal farming. The forms of regulation that are adopted encourage the fast development of intensive farming, precisely because they do not import limits on the structure, form or scale of the industry. Endpoint forms of regulation seek to ameliorate a series of delineated threats in isolation from the broader industrial dynamic that produces those threats. The SARS‐CoV‐2 epidemic may have closed down some selective forms of animal farming in some states, but it has not provided the conditions for a wholesale review of how we regulate and control industrial animal farming.

The moment of spread (in sites of social concentration)

Once the pathogen has made the leap to a form that can be infectious to humans, there are a number of factors associated with its transmission in human populations. Public discussion on the spread of the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic has focused on the way that international and intra-national travel aided the spread. There is a lot to be said about how air travel in particular aided the spread of the disease. However, one point that has been largely missed in such debates is the evidence that the rate of spread by air travel is perhaps between six and twenty times higher in Western contexts (Europe, North America) than Eastern (China, India, Japan, Korea; George, 2020). This point immediately directs us to understanding the elevated significance of spread in the advanced capitalist states of the Global North.

Although international travel – particularly air travel – is clearly significant to the spread between locations, and this can undoubtedly be controlled by limiting the availability of flights, at the same time there is a feature of pathogens like SARS-CoV-19 which makes them almost impossible to control simply by closing borders or banning air travel for a period of time. An important feature of this disease is that it is often undetectable: there has been a high frequency of asymptomatic cases. Moreover, even in the case of long-haul flights, travel times can be much shorter than the incubation period of infectious diseases. This means that although there may be some prospects for slowing the spread (Chad et al, 2020), the value of aviation travel controls are limited in the tracking and control of pandemics like this (Christidis and Christodoulou, 2020).

The major factors affecting spread within populations relate to social concentrations in particular spaces and modes of everyday living: the way we travel, work, spend leisure time, buy stuff, meet and talk with each other, and so on. Once the virus is in the human pool, it finds its most fertile conditions in places where large volumes of people congregate and pass through, such as entertainment venues and public transport. Because of the way that some workplaces bring large numbers of people together for long periods of time in close proximity to each other, the workplace has been the most significant space that determined the conditions of spread in the human reservoir. While age and ethnicity were clear markers of the chances of infection above all other factors, this is underpinned by evidence that occupational group also marked out some very clear difference in exposure rates (see Holst et al, 2021; Sim and Tombs, 2022). In the US, the highest rates of infection were unsurprisingly found in the health and care sector, closely followed by drivers and transport workers (Rafeemanesh et al, 2020). The UK’s Office for National Statistics has noted that those caring personal service occupations, protective service occupations, teaching and other education professionals were the most likely to become infected.3 Other key groups were frontline services workers (O’Neill, 2020), cleaning and domestic workers (Sönmez et al, 2020; Rosemberg, 2020), agricultural workers (Flocks, 2020), and of course the warehouse and delivery workers that sustained the door-to-door distribution of goods. For all of the reasons outlined in the previous section, meat-processing plants act as reservoirs for pathogens. Indeed, exposure to those pathogens is a major danger to the health and safety of both abattoir and meat-packing workers (Wiebers and Feigin, 2020). It was no surprise, then, to see regular major outbreaks in meat-industry plants (Middleton et al, 2020).

There is a complex set of reasons that can explain what made some workplaces key sites of infection. Those reasons are not very different from the way that we can explain all occupational diseases. A complex political economy that shapes the safety of all workplaces (Tombs and Whyte, 2007). Perhaps most important element of this political economy is the collective power of workers and the leverage that workers have to secure regulatory protections. Although there was a spate of wildcat strikes across the UK in response to unsafe work relating to SARS-CoV-19 – largely in building sites and warehouses – in general, workers were unable to resist being exposed to unsafe work. The PPE crisis, described in detail by Sim and Tombs (2022), meant workers faced unnecessary risks, especially those who were forced to continue working in closely-packed spaces like factories, warehouses and call centres (Polomarkakis, 2020; Taylor, 2020). The exposure to SARS-CoV-19 in the workplace is highly racialised, since many of the most ‘at risk’ jobs are done by black workers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds (Saitone et al, 2021).

We should pause here to reflect on one observation: that across nation states there were considerable variations in the timing and the terms of the lockdown, often past the point that state agencies were clearly aware of the dangers (OECD, 2021). Those decisions were based upon a judgment of both the economic and health impacts of lockdown measures. In the UK, this delay might have doubled the number of deaths experienced in the first lockdown (Sim and Tombs, 2022). And if we look at the cause of delays – the rationale for taking the decision to lockdown to the last possible moment – it was, almost universally, the need to keep economies going (for a summary of this policy rationale, see Karnon, 2020). Primarily, it was to keep (some) people working. This rationale certainly dominated lockdown policy in the UK throughout the crisis. In a hugely important analysis of the regulation of UK workplaces, journalist and trade unionist Caroline Molloy (2020a) noted that:

Men in low-paid occupations like elementary construction workers, on assembly lines, and working as security guards, cleaners and bus drivers, are dying at far higher rates than their managers and professional men….

The reason was, she argued, that the UK Government deliberately omitted to lay out a strict definition of what constituted a ‘key’ worker. And by doing so, they allowed employers to retain autonomy over the definition of key workers, within very broadly defined parameters. Thus, when the Government gave exemptions to key workers to continue working during the lockdown, those exemptions were up to employers to define. As Molloy further noted:

Indeed, the guidance said it was important for business to carry on, only shops and leisure facilities were closed. All other businesses, from offices to construction sites to factories, were allowed to continue to operate, and – with decisions about furloughing also left entirely at employers’ discretion – many did. (Molloy, 2020a)

The outcome of those regulatory requirements was that a silent, largely casualised, majority of low-paid workers were effectively forced to continue working ‘at work’ (Molloy, 2020b).

So what was the regulatory response to those outbreaks and to the clear evidence that the workplaces were major sites of infection? In the UK, a team of researchers and experts set up by the think tank, the Institute of Employment Rights, found a wholesale failure to enforce basic laws to protect workers, to provide a legal minimum of PPE, and to enforce social distancing and ventilation standards. The UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, withdrew from workplace inspections, drastically reduced prosecutions and enforcement action, and outsourced all regulatory checks to private providers who were not empowered to take any action (James et al, 2021). A Reuters investigation of the role played by the US Occupational Safety and Health Authority found a similar failure to investigate worker complaints adequately, and a failure to inspect and investigate.4 To varying degrees, similar forms of regulatory disengagement were apparent across European nation states (Polomarkakis, 2020).

It would be wrong, though, to argue that those are simply regulatory ‘failures’. If the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of workplace safety regimes across advanced capitalist states, it has also served to illustrate the fundamental character of regulation highlighted earlier in this paper: that the despotic-controlling dimensions of safety regulation and its infrastructural-enabling dimensions are part of the same regulatory mix. As part of this regulatory mix, the coercive capacities of the state to intervene and protect workers have been weakened, suspended and in some cases, withdrawn precisely because the regulatory priority was to keep core businesses running and accumulating. In order to achieve this goal, the dominant mode of workplace intervention sought to keep the autonomy of employers intact (limited ‘stay at home’ policies and furlough schemes) while PPE, social distancing, and ventilation laws and regulations were left unenforced. The outcome of this regulatory mix has been the securing of regimes of accumulation; and the cost of preserving accumulation has been the tolerance of the workplace as a key site of infection. In this pathology of accumulation the workplace, quite literally, became a zone of sacrifice for particular groups of workers (Carrillo and Ipsen, 2021). Thus, the SARS-CoV-19 epidemic sacrificed workers to maintain production in key sectors (transport, distribution of goods, factory production, agricultural production and so on).

The moment of ‘medical intervention’ (in the commodification of testing and vaccination)

If this sacrificial mode of regulation brought some deadly inequalities to the surface of labour markets, the regulatory regime governing the major medical responses to the virus (testing, tracking and tracing) similarly exposed the necropolitics of state intervention.

There are important observations to be made in relation to the regulation of testing and treatment, not least the unprecedented transfer of public wealth into private hands (for investigative accounts, see Brooks, 2021; and Bright et al, 2021). In those accounts it was been revealed that of the first £17.3 billion ‘COVID-19 contracts’ (largely for PPE) issued by the government, £17.1 billion was awarded with no competition, of which at least £1 billion worth were awarded to Conservative Party donors, and millions more benefited former government ministers and friends of current government ministers. In this context, the conclusion that there is a highly corrupt pathology of accumulation at this stage is unavoidable.

Whether it is described as corrupt or not, this virulent pathology of accumulation also shaped the development and production of the vaccines. Until this virus came along, it was much more profitable to keep people with chronic conditions ill than to actually cure them. In 2019, sales of just four ‘treatment’ drugs (Humira, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis; Keytruda, the cancer treatment; Revlimid, used to treat multiple myeloma; and Opdivo, also a cancer treatment) matched the total volume of sales from vaccines. The SARS-CoV-19 vaccine has turned the industry upside down.

The reason the COVID-19 vaccines arrived at such warp speed is that the risk model was completely overhauled: the normal risks associated with vaccine development were almost completely removed from investors. There are three significant observations to be made here.

First, research and development, combined with direct subsidies, were mobilised on an unprecedented scale. The Moderna vaccine was co-developed between the company and US government scientists working for the National Institute of Health (NIH). Yet, despite this being widely recognised as a collaborative effort, the US government will apparently allow their share of the profits to go to Moderna. The AstraZeneca vaccine was famously developed by Oxford University scientists at the Jenner Institute and the Oxford Vaccines Group. Following a decade of public funding that ensured ‘all the pieces were in place to develop a novel vaccine at speed’ (UKRI, 2021) the UK government granted an £84 million subsidy in May 2020,5 and followed this with a £20 million grant to speed up the clinical trials in December 2020.6 The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received a €100 million development loan from the European Investment Bank, and a €365 million grant from the German government, to subsidise manufacturing.7 The model did not do anything new, but simply made visible the vast system of public subsidy that is always present to some extent. Yet perhaps the most significant subsidy to those companies remains hidden. This subsidy is in regulatory processes that pool common knowledge around scientific problems, and always provide the foundations for the development of any drug or vaccine. Universities provide trained scientists, a foundation of knowledge that has been built up over hundreds of years. It is in universities that the rules for clinical research are developed, and it is university researchers who establish the system of peer review and publish results in academic journals. Universities make the largest social contribution to verifying and disseminating scientific breakthroughs.

Second, governments used public money to place the biggest drug advance orders in history and remove all market risk from future sales. In December 2020, analysts from Bernstein estimated total vaccine sales during 2021 would be worth $38 billion. This level is projected to rise four to five times that level in 2022 (Masters, 2021). COVAX, the international public-private partnership set up to assist in the production of necessary vaccines on a global scale has brought together $3–$6 billion in donations to stimulate distribution of the vaccine in the Global South (Marriott and Maitland, 2021).

Third, in many jurisdictions, the liability for any problems that might arise from the development of the vaccines was passed from corporations themselves to taxpayers (Meyer, 2021).8 In the US, the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act was invoked to facilitate the transfer of this burden.

This process of redistribution is a direct result of the twin aims shared across all jurisdictions in which the vaccine is developed and produced: to speed up production without disturbing the regime of accumulation in pharmaceuticals. The effect has been to strengthen the oligopoly of the sector and the exceptional profits that result from this oligopoly (Corporate Watch, 2021).

Towards the end of 2021, Pfizer was reporting sales of €36 billion for its vaccine, with a percentage profit margin in the high 20s, and Moderna was reporting $6.4 billion in sales with profit margins as high as 64 percent (Masters, 2021; Solomon, 2021). AstraZeneca made a commitment not to take any profits ‘during the pandemic’; it has now begun to sign for-profit agreements for supplies of its vaccine (Espiner, 2021).

Despite early calls for all patents for the vaccines to be waived, and despite universal public support, there has been excruciatingly slow progress on securing universal access to vaccine knowledge and technology. Early on, a patent waiver was proposed and aggressively resisted by governments, Big Pharma of course, and famously by philanthropists like Bill Gates, who subsidised part of the vaccine development via COVAX. In a rare moment of public honesty, the Big Pharma lobbyists in Washington openly argued against World Trade Organization (WTO) patent waivers for US vaccines, on the basis that this would mean sacrificing commercial advantages to rivals in India, China and Russia (Kuchler and Williams, 2021). If the ostensive function of the global regulatory regime, expressed though WTO patent rule, and public-private partnerships such as COVEX and GAVI, is to provide greater access to vaccines, it may have partially achieved that. The achievement of this regime, however, has been to simultaneously reproduce vaccine inequality and sustain unprecedented vaccine profits. At the earliest stages of the development of the vaccine, we knew that the Global North’s virtual monopoly over the pharmaceutical industry would set the pattern for a deepening of North/South inequalities, measured both in survival rates and in economic exploitation. But can it be said that the grossly uneven distribution of the vaccines is a ‘failure’ when it reflects the order of necropolitics that is deliberately planned and executed, and is in many ways more racialised than ever before (Mbembe, 2019)?

This regulatory regime can be said to be successful insofar as it has prompted an unprecedented single-purpose investment by public-private finance in the Global North’s pharmaceutical industry. Yet the enduring effect of this regulatory regime has been to guarantee a pathology of accumulation: it has opened up a huge – if uneven – global market in vaccines with an artificially high profit margin, set at perhaps five times the price it cost to produce them (Marriott and Maitland, 2021). In this context, the regulatory mix results not only in a balance towards the ‘right to produce’, but also in the complete obliteration of the ‘right of seizure’, with the latter represented by the movement to reappropriate all patents and profits.

Conclusion

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one overriding regulatory principle has shaped the entirety of the global political establishment’s response to the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic: to preserve the socioeconomic status quo. This has ultimately been the outcome, even where it is clear that the socioeconomic status quo is the source and the cause of the pandemic itself. Indeed, it is clear that the commanding position of the economic elite in the Global North has been consolidated by the pathologies of accumulation described here. The pandemic has been a source of necro-empowerment for this elite (Valencia, 2018).

The response of Global North states to this pandemic provides us with an example of ‘end-point’ regulation par excellence. Despite the pandemic emerging and spreading through a complex series of industrial processes, it can only be controlled in the final stage: the stage of medical intervention. There is currently no serious debate about the regulation of land seizure, industrial agriculture, and large-scale animal production, or indeed the labour process more generally, in ways that might seriously limit the emergence of viral pathogens from the zoonotic swamp. Indeed, the greatest effort on the part of states to respond to SARS-CoV-19 – the vaccine programme – enables capitalist regulation’s most basic purpose to be met. This is the perfect regulatory response that allowed the virus to be mitigated while ensuring a stable and uninterrupted system of production, distribution and consumption.

As we get ‘saved’ by ‘end-point’ regulation, we should note that the sale and the speed of delivery of the vaccines was unimaginable before the crisis. And that this came on the back of an unprecedented mobilisation of Global North economies around what are by far the largest wage subsidy and corporate subsidy schemes in history. Those economies were mobilised on a scale that has only been imagined during wars; the level of public expenditure in the richest economies during 2020 and 2021 is only really comparable to a war economy. This is hugely significant for how we think about the longer-term sustainability. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, Andreas Malm argues that in order to have any chance of saving the planet, we need to put the economy on a war footing (Malm, 2020). And maybe the development of the vaccines gave us a glimpse of what is possible as well as what is necessary. But what would it mean if the regulatory regime was directed in ways that had a chance of controlling the virus? In ways that 1) controlled forestation and deforestation; 2) in ways that returned food production to a locally-owned and locally-controlled model; 3) in ways that protected the workplace and provided workers with collective rights to safe working; and 4) in ways that allow medical responses to be a last resort, rather than the only resort to the viral crises of capitalism.

There is a lot to play for, and a lot of unwritten histories still to be written. One thing is safely predictable, however. If we don’t deal with the root causes of the problem, and simply continue to reproduce the same uncontrolled conditions of capitalist development and industrial farming, then we will keep being exposed to more and more deadly pandemics long after we have learned to live with this one.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Corporate Watch team who worked on the project Vaccination Capitalism, which shaped some of the ideas set out here. Special thanks go to Heledd, Dariush, Sophie and Richard.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 Queen Mary University of London, , UK

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