Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed millions of lives, plunged the world economy into a deep crisis, and laid bare the contradictions and injustices that have resulted from a decade of austerity, privatisation and financialisation. Events of such epochal significance often invite comparisons with the past, and with regards to the circumstances in which it emerged and the economic and social disruption which it has caused, COVID-19 can be compared to the Black Death which swept Europe, Asia and North Africa from 1347 to 1351, killing a third of Europe’s population. This article will examine how the devastating spread of both COVID-19 and the Black Death was catalysed by ecological conditions in which disease flourished, analysing how both diseases profoundly altered the economic systems that had given rise to them, and how in both cases, elites sought to protect their precarious positions by utilising coercive State control over dissident populations.
The System Grinds to a Halt
Both the Black Death and COVID-19 exposed the flaws in the global, interconnected systems of trade and commerce from which they emerged. The Pax Mongolica, which followed the Mongol conquests of Eurasia and ensured relatively peaceful commerce and communication between West and East, would eventually introduce the plague into Europe. Historian William MacNeill writes that Pax Mongolica had “created a territorially vast human web that linked the Mongol headquarters at Karakorum with Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga, with Caffa in the Crimea, with Khanbaliq in China and with innumerable other caravanserais in between.” Pax Mongolica lowered the transactional and protective costs of overland trade, guaranteeing the safety of merchants to travel in the regions controlled by the Mongols, and ensuring that Western countries gained commercial and territorial concessions. The free exchange of goods, ideas and technologies from the Far East to Europe also aided the specialisation of the Italian City States, who expanded their trade in the Black Sea region as a result of Mongolian protection.
However, the spread of the Black Death followed the aforementioned period of sustained urban and commercial growth, significantly accelerated by an ecological breakdown. A group of Norwegian and Swiss researchers discovered a causal link between warm springs and wet summers in the Karakoram mountain ranges on the borders of China and India and the outbreak of the Black Death, as plague-carrying rodents had fled, forcing fleas to latch onto new hosts. The same system which saw Mongol domination over trade routes in Eurasia and the Silk Road, exchanging goods, raw materials and men, soon became the vector for this deadly bacterial infection, as it spread from Central Asia to Europe, introduced to Europe by Genoese merchants from their trading port in Caffa in the Black Sea during 1347. It is estimated that in the next three years, 20 million Europeans died from the Black Death, in addition to 60 million Chinese people.
COVID-19 too has emerged from a system of global markets and exchange of information, technology and people, driven by ecological conditions conducive to transferring diseases from animals to humans. Rob Wallace and others argue that: “the entirety of the production line is organised around practices that accelerate the evolution of pathogen virulence and subsequent transmission.” The character of the modern agribusiness system, replete with monocultures and methods of cutting costs that result in multiple livestock species congregating in the same place, such as in a wet market in Wuhan, creates a fertile breeding ground for viruses. The swine and bird influenza outbreaks also had their origins in this agricultural system. Thomas Gillespie, a professor in Emory University’s department of environmental sciences, told The Guardian that “Wet markets make a perfect storm for cross-species transmission of pathogens,” adding: “Whenever you have novel interactions with a range of species in one place, whether that is in a natural environment like a forest or a wet market, you can have a spillover event.”
Moreover, the “just in time” supply chains that govern food production, with production calculated to meet market demand rather than human need, crashed in the aftermath of COVID-19. Demand shocks led to price hikes and shortages, and lockdowns severely hampered global supply chains, making the logistics for transporting grain supplies extremely difficult. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Georgia were forced to throw away thousands of gallons of milk, and in Florida, vegetable farmers were forced to abandon fields of harvest-ready produce owing to the acceleration of an acute crisis of overproduction. As with the Black Death and feudalism, COVID-19 did not cause the crises of capitalism, but came into being partly as a consequence of them, demonstrating the volatility and uncertainty of global capitalist markets. In the cases of both the Black Death and COVID-19, environmental conditions hastened the spread of diseases whose devastating impacts threatened to bring the existing economic systems to a standstill.
The Elites Consolidate Power
The Black Death struck at the heart of the feudal mode of production, undermining the manorial system and dramatically reducing the Lords’ authority over peasants. Feudalism had been steadily declining prior to the outbreak of the plague, as a lack of virgin land to expand into, coupled with the absorption of agricultural surpluses by lords had lowered the productivity of labour and brought the system to its limits. The income of the feudal aristocracy is estimated to have fallen by over 20% between 1347 and 1353. The plague acted as a powerful external shock to the system, engendering cataclysmic changes in the economy and increasing the autonomy, productivity and militancy of the peasantry. For example, owing to the dramatic decline in population that the plague caused, the amount of readily available land increased, allowing peasants to free themselves from the threat of expulsion that had once loomed over them, bargaining for higher wages and lower rents. In the century following the Black Death, rent revenue fell at rates of up to 70% throughout Europe, particularly in regions of Normandy and Flanders. In England, wages doubled over the same period.
As is currently the case in the countries reeling from the impact of COVID-19, the blows that the Black Death caused to the predominant political and economic system were followed by a frantic consolidation of power by the elites. In 1349, Edward III introduced a Statute of Labourers, a failed attempt to fix wages at their pre-plague levels, which stated: “If any...take more wages than were wont to be paid, he shall be committed to gaol.” The following year, the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced the “greed” of peasants who dared to charge extra money for their services. The punitive Poll Tax of 1377, levied in part to finance a war against France, sparked the peasants’ revolt, the memory of which echoed in the riots against the poll tax imposed by Margeret Thatcher centuries later.
While the attempts to entrench authority and quell dissent in the aftermath of the Black Death involved restricting the autonomy and competitiveness of a new class of independent peasants, the post-COVID world will likely incur the utilisation of modern technologies and bureaucracies to stifle protest and coerce labour. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the COVID crisis as a pretext to pass a controversial Parliamentary bill allowing him to rule by decree with minimal oversight, and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte awarded himself emergency powers to carry out press censorship.
Furthermore, the transformation and digitisation of work, coupled with the potential for the retrenchment of surveillance and expansion of the power of Big Tech, pose a significant threat to the freedom of a now-disposable working class. Both the Black Death and COVID-19 accelerated technological developments which constrained the power of a militant workforce. In the aftermath of the Black Death, rising labour costs saw the purchase of improved tools, machinery, fertiliser and other methods of production replacing expensive labour, as capital-intensive industries emerged, stimulating textile industries in Holland and England. The proliferation of online work and the shift away from offices in professional labour as a result of COVID could potentially give employers access to cheaper labour in overseas markets, as employees become easier to replace. This increased labour market flexibility may also be used to stifle dissent and trade union activity.
The world’s billionaires have made record profits in the aftermath of COVID-19, as Swiss Bank UBS reported that they had increased their wealth by 27.5% between April and July 2020. The collective wealth of America’s 651 billionaires increased by $1 trillion during the pandemic, according to The Institute for Policy Studies. Owing to the collapse of small businesses as a result of lockdowns and a spike in demand for online retailers like Amazon, the comparative ease with which big business could weather the storm of economic turmoil has facilitated a concentration of wealth not seen since the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed vast fortunes at the end of the 19th century. Global tech companies whose business models are predicated on accruing vast amounts of venture capital and mining consumer data, and as such depend on establishing monopolies to function, have also largely emerged unscathed. In a similar way to how the Black Death catalysed the emergence of a bureaucratic class of merchants on whom the weakened feudal monarchy became increasingly dependent, COVID-19 may propel the modern technocrats of Silicon Valley to even greater heights than are currently conceivable.
The Black Death, and the response to it by political elites, provides an instructive historical case study in how the spread of disease can radically alter the balance of power within a society, drastically revolutionising the productive forces and paving the way for radical change. The response to the Black Death by landlords and feudal aristocrats, which took the form of coercive labour controls and wage reductions, led directly to the peasants’ revolt. The aftermath of COVID-19 has already seen vast corporate payouts and a concentration of wealth alongside a marked upsurge in evictions, homelessness and extreme poverty. To prevent the emergence of ruthless State-monopoly capitalism, it is imperative to learn the lessons of history, which can provide blueprints for building a new society in the shell of the old.
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