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Review: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century

Bradley Hughes

February 8, 2021
As the pandemic spread in early 2020, many countries reacted quickly and trillions have been spent on relief efforts. Overnight the business press went from arguing for austerity to explaining how deficits and debt don’t matter. Many on the left have pointed out how this proves we can quickly transition to a green economy. In his book Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, Andreas Malm takes a less celebratory, and more enraged look at these developments. Malm’s book was published in April and he starts by asking the question: why were our ruling classes willing to do so much so quickly in the face of the pandemic, when they have refused any meaningful action on climate change? One can think of plenty of other examples of inaction. Why has nothing been done about providing a safe supply of opioids to end the tens of thousands of overdose deaths in Canada? Why has nothing been done to end the murders of Indigenous women and girls in Canada?
After reviewing numerous arguments about the similarities and differences between the disasters caused by climate change and by the Corona virus, Malm concludes that the different approaches to the two disasters are simply because rich people can avoid most of the consequences of climate change, but everyone is vulnerable to the virus. Of course, bankers and CEOs can stay tucked away in their mansions with staff to deliver their every necessity, which protects them in ways that nurses and grocery store workers cannot protect themselves. Of course, working people suffering and dying, is of little concern to the 1%, and the deaths of retired people who no longer produce profit, concerns them not at all. The problem they face however, is if too many of us get sick all at once, the hospital system can break down and no matter how much money you have, you need some doctors and nurses and open beds in the hospitals in case you get sick.
Since the book was published in April, we have seen that our politicians are even willing to risk that sort of collapse in their attempts to keep the economy healthy. No doubt the spirits of prime ministers and presidents everywhere have been lifted by the recovery of Bolsonaro, Trump and Jonhson from the virus.
Malm goes on to show that just like the climate crisis, this pandemic is a predictable consequence of capitalism. As capitalism has accelerated its destruction of wilderness so has the rate of emerging infections diseases accelerated. As mining and palm oil plantations and cattle farms destroy more and more tropical forest, more and more species are forced to flee and come in closer contact with humans. Some of their diseases can cross over into us. Malm lists Nipah, West Nile, Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS, and of course COVID-19, as diseases that have crossed from animals to humans since 1998.
COVID-19 may have come originally from bats. Bats are hosts to more viruses per species than most other mammals and they generally don’t suffer from this. Since they fly, and roost under eves and roofs, they are in a unique positions to drop saliva and guano onto us and our domestic animals. They also travel long distances and can roost in very crowded conditions, sometimes containing multiple species. Malm quotes one study that calculates that worldwide, bats are home to 3,000 coronaviruses. As long as they are out in the forest and far from us and our farm animals, they and their many viruses are of no consequence for us. MERS, SARS and COVID have all been traced to bat species. Around the world forests are being cleared for commodity production, 40% of forest loss is now due to to the production of only four things: beef, soy beans, palm oil and wood. Wood is the least destructive of these four and beef is the most. Those commodities are grown mostly in the global south and travel around the world to produce profit mostly in the global north. As long as there is money to be made by a few, the vast majority will suffer from the new plagues unleashed by capitalism.
Malm looks to the experience of War Communism during the civil war after the Russian revolution as a model to save us. He points out that many look to World War II as an inspiring model for the fight against climate change, but the drawback is that the sacrifices people made were all in aid of their respective ruling classes. Now, we need people to unite in their own interest and work together against global capital.
War Communism refers to the polices that the worker's republic adopted in desperation as the civil war, funded and supplied by the world’s imperialist powers, encircled them. In short order, the entire economy was organized in order to keep people alive, to keep factories producing, to battle disease and to win the civil war.
Similarly we are in a catastrophe that will never end as long the 1% run our economy to provide profit for themselves. As he points out, not only do we need to dismantle the fossil fuel capitalism, but we need strenuous efforts to remove C02 from the atmosphere. This is a task that makes no profit, because it produces no goods or services for sale.
The one flaw with this quick book – that I expect that the author would freely admit to – is that he cannot point to how people can get organized to make these changes. The state that enacted War Communism was initially a state built up of democratic workers councils organizing in every community and workplace. Even after the toll of the civil war ground down those councils, the resulting state still had the support of the majority of working people and was answerable to them. (Unfortunately, the state that resulted form the civil war’s destruction of workers’ democracy would turn on its own workers to create Stalinsim.)
I can see no way to create an anti-capitalist state without mass workers’ uprising around the globe. Only by workers’ seizing control of production in their own workplace and imposing their collective will to plan production across the economy can we deal with the climate crisis and the many coming pandemics. Explaining how that is possible and why it is desirable is the urgent task of socialists everywhere. This book will anger you and steel your resolve for the struggles to come.
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