For Hundreds of Years, Pandemics Have Reshaped the Way We Work

The outcomes of class conflicts throughout history have been influenced by how workers and rulers respond to pandemics. As we emerge from this pandemic, the fight for fairer work regimes is our urgent task.

The bubonic plague ravaged Europe, sending the creaking feudal system into its final death spasms. (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death, c. 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid.)

When we imagine the four horsemen of the apocalypse, we think of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death operating together to devastate human populations. But the current pandemic has shown there is a fifth rider in this malevolent troop: Work. From Singapore to Paris, COVID-19 has become entrenched in communities of precarious, low-wage workers. Unsafe working conditions and ongoing labor casualization have facilitated the spread of the virus across the world.

While we associate these conditions with the latest phase of capitalism, the interwoven dynamic of pandemics, labor regimes, and class struggle dates back seven centuries. There have been three major cycles: the Black Death hammered a stake through the heart of European feudalism in the fourteenth century; the European invasion of the Americas, with its accompanying wave of pandemics, aided in the birth of capitalism; and the last two centuries have seen a sequence of global pandemics accelerate alongside deforestation and the expansion of industrial capitalism. At every stage of this seven-hundred-year saga, the outcomes of class conflicts have been influenced by how workers and rulers respond to pandemics. The aftermath of the current crisis will be no exception.

Black Death and the End of Feudalism, 1300s to 1400s

Between 1347 and 1352 the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, sending the creaking feudal system into its final death spasms. The plague’s spectacular spread throughout Europe, where it killed at least a third of the population, and up to two-thirds in many areas, can be attributed in part to the already poor health of the region’s inhabitants. Under late feudalism, the combination of grueling agricultural labor, famine, and inter-lordly warfare led to high levels of malnutrition among European peasants, making them more susceptible to the plague when it arrived. Work, the unsung horseman, was always at hand to assist his more famous accomplices, Famine, War and Pestilence.

The subsequent demographic collapse had unexpected consequences. With labor suddenly scarce, and land plentiful, peasants in many regions found themselves in a better position to take on the power of their feudal overlords. Peasants organized collectively to free themselves from feudal obligations, conducted rent strikes, and escaped to unoccupied land, ushering in what Silvia Federici and others have described as the “Golden Age of the European Proletariat.”

While this period shouldn’t be idealized, the available evidence suggests that over the next century, both peasants and urban workers were able to demand higher wages, cheaper food, and more days off for feasting and revelry, with the gap between men and women’s wages also dropping significantly. In the wake of the Black Death, it was the workers rather than the feudal lords who had made the most of the social crisis.

In response, the European ruling classes sought to regain their dominance over labor. Demography alone did not determine the result of this conflict: these responses differed according to the balance of class forces in each region of Europe. In 1349, at the height of the bubonic plague, England introduced the “Ordinance of Labourers.” In a move that would warm Boris Johnson’s heart, the ordinance declared that wages could not exceed pre-plague levels, and all those under the age of sixty who refused to work would be imprisoned.

Due to peasant revolts, these measures failed, and it took later reforms such as the enclosure of common land in England to rob agricultural smallholders of their independence. In the Mediterranean, as the Black Death decimated the populations of Cyprus, Crete, and other sugar-growing islands, Italian sugarcane plantation owners turned to slavery to guarantee a controllable supply of labor. The Portuguese and Spanish would continue this brutal experiment in the Americas, aided in their endeavors by a new cycle of pestilence.

American Pandemics and the Birth of Capitalism, 1500s to 1700s

The biggest windfall for the European ruling classes in their fightback against labor was the invasion of the Americas. The Iberian conquests unleashed a series of rolling epidemics on Indigenous populations, including smallpox, measles, influenza, dysentery, and more. The exact population of the Americas in 1492 is a source of contention, but most current estimates assume a mortality rate of over 90 percent between 1492 and 1650, implying a total death toll of anywhere between 50 and 90 million. This cataclysmic loss of life was exacerbated by the imposition of European work regimes, which used Indigenous labor to open new silver and sugar commodity frontiers. Once again, Work, the fifth horseman, aided his accomplice Pestilence.

This demographic implosion created the same problem for the conquistadores that the feudal lords of Europe faced with the Black Death: a diminishing population who used a variety of methods to resist the labor demands placed on them. Various Guaraní leaders in the Atlantic rainforest of South America allied with Jesuit missionaries to publicize their conflict with Spanish colonists. In their denunciations, they explicitly linked exploitation in their workplaces to the spread of disease in their communities:

The Karai (Spaniards) don’t pay us for our exhaustion. What we bring from [the worksites] is fatigue; sickness is what we bring. Of our people, many frequently die on the road, others as they arrive, others stay sick forever . . .

But the missionaries were often as exploitative as the conquistadores, and many Indigenous communities in the Atlantic rainforest, the Amazon, and elsewhere chose social isolation over negotiation, retreating from colonized areas and minimizing contact with invading forces. Just as our options are limited today as we try to defend our labor rights during a pandemic, these Indigenous communities worked within the narrow range of choices available to them: some attempted to negotiate their work conditions while others refused to work at all.

The pandemics in the Americas also helped create the conditions for the transatlantic slave trade. In response to the difficulties of controlling Indigenous labor in the midst of multiple disease outbreaks, the European powers began abducting young people from the coasts of Africa. The profits from new commodity frontiers using enslaved labor in the Americas, such as sugar, cotton, and gold, were channeled back into Europe and helped kickstart the Industrial Revolution.

While there are ongoing debates about how, when, and where capitalism began, two commonly mentioned factors are the establishment of the plantation slavery system in the Americas and the growth of a market-dependent working class in England, forced into the cities by the enclosures and other events. Both these new labor regimes came about, in part, through ruling class attempts to reassert their power over rebellious workers in the wake of pandemics.

To tip the balance of forces back in their own favor, the governing classes had to create new, interlocking systems of oppression, with the “veiled slavery of the wage-earners in Europe” built on “slavery, pure and simple, in the New World,” as Karl Marx put it. While this is only one part of the story, amid the broader complexities a clear thread runs between the pandemics in Europe and the Americas, the subsequent labor conflicts in both regions, and the birth of capitalism.

But the contest between labor and capital didn’t end here. Even on the plantations, enslaved workers found ways to weaponize diseases against their oppressors. The slave trade had also enabled the transfer of new mosquito-borne illnesses to the Americas, such as malaria and yellow fever, which rapidly became endemic in the tropical zones of the Caribbean and the mainland. During the slave revolts on Saint-Domingue, the revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture used his knowledge of these diseases to overcome his French and English adversaries.

Louverture and the other black Jacobins took advantage of the differential immunity between local rebel populations and the incoming European soldiers, drawing their opponents into protracted guerrilla conflict during the rainy season. Haiti’s independence in 1804 can be attributed in large part to the success of this biological warfare. The fear of Haitian-style uprisings spreading elsewhere then played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, this was only a partial victory for the global forces of labor. During this same period, the European powers embarked on a new wave of colonization in Asia and Africa, unleashing new pandemics in the process.

Global Pandemics, Forests and Farms, 1800s to 2020

Over the last two centuries, fossil-fuel powered capitalism has fast-tracked the expansion of commodity frontiers into tropical rainforests alongside the rise of industrial-scale agriculture, with these dual developments opening a Pandora’s box of pestilence. International trade networks have then aided the transmission of these diseases between exploited and exhausted populations across the planet.

As Mike Davis has pointed out, while this process has accelerated since the Second World War, precedents for the current crisis can also be found in the wave of pandemics instigated by nineteenth-century imperialism in Asia and Africa. The British invasion of India led to the transmission of cholera around the globe after 1817, through British naval and commercial networks. This is how a disease that first proliferated on the rice fields of the Ganges delta came to provide the backdrop for Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, set on the coast of Colombia.

Similar forces were at play with the spread of a new round of bubonic plague from Yunnan in China, where the Qing dynasty had opened a copper-mining frontier. In the province’s dense montane rainforests, Yersinia Pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague, had been circulating among local rodent populations. By 1855, the disease had infected the encroaching miners, then spread to the coast and out of China along opium trade routes set up by the British, who were trying to crack open the Chinese market by peddling drugs to local workers. The “third plague,” as it came to be known, killed over twelve million people and was considered active by the WHO until the 1960s.

In the twentieth century, the advance of commodity frontiers in the rainforests of central Africa has been a key vector for the emergence of new diseases, with HIV/AIDS being the most devastating example so far. The European scramble for Africa inaugurated a rush of ivory and rubber extraction, with distant monarchs such as King Leopold of Belgium and the German Kaiser wringing a surplus out of unpaid local workers, at the cost of millions of lives.

Recent studies suggest that bushmeat consumption, most likely in the Congo or German Kamerun, led to the transmission of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) from chimpanzees to humans, resulting in the appearance of HIV-1. It is possible that this bushmeat was consumed by workers on forced labor expeditions, with the virus subsequently travelling by ferry and by rail along ivory and rubber export routes. From 1920s Kinshasa in the Belgian Congo, the virus then leapt over to Haiti after the Second World War before finally being identified in the United States in the 1980s.

In the decades since, the continued advance of fishing, mining, and other commodity frontiers in central Africa have aided the transfer of a growing list of pathogens from animals to humans, including the Zika, Chikungunya, Ebola, and Marburg viruses. Simultaneously, the factory farming of huge numbers of livestock has provided a breeding ground for influenza viruses, with multiple flu outbreaks between 1957 and 2010 driven by the interaction between humans, swine, and birds.

While the exact origin of the 1918–19 “Spanish” flu pandemic remains a source of contention, it is possible that it also transferred to humans from livestock, then spread through the ranks of weary young men carrying out military work for their European rulers before inflicting even greater carnage on populations in India and Iran worn down by British occupation. As always, brutalizing work regimes played their part alongside pestilence, war, and famine. It was no coincidence that this period also saw an astonishing array of strikes and protests, run by everyone from anti-colonial activists in Amritsar to anarchists in Buenos Aires and dressmakers in New York.

People wait in line to get flu masks to avoid the spread of influenza in San Francisco in 1918. (California State Library / EPA)

The origins of COVID-19 are also uncertain, but one frequently mentioned hypothesis is that it spread from bats to humans via captive pangolins. As Andy Liu has argued, the large scale consumption of pangolin scales and meat in China is a recent phenomenon, a gastronomic spectacle that serves as a marker of privilege in the midst of an economic boom. The fifth horseman fans workplace competition, status-seeking, and the breakdown of class solidarity by providing ever more extravagant luxuries for the well-waged. Like the growing worldwide appetite for pork and beef, the consumption of exotic wildlife in China has been fueled by the frenetic expansion of the capitalist world economy. And the unchecked growth of these commodity frontiers is sure to bring further plagues down upon us.

There is no truth to Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s clueless claim that the current pandemic is a “once-in-100-year type event.” On the contrary, the latest scientific reports predict that if deforestation continues at current rates, we might have to endure five to six new epidemics a year. Commodity supply chains are driving this process at every step. The pigs in China and Europe that could be incubating the next influenza pandemic are fed on soybeans from plantations that are erasing the savannas and rainforests of South America. These are precisely the areas where new infectious agents, such as the Machupo virus (an arenavirus hosted by Amazonian rodents), have emerged in the last seventy years. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest, in turn, would accelerate global warming, leading to the further melting of Arctic permafrost, where anthrax and other long-dormant diseases are already being unleashed from the thawing carcasses of reindeer.

But there are steps we can take to avoid this nightmare scenario. For one, we need to break down the false divide between campaigns for workplace safety, Indigenous land rights, and environmental conservation. We shouldn’t just defend biodiversity because we think monkeys and pangolins are cute: we should defend it because we don’t want monkeys and pangolins to infect us with horrific new viruses. The best way to do this is to reduce deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade through the implementation and maintenance of well-protected ecological reserves and Indigenous territories.

It is in the health interests of urban workers to support the struggles of Indigenous peoples living in tropical rainforests and other biodiverse regions to prevent the further encroachment of commercial loggers and poachers into these areas. This means supporting Indigenous groups who are still resisting incorporation into capitalist extraction regimes, who are refusing to work for the fifth horseman. The COVID strikes in urban warehouses and the Indigenous campaigns against mining in the Amazon are two sides of the same struggle over health and labor.

We can also build solidarity by recognizing that the last seven hundred years of pandemics and labor conflicts have affected both paid and unpaid workers, in the Global North and South. Each wave of illness has exploited the weaknesses inflicted by the work regime of the day, but the resultant crises have also created opportunities to overthrow these regimes.

As Naomi Klein notes, government technocrats, allied with Silicon Valley billionaires, are using COVID-19 to usher in a “screen new deal,” papering over the cracks in the current system by forcing students and employees to learn and work at home, on call and under surveillance 24/7. If the horseman of Pestilence doesn’t assail you on the street, the horseman of Work will trample you before you’ve even stepped out the door.

To push back and invent our own alternatives to this B-grade cyberpunk novel, we can look to past struggles across multiple continents. We can take inspiration from how medieval peasants in England, Guaraní communities in Paraguay, revolutionaries in Haiti, and dressmakers in New York fought for both the right to better-paid work, and the right to not work at all, amid devastating disease outbreaks.

The ongoing global wave of strikes by workers protecting their health amid the coronavirus pandemic, the campaign by Brazilian Indigenous peoples to install check points near their communities to maintain social isolation, along with international demands to de-commercialize aged care, are the modern continuation of this global tradition. Rather than forgetting these past generations, we can draw strength from their victories as we enter our own battle against the five horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse.