Reflections on the Plague

Long morning coffee post coming up.

A lot of people out there probably want to know more about the bubonic plague epidemic in Europe in the 14th century. There’s a bunch of good books I can think of about that period — called the Crisis of the 14th Century — if you’re interested. Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” is a little lib but still provides an excellent overview of daily life for most people in Western Europe at the time. A book like Gottfried’s “The Black Death” is also lib but good. “Caliban and the Witch” provides a much more leftwing take on the transition from feudalism to capitalism but mostly deals with women rather than the plague. Wood’s “The Origin of Capitalism” is also very good and useful, its basic point being that the creation of capitalism was far from inevitable.

There are a few major similarities between coronavirus and the bubonic plague epidemic IMO. One: nobody in 14th century Europe understood that the plague was caused by fleas. This is because fleas were already all over the place and just kind of a fact of life. The quarantines of various medieval towns and cities were pretty much useless though because of the lack of understanding. Everybody thought they were just being punished by god, which is where the flagellants come in. (Thanks to Monty Python people think the flagellants are kind of a joke, but they were no joke at the time, and consisted of basically hordes of thousands of people who would destroy any town they visited.)

Today with coronavirus, very few people understand that the disease is caused by capitalism — climate change, industrial factory farming, deforestation, mass air travel, etc. Likewise, very few people (in the USA anyway) understand that enforced quarantines, shutting down non-essential businesses, and paying everyone to stay home is the way to stop the virus.

At this point, libs are kind of in love with this shit because they get to lord it over Republicans, blame them for their problems, and just think: “Well, if all the Republicans die of covid, it’ll be much easier for us to win the midterms!” Libs never gave a fuck about all the civilian deaths in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, so why should they start caring now?

And although of course I’m in favor of vaccines, vaccination is just one weapon in the arsenal against the virus, and by itself is clearly not enough to stop it — yet vaccination is likewise the perfect neoliberal solution to the problem since it depends entirely on individual choice. For a society to implement this solution *exclusively* in a vast country of more than three hundred million people appears suicidal to me, however. The USA as a collective entity knows that it cannot continue and therefore wants to die.

The second similarity between the 14th century epidemic and coronavirus is that in both cases, the ruling class just doesn’t give a fuck. The plague killed few members of the 14th century European nobility because (although they would probably be considered dirty by modern standards) they were clean enough to keep themselves safe from the virus. Today, as far as I know, not a single billionaire has succumbed to coronavirus. Essentially: the richer you are, the less likely you will have to deal with the consequences of societal collapse — for the moment, anyway. Plus, the richer you are, the greater the likelihood that you’ve gotten way richer during the pandemic. There is a huge economic incentive to keep the pandemic going if you’re a billionaire or a mega-millionaire.

The plague broke out many times in Europe during and after the 14th century, although I think it was that first big wave that killed around a third of the population. That catastrophe was followed by centuries of peasant revolts and religious wars as well as the beginnings of modern colonialism, race-based slavery, capitalism, and genocide in the Americas. And although coronavirus isn’t nearly as deadly as the bubonic plague was in the 14th century, it seems safe to predict that the overall situation across the planet and in the USA especially will just continue to be absolutely bonkers for the foreseeable future. This could culminate in the creation of a workers’ state here in the former USA or some kind of techno dystopian neo-feudalism, or both, or neither.




I'm a Marxist worker, activist, and writer in Maine.

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Ian Schwartz

Ian Schwartz

I'm a Marxist worker, activist, and writer in Maine.

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