March 13, 2020

Pandemics are caused by global integration; de-globalization lags by decades, creating a century of misery

Let's begin a series of posts on the coronavirus pandemic by noting that it is only the latest in a series of global disease catastrophes that will continue on for at least another 50 years, as globalization integrates more of the world's people into a great big demographically interconnected meta-population, which is the condition for diseases to go pandemic.

I've written three posts on this specific topic over the years, and the situation keeps getting worse -- a bitter reminder that knowledge, no matter how widespread, changes nothing, since the forces pushing in the current direction are economic and political, not academic, scientific, or rhetorical.

I will not fully rehearse these in this post -- each one is required reading to understand the topic, and you can read them by clicking links below. You're holed up in your home with nothing to do for the next several weeks anyway, what are three posts going to cost you? If all you're looking for is retarded emotional takes or short-term-only technocratic "solutions", you already know where Twitter dot com is located.

The original post was in 2013, going in depth on the historical trends in both epidemic diseases and status-striving and inequality. As status-striving and inequality rose, so did epidemic disease burdens; as they fell, so did disease; and as they've begun rising again since about 1980, so have disease burdens. I covered epidemic diseases like whooping cough (microscopic person-to-person), bedbugs (macroparasites), and salmonella (food poisoning).

Importantly, vaccines prove to have nothing to do with these trends -- whooping cough was in steep decline before the first vaccine was discovered let alone introduced, and the introduction of two new vaccines has done nothing to slow or halt the resurgence of the disease since about 1980. You can quibble about its role at a secondary, tertiary, or lower level -- but at the primary level, vaccines are invisible in the historical data of disease. They are swamped by forces like population density, urbanization, immigration, and so on and so forth -- none of which are static, but move in cycles, which then produces cycles in epidemic disease burdens.

After that, a brief post in 2014 that simply provided a topical update in the wake of ebola being in the news.

The most recent post was in 2015, reviewing an academic article showing that geographic -- really, demographic -- interconnectedness was behind the spread of pandemic diseases, and how some diseases that had been going away had been brought back to life by migration into that country. One of the key variables in predicting how awful a disease will get is the share of the population who are foreigners, which is still rising off the charts in this country and the other rich nations.

This is not about population density, a well known variable in epidemics and pandemics, but demographic flow between population clusters (the article focuses on between-nations, but I point out that this applies within-nations as well, in region-to-region flow). I discuss the links between long-term trends in pandemic disease and in status-striving and inequality, updated with a discussion of within-country trends -- when the borders were closed between nations, they were also largely closed between regions within a nation, preventing diseases from catching on via movement across regions within a single country.

* * *

The closest analogy to the present situation -- i.e., as of roughly 1980 -- is the series of cholera outbreaks during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the last era during which the West was subjected by its elites to open borders, laissez-faire economics, and partisan polarization.

These societal conditions began around 1830, with the rise to dominance of the Whigs in Britain and the Jacksonian Democrats in America, lasted through the realignment around 1860 toward the Liberals in Britain and Lincolnian Republicans in America, and began turning around circa 1920, in the wake of WWI, before vanishing altogether by the New Deal period. This perfectly bookends the period of cholera outbreaks in Europe, beginning with the Second outbreak circa 1830 (the First was confined to Asia), and ending with the Sixth that lasted into the early 1920s (the Seventh was mainly confined to Asia).

The pathogen causing cholera comes from India, especially the Ganges River delta near what is now Bangladesh, where some of the filthiest water in the world is to be found. It is commonly said to be spread by contaminated water supplies -- but again, the real spread is from its geographical source in India to faraway places like Russia and Britain by demographic interconnectedness. You can't get a pandemic from a localized water supply that's polluted, and simply needs to be purified.

This is the worst case of science-y types learning the wrong lesson, simply because it's more technocratic (a boost to the demand for nerds' services), and more suitable for data visualizations (the nerd bible on data visualization prizes the map drawn by Dr. Snow to locate the proximate cause of a cholera outbreak in London during the Third pandemic). The real origin was India -- not the Broad Street water pump in Soho -- and the real solution was to minimize demographic flow between Britain and India, which only came about decades later when Britain began decolonization instead of imperial expansion, and economic nationalism instead of mercantilism.

But that is too macro of a view, and nerds always zoom in as microscopically as possible, missing the forest for the trees. "Wow guys, all we have to do is clean up the water supply!" -- as it's being assaulted non-stop by demographic flow from India to Britain, through all sorts of different routes. If "all we have to do" is clean up the water, and this was proven in the 1850s, why were cholera epidemics still striking Europe up to 50 years later?

Worse, even if some nerd had figured out that cholera's pathogen originated in India, and that the only way to stop it was cutting off demographic flow from there -- what group of wealthy, powerful British leaders would have followed that advice during the expansion of the British Empire? "Sorry, nerd -- but if losing a few percent of our population to cholera is the price we have to pay for maintaining our hold over India, then so be it." Whoever's making profits hand-over-fist in the mercantilist relationship with India, not to mention those getting rich off of colonial military occupation, are easily going to sacrifice the poor bastards who can't drink from purified water sources in London.

Perhaps the most retarded view from the so-called dissident Right is that "pathological altruism" among first-world elites underlies globalization. Gee, our elites are just not greedy enough! The British mercantile elites who used India as a cheap off-shore production site for raw materials that fed into a British-owned supply chain, and the military elites who subjugated India, were not altruistic but selfish. It is pathological greed, not altruism, that opens a nation's borders.

That was true of the British Empire during the Victorian era, the American Empire during the neoliberal era, Classical Athens during Athenian hegemony (culminating in the Plague of Athens), the Roman Empire near its peak (culminating in the Antonine Plague), the Byzantine Empire near its peak (culminating in the Justinian Plague), the Mongol Empire that spread the Black Death, and the Spanish and later British Empires that spread Old World epidemic diseases to the New World natives.

* * *

The basic pattern of pandemics being spread by population movements (whether military expansion, trade routes, or mass migration) used to be conventional wisdom back in the New Deal era. The most well known popular book by a highly regarded historian is Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill -- written all the way back in 1976, before the Reagan Revolution, although at the same time as its libertarian vanguard was picking up steam.

This knowledge was profoundly watered down and obfuscated by the time that Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond was published in 1997, squarely within the neoliberal era. There, it's only in service of the overall question of how Eurasians subjugated non-Eurasian societies (in large part by introducing contagious diseases against which they themselves had some degree of defense, but which the natives did not, owing to their total novelty). It's part of the race-and-power discourse, which is not per se about public health, political economy, and imperial expansion -- as these dynamics may play out within a race (e.g., Athens vs. other Greek city-states in the Classical period).

In fact, most of history's plagues and pandemics have taken the form of Eurasian civilization vs. Eurasian civilization -- right up through the cholera pandemics of the Gilded Age and now the East Asian influenza-related pandemics of our Second Gilded Age.

In the neoliberal era, intellectuals serving those with concentrated wealth and power are required to shift away from material frameworks like public health, political economy, and geopolitical expansion -- and toward recasting these matters in more cultural, racial, and identitarian frameworks. Closing our borders to China would not be a matter of public health, economic nationalism, or minimizing our military imperial footprint -- it would be racist, xenophobic, and probably the first step on a slippery slope toward genocide.

Again, the real problem is the economic elites who benefit materially from open borders, not their servile propagandists in the universities, think tanks, media, etc. Knowledge has no power of its own, and winning an informational war does nothing ipso facto to improve our standard of living (although it's worth waging to purify the informational sectors of bullshit, for its own intellectual sake).

* * *

How much longer will we have to suffer through these miseries? Peter Turchin's historical dynamics work shows that we're only in about the 1850s, for the striving-and-inequality cycle. We are nowhere close to turning the corner, which is a good 50 years away at the earliest. Everyone alive today can count on the rest of their lives being stricken by periodic waves of pandemic diseases, as globalization continues apace.

Only when the commoners become unified and rowdy enough will the elites feel the pressure to dial down globalization, as they did circa 1920. But civic society organizations among ordinary people, especially labor unions, have been falling off a cliff for decades and are not coming back anytime soon. Still, that is the ultimate goal to be working toward, as well as identifying which factions of the elite stratum are more vs. less amenable to building alliances with in the battle against globalization (the topic for another post).

Getting bogged down in the details of how to mitigate a pandemic's impact is missing that bigger picture, and is a palliative rather than a cure. Sure, it's worthwhile, but we always have to be working toward the prevention of pandemics in the first place -- and that can only happen from de-connecting demographically from the rest of the world, like we enjoyed during the New Deal era.

Specifically, scale down our military to a purely defensive one to protect the 50 states, rather than occupying the entire world. Re-industrialize our economy, rather than off-shoring production to cheap labor colonies. Minimize immigration from outside, and minimize transplanting and carpetbagging within our own borders, to the rates of the New Deal era.


  1. Eduardo the Magnificent3/13/20, 10:37 AM

    The solution you're looking for, but cannot say, is nationalism. You could have summed up the whole article by simply saying "return to nationalism". But that would be very Nazi of you, so we beat around the bush instead.

  2. It says nationalism twice, retard. I'm emphasizing demographic flow in order to prevent radcucks like you from hijacking "nationalism" to mean the same ol' Reaganite GOP bullshit but with a new branding.

    That's what happened in the wake of Trump's attempted populist-nationalist insurgency of 2016. And just look at the results -- no mitigation of the risk of pandemics, a major one under way right now on the watch of the GOP and Mr. Nationalism.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."