Columbian Plagues

We are living through a time of great sorrow, although even that sorrow is distributed unevenly. According to an Australian “authority on confinement and reintegration,” for those of us ensconced comfortably at home, “the dreaded third quarter of isolation, when […] things get weird” has begun. Simultaneously, the NEJM writes of “clinicians dying by suicide amid the pandemic,” and warns, starkly: “We are now facing a surge of physical and emotional harm [to healthcare workers] that amounts to a parallel pandemic.” Meanwhile – as Vijay Prashad writes in a Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research newsletter entitled “Hunger Gnaws at the Edges of the World” – “Half of the world’s population fears going hungry as a result of the pandemic.” (If you appreciate Prashad’s work, you may also be interested in the recent Tricontinental dossier, “CoronaShock: A Virus and the World.”)

Yesterday, I tried (but perhaps failed) to make sense of the motivations of the sociopathic kleptocrats in DC responsible for our disastrous national COVID-19 non-response, and once again sought to make modest but salient connections between the related, though profoundly different, crises of pandemic and global climate disruption. In particular, I reflected, grimly, on the exterminationist logic underlying both neo-fascist exploitation of the pandemic and neoliberal procrastination of desperately-necessary climate action.

Today, building on this horrible idea of exterminationism, I’m going to briefly reflect back through both personal and scholarly lenses, on the deep roots of genocide and sociopathy in the capitalist project that still structures and rules the world.

As Prashad writes in the above-linked newsletter:

Hunger is a bitter reality that modern civilisation should have expelled a century ago. What did it mean for human beings to learn how to build a car or fly a plane and not at the same time abolish the indignity of hunger?

Sadly, that hunger which we “should have expelled” still stalks, haunts, and gnaws as it long has. Some of my own ancestors came to the United States from Ireland in the decades after the Great Famine in Ireland (and in the years immediately following the Fenian Rising, though what influence either event had on their migration is lost to history). During the roughly four years of the Famine, out of a total Irish population of approximately eight million people, one million died, and another million emigrated. Under the subheading “The Period of Extermination” in the excellent Monthly Review article, “The Rift of Éire,” the authors explain:

In 1845, the potato blight caused by Phytopthora infestans, a fungus-like pathogen, which first appeared in the United States and the European Continent, broke out in Ireland. By 1846, it generated a general famine, known in Ireland as the Great Hunger or Great Famine, which lasted for three to four years, with failures of the potato crop occurring partially in 1847 and then more generally in 1848–49. A million people died and more than a million people emigrated. Ireland at the time was especially vulnerable to the effects of the blight because of the destitute condition of the population, given that its subsistence diet was based entirely on the potato and the reliance on a monoculture consisting of only one variety, the “lumper” potato. The British government, based in Westminster, responded to the famine inconsistently and inadequately. Grain continued to be exported from Ireland to feed England.

What else can we call the actions but evil of a British government that, in the face of famine and mass deaths “continued to […] [export grain] from Ireland to feed England”?

And yet, such was the consistent policy of the rulers of the British Empire. Around the same time as the Great Famine in Ireland – and on many occasions before and after – hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of Indians died of starvation under British rule. For example, the Great Bengal Famine in 1770 “is estimated to have caused the deaths of about 10 million people,” while in the Bengal Famine of 1943, “it is estimated up to two million died.” In the 173 years intervening between these bookending horrors of British colonization of India, tens of millions of Indians died in dozens of separate episodes of mass starvation (viz., see Mike Davis’s excellent, overwhelming Late Victorian Holocausts). Since independence in 1947, India has experience no major famines (although this is not to forgive the many great injustices perpetrated by the Indian State), and, unsurprisingly, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.”

Again, it is hard to characterize these British colonial policies as anything but evil (even as I don’t believe the British State has ever formally apologized for the many atrocities for which it was responsible), and it is not a coincidence that Davis’s book is subtitled “El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World”; this subtitular connection of climate and poverty should give us all pause as we confront a 21st century increasingly being posited as “a century of crisis” and a “spreading wasteland.” Layer unto the global climatic and economic strains pandemic disease (for, as Davis and others have made clear, something like a quarter of all deaths globally during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic occurred in then-British India, for reasons much the same as those laid out above regarding why Ireland “was especially vulnerable to the effects of the blight” in the 1840s), and we confront a perfect storm of civilizational, if not species-level, proportions.

Fittingly, the very next article in the April Monthly Review questions, in its title: “How Long Can Neoliberalism Withstand Climate Crisis?” A good question, and one the answer of which, according to the piece, centers on a shift towards logic “constrained by ecology and not the market,” and a reversal of priorities, in which we cease to see ourselves as “expendable,” but corporations and their profits as “essential.”

I’ll end today by pointing to the remarkable work of Anne-Emmanuel Birn (to which I came only recently through my friend Emily). In comments made on a virtual panel on “Globalization and the History of Epidemics in Latin America,” Birn points to the “original pandemic of imperialism” (which she suggests calling “smallpox-19, for 1519”). The apocalyptic convergence of disease, violence, and colonization that accompanied the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere has not been the central historical point of reference in popular discourse (at least in this country, where I’d say people – myself included to some extent – have primarily looked to the aforementioned flu pandemic) as stricken populations try to make sense of our extraordinary circumstances, but perhaps the Columbian Exchange should be the starting point for discussion about where we go from here. The genocidal and exterminationist project that was unleashed in that unequal Exchange cannot be said ever really to have ended, and it is the defining work of the present to chart a new course for the next 500 years, or else suffer – and inflict on the future – the consequences.

Postscript: I am the descendant of Irish immigrants to the United States. My partner was born and raised in India before coming to this country as a young adult. We are both, in our own ways, participants in the settler colonial project in North America. And it was these at once divergent and convergent (personal) histories I had in mind in writing this piece.

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