by Henri Acselrad

Translated by  Matheus Zago  Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Originally published in Portuguese May 11, 2020 link

In the prior times of capitalism, technology optimism and pollution naturalization expressed the elites’ tolerance for the undesirable industrial effects: to ensure business continuity, technology was supposed to solve the problems created by technology, argued some experts. Meanwhile, environmental problems affected the poor around the factories. Today, the naturalization of the epidemic and technological optimism in the health’s management crisis are the words of authoritarian neoliberalism and social-Darwinism. They express what the anthropologist Eric Fassin called “xenophobia at any expense” in Europe. In its Brazilian version, “racism at any expense”, and suggests the priority of business over the health of the most unprotected, mostly black and poor.

Without risk control generated by the commodities – including the capitalist management of microbiological processes- the elites eventually discovered that they depend on processes out of their control. The population’s social-space segregation may no longer work to ensure the selective – discriminatory – distribution of the harms. The magnitude of social-space ills may even, as in the present pandemic crisis, shake dogmas of dominant ideologies, and their ways of guiding “social” management.

With the health crisis on the rise, economists and liberal politicians now support the use of public funds for purposes beyond the guarantee of private property and capital mobility. The social and environmental domains – so far considered “non-economic” by orthodox economists – are now seen as anti-economical, requiring state stabilization actions, or, as in the terms of the Financial Times’ Editorial of 04/03/2020, as ” investments on public services, not as liabilities”. Perhaps this is an appropriate time to discuss what is the place – of “social” and “sanitary” – where, in the hegemony’s midst of neoliberal discourse, justifies, even among defenders of the free market, the temporary abandonment of economist dogma.

Critical events set by climate change indicators, ocean contamination, the rise of respiratory diseases (because of atmospheric pollution and health crises) such as the one we are experiencing in 2020 have led to unlimited accumulation of products and a critique of our values. But what would be the mechanisms by which these values, driven by the logic of profit, and based on the dynamics of consumerism, end up materializing in a constellation of environmental and sanitary ills?




If we consider the characteristic addition, subtraction, and mutation processes of energy and matter promoted in the economy, we see that their effects go through “environments” located outside the logic of what is understood as “market”. In the world of commodities, material changes do not reflect into decisions to buy, to sell, or to invest. Neither they are considered in the calculations of what market agents call “efficiency”. 

What Adam Smith called “invisible hand” acts completely blindly about what occurs outside the processes of supply, demand, and price. From the origins of capitalism to its current liberalized and sped up version, a “systemic efficiency” that supplement and correct the micro-calculation of private efficiency is despised. Economic decisions that result in polluting the “environment”, degrading ecosystems, and changing biological processes are, in this way, justified by the consideration of simple monetary gain by indications of private agents. These decisions ignore environmental and collective health problems that have been planned for everything that is located “outside the market,” particularly for the spaces vital to the lives of those most in need.

Society is included as a collective organic body, by the microeconomics of profits, that has ignored the social-ecological space, both in theory and praxis. The biological dimension of social relations – which, in times of health crisis, emerges brutally, reminding people that they only exist co-existing, even through the barely visible microbiological dynamics. Kate Brown reminds us that the interconnection of our biological lives is a node in the network of exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichens, insects, and plants. The air, water, and living systems shared relationships that are not strictly economic – even less ” commercial “. 

An unequal social division of spatial practices has been created by the emergence of capitalism. Together with a large-scale productive practice in the industry and commercial agriculture, and with the concentration of power to manage spaces and resources.

Industrial and agricultural practices on a large scale imposed, in fact, private practices on common spaces both in air and water resources, launching unsaleable products from the production of commodities. This affected other non-dominant spatial practices. In another hand, biologists and phylogeographers related the viruses infectious in recent decades, to the intensive use of antivirals in industrial animal breeding, breeding locus, and mutation of resistant viruses. The revolution in animal production has transformed the ecology of the flu, leading experts to warn, since the outbreak of Hong Kong in 1977, to the possibility of a viral apocalypse.

Among public concerns that the elites attempted to silence in the 19th century by normalizing the evils of the nascent industry, we have a political problem: a private – capitalist – use of non-market spaces over other uses. This political issue has been suppressed, naturalized, and depoliticized. The unequal distribution of the common spaces of the atmosphere, the waters, and the living systems has become a question of social relations not mediated by the market, and has been reduced to a liberal discourse of condition – theoretically empty – of “externality”. Therefore, neoliberal rhetoric has nothing to offer about pandemics, climate change, or deaths from air pollution.

Driven by the time-space of liberal capitalism, the pandemic, as writer Erri de Luca (6) states are suffocating people as a reflection of the economic expansion that stifles the environment. The poet Sophia de Mello Brainer already warned about this effect on “those who seek a just relationship with the stone, with the tree, with the river, are necessarily driven by the spirit of truth that animates them to seek a just relationship with a man “7. We may complete Sophia by saying that, in the search for a fair relationship between humans, it is also necessary to establish a fair relationship with the stone, the tree, and rivers.


Henri Acselrad is a professor at IPPUR/UFRJ and researcher at CNPq.


1 Alain Corbin, El perfume o el miasma: El olfato y lo imaginario social, siglos XVIII y XIX, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1987.

2 Eric Fassin, Généalogie d´une alternative neolibérale, Libération, le 3 avril 2020.

3 Kate Brown,The Pandemic Is Not a Natural Disaster – The coronavirus isn’t just a public-health crisis. It’s an ecological one, in The New Yorker, 13/4/2020.

4 Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves e Rodrick Wallace, COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital, Monthly Review, 1/4/2020.

5 Mike Davis, O Monstro bate à nossa porta – a ameaça global da gripe aviária, Record, Rio de Janeiro, 2005, p. 214.

6 Erri de Luca, Le samedi de la terre,

7 Sophia de Mello Breyner, Poemas Escolhidos, seleção de Vilma Arêas, Ed. Companhia das Letras, SP, 2004