Bacteria and Capitalism

Methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria at 20,000 times magnification
Methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria at 20,000 times magnification. | Photo:

By David Sole

Bacteria were first observed and reported on by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670’s. He ground his own lenses and constructed early microscopes. He called these tiny one celled organisms “animalcules.” Van Leeuwenhoek was introduced to the use of lenses by textile manufacturers of his day, part of the capitalist mode of production and trade that had been growing for centuries throughout Europe.

The capitalist mode of production, which was pushing out and replacing the more static feudal system, encouraged initiative, inquiry and education. Capitalists needed to improve the means of production and were instrumental in the advancement of science.

While physics, chemistry and biology made enormous progress, it can be also said that bureaucratic organizations of the day often obstructed advances. Observant physicians who advocated cleanliness and sterile working conditions in hospitals and surgery were often ridiculed and ignored for decades. As late as 1873 the British medical journal The Lancet denounced the teachings of Dr. Joseph Lister urging sterile conditions in surgical rooms.

Slowly, however, the germ theory of disease gained ground. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish medical researcher, made the first great discovery in the war with van Leeuwenhoek’s animalcules. In 1928 Fleming accidentally came across a mold that destroyed colonies of bacteria he was growing. He called the chemical penicillin. This was the first antibiotic, which is still in use today.

A race has been going on since then between researchers and infectious bacteria. Fleming soon noticed the development of resistance to the antibiotic by bacteria and warned against using too little penicillin or for too short a time. Today, even with the development of more antibiotics, bacteria have emerged that exhibit resistance to some or all known medicines.

According to a Center for Disease Control 2019 report “more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result. In addition, 223,900 cases of Clostridioides difficile occurred in 2017 and at least 12,800 people died.” (

One might think that the capitalist economic system that gave rise over centuries to the encouragement of education, the scientific method and mass production would be well equipped to deal with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant pathogens. After all there are tens of thousands of trained biologists, thousands of research laboratories and giant pharmaceutical corporations in the U.S. alone.

But the capitalist drive for profits is one of the main causes of antibiotic resistance. The massive and unregulated use of antibiotics in animal feed in the beef industry is commonly cited as a culprit. Destruction of bacteria by this practice drives natural selection to allow resistant strains to develop and flourish in bacteria. These resistant bacteria are not isolated to cattle and easily spread the resistance far and wide.

A threat to humanity is appearing from the economic system where monopoly has replaced the earlier, more competitive form of capitalism.

“[M]any companies that are developing new versions of the drugs are hemorrhaging money and going out of business, gravely undermining efforts to contain the spread of deadly, drug-resistant bacteria” according to a lead article in the New York Times (, December 25, 2019). The article continued, “Experts say the grim financial outlook for the few companies still committed to antibiotic research is driving away investors and threatening to strangle the development of new lifesaving drugs at a time when they are urgently needed.”

The driving force of the profit motive favors the development and sale of drugs that treat chronic conditions. Antibiotics only need to be taken for a course of treatment of days. A number of biotech startup companies have gone bankrupt even though they have been developing several extremely promising new antibiotics.

One such drug, Zemdri had been produced by Achaogen corporation. It received approval by the Food and Drug Administration and was recognized by the World Health Organization as an “essential new medicine.” But Achaogen ran out of money, laid off hundreds of its scientists and filed for bankruptcy.

The New York Times, a pre-eminent spokesperson for capitalism, quotes a venture biotech capitalist who laments “If this doesn’t get fixed in the next six to 12 months…investors won’t return to the market for another decade or two.” A representative of a non-profit that gives federal grants to corporations working on new antibiotics complains that “it’s really having an adverse effect on patients and the marketplace.”

Another solution touted by the Times is a proposal to extend the “exclusivity for new antibiotics to give companies more time to earn back their investments.” The federal government has funneled up to a billion dollars to private companies working on drug resistance.

All of these proposals have one thing in common. They assume the capitalist system and private enterprise must be the basis of any solution. Yet the problem is getting worse each year and is a world-wide crisis. The UN Ad-hoc Interagency Coordinating Group on Antimicrobial Resistance warns that “if no action is taken, drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and damage to the economy as catastrophic as during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. By 2030, antimicrobial resistance could force up to 24 million people into extreme poverty” (

The rational solution to this problem is not hard to imagine. In the United States alone there are so many researchers and so many laboratories. Training more scientists and opening more labs poses no real challenge. The public good and the desperate need are clear. The public is already hostile to the big drug companies who have been jacking up the prices of many prescriptions and recording embarrassing profits. A public takeover of the pharmaceutical industry and a massive “Manhattan Project” to mobilize the resources of the United States to develop and distribute new antibiotics would benefit the nation and the world. Eliminating the profit motive, even in this one economic field, would prove that a planned economy, socialism, is superior to the moribund capitalist system now holding humanity back.


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