Plague and the City: of Rats and Men

Yersinia pestis is a Gram-negative, non-motile, stick-shaped bacterium. It enjoys vacationing in damp places, riding fleas, and unleashing God’s Wrath on Humanity. The disease it causes, plague, still holds a remarkable grip on culture as the archetypal deadly epidemic. This is partly due to its severity and spectacular symptoms, but also because during the course of History, it has been the cause of various pandemics, all of them originating in Central Asia and spreading fast to Africa and Europe. It is, thus, the quintessential disease of the Old World: a dark barbarian demon, unleashing periodic destruction over civilization like an inscrutable and violent god.

There have been, at least, three high-impact plague pandemics. The first was the Plague of Justinian, which hit the Byzantine Empire in 541 BC. The disease killed off a good 25% percent of the continent’s population, according to some estimates. It spread quickly through Europe, perhaps thanks to Justinian’s globalization efforts, the Renovatio imperii which sought to recover lost Western Roman territories for a unified Empire. Procopius of Caesarea offers in his Secret History some fascinating anecdotes indicating that epidemics, despotic rule, and a venal public life are nothing new under the sun. Rulers do not rise to the occasion, but sink to their natural state.

As a result of the plague ravaging the countryside, agricultural workforce diminished and the price of grain rose astronomically. When confronted with the low tax revenue caused by the massive death toll, Justinian simply made the survivors liable for the part owed by their deceased neighbors. He also made himself inherit a lot of the victims’ property, a measure we commend Procopius for criticizing.

As plague spread around the Mediterranean basin, geopolitical balances were overturned; the Byzantines, who had been close to reuniting the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, were crippled in their restoration efforts. Although the Mediterranean’s Western shores were finally conquered in AD 554, the reunification did not last long. The Goths, who had been pushed back, regrouped and recovered forces. The New Normality of Germanic rule had been firmly established. The transition from Ancient to Medieval Europe was well underway, a Dark Ages version of the Great Reset.

However historically relevant, Justinian’s plague was superseded by a deadlier pandemic 800 hundred years later. This one is probably the most iconic, and was given a name with enormous memetic potential: the Black Death. It started in 1347 and killed off, according to some estimates, between 30 and 40% of Europe’s population.

It is generally agreed upon that the Black Death’s horrible impact was due, in part, to the urbanization process which characterizes this time period. Political, social and economic stability, coupled with improvements in agricultural technology, had led over the centuries to a rising population, and a blooming urban class that lived of trade and manufacture: the bourgeois. Epidemiologically, large interconnected nodes with many people living in them are a recipe for disaster, and this is exactly what happened. Obviously, crowded towns trading with each other caused the disease to spread faster than it would have in a low-density, poorly communicated wasteland.

According to the Progressive mythology, which apparently bases its knowledge of the Middle Ages on Game of Thrones and Monty Python sketches, the Medieval Period was indeed the Dark Ages™: an era of filth, poverty and religious obscurantism. People died of plague because they slept with rats, didn’t bathe, tried to pray away disease, et cetera. This belief neglects the fact that Medieval Europe inherited and developed Roman bathing culture, with soap being a burgeoning industry. Although truly effective sanitary practices were still far down the road, people were not exactly rolling in faeces either.

In fact, arrogant medical establishments are not a recent phenomenon. Rulers have always been corrupt, and academics have always tended to (wrongly) dismiss common-sense. It was the first generations of University-educated physicians who, in Early Modern times, advised against bathing. According to the scientific reasoning of the time, water opened up pores and allowed foul miasmas to enter the body and bring disease. A delicious irony; but we digress.

The thing is, the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, of which the pandemic was a critical factor, signalled de implosion of a certain Medieval statu quo. It led to all kinds of strife: social, religious and economic. It changed production relations and political forms, and modified the demographic texture of Europe. People -and power- were transferred from a distributed network based on lord-vassal relations to centralized absolutist courts, located in a handful cities which remain power centers even today.

Although urban centers were hit the hardest by the pandemic in terms of mortality, it was the countryside where changes were felt the most. Lacking manpower, the feudal system entered an unstoppable downward spiral. Many belonging to this old agro-military elite, those who were clinging at the edge of the leisure class, simply disappeared, victims to war, famine, and poverty. The survivors reaped the leftovers, accumulating wealth. Titles of nobility became accessible to the bourgeois, who bought them and became rentiers. The City had finally become the center of power. Great Reset II: Renaissance edition was underway.

As a side note, it is a sobering fact to consider that more time passed between Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death, than between the latter and the Current Year™. History has its patterns: the Black Death most likely originated in China and spread to Europe through Italian ports. For a while, it was hypothesized that it might have been caused not by a bacteria but by a hemorrhagic fever-inducing virus, like Ebola. The theory seems to have been abandoned as of late, and there’s even some evidence suggesting that it may not have come from the Far East, after all.

In any case, the third great plague pandemic did originate in China in 1855, also spreading globally due to improved transoceanic communications. This time it caused more than 12 million deaths, a comparatively low number probably reflecting improved hygienic practices in Western cities. Better than those of the 1340s, that is; 19th century European cities were the nightmarish hellscapes that inspired the likes of Dickens or Dostoevsky, after all. How do they compare to the sanitary conditions of a modern slum in a Third World Mega-City? For now, we leave that as an exercise for the reader to ponder.

Due to the many unpleasantries of the 20th century, many of the effects of the social and political consequences of the Third Great Plague went unnoticed or have been mostly forgotten. The Great Reset (episode 3!) was subtle. It came by indirectly catalyzing the most important historical process of the past 100 years: decolonization. Due to widespread availability of Western medicine, governments worldwide, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires and from Cape Town to Glasgow, had access to the same measures to combat the disease. The key was found to be not the isolation of infected human carriers, but the elimination of the rodent and flea vectors.

Despite similar approaches, the results accross the world were wildly different. Metropolitan administrations in Europe and the US succeeded. Most colonial enclaves, however, failed to convince indigenous populations to accept lockdowns and other Western practices. In many places, after early backlash, authorities quickly resigned to sit back and watch the epidemic burn itself out. This led to dismal loss of life in places like India or South Africa: the early cracks of the British Empire. The Crown could not protect its subjects, and another nail was hammered in the coffin of the White Man’s Burden.

The lopsided impact of the plague made evident, and perpetuated, the inequalities between the metropolis and its overseas territories. The World Health Organization declared the pandemic over by 1960. By then, new cases were only being declared in what soon would be called the Third World, a fact which has remained true until nowadays.

Plague has always spread to other continents by traveling in its preferred animal reserve: the rat. Actually, any rodent that lives in close proximity to humans will do, but the rat is so linked to Humanity’s vicissitudes, that it has become a symbol of disease, filth, and immorality. Its fast rate of reproduction and tendency to cannibalism and aggression made it a synonym of promiscuity and sin to medieval eyes, and this reputation has not changed much since then.

As ultimate urban survivors, rats have the connotations of a certain ethos attributed to crowded urban life: grey, dirty, anonymous, and corrupt. The connection between them, cities, and a degenerate existence is an ancient, perpetually evolving meme. Interesting iterations range from German folk tales about the Rattenkönig to 1984‘s iconic torture scene or neoreactionary musings on “IQ shredders” and the “rat race”.

Interestingly, this contempt is not made extensive to all rodent house pests. There’s plenty of heroic mice in fiction; rats, though, are almost universally bad news. Mice help trapped lions, rescue orphans, and generally save the day. They are adventurous, cute little creatures, willing to take risks despite their lowly status in the Animal Kingdom. Rats, in contrast, are dirty, brutal, often vicious gangsters. More powerful than their mousely brethren, they appear as a sort of jungian shadow on steroids: tough, cunning, and willing to survive by any means necessary.

Thus, while the Country Mouse is a trope as old as Aesop, rats exist in culture as cosmopolitan, rootless vermin. The Country Mouse highlights the simple virtues of rural life, whereas the Rat lacks any wholesome connections to the land. “City Rat” is not a clearly identifiable meme, but it doesn’t spark any particularly positive feelings. The closest term, Hood Rat, is mostly pejorative according to the Urban Dictionary, with racist connotations added as a bonus.

At the root of this divide, one can find echoes of a reactionary narratives of the Industrial Revolution: that of Ancien Règime farmers who left the countryside to become proletarian factory workers in the Industrial Revolution. The healthy, swarthy complexion of the peasant replaced with the black and the red of coal and tuberculosis. The transformation from farmer to worker was thus portrayed as a degradation, directly leading to the totalitarian devastations of the 20th century. The natural answer is, of course, to “Reject Modernity, Retvrn to Tradition”; Tradition being an ideal past decade somewhere between the 1490s (for hardcore radicals) and the 1980s (for normie redpillers).

These superposed counterpoints of Urban vs. Rural and Rat vs. Mouse, when approached as a dichotomy, remain a solid populist memeplex in societies where this division is stark, such as most Western ones. In 2016, Based Flyover Deplorables against Satanic Coastal Elites is the obvious American example, but there are undertones of this in other contexts, the French gilets jaunes uprising being a particularly notorious one.

More or less explicitly, populist sentiment in economic peripheries all accross the West exemplifies this phenomenon. The definition of “Periphery” being expanded to accomodate not only the heavily subsidized countryside, but (post)industrial wastelands aswell. Forming a newborn Center, supra-state Bureaucracies and multinational corporations have been sharing interests for a very long time. Woke Capitalism is just one of many current iterations, like Big Tech or the Military Industrial Complex.

The looming conflict was obvious to anyone paying attention even before the 2008 financial crisis. In this very prescient article we can see how European “Cosmopolitans” have been worrying for a while about “Nationals”. It was first published in 2000, which makes it older than the Iraq War (2003) and Facebook (2004).

Here at The Outpost, we have already explored some of the characteristics of this Capitalist – Communist vector. Reactionary Socialism and all its ressurrected forms have never been more than a temporary hindrance to this Revolution: a stabilizing force. From this standpoint, the Mouse vs. Rat dichotomy starts to feel a bit outdated. The current state of affairs lends itself better to dialectic models than to such a static comparison.

What would be the model rodent for the next phase in this paradigm? It certainly does not dwell in country cottages nor filthy city sewers. Perhaps it’s something like the Lewis Rat. Docile, crowd-tolerating, disease-prone and sterile. Far removed from its badass ancestors, it lives its life (happily?) in a controlled environment, looking for dopamine hits and unvoluntarily participating in occasional, sometimes deadly drug experiments. The mouse’s bold merit and the rat’s gritty struggle for survival are equally alien to it. Its existence is a simulation, and its fate is always a quickly forgotten death.

It makes sense, then, that in this age of deep fakes and simulacra, we should rely on ersatz-plague as motors for change. The real thing is just too much. SARS-CoV-2 is a relatively mild pathogen, when compared to the Yersinia pestis. The world, however, is now more labile than ever to such disturbances; Covid is an opponent worthy enough.

The Third Plague already had a globalized response when information was still running through telegraph lines. Today’s communications have made planet Earth ridiculously small. The effects of any released bioweapon lab leak wet market outbreak are felt accross the globe in real time. Thus, coronavirus has become the final ingredient for the engine of Revolution to reach positive acceleration again. It has become a line of flight for the assemblage of Western realities. Soon shifting to the next gear will be inescapable: a new Great Reset, this time named explicitly as such.

What is to be expected? Perhaps Bruce Sterling said it best when he summarized cyberpunk as this: “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats.” Luckily, runaway rats do exist. After all, lab leaks seem to be all the rage this days.

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