While researching in Louisiana a decade ago, I stumbled upon the story of Ralph Roanoke in an 1852 issue of the Knickerbocker Magazine. Roanoke, a white man from wintry Connecticut, had come to sunny New Orleans seeking economic prosperity in the cotton industry. He secured a clerking position in a commission house by spring, but by summer, yellow fever—an incurable and highly lethal virus—ravaged the city and claimed thousands of lives. In the nineteenth century, half of all yellow fever victims died after regurgitating thick black blood, while the fortunate survivors obtained lifetime immunity. With the epidemic intensifying and the city descending into chaos, those who could, fled. The thousands too poor to escape, however, watched an endless procession of hearses “pass and repass from hour to hour, from day to day, and from week to week.” Night after “hideous” night, free and enslaved townspeople were “terrified into intoxication by the dread of becoming the next victims, filling the air with savage yells” (Olivarius 2022; Roanoke 1852).
Roanoke faced the same daunting “choice” that all free New Orleanians faced during the epidemic: flee the city and save his life, but lose his job and remain an “unacclimated stranger”; or remain in town and risk death, but potentially become an “acclimated citizen.” He opted to leave that summer, only to be branded a coward by his employer. He was subsequently fired upon his return in the autumn. Roanoke had to search for employment from a position of weakness. As he lamented, “good business qualifications and good testimonials of character…were insufficient without the ‘sine qua non’ of an acclimated citizen.” As an even deadlier epidemic mounted the following summer, Roanoke determined it was now or never. Pooling his “Pride, Hope, and Ambition,” he would face yellow fever and thus “life with prosperity, or death in the effort.” By October, he developed pain in his lower back, a violent headache, and fuzzy vision. He grew delirious and suffered mightily for three days. But Roanoke survived. And now, as he declared: “Victory had perched upon my banner. I was an acclimated citizen, and as such, received into full favor in the city of New-Orleans, where they distrust every body, and call them non residents, until they become endorsed by the yellow fever” (Roanoke 1852).
In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag critiqued the reduction of an individual’s disease to innate psychological traits or flaws. Sontag argued that certain illnesses, such as tuberculosis in the nineteenth century, and cancer and AIDS in the twentieth, have been historically demonized or romanticized, with sufferers stigmatized as personally responsible for their illness. She called for the rejection these cultural metaphors, emphasizing that illnesses are simply physical ailments that can affect anyone, devoid of myth and moralism (Sontag 1989).
Roanoke, like hundreds of thousands of yellow fever survivors in antebellum Louisiana, described surviving yellow fever with capitalistic, triumphant, and moralistic metaphors. Seeking privilege not stigma, New Orleans was a crucible; yellow fever had endorsed him; he had chosen to take on disease risk; his acquired immunity was a passport or credential that gave him significant professional leverage. Survivors emerged from their ordeal as men, naturalized citizens, even heroes, while those who died had chosen their fate as they were weak, unprincipled, imprudent, and most of all drunk.
On a macro scale, yellow fever did more than stratify the antebellum population between the haves and have-nots of immunity. Immune elites weaponized acclimation to discipline the population, increase their wealth, justify racial slavery and ethnic prejudice, and rationalize inequality overall. The immunity-mediated system that developed in New Orleans wasn’t quite Foucault’s biopower, a technology for state control over bodies. Nor was it necessarily surveillance based, putting it somewhat outside Achille Mbembé’s (2003) necropolitics (see also Foucault 2007). I described this as “immunocapitalism,” a system of class rule in which mass death from yellow fever and weaponized immunity came to legitimate vast racial, ethnic, gender, and economic inequality.
Historians are somewhat theory allergic, but we do like to brand systems and trends. Nothing has been subject to more modifiers over the last twenty years than “capital” and “capitalism,” which have moved far beyond strict Marxist definitions. In slave-racial, war, disaster, and environmental capitalism (to name a few), people can harness all manner of intangible capitals—religious, symbolic, erotic, racial, and intellectual—for pecuniary gain (Hodgson 2015:184).
“Immunocapital” is a neologism. But it captures how people in the Greater Caribbean conceived of acclimation, closely aligned with the definitions of economic, social, and political capital outlined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In antebellum New Orleans, immunity was immaterial, invisible, intangible, and non-transferable between people. But immunocapital was merit-based—as each person earned it by getting sick and surviving—and this “credential” was encoded with pecuniary value just as tangible forms of capital were. A free white man with immunocapital found himself economically improved. He made more money in better jobs. He was more readily promoted. He had access to new lines of credit and insurance. His improved social standing meant he could marry up, even potentially into Creole circles. Immune white individuals also possessed cultural capital. In declaring themselves acclimated, they made a claim about their innate worth and legitimacy—that they had chosen to survive and were ipso facto good, worthy risks (Bourdieu 1977, 1986; see also Levy 2017). With one illness standing between obscurity and privilege, it’s no wonder that many recent immigrants actively sought sickness: huddling together in cramped dwellings, or jumping into a bed where friends had just died—the antebellum forerunners to chickenpox parties, except much deadlier.
Choice, of course, had nothing to do with surviving yellow fever in the nineteenth century—“better” people were not more likely to “beat” the disease. Lucky survivors were generally richer and thus whiter, had fewer comorbidities, lived in more spacious quarters, ate more nutritious food, and were able to afford expensive doctors and nurses. Poor and enslaved people could not afford expensive medicines independently, and could not easily flee when epidemics broke out. And in a cruel twist, the economic value of enslaved Black people’s immunity—gained only by falling dangerously ill—accrued to their white owners. “Guaranteed acclimated” slaves sold for between 25 and 50 percent more as the value of the capital they embodied was inherently safer (Olivarius 2022: Ch. 3).
Immunocapitalism arose in antebellum New Orleans under a precise set of climatic, political, and economic circumstances. But the concept is historically transportable to places and times outside Louisiana, applying to any disease to which humans can acquire immunity to through exposure or vaccination—and where privilege is bestowed on survivors. Our own Covid-19 pandemic was proof of concept, especially in the early days of 2020. Then, powerful people encouraged deliberate infection—including President Donald J. Trump—so as to create an immune class of workers who could patriotically reignite the economy. Of course, many people across the globe did not have the option to not take on Covid risk, especially before the vaccine. Millions of undocumented laborers continued to work in cramped and dangerous conditions, keeping our supply and food chains operational. Prisoners were trapped inside their cells as coronavirus swept through. Uninsured Uber drivers had no choice but to keep driving. Restaurant and hotel owners, already working on tight margins, worried their businesses—and employees—would not survive.
These essays explore heavy topics but riff on immunocapital in intriguing, future-oriented, and, dare I say, optimistic ways. Kawa shows how a few select anthropologists, free from the pressures placed on contingent faculty and from heavy teaching loads, accumulate intellectual capital in academia; that is, they are “immunized” from the pressures placed on field research assistants and students subject to a “neoliberal audit culture.” Rath and Das Gupta trace “autoimmune capitalism” and the push to reopen Hawaii’s tourism industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mostly white tourists’ desire for a “tropical fantasyscape” came at great expense to mostly non-white hotel workers, who took on considerable disease risk. Uncompensated workers and unions like UNITE HERE! Local 5 pushed for enhanced safety protocols. Malik’s exploration of caste-based “immaterial immunocapital” in New Delhi’s beauty industry shows that beauty workers are not created equal. Makeup artists are considered the creatives, and their labor is highly valued, but beauticians are relegated to the world of hygiene, cleanliness, and dirt. Yates-Doerr’s “Bloodwork” narrates her diagnosis of uterine fibroids and subsequent hysterectomy. Blood—literally and figuratively—circulates through biosocial systems. Finally, in “Conversations in a Time of Crisis,” Sumathy et al take part in wide ranging discussion of contemporary Sri Lankan politics and hierarchies within academia.
Each of these essays push the geographic framework of immunocapital. Each hint at solutions to growing global inequality. Immunocapital can thus be used not only to describe human orderings in a cotton boom town two centuries ago, but also offer a future in which resiliency, recognition, and equality are possible.
The special issue of Anthropology of Work Review, entitled “Immunocapitalism and Capitalist Immunities” (Volume 43, Issue 2) is available here: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/15481417/2022/43/2
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241-258 in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Trans. G. Burchell. New York: Palgrave.
Hodgson, Geoffrey Martin. 2015. Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levy, Jonathan. 2017. “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism.” Business History Review 91(3):483-510.
Mbembé, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Trans. L. Meintjes. Public Culture 15(1):11-40.
Olivarius, Kathryn. 2022. Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Roanoke, Ralph. 1852. “Random Leaf from the Life of Ralph Roanoke.” Knickerbocker, September, pp. 196-203.
Sontag, Susan. 1989. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kathryn Olivarius is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, specializing in slavery, race, and disease in the United States.