Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Socialism on drugs (2009)

The Pathfinders column from the May 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

When young people ask if there would be drugs in socialism, they don't have in mind things like Seroxat and Prozac, they mean Skunk and Poppers. We can't say these things would be 'legal' or 'illegal', because the status of 'law' in a cooperative stateless community remains to be debated. What we can say is, if people need a drug and there is no good, scientific reason for not manufacturing it, it will no doubt be produced.

Capitalism has a funny attitude to drugs, both the legal, medical kind and the illegal, recreational kind. Legal drugs with important medicinal properties are often not produced because there is no profit in doing so, often because the patents on them have expired and lie in the public domain. This is the problem facing the new 'Polypill', a cocktail of five very cheap drugs which evidence suggests may halve the rate of strokes and heart attacks in middle-aged people ('The polypill: Medicine's magic bullet', Independent, 31 March). It works, but it won't be produced because it doesn't make money. Much the same can be said of many other cheap, unexploitable drugs which would save millions of lives in developing countries yet can't turn enough bucks for the big boys. Instead the drug companies concentrate on research into diseases of rich, white Westerners, such as obesity and skin cancer.

Where there's a wallet, there's a way, but even if you accept capitalism's own profit-oriented logic, its attitude to illegal recreational drugs still fails to make any kind of sense. From Al Capone to Afghanistan, the history of drug prohibition by capitalism continues to represent one of the most bizarrely stupid aspects of a social system never notable for its good judgment. The lesson of America's prohibition period should have taught the world that if you banned coffee today, you would create a coffee mafia tomorrow, in the process creating an unnecessary and, from the ruling class point of view, expensive 'war on coffee' simply to deprive people of something harmless that they like. We would also see a crime problem at every scale from coffee barons and their private armies to burglaries and back-alley shootings over a jar of Maxwell House in Manchester.

Most of the arguments against illicit drugs are bogus, unscientific and politically oriented. In particular, the idea that legalisation would create a massive social problem of a drug-crazed free-for-all is not borne out by the experience of Holland, or more recently of Portugal, which decriminalised illicit drugs in 2001. There, it turns out, drug usage and associated behavioural pathologies are among the lowest in all the EU countries, especially when compared to those countries with very restrictive drug laws (Cato Institute White Paper, 2 April).

While the drugs 'problem' is not a make or break issue for socialists, it does illustrate how capitalism tends to operate in defiance of any logic, even its own. Even leaving aside more pressing issues like poverty, war or climate change, it ought to be obvious from this that it is simply not clever to leave major decisions about production and supply in the hands of an unelected and uncontrollable minority. The capitalist ruling class are making the whole planet ill, and there's no magic pill for that.

Arthouse socialism
One accessibility issue about which there would be no question whatever in socialism is that of copyright, so the young Swedes recently convicted of copyright infringement over their Pirate Bay file-sharing site would have no case to answer in a society of common ownership ('Court jails Pirate Bay founders', BBC Online, 17 April). Their defence, that their web server did not contain illicit material, was always a long shot. True, they weren't handling 'stolen' goods themselves, but the court took the view that they were doing the equivalent of standing outside a house full of silverware and directing passers-by towards the open windows.

Socialists, as indeed many workers, have little sympathy for the fat cats of Hollywood and the music industry. Most writers, actors and musicians make no money out of their creativity anyway, so the property laws do nothing for them. Indeed, by giving workers so little respite from wage-slavery, it could be argued that capitalism prevents much art and science from ever being born in the first place, as well as narrowing the full spectrum of human creativity to a thin channel of bland commercial profitability. Who can say how many Mozarts, Mendels or Modiglianis the world has killed or incapacitated through poverty, wars or sheer overwork?

The Swedish defendants are probably too busy organising their appeal to note an amusing story in the British papers which shows that even the police don't take music copyright seriously. The Wiltshire police have just had a £32,000 bill from the Performing Rights Society for the playing of music in Wiltshire nicks ('Music bill forces police off beat', BBC Online, 17 April). Now the boys in blue are banned from their boogie boxes. Presumably now they'll just have to use their whistles.

No-spam socialism
Trivial point maybe, but socialism wouldn't see much in the way of spam, the background white noise of online capitalism, since commercial advertising of products wouldn't exist, nor any dodgy Nigerian money scams. So most emails would presumably be legitimate, apart possibly from those tedious 'Hey, this is hilarious, send it on!' posts which in any case only prove that workers under capitalism will resort to any tactic to waste their bosses' time at work. The environmental significance of this irritating feature of cyber-capitalism has now been highlighted by a new report which for the first time relates spam to carbon emissions. Every year, says the report, 62 trillion spam messages are sent globally, representing 33 billion kilowatt hours of energy and 17 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (BBC Online, 16 April). When a spam site was recently closed, the resulting 70 percent drop in global spam was equivalent to taking 2.2 million cars off the road, according to the antivirus company McAfee. Next day, of course, another site was up and running instead. On with the show.
Paddy Shannon