Saturday, August 1, 2009

Capitalism is bad for your health (2009)

From the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
Capitalism puts a price on everything including human life.
Today the promotion and maintenance of good health and the treatment and cure of ill people is divided among three sectors: private, public and voluntary. The motivating concept in the private sector is pursuit of profit for the providers. The public sector aims primarily to provide goods and services for the consuming public, usually with state or other subsidy. The voluntary sector is the least money-oriented of the three; it is concerned with helping people to help others and themselves.

To some extent the three sectors compete and even conflict with each other. People in urgent need of a serious operation ponder whether they can afford to “go private” quickly or have to join a lengthy NHS waiting list. Can those with extensive work and domestic responsibilities find the time to volunteer in the same way? (In fact one in six people in Britain do volunteer work of one kind or another.)

The three sectors also work together to form the health part of the capitalist system. Public-private partnerships have grown within the welfare state. Paid organisers and administrative staff help to run part of the ”voluntary” sector, in effect employing unpaid labour.

All three sectors are concerned in different ways with the meeting of human need. The private sector uses capital and labour to meet needs that are expressed in economic terms and with the expectation of profit for the providers: “We’ll try to keep you well and treat you if you’re not, but only if you pay the market price for this.” The public sector is more concerned with meeting the needs of the system than of people: “If you can’t pay you can wait for free or cheap treatment because the economy needs fit workers, not unproductive ones.” The voluntary sector focuses on meeting human needs, but it does so to help keep the system going: “You are a good citizen if you volunteer—give free labour—to meet the health needs of others.”

Capitalism puts a price on everything, including human life. The nice (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) people in the NHS reckon that £30,000 is the maximum price to pay for a year’s drug treatment if you’ve got terminal cancer. There is a profitable (to shareholders) insurance industry that has a tariff of payouts for various injuries and health losses.

Capitalism is bad for your health, especially if you are a worker. In employment you are likely to be worried about the consequences of losing it or struggling to find the money to pay all the bills. The use of antidepressants is widespread, particularly among the unemployed. Four in ten people on invalidity benefit are now off work because of mental illness—twice as many as in the 1980s. “Presenteeism”—turning up for work ill—is also on the increase.

Cheap fatty food leads to problems of obesity, while ill old people who lack care are undernourished. Addiction to medicines and alcohol is encouraged by the profit-seeking providers, marketing firms re-brand foods rich in antioxidants as “superfoods”, but these may do more harm than good. Wars in which no working-class interest is at stake benefit the √©lite in the war industry, but kill, maim and cause mental illness to the armed forces and civilians.

Healthier socialism
What can we say about the likely effects on health and illness of future socialist society? It is easier to foresee what won’t happen than what will. The promotion of good health and the care of the injured and sick won’t be restricted by money considerations. There will be no profit to be made out of employing people in dangerous occupations, supplying them with unhealthy substances or encouraging their harmful addictions. No sales-people will advertise items and services that at best have no good effect on health and at worst damage it. Health and injury insurance and the compensation industry won’t be necessary.

The types and incidence of health problems are likely to differ in the early stage of socialism from later stages when the legacy from the money system will have receded. Also, some parts of the world today have different degrees of economic development, commonly referred to as under-developed, developing and developed. We don’t know the extent to which present trends, such as urbanisation and environmental degradation, will continue, accelerate or be reversed.

One thing we can say for certain is that socialism will release us from useless and harmful capitalist employment. We shall be free to take up work that will meet the needs of ourselves, others and the community, society and world in which we live. This is not to say that there won’t be problems to overcome. Natural disasters and pandemics won’t end with capitalism, although more effort will doubtless be devoted to avoiding and coping with them.

The recruitment, training and deployment of committed volunteers will take much organising and administration. The emphasis will be on activities and tasks rather than on occupational labels: nursing, brain surgery, portering, scientific research, and so on, rather than nurses, brain surgeons, porters, scientific researchers. Everywhere we shall treat each other as friendly co-operators, not competing commodities.
Stan Parker

Exploitation in Uzbekistan (2009)

The Material World column from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Uzbekistan has been in the news. According the BBC and the Observer (24 May) the government has been forcing hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to pick cotton in the searing heat, and to live in squalid conditions, on “pitiful wages”,

Uzbekistan the world’s third largest exporter of cotton. Uzbek state-owned and controlled cotton has been sold to some of the world’s largest retailers, such as Asda, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Wal-Mart, earning it more than one billion dollars to date.

The International Labour Organisation, however, has recently got the Uzbek government to sign conventions committing it to stop using child labour in its cotton industry. A number of retailers, including Asda and Tesco, are reported as having pulled out of Uzbekistan. Whether the government will implement the ILO conventions remains to be seen.

During the 19th century the area of Central Asia of which modern Uzbekistan is a part, was known as Turkestan, which was incorporated into the Tsarist Empire in the 1860s. The majority of the population were Moslems.

With the downfall of Tsarism the area broke away from Russia; but, after bloody nationalist uprisings, was finally recaptured by Soviet Russia. Uzbekistan became a Soviet Republic in 1924.

After the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, the Bolsheviks gained in influence, and played an increasingly prominent role in the Tashkent soviet, eventually gaining control. They then extended their control to other towns in the area.

In February, 1925, the Communist Party of Uzbekistan held its first congress. It was the only legal party in the country. The second congress, held in November the same year, put through land reforms. Between 1930 and 1934, more than 40,000 peasant “kulak” holdings were forcibly liquidated, and their former owners were either deported or executed. Collectivisation and industrialisation was implemented on a large scale.

The Stalinist purges of 1925 and 1937 were particularly drastic in Uzbekistan. The prime minister, Faizullah Khodzhaev, and the Party first secretary, Ikramov, were accused of organising a nationalist plot, with the assistance of British agents, and were both shot. Previously, the Soviet authorities, in line with developing capitalist industry, persuaded or forced women to abandon the burka and the veil. But hundreds of them were killed by their own husbands and relatives for violating the essential commandments of Islam.

King Cotton
By the beginning of the Second World War, Uzbekistan had become “the most powerful and economically most developed of all the republics of Central Asia” (Economic Geography of the USSR, N. Baransky, Moscow, 1956, p.370); and had become the main cotton producer of the Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan is not particularly large compared with other Central Asian countries (it is 447,400 km2 or 172,700 miles2); but it has a population of about 23 million (compared with Kazakhstan’s five million), of whom 70 percent are Uzbeks. The second largest nationality are Russians. It is bordered by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, with the Aral Sea to the northwest of the country.

From 1930 to 1945 Uzbekistan went through a period of rapid industrialisation. Oil production, and copper and coal mining, were all developed. Hundreds of thousands of former peasants, many of them displaced Russians, became wage slaves. But above all, cotton became King.

Uzbekistan produced cotton decades before the Soviet era. But following Soviet control, the aim consisted of maximising cotton production regardless of the interests of the local Uzbek population. Under Tsarist rule the cotton-growing area of what is now Uzbekistan, was about one million acres by the beginning of 1914. In 1950, it had increased to 2.5 million acres. “Large-scale irrigation work with the aim to extend the area under cotton was carried out in the 1951-1955 period in the central, most desert part of the Ferghana Valley” (Baransky, p.372). The area under cultivation in Uzbekistan is now more then 3 million acres. Numerous cotton-ginning plants and cotton mills have been constructed.

At the same time, however, the Soviet regime diminished the cereal-growing areas from 3.8 million acres in 1913 to 3.5 million acres by 1938. With an increase in population of nearly two million between 1926 and 1939, Uzbekistan became more dependent on food supplies from Russia. During the war, the population of Uzbekistan increased again by another two million. The food situation became critical. All of which, then and later, increased “bourgeois nationalist” discontent in the country.

Post-Soviet Independence
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan emerged as a sovereign state in 1991. It did not become even a limited “bourgeois democracy”. The media is tightly controlled. The United Nations report that torture is systematic. The country has been denied cash from most “international financial” institutions; and unemployment is currently 40 percent.

However, “former US president George W. Bush started funding the uncompromising president, Karimov, after the country allowed US planes to stop there in the run-up to the Afghanistan invasion” (Observer, 24 May).

Meanwhile, Uzbek workers, young and old, continue to be exploited, repressed and robbed, creating surplus value and profits for the local, and overseas, capitalists.
Peter E. Newell

Counting bodies (2009)

Editorial from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just as the Iraqi oil permits and contracts are starting to get signed off, so the numbers of "coalition" (UK and US) troops stationed there are being scaled down. As authority for the stable management of capitalism is handed back to a new Iraqi authority that can be trusted by the likes of Exxon, BP and Shell, so attention turns to the other theatre in the so-called "war against terror", that of Afghanistan.
Last month the total UK military deaths in Afghanistan to date surpassed those in the Iraq conflict (179). When the UK forces ceremonially handed authority to the Iraq state, the name of every UK soldier killed was solemnly read out. The names of Iraqis killed during the same period were not read out, for obvious reasons: it would take 2-3 weeks to complete. No one is keeping much of a score it would seem however. As US General Tommy Franks indicated: "we don't do body counts".

As attention turns to Afghanistan, and to the coffins driven through silenced town centres, there has been renewed debate about what "we" (the UK state) are actually doing there. The idea that “we” are trying to hunt down bin Laden has been quietly shelved. Instead the line we are given is that the British state is "fighting terrorists there in order to ensure we don't have to fight them over here". Stripping away all the state propaganda, the real issue remains clear: they are fighting over there to prop up a friendly government in a country strategically placed to control oil from the Caspian Region. If the Iraq conflict was about extracting the stuff from the ground, the Afghanistan war is about securing an alternative route to get it to market.

Tempting though it may be, you don't need to select between the false options offered by capitalism. You don't have to choose between, on the one hand, supporting the British state's bloody efforts in Afghanistan, and, on the other hand, supporting those unlikeliest of freedom fighters that make up the Taliban. You don't have to choose between the old-fashioned barbarism of the semi-feudal Taliban tribal leaders and war lords, and the modern barbarism of capitalism. World socialists reject that choice. We support neither side. We denounce as obscene the calls to send more weapons to the UK troops in Afghanistan so they can kill more of the tribesmen they are fighting. More crucially, we express a clear and consistent opposition to war, based not merely on emotion or morals, but on recognition that no working class interests are ever at stake in the battles of our leaders or our employers.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the parties of the World Socialist Movement have never taken sides in capitalism's wars. Almost 100 years ago, according to the propaganda, the "coalition forces" (allies) went to war (the First World War) in order to "end war". Nowadays the objective is supposedly much the same: to prosecute a war in order to put an end to "terror". But this is similarly doomed. Wars are just a normal part of the mechanism of capitalism, as a means of resolving disputed ownership rights. It is the global working class who overwhelmingly find themselves in the front line and in the crosshairs. While a majority of this class continue to choose to retain capitalism, then war - and the terror it brings - will continue around the globe, and the coffins will keep coming home.