Friday, August 19, 2016

Running Commentary: No Tragedy, Cambodia (1980)

The Running Commentary Column from the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

For years, Cambodia has been mauled over by the competing powers in South East Asia. Devastated by war, since 1975 four million people have died out of a population which was then eight million. Now tens of thousands make their desperate way along the refugee trail into Thailand.

Like ghosts they travel, limbs as thin as bamboo, ravaged by diseases of malnutrition - dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera. Skeleton-like mothers cradle children with swollen bellies, heads like skulls.

This is a situation beyond despair; it is estimated that, unless they get vast amounts of help, 2¼ million more Cambodians could die of starvation during the next few months.

There are many bitter ironies in this human hell. Cambodia was once a peaceful, fertile place. Infiltrated by the Victcong, it became the target of pitiless raids by the American bombers.

Then came the Khmer Rouge, with their policy of genocide. Now it agonises under invasion from Vietnam and an unrelenting guerilla war with what remains of the Khmer Rouge.

And this, for Cambodia is the grisly climax to the International Year of the Child, when capitalism vowed to pay special care to the wellbeing of children. And it came some time after Henry Kissinger had smugly accepted the Nobel Prize for supposedly bringing peace to the area.

Cambodia has been ravaged because it is in the middle of a typical power struggle of capitalism, involving some of the world’s great armed blocs. Capitalism habitually defiles, destroys, terrorises. Human beings are never of urgent account to capitalism and when the stakes in terms of material advantage are high enough they become worth little more than the mud they die in, among the refugee camps.

So Cambodia is not, as the media are so fond of calling it, a tragedy. A more correct description for it would be a symptom. In this case the disease is curable; only abolish capitalism and places like Cambodia will again be green and tranquil lands.

Blood pressure in the best gentlemen’s clubs and the most refined drawing rooms must have been forced several notches upward by the recent debates on issues of poverty in, of all places, the letter columns of the Daily Telegraph.

There was a discussion about whether there actually was any suffering from hunger and other deprivation during the slumps of the Twenties and the Thirties. This is not, one might think, a matter over which anyone could dispute for long, unless history is rewritten to wipe out all those records of unemployment, ill fed and ragged children, mouldering slums.

Then there was a rather more refined debate, over the rights and wrongs—or rather the existence or non-existence—of hypothermia among the elderly. This was started by a letter from an orthopaedic surgeon in Glamorgan, calling workers who want to live in a warm home in the winter “softies” and advocating “ . . . more physical activity in the elderly . . .  a good breakfast of porridge . . . several layers of lightweight loose clothing . . ."

There are, of course, plenty of countries with a climate which normally provides living temperatures as comfortable as a properly heated English house. No surgeon suggests that people in those countries have gone soft or have lost the use of vital, heat generating organs.

In truth, the debate was about the living conditions, and the alleged extravagance, of only one social set. It is the working class, whose life depends upon their earning a wage, who suffer conditions like hypothermia. When a worker is too old to work there is only reliance on a pension, or on charity, which often means cutting back on essentials like heating.

It is old workers who die, in silent misery, from the cold of an English winter. After a lifetime of exploitation the indignity of that death is all that capitalism has to offer them. For an expensively trained surgeon to debate whether they need a warm home where they can stay alive is to add cold insult to sick injury.

As the proprietor of any Health Food Store will tell you, ginseng is the greatest thing since natural, hundred per cent stone ground, wholemeal, unsliced bread.

This product from the root of the ginseng plant is reputed to be both a tranquiliser and a stimulant (an aphrodisiac no less) which sounds rather like having your cake (or whatever) and eating (or whatever) it.

It is perhaps a measure of the desperation of what is left of the British car industry, that one of its firms is turning to the ancient Chinese medicament as a way of casing its problems.

This firm is about to launch a controlled medical experiment on the effects of ginseng upon production, feeding genuine doses of the stuff to one lot of workers and dummy tablets to another. Success or failure will be measured, need we add, not just by whether the subjects of the experiment are happier, healthier, have a more satisfactory sex life—but on whether production goes up or down.

This trial is not without precedent. Two Japanese car firms supply free ginseng to their workers, as does the great new Lada plant in Russia. This meeting of the minds, of the avowedly capitalist and the allegedly socialist, on the issue of the more profitable exploitation of workers, is instructive as to the common, capitalist, nature of society in both those countries.

But what happens, if all the car manufacturers throughout the world are feeding ginseng to their workers? Who then will be the unprofitable ones? Will British Leyland magically revive? Will capitalism suddenly stop being a society where wealth is turned out for sale and profit?

In fact, profitability does not in the last analysis depend on the state of mind of a workforce. Capitalism’s goods have to be sold in order to realise a profit, which means that its prosperity relies upon the market. Nobody has yet discovered a way to eliminate the anarchic nature of the market, which is why capitalism's booms and slumps are not susceptible to control or to forecast.

Workers in the productive process can have no effect on the market; under capitalism production takes place blind, in the hope that the goods can be sold profitably. If they can’t, then production shuts down. And for an unemployed worker, there is not likely to be even the consolation of tranquilising, stimulating ginseng; like most stuff sold in the Health Food stores, it is pretty expensive.

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