Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Material World: Japan’s unnatural disaster (2011)

The Material World Column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural phenomena. But it is known where – if not when – they are going to strike. So in principle society could take action to minimise the human impact.

It was known that the seabed off the northeastern coast of Honshu (the main island of the Japanese archipelago) is prone to earthquakes. It was known that a sufficiently powerful offshore earthquake would generate a tsunami. So why not leave the endangered coastal area uninhabited?

Crammed into the danger zone
This earthquake and most of its aftershocks were offshore. However, the next major earthquake may well occur, as long predicted, on land. It is a matter of when, not whether.

The area at greatest risk is the southern coastal strip of Honshu that stretches west from Tokyo – a city already devastated by earthquakes in 1891 and 1923. And yet the eastern half of this strip, up to Osaka, covering a mere 6 percent of Japan’s land area, is the country’s industrial powerhouse, with 45 percent of its population of 127.5 million. Tokyo and its outlying cities alone contain 30 percent of the country’s population. Would a rational society cram so many people and resources into the zone of maximum danger?

It is true that many modern buildings have been equipped to withstand seismic shocks. But most older buildings are much more poorly designed. For one glaring example, look at some photos of Tokyo street scenes and count the bulky signboards attached to storefronts at a single point, just waiting for a jolt to break free and fall on the heads of the people below.

To accommodate urban growth, about a quarter of Tokyo Bay (150 square miles) has been reclaimed from the sea. When the earth shakes, as it has recently, the loose soil of this reclaimed land undergoes liquefaction (becomes liquid). The shaking is also liable to spill and set ablaze the oil and toxic chemicals stored in the numerous tanks that line the shore of Tokyo Bay. Fires still rage up and down the coast, including a conflagration at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara City.

Suicide bomber
The ultimate in insanity, however, is Japan’s growing reliance on nuclear power, driven by the desire of its ruling class to overcome reliance on energy imports, especially oil from the Middle East. Nuclear power currently supplies 30 percent of the country’s energy – a figure projected to rise to 50 percent by 2030. Fukushima, where a Chernobyl-type disaster is still unfolding, is one of a dozen nuclear plants located on the coastal strip of northeastern Honshu, in the path of tsunamis from offshore earthquakes. The Hamaoka plant, to the southwest of Tokyo, perches on an active fault line.

Katsuhiko Ishibashi of Kobe University, a seismologist who resigned from a committee setting safety guidelines for nuclear reactors in 2005 when his concerns over building nuclear plants on earthquake fault lines were ignored, put it this way: “Japan is an earthquake-prone archipelago, and lining its waterfront are 54 nuclear plants. It’s like a suicide bomber wearing grenades around his belt.”

It is not only Japan that generates nuclear power in earthquake-prone areas. Some 20 percent of the world’s 443 nuclear reactors are located in seismic zones. There are two nuclear power plants at risk from earthquakes in China’s Fujian Province, one in Turkey, and one in Armenia. In the United States several nuclear power plants are in places that have experienced earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. Another tsunami-triggered disaster like that at Fukushima is waiting to happen in San Diego, California, where a nuclear power plant stands right on the beach, facing an active fault line a few miles offshore.

There were also technical problems with the design and operation of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima complex. The company that owns the complex, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), has a record of covering up safety issues. The complex was built by Toshiba, using a reduced-cost design by General Electric with a relatively small containment structure.

Does it make sense?
From the perspective of a truly human community – that is, socialism – it makes no sense deliberately to court disaster in this manner. But does it make sense even from a capitalist point of view, considering the enormous losses borne by the companies most affected by the devastation? After all, capital craves its own expansion, not annihilation. It does not really share the death wish of the suicide bomber.

One answer is that most investors are concerned solely with expected short-term profits – and they never expect disaster, even though they must know it is always a possibility. Moreover, high-speed communications and data processing make it easy to move capital around almost instantaneously in search of maximum short-term profits. By giving priority to reducing risk, a company would have to accept higher costs and lower profits in the short term. It would soon find itself short of capital and might face hostile takeover or bankruptcy.

Another factor may be at work here – namely, the psychological mechanism called denial. Instead of carefully assessing risks and consciously accepting them, a capitalist may avoid stress by closing his mind in advance to considerations of risk that he fears will jeopardise his profits. He may persuade himself that those who draw attention to risks have a hidden political agenda. This applies especially to risks that are posed by nature. To take nature and its requirements seriously might jeopardise not only profits but the whole profit system.

Greasy Pole : Life, death or suicide? (2011)

The Greasy Pole column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Thanks to New Labour’s trumpeted policy of being “tough on crime” administered by the likes of Jack Straw and David Blunkett (they never actually got around to the other bit about tackling the cause of it all) there are something over 85,000 people in prison in this country (also, they never sorted out whether over-crowded prisons proved that they had succeeded, or failed, to beat crime). At present none of the prisoners is allowed to vote; in any case if they were not banned the fact that they come from homes all over means that the effect would be dispersed between many constituencies and so unlikely to affect any single result. Which has not lessened the interest, not to say at times passion, over whether anyone who has been locked up for offending against some of the accepted norms of property society, by theft or violence, should have a say in how that society is run day-to-day.


The controversy was brought up for wide public discussion by the case of one John Hirst. By no means an easy, attractive man – as a child he was abused after being placed in a Barnardos home and suffers from Asperger’s syndrome – Hirst was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing his landlady with an axe in what was described as a detached, callous manner. In the event he served 25 years and after release under supervision on licence he personified the campaign to overturn the ban on prisoners voting, on the grounds that it contravened the Human Rights Act, which became law in the UK in 2000. This Act, which was greeted in many a court room with derisive irritation, sprang from a guarantee in the European Convention on Human Rights of “free elections…by secret ballot under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the people in the choice of the legislature”. But it was not all plain sailing thereafter. In April 2001 the High Court in Britain rejected an application for the enfranchisement of prisoners but three years later this decision was itself overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, leading the Council of Europe in December 2009 to question whether the general election due in May 2010 would be illegal. Which did not, of course, prevent that election going ahead even if some of the candidates were subsequently imprisoned for other criminal offences. In February last, the Commons emphatically opted to keep the ban although this flew in the face of the country’s obligations as a signatory to the ECHR and could lead to prisoners suing for damages which might total as much as £160 million.

Civic Death

In terms of legislation the matter goes back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870, which moderated some of the consequences of “civic death” dating back to the 14th century. The present ban was imposed in law in 1983, 1985 and 2000, which placed the UK at variance with most other European countries and in accord with the likes of Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary, so that a government which professes to staunchly respect the rule of law and the sanctity of its treaty obligations has persistently acted in an illegal and cynical way. Some prisoners – and others outside gaol – may have their own opinion about the motivation of those who preach endlessly about “right” and “wrong” but who are ready to apply their own, conveniently flexible, interpretation of these terms. Is this a problem to those who solemnly construct capitalism’s regulations governing property and privilege? For one thing, the possibility of losing the right to vote through being sent to prison is unlikely to have deterred any of those 85,000 from their efforts to improve their lot through the kind of theft or violence which capitalism rules as illegal. For example in the recent elections in the Irish Republic only 191 prisoners out of a total of 4,500 registered for a vote. So the ruling class can be reassured; from casual contact with some inmates of those grim monuments to futile punishment it is unlikely that if they had the vote they would use it in the only constructive possible way; rather, after their own fashion they will support at the ballot box the whole society of class denial and exploitation – on the assumption that they can so re-arrange things as to be the exploiters.

Cameron Is Ill

David Cameron has said that the very idea of prisoners being allowed to join the millions of misled, prejudiced, unthinking voters makes him “physically ill”. It is difficult to believe that someone who has so ruthlessly scaled the greasy pole is so delicate. Is he not propelled into nausea at the evidence of capitalism’s desolation? Famously reputed to be an affectionate family man, was he not repelled when Save the Children reported that 1.6 million children in the country he rules over are living in extreme poverty? Does he suffer sleepless nights when he hears of yet another incident of children being slaughtered under the guns and missiles in Afghanistan? Are his digestive processes affected when he is informed of the effect of his government’s policies on benefits for the frail and elderly who, no longer a viable employment prospect, look on their future with fear? So what is the scale of the matter? Before it recently emerged into the news through the processes of the law, there was no apparent awareness of it among the electorate at large. It was not an issue during that last election. The entire dispute in this case is another irrelevance when the urgent need is to end a society under the rule of the likes of Cameron and his lies. To end, in other words, this present situation where those who can vote do so as a kind of civic suicide.

Halo Halo!: A religious understanding (2011)

The Halo Halo! column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

I love being handed leaflets in the street. If I’d saved every one I’ve ever been given I’d have thousands. Come to think of it, I must have handed out a few thousand socialist leaflets myself over the years. But it’s the more amateurish, home-made looking ones that fascinate me.

The brightly coloured ones on multi-folded squares of paper that were probably done on a 60’s home printing kit are the best. And if the person distributing them seems to be slightly embarrassed about handing them out that’s also a good sign. So when I was approached recently by a man in orange trousers with a fistful of leaflets and a large cross dangling from a piece of string, who had been standing next to a puddle in Luton town centre, I knew I was onto a winner.

“Just as Adam and Eve chose to believe in themselves so people since have been living and dying in exclusion from the tree of life,” it started. Magic! Pure poetry. But that was just the beginning. I turned to the back and read on. “. . . then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the spirit gave them utterance”. Wow, I thought. That’s what you call utterance.

“What’s this speaking in tongues all about?” I asked.

The man introduced himself as George. “If you’d like to experience communication with the holy spirit you can come to a meeting tonight,” he explained excitedly.

“Will you be speaking in tongues?”

“Yes,” he promised.

“What’s the purpose of that?”

George thought for a moment and referred me to another passage in his leaflet. “God wants us to identify with Jesus’ death in our place by being baptised, and receiving his life. When you receive this God immediately leads you in an unlearned prayer language.”

“I see,” but George knew I wasn’t convinced. He scanned the leaflet for a more relevant passage.

“It’s about our spiritual awakening,” he eventually offered.

“Do you have to speak in tongues for that?”

“Of course not, it’s a spiritual gift from God,” he explained patiently.

“So if I come to the meeting and you speak in tongues how will I know what you’re saying?”

He looked at me as if I were a bit dim. “The speaker himself won’t know the meaning of his actual words,” he explained. “So you won’t. You might think it sounds a bit like Swahili.”

“I don’t speak Swahili,” I confessed.

“No,” admitted George, “nor do I.”

“So it might be pointless,” I suggested. “A bit like the conversation we’re having now.”

George could see I was a lost cause. He was a patient man but my spiritual awareness was obviously not up to the standard required. “That’s it. The discussion’s over,” he snapped and stomped off back to his puddle.

So I’m no wiser about speaking in tongues than I was before. If you’re interested in finding out more for yourself though the meetings are in Luton on Wednesday nights, 7.30. Bring an interpreter – on second thoughts, don’t, that might confuse the issue.

World capitalism (2011)

Book Review from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism? Samir Amin. Pambazuka Press. 2011

Samir Amin was one of the pioneers of “dependency theory” in the 1970s. Its exponents regarded capitalism as a single world system divided into a centre which exploited the “periphery”. They challenged the conventional view, held also by those Amin here calls “historical Marxists” (which would include us), that the sort of capitalism that exists at the centre could develop in the periphery. This was impossible, they claimed, as, to continue to exist, the centre needed a dependant periphery to exploit for what Amin calls “monopoly rent” (and Lenin called “super-profits”).

This led Amin to Maoism and its modification of the famous slogan at the end of the Communist Manifesto into “Workers and Oppressed Peoples of All Lands Unite”. He still stands by this slogan and is still sympathetic to Maoism.

In this book he argues that capitalism developed in the centre by dispossessing those who worked on the land. In the 19th century these dispossessed were able to emigrate, in particular to the US where capital accumulation in search of labour-power was expanding. Capitalism, he says, is still developing by dispossessing the peasantry, this time in the South, but this time there is nowhere for the dispossessed to migrate to. So, they are condemned to vegetate in dire poverty. Pauperisation is still inherent in capitalist development.

He sees world socialism as the only way out but envisages it as coming into being just as capitalism did over centuries, with the countries of the South breaking the link to the centre (now merged into a single imperialism of the US, Europe and Japan which he calls the “Triad”) and developing on a non-capitalist basis.

While we do not share this perspective (there can be no non-capitalist development within world capitalism), or the view that the centre depends on “monopoly rent” from the South (they are just ordinary profits) we can credit the dependency theorists with bringing out the fact that capitalism is a single world system, not just a collection of national capitalisms, real or potential.
Adam Buick

Proper Gander: Cabarets in the lunch hour (2011)

The Proper Gander Column from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sitting down to watch The British At Work (BBC2), you soon realise that this documentary series has been beamed in from a parallel universe. The first hint that it doesn’t relate to our world comes in presenter Kirsty Young’s preamble. She says “chances are that most of you . . . will firmly believe that you, like me, have spent the day doing a job you enjoy. . . . And I’m pretty sure you feel that you’re part of a workforce where everyone’s treated with respect”. In Young’s world, anyone can stride confidently around London, empowered and fulfilled.

But working life wasn’t always like this, even in the perfect society where Young lives. The first episode covers employment trends between 1945 and 1964, when this other universe was black-and-white, all working men wore cloth caps and all the women had their bottoms pinched. The programme tells us how sexism and racism were problems caused by the ignorance of these workers alone. And it was their backward and pessimistic outlooks which led to laziness and inefficiency. The unions only made things worse by focusing solely on pedantically following every rule about demarcation to the letter. Before these workers were saved by health and safety legislation, they actually worked in places harmful to their well-being. However, the occasional workplace death could be excused because the bosses looked after their staff, with yearly outings to the seaside and cabarets in the lunch hour.

So, although this parallel universe has some superficial similarities, its history isn’t quite the same as ours. And some concepts and words have a different meaning there to what we would recognise. In Young’s world, ‘the working class’ just means manual labourers, preferably with a funny accent and fusty clothes. ‘The bosses’ is a more vague term, meaning both capitalists (who always wore top hats) and the workers in bowler hats we would call managers. The society described by Young doesn’t seem to have a capitalist class at all now, since top hats went out of fashion.

The BBC should be applauded for having the technology to send its film crews to this other universe. Maybe they are there most of the time, as programmes like South Riding and Silk also seem to be set in places with different rules about how workplaces function. If only they would film more in the real world.
Mike Foster

Manufacturing gossip (2011)

The Commemorative Royal Tea Towel.
From the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

If self-portraits and liberal commonsense are any guide, we should be thankful for the press, and most particularly for the BBC. The purpose of news journalism is to present a neutral report of the relevant facts so that citizens in a democracy can make informed judgements and hold those in power to account. That’s the theory. It’s worth having a quick look at the gap between theory and practice.

On 2 March, on a page dedicated to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton that will take place on 29 April, and which excitedly and prominently displays how many days there are to go till the big day, the BBC website ‘reported’ that ‘speculation has been rife about the bride’s dress’. This was an introduction to a ‘behind-the-scenes glimpse of the work involved in the creation of a couture wedding gown’, and formed merely the start of a dedicated journalistic enterprise that brought us up-to-date information on what the happy couple did on pancake day, how Kate might deal with her first foreign trip, and a useful guide to ‘five things we know about the wedding (and five we don’t)’. (In case you’re wondering, we know when and where the wedding will be held; we don’t yet know whether William will ‘fulfil’ his ‘destiny’.)

All of this is no doubt essential information for citizens of a democracy who need to make informed judgements. No doubt the journalists who wrote it are doing a marvellous job holding those in power to account. But there can only be one reaction to the news that ‘speculation is rife’ when it comes to the royal wedding. It’s the reaction the late comedian Bill Hicks gave when George Bush Snr solemnly informed us that the world is a dangerous place: “Yeah, thanks to you, you fucker.” In other words, the sources of the ‘speculation’ are largely the very people who report on the speculation.

This brings us to another myth about the news media, which is that, if they can indeed be charged with filling their pages and programming with meaningless trivia and gossip, then this is only because that’s what people want. But this is also false. In a survey of 1,006 British adults conducted by market research agency ComRes in November 2010, for example, a clear majority said they were ‘not excited’ by the wedding. Of the sample, some 31% said they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the event and a further 28% described themselves as ‘largely indifferent’. Clearly, speculation was not ‘rife’ everywhere.

So, given that the wedding is of no significance to democratic decision-making, nor in holding those in power to account, nor in responding to public demand, what can account for the press’s blanket coverage? It’s relatively simple. The government and the royal family spend millions of pounds on public relations – and that money brings results. The first task of a supine journalist is to rewrite press releases from the PR departments of corporations and government. (The fact that ‘investigative journalism’ needs a special name tells you all you need to know about the ordinary kind.) In short, what we are fed in the news is not news at all, but propaganda – it’s what the people in power want us to know, what they want us to think, what they want us to be concerned with. Gossip about a royal wedding fits that purpose just fine. 

Why the shortage of medical supplies? (2020)

From the WSPUS website


One key feature of the coronavirus crisis is the grave shortages of medical supplies. Respiratory and surgical masks, gloves, gowns, and other personal protective equipment (PPE); ventilators, X-ray machines, and other medical devices; the various components of testing kits; even sedatives. The list goes on and on. And many things not yet in short supply will be soon. 

Anyone at all familiar with capitalist dogma regarding the wonders of the ‘free market’ must surely find these shortages surprising. After all, it is a much-celebrated virtue of this market that it balances supply and demand and satisfies consumer demand (true, only within the limits of what consumers can afford). Shortages are associated not with capitalism but with the sole recognized alternative of the pseudo-socialist Soviet-type ‘command economy.’

The shortages of medical supplies have many causes. Some are intrinsic to the capitalist system. Others are not. Examples of causes that do not flow from the nature of capitalism as a system are the corruption and/or ignorance of specific politicians such as US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson. A country may have honest and well-informed public officials while still being part of world capitalism. This investigation focuses mainly on causes that are closely connected with the nature of capitalism.

Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to draw a firm line between what is intrinsic to capitalism and what is not. For instance, whether governments maintain and replenish national and subnational stockpiles of medical goods for use in emergencies is a matter of policy. As such it is not fully predetermined by the nature of capitalism. However, spending lots of money for a purpose as unprofitable as preparing for future contingencies does go against the spirit of capitalism, so neglect of stockpiling requirements does have some connection with the nature of capitalism. This helps explain why the federal government of the United States has failed to replenish the national stockpile while the State of California abandoned its own stockpile.  

I begin with a discussion of the main systemic causes that underlie shortages of existing medical goods or impede the creation and wide use of new products to assist in the fight against COVID-19 (Section 1). Then I present three case studies, focusing on specific products as follows:
Section 2.  Respiratory face masks (respirators) – the single most essential item of PPE
Section 3.  Ventilators – ‘breathing machines’ to intubate patients at risk of suffocation
Section 4.  Vaccines 
Section 1.  Systemic causes

In organizing future output of a product, the capitalist faces a degree of uncertainty. He has some knowledge of current demand for the product, but cannot be sure how much demand there will be for it at the time when it reaches the market. He may find himself saddled with a surplus that he cannot sell at a profit. In deciding whether to fund development of a new product, he faces even more uncertainty: he does not know when it will be ready for sale or even whether a usable product will emerge at all.

During the initial stage of a newly emerging epidemic (not yet a pandemic) uncertainty about future demand for medical supplies is especially great. Perhaps the epidemic will remain localized and gradually fizzle out. Perhaps it will spread rapidly, only to dissipate equally rapidly with the arrival of spring. Then demand will rise sharply but disappear before he can produce, distribute, and sell the products to satisfy it.  

Besides fear of ending up with a surplus that cannot be sold at a profit, the capitalist may have other reasons to be concerned about possible costs of trying to satisfy rising demand. As we shall see in the next section, a company that specializes in the production of face masks for use by workers in industry and construction may fear that it will be sued by new medical customers who are dissatisfied with its product. It may be willing to sell to such customers only if it is freed from legal liability.    

Note that the capitalist does not consider how he can best contribute to the treatment of patients or to the fight against the epidemic. As a capitalist he has to operate by the rules of the capitalist system. He cannot behave as a socially responsible human being. However devastating the epidemic may become, it cannot alter that. What he cares about is his ‘bottom line.’    

That said, there is still the matter of the capitalist’s attitude toward risk. Is he more concerned about capturing possible gains if higher demand is sustained or about avoiding possible losses if higher demand proves short-lived? Recent decades have seen a shift in business practice toward giving priority to the avoidance of possible losses. This shift has been associated with adoption of the so-called ‘just-in-time’ principle.


The shift toward more cautious decision making began in Japan in the 1970s, when the Toyota company adopted at its manufacturing plants the practice that came to be known as ‘just-in-time’ or ‘lean’ manufacturing or the Toyota Production System. Since then this practice has spread throughout the world. The basic idea is to save on space, labor, and other costs associated with storage by producing only to satisfy demand definitely known to exist, or even only to meet orders already in hand. Maintaining production capacity or inventory to cope with possible rises in demand above this level is considered wasteful.  

Charles Johnson, president of the International Safety Equipment Association, has been quoted as saying: 
Manufacturers don’t carry inventory. If you do, you are less competitive. They produce what they need to satisfy orders. That’s what has happened to global manufacturing.
‘Just in time’ now prevails at all links of the supply chain. Retail outlets place orders with their suppliers ‘just in time.’ So do hospitals. As a result, reserves no longer exist anywhere in the system. 

When demand suddenly leaps upward, as it does for medical supplies during a pandemic, ‘just-in-time’ ensures that there will be no spare production capacity or inventory to help satisfy the increased demand. With sufficient investment it is still possible greatly to expand output, but this inevitably takes time – and in an emergency, by definition, time is short. 

A rational system of production for use would enable society to maintain reserve production capacity and inventory of essential goods adequate for foreseeable contingencies. Of course, not everything that can happen is foreseeable and mistakes of judgement will always be possible. 


Globalization is a significant cause of the current shortages. It has led to extreme geographical concentration in the production of many goods. Specialized products especially are often available only from a single producer in a single country – and that country is rarely the United States. Thus the coronavirus test initially recommended by the Centers for Disease Control required the use of a genetic analysis kit available only from the diagnostic firm Qiagen in Germany and nasopharyngeal swabs (inserted into a nasal passage to get a sample for testing) available only from Copan, a company whose manufacturing plant is in northern Italy – a region itself hard hit by the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, clinics in the United States have been able to obtain supplies from these companies only after long delay, if at all.

However, the United States is dependent for medical supplies mainly on imports from China. Factories in China, even if owned by American corporations, suspended exports in order to meet rising domestic demand as the epidemic spread within the country. Later exports of some goods resumed, though at much higher prices. A commentator in the congressional magazine The Hill writes:
  Right now, only China has the potential production scale to meet the soaring demand in the United States and elsewhere for such vital products as medical-protective equipment, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and household essentials. It is imperative for our country and the world that we encourage the rapid recovery of Chinese production capacity. Particularly, we need China to ramp up output quickly in areas of most-critical need, such as sophisticated protective gear for doctors and nurses and pharmaceuticals/medicines for patients and households. 

The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), originally called the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, was established in 1998 on the initiative of President Clinton. Its contents are stored at 12 secret locations in different parts of the country. A stock of protective equipment was added to the stockpile in 2006 but it was depleted during the influenza epidemic of 2009 and has not been replenished to any significant extent. Much of the equipment released from the stockpile during the current pandemic was found to be in disrepair.

The SNS has been exhausted since about April 8. Its contents were not distributed with a view to maximizing their impact. States with relatively mild outbreaks received disproportionately large amounts at the expense of ‘hotspots’ like New York and Chicago (here). Requests from states with Republican governors – Florida, for instance – were met more fully and more promptly than requests from states with Democratic governors. 

Some states had stockpiles of their own. They too are now exhausted. California used to have a very substantial stockpile, established in 2006 under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a cost of $200 million and containing 51 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, 3,700,000 courses of anti-viral medications, and three 200-bed well-equipped mobile hospitals. It was scrapped in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown as part of cuts to reduce the state’s deficit (here). 


Especially important are new products, like an effective drug or vaccine, that might radically change the situation for the better, but only if made widely available as soon as technically possible. Unfortunately, this is not in the interest of the producing company. The way for it to maximize its profit is to take out a patent on any new product and exploit to the full the monopoly position that the patent gives it for a certain number of years. That means delaying the start of large-scale production and then charging an exorbitant price. [1] 

As we shall see in Section 4, considerations of likely profitability have a negative impact even at the stage of research and development of a new drug or vaccine, especially when funds are sought for the conduct of clinical trials. 

Patents also impede independent attempts to replicate or repair ventilators and other medical equipment.

Section 2.  Respiratory face masks

Here is how two hospital workers describe the current shortage of the protective face masks known as ‘N95 respirators’ (so called because they supposedly filter at least 95% of airborne particles):

Dr. Michael Pappas, resident physician at a hospital in New York City:
  Under normal circumstances you could be fired for re-using a single N95 mask throughout the day. You are supposed to dispose of your mask after dealing with one patient and use another for the next patient, to ensure that you do not contaminate that patient or yourself. But currently our hospital is asking healthcare workers to use only one N95 mask each day. And that’s actually a better situation than in most New York City hospitals, which give staff one N95 mask that they’re supposed to carry around in a paper bag and use for an entire week. [2] 
Maria Louviaux, RN, of the California Nurses Association:
  At our hospital nurses and all frontline staff are not allowed to wear our N95 respirators. Respirators are actually under lock and key. In some cases, security needs to be called up to release our personal protective equipment. In other cases, a respirator needs to be signed out. But we do not have easy access to N95 respirators or to surgical masks. We’re not allowed to wear masks of any kind unless certain criteria are met throughout the hospital.  
  Once we are finally issued an N95 respirator, it has to be used continuously as we go from one patient to another. We have to re-use it repeatedly until it is compromised by soiling, wetting, or loss of integrity. And that violates the rules set by the FDA for its use. [3]
In South Korea, by contrast, even ordinary citizens walk about wearing KF94 masks, which are almost the same as the N95 respirators that are in such short supply even for hospital staff in the United States. [4]  

The April 2 issue of The Washington Post featured an investigation of why production of protective respiratory masks has not increased early enough and fast enough to meet the need generated by the pandemic. The main manufacturer of such masks in the United States is 3M, a company with headquarters in Minnesota and factories in South Dakota and Nebraska. 

Under normal circumstances, however, the bulk of the face masks produced by 3M are of a type intended for use by workers in industry and construction, not by medical personnel. Most production of masks for medical use had been relocated to China in order to reduce costs, but in mid-February China stopped exporting the masks, reserving them for domestic use. So globalization has played an important part in creating the shortage.  

Industrial and medical masks are designed differently. Medical masks contain more material, providing added protection against splashes. Industrial masks are not tested for fluid penetration. The two types are also subject to different regulations set by different agencies. 3M has been reluctant to switch its production line from industrial to medical masks, as this would require retooling – and then a second retooling to switch back again after the pandemic. But the company was also reluctant to supply its industrial masks to medical customers, fearing that it might be sued. 

What to do? It was at this point that Arthur Caplan, Professor of Bioethics at New York University School of Medicine, offered 3M and other manufacturers of medical supplies some unsolicited advice:
  Don’t talk to your lawyers if you’re making masks or gowns or ventilators. See where the need is and get moving as fast as you can.
But 3M paid the good professor no heed. Why hire lawyers if you can’t consult them? Not until March 22, after the FDA had approved medical use of industrial masks and legislation had passed waiving legal liability, did 3M finally conclude that its continued profitability was no longer in doubt and announce a rapid expansion of output. 

Will socialism be any better than capitalism in this respect? Will people in a socialist society be able to ‘see where the need is and get moving as fast as they can’? True, they won’t have to worry about lawsuits, but they will face other obstacles to prompt action if they have saddled themselves with a complicated, unwieldy, and overcentralized decision-making system. That is why it is so important not just to abolish capitalism but to design a flexible and sufficiently decentralized system of democratic decision-making for socialism.           

Another major factor underlying the dire shortage of face masks is the ‘just in time’ principle, followed not only by manufacturers producing only to satisfy orders but also by hospitals with a policy of not buying supplies in advance. To quote Dr. Pappas again:
  Instead of buying supplies in advance, many hospitals … waited to see if the pandemic actually hit or not, because buying supplies in advance would be an extra cost for hospitals if the pandemic never hit. So they didn’t buy supplies, they didn’t prepare, and now we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
Finally, what of the Strategic National Stockpile? 

This emergency stock of masks was depleted during the influenza epidemic of 2009, when 85 million N95 respirators were distributed. It was never replenished to any significant extent despite repeated warnings and requests from healthcare groups. 

Section 3.  Ventilators

Over the coming months, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States are going to come down with severe forms of COVID-19 infection. How many will pull through and how many will die of ‘respiratory failure’ – that is, suffocation – will depend crucially on the availability of ventilators in the intensive care units of hospitals. There are only 62,000 ventilators in service across the country, many of which are being used for non-coronavirus patients. A recent survey found that even acute-care hospitals have on average only eleven ‘full-feature’ ventilators. Unless they very soon acquire many tens of thousands more of the machines, hospitals will be overwhelmed as the pandemic spreads. By the time you read this article, some may already be overwhelmed.

In a desperate attempt to mitigate the disaster, hospital staff are preparing to link up each of their ventilators to four patients. A video posted on YouTube shows them how to do it. As the instructor admits, this is an ‘off-label use’ of machines designed to serve one patient at a time. I cannot help wondering how well it will work. 

Go for it auto execs!

Initially Trump took the orthodox ‘neo-liberal’ view that there was no reason for government to get involved. ‘Unfettered free enterprise’ could be trusted to rise to the occasion. However, he ended up brokering a deal for a joint venture between General Motors and Ventec Life Systems. General Motors would retool a car parts plant in Kokomo, Indiana as a ventilator production facility using Ventec’s technology. A government order for 80,000 ventilators was to be fulfilled in just two months. Trump’s enthusiasm was unbounded. ‘Go for it auto execs,’ he tweeted excitedly on March 22, ‘let’s see how good you are?’ 

Then suddenly it was announced that the deal was off. Officials in the Administration were unhappy about the cost – over a billion dollars, a large part of which had to be paid upfront to cover the cost of retooling. True, it worked out at only $13,000 per ventilator, which would seem good value for money, considering that these machines usually sell within the range $25–50,000. ‘But for Chrissake’, lamented officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ‘for that money we could buy eighteen F-35 fighter jets!’ And if you think I made that up for ironic effect then you are wrong. They really find it distasteful to spend large sums of government money for the benefit of ordinary people. 

An interdepartmental working group was set up to investigate the matter under the wise guidance of Clown Prince Jared Kushner (who was admitted to college only after his dad paid a hefty bribe – I mean ‘donation’). The GM-Ventec project remains on the table, but another dozen or so other proposals are also under consideration. The target of 80,000 ventilators was whittled down to 20,000 and then to 7,500 – so a plan to more than double the number of machines was transformed into a scheme to increase that number by just 12%. 

You see, some officials are worried that too many ventilators may be ordered. What are they to do with the surplus? 

Exclamation points

Give the guy credit where it is due. Trump must have started to get impatient, because on March 27 he issued the following statement:
  Today, I signed a Presidential Memorandum directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use any and all authority available under the Defense Production Act to require General Motors to accept, perform, and prioritize Federal contracts for ventilators. Our negotiations with General Motors regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course. General Motors was wasting time. Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.
The Defense Production Act of 1950 authorizes the President to require businesses to sign contracts and fulfill orders deemed necessary for defense, but it has also been invoked occasionally in non-military emergencies. Democrats in Congress were urging him to invoke it in the current crisis. Trump was under pressure from corporate CEOs and the Chamber of Commerce not to do so.  

Trump then fired off tweets to General Motors and Ford, which was working on its own plan to adapt car parts for ventilators, declaring that they ‘MUST START MAKING VENTILATORS NOW!!!!!!’ (yes, in capital letters and followed by six exclamation points).  

It seems that this ‘very stable genius’ – as Trump has described himself – momentarily forgot how capitalism works, even though most of the time he understands this very well. How else could he fondly imagine that a few presidential exclamation points might induce a corporation to set aside considerations of profitability in order to satisfy a human need, however urgent? 

As of this writing (April 10), no new facility for the production of ventilators is yet in operation in the United States. 

An even harsher light

But there is another aspect to this problem – one that casts the functioning of capitalism in an even harsher light.

While American hospitals have only 62,000 ventilators in service, they have in storage a very large number – estimates run as high as 100,000 – of ventilators that might be brought back into use if repaired. It is true that older models may not be reliable, but repairs could bring enough machines back into use to save many people. Hospitals, however, are unable to have ventilators repaired due to restrictions imposed by the manufacturers (Siemens, Philips, General Electric Healthcare, Medtronic, Ventec Life Systems, Hamilton Medical), who also fight legislative challenges to their repair monopoly. [5] 

First of all, purchasers of ventilators and independent technicians are denied access to the documentation and software required for repairs. Second, unauthorized attempts to repair a ventilator are blocked by special ‘anti-repair software.’ Third, a hospital that hires a technician who manages to overcome these obstacles and repair a ventilator may be sued by the manufacturer. 

In Brescia, a city in the north Italian region of Lombardy, a technical expert used a 3D printer to produce 110 special valves needed to repair ventilators at a local hospital. It cost him just 1 euro for each valve, as compared with the price of 10,000 euros charged by the manufacturer of the ventilators, Intersurgical. He gave his valves to the hospital for free, thereby saving at least ten lives. However, he faced a threat of legal action for infringing Intersurgical’s patent and therefore decided not to provide the same service to other hospitals (here). 

Of course, it is not only medical equipment manufacturers who deliberately try to prevent repair of their products. Manufacturers of computers, tractors, and many other devices do exactly the same thing. It is one of the ways by which they artificially shorten the service life of their products with a view to ‘persuading’ consumers to buy new ones. The phenomenon is known as built-in obsolescence. It is a normal feature of capitalism and a major source of the enormous waste generated by that system.

A waste of labor, a waste of resources, and – as in this case – a waste of human life.

Oases and hotspots

The prospects of the pandemic in the United States vary widely from one place to another, depending on the timing and strength of the response from city and state governments. At one extreme are places like Seattle and the San Francisco – Bay Area where strong measures were adopted at an early stage and have shown good results, comparable with those achieved by South Korea and Hong Kong. Here the pandemic is already on the wane; numbers infected are relatively low; hospitals have coped well. 

However, such ‘oases’ are few and far between. More typical are the many areas where measures, though in effect by late March, began only after significant delay. These include such cities as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans. In quite a few of these ‘hotspots’ hospitals are already in crisis. 

Even worse are likely outcomes in areas where adequate measures had still not been taken in early April. Most but not all such areas are in the Southern ‘bible belt.’ Here, for instance, religious services are still being held – sometimes for the explicit purpose of vanquishing the virus by prayer or exorcism. 

For the time being, however, media attention has focused on the plight of New York City. 

New York appeals for help

At a press conference on March 28, Andrew M. Cuomo, governor of New York State, stated that according to projections New York State was going to need 30,000–40,000 more ventilators by May  1. The Clown Prince responded that according to his projections New York did not need so many, though Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, MD, the immunologist who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that he saw no reason to doubt Cuomo’s estimate. The Clown Prince urged Trump to ‘push back’ against Cuomo. 

Where were the additional ventilators to come from?

Can they be purchased? The trouble is that high demand and short supply have created a seller’s market with sky-high prices. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of coordination at the national level, which forces state governments to bid against one another and against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (here).

The Strategic National Stockpile is supposed to supplement local medical supplies during a public health emergency. And federal authorities have sent New York State 400 ventilators from this source – 200 earmarked for New York City and 200 for the rest of the state. ‘What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?’ asked Cuomo. Not to mention that many have parts missing and do not work. It is unfortunate that New York State has a Democratic governor, as only Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis get their requests met quickly and in full by the Trump Administration (here). 

At a press conference on April 4, Governor Cuomo announced that 1,000 ventilators would be arriving by air later that day – a donation ‘facilitated’ by the Chinese government. The State of Oregon, now itself over the hump of the pandemic, is giving New York another 140 ventilators. [6]

China, Oregon, and the federal authorities, taken together, are sending New York 1,540 ventilators, just 4—5% of the number needed. 

According to recent reports, New York was going to run out of ventilators on April 8 (and Louisiana on April 9).         

Who will be left to die?

So it seems that hospitals in New York – and other places – are going to be overwhelmed – meaning, in particular, that they are going to run out of ventilators. What happens then? Who will be hooked up to a ventilator? Who will be left to die? 

According to a TV talk show broadcast from New York on April 3, these life-and-death decisions will be based on ratings that combine three factors:

  • age of the patient (younger people have priority)
  • the patient’s state of health prior to infection (people otherwise in good health have priority)
  • health insurance status (people with ‘good’ insurance or able to pay for themselves; people with less ‘good’ insurance; people who are uninsured)
Those with the highest ratings get a ventilator all to themselves; those with the lowest ratings are left to die; those in the middle share a ventilator with other patients. 

In other words, a class system has been devised – as befits a class society.

In production at last?

Meanwhile, what progress is there with new production projects like those described above?

On April 5 Tesla posted the first YouTube video about their ventilator prototype, made using electric car parts – a project reportedly initiated at the request of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. [7] However, the design is new and untested.

Parallel to the General Motors—Ventec project, Ford is working with General Electric and plans to start production on April 20 at its Rawsonville Assembly Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Ford promises to deliver 50,000 ventilators within three months. I don’t know how realistic this timetable is. Time will tell. But even if the promise is fulfilled these ventilators will arrive too late for many. With a prompter response to the start of the pandemic, many if not all of them would already be saving lives.                                                                 

Section 4.  Vaccines

There would seem to be good prospects for a safe and effective vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

First, numerous teams of scientists are working in parallel, applying diverse approaches to the problem. According to an interview on March 21 with Dr. Stanley Plotkin, inventor of the rubella vaccine, at least forty possible vaccines were already under development at that date (here). By April 8 the number had risen to 115 (surveyed here). Besides European and North American biotech companies, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese companies are now in the race. China alone is developing nine potential vaccines.

In addition, the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is funding several research efforts by non-commercial organizations. [8] Non-commercial projects are of special value, because they are not bound by the commercial secrecy that impedes cooperation among scientists working for different companies.

The Boston-based company Moderna has already begun a first-phase clinical trial of an RNA vaccine – a new type – on human subjects (here).

Second, the evidence so far indicates that the virus is slow to mutate. Genetic differences among the strains that have emerged in different countries are slight. This greatly simplifies the task. Any vaccines developed to protect against the virus in its current forms will probably remain potent for a considerable period.  

Third, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is new but by no means completely new. It bears some similarity to other coronaviruses and especially – as the label given it indicates – to the SARS-CoV-1 coronavirus of 2002—2003, and also to the MERS coronavirus of 2012—2014. This family resemblance to viruses that have already been studied facilitates the search for a vaccine. [9]  

Squandered advantage

However, much of the advantage that this family resemblance could have given was squandered when research into SARS-CoV-1 and MERS was discontinued after the corresponding epidemics ended. In particular, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi and her team at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development developed early vaccines against SARS-CoV-1 and MERS but in 2016 were unable to obtain funding to conduct clinical trials. Such trials that would have given a head start to current work on a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. Researchers would already have some idea of how humans react to one class of possible vaccines against members of the SARS family of coronaviruses. [10]

Why then was ‘no one interested’ in funding trials of these vaccines? Here is what virologist Dr. Hakim Djaballah, head of the Pasteur Institute Korea, has to say about it:
  There is no more threat, so everybody forgets about it… The best comparison is with the Ebola virus in Africa. The only reason we got a vaccine for Ebola is because Ebola decided to leave the continent of Africa and started infecting people in Europe and America. So those people started getting worried about the spread of Ebola on their own soil. And that was the push for government funding to get those vaccines made. Companies will not make vaccines if there is no one to buy them. They make them only when governments are in crisis. So those governments write and sign the checks and hand over the money. But those governments have not seen a vaccine for SARS-CoV-1 yet. And there hasn’t been a push for it. Now perhaps they will try something, but I’m not holding my breath. [11]
No money for research to guard against future contingencies like reappearance of an old pathogen or emergence of a new one belonging to the same family as an old one. No money to fight even a current epidemic so long as only poor countries are affected. No money to preserve and strengthen research capacities in order to be in the best possible position to meet future challenges. There is no commercial justification for any of these things. 

This is the narrow focus of capitalist society. Profit-oriented decision makers see no palpable advantage in contributing to a broadly conceived and future-oriented research program, although it is precisely such a program that humanity needs in its present predicament. To quote another scientist:   
  We need coordinated research, worldwide, on virus illnesses, to be prepared for the next mutation. It will be impossible to cover all possible variants, but we would be much closer to a new mutation than we are now. [12]
This makes good sense. A socialist world community would surely do it that way. But is such a high degree of global coordination feasible in a world of competing producers and rival nation-states?

Delay, delay

The time needed from the start of research on a new vaccine until it is marketed is commonly estimated as 12—18 months, although many commentators say that it could easily take two years and some give an upper limit of three years or even longer. Dr. Plotkin recalls that ‘it took at least five years before a vaccine [for rubella] was on the market’ and adds: ‘We cannot afford to have that kind of delay in an emergency like this one.’ He urges companies to ‘go into superaction’ immediately, with a view to having a vaccine available in the event of a second wave of the pandemic next winter – that is, within about 8 months. 

One major reason why the process takes so long is the number and duration of the clinical trials required to get a vaccine licensed by regulatory agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration. The official purpose of licensing is to ensure the safety and efficacy of drugs and vaccines. In practice, the FDA was long ago ‘captured’ by the companies it is supposed to regulate, with most of the scientists who sit on its advisory committees dependent on those companies. [13] FDA decisions therefore tend to reflect the interests of the companies that have the most political clout at the time.  

Monopolization and extortion

Another recommendation made by Dr. Plotkin is that the FDA should license not one but several vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, ‘because if we need millions of doses a single manufacturer will not be able to make enough for the world.’ This too makes good sense. Or at least it would if production were carried on to satisfy human needs. However, we live under a global system in which production is for profit. 

How then does a company that develops and produces vaccines act in order to maximize its profit? It seeks to monopolize the market for a vaccine against a specific disease by ensuring that its vaccine – and its vaccine alone! – is licensed. Then it applies for a patent on its vaccine – another significant cause of delay. Monopolization sets the scene for extortion. The company sells its vaccine at an exorbitant price that makes it unaffordable to most of those who need it.  

How many times this has happened in the past! A few years ago, for instance, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, one of the committees that advises the British National Health Service, recommended that a new vaccine against Meningitis B manufactured by Novartis NOT be made available to all children in the UK, even though this terrible disease afflicts 1,870 people per year. It was ‘highly unlikely to be cost effective’ – in other words, it was too expensive. [14] And this in a country that for over seven decades now has had what “progressive” Americans politicians call ‘Medicare for All’! Vaccines against the scourge of viral hepatitis are likewise too expensive for large-scale use. [15] 

Indeed, there has already been an attempt to monopolize a future SARS-CoV-2 vaccine – one that does not yet even exist. In mid-March, the German press reported that the Trump Administration was trying to secure exclusive rights to any vaccine created by the German pharmaceutical company CureVac. Research and development would then be moved to the United States and the vaccine made available only in the United States (here).
Stephen Shenfield


[1] For a discussion of patents, with other examples of the harm done by them in the medical field, see here.

[2] Interviewed on April 7 by The Real News.

[3] Interviewed on April 6 by The Real News.

[4] Professor Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Guro Hospital, interviewed on March 27 by The Korea Times

[5] They do this both directly and through their lobbying group, AdvaMed. See Jason Koebler, ‘Hospitals Need to Repair Ventilators. Manufacturers Are Making That Impossible,’ Vice, March 18. 

[6] See here. It is not clear who in China is actually footing the bill. 

[7] See here. There were soon several videos on YouTube about Tesla’s ventilator.

[8] Seven projects as of April 10. See here.

[9] See the article by researchers at La Jolla Institute for Immunology in the March 16 online issue of Cell, Host and Microbe. 

[10] See here. For a detailed assessment and references to articles by members of the Bottazzi team, see comments by pharmaceutical engineer Christopher C. VanLang on the question-and-answer website quora.com.  

[11] In an interview with The Korea Times.

[12] Physicist Cees J.M. Lanting on the question-and-answer website quora.com.

[13] This includes scientists directly employed by companies, scientists working for them on contract, and the many university scientists who depend on corporate money to fund their research. In fact, there are so few genuinely independent scientists that the FDA would be unable to rely mainly on them even if its leading officials wished to do so. 

[14] 10% of victims die, while many survivors become deaf or blind or have to have limbs amputated (The Independent, July 24, 2013; Daily Mail, August 24, 2013). 

[15] Vaccines exist for types A and B of this disease: see here. For a discussion of the availability of vaccines in underdeveloped countries, see here.

Sting in the Tail: Accident? What accident? (1996)

The Sting in the Tail column from the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Accident? What accident?

When the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground and spewed about half its 150,000 tonnes of crude oil, we didn’t view it as an “accident”. This sort of thing is inevitable inside capitalism.

For 10 days tugs toiled in vain as a 100-mile oil slick polluted the Welsh coast. The Government has promised an enquiry as environmentalists talk about the loss of wildlife, the marine food-chain, despoiled beaches and fishing ruined for years to come.
  “They are cynical about the Government's forthcoming report on the catastrophe, conscious that some key recommendations of the independent Donaldson report—commissioned after the Braer disaster—have been deliberately ignored. Crucial among the omissions was a Government decision not to station a giant salvage tug on the Western Approaches ” (Observer, 25 February).

Funny old game

It is a sad, wet afternoon in Coketown. In the bar they are showing a re-run of yesterday’s game. The City are playing United. Two groups of workers are sitting at opposite sides of the bar. They are throwing insults, slogans and empty-headed songs at each other.

A well-dressed gent enters the bar with a notebook in his hand. He says “Two days’ work for two joiners, a glazier and a spark. Who is available?”

Football is forgotten. Sunday afternoon pretence is dropped as they crawl to the man in the nice suit. He signs up two City and two United fans. The others retreat into their corners. In subdued voice, they vainly try to regain their former show of arrogance. The man with the notebook goes into the lounge for his double brandy.

Football may be a funny old game but capitalism is a tragic, ball-breaking society.

The hypocrisy game

Politicians, priests and pundits are all concerned at present about selling arms to dictators. What hypocrisy!

Capitalism is based on exploitation, selling commodities and realising as big a profit as possible. There is no other way of running the system.

“The Business”, the financial section of the Observer (18 February), got it right when it stated “The recommendation that parliament scrutinise arms exporters is a pious hope for a murky industry.”

The Observer added:
  “Digby Walker, defence economist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, estimates world military expenditure totalled S800 billion (£500 billion) or 2.6 percent of economic output in 1994."
We are talking big bucks here and no British government is going to restrict British arms exporters (now reckoned to be the second or third biggest in the world) from getting on the gravy train.

The dead, maimed and blinded workers can expect no mercy from that quarter.

Flights of fancy

Colin Welland is a lad of many parts. Actor and screen writer, he also writes a weekly column in the Observer on Rugby League football. On 18 February he waxed so lyrical on the Salford defeat of Wigan that he even became a social anthropologist!
  “If theatre is the mirror of life, sport is its metaphor. In team combat sports in particular we play out of our system all that tribal aggression which, like it or not, is our birthright, testing our resolution, valour, our fleetness of foot and our flights of fantasy. ”
There is no such thing as inborn tribal aggression. Indeed all the evidence seems to point to the history of early humanity being based on co-operation rather than aggression. Colin Welland would be better restricting his “flights of fantasy” to reporting rugby.

The good old days

The present leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, is tipped to be a front-runner in the Russian presidential election.

In a two-day conference in Davos for foreign businessmen he harked back to the good old days of the USSR and promised future investors a safe haven for their investments:
  “I have known times when all debts were paid on time and no foreign investors wondered whether they were going to be paid. We intend to create conditions in which confidence can flourish." (Guardian, 5 February).
Whether Yeltsin, Zyuganov, or some other job-hunting politician wins the day the Russian working class can be assured it will be business as usual.

The human zoo

The Tory Government, claiming to be the party of law and order, and keen to appear to be doing something about crime, have had a new prison for women built near Bristol. To save money the 80 cells measure six foot square and are to accommodate prisoners for 14 hours a day.

Women’s crime is seen as a growing threat to society by the Government, although according to the Observer (25 February):
  “The 2,150 female prison population has risen by 40 percent in two years, but a third of the women are in jail for defaulting on fines or non-payment of television licences."
These licence-dodging desperadoes are to be put in cells that are unsuitable for animals in a zoo, according to Jeremy Mallinson, director of Jersey Zoo:
  “There is no way I would countenance shutting up a gorilla, a chimp or an orang-utan in conditions such as these. It would not be allowed in any professional zoo."

Getting off Scott Free (1996)

From the April 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
  To Socialists, the publication of the 1800 page Scott Report ranks as one of the great non-events of recent times. All the Report really revealed is that British government ministers, notably Alan Clark, were doing what they're in office for — looking after the economic interests of the British capitalist class.
Certain Tory government ministers, even the whole Tory government, have, it seems, been both caught out and let off the hook—though perhaps temporarily. Amid reports in, for example, the Independent (17 February) and the Observer (18 February), suggesting that Lord Justice Richard Scott has been somehow “nobbled” by government ministers, “persuaded” to be gentle with them, the facts remain in the public domain; whatever insipid conclusions Scott has come to, everybody else can judge for themselves. It is even almost as though Scott might have intended that they should do so. Having apparently bowed to pressure, induced perhaps by invocations of old school ties or past favours, or even favours to come, it is as though he has washed his hands of the matter but, unable to square his conscience with letting corrupt liars and dissimulators off scot-free, he has left it to a vague and amorphous “public opinion” to sit in judgment in his place.

That government ministers lied to parliament, lied to “the public”, tried to keep important information out of the law courts, was all down to their fear of “public opinion”, fear of being found out and forced to resign or, worse, being voted out of office. That this should be the case brings out an interesting conjunction of the personal and the political—which the ministers concerned, along with their colleagues and supporters, have tried to erase. They have tried to hide the personal dimension under the political, claiming that they felt secrecy was necessary' to safeguard jobs in the armaments industry, while in fact they were more concerned with safeguarding their own careers and their own power, which brings us nicely to the crux of the issue at hand.

Ministerial responsibility
The whole issue of ministerial responsibility and ministerial deceit is one of personal ethics dressed up as politics. Like most contemporary' mainstream “politics” it is really soap opera, drawing everybody’s attention to particular characters and focusing on issues of individual hypocrisy or corruption (it’s not entirely fortuitous that Scott’s investigations have twice during February been dramatised on television). There's little doubt that many of the characters involved in this little drama were (and are) hypocritical and corrupt, or at least incompetent, but that’s not the point, it’s only the point focused on by both the Opposition parties and by the media. Politicians are by definition incapable of mastering events whatever their personal attributes may be; they have always been so to some extent under capitalism, forced to react to the markets and the requirements of profit and capital. These days they are even less able to control the system they support than they have been in the past, due to modern information technologies and the speed at which information can travel, allowing capital and the markets to evade and pre-empt their every' attempt at control. Politicians are, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida has put it, “structurally incompetent”; to paraphrase Derrida, while they present themselves as political actors they are no more than TV actors. And they know it; they are, therefore, not only structurally incompetent, they are also structurally hypocritical. This is not to say that those involved are not responsible; they support capitalism after all, quite apart from the fact that they are, in any case, personally corrupt liars and arrogant hypocrites. The point is that this should only be of marginal interest, instead of being, as it is, the main focus of attention.

There is a very serious political dimension here which actually sheds some light on the complex but indissoluble links between war and armaments and the very existence of capitalism itself. The concentration by the media on ministerial ethics specifically marginalises the fact that this issue is about the sale of armaments, about, by extension, war and death. Even when this is considered, media concern, as well as the concern of the Opposition parties, is focused on the fact that the armaments were being sold to Iraq. The demonisation of a particular national leader by the Western ruling class could, ironically, lead to the downfall of some of the very people who have encouraged this demonisation. This concern with Iraq, though, is still without any really serious point. Saddam Hussein is undoubtedly a tyrant; but so was Somoza of Nicaragua and Pinochet of Chile, to name only two, who were supported by the Western so-called “liberal democracies”. All this selective support and demonisation is itself simply a smokescreen for the way in which war and capitalism feed off each other, the fact that the gulf war was fought for economic reasons, the fact that all the major industrialised states produce and sell arms; that the arms trade is the height of modern capitalism.

Scarce material resources
War is largely a result of scarcity; however the causes of war are dressed up ideologically, war is a more-or-less direct result of the struggles of particular peoples for a greater share of scarce material resources, though down through history this has had less and less actual effect on the lives of ordinary people as the minority ruling classes have taken more of those resources for themselves. In pre-capitalist societies, though, there was at least a true scarcity which led inevitably to conflict. Under the capitalist mode of production on the other hand, scarcity is artificially created by the system itself even as it develops the productive potential for its eradication. Capitalism requires competition for its existence and competition requires scarcity ; and it should be noted that war itself is simply a form of competition on a particularly large and deadly scale. Scarcity and competition are vital to capitalism, and scarcity and competition are also the necessary pre-conditions for inevitable war.

War itself, in its turn, creates further massive conditions of scarcity through the damage it inflicts and the consequent need to rebuild. The arms themselves are also obviously a paradigm of material scarcity; they can only be used once and require immediate replacement. The armaments market is highly competitive and there is an enormous amount of money to be made; whichever way you look at it, there is always a lot of money to be made from war, which is why, beneath all the moral platitudes, capitalism loves it. It has nothing to do with which party is in office; Labour supported the Americans in Vietnam and the recent Australian Labor government supplied and supported the raping, torturing aggressors in East Timor. Particular governments, in the final analysis, are neither here nor there. Capitalism itself produces greed, corruption and war through the artificial production of scarcity and the exploitation for its own ends of the absurd quasi-mystical ideologies of nationalism. The only way to end war and the manufacture of arms is to end capitalism, world-wide; to abolish the profit system and abolish states and borders. The only really worthwhile use of parliaments is to bring a democratic end, once-and-for-all, to the system that makes them otherwise no more then TV studios for tedious and absurdly repetitive “dramas”.
Jonathan Clay