Last year an academic paper noticed that there has been a marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013. The effect of this has been dramatic: if the previous decline in mortality among this group of people had continued as before there would have been almost half a million fewer deaths during these years.
There has also been an increase in morbidity among this section of the population, reflected in increased self-reporting of poor health, pain and psychological stress. Nor can this be put down to the well-known increase in obesity among some sections of the American population because this decline in the health of middle-aged men and women has affected both the obese and non-obese, with the former accounting for only a small fraction of the overall deterioration in health. This worsening has particularly hit those with a poorer education, those with only a high school degree or less, and is primarily the result of increases in the rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.
The significance of this is even more noteworthy because this segment of the US working class was part of the embodiment in the middle of the twentieth century of the American dream and therefore of the capitalist vision epitomised during the American century. Visions of white families in suburbs, owning automobiles and domestic appliances, in new homes with pretty gardens and white picket fences were a domestic ambition so strong it fired the imagination not only of American workers but millions of the poor across the world who wished to become American. An ambition millions succeeded in achieving.
In the twenty first century this dream is collapsing amid widening inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation and an increase in economic insecurity, with precarious employment and pensions reliant on the vagaries of the stock market. It is reflected in large increases in disability; falling participation in the labour market, particularly among women and addiction to prescription painkillers where for every death in 2008 due to addiction there were 10 admissions for abuse, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who were abusers or dependent and 825 non-medical users of the drugs.
I remember seeing a programme on the collapse of the Soviet Union which noted that a French researcher had predicted its fall due to an increase in infant mortality. No one is predicting the collapse of US capitalism but things are really bad when people stop living longer and start dying earlier.
In my previous posts in this series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I have noted the prodigious development of the capitalist system across the globe and its achievement of what Marx called its ‘civilising mission’. This, I showed, was evidenced by increasing life expectancy, better health, higher levels of education, higher living standards and the sheer increase in numbers of the working class and the world’s population. In fact five out of six of my posts were an attempt to substantiate the argument that the civilising mission of capitalism continues into the twenty first century.
But surely this is now blown apart by this example of the death of the American dream, something inconceivable 60 years ago?
A few years ago I met an American socialist who I believe was from Detroit who was not so much arguing but simply incredulous that anyone could believe other than that capitalism was in crisis and failing badly
But world capitalism is not Detroit.
Accepting this point however, is it not the case that socialists should be pointing out the failures of capitalism, its crises and its contradictions? After all, if capitalism is to be overthrown and replaced it must be because in some way it has failed. Surely a capitalism that keeps on developing and retains a ‘civilising mission’ is not one that will suffer this fate?
Should socialists not criticise capitalism and certainly not heap praise on it and its achievements?
Marx himself, although he praised capitalism’s prodigious development of the productive forces and the human capacities it had unleashed, hardly spared it his condemnation. Development brings industrialisation and the goods and services that change peoples’ lives for the better but it is built on exploitation of humanity and degradation of the planet’s resources and ecosystem. Capitalist industrialisation brings the capitalist phenomenon of periodic or partial unemployment on a massive scale – “it makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.” (Marx)
So the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were 218 million unemployed workers in 2009 and that of the 1.4 billion wage workers in 2011 many are only employed part time or precariously employed and a further 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed”, being “own-account” workers (including street workers in poorer countries or those engaged in subsistence agriculture) and “contributing family workers” (those who worked unpaid in the home). “In most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programmes. Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions” (Michael Yates, all quoted in ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labour and the New Imperialism’)
So why the series of posts on capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’?
The short answer is that the arguments set out above are mistaken. The slightly longer answer is that they are wrong because they are one-sided. The longer response again is that the whole answer is not simply an addition of capitalism’s achievements and its failures, of its successes and crises, or more simply of its good bits and its bad bits. Even to understand its contradictions is not to think of a good side and a bad side in opposition.
To seek simply to condemn capitalism requires a standard by which it should be judged to have failed – it must have failed against some criteria. Even if there were ‘good bits’ to capitalism to weigh in the balance against its ‘bad bits’, which together would allow one to make a judgement, some measuring criteria would be required by which to determine the relative weight and importance of its good and bad aspects.
But what would these criteria be? They could be derived from what capitalism itself claims to defend, uphold and promote – economic growth, political equality, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, efficiency, modernisation and progress. It would then be possible to, indeed socialist regularly do, expose these claims as hypocritical, false, misleading, one-sided and often simply untrue. But this would be to limit one’s case to the criteria that capitalism’s defenders themselves identify as important and socialists usually find themselves making arguments that go beyond what capitalism can accommodate and what its supporters will consider legitimate.
Appeals to loftier ideals such as justice or fairness beg the question of how such things are to be defined and how realistic or practical any definition is, given the real world we live in. A definition of justice that cannot possibly exist in the real world is not just because these criteria must apply to a world which is possible. A just and fair world that cannot exist is neither just nor fair. The civilising mission of capitalism is therefore not one of the ‘good’ sides of capitalism against which the bad must be weighed. This civilising role of capitalism is itself grounds on which the alternative to capitalism rests.
I have tried to make this easier to appreciate by pointing out that the amazing economic growth of capitalism has produced an ever larger world working class without which, obviously, there can be no socialism. And without a working class that has developed a relatively high cultural level we cannot expect socialism either. The civilising mission of capitalism has created both.
This is generally understood among some Marxists only in the sense that unless the productive forces have developed sufficiently there will not be the level of resources necessary to ensure that inequality will not breed class divisions after any successful socialist revolution. If society cannot develop sufficient levels of consumption to satisfy the needs of everyone then class divisions will re-emerge. Society’s productive powers will be distributed so that these are owned by a separate class because society as a whole cannot address the needs of everyone.
Leon Trotsky explained how this laid the foundation for the development of Stalinism after socialist revolution in Russia in 1917:
“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.
A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of “bourgeois law”, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.
In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. At the same time the “equalizing” character of wages, destroying personal interestedness, became a brake upon the development of the productive forces. Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” (The Revolution Betrayed)
So there are two reasons why socialists in particular should welcome the development of the productive forces that capitalism is responsible for – the material foundations for socialism in terms of sufficient consumption for everyone in society and the growth of the working class that develops as these productive forces develop.
To these are added the civilising mission of capitalism through the productive forces developing new and higher needs that lead to a higher cultural level among the working class, on which basis it becomes more and more fit to become the ruling class of a new society.
The development of the productive forces must also be welcomed for other reasons which we shall come to in future posts. What is important for the argument here is that the development of capitalism’s productive forces is necessary for the future of socialism. As Marx explained in a letter written two years before his death:
“The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present. . . . Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government – while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides – all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].”
In this quote Marx does not seek to place class struggle and the development of the productive forces, which can only mean the development of capitalism, as opposites but welcomes both as positive factors leading to socialist revolution. Yet many socialists cannot think how the development of capitalism assists its eventual overthrow and can only conceive that capitalism must be in perpetual crisis, feeling that without this not only is there no prospect for socialism but no rationale for it either. But if this were true then the prodigious development of capitalism over the last two centuries or so would have proved the advent of socialism impossible.
It is enough to recognise that such a viewpoint, which leads to denying capitalism’s continuing growth, divorces socialists from some of the concerns of workers who experience its reality, its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, without ideological blinkers. If it were indeed true that only capitalism’s failures or crises were grounds for socialism then we would have to recognise that those grounds are not enough.
So, the marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013 is all the more remarkable because it contrasts sharply with the experience of other demographic groups. Mortality declines among Hispanics and black non-Hispanics continued to decline, as they did for this segment of the population in France, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.
All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).
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