April 18th, 2005


Capitalism ♥ death

In today's Guardian Naomi Klein publishes an article entitled Allure of the blank slate.

"Last summer," says Klein, "in the lull of the August media doze, the Bush administration's doctrine of preventive war took a major leap forward. On August 5 the White House created the office of the coordinator for reconstruction and stabilisation, headed by Carlos Pascual, the former ambassador to Ukraine. Its mandate is to draw up elaborate "post-conflict" plans for up to 25 countries that are not, as yet, in conflict. According to Pascual, it will also be able to coordinate three full-scale reconstruction operations in different countries "at the same time", each lasting "five to seven years".

Klein goes on to outline how the US plans to use wars and natural disasters as opportunities to privatize industries and channel aid resources through favoured foreign advisors and contractors. ("In January Condoleezza Rice horrified many by describing the tsunami as "a wonderful opportunity" that "has paid great dividends for us".) She compares this reshaping and restructuring to a new colonialism. The trouble is, it doesn't improve life for the people living in the disaster-struck countries:

"Three months after the tsunami hit Aceh, the New York Times reported that "almost nothing seems to have been done to begin repairs and rebuilding". The dispatch could have come from Iraq, where, as the Los Angeles Times has reported, all Bechtel's allegedly rebuilt water plants have started to break down, one more in a litany of reconstruction screw-ups. It could have come from Afghanistan, where President Karzai blasted "corrupt, wasteful and unaccountable" foreign contractors for "squandering the precious resources that Afghanistan received in aid".

It's ironic that we're going round the world forcing capitalism on people when it's becoming increasingly clear that capitalism is not good for your health. Russia is a case in point. The communist system ended in 1990. Did life expectancy for Russians increase as they entered the new capitalist period? No, it started to decline, and sharply:

"Age-adjusted mortality in Russia rose by almost 33% between 1990 and 1994. During that period, life expectancy for Russian men and women declined dramatically from 63.8 and 74.4 years to 57.7 and 71.2 years, respectively," reports The Journal of the American Medical Association. As to why, JAMA can only speculate: "Many factors appear to be operating simultaneously, including economic and social instability, high rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, depression, and deterioration of the health care system."

Russians Abroad takes up the grim story. "In 1992 the sex ratio was 884 males per 1,000 females; in the years between 1994 and 2005, the imbalance is projected to increase slightly to a ratio of 875 males per 1,000 females (see table 7, Appendix). Gender disparity has increased because of a sharp drop in life expectancy for Russian males, from sixty-five years in 1987 to fifty-seven in 1994. (Life expectancy for females reached a peak of 74.5 years in 1989, then dropped to 71.1 by 1994.) Projected changes in life expectancy are negative for both sexes, however. Mortality figures that the Ministry of Labor released in mid-1995 showed that if the current conditions persist, nearly 50 percent of today's Russian youth will not reach the retirement ages of fifty-five for women and sixty for men."

The contrast with the early years of the Soviet Union is stark. According to the Population Reference Bureau:

"For the first 40 or so years of its existence, the USSR enjoyed a remarkable improvement in health conditions, despite civil wars, internal repression, and world war. By the early 1960s, life expectancy had caught up with that in the United States."

Richard Wilkinson, of Nottingham University Medical School, has researched into the relationship between inequality and poor health. An account of his research outlines his findings. "Those who would deny a link between health and inequality must first grapple with the following paradox. There is a strong relationship between income and health within countries. In any nation you will find that people on high incomes tend to live longer and have fewer chronic illnesses than people on low incomes.

"Yet, if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries.

"We lack data on the relative health of the richest tiers in different countries, but it would not be surprising if even the wealthiest Americans paid a personal price for their nation's inequality.

"The solution to the paradox, argues Wilkinson, cannot be found in differences in factors such as quality of healthcare, because this has only a modest impact on health outcomes in advanced nations. It lies rather in recognising that our income relative to others is more significant for our health than our absolute standard of living. Relative income matters because health is importantly influenced by 'psychosocial' as well as material factors.

"Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel 'in control' in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts. Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people's sense of control and by low levels of civic participation.

"In market societies, the wealthy regard themselves as 'winners' in life's race. They enjoy high social status and considerable autonomy, both in the workplace and in their domestic lives. By contrast, people on low and moderate incomes are made to feel like 'losers'. They have no symbols of affluence to flaunt, they occupy subordinate positions in the workplace and face a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity. The way this humiliating lack of status and control weakens their health is by putting them under much higher levels of stress than the better off. One of the signs that people are under intense stress is the prevalence of behavioural pathologies such as obesity, alcoholism and drug addiction."

Yet another argument for the merits of post-capitalist slow life, I think. Let's get to work reconstructing the world before Condi Rice and Carlos Pascual can get a foot -- or a scythe -- in the door.