Private health care: poor pay with their lives - Sicko Michael Moore, 2007, US / FRFI 200 Dec 2007 / Jan 2008

FRFI 200 December 2007/January 2008

    Private health care:  poor pay with their lives

    Sicko Michael Moore, 2007, US

    Sicko is the latest film by US documentary maker Michael Moore, acclaimed for his films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. The film is an indictment of the US health service, targeting the parasitic insurance companies which run the industry. Sicko starts with a scene of a man stitching up his own leg – quite simply because he was too poor to afford medical insurance. Moore then interviews an uninsured man who cut off two of his fingers in an accident. He had to choose between paying $72,000 to have both fingers sewn back on, $60,000 to have just the main digit sewn back on or $12,000 for the smaller finger. But Moore says the focus of the film is not so much about the 47 million people in the US who are living without medical insurance but those lucky ones with it.

    In the US if you want health cover you have to pay for it. According to USA Today the average cost for a family health insurance policy topped $10,000 in 2005. Yet, as Moore’s film highlights, even paying those huge fees does not guarantee that you receive treatment if you are ill. With the aid of former insurance workers and doctors, the film demonstrates that in the cold pursuit of profit the insurance industries adopt all means at their disposal not to honour a claim. One of the film’s most cruel examples was that of a poor black woman who had managed to scrape together enough money to pay for health cover for herself and her daughter. When her daughter became ill in the middle of the night she took her to the nearest hospital. However, her insurance company refused to cover her at this hospital and forced her to take her sick daughter to another instead. She died on arrival. This is just one case out of many shown in the film highlighting the human suffering that this unjust system inflicts.

    This state of affairs exists in the US because health care is a commodity like any other. If you can’t pay you go without. If you pay a bit you may get treated – depending on conditions x, y and z. There is no intention of providing a quality service to all. Excessive premiums and super-inflated medication are the results of this profit-driven system. The insurance corporations and pharmaceutical giants, like the oil and arms companies, have huge political clout. Sicko illustrates that successive US administrations have been financially backed by the ‘health’ sector including the current Bush administration and Hilary Clinton, Democratic nominee favourite for the next presidency. As a result legislation has always favoured those running the industry. From the McCarthy era of the 1950s up to the 1970s, a climate of anti-communism and right-wing fervour was prevalent in the US. ‘Socialisation of health care’ was presented as a dangerous move towards communism by the US ruling class. This reactionary sentiment culminated with Nixon’s decision to fully expose to the market what limited health care provision existed and set in place the trend which exists to this day.

    This film is aimed at a US audience to whom Moore hopes to demonstrate the insanity of their system of health care while showing that there are alternatives. He does this by visiting Canada, Britain, France and Cuba and compares these countries’ socialised health care systems to the US model. The contrast is remarkable. State-controlled systems are clearly shown as providing better care and paid for through taxation (and directly by the state in the case of Cuba). When he asks a woman from the US living in Paris why the French have better health provision she replies it is because the French people have a history of protest and demand security and welfare: ‘In France the government is afraid of the people, in the US the people are afraid of the government.’

    The only real weakness in Sicko is that Moore over-praises the NHS and paints it as a utopian example of health provision. There is little mention of the long waiting lists and moves towards privatisation that have and are continuing to erode such provision. The existence of a two-tier system, where the rich can receive quicker treatment, is not mentioned. As a US film maker educating others in the US about their system Moore can be forgiven for this oversight. British viewers, though, should take heed and realise that privatisation of the NHS will lead to the same inequalities and insecurities as those existing in the US.

    In response to the issues dealt with by the film Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and now Republican nominee for the US presidency said: ‘I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chance of surviving prostate cancer, and thank God I was cured of it, in the United States, 82 percent. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England? Only 44 percent under socialised medicine.’ The percentages he gives are questionable, but there is no doubting that he received excellent health care provision. The US system can be the best in the world provided you are a member of the ruling class and have got the huge financial means to buy into that system. But for the majority there is no such privilege and comfort, just anxiety and insecurity.

    The true political strength of the film comes out when Moore takes some sick 9/11 firefighters to Cuba for treatment. In a hilarious scene in which queues form to board a boat from Miami to Cuba, Moore turns on their head prevailing US stereotypes about Cuba being a backward and dangerous enemy. The firefighters, heralded in the US media as heroes just after 9/11 had been left to rot by the US ruling class. Suffering from chronic lung disorders after inhaling the ash from the towers the firefighters were given treatment in a Havana hospital – treatment no better, no worse, than the average Cuban would get. For the first time in years they had a full medical check, a diagnosis of their condition, surgery, medication and full dental care to boot. One woman was in tears because she found it so difficult to believe that in a third world country she was shown such compassion and support yet in her country, the world’s richest, she was left to fend for herself. Intentionally or not the film demonstrates that only a planned socialist economy can provide, and most importantly guarantee to provide (unlike in the case of Britain, France and Canada) full and top quality health provision for all.

    Political, comical, timely, informative, thought-provoking, terrifying – Sicko is documentary film-making at its very best. A must see.

    Andrew Alexander

    Apologies to readers of FRFI 200: This review was printed with spell-check errors which were not the fault of the author. These have been corrected in this website version of the review.

Review: Health, human rights and the United Nations / FRFI 202 Apr / May 2008

FRFI 202 April / May 2008

Health, human rights and the United Nations

Theodore H MacDonald, Health, human rights and the United Nations – inconsistent aims and inherent contradictions? Radcliff Publishing Ltd 2008 ISBN 13: 078 1 84619 241 8, 196 pages

This book follows Health, trade and human rights (ISBN 1-84619-050-9) 2006, and The global human right to health – dream or possibility? (ISBN 978-1-84619-201-2), 2007. Forthcoming is Sacrificing the WHO to the highest bidder. This publication rate is in keeping with Theodore MacDonald’s over 200 research papers and over 40 books (from which he draws no financial gain) reflecting his life-long commitment to human rights and immense contribution to health promotion and public health, emphasising that without primary health care for all, nothing else is achievable.

Imperialism’s barbaric practices are meticulously documented, using easily accessible examples. MacDonald ensures that revolutionary Cuba is prominent in the discussion of alternative ways of organising society in the interests of the people and that socialism is on the agenda.

Health, human rights and the United Nations gives the history of the establishment of the UN, its initial declarations, aims and objectives, the other organisations that have come under its umbrella and the political and economic forces at play that stop the objectives’ achievement. This is set in the context of the most basic levels of health access for the world’s population, which are as far away as ever from attainment.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the establishment of the UN and the setting up of the World Health Organisation (WHO) aimed to promote and defend global access to primary health care as a basis for all other human rights and personal dignity. The 1978 Alma Ata Declaration recognised that the barriers to adequate health are economic and political rather than clinical.

The WHO was developed to ensure that the UN’s basic declarations could be safeguarded, enable access to primary health care for all, eradicate diseases and promote public health; similar agencies were UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation).
Other agencies came under the umbrella of the UN: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). MacDonald shows how these prevent UN goals from being achieved.

The WB’s and IMF’s Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) force oppressed nations to cut back on publicly funded services such as health and education as a condition for loans. This has slowed progress towards achieving the 1973 Health For All campaign’s 38 targets by 2000. Former UN general secretary Kofi Annan introduced the Millennium Developmental Goals in 2000 to try and prevent the WHO being undermined.

The WTO has controlled global trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Trade is organised against the poorer nations through protectionist tariffs and these have a direct impact on health. The effect of TRIPS, ‘a radical re-interpretation of patent law’, is illustrated by the pharmaceutical companies who produce anti-retroviral drugs for those with HIV/AIDS too expensive for the majority of affected countries to buy. However, when India and Brazil produced a generic version at 5% of the cost, TRIPS restricted the sale.

MacDonald details human rights abuses: child soldiers, sexual abuse by UN personnel, human trafficking, and shows how the failure of the UN to protect human rights has led to its undermining, and the encouragement of NGOs.

A chapter deals with Britain’s appalling record on human rights. The arms trade promoting more effective ways of killing; the treatment of asylum seekers; Britain’s involvement in people trafficking and the Labour government’s contempt for the Human Rights Act when it did not fit its military and political objectives. A UNICEF 2007 report found that ‘the human rights of British children were more seriously violated than any of the other 21 developed nations studied’ with unacceptable levels of poverty and low aspirations for their future, deprived in affection, education, materially and socially;

Despite the WHO’s achievements, 17 million people still die every year from infectious diseases. MacDonald asks whether the structure of the UN will allow the WHO to fulfill the Health For All mandate and concludes that reforming or replacing the UN will not solve the problems of manipulation and domination of corporate interests. What is needed is a ‘socially responsive philosophy, essentially egalitarian and socialist in its world view’.

Hannah Caller

Review: BBC Two’s ‘White Season’ FRFI 202 Apr 2008/ May 2008

FRFI 202 April 2008 / May 2008

    BBC Two’s ‘White Season’

    What exactly did BBC Two intend to do in its ‘White Season’? Why did they organise a survey, not randomly as claimed, but aimed at white people with a very specific question about being ‘voiceless’ and unrepresented. Was it to manipulate the message that people in Britain feel that ‘nobody speaks for them’ and that they are ‘becoming invisible’ in order to serve the purpose of a race and not a class agenda? The ‘White Season’ was launched by a discussion based on a small telephone poll of 1,012 white British adults aged 18+ which showed that 58% of white working class people felt nobody speaks for people like them and 46% of white middle class people felt the same. Newsnight guest speaker Bob Crow of the RMT energetically agreed that the Labour government and the media do not represent the interests of, and in fact attack, the working class but, he asserted, this is entirely a matter of class, not of race.

    BBC2, however, clearly had an agenda to view the white British working class as particular victims of neglect and dispossession by the Labour government. This is the political stance of not only the British National Party but of an increasing section of the media and professional class who have historically played exactly this role of encouraging and justifying the racism of others.

    The series kicked off with a documentary about Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech against immigration from the British Commonwealth in which he predicted that ‘in 15 or 20 years the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ and ‘rivers of blood would be shed’. Then, as now, racists protest that they are not allowed to say what they think and Powell was congratulated 40 years ago for ‘daring to speak out’. The BBC ‘White Season’ was promoted on this idea of fearless ‘speaking out’. The series was anchored by a much repeated trailer which shows a shaven-headed man’s face being blacked up with writing by brown hands over the words, ‘Is the white working class in Britain becoming invisible?’ What emerged from the series of documentaries is that the white working class are, some of them, old and grumpily retired in Wibsey’s Working Men’s Club; young and unemployed in Peterborough where equally white eastern European casual, seasonal workers do the unwanted agri-business jobs of harvesting and packing; hardly present in the multicultural primary school in Birmingham which has never had more than 10 white children on its register at a time; dysfunctional in Moving On where a young girl embraces the Islam of her school friends as a sanctuary from a chaotic world; and neighbourly in All White in Barking where an English and an African couple become friendly and even the BNP activist has an Anglo/Nigerian grandchild. Then there is the Jewish social club of 50 years standing whose members have mixed views about old Monty and his live-in carer/girlfriend Betty from Uganda. ‘Invisible’ does not even rate in this.

    The most opportunistic racist game of all was to call a documentary on Easington in County Durham, The Whitest Place in Britain. White had nothing to do with it. This ex-mining village could have been named as the most shamefully abandoned and de-populated working class community in Britain. The fate of Easington represents an attack on whole sections of the British working class who are alienated as a result of the closure of entire industries, the rundown of manufacturing and council housing, the assault on trade unions and the deregulation of the labour market. Instead of showing what results from the British ruling class homage to big business and privatisation, the BBC provides a running commentary on the racial composition of a defeated community.

    Michael Moore, the director of Sicko and Bowling for Columbine, among other films, published a best seller in 2002 called Stupid White Men. His targets were the neo-conservatives, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and their associates whose politics are dominated by militarism, greed and power. He happily included both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Stupid White Men class of person. The BBC Two’s ‘White Season’ could have targeted the parallel folk and institutions in Britain dominated by the equally stupid white ruling class which would include the judiciary, the armed forces, the civil service and indeed the BBC itself. It still remains a puzzle why the ‘White Season’ flirted with the provocative suggestion that Enoch Powell represents the ideals of ‘free speech’. Are they stupid?
 Susan Davidson


Review: Fidel Castro: a revolutionary life / FRFI 204 Aug / Sept 2008

FRFI 204 August / September 2008

Fidel Castro: a revolutionary life
My Life Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet, Allen Lane 2007, £25 hbk, 724pp

‘I said once that one of our greatest errors in the beginning and many times down through the years of the Revolution was to believe that somebody knew how socialism ought to be constructed’ (My Life, p623).

This book is, then, a tremendous testament to almost 50 years of constructing socialism without a blueprint. In it Castro details the Cuban people’s incredible social, political, educational, cultural and international achievements during his life. The book takes the form of a series of conversations between the Cuban leader and the former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet. In a hundred hours with Castro, recorded between 2003 and 2005, we are given an unprecedented account of his life so far, from the schoolboy forging a glowing report card for his guardians to secure centavos for ice cream, to the mature revolutionary, on the phone advising President Chavez of Venezuela to stand firm during the April 2002 coup.

The unique value of this 700-page volume lies in the additional material detail which illustrates Castro’s strategic and tactical skill. Every setback, every apparently hopeless situation has been made to yield something useful and progressive. After the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, Fidel is betrayed and captured. Batista’s soldiers are for shooting the prisoners without knowing Castro is amongst them. He relates the episode to make the point that a black Cuban Army officer restrained the troops by repeatedly arguing: ‘Don’t shoot. You can’t kill ideas’ (p162).

Ramonet tells us in the introduction that Fidel often says: ‘It’s ideas that transform the world, the way tools transform matter’ (p14). Castro’s own life of ceaseless revolutionary organisation and action demonstrates his central, Marxist understanding that it is the practical application of ideas that changes and transforms the world, not the individualistic heroism of a single person. Reflecting on the historic importance of particular men, Che’s virtues of ‘moral value... and conscience’ are praised but also seen as ‘of no importance unless one believed that men like him exist by the million – millions and millions of them – within the masses’ (p307).

From privilege to protest
In describing those Cubans who allied themselves with the US to attack the Revolution at Playa Giron in 1961, he comments that ‘among the invaders there were many who were the sons of large landowners and wealthy families. There you see clearly the class nature of the invasion’ (p263).

How was it then that Fidel, the son of a large and wealthy landowner, was able to publicly declare on the day before that counter-revolutionary invasion: ‘This is a socialist and democratic Revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble’ (p638)?

The answer lies in part, as he points out, in his family’s class origins. Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been an illiterate immigrant from Galicia in Spain who had known grinding poverty and who never forgot his roots. Castro describes his father’s concern at the plight of the landless labourers during the tiempo muerto, the period of near starvation between the end of the sugar harvest and planting, and the measures he took to alleviate the situation.

At Havana University in 1945, Castro tells us, ‘The leftists saw me as a queer duck – they’d say, “Son of landowners and a graduate of the Colegio de Belen, this guy must be the most reactionary person in the world”’ (p94). While 20 years earlier, student Julio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party, had been ‘the presiding spirit’, the odds were considerably different now: ‘Of the 15,000 students... there were no more than 50 active, known anti-imperialists’ (p94).

During this period of early political agitation, which led to his being physically excluded from the university precincts by thugs and police, Castro and his friends committed themselves to organising a challenge to injustice by building a federation of Latin American students, demanding ‘the sovereignty of the European colonies throughout the hemisphere. That was our programme which was anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial’ (p99). In 1947 Castro headed for the Dominican Republic to lead a company of volunteers against the US-backed dictator there; in Panama he encountered students inflamed by US soldiers who had machine-gunned anti-occupation protesters and in Venezuela he noted the progressive promise of President Betancourt and the Revolutionary Junta. The developing student movement supported the Argentinean demands for the return of the Malvinas and expressed solidarity with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In 1948 he travelled to Colombia, where he met presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan who agreed to support a congress of Latin American students. However Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota as the congress was in progress. Castro was caught up in the response of ‘a people seeking justice... I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station... I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous popular revolution.’ (p98)


Out of this crucible of experience Fidel was forced to make some sense. He is unequivocal that it was his encounter with Marx which took him forward. Reading the Communist Manifesto:

‘Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest who doesn’t even know where north and south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.’ (p100)

Castro describes himself as a ‘utopian Communist’ then, but goes on to state: ‘By 10 March 1952, the day of Batista’s coup d’état, I’d already been a convinced Marxist-Leninist for several years’ (p103).

However, as Lenin pointed out forcefully to those who sniffed haughtily at the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, only the most ‘hopeless doctrinaires’ could think that there was anything like a ‘pure social revolution where one army lines up on one side and declares “we are for socialism” and another lines up saying, “we are for imperialism”.’ Castro quotes from Jose Marti, hero of the Cuban War of Independence, in his argument that winning battles can involve guile and concealment as well as courage.

‘All that I have done up to now, and all I will do, is for that [to thwart US imperialism through Cuban independence]...It has to be done in silence, and indirectly, for there are things that must be concealed in order to be attained.’ (p173)

It is a central axiom of Marxism that while the people do indeed make history they do not make it in circumstances of their own choosing. Castro explains that in 1960, after the Revolution, he had at first ‘to appeal to every recourse of my imagination to persuade them without giving our position away (ie, that we were going to proclaim socialism)’ (p243).

But once the Revolution came under armed threat by US imperialism a year later, new, open tactics were necessary. On 16 April 1961, Castro openly proclaimed ‘the socialist nature of our Revolution’ (p 257). The US invasion of Cuba was launched the next day at Playa Giron. Within 60 hours the Cubans had routed the invaders. Castro had appealed now to the working class and peasants to defend their Revolution under the banner of socialism. The attempted invasion had ‘accelerated the revolutionary process’ (p269). And, as Castro says later, ‘Imperialist treachery, imperialist perfidy, stung by every measure of ours that benefited the people or consolidated national independence, forced us to keep our boots on and our combat equipment ready’ (p308).

Castro considers an arc of liberation can be drawn from the landing of the Granma in Cuba in 1956, beginning the revolutionary war, to November 1975 when a small group of Cubans first engaged the forces of the racist army of apartheid South Africa. In the ultimate defeat of the apartheid army by Angolans, Namibians and Cubans: ‘The imperialists and their pawns suffered the consequences of a Playa Giron multiplied many times over’ (p334).

Cuba and Africa
Cuba deployed 300,000 armed and 50,000 civilian internationalist volunteers in support of the Angolan people. By 1988 they had broken the back of the fascist apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale. Castro’s account provides a timely antidote to the disinformation passed off by the multinational media as to how apartheid was overcome. As Nelson Mandela is feted by the shameless imperialists who once branded him a ‘terrorist’, new generations should know just who stood behind apartheid in South Africa. Castro castigates the US alliance with: ‘a South Africa whose troops Washington didn’t hesitate to use to invade Angola. Dictators, terrorists, thieves and confessed racists were constantly, and without the slightest scruple, incorporated into the ranks of the so-called “free world”’ (pp316/317).

The Cubans mobilised support, soldiers and military equipment across 6,000 miles to confront: ‘the richest and best armed of Europe and the United States’ African puppet regimes. Castro was in command of Cuban, Angolan and Namibian fighters in the largest military operation that Cuba had ever mounted. He directed generals whom he remembered as boys in the Rebel Army. Their struggle for justice which had begun in the mountains, plains and cities of Cuba was elevated to an international level a quarter of a century later. Castro reveals here that the US, using Israel as a proxy, was involved in the supply of atomic bombs to the racist apartheid regime. As the imperialist vultures circle Africa again, from Sudan to Zimbabwe, Castro’s stirring account here confirms what has to be made common argument and knowledge today: that not one battalion, not one soldier, not one rifle was ever mobilised by Europe and the United States against apartheid in South Africa.

Winning the war?

However, history has bitterly demonstrated that while this battle was won resoundingly by Cuba and the liberation army of Angola, fatally wounding the racist regime, it was the imperialists who went on to win the war. From the triumph of Cuito Cuanavale it was only three short years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fidel tells it like it was:

‘When the Soviet Union and the Socialist Camp disappeared, no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The country took a stunning blow when that great power collapsed and left us out in the cold, all by ourselves, and we lost all our markets for sugar, we stopped receiving foodstuffs, fuel, even the wood to bury our dead in’ (p365).

Yet Cuba has survived. Why? ‘Because the Revolution always had, has, and increasingly will have the support of a nation which is increasingly united, educated and combative.’ (p366)

Ramonet presses Castro on issues that reflect the concerns of fixed liberal opinion in the West such as emigration from Cuba, the death penalty, the treatment of political dissidents and freedom of the press. Castro patiently refutes these prejudices, pointing out, for example, the obvious paradox that freedom of the press in the West is difficult to square with exclusive ownership of the media by rich individuals. Patient and diplomatic, yes, but also direct and combative in defending Cuba – it is easy to imagine Fidel raising that authoritative finger as he says emphatically ‘Listen: I tell many of our friends who sometimes criticise us that they should try to understand the circumstances under which this country has to defend itself’ (p479).

Meanwhile, the Cuban Revolution is looking to the future, cementing new alliances in Latin America. Castro describes the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia as ‘the expression of the fact that the political map of Latin America is changing. New winds are blowing in this hemisphere... Imperialism no longer has the instruments it once had, nor can it apply them.’ (pp522/523)

These inspiring accounts from the frontlines in Cuba’s 50-year battle against imperialism are of inestimable value to today’s political struggles. We are made privy to the finest analysis of when to apply force, when to negotiate, when to dissemble and bluff, when to pause to analyse and reflect and when to act decisively – a constant ratiocination of the balance of class forces in the anti-imperialist battle for socialism. And yet sometimes his valour, optimism and audacity are simply breathtaking. Castro’s life has been the Cuban Revolution, the building of socialism in that country and the sure marshalling of the forces – the growing masses of the poor around the globe – who are uniting to defeat imperialism. As Castro remarked of the Irish hunger strikers of 1981: ‘Tremble, tyrants, before the courage of such men!’
Michael MacGregor

Harman: making imperialism disappear / FRFI 206 Dec 2008 / Jan 2009

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

Capitalism’s new crisis: what do socialists say?
Chris Harman,
Socialist Workers Party, ISBN 9781905192458, £1.50

This pamphlet, written by leading Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) ideologue Chris Harman, claims to present a socialist standpoint on the crisis. It does anything but. Its analysis of the crisis lacks coherence; in arguing for action on the series of demands which form the ‘People before Profits Charter’ it does not acknowledge, let alone explain, why the socialist and working class movement in Britain is at its weakest for more than a century. Furthermore, at a time when millions of people throughout the world are struggling against imperialism, the word imperialism does not appear once in the pamphlet’s 34 pages.

Harman on capitalism
In order to understand the crisis, socialists have to be clear about the laws of motion of capitalism as a whole. Harman is not. Throughout the pamphlet he presents capitalism and its crisis from the standpoint of the individual capitalist who experiences life as one of constant competition. Marx understood that it is accumulation that is the driving force of capitalism, but for Harman: ‘The driving force of capitalism is not the satisfaction of people’s needs, but the competition between capitalists to make profits. Human needs are only satisfied insofar as doing so contributes to the profit drive’ (p11). He repeats the point:

‘However, the system... also escapes to a very great degree from the control of the capitalists themselves. Each time one capitalist succeeds in accumulating and expanding the means for producing wealth other capitalists are forced to do the same if they want to stay in business. Competition means they have no choice but to accumulate. They have to accumulate in order to make profits and make profits to accumulate in an endless process’ (p13).

Marx showed that it is not competition that leads to accumulation, but accumulation – the expression of the social relations of production of capitalism – that necessarily provokes competition. Marx develops the concept of capital before consideration of ‘many capitals’ or their interaction through competition. He argues that ‘a fall in the rate of profit connected with accumulation necessarily calls forth a competitive struggle...not vice versa’ (Capital Vol 3 p251).

Harman replaces Marx’s materialist analysis with idealism: capital is about ‘drive’ and ‘choice’, or lack of it, a ‘competition to see who is greediest’ (p3). Accumulation is not contained within the concept of capital but is the outcome of individual capitalists’ desire to stay ahead of each other (p16). By presenting competition as the primary force within capitalism, Harman cannot analyse its tendency towards monopoly, conveniently avoiding that ultimate expression of monopoly capitalism, imperialism. But, by the same token, if we are just dealing with subjective questions as choice, drive or greed, might these not be held in check by some external intervention – say, by the state?

Not just an idealist, Harman is also an eclectic: he presents different explanations as to why a crisis occurs within capitalism. On page 3, greed is the ‘the simple explanation for the cause of the crisis.’ On page 14, however, it is because of a shortage of raw materials and components leading to rising costs. Later on in the same page it is because there is ‘overproduction’ – people cannot afford to buy the goods that have been produced. Further on, on page 16, it is because of a ‘downward pressure on profit rates’, a consequence itself of the competition process. Which ‘cause’ is decisive is never clear. For Marxists, however, the crisis occurs when: ‘the expansion of production outruns its profitability, when existing conditions of exploitation preclude a further profitable capital-expansion
or what amounts to the same thing, an increase of accumulation does not increase the mass of surplus-value or profits, an absolute over-accumulation has occurred and the accumulation process comes to a halt. This interruption of the accumulation or its stagnation constitutes the capitalist crisis. It represents an overproduction of capital with respect to the degree of exploitation. From the point of view of profitability at this stage, existing capital is at the same time too small and too large. It is too large in relation to the existing surplus-value and it is not large enough to overcome the lack of surplus-value.’ (Paul Bullock and David Yaffe, Inflation, crisis and the post-war boom, here)

At a certain historical point the tendency towards capitalist breakdown or crisis expresses itself in the development of imperialism:
‘The aggressive character of imperialism likewise necessarily flows from a crisis of valorisation.* Imperialism is a striving to restore the valorisation of capital at any cost, to weaken or eliminate the breakdown tendency. This explains its aggressive policies at home (an intensified attack on the working class) and abroad (a drive to transform foreign nations into tributaries). This is the hidden basis of the bourgeois rentier state, of the parasitic character of capitalism at an advanced stage of accumulation. Because the valorisation of capital fails in countries at a given, higher stage of accumulation, the tribute that flows in from abroad assumes ever greater importance. Parasitism becomes a method of prolonging the life of capitalism.’ (Henryk Grossman: The law of accumulation and breakdown of the capitalist system, Pluto Press, pp122-3). [*By valorisation is meant the reproduction and expansion of capital through the exploitation of labour.]

Imperialism is not a political expedient or whim, but arises from the crisis of accumulation. Whilst Lenin in his writings was primarily concerned with the political consequences of imperialism – the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations and the split in the working class in the oppressor nation – his standpoint followed from an understanding of the capitalist crisis which we have set out. Not to mention him in a pamphlet of this character demonstrates a complete lack of Marxist understanding and in the end justifies opportunism.

Yet, despite himself, Harman is forced to demonstrate the development of parasitism when he writes:

‘Finance’s destructive role has been quite simple. In its pursuit of profit it scoured the globe looking for opportunities to lend money so as to reap vast amounts in interest payments, undertaking speculation, and raking in fees from overseeing takeovers and privatisations.’ (p6)

A succinct statement of parasitism, but one which he cannot take further because he is never clear whether or not such activities produce profits, or whether they merely represent a claim on profits made elsewhere. He continues:
‘In the 1970s and 1980s this had focused on the poorer countries of the world – lending them so much at such high interest rates that in order to keep up their repayments they were forced to borrow more at even higher interest rates. When such countries ran into trouble, the US, British and European Union governments sent in the IMF to bend them to its will, forcing them to open up their markets to giant Western firms, to sell off their industries to them, to privatise healthcare and to force the poorest parents to pay for their children’s education’ (p6).

This is indeed what happened, but at the time the SWP denied it was of any significance! They wrote then:

‘In fact neither the export of capital nor the “super-profits” of imperialism play the role they once did... It is arguable that there has been no net capital export at all (to the Third World) for long periods in the recent past... Export of capital plays a vital role in modern capitalism but it is overwhelmingly export from one developed country to another. Its economic significance is entirely different...’ (Socialist Worker 28 April 1979).

In other words, there is no imperialism, and the SWP could conclude that this export of capital ‘cannot account for the “corruption” of “labour aristocracies”... by the crumbs of super-profits’. Therefore there was no opportunism, either.

Harman obscures the question as to whether the financial system he describes is productive of surplus value, or profit. On the one hand he says ‘so long as the mountain of debt had produced profit there was nothing but praise for those who ruled over the financial system’ (p8). On the other he says that ‘the great bulk of [the financial system] is concerned only with the distribution of profits between sections of the capitalist class’. Yet if the financial system does not produce profit, where is it all coming from? And, equally importantly, how have the ever-increasing number of workers in the financial sector been getting paid? After all, even Harman has to note that ‘Finance and business services grew to account for four times as much investment as manufacturing and other industries and for almost a third of the economy in 2004’ (p23); in 2005 they employed six million workers. So where on earth was all the money coming from? You will seek the answer in Harman’s pamphlet in vain.

Marx is quite clear: labour in banking and financial services is entirely unproductive of surplus value or profit, and is financed out of the surplus value that is generated through the exploitation of workers employed productively, mainly in industry, manufacturing and transport. Yet, as Harman and many others have noted, there are fewer and fewer such workers in Britain, and their labour does not sustain even a small part of the edifice of British capitalism. There is only one coherent explanation: that Britain’s vastly expanded financial sector and the many well-paid workers it employs are paid out of surplus value sucked in from overseas, specifically through the super-profits derived from the exploitation of productive workers throughout the world, the vast majority of them in the underdeveloped countries. And the figures show this: British imperialism’s external assets expanded from £1,976 trillion (244% of GDP) in 1997 when Labour came to office to £6,486 trillion in 2006 (470% of GDP). This represents in Lenin’s words, ‘a gigantic usury capital’ (see David Yaffe, Britain – parasitic and decaying capitalism). For Harman it is a closed book.

It is this ‘gigantic usury capital’ and the super-profits it extorted that explains why there is no socialist movement in Britain today. Between 1992 and 2006 such super-profits had supported a continuous rise in living standards for the majority of the British working class and petit bourgeoisie. They did not have any need for socialism. So when Harman presents the People before Profit Charter and its basic demands, we have to ask what sort of movement will fight for it. Is it one that continues to make alliances with Labour lefts and their trade union leader allies on the latter’s terms? Or one that breaks completely with that rotten tradition and stands firmly on anti-imperialist principles? Given the various Keynesian journalists and intellectuals, Labour MPs and trade union leaders who have endorsed the Charter, it is evident that Harman and the SWP think that the way forward is once again through compromise with the reformists.

At the end of the pamphlet, Harman says that ‘The answer to the banking crisis is not regulation, or nationalisation of one or two banks, but a takeover of the whole banking system. And the nationalisation should be to stop repossessions and to stop debt strangling the world’s poor...’ (p33). He needs a reality check. At a time when the bankers are dictating to the government, he is calling on the government to nationalise in the interests of the working class what is essentially the core of British imperialism. However if you were a socialist you would have to add that in order to do this you would first have to overthrow the British state, and before that, you would have to build a new movement. This is what socialists should be saying: stand against imperialism and opportunism, break with Labour, and build a new working class movement based on these principles.

Robert Clough