Health scandal at Flint, Michigan: Capitalism is poison

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Water is vital to life, to humanity. Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water. However... potable water is becoming a rare, precious commodity, including in some of the most developed urban zones. To live and survive by drinking a simple glass of water is no longer an easy thing! And there is also drought linked to climate change and desertification in Africa, Asia and Australasia.

The reasons for this are not just industrial or agricultural pollution in themselves. The corruption of the ruling class is also a powerful factor.

The scandal of the polluted water of Flint, a small town in Michigan USA, is the latest example of this problem. The facts: in 2014, in order to reduce costs, the municipality of Flint, rather than continue buying water from the town of Detroit, decided to draw its supply from a local river of doubtful quality. After the discovery of bacteria, the local authorities started a chemical treatment process which ended up leaching lead from the pipework and into the distribution network supplying households. For a year-and-a-half, between April 2014 and autumn 2015, the inhabitants of this town of 100,000, the majority black and poor, used and consumed this lead-contaminated water. Many ongoing complaints were ignored and there were 87 cases of Legionnaires disease, ten of whom died; thousands of children are affected with risks of irreversible damage to their nervous systems by lead poisoning.

The scandal which followed forced Barack Obama to declare an emergency, the President himself affirming with hand on heart: “If I was responsible for a family there, I would be outraged that the health of my children could be in danger”. The political mobilisation then unleashed is almost an example of unanimity! The state governor and the Flint municipal administration are accused of negligence and having knowingly closed their eyes for months. There was a clamour for resignations, including from the film-maker Michael Moore, himself a native of Flint: “It is not only a water crisis. It is a crisis of race, a crisis of poverty”, he said, intimating that such a scandal wouldn’t have happened in a comfortable and white part of Michigan. Because Flint, an industrial centre in the shadow of Detroit, has suffered a total collapse of the automobile industry, in particular that of General Motors (founded in Flint in 1908). In fifty years, Flint has lost half its population. The unemployment rate today is close to twice the national average and 40% of its inhabitants live below the poverty level.

So there it is: all you need to know! Those that are responsible for the water crisis have been found: they are racists and profit from the misery of the poor in order to make economies on their backs! Here are the guilty, the “bad guys”!

Is it that simple? That these local and regional authorities bear a heavy responsibility is beyond dispute. And good capitalist managers that they are, all these administrators must balance their books faced with economic crisis. And they are not always in agreement on this. But the American state, like all states, wants to reinvent itself with a good account: the guilty must be punished and the situation has to return to “normal”. “Never again!” we are told (yet again). This sort of language has already been heard with each financial, health or ecological scandal for years and years and applied to this or that barbaric act of war and terrorism over the whole of the planet. From Bhopal to Fukushima, from the contaminated blood scandal in the NHS in the 1970s and 80s to the Amoco Cadiz, to the recent factory explosion at Tianjin in China and thousands of other episodes, we see the same story: the prosecution of the guilty is called for in order to pacify indignation and prevent any reflection on the underlying causes of these scandals.

In the circumstances, the American state, with Obama at its head, puts itself forward as the guarantor of public health faced with all the crooks or politicians greedy for profits. They want to look like champions of morality or knights in shining armour protecting the quality of life. Dream on... or rather, put up with the nightmare! It is the same state that reduces its working and social budgets, establishes austerity programmes, reducing the population to mass unemployment and tipping people into permanent precariousness. Never mind: sacrifice the guilty and above all keep the states and the capitalist system as a whole out of any responsibility.

In fact this logic hides what’s essential and this is the aim of the manoeuvre. Behind each scandal or catastrophe, there is usually the search for profits. But the principle of profit is not the privilege of this or that badly-intentioned or corrupt bourgeois: it is the permanent logic of a system at bay, a barbaric system, of a bourgeois class which only lives by competition for profit. These are the implacable laws inherent in capitalism.

Engels already declared in 1845: “I have never seen a class so profoundly immoral, so incurably rotten and so corroded within by egoism as the English bourgeoisie and by this I mean especially the bourgeoisie proper (...) With such avarice and greed it is impossible for a sentiment, a human idea to exist which is not soiled (...) all the conditions of life are evaluated by the criteria of what can be gained and everything that doesn’t bring forth money is idiotic, unrealisable, utopian (...)”[i]

Nothing has fundamentally changed since then. On the contrary. After a century of capitalism’s decadence, which has now reached the stage of outright decomposition, the quest for profits pushes the war of each against all to the planetary level just as it does at the local level. Capitalism is a permanent catastrophe. And to survive it must find in each spectacular and disastrous episode someone responsible, a scapegoat: a “bad political choice”, a “rotten leader”, a case of “human error”, or it blames “the climate”, “bad luck”, “madness”. The bourgeois states, with the USA at their head, thus try to smarten up their image in order to preserve their rotting society.

Let’s be clear:  we are not defending a fatalist analysis of history, or saying that everything is written in advance, or that each catastrophe is banal and ineluctable. It’s exactly the opposite! It’s the bourgeoisie itself with all its various ideologies which defends the inevitable existence of the capitalist world and demands that we resign ourselves to it. All that’s needed is a little more individual “good will” or for us to be confident in a “really democratic” state in order to attenuate the effects of these catastrophes, to make our “fate” more tolerable.

The left parties of the bourgeoisie’s political apparatus present themselves as champions of the “democratic solution”. The democrats in power and the movements on the left never stop telling us that with a state that listens to the needs of the people everything will be better and scandals will finish! The end of war! The end of exploitation! But the very reason for the state is precisely the preservation of the interests of capital, the profits of which are at the centre of all sorts of health scandals. With the idea of “democratic renewal” the capitalist left hopes to anesthetise the working class, render it docile and reinforce its impotence.

The Flint scandal, following many others, is the occasion for new political manipulations by the democratic bourgeoisie. But it’s their whole world which scandalises us and we reject its deadly logic altogether. It is this entire system which must be overthrown, from the roots, and at the global level. Despite appearances, despite the real difficulties and feelings of impotence which dominate the working class, the latter remains, as Engels said, the only social class able to take on this task. The affirmation of the collective international force of the proletariat has in fact been demonstrated by history and it is still able to overthrow the established order and launch itself against the dictatorship of capital.

Stopio, 21st February 2016


[i] The Condition of the Working Class in England