Mexican swine flu: another capitalist calamity

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We are publishing here a statement by Revolución Mundial, the ICC's section in Mexico, about the outbreak of swine flu which began in that country. After the first weeks of panic and doom-mongering, the new strain of flu almost disappeared from the headlines.

But even if the danger of a pandemic was exaggerated and if the bourgeoisie made good use of that exaggeration, the disease is real and a number of extremely serious cases have occurred recently in Britain (more than in the rest of Europe in fact). The statement tries to place the outbreak in a more general historical context and shows that capitalism in its advancing decay can only continue to generate diseases and other disasters. 

The bourgeoisie lives with an obsession: how to obtain the maximum profit. It is for this reason that the general norm for all governments is to reduce any cost that doesn't bring them an immediate profit or which seems to them to be useless. The one aim is to cheapen the price of labour power. The statistics of the International Labour Organisation, part of the UN, show that every year around the world there are 270 million industrial accidents. Result: 2,160,000 workers die. The collapse of the Pasta de Conchos mine[1], which left 65 miners dead, was just one of many ‘accidents' which workers are subjected to because the attempt to reduce costs leads to a reduction in basic safety measures. And often it's also the case with the ‘natural disasters' such as floods and earthquakes which leave so many victims among the workers because the mass of wage-earners live in such precarious housing conditions.

Millions of workers and their families are crammed into urban concentrations with little hope of escape. In these dangerous conditions, natural incidents such as earthquakes or a flood can become a tragedy of vast proportions which destroys thousands of human lives. And it's no better when it comes to explosions like the one that took place in 1984 in the San Juanico area of Mexico City. The technical and architectural advances which could offer better protection against all such phenomena are not even considered when it comes to the areas inhabited by the working class.

The same goes for everything to do with health costs. Here we can see that a direct diminution of the social wage has very grave consequences because the resurgence of diseases that were thought to have been wiped out or prevented from becoming epidemics, such as the various types of flu, find their principal victims among the workers and their families. Wars, ‘accidents' and epidemics are not inevitable disasters that we can only resign ourselves to. It's the capitalist system which is today preventing us from confronting these problems.

The decadence of this system as expressed through epidemics, war and poverty

The rise of capitalism as the dominant mode of production was accompanied by the ascent of science and technology to sustain the exploitation of the proletariat and in this way to revolutionise the productive forces. By freeing itself from the control of religion and its dogma science reached unprecedented heights. With regard to health and medicine, unlimited possibilities opened up in the fight against diseases which had produced huge death tolls since ancient times. The objective of the bourgeoisie was obviously not to improve the lives of the exploited through applied science. But it did have an interest in extending its benefits, since the development of the productive process required a certain level of health among the workers so that they could keep up with their work. In addition, when the bourgeoisie took steps to protect itself, it was also obliged to some extent to allow the results of science and technology to improve the lives of the workers as well. Friedrich Engels described this situation thus: "Again, the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, smallpox, and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases" (Condition of the Working Class in England, preface to the second German edition, 1892).

But also and above all the struggles of the working class for the improvement of its living and working conditions forced the bourgeoisie not only to concede wage increases, but also to bring in more general improvements in its conditions of existence.

The struggle waged by the bourgeoisie against the old systems of production and thought was what made it a revolutionary and progressive force. Because marxism recognised this, it can affirm today that once the development of the productive forces had reached its limits and capitalism had extended its rule to the entire planet, the progressive nature of capital disappeared completely; henceforward a system which had brought so much to humanity became decadent and destructive. This senile phase of the system came to the surface in 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War. This butchery showed that capitalism was now being sustained by the sacrifice of 20 million human beings. And in 1918, as soon as the war came to an end, the epidemic of so-called ‘Spanish flu' killed between 40 and 100 million people according to different estimates. We know today that apart from the virulent nature of the virus that caused this flu, the speed of its extension and the high mortality rates it provoked in Europe were closely linked to the ravages of war, which had left the population exhausted and terribly weakened, and in a situation where the bulk of medical resources had been poured into the war effort. The flu appeared in the last year of the war and the national bourgeoisies of the belligerent countries (led, it seems, by the American contingent) forbade any talk about it and above all ensured that medical resources would not be diverted towards dealing with the flu. In Spain, a neutral country, the health services were the first and initially the only ones to talk about the pandemic. This is how the flu got its name. A name that is too long but more accurate would be ‘the flu that complemented the world-wide massacre'. 

The system of production and the political relations within the bourgeoisie have ensured that capitalism is now synonymous with war, contamination and destruction, where the most impressive scientific discoveries have often been sterilised by the way this decaying system operates. In former times, science was subjected to religious obscurantism and now it's the interests of capital which prevent it from being used properly in the service of humanity. It is increasingly evident that the present system has become a threat to humanity's survival. It may seem paradoxical that one expression of this is the fact that diseases like malaria, dengue fever and tuberculosis, which once appeared to have been eradicated, have come back in force in recent decades. 

The flu in Mexico: a product of capitalist decadence

Only an understanding of what the decadence of this system means can explain why there is a permanent danger of epidemics like the one we are now seeing in Mexico. The internet is packed with the most mythical and exaggerated theories about this epidemic, expressing the widespread distrust of the official version which stresses that this is a ‘natural process' linked to the life cycles of the virus and to chance, which obviously doesn't help us to understand what's going on. It's also no surprise that the left wing of capital and its trade unions (the SME for example) are doing all they can to hide the real problem by seeking the origins of the epidemic in the perverse actions of a particular individual or country, claiming for example that the epidemic spreading through Mexico was deliberately created by the USA, or that it's all just a publicity stunt to cover up secret financial and commercial deals by the government. These kinds of explanations, which may look very radical, simply defend the idea that there could be a more patriotic and human capitalism if only the activities of certain predatory states were kept under control, if the correct policies were carried out and if we were governed by honest and well-intentioned people.

But the origins of these threats to life on our planet are not to be found in a plot. They are the product of the very development of capitalism. The frenetic search for profit and an increasingly vicious capitalist competition can only lead to stifling levels of exploitation where living and working conditions are severely affected; what's more, with this desperate quest to reduce costs, increasingly noxious and polluting methods are being used. This is true both for industrial production and for agriculture and cattle-rearing, both for the countries that are highly industrialised and for the ones which are not, even if the effects of capitalism's destructive tendencies are more dramatic in the latter.

An example of this is the conditions of cattle-rearing: abuse of steroids and antibiotics (to accelerate growth), overcrowding of animals with a very high levels of waste which is thrown away without due concern for hygiene, exacerbating the danger of contamination. It is this form of production which has led to scandals like Mad Cow Disease and the various forms of flu.

To this we should add the attacks on health services and the lack of preventative measures which facilitate the spread of viruses. We can see this clearly in Mexico with the relentless dismantling of the Mexican social security system and its health centres, which are in general the only ones that workers have access to. There have been government reports about the danger of epidemics since 2006 (cf the journal Proceso no, 1695, 26.4.09), where it was argued that a virus known as ‘A type flu' could infect cheap poultry and livestock, mutate and attack humans. Reports were written, projects drawn up, but it all remained a dead letter for lack of any funds.

The appearance of this flu epidemic in Mexico has again exposed the precariousness of the conditions in which the working class lives: the aggravated levels of exploitation and unbearable poverty are the perfect soil for the germination of disease.

Capitalism engenders epidemics, and the workers suffer the consequences

Newspaper investigations have shown that the effects of the virus were known about by 16 April and that the government waited seven days before sounding the alarm. The announcement of the existence of ‘swine flu' in Mexico on the night of 23 April was clearly not the beginning of the problem but the aggravation of everything that the working class has to put up with in capitalism. Despite the confused and doctored figures provided by the Ministry of Health regarding the number of people the virus has killed or made ill, the real balance sheet is not hard to draw up: the only victims of this epidemic are the workers and their families. It is the wage-slaves and their families who have died from this disease; it is they who have been expected to drag themselves from one hospital to another, often having to wait for care in overcrowded corridors where precious time is wasted and where the needed anti-viral drugs are often not available. While the official announcements tried to present the epidemic as something that was under control, the working class population cruelly experienced the lack of medical services, of medicine and preventative measures. It was also the workers in the health service (doctors and nurses) who now had to face even more dangerous and intensive working conditions, which led the medical interns at the National Institute for Respiratory Diseases to demonstrate and denounce this situation on 27 April; and despite the fact that this was a short and small mobilisation, the press covered it up.

The way this epidemic has been dealt with in the first weeks is very significant: the bourgeoisie and its state have argued that this is a matter of ‘security' which calls for national unity. But while the workers are exposed to contagion because they are obliged to use transport systems like the metro or the bus where there is a massive human concentration, the bourgeoisie protects itself in an appropriate manner with a single concern: how to justify the wage reductions that the bosses will have to impose to make up for the losses resulting from the obligatory closure of certain workplaces, especially restaurants and hotels.

Campaigns of panic, another anti-working class virus

There is no doubt that the bourgeoisie, in mid-April, was surprised by the appearance of a mutant virus for which it had no vaccine. It panicked and took a number of hurried decisions which served only to spread the panic among the whole population. At the beginning the ruling class was caught up in the panic, but very quickly it began to use it against the workers. On the one hand it used it to give the government an image of strength and efficiency; on the other, spreading fear encouraged individualism and an atmosphere of generalised suspicion where everyone saw the person next to them as a possible source of contagion, the exact opposite of the solidarity that could arise among the exploited. We can thus understand why the Secretary of State for Health, Cordóba Villalobos, justified (and thus encouraged) the aggressions which residents of Mexico City were subjected to in other regions of the country after they were accused of being ‘infected'. This high state official said that these were natural expressions of the ‘human condition'. The bourgeoisie lives in fear of solidarity among the workers and it is quite capable of using this affair to counter it by encouraging chauvinism and localism. It is this same nationalist strategy which capital uses in China, Argentina or Cuba to justify stringent controls over who enters or leaves its territories.

The class in power, by launching its campaign of fear, is trying to make the working class see itself as powerless and to accept the state as its only saviour. This is why the antidote to these campaigns of fear is serious reflection among the workers, enabling them to understand that as long as capitalism is alive, the only thing we can expect is more exploitation, more poverty, more disease and premature deaths. Today more than ever it is an urgent necessity to put an end to capitalism.  

RM May 2009

[1] 65 miners died in 2006 in this mine in the state of Coahuila in Mexico. This ‘industrial accident' was in fact a capitalist crime, the tragic consequence of the exhausting work paid at $60 a week and of safety conditions worthy of mining in the epoch of slavery. See the articles in Revolución Mundial, 91 and 92


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