Nearly 4,000 US communities have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint

By Jerry White
16 November 2017

In an updated study, Reuters news agency has identified 3,810 neighborhoods where recently recorded child lead poisoning rates are at least double those found in Flint, Michigan during the height of that city’s water crisis in 2014 and 2015. In some 1,300 of these “hotspot” communities, the percentage of children six and under with elevated lead levels was at least four times the percentage in Flint during the peak of the crisis.

In pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, Reuters reported that the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 50 percent or higher. An interactive map released with the study shows one census tract in Buffalo, New York—a former steel and auto center that, like Flint, has suffered decades of deindustrialization—where 68 percent of the children had high levels of lead.

Map of lead concentrations in the United States

The ingestion of any amount of the heavy metal, whether through tainted water, lead-based paint, contaminated soil or fumes and dust, can do irreparable harm to children. This includes impeding the development of the brain and nervous system, lowered IQ, memory loss, hearing and speech problems, and behavioral and attention-related problems. The toxin, which remains in the body and can be passed on for generations, is also responsible for a host of adult health problems, including decreased kidney function, high blood pressure, tremors and infertility.

In the year following the switchover of Flint to water from the polluted Flint River, which caused leaching from the city’s antiquated lead pipe system, five percent of the children who had their blood tested showed lead levels in excess of five micrograms per deciliter. This is the threshold requiring immediate public health intervention, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which acknowledges that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Reuters used data collected by the CDC based on neighborhood-level blood testing results for 34 states and the District of Columbia. As devastating as the results are, they do not provide a full picture. The CDC funds 35 state and local health departments for lead surveillance. Reporting is voluntary in the remaining states, many of which do not have staff to collect data. Despite the well-known public health hazard, the US government does not require reporting and does not oversee the systematic collection and analysis of data on lead poisoning.

Dr. Kim Cecil of the Cincinnati Lead Study shows how the brain isdamaged by lead poisoning

Reuters says this is the first look at data broken down by census tracts, which are small county subdivisions averaging 4,000 citizens, or by zip codes, with average populations of 7,500. In December, Reuters noted that far from being the exception, Flint did not even rank among the most toxic cities in America. It pointed to Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River, where 36 percent of the children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning.

The newest map includes additional data collected this year by Reuters from Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont, North Carolina, New York City and Washington, D.C. The newly identified areas with high levels of child lead poisoning include a historic district in Savannah, Georgia, areas in Rutland, Vermont near a popular skiing area, and a largely Hasidic Jewish area in Brooklyn, New York.

Like Flint, which has acres of land polluted by General Motors and other industrial firms, impoverished homes with peeling paint, and underground lead water mains and service lines, the areas throughout the US with the worst lead poisoning are invariably working class and poor.

There has been a sharp decline in poisoning since lead was removed from paint in 1976 and gasoline in 1995, the latter after more than a decade of resistance by the oil industry. The elimination of lead poisoning, however, is not possible due to lead pipes, residual lead paint in poor urban and rural areas, and former or current industrial sites polluted with lead.

T
he Flint River

“The dramatic decline in blood lead over the last several decades in the US is a public health triumph, resulting from control of lead in gasoline, paint, food, water, soil, consumer products and other sources,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, who was instrumental in exposing the lies of state and local officials who claimed that Flint’s water was safe.

He continued: “Before the increased use of lead in paint and gasoline, lead in water was once the dominant source of human lead exposure in the United States, and it was generally acknowledged to cause widespread lead poisoning, fatalities and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Flint is yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant to harm caused by all lead sources, especially lead pipes, which are out of sight and out of mind. It is also the only government-owned source of lead, which directly affects potable water, a product intended for human consumption. Flint is just the most recent example of how this inherent conflict has harmed people.”

The poisoning of Flint was brought into the national and international spotlight only due to the courageous efforts of the city’s working class residents and science professionals like Edwards and pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was denounced by Governor Rick Snyder’s office for “slicing and dicing” the results of blood samples.

Flint became a symbol of everything that was wrong in America: corporate and political criminality and the indifference of both the Democrats and Republicans to the plight of working people. The media, celebrities and politicians from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders poured into the town and legal proceedings were initiated against several lesser figures involved in the crime and cover-up. More than three years since the switch to the Flint River, however, nothing has been done to make the residents whole.

The new report from Reuters has been largely ignored by the rest of the corporate-controlled media, which originally presented the Flint crisis as an anomaly, until it was unable to deny the massive and nationwide scale of the problem. Far from committing the necessary resources, including an estimated $500 billion to $1 trillion to replace the nation’s lead pipes, the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to provide any significant funding to address this public health care threat, even as they have squandered trillions on bank bailouts, military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Trump’s 2018 budget request includes a $1.2 billion, or 17 percent, cut to the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/16/lead-n16.html

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The legacy of Obamacare: A five percent increase in heart patient deaths

15 November 2017

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet  murder it remains. (Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845)

* * *

A US government program supposedly devised both to improve medical care and cut costs has, predictably, succeeded in the latter while undermining the former. Research published Sunday in JAMA Cardiology (Journal of the American Medical Association) shows that an initiative introduced five years ago under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to induce hospitals to reduce Medicare readmissions for heart patients has resulted in an increase in mortality rates among those studied.

Under the ACA’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), hospitals were penalized financially when heart failure patients were readmitted within a month. While the program has succeeded in reducing the number of 30-day readmissions, the number of patients who died within a year rose by 5 percentage points. According to one of the study’s senior authors, these findings could account for an additional 5,000 to 10,000 deaths annually across the US due directly to the program.

For the American ruling elite, HRRP and other schemes devised by bureaucrats at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are part of an agenda that is as deliberate as it is ruthless: Men and women in the US are living too long into old age and measures must be taken to cut costs associated with their medical care and shorten their life expectancy. This is the deadly price that must be paid to prop up a society that is one of the most socially unequal both in terms of income and the delivery of health care.

The statistics do not lie. Study researchers analyzed 115,245 patients at 416 hospitals in the American Heart Association’s Get With the Guidelines-Heart Failure registry from January 2006 to December 2014. They examined readmission and death rates before and after the program began in 2012.

* Readmission rates within one month fell from 20 percent before HRRP penalties to 18.4 percent after HRRP (down 1.6 percent). Mortality rates, however, rose by almost the same rate, from 7.2 percent before HRRP to 8.6 percent after (up 1.4 percent).

* Statistics for readmission and mortality within one year were even more damning. Readmission within one year fell by only about 1 percent, from 57.2 percent before HRRP to 56.3 percent after. But the mortality rate within one year rose from 31.3 percent before HRRP to 36.3 percent after—a shocking 5 percent increase. These figures show that there is a direct correlation between implementation of the Obamacare policy and preventable deaths.

HRRP penalizes hospitals up to 3 percent of every Medicare dollar for “excessive” repeat hospital stays. That is 15 times more than the 0.2 percent penalty levied against hospitals with high mortality rates. In other words, while hospitals with higher rates of mortality face a minimal fine, hospitals are being substantially penalized for failure to comply with a program that is resulting in increased deaths.

Compounding the misery, financial penalties from HRRP have been shown to fall disproportionately on academic medical centers and “safety-net” hospitals where “higher readmission rates are associated with the higher case-mix complexity and lower socioeconomic status,” according to the study, i.e., those treating poorer and sicker patients. In such settings, hospitals are incentivized to “game” the system by delaying admissions, increasing observation stays or shifting inpatient-type care to emergency departments, to the detriment of patient welfare.

The US mortality rate rose in 2015 in the first year-over-year increase since 2005, with life expectancy falling between 2014 and 2015 from 85.8 years to 85.6 years for men, and from 87.8 years to 87.6 years for women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this decline was due to an increase in eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the US, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide.

With heart disease rising, there is no other way to interpret the penalties imposed by the ACA for early readmission of heart patients than a deliberate effort to see more men and women die. US corporations are already reaping a grim dividend from this downward trend, with at least 12 major corporations reporting this summer that they have reduced their estimates for how much they could owe in pension and other retirement obligations by a combined $9.7 billion due to shorter life spans.

It is fitting that the health care overhaul known as Obamacare was the instigator of HRRP, an irrefutable demonstration that the ACA was the first major volley in the bipartisan drive to restrict access to affordable health care and sharply reduce the length of workers’ lives.

As the World Socialist Web Site explained as early at 2009, the Obama administration’s health care “reform” established a framework for the insurers, the corporations and the government to drastically reduce the health benefits available to low- and middle-income individuals and families. The aim is to limit the amount that the government must pay out for health care and Social Security payments, as well as what corporations must pay in pensions and other retirement benefits.

Health care in the Obamacare era has nothing in common with quality, near-universal health care, as Obama initially pledged. It is based entirely on the for-profit health care system in America, including the insurance companies, giant hospitals, health care chains and pharmaceutical companies. Any repeal of the ACA—and its replacement with “Trumpcare” or any other legislation—will maintain the class-based delivery of health care and undoubtedly worsen it for the majority of Americans.

The empirical proof provided by research published in JAMA Cardiology that an ACA program has predictably caused increased deaths should serve as a stark warning to the working class. This Obamacare program is of a piece with the bipartisan attack on jobs and living standards, the attack on immigrants and democratic rights, and the drive to war.

This assault will inevitably provoke enormous social opposition among workers and young people. This opposition must be channeled into the fight for a progressive overhaul of the health care system that takes as its starting point an end to privately owned health care corporations and medicine-for-profit and the establishment of socialized medicine, democratically administered by a workers’ government, providing free, high-quality health care for all.

Kate Randall

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/15/pers-n15.html

Genetic study demonstrates that racial classification by skin color has no scientific basis

By Philip Guelpa
9 November 2017

A new study, published in the journal Science (“Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations,” 12 October 2017), elucidates the genetic mechanisms controlling human skin color and demonstrates that racial conceptions regarding skin color and its supposed marking of distinct groupings of human beings have no scientific foundation.

The traditional view has been that early humans had dark skin as an evolutionary adaptation to protect themselves from the dangerous ultraviolet radiation of the harsh African sun. As humans spread to other continents and higher latitudes, where solar input was less intense, lighter skin developed to permit greater production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient, which is produced in the skin using sunlight. However, the actual geographic distribution of populations with varying skin tones does not neatly fit this simple scenario. The new research, while not denying this mechanism, reveals a much more complicated picture.

Until recently, while the basic factor leading to variation in skin tone due to differing concentrations and kinds of the pigment melanin was known, there was very little understanding of the biological basis of how an individual’s skin color was determined, and most of that was based on studies of European populations, providing only a very narrow view of the total range of variation. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa has the most diverse human gene pool (populations there having had the longest time for genetic variation to develop) and is, therefore, likely to provide useful data on genetic variation, including that influencing skin color.

The data used in the new research, conducted by a team of nearly 50 co-authors from more than a dozen different institutions in the US and several African countries, was derived from a study of 2,092 volunteers in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Botswana, of diverse ethnic and genetic backgrounds. Their skin color was measured and the genomes of 1,570 people were analyzed in detail. This resulted in the identification of six genetic regions (genes) that are, in combination, significantly associated with determination of an individual’s skin color, collectively accounting for 29 percent of the observed variation. Each of the gene loci has variants (alleles) associated with different skin tones, ranging from relatively lighter to darker. The results were then compared with existing genetic data from West African, Eurasian, and Australo-Melanesian populations.

The fact that 71 percent of the variation is unaccounted for by the genes identified so far strongly suggests that the genetic determination of skin color is even more complicated than the current research has disclosed. Significantly, most of the variants, for both light and dark skin, were found to have originated in Africa. It is also important to note that the identified genes are located on several different chromosomes, indicating that their transmission is not closely linked in reproduction.

The actions of the various genes were tested by introducing them into lab mice and zebrafish, and observing the results.

The finding that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, each with a range of variants, demonstrates conclusively that any individual’s coloration is the result of a complex mix of multiple factors, dialectically interacting with each other. Each person’s exterior appearance (phenotype) is the expression of a balance resulting from the combination of this genetic color palate (genotype). Furthermore, this may not simply be an additive process. As with so many other biological characteristics, some gene variants, singly or in combination, may be dominant in their expression over others, known as recessive, making the outcome even more complex.

In addition to clarifying the genetic mechanisms controlling skin color, the analysis also provides insights into the evolutionary history of these mechanisms. According to the study, at least some of the variants are quite old, having evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. With regard to variants associated with lighter skin color, seven are at least 270,000 years old and four are over 900,000 years old. One of the latter is found both in Europeans and San hunter-gathers of Botswana.

Among the significant implications of this finding is that these variants either coincide with or substantially predate the appearance of modern humans, which occurred 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. In other words, a complex variation in skin color has been part of human evolution for a very long time.

Another finding is that at least some skin color genes have changed significantly over time. Three of the variants that produce the darkest skin appear to have evolved from lighter color versions. Another variant, which originated relatively recently among people in Europe and the Middle East, has spread into Africa, possibly in association with migrations of early agriculturalists.

It is likely that the wide range of skin color variation originally evolved as small early human populations adapted to a myriad of local environments, influenced by many different selective factors. Subsequent population movements, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, including interbreeding between modern humans, Neanderthals and perhaps other local populations, mixed and remixed the genetic pool, creating an array of physical characters that often were only partly reflective of the environmental settings where they wound up.

As one of the study’s authors, Sarah Tishkoff, points out, chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, are light-skinned below their body hair. So, it is likely that early hominins were similarly light-colored and that darker skin developed later, once they moved from forested areas onto the savannah.

The multiplicity of genetic controls over skin color means that there are no fixed categories based on this essentially superficial characteristic. The myriad array of skin tones that currently exists across the globe merely reflects a moment in the constantly changing variation that has typified human evolution over millions of years.

As with numerous other scientific studies, this latest research confirms, yet again, that the concept of race among humans is a social construct without any objective biological basis. Those who view skin color as a marker of distinct racial groupings, associated with other characteristics such as intelligence, choose, consciously or unconsciously, to ignore the vast range of variation that exists among contemporary humans. The study published in Sciencedemonstrates forcefully that the genetic control over the color of a person’s skin is extremely complex and, therefore, not susceptible to simplistic classification.

That is not to say, however, that racism has no objective basis, although it is social and not biological. In capitalist society, racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions have been and continue to be a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to keep workers divided in the face of class-based oppression.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/11/09/skin-n09.html

New reports document declining life expectancy and worsening health of US workers

24 October 2017

Three recent reports provide new data on the worsening social crisis in America.

According to the annual update of the Society of Actuaries’ (SOA) mortality improvement scale, released last Friday, life expectancy for 65-year-old men and women declined from 85.8 and 87.8 years to 85.6 and 87.6 years respectively between 2014 and 2015, the most recent years available. The 1.2 percent jump in the mortality rate was the first year-over-year increase since 2005, and the first by more than one percentage point since 1980.

Previous reports noted that life expectancy at birth also declined in the US between 2014 and 2015, the first decline since 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Someone born in 2015 is expected to live to 78.8, down from 78.9 in 2014.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth, the decline was due to an increase in eight of the ten leading causes of death in the US, including heart disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease and suicide.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). Note: CLRD stands for Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases

Another study by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan found that middle-age workers ten years away from collecting Social Security retirement benefits are in poorer health than prior generations when they were in their 50s. This includes higher rates of poor cognition, such as memory and thinking ability, and at least one limitation on the ability to perform a basic daily living task such as shopping for groceries, dressing and bathing, taking medications or getting out of bed. The percentage with such limitations jumped from 8.8 percent of people who retired at 65 to 12.5 percent of current Americans ages 56 to 57 who will retire in a decade.

Americans born in 1960 will not be able to collect their full Social Security benefits until they reach 67, instead of 65, because of the increase in the retirement age enacted by the Reagan administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1983. At the time, they claimed the change was necessary because Americans were living longer and would see continual health improvements in their old age.

The opposite is now the case. “We found that younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health,” said Robert Schoeni, an economist and demographer who co-authored the University of Michigan study.

Inequality among seniors in the US is among the worst in the developed world, according to a report issued last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which found that the gap between wealthy and low-income seniors is wider in the US than in all but two of the thirty-five OECD member nations—Mexico and Chile. While the rich in America live longer and very comfortably, the poor are working longer, dying younger and increasingly living with pain and ill health.

These are but the latest in a succession of reports documenting higher death rates, higher infant and maternal mortality and declining life expectancy for broad sections of the working population. Meanwhile, Donald Trump routinely hails the record-setting stock market boom as proof of the “success” of his administration.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System

There is, in fact, an intimate connection between the spectacular rise in the Dow, the ever-greater enrichment of the top 5 and 1 percent of the country, and the destruction of decent-paying jobs, the lowering of wages and the gutting of social programs. The corporate-financial oligarchy is benefiting from the impoverishment of broad sections of the population.

As CNN Money reported, “Declining health and life expectancy are good news for one constituency: Pension plans, which must send a monthly check to retirees for as long as they live.” In fact, the health care policies of both political parties are designed to lower life expectancy for the working class and thereby decrease the sums “wasted,” in the eyes of the ruling class, on retirement benefits and health care for workers who have ceased to be a source of profit.

As the World Socialist Web Site wrote in November 2013, citing think tank studies on the “crisis” resulting from America’s aging population, underlying the health care counterrevolution set in motion by Obamacare “is a basic concern of the American ruling class, a concern that is generally left unstated—namely, that people in the end are simply living too long. The advances of modern medicine have extended lives, often significantly beyond the age of retirement.

“For the political strategists of the corporate and financial elite, these years of retirement and medical care are not seen as a good, but as a source of costs that must be slashed, so that they can take that money. This is to be accomplished either by raising the retirement age, by lowering life expectancy so that people die earlier, or both.”

The scenes of hundreds of low-wage workers and retirees lining up in Charleston, West Virginia over the weekend for free dental and vision care—in some cases for their first treatment in years—underscores the scale of the social crisis. In McDowell County, part of the depressed coal mining region of southern West Virginia, life expectancy for males is 63.9 years, only slightly ahead of Haiti, Ghana and Papua New Guinea, due to chronic poverty, ill-health, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

The reports on life expectancy, health, etc. provide a measure of the drastic social retrogression resulting from the crisis of the capitalist system—a system that is incompatible with the satisfaction of basic social needs.

The working class must take matters into its own hands. What is necessary is a frontal assault on entrenched wealth and the political monopoly exercised by the corporate-financial oligarchy through its two right-wing political parties. The wealth of the financial parasites must be expropriated and the major corporations and banks turned into publicly-owned and democratically controlled utilities, so that the wealth produced by the working class can be used to provide jobs, education, housing and free, high-quality health care for all.

Jerry White

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/24/pers-o24.html

Star Trek: Discovery—The latest incarnation of the popular science fiction series

By Tom Hall
18 October 2017

Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh series in the long-running Star Trek television and movie franchise, premiered September 24 on CBS.

Set in the far future, in the mid-23rd century, shortly before the events of the original series released in 1966, Discovery follows the exploits of Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a female Starfleet officer serving aboard first the USS Shenzhou and later the USS Discovery in the midst of a war between the United Federation of Planets and the nefarious Klingon Empire.

When we first meet commander Burnham she is on a humanitarian mission with her mentor, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh), the captain of the Shenzhou. Burnham’s promising career, however, is nearly ruined in the course of an encounter between the Shenzhou and the Klingons, with whom Starfleet has had no significant contact for generations.

The Klingons turn out to be a group of religious fanatics dedicated to uniting their long-fragmented empire through a religious war against the Federation. Meanwhile, Burnham, who was raised on planet Vulcan by the diplomat Sarek (James Frain), becomes convinced after consulting her stepfather that the only way to gain the Klingons’ respect and avoid an all-out war is to fire unprovoked on the Klingon vessel. Burnham attempts unsuccessfully to take control of the ship and fire on the Klingons herself and is arrested as a mutineer.

Doug Jones and Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery

Several months later, with the Federation embroiled in an all-out war with the Klingons, Burnham is on board a prison transport that breaks down and gets rescued by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) of the USS Discovery, which is conducting top-secret military research. Burnham is dragooned into working on the project, whose ultimate aim is kept hidden from her.

She eventually deduces that Lorca is developing a banned biological weapon to use against the Klingons. However, when Lorca explains its purposes, including significant civilian applications, Burnham overcomes her initial hesitations and joins the crew of Discovery. The rest of the series deals with her trials and tribulations while fighting the Klingons.

The writing, acting and directing on Star Trek: Discovery is, to put it bluntly, poor. None of the actions the characters take that set into motion the key events of the series make much sense. Why would the Klingons, for instance, who have been supposedly consumed by infighting for decades, decide suddenly to band together against the Federation after a five-minute conversation with a cult leader? How exactly is firing on the Klingons supposed to keep the peace, and why would Burnham or anyone else find this to be plausible?

The dialogue is stilted and clichéd. “I forgot who said statues are crystallized spirituality,” Burnham says to no one in particular after encountering decorative sculptures on the Klingon vessel. An anonymous crewman wanders into Shenzhou’s brig during the climactic battle and asks Burnham, unprompted, “Why are we fighting? We’re explorers.”

The tone of the show is relentlessly grim, from the darkly lit corridors on the various spaceships and the goblin-like Klingons who grunt their lines (delivered in “Klingon” and interpreted for the viewer by subtitles), to the gratuitous violence and furrowed brows and grimaces on everyone’s faces intended to demonstrate the seriousness of the proceedings. The unnaturally cheerful cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), who would be irritating under ordinary circumstances, provides some welcome and desperately needed levity.

Star Trek: Discovery

The show’s premise amounts to a pro-war science fiction parable that parrots all the lies with which Washington has sought to justify numerous imperialist crimes over the past quarter century. The Klingons, a warrior society modeled by the writers of previous shows on feudal Japan, and who had gained a certain psychological complexity in their depiction by the premiere of Deep Space 9 in 1993, are here reduced to sub-human religious fanatics, portrayed in a similar fashion to Islamic terrorists in numerous Hollywood blockbusters.

Burnham’s actions in the first two episodes in particular are effectively an explicit endorsement of the doctrine of pre-emptive war, i.e., there is no use negotiating with our enemies, because violence is the only language they understand.

Since first premiering in 1966, Star Trek has become something of a mass phenomenon, with tens of millions of fans throughout the world. Appearances by the former stars of the various Star Trek shows at annual conventions continue to attract significant audiences.

The principal reason for this enduring popularity has been the franchise’s optimistic view of the future and its willingness to grapple with serious human problems. By the 23rd century, in the show’s future history, all of the basic problems of contemporary society, including war, poverty and racial and national divisions, have long since been overcome. The international cooperation among the crew members of the Enterprise suggested that the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, far from representing the essential rottenness of humanity, as has become almost an article of faith in certain artistic circles, would eventually be discarded in the further social and technological development of human civilization.

Originally produced in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek also became the first TV show to cast a black woman, Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, in a leading role. Martin Luther King, according to Nichols, was a fan of the show and urged her to continue on the show when she was thinking about quitting.

Star Trek could always be wildly uneven, even campy, but at its best, the show was capable of fairly pointed social commentary, or of exploring difficult ethical or philosophical questions. The conceit of a number of episodes was that 20th century problems, because they were grappled with by culturally more developed 23rd and 24th century humans, could be dealt with at a higher and more clarified level than could be expected in the present.

None of this finds expression thus far in Star Trek: Discovery. In fact, at times that outlook seems more or less consciously repudiated as naive by the goings-on in the show. At one point, a Starfleet admiral declares his commitment to peace only moments before he is incinerated by the Klingons. “Starfleet doesn’t fire first,” Georgiou reminds Burnham, to which the latter replies, “We have to!”

Star Trek: Discovery

In a panel discussion at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, co-creator Alex Kurtzman explained that the “defining factor of [ Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision is the optimistic view of the future. He envisioned a world where all species, all races came together to not only make our world better, but to make every world better.”

Kurtzman went on, “That being said … we live in very troubled times. … Star Trek has always been a mirror to the time it reflected and right now … the question is how do you preserve and protect what Starfleet is [“national security”!] in the weight of a challenge like war and the things that have to be done in war is a very interesting and dramatic problem. And it feels like a very topical one given the world where we live now.”

Star Trek: Discovery seems to have struck a chord among certain layers. They are particularly enthusiastic that the show’s bloody goings-on center around a black woman in a position of authority. It’s “beautiful,” Daily Beast reviewer Ira Madison III writes, “watching two women of color, black and Asian, navigate a realm that traditionally hasn’t included them.”

On one level, given the history of the Star Trek franchise, and indeed the science fiction genre in general, this is simply absurd. On another level, however, this expresses the essential social outlook of identity politics—an indifference to larger social issues, and support for war, together with a ferocious conflict over the spoils.

WSWS

Behind the opioid crisis: Republicans and Obama cleared the way for corporate murder

By Patrick Martin
16 October 2017

Leading Republican and Democratic members of Congress and top Obama administration officials collaborated to shut down efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to stem the flow of prescription opioids that have killed 200,000 Americans over the past two decades, according to a devastating exposure published Sunday by the Washington Post and broadcast Sunday night on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.”

The joint investigation by the Post and “60 Minutes” made use of extensive whistleblower revelations by former officials of the DEA, which has the main responsibility for halting the flow of illegal narcotics, including prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone diverted into the black market.

Three major companies, all in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 and hugely profitable, dominate the distribution of these opioids: McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, with combined revenues of more than $450 billion. McKesson chairman and CEO John Hammergren has the largest pension fund of any US corporate boss, a $160 million personal nest egg.

These gigantic revenues and huge personal fortunes were accumulated by means of what can only be termed a massive social crime: the flooding of impoverished working-class neighborhoods with high volumes of opioids, narcotics that were being prescribed in vast quantities by doctors and pharmacists and illegal “pain centers” and “pill mills” that were a constant presence in the affected areas.

The consequences have been felt in a historic reversal in the long-term rise of life expectancy in the United States. For middle-aged whites, particularly those living in rural areas, life expectancy is declining and death rates soaring, in large part because of the impact of opioid abuse and addiction.

Appalachia is a center of the opioid crisis. The figures presented in the Post/”60 Minutes” report are staggering—and damning. To Mingo County, West Virginia, an impoverished former mining area on the state border with Kentucky, population 25,000, the mid-sized Ohio-based drug distributor Miami-Luken shipped 11 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone in a five-year period: enough to give two pills a week to every man, woman and child in the county.

In the county seat, Williamson, population 2,938, Miami-Luken shipped 258,000 hydrocodone pills in one month to a single pharmacy. The city of Williamson has filed suit against the company and other drug distributors, charging them with deliberately flooding the city with pain pills to supply the black market. A document filed in the suit charges, “Like sharks circling their prey, multi-billion dollar companies descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy.”

Post reporters Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein and “Sixty Minutes” reporter Bill Whitaker conducted dozens of interviews for their exposé, but the principal whistleblower is Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who headed the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control for a decade until he was forced out in 2015.

The Office of Diversion Control oversees the flow of prescription drugs produced by the major US pharmaceutical companies and shipped to hospitals and pharmacies and other prescribers by distributors, including the big three. By targeting unusually large and unexplained sales—for example, several Walgreen’s pharmacies in Florida sold more than one million opioid pills in a year, compared to a nationwide average of 74,000—the DEA unit could force companies to pay substantial fines.

These big three and smaller distributors paid more than $400 million in fines over the last decade as the result of the DEA, but this is a pittance compared to their gross revenues during that same period, well over $5 trillion. One former DEA official told the Post this sum simply represented “a cost of doing business.”

A more serious problem for the industry was the issuance of “freeze” orders, in which the DEA could use its authority to order a distributor to halt a shipment if there is “imminent danger” to the community. According to Rannazzisi, there was increasing resistance from top-level DEA officials, from 2011 on, to approving such “freeze” orders against opioid distributors. During this period, the drug distributors hired 46 DEA officials either directly or through law firms or lobbying groups representing them.

In 2014, industry lobbyists produced a bill, written by a former DEA lawyer, and introduced by Republican Representative Tom Marino, that substantially raised the threshold of proof for a DEA order to halt a shipment. Instead of “imminent danger,” such an order required proof of “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a standard so strict that, once adopted, there were no further DEA orders to halt drug distribution.

Marino’s bill was initially blocked by DEA opposition, but it was reintroduced with Democratic cosponsors and passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote, without opposition, in April 2015. In October 2015, Rannazzisi was pushed into retirement at the DEA, after previously being removed as head of the Office of Diversion Control by means of heavy pressure from congressional Republicans on the Obama Justice Department. In March 2016, the Senate passed a modified version of the Marino bill, and the House accepted the changes the following month. The DEA was now handcuffed, and the drug distributors could proceed without any concern about federal oversight.

As Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes”: “The drug industry—the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores—have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before. And these people came in with their influence and their money and got a whole statute changed because they didn’t like it.”

The protection of the giant drug distribution companies—amid a nationwide epidemic of drug overdose deaths caused by the products they were distributing—was a bipartisan affair. Congressional Democrats cosponsored the legislation, and a former top Clinton administration official, Jamie Gorelick, was a lead attorney and lobbyist for the distributors. Attorney General Loretta Lynch approved the legislation, and President Obama signed it into law, with the White House issuing a one-page press release to mark the occasion.

None of those involved, including Lynch and Obama, would comment to the Post or “60 Minutes.” According to the Post, “The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by The Post and ‘60 Minutes’ under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter,” indicating that the Trump administration is continuing the stonewalling tactics begun under Obama.

When a “60 Minutes” camera crew came to Marino’s office, his aides called Capitol Hill police to have them removed.

Trump has rewarded the darling of the drug distributors, Representative Marino, by nominating him last month to become the next White House “drug czar,” in charge of coordinating federal efforts against the opioid crisis. Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the main cosponsor of the bill, is now favored to be the Republican nominee for US Senate in Tennessee in 2018. Both representatives come from districts ravaged by the opioid crisis. According to the Post account, 106 people have died in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, the largest in Marino’s district, since he first introduced his anti-enforcement legislation.

The following exchange from the “60 Minutes” program sums up the reality of corporate domination of American life, and the catastrophic impact on working people:

BILL WHITAKER: You know the implication of what you’re saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people.

JOE RANNAZZISI: That’s not an implication, that’s a fact. That’s exactly what they did.

… These weren’t kids slinging crack on the corner. These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/16/drug-o16.html

Capitalism: The Nightmare

TD ORIGINALS
A worker in a costume representing world capitalism during a 2017 May Day rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara / AP)

The neoliberal, arch-capitalist era we inhabit is chock-full of statistics and stories that ought to send chills down the spines of any caring, morally sentient human. Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of the world’s population is poor, living on $10 a day or less, and 11 percent (767 million people, including 385 million children) live in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (less than a $1.90 a day). Meanwhile, Oxfam reliably reports that, surreal as it sounds, the world’s eight richest people possess among themselves as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire human race.

The United States, self-described homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy, is no exception to the harshly unequal global reality. Six of the world’s eight most absurdly rich people are U.S. citizens: Bill Gates (whose net worth of $426 billion equals the wealth of 3.6 billion people), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Michael Bloomberg (former mayor of New York City). As Bernie Sanders said repeatedly on the campaign trail in 2016, the top 10th of the upper 1 percent in the U.S. has nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. Seven heirs of the Walton family’s Walmart fortune have among them a net worth equal to that of the nation’s poorest 40 percent. Half the U.S. population is poor or near-poor, and half lacks any savings.

Just over a fifth of the nation’s children, including more than a third of black and Native American children, live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, while parasitic financiers and other capitalist overlords enjoy unimaginable hyper-opulence. One in seven U.S. citizens relies on food banks in “the world’s richest country.” Many of them are in families with full-time wage-earners—a reflection of the fact that wages have stagnated even as U.S. labor productivity consistently has risen for more than four decades.

Failure by Design

These savage inequalities reflect government policy on behalf of “the 1 percent” (better, perhaps, to say “the 0.1 percent”). U.S. economic growth since the late 1970s has been unequally distributed, thanks to regressive policy choices that have served the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary working people. As Joshua Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute showed in his important 2011 study, “Failure by Design,” the following interrelated, bipartisan and not-so-public policies across the long neoliberal era have brought us to a level of inequality that rivals the Gilded Age of the late 19th-century robber barons era. These policies include:

● Letting the value of the minimum wage be eroded by inflation.
● Slashing labor standards for overtime, safety and health.
● Tilting the laws governing union organizing and collective bargaining strongly in favor of employers.
● Weakening the social safety net.
● Privatizing public services.
● Accelerating the integration of the U.S. economy with the world economy without adequately protecting workers from global competition.
● Shredding government oversight of international trade, currency, investment and lending.
● Deregulating the financial sector and financial markets.
● Valuing low inflation over full employment and abandoning the latter as a worthy goal of fiscal and economic policy.

These policies increased poverty and suppressed wages at the bottom and concentrated wealth at the top. They culminated in the 2007-09 Great Recession, sparked by the bursting of a housing bubble that resulted from the deregulation of the financial sector and the reliance of millions of Americans on artificially inflated real estate values and soaring household debt to compensate for poor earnings.

After the crash, the government under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama bailed out the very financial predators who pushed the economy over the cliff. The Obama administration, populated by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup operatives, left the rest of us to wonder “Where’s our bailout?” as 95 percent of the nation’s new income went to the top 1 percent during his first term.

Ordinary Citizens Have No Influence Over Their Government

All of this and much more is contrary to technically irrelevant American public opinion. But so what? You don’t have to be a leftist to know that the United States’ political order is a corporate and financial plutocracy. Three years ago, liberal political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University determined that the U.S. political system has functioned as an oligarchy over the past three-plus decades, in which wealthy elites and their corporations rule. As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo, “Ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Shock Profits

Most of this results from the normal, business-rule-as-usual operation of the American political process. Sometimes—as during “natural disasters” such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma—crisis moments allow wealthy interests to rack up huge profits almost overnight while much of the population is too shocked and distracted to respond. As Susan Zakin notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Handing out billions for hurricane reconstruction will shore up [Donald] Trump’s faltering support on Wall Street and among major corporations profiting from a bonanza expected to top $100 billion.” Katrina provided precisely such a business opportunity to corporate America. So did the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

‘Isn’t It Beautiful?’

At the same time, Houston, for instance, is a much bigger scene of devastation than it would be but for business-rule-as-usual. The city was recklessly built up by and for elite financial and real estate interests and their governmental tools without the slightest concern for environmental sustainability and resilience. As Zakin notes:

[W]ithout a zoning code, [Houston is] a case study in urban sprawl. Houston was built on a dry (read: low-lying) lakebed that’s laced with bayous. The bayous are lined with concrete, steel and sheet metal, which is functional when it rains a little, but a contender for the luge event when it rains a lot, even in posh neighborhoods like River Oaks. Doing what it takes to prevent flooding, widening bayou channels, managing growth, putting in green space, might impede the only truly important flow: money. Houston’s city fathers have resisted any effort to plan for climate change, because, well, it doesn’t exist. As if that weren’t enough, parts of Houston are sinking, some as much as 2.2 inches a year.

It’s an epitome of the deadly “free market” chaos favored by arch-capitalist political actors such as the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and his friend, the “libertarian” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. In his recent, widely read book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” Flake writes with fondness about the time he met the eminent neoliberal University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman:

We picked him up at the airport, and while we were driving to a suburb of Phoenix we went through what could only be described as suburban sprawl. Someone in the car with us, remarking on this landscape, said, ‘Man, it looks like there was no planning at all.’ Friedman just nodded his head and said, ‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful?’ … [I]t wasn’t government coercion that had brought it into being. It was the invisible hand of the free market. Planning requires control, control empowers government, and empowered government = disempowered individuals.

Houston is the “petro-metro,” a major capital of the petrochemical industry and home to numerous toxic waste sites. As a result, the city’s floodwaters are loaded with hazardous materials.

How beautiful.

The “free market” madness rolls on. Like the melting polar ice, which opens up new business opportunities for oil drilling and ship travel even as it reduces earth’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space, the devastation resulting from extreme weather is both a consequence of the rule of big corporations (the real masters of the “free market” since the early 20th century in the U.S.) and a perverse opportunity for quick corporate profits.

On Aug. 15, 10 days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Donald Trump, himself a global real estate baron, wiped out an Obama-era executive ordermandating that federal reconstruction grants take account of sea-level rise and related aspects of climate change.

Capitalist Climate-astrophe

Meanwhile, speaking of climate change, anthropogenic—really, capitalogenic—global warming threatens to turn the venerable popular struggle for a more equal distribution of wealth into a fight over the slicing up of a poisoned pie. The signs of climate catastrophe are unmistakable. Record-setting wildfires raged on the nation’s West Coast, and a devastating drought plagued much of the nation’s northern Great Plains as Houston was sunk in epic, chemically polluted flooding and Irma bore down on Florida. Like Hurricane Sandy (which filled New York City subway tunnels with storm surge on the eve of the 2012 elections), the Indian and Pakistani heat waves of 2015, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Alberta, Canada, wildfires of 2016 and numerous other recent, lethal, meteorological episodes, this extreme weather is intensified by the spiking balminess of the planet.

The warming is fueled by capital-captive humanity’s excessive release of carbon dioxide resulting from the profit system’s rapacious extraction and burning of fossil fuels and its reliance on animal agriculture. Carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, trapping heat and melting the world’s glaciers and permafrost, which holds vast reserves of carbon-rich methane. As the ice caps retreat, less sunlight gets reflected back into space and more of it heats the planet toward a point where it becomes uninhabitable.

Extreme weather is just the tip of the melting iceberg. If not reversed, global warming will destroy the human species through famine, dehydration, overheating, disease and resource wars. It has us on the path to hell.

‘A Death Knell for the Species’

Trump has taken advantage of the nation’s plutocratic political dysfunction to become a kind of one-man ecological apocalypse. The fossil-fueled hurricanes, drought and wildfires of 2017 have hit the U.S. at a time when the White House is occupied by an openly ecocidal billionaire whose election rang what Noam Chomsky called an environmental “death knell for the species.” Trump has pulled the United States out of the moderate Paris climate accord. He has removed all references to climate change from federal websites and chose a fellow petro-capitalist climate change denier dedicated to crippling the Environmental Protection Agency to lead that department. Trump’s secretary of state is the former longtime CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., history’s most powerful fossil fuel corporation—a company that buried and then organized propaganda against its own scientists’ warnings on carbon’s impact on the climate. Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 16 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors all things climate- and weather-related.

This is ecocidal petro-capitalist madness on steroids.

After Harvey nailed Houston and before Irma hit Florida, Trump held a chilling ecocidal rally in front of an oil refinery in North Dakota. He boasted of how he had exited the “job-killing” Paris agreement (“It was so bad”) and approved the planet-cooking and supposedly job-creating Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

“I also did Keystone,” Trump said. “You know about Keystone. Another other one, big one—big. First couple of days in office, those two—48,000 jobs.”

Trump said the White House was going to make North Dakota’s current terrible drought vanish because “we’re working hard on it and it’ll disappear. It will all go away.”

The president also asserted that the thousands of Americans who protested the Dakota Access pipeline within and beyond the Standing Rock Indian Reservation last year had no idea why they were against it.

It may have been his most absurd speech yet.

The System Is Working

Like so much else in U.S. government policy, Trump’s anti-environmental actions are contrary to majority-progressive public opinion. Who cares? It’s one more in a long line of examples showing that “We the People” are not sovereign in the failed, arch-plutocratic and militantly capitalist state that is the 21st century United States.

Many Americans find this difficult to process because they have been taught to foolishly conflate popular self-governance with capitalism—what the George W. Bush White House called “a single sustainable model for national success.”

This is a great lie. My old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

This definition does not mention any of the things routinely and inaccurately identified with capitalism in the dominant U.S. political and intellectual discourse: democracy, freedom, trade, job creation, growth and/or a “free market” that is characterized by widespread competition and/or little or no government interference. Capitalism is about profit for the owners of capital—period. They attain this through any number of means. The most damaging include:

● Seizing others’ land and materials.
● Slavery (the leading source of capital accumulation in the United States before it was outlawed in 1863–65).
● Firing workers or replacing them with technology.
● Undermining the value and power of labor by “de-skilling” workers by reducing the amount of knowledge and experience they need to do their jobs.
● Abject authoritarian tyranny in the workplace, where Marxist economist Richard Wolff reminds us that most working-age adults spend the majority of their waking hours.
● Outsourcing work to sections of the world economy with the lowest wages and the worst working conditions.
● Hiring and exploiting unprotected migrant workers.
● Slashing wages and benefits, or cheating workers out of them.
● Purely speculative investment.
● Forming monopolies and using them to raise prices.
● Dismantling competing firms, sectors and industries.
● Deadly pollution and perversion of the natural environment.
● Appropriating public assets.
● Military contracting and war production.
● Working to shape political and intellectual culture and policy in capital’s favor by funding political campaigns, hiring lobbyists, buying and controlling the media, manipulating public relations and propaganda, investing in the educational system, offering lucrative employment and other economic opportunities to policymakers and their families, holding key policymaking positions, and threatening to withdraw investment from places that don’t submit to capital’s rules while promising to invest in places that do.

When capitalism is understood for what it is really and only about—investor profit—there is nothing paradoxical about its failure to serve working people and the common good, much less the cause of democracy. If corporate and financial sector profits are high, the system is working for its architects and intended beneficiaries: capitalists. Its great corporations (now granted the legal protection of artificial personhood) are working precisely as they are supposed to under U.S. common law, which holds that (as Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company in 1919), corporate “managers have a legal duty to put shareholders’ interests above all others and no legal authority to serve any other interests.”

The Growth Ideology

Environmental ruin lies at the heart of the system, intimately related back to class rule. As Le Monde’s former ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled 2007 book, “How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth,” the oligarchy sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.”

“Growth,” Kempf explained, is meant to “allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

Trump was channeling this deadly “growth ideology” in North Dakota. Sadly, growth on the current carbon-fueled capitalist model has put humanity—not to mention thousands of other sentient beings on earth—on the path to near-term (historically speaking) extinction. We are currently at 410 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere—60 ppm beyond what scientists identified as a hazardous point years ago. We are on pace for 500 ppm—a level that will destroy life on earth—by 2050, if not sooner.

‘Inclusive Capitalism’

“Capitalist democracy” is an oxymoron and a mirage. So is the curious notion of “inclusive capitalism”—a term taken up by the corporate right wing of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton’s closest economic advisers, in 2015. This is the Orwellian name of a global “coalition” set up in 2014 by Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild for super-wealthy elites to advance a “caring capitalism” that “works better for the broad base of society.” Lady Rothschild’s Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism started with what former Rep. Cynthia McKinney described as “a Working Group comprised of such luminaries of social justice as Sir Evelyn de Rothschild of E.L. Rothschild [a financial firm owned by a family worth an estimated $2 trillion], Dominic Barton from McKinsey and Company [$1.3 billion], Ann Cairns [annual salary of $5 million] of MasterCard, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles of HSBC, Paul Polman [paid 10 million euros in 2014] of Unilever, along with CEOs of various pension plans and philanthropic foundations, like the eponymous Ford and Rockefeller foundations.”

According to one British media report, the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism’s opening conference boasted a “guest-list … estimated to hold one-third of the world’s investable assets, around £18tr [nearly $25 trillion].”

One of the coalition’s leading speakers and champions is the great arch-neoliberal, former U.S. President Bill Clinton (with a net worth of $80 million)—a right-wing Democrat who did every bit as much to advance the Wall Street “free market” and globalist agenda as Ronald Reagan.

‘We Must Make Our Choice’

One does not have to be a Marxist or other variety of radical to acknowledge basic differences and conflicts between capitalism and democracy. D and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s. “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.”

More than being compatible with slavery and incompatible with democracy, U.S. capitalism arose largely on the basis of black slavery in the cotton-growing states (as historian Edward Baptist has shown in his prize-winning study, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”) and is, in fact, quite militantly opposed to democracy.

“We must make our choice,” the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement was unintentionally but fundamentally anti-capitalist. Consistent with the dictionary definition presented above, the brilliant, liberal, French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled like gravity toward the concentration of wealth into ever-fewer hands. In the U.S., as across the Western world, the tendency was briefly and partially reversed by the Great Depression and World War II, producing the long “middle class” Golden Age of 1945-1973. But that was an anomalous era, a consequence of epic economic collapse and two global wars. Capitalism has returned to its longue durée inegalitarian norm over the last four-plus decades.

And even before the onset of the neoliberal period, capitalism at its comparatively egalitarian and high-growth, post-WWII Keynesian best had already pushed livable ecology into crisis. It tipped the world into what leading earth scientists have designated a new geological era: The Anthropocene—a period when “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita … a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” The not-so-Golden Agebrought what sociology professor John Bellamy Foster called “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness.” If this ecological destructiveness isn’t tamed very soon, nothing that progressives and the left care about is going to matter much: Who wants to turn a poisoned world upside down?

Can environmental catastrophe be averted under capitalism? Not likely. Shifting from fossil fuel reliance and other unsound environmental societal habits and practices—built-in obsolescence, mass consumerism and the endless pursuit of quantitative economic growth, accumulation and “cheap nature” resource appropriation—requires a level of coordinated social and public intervention so extreme that it is incompatible with continued capitalist control of the means of production, investment and distribution. It requires an empowerment of ordinary people and a radical rehabilitation of the concept of the natural and social commons—things that very likely cannot be attained under the continued rule of capital. Stark as American activist Joel Kovel’s formulation may sound, I suspect he is right: “The future will be eco-socialist, because without eco-socialism there will be no future.”

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…