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Democracy and mad cows

The fact that a privileged few can make decisions in secret that potentially affect the lives of thousands gives the lie to the notion of democracy under capitalism

“In March 1996, the Conservative Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell told the House of Commons that, despite the government's many previous assertions to the contrary, there probably was a link between 'mad cow disease' and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).” So, rather dramatically, begins an article in the Economist that goes on to puzzle over just how much information governments should share with the public. The fact that the question needs to be asked at all makes a laughing stock of the notion, propagated so tirelessly by the Economist, that we live in a democracy. There is a name for the sort of system where a privileged few can decide what information is fit for public consumption. It is, effectively, a dictatorship.

The head scratching of the leader writers of the bourgeois press began when Lord Phillips recently released his 16-volume report. A report which took him two and a half years to complete, cost £27 million to produce, and all of a few seconds to conclude that nothing and no one was to blame: it was all just an unfortunate quirk of the normal functioning of the system. We could be forgiven for thinking that the only reason for publishing reports like these in the first place is, as the American comedian Bill Hicks once claimed, to put the country back to sleep and convince them that their government is in control.

But in a sense Lord Phillips is quite right. The BSE crisis was just an unfortunate accident arising from the normal functioning of the system. And although one might think that it would therefore be natural to challenge the system that accepts this lunacy as an unfortunate accident, nothing could be further from the minds of the authors of the press coverage that followed.

Although the report draws no real satisfactory conclusions, it does draw attention to the unwillingness of politicians and civil servants to “alarm the public”. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) withheld for six months the publication in the scientific literature of the first report into BSE. Many of the papers made much of this government fear of panic, as if the state was an overanxious parent, concerned that its favourite child wasn't yet ready for the news of the death of a pet rabbit. But “panic”, of course, would have been a quite reasonable response for the public to make if made aware of the fact that their food was lethal. The government knew full well that this panic would not just lead to tears at bedtime, but falling sales. As the Western Daily Press of 17 October put it, the pressure on the farming industry to increase profits had been “relentless”. “It was productivity which counted, not product safety … The crash in beef prices, when it came, was devastating, particularly when the gates closed on the export trade, then worth £500 million a year.”

The 4 November New Scientist criticises this lack of transparency, saying that “information [should] be made freely available to everyone as fast as possible” and concluding that “real changes are needed. We must continue to call for free access to information on every issue where science and technology affect the public.” What New Scientist fails to see is what might be called the obvious: all science and technology affects the public, and science and technology can have no neutrality as long as its decisions are ruled by the interests of capital. Is it any wonder that science and technology presents itself to many in present-day society as a hostile force to be opposed, when it could so easily be turned to the task of satisfying human needs? These conflicting calls for secrecy and openness can reflect the conflicts of interest between different sections of the capitalist class (see box), as well as between the capitalist and working classes.

But technology and the products of our own hands do not just appear as a hostile force. Under capitalism, they are in fact a hostile force. Modern farming technology on the one hand provides us with the means to feed the world. On the other, it feeds cows with dead cows in order to cut costs, and views the resulting loss of human life as a mild irritant to be reported on, and quickly forgotten. According to Department of Health figures, more than 80 people have already died after prolonged suffering with vCJD. Some models have estimated that thousands more could die. This might sound like a cause for concern for those of us who eat food, but for the capitalist class the “major economic concern was the loss of export markets,” as the BSE inquiry admits. This is only natural, the report adds. It says that “economic concerns naturally had an influence on both government and industry in their response to BSE”.

Indeed, the Daily Telegraph goes further and dismisses the Phillips report as a “fruitless and pointless search for someone to blame” when it was “clear” that the evidence available at the time was not sufficient to risk restricting beef sales or jeopardising an industry. This is the familiar line, taken by the government throughout the early days of the crisis, that the absence of “hard evidence” meant that no threat existed. Yet it was clear that there was a potential hazard to human health, which was kept secret. Even when dangers became more and more apparent, these were deliberately downplayed to protect the profits of the beef industry.

This is not covered up in Phillips's report. Indeed, the report does not even censure Professor Richard Kimberlin, who was at the time a member of the government regulatory committee on BSE and a paid consultant to the meat and livestock commission—-in fact it supports the right of scientists who sit on government committees to have relevant commercial interests.

New Scientist has some reassuring news, however. “Can we be sure that a similar food and health disaster won't happen again? The simple answer is no,” they tell us. Private Eye had already drawn our attention to the fact that hundreds of thousands of children have been injected with vaccines produced from bovine material which it was known could have been infected with BSE. The BSE inquiry confirms that this was the case. France is also currently considering measures to “control panic” amid fears that contaminated feed “is still finding its way into cattle troughs” (Reuters) and the Daily Telegraph recently reported that MAFF has just cut its research budget . . . .

Commenting on the report, Health Secretary Alan Milburn tries to reassure us that the “era of bland reassurances has come to an end.” And should anyone be tempted to believe that bland reassurance, we should remember what the priorities of government are. Peter Mandelson, when he was Trade and Industry Secretary, told the Confederation of British Industry that his brief from Blair was “to act as a vocal and tenacious advocate of the needs of wealth creation and business”. His replacement, Stephen Byers, told the House of Commons in March 1999 that he was “putting the interests of business first”. So forget the hypocritical cant of the politicians when they tell us that things are changing. Everything will stay the same until we organise to change it.

When our own food threatens to destroy us and appears to us as a force beyond our control, then there is a danger—-reflected in religion and idealism—-of doubting the ability of our thinking to distinguish truth. In a period of social decline, such as that we are now in, men and women are faced with two options: accept that there is no way out and resign themselves to their fate, or confront reality and fight to change it. We in the Socialist Party have taken the latter course of action.

Scientists, such as Professor Richard Lacey, a leading microbiologist, were ridiculed by the media, farmers, the food industry and politicians when they said at the time of the first cases of BSE that it represented a major human health risk. They became objects for fun, crackpots. As members of the working class aiming to come to a materialist understanding of the society we live in so that we can begin to change it, we look forward to the day when our “crackpot” position is vindicated.

STUART WATKINS