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Pathfinders: Doing Something for Nothing

A new year ought to start with a good news story, so here’s one you may have seen recently – global malaria deaths are down by 50 percent in the last ten years, according to the World Health Organisation (BBC Online, 9 December).

In Africa, home to 90 percent of malaria fatalities, cases have declined by 25 percent even though the population has increased by 43 percent. 50 percent of those at risk now have mosquito nets, compared to just 3 percent ten years ago. There is more diagnostic testing, more people are getting treatment, and a number of tropical countries have for the first time been able to report and maintain zero cases.

Obviously there is much more to be done. For one thing, many people in rural areas are still out of reach of treatment. Many children still die unnecessarily. 43 percent of pregnant women receive no preventative medicine. 3.2 billion people remain at risk, and with global warming, disease zones are spreading north to higher latitudes. There were still around 207 million cases in 2012, with a WHO estimate of between 473,000 and 789,000 deaths, mostly among the under-fives. At the low end of the estimate, that’s still close to one child a minute, all year. While Bob Geldof and his band of conceited and condescending millionaire celebs invite us to care as much as they do about the Ebola epidemic (suggested lyric: ‘Let’s all cure it in the New Year, or else we’ll get it over here…’), malaria has been quietly going about its business of causing around 100 times more fatalities with zero media coverage.

Even so there’s no doubt that this is a success story in healthcare among the world’s poor countries, and especially so in the context of a global social and economic system which is not famous for giving a monkey’s about poor people and their problems. How come we see this rare buck in the general trend of doom and gloom? Is it just an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule?

Socialists often describe capitalism as a nasty, brutish and uncaring system, but this is perhaps somewhat loose and idiomatic talk. What we are doing is reifying and even carelessly anthropomorphising what is, after all, nothing more than a set of abstract and inherited rules. It doesn’t mean that the people who live in capitalism are necessarily nasty, brutish and uncaring. Of course, some of them are, for example the sort of money-grubbing scumbags who are responsible for the estimated 40 percent of counterfeit malaria drugs now circulating in China and South-East Asia. But often people are quite the opposite. It says something very positive about humans that so many are able to cope under a divisive economic system where they have every reason to be in conflict with each other, but somehow fail to turn into Hobbesian stereotypes. People care, even though capitalism says they shouldn’t because there’s no money in caring. They try to help, even when there’s no profit incentive. They pull together, even when there’s no bottom line, no cash return, no angle. It’s not that humans are angels, but living in capitalist economic hell you might expect to see a lot more devils.

Scientifically speaking, capitalism could have wiped out malaria worldwide back in the mid-20th century, just as it did in the southern states of the USA and southern Europe, where it had been endemic for centuries. This new success is therefore not a victory for the capitalist system as such, but a victory for concerned people and groups within and despite the capitalist system. Some of those groups are NGOs, some government-backed, some private philanthropists, like the Gates Foundation. Above all, it’s a victory for the unsung volunteers who don’t make the papers, don’t walk the red carpets and don’t release bleeding-heart pop songs, but who do ninety percent of the work behind the scenes.

People don’t realise how much work volunteers do, in a society that laughs at the idea of working for free. In September last year Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, stated that volunteers in Britain do the work of an equivalent 1.2m employees, a figure only slightly smaller than the total workforce of the NHS (Economist, 12 September). The Office of National Statistics estimates that frequent, formal volunteering in the UK generates around £24 billion of economic output, roughly twice that of the agricultural sector. Add in infrequent, informal types of volunteering and the total amounts to £50 billion, equal to the UK energy sector (Wall Street Journal blog, 12 September). Globally, voluntary work is done by almost a billion people, close to the population of China, and much of that in war-zones, disaster sites and disease belts. A 2011 report by the International Red Cross commented on the largely volunteer-driven 2000 Global Polio Initiative which the United Nations described as ‘far beyond the reach of governments or international and national organizations’ (ifrc.org).

One way to think of socialism is as a global volunteering effort, systematised as the norm rather than the exception. Opponents of socialist ideas are very quick to argue that in a free society where there is no property or money, people would be too lazy or selfish to work for free, although typically they never include themselves in this assessment. What’s ironic about this mean-spirited myopia is that, with a present-day volunteer force approximately the size of China, we could easily run the essential global productive services of socialism, right now, without a single extra person stepping forward. To take agriculture as an example of how technology has made this possible, ‘From 90% of the US workforce in 1790, the percentage in the field dropped to roughly 50% in 1890 and is now less than 2%. Yet, the US farm production breaks records every year’ (ARK investment at seekingalpha.com, 26 September).

Similar productivity trends are expected in India and China, and the same applies to manufacturing, where the US tops the global manufacturing tables with just 9 percent of its workforce. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics gives 2012 figures of 3.9 percent for construction and just 0.6 percent for mining, with a whopping 80 percent being employed in government or service industries, a very large proportion of which would be unnecessary in socialism (bls.gov). And there is also the matter of work inside the home. According to UN statistics, ‘In all regions, women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work’ (unstats.un.org). Taking these factors together, it’s obvious that in capitalism a huge amount of useful and necessary work is unpaid while only a fraction of the paid work is what could be described as useful or necessary in socialist terms. As a rough calculation, if the global workforce is something like 3 billion today, and if only 20 percent do useful work by this definition, then not only could today’s global volunteer force run socialism, they could do it in a 24 hour week even if every former tax inspector, sales ‘executive’, benefit advisor and check-out assistant sat back and made no effort to help.

Far more likely of course, given their sudden liberty from bosses and wage-bondage as well as a free democratic voice and free access to what was available, such people would be falling over themselves to lend a hand, especially given the opportunity for once to do something actually important and worthwhile. Capitalism has never been able to conquer human beings’ basic sense of decency despite every effort and incentive. What will happen when it is unleashed in all its force can only be guessed at, and with socialism we’ll get a chance to see it in action.

PJS