2000s >> 2006 >> no-1219-march-2006



Get Rich, Get Well

Michael Marmot: Status Syndrome. Bloomsbury £7.99

Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London. The author is not a socialist – if anything he is something of an establishment figure, a doctor working as an epidemiologist (that is a medical statistician) – but he is very much concerned with health and how it is affected by the kind of society we live in. And he makes his case with polished logic, humanity, and humour. This is not a dry-as-dust book of statistics, but a critical examination of the relationship of society to health.

The basic premise is that matters of disease and mortality follow a gradient that has been statistically proven to be hierarchical. Those at the top of the hierarchy have less illness and live longer and as we go down the hierarchy illness increases and life gets shorter. No surprise there, One would immediately conclude that this is purely a matter of economics: the rich live better than the poor. But there is more to it than that. For instance in a Whitehall study of English civil servants, at the ages of forty to sixty-four those at the bottom of the hierarchy have four times greater risk of dying than those at the top.

Taking it as read that absolute poverty has very definite effects on health, Marmot puts the question in true socialist style, ‘what is poverty?’, and quotes Adam Smith’s definition that poverty is relative to the standard of what is considered necessary to exist in the society in which you live. The level of what can be considered as poverty is changing all the time and varies from country to country, between rich and poor nations. Therefore the state of health of the absolute poor in say North America may be better than that of the absolute poor in Gambia. But as you go up the ladder health and mortality also vary in direct relationship. In other words those at the top in a rich country will live longer and have less disease than those at the top in a poor country, and this applies to all the gradients in between. Why? Are there other factors than money involved?

Marmot answers this question by identifying the missing factor as that of control. It is the amount of control you have over your life. He illustrates how this can vary by whatever position you occupy on the social ladder. He then shows how this is related to the amount of stress you are under and backs this up with medical expertise from his training as a doctor to show how physiological and neurological stress can affect health. This is especially connected with heart disease, one of the biggest killers of all.

To quote, “The importance of money for health depends on how much money you had to begin with. If you have little to begin with more money will improve health by meeting basic needs of food, shelter and sanitation. Above that level, when the problems of privation have been solved how much money you have is not as important as how much you have relative to others in society. It is this relative income that determines what you can do with what you have. We need a richer understanding that poverty and wealth are not only about money.”

Marmot raises all the objections that could be raised to his arguments and knocks them down one by one. On the genes versus environment battle he demonstrates how environment can shape genetic influence, and he is particularly scathing on the pro-genetic argument that the rich are where they are because they are genetically programmed to be successful, and demonstrates conclusively that advantage comes from social background, i.e. that where you come from largely governs where you end up. He punctures the league table myth of school results, and demonstrates that league tables are a very accurate indicator of where the school is situated in society. All of this is backed up with statistical evidence.

Neither does he think that poverty and social hierarchies are inevitable. They can be changed. Well, it seems that he thinks there will always be a hierarchy of some sort, but that the gap can be narrowed. At heart he is a reformer who thinks that the answers come with government action, but then he wouldn’t be a sir if he was a socialist, would he? Never mind, this is a cracking book and a very good read, which backs up the socialist case from an impeccable source. Reading this book, you are left in no doubt that capitalism is bad for your health.


Radical London

Fagin”: Reds on the Green: A Short Tour of Clerkenwell Radicalism. Past Tense Publications, £2.00.

It was water that named Clerkenwell; a village with several wells, one of which, the Clerk’s Well, that gave its name to the area. The River Fleet ran through, from its sources on Hampstead Heath to where it enters the River Thames near Blackfriars Bridge.

First mentioned in this brief account of Clerkenwell, is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where Wat Tyler and the rebel peasants ransacked the Savoy Palace in the Strand, home of John of Gaunt, then the Fleet Prison, crossed into Clerkenwell and set fire to the Priory of the Order of Saint John. In 1665 refugees from the Plague, and in 1666, from the Great Fire of London, moved northwards from the City to Clerkenwell. By the late 17th century, there had been an influx of craftsmen into the area, including many watchmakers and locksmiths. Clerkenwell soon became a slum in which thousands of poverty-stricken workers scraped an existence. Parts of the area were notorious for beggars, casual labourers and prostitutes. In the 1800s, the police rarely went into the part of Clerkenwell known as the Rookeries.

Clerkenwell Green became famous, or maybe infamous, for meetings and demonstrations. In 1838, when the Tolpuddle Martyrs returned from their transportation to Australia after being pardoned, some of them were welcomed by a large demonstration on the Green. Indeed, it was the heart of the radical political scene in Victorian London, and was the central venue for public meetings, demonstrations and clashes between Chartists and the recently formed Metropolitan Police Force. In November 1867, there were two demonstrations to protest against the death sentence on three Irish Fenians in Manchester, who were later hanged at Strangeways Prison. In 1882, a large cache of Fenian arms were discovered at St John Street, nearby.

The pamphlet Reds on the Green notes that in 1871, there were meetings supporting the Paris Commune, and for the Commune’s duration, a red flag hung from the lamp-post on the Green. In 1884, the Social Democratic Federation held meetings there. By the end of the Victorian era, it was a major centre for regular soap-box speakers, as well as a venue for open-air radical meetings and demonstrations.

The author gives a brief account of a number of radical mavericks, such as Dan Chatterton and the anarchist-communist Guy Aldred, who were born and grew up in Clerkenwell. Mention is made of The House (no. 37 Clerkenwell Green), built in 1738, where William Morris and Eleanor Marx addressed crowds from the balconies of the building, and which, since 1933, has housed the Marx Memorial Library. Mention is also made of. a certain V Lenin and his wife, Krupskaya, who used the offices of SDF’s Twentieth Century Press to edit the paper Iskra in 1902. (It is noted that Lenin established a state-capitalist dictatorship.)

The pamphlet concludes with an Appendix of recommended pubs to visit in Clerkenwell. It is well illustrated and is obtainable from: Past Tense Publications, c/o 56A Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17.


Dictator revealed

Simon Sebag Montefiore Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Orion, £9.99.

Montefiore’s blockbuster is a mighty, novel-like biography of Stalin and the evil apparatchik that attained the economic and political dominance of a ruling class in Russia following on the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917. But don’t look for explanations of the Bolshevik phenomenon or why someone like Lenin, closely familiar with the writings of Marx, Engels and the pioneers of scientific socialism, should lay the foundations for the establishment of an empire at least on a par with the concurrent social evil of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

All things within the wide ambit of the awful world of Joseph Stalin’s Russia are explicable to Montefiore in terms of an ill-conceived notion of Marxism. His research is punctilious to the extent where he can report dialogue between some of the most nefarious characters to (dis)grace European history between capitalism’s two world wars. With minute precision he reports the economic lunacies of the forced collectivisation period, the mass murder of literally millions of peasants, the grim destruction of the lives of men, women and children who are made enemies because they are not deemed to be friends; here and there is the profanity of humour within this coterie of evil men with power over life and death who themselves are beholden to a master with power over their life and death. And all this is put down by Montefiore as a consequence of a contamination by ‘Marxism’, a claim with as much justification as blaming god for the ravages of a tsunami; a claim unsupported by the pointed absence of any of Marx’s writings from the generous bibliography.

The fact that the author knows nothing about Marxism, while clearly doing no service to that subject, perhaps rescues the narrative from a taxing analysis that might have impeded this grim, gossipy biography of men and women striving for power with the tenacity of private entrepreneurial billionaires because power in state capitalism, like money in ‘western’ capitalism, is truly a universal medium of exchange.

Stalin is an easy read, perhaps a little tedious in its replication and its ‘facts’ coloured often in that they are the post-Stalin ‘justifications’ by Stalin’s surviving accomplices or relatives of both friends and foes still extant. In summary, Montefiore is an good writer, a good storyteller and a lousy historian.


Film Review

Munich (2005)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth

Based on Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-terrorist Team

by George Jonas


Early in the morning of 5 September 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed the quarters of the Israeli delegation to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, killing two athletes and taking nine others hostage. In the botched German police raid that followed, one policeman, five of the eight kidnappers, and all nine hostages were killed. The three surviving kidnappers were released by Germany after the hijacking of a Lufthansa passenger jet the next month. Steven Spielberg’s latest pseudo-historical film, Munich, tells the story of the Mossad hit squad charged with tracking down and killing the terrorists thought to be responsible for the Munich massacre.

To head the squad, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir personally selects her former bodyguard, Avner. Joining him are Hans, a former antiques dealer who forges the group’s documents; Robert, a toymaker who builds their bombs; Carl, the `worrier’ who erases evidence from the crime scenes; and Steve, the Jewish-supremacist getaway driver. Though none of the five men have prior training as assassins, they successfully engineer the shootings and bombings of some half dozen of their eleven targets. Much of their intelligence is purchased from Louis, a shadowy French anarchist who helps them in the mistaken belief that they are not government agents. Louis’s father was a French Resistance fighter during the war but is now disillusioned with statism. “We paid this price so Vichy scum could be replaced with Gaullist scum, and the Nazis could be replaced by Stalin and America … We don’t work with governments,” he says, as if complicity in an assassination is somehow justified when no state is involved.

After the first few killings, the hit squad begin to have doubts about whether what they are doing is right. The mild-mannered Robert has trouble reconciling his behaviour with his sense of identity as a Jew (“Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong… We’re supposed to be righteous.”) and later as a human being. Avner frames the dilemma in more practical terms, noting that they have been given no proof that any of their targets had any hand in the Munich incident, and moreover that for every terrorist they kill a new and more fanatical one steps in to take his place. Only Steve remains resolute in his devotion to their task. “Stop your agonizing!”‘ he barks to the others. “It’s counterproductive.” However, in the end the other squad members are unable to come to terms with their actions. Three of them are killed one probably by suicide and Avner eventually returns home to his wife and child with deep emotional scars.

That Munich does not endorse any political point of view comes as somewhat of a surprise from Spielberg, an ardent

supporter of Israel. The film’s purpose is simply to show the effects of politically motivated violence, both on its victims and its perpetrators, and to demonstrate its futility. For this reason, it has come under attack by both the left and the right, the former for humanizing the Israeli assassins, and the latter for making uncomfortably close comparisons between the Palestinian terrorists and the Israeli counter-terrorists. What socialists will find distressing about the film, however, is that it offers only the shallowest of analyses of the socio-economic causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and likewise does not point to any particular solutions. These flaws are especially disappointing considering that screenwriter Tony Kushner describes himself as a “historical materialist socialist”. Some characters in the film see the conflict as a religious and racial issue, but the film never uses historical materialism to trace these views to their socio-economic source, nor socialist theory to show that the Israeli and Palestinian assassins, as members of the working class, have more in common with each other than with their respective government leaders. The best we get is some unresolved moral agonizing and the failure of religion and patriotism to assuage the assassins’ guilty consciences.

Given this nebulous treatment, there is the danger that viewers will be led to conclude there is no solution to conflicts such as those in the Middle East. But perhaps at least some will be stimulated into thinking about the real source of political violence, whom it benefits, and how to stop it once and for all.


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