2000s >> 2006 >> no-1221-may-2006


Destressing society

We are always interested in constructive feedback and this month two professors respond to a piece from Pathfinders last October, on the question of animal testing. Kenneth Boyd, Professor  of Medical Ethics and Director of Clinical Skills at the University of Edinburgh:

 “Very many thanks for the interesting article on science, socialism and the animal question, much of which I agree with. I am certainly not put off by socialism, with many of whose aims I also agree, not least its argument for being ‘pragmatic’ about animal testing. But how safe it is to ‘assume, after capitalism, a dramatic fall in heart disease and obesity’ and ‘in poverty and stress-related diseases’, I’m not sure. I think that’s a matter of faith, rather than necessarily of ‘evidence-based thinking’, and the future all-too-often fails to turn out as we expect. In a way also, that assumption sounds too like the utopian claims of those in both the pro- and the anti-animal testing camps who argue on the one hand that if only we continue, and on the other that if only we abolish animal testing, all will be well. The danger in such claims, I think, is that they may distract us from doing whatever is possible, to create a more just and caring society and to relieve both human and animal suffering, in the present, despite all the obstacles presented by how power is currently exercised in the political and market arenas.”

It is true that the original article makes the large assumption that there will be a fall in the incidence of common stress-related  diseases when the market system is superseded by communal ownership. Anyone who is not familiar with the socialist case might very well object that such an assumption is faith and not evidence-based. So how unsafe an assumption is it? The BUPA website lists the main causes of stress as follows (abridged):

Work:  job demands, long working hours, poor organisational skills and difficult relationships with colleagues. (Socialism will abolish coerced employment. People will choose where, when, how, who with and even whether they work).

Life events: Major life events, such as losing a loved one, getting divorced, becoming a parent, moving house, changing jobs, becoming unemployed are all common causes of stress. (See above. Socialists have no plans to abolish birth, love and death however, which is why the assumption is of a fall in stress not the disappearance of it.)

Money worries: According to the MORI research for the Samaritans, money worries were quoted as being one of the biggest causes of stress. Concerns about not having enough money to pay bills or worries about losing a job and a steady income are particularly stress-inducing. (Socialism will abolish money and therefore money problems, ergo, it will abolish one of the biggest stressors).

Performance pressure: Many people find themselves receiving increasing demands from other people, whether at work or in their personal lives, and feel under pressure to perform well. (Socialism is a cooperative working concept, not competitive).
So much has been studied and written on stress that there is simply no point going any further into the subject here. Far from being a matter of faith, the evidence is overwhelming that modern capitalist society is stressful and that most of this stress is caused by money or insecurity over money, and the consequent knock-on effects this has on personal relationships. Is it really so unscientific to make this assumption, when science itself proceeds by assumptions? One of the problems socialists have, which Professor Boyd presumably will not allow, is that we are not in a position to ‘prove’ that socialism is better for people than capitalism. Only the establishment of socialism in practice will ever do that. However, as the professor knows perfectly well, science itself is unable to prove anything very much at all, whether it is a theory of gravity, evolution, or climate change, so it seems a little unreasonable to expect socialists to do what scientists cannot.

As an afterthought, Professor Boyd might also be interested in a report (New Scientist, April 15) that the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have been running trials of olanzapine and resperidone, anti-psychotic drugs normally given to schizophrenics, on children with an average age of 4. The same article refers to a book, The Bipolar Child, published in 2000, which claimed that the disorder can be detected in 2 year olds. Although the article rightly condemns the act of ‘disease mongering’, where drug companies persuade people they are suffering from mental health disorders simply in order to sell them drugs (most of which don’t work anyway), the message is clear: mental health problems are a billion dollar business in capitalism, and now even your toddlers aren’t safe.

  Meanwhile, Jonathan Wolff,  Professor of Philosophy at University College in London, has this to say: “Very nice article. I think we agree about a lot, except, possibly, the chances of actually achieving the socialist future you describe!” And, er, that’s it. Now, were Professor Wolff to present this concise estimation of the viability of socialism to Professor Boyd, one imagines that the latter might object on the grounds that this looked suspiciously like an argument based on faith rather than evidence. After all, socialists avoid the deterministic trap of claiming that socialism is inevitable, precisely because this would be a faith-based position. But it cuts both ways, and those who argue that socialism will never happen are also guilty of the same kind of faith-based determinism. We understand that the professor argues in his new book “Why Read Marx Today?” that Marx’ grand theories were ‘sweeping’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ and must be abandoned, but we have no doubt that he arrived at this conclusion in the proper scientific manner and after a full and frank review of the available evidence. It is a well known fact that scientists never make sweeping unsupported statements.


Be nice, or else

The idea of cooperation is predicated on a lack of compulsion to take part. Or is it? A new study based on an investment game (New Scientist, April 15) which pitted a voluntary group against a group which was allowed to punish non-contributors, found that the coercive group gave better returns and attracted the most players, despite two-thirds of the subjects initially opting for the non-coercive group. The researchers claim that this result gives an important insight into the nature of cooperation, and this might have socialists worried, except for two things. One is that it is always risky to make judgments about human nature based upon present-day human behaviour. Most opinion polls, for example, would show that virtually all humans disapprove of rape and murder, which might lead one to suppose that such crimes were extremely rare and that humans are naturally peaceful. In fact these crimes are extremely common, yet we do not necessarily conclude from this that humans are naturally rapists and murderers.

  How people behave, therefore, in a game today does not reliably indicate how they will behave in a game at some future date. Secondly, it is often assumed that cooperation relies simply on good will,

and that it lacks any any mechanism for sanctions. Socialism is not an idealised fairyland where anybody may do just as they like. If an individual’s actions impact adversely on those around them, the community would not be slow to apply sanctions. The only question is, what would those sanctions be? In a cooperative community, it is quite possible that the labels ‘uncooperative’, or ‘self-serving’, or ‘wasteful’, or ‘propertarian’ would be such stigmas that people would go to considerable lengths to avoid earning them. At any rate, punishment in socialism, were there ever a need for it, would be socially agreed and socially administered, in general proportion to the offence committed. How different from capitalism, where the theft of trinkets or pieces of paper can mean the theft of years from your life and the inhuman zoo of the prison system?

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