Do Communist-Led States Protect Public Health Better Than Capitalism?

By Stephen Gowans

May 5, 2021

Had all capitalist countries managed the Covid-19 pandemic as effectively as the Communist-led countries of China, Cuba, and Vietnam, nearly 147 million people would have been spared illness and over three million lives would have been saved, according to projections based on data from Our World in Data. These projections are based on applying the number of cases and deaths per million for the Communist world to the world as a whole.

Taken together, the Communist countries have limited the spread of the novel coronavirus to 134 cases per million, compared to 24,058 cases per million in the non-Communist world. At the same time, communist countries have held Covid-19 deaths to four per million, while in the capitalist world, the death rate per million has been well over a hundred times greater.

What’s more, according to reports from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, North Korea has likely been as successful as its Communist cohorts in protecting public health in the face of the worldwide coronavirus emergency.

Clearly, compared to the capitalist countries, the Communist-led states have not only done a better job of protecting their citizens from the dangers of Covid-19, they have done a supremely better job.

Continuity

In 1986, sociologist Shirley Ceresto and physician Howard Waitzkin published research in the American Journal of Public Health comparing the performance of Communist-led states and capitalist countries on physical quality of life indicators, including six public health measures: infant mortality, child death rate, life expectancy, population per physician, population per nurse, and daily per capita calorie intake. Using World Bank data, the researchers found that when comparing Communist-led countries with capitalist states at the same level of economic development, the Communist countries came out ahead on all six public health measures.

Waitzkin told The Los Angeles Times that he believed the Communist-led countries fared better because they considered health care to be a basic human right. Ceresto added: “The first thing a country does when it becomes socialist is improve the health care and education and feed the people.” This, she said, “is their goal: To feed their people and get them health care and education.”

In 1992, sociologist and political scientist Vincente Navarro published in The International Journal of Health Services a continent by continent survey of the performance of socialist and capitalist countries in their response to the health needs of their populations. Navarro concluded that socialism and socialist forces [had], for the most part, been better able than capitalism and capitalist forces to improve health conditions.”  

Among other comparisons, Navarro contrasted China with India, showing how life expectancy in the Communist country lagged India’s by seven years when Mao’s forces came to power in 1949. A quarter of a century later, life expectancy had increased by 35 years and was 12 years greater than in India, where life expectancy had increased only 17 years. Today, China continues to lead India in life expectancy at birth.

Navarro concluded that “the socialist experience … has been more frequently than not more efficient in responding to human needs than the capitalist experience.”

Communist Countries Today

As was true in the 1980s, today’s Communist-led states outperform capitalist countries on various measures of public welfare, including life expectancy, hospital beds per thousand, extreme poverty, as well as scoring higher on the human development index, a composite measure of income, life expectancy, and education.

Table 1 shows that average life expectancy is five years greater in Communist countries than capitalist states (77 vs. 72). The lead is even greater in Cuba and Vietnam (seven years), comparing these countries with capitalist states at the same level of economic development.

Table 2 shows that Communist-led states have close to twice as many hospital beds per 1,000 people as capitalist countries, with Cuba having over three times more beds per 1,000 people than capitalist countries at the same level of economic development.

Table 3 shows that the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty is lower in the Communist-led states (for which data are available, namely, China and Vietnam) than in the capitalist world as a whole, or in capitalist countries with a similar GDP per capita.

The idea that extreme poverty is greater in the capitalist than Communist world challenges the myth, industriously cultivated in the rich countries, that capitalism means wealth and development while the Communist countries are uniquely poor. While it is true that some capitalist regions are very wealthy, specifically, those with an imperialist past and present (North America, Western Europe, and Japan), they comprise only a small part of the world’s population, about ten percent. The Communist countries comprise a further one fifth. That leaves the bulk of humanity—seven of every ten people in the world—living within less developed parts of the capitalist sphere. The capitalist norm, then, is not one of wealth and development, but of poverty and underdevelopment.

Capitalism has two faces. One is the face of great wealth. The other is the face of poverty, agony of toil, brutality, and foreign domination. For most human beings, capitalism has showed, and continues to show, only one of its faces: that of poverty, misery, and imperialism. It is from, and against, this sphere that the Communist countries have emerged.

Table 4 shows that the Communist countries have a higher level of human development (the index ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 as the highest level) compared to the capitalist world. The Communist advantage is particularly evident in the cases of Cuba and Vietnam, where human development in these countries exceeds that of capitalist states with roughly the same income per capita.

Managing the Covid-19 Pandemic

Given that the data indicate that Communist-led countries are more responsive to the human and health needs of their populations, we might expect that the Communist-led countries have also been more effective in protecting their populations from the Covid-19 pandemic. The next two tables confirm this expectation.

Table 5 shows the number of infections per million has been considerably lower in the three Communist-led states than in the capitalist world.

Similarly, Table 6 shows that the Communist countries have significantly outperformed capitalist states in limiting the number of Covid-19 deaths per million.

Note that the difference between the Communist and capitalist worlds is not trivial. The infection and fatality rates in the capitalist countries have been, respectively, 180 and 127 times greater than in the Communist states.

Capitalist Exceptions

Some capitalist states have performed better than others. Unique among the capitalist countries in pandemic management are Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, which have not only achieved infection and mortality rates well below the capitalist average, but have done better than Cuba, as Table 7 shows.

However, while the performance of these capitalist countries has been very good relative to their capitalist peers, as Table 8 reveals, it has nevertheless been less effective than that of the Communist-led states as a group.

The achievement of the capitalist quartet in limiting infections and deaths challenges the belief that infection control is only possible in Communist-led countries and is not possible in liberal parliamentary states. Moreover, all four countries had a low rate of vaccination as of the end of April, refuting the notion, widely promoted in the Western news media, that vaccines are the sole route to managing the pandemic.

Had all countries performed as well as these four, 121 million people would have been spared illness and 2.6 million lives would have been saved. While these numbers represent a substantial improvement over how the world has performed, they are nevertheless not as substantial as the gains that would have been garnered had all countries performed as effectively as the Communist-led states.

The Confucius Hypothesis

Some analysts have attributed China’s stellar pandemic performance to the country’s Confucian culture rather than its Communist politics, pointing out that other countries with strong Confucian influences, namely Japan and Korea, have also stood out in the degree to which they have effectively managed the virus. These analysts argue that Confucian values of duty, obedience, and social solidarity, have predisposed the populations of the Confucian-influenced countries to more fully comply with government directives on infection control than is true in countries in which individual liberties are valued over the collective needs of the community. 

While there may be some merit to this argument, it is still the case that within the Confucian trio, China has performed the best, and significantly better than its capitalist counterparts, as illustrated in Table 9. This suggests that China’s nature as a Communist-led country has conferred an advantage in pandemic control greater than whatever advantage it has reaped from Confucian values.

China vs. India

It is illuminating to compare China to India, a fellow Asian behemoth which differs from China in having rejected a development path under the red flag of Communism. On all seven human welfare and health indices in Table 10, India lags China, including on the number of physicians per 1,000 people; hospital beds per 1,000 people; ICU beds per capita; and health spending as a percentage of GDP.

Coincident with its poorer performance in meeting the health needs of its population, India has also failed to effectively manage the coronavirus pandemic, severely underperforming its Asian neighbor. To be fair, India’s GDP per capita is less than half that of China’s. However, the gulf between China and India in satisfying their respective population’s health needs is so great that even correcting for the income difference would fail to eliminate the gap between the two countries. On grounds of human development and health, if one had to choose between the two countries as a place of residence, Communist-led China is clearly the better choice.    

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian countries have also performed better than the average at curbing the spread of the coronavirus and limiting deaths, though not better than the Confucian trio. Within the Southeast Asian group, Vietnam’s performance is unparalleled. Again, inasmuch as Vietnam and China belong to regions with superior pandemic performance, regional factors have likely contributed to their successes in limiting infections and deaths. However, within both groups, the performance of the Communist-led countries has been ne plus ultra, pointing to their politico-economic orientation as an additional factor explaining their superior pandemic control.

Caribbean and Central American Region

The Caribbean and Central American region has performed less effectively than the rest of the world in checking the spread of the coronavirus and limiting fatalities. While Cuba does not lead the region, as its Communist-led cohort countries do theirs, it has performed much better than the regional average and more effectively than the average of all other countries. Moreover, at 0.58 percent, Cuba is second only to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in case fatality rate, compared to 1.99 percent for the other regions, and 4.64 percent for the Caribbean and Central American region as a whole. Cuba’s low case fatality rate likely reflects the Communist state’s strong emphasis on universal access to a health care system which boasts among the highest number of physicians and hospital beds per capita in the world. Table 2 showed that Cuba not only leads capitalist countries at the same level of development in hospital beds per 1,000 people, but leads capitalist countries in the aggregate.

Table 13 shows health spending as a percentage of GDP among Caribbean and Central American countries. Cuba allocates more resources to health as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the region, demonstrating the Communist-led country’s strong commitment to meeting the health needs of its citizens.

North Korea

Publicly available data for North Korea is scarce if not altogether absent, but there are indications that the DPRK’s performance in checking the spread of the novel coronavirus is consistent with what one would expect of a Communist-led country with strong Confucian influences. Some news reports in Western mainstream news media refer to Pyongyang implementing vigorous measures of pandemic control. For example, The New York Times’ Korea specialist Choe Sang-Hun reported on July 25, 2020 that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus, and did so sooner than most other nations.” It is clear from the example of China, that countries that have prioritized public health, and have acted quickly and decisively to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have achieved impressive levels of infection control. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2021, that “Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said on the embassy’s Facebook page earlier this month that ‘thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, [North Korea] turned out to be the only country which didn’t get the infection.’”

Given these reports, along with North Korea’s unquestioned ability to manage crises, including the collapse of its foreign markets in the early 1990s, flood- and drought-induced famines in the same decade, and the unremitting threat of US aggression, it seems highly likely that the DPRK has responded to the threat of Covid-19 with a high degree of competence, likely on par with that of its Communist counterparts.

Capitalist Incentives Foster Irrational Public Health Choices

It is instructive to consider that infection control as good as that achieved by the Communist-led countries would have necessitated a departure from capitalist logic in the capitalist countries.  

First, it would have required the temporary closure of a greater percentage of business establishments than most capitalist governments were prepared to tolerate, and for longer periods. Since the shuttering of businesses has deleterious consequences for the profits of business owners, capitalist governments acted to limit business closures in three ways: Shutting down a bare minimum of businesses, allowing many non-essential businesses to continue to operate; re-opening businesses before local infection rates had been brought under control; and failing to require adequate infection control measures for employees in businesses that were allowed to remain open.

Second, to approximate Communist country-performance, capitalist governments would have had to have quickly mobilized substantial public health resources to undertake large-scale screening and robust contact tracing. However, rather than implementing this public solution to a public problem—one which offered no benefit to private investors (except in the UK where contact tracing was handed to a private firm which immediately botched the job)—the leading capitalist governments chose to subsidize major businesses to compensate owners for their pandemic losses and to invest untold billions of dollars in vaccine development or pre-payment of vaccine doses or both, creating a pandemic bonanza for the biopharmaceutical industry and its major shareholders. This is not to say that investing in vaccines was unnecessary or undesirable, but that the timing was driven by capitalist incentives rather than public health rationality.

The leading capitalist countries declined to address the worldwide public health emergency by mobilizing resources for “shoe-leather” epidemiology to bring the pandemic quickly to heel, with the consequence that the emergency worsened. The worsening emergency was then used to justify the roll out of vaccines under emergency use authorization before they had been adequately safety-tested in fully completed Phase III trials.

The winners in this scenario have been the investors whose business interests have been protected from the effects of pandemic disruptions by government subsidies, as well as those wealthy enough to reap the benefits of substantial investments in the biopharmaceutical industry. The losers are the 150 million people who became ill or died unnecessarily and could have been protected from the ravages of the pandemic had their capitalist governments chosen to prioritize the health of the public over the health of their business communities’ bottom lines. Business that were able to remain open to satisfy the demand for goods that shuttered businesses would have provided, Amazon, for example, were also winners.

The leading capitalist governments could have mitigated the emergency to manageable levels, equivalent to those achieved by the Communist-led states, and then worked on the development, testing, and dissemination of vaccines. This would have saved millions of lives, and spared countless millions the potential hazard of being inoculated with vaccines which may or may not be harmful over the long term. This approach, however, would have meant spending public funds on “shoe leather” epidemiology, an investment which offered no profit-making opportunities of consequence to the business class favored by capitalist states. Plus, it would have required the closing of a large proportion of businesses for a month or more, attenuating profits—an anathema in capitalist society.

From the perspective of a capitalist logic, the course chosen was far more desirable, even if it meant more illness and more deaths. Limit business closures to a bare minimum to protect profits. Channel resources into subsidies for major businesses hurt by the pandemic. Make vaccines the main plank of the pandemic management strategy. These were the choices made by capitalist governments guided by capitalist logic. Vaccines offered an alternative to business closures and public expenditures on mass screening and contact tracing—an alternative with the promise of vast profits for those wealthy enough to get in on the action in a consequential way. 

The capitalist governments could have made the public health-friendly choices above to mitigate the emergency, prevent sickness, and save lives. They could have, but had they, they wouldn’t have been capitalist governments.

Conclusion

Capitalist society exists to protect and expand the interests of capitalists, not the interests of those who work for them. Capitalism may or may not exist in Communist society, but where it does exist, it is yoked to the people-centered aims of Communism, not the aims of capitalists. In Communist states, capitalists do not have political mastery.  

The degree to which Communist countries have eclipsed capitalist states in protecting their citizens from Covid-19 is substantial, and is evidenced in this: Had all capitalist countries managed the pandemic as effectively as the three Communist-led states, nearly 147 million people would have been spared illness and over three million lives would have been saved.

This conclusion is arrived at in the following way: At the end of April, 2021, approximately 147.8 million people had tested positive for Covid-19. Assuming a world case rate of 134 cases per million, equal to that of the Communist-led countries, the total number of cases in the world would have been 134 x a world population of 7.7 billion x 1/1 million, or approximately one million cases. Hence, 147.8 million less one million, or 146.8 million people worldwide would have avoided the illness. By significantly reducing infections, the pandemic may have been effectively extinguished, and the circulation of the virus sufficiently retarded that it could have been held in check by wide-reaching screening programs and robust contact tracing. This would have provided breathing room for a more deliberate and careful pace of vaccine development, thereby obviating emergency authorization of vaccine use prior to the collection of sufficient safety data.

Communist-led countries limited Covid-19 deaths to four per million. This fatality rate applied to the world as a whole would have produced a little over 27,000 deaths globally, compared to the 3.1 million who have died to date. In nearly a year and a half, a capitalist logic that discouraged temporary business closures, adopted non-pharmaceutical interventions with great reluctance and abandoned the few that were adopted much too early, and by its very nature favored the profit-making opportunities inherent in the pharmaceuticalization of public health, has cost the world over three million lives to date. Many more needless deaths will follow.

The Catastrophes of the Pandemic are the Catastrophes of Capitalism

Make no mistake: Business interests trump public health.

Abstract: For capitalist governments, maintaining conditions conducive to the profit-making interests of business owners and investors is the top priority; public health, only so far as it is necessary to maintain an adequate supply of labor, is not. Understanding this helps explain (i) why many capitalist governments have, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, exhibited a high tolerance for public health catastrophes that could have been averted if only even mild measures had been taken to temporarily subordinate business interests to the public good, and (ii) why countries led by people-centered governments have performed better in protecting public health against the pestilence of COVID-19 than capitalist governments as a whole. This article demonstrates the second point empirically, via an analysis of cross-sectional country-level data bearing on the performance of people-centered vs. capital-centered governments in protecting the health of their citizens in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.  

Stephen Gowans

April 21, 2021

For days, doctors and scientists in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, had offered the government the same advice: close non-essential businesses for a few weeks to avert a looming public health crisis. Coronavirus infections were spreading rapidly in the workplace, in factories, in warehouses, and on construction sites. Workers who were infected on the job, were bringing the virus home to their loved ones. With new cases growing daily at an accelerating rate, hospital beds filling up, a backlog of surgeries growing ever larger, and COVID-19 therapeutics becoming scarce, the public health care system teetered on the edge of an abyss. Strong measures were needed.

The government acted.  It prohibited virtually every activity that could potentially create a super-spreader event—except one, the most significant: employees of non-essential businesses co-mingling at work. This was the engine of the new third wave. And yet the government refused to turn the engine off.

Critical care physicians, ICU nurses, and epidemiologists were bewildered. Why had the government ignored their advice to shutter non-essential businesses? Why was it refusing to implement measures to prevent suffering and save lives?

The director of the committee the government had set up to make science-based recommendations said he was “at a loss” to understand why the “government announced a suite of measures that didn’t account for his group’s advice.” Another panel member said “he was dumbfounded by the government’s rejection of science and common sense.” A third said “she and her colleagues were stunned.”

One critical care physician, interviewed on TV, said that she had been “reflecting on why this happened  and one thing that occurred to me is that the role of government is to protect the citizens.” Why, then, was the government failing to do so?  

Incompetence?

Governments are often accused of ineptitude when they behave in ways that lead to catastrophe. The disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Trump administration in the United States, and the botched response of the Johnson government in the United Kingdom, are often attributed to mismanagement. It’s as if some governments don’t know what they’re doing.

But the only way to know whether a government is incompetent, is to evaluate its actions against its goals. If you say my weight loss plan is a masterpiece of ineptitude because I’ve gained ten pounds, you’re right, assuming my goal is to lose weight. But if my goal is to manage my weight as best I can while gorging on pastries every day, your assessment is off the mark.

The trouble with declaring a government inept is that we may be mistaken about what the government is truly trying to achieve. Too often we make the wrong assumption about the goals that guide a government’s actions.

The critical care physician mentioned above assumed the public health goal of the government was to protect its citizens. And all the advice she offered took this assumption as its starting point. The obvious dissonance between protecting public health as a goal and the government’s failing to do what was necessary to achieve this goal, left her dumbfounded.

One way she could have resolved her puzzlement was to ask whether the government was pursuing a different goal. In fact, at one point she conceded rather tentatively and with much reluctance—as if the thought was too unsettling to contemplate—that maybe the government was more committed to the interests of business owners than to the welfare of the larger community.

As unthinkable as the thought may be, could it be that the true role of government in capitalist society is not to protect its citizens, but to protect what lies at the very heart of capitalism itself: profits? If so, then what seems at first to be government ineptitude, may, to the contrary, be government acting as it ought to act (or must act) within the framework of a capitalist logic.

It would hardly be surprising to discover that the Ontario government has a strong affinity with the business community. Its members are part of that community, and came to power on a platform of catering to its (and their) interests. They promised citizens they would deliver jobs and prosperity in return for allowing businesses to generate handsome profits.

For the head of the government, profits are not only critical, but personal. He is the co-owner of a manufacturing firm—one of the non-essential businesses that scientists advised him to temporarily shutter. Heeding their advice and ‘following the science’ would have had a direct and unwelcome effect on his bank account.

Members of his cabinet are no less married to profits. They include: a former investment banker and insurance company executive; the founder of an advertising business; a corporate/commercial lawyer; a former chamber of commerce president; and a financial analyst, the daughter of a former CEO, prime minister, and member of multiple corporate boards; she is married to an investment banker who is the scion of a wealthy publishing family. One would hardly be going out on a limb to suggest that this group might have a greater preference for keeping the profit spigot open than keeping the polloi—with its lowly factory, warehouse, and construction workers—safe from a pandemic.

It’s also probably safe to assume that the cabinet members are all ambitious people who hope, when their political careers are over, to secure lucrative positions in the C-suites or on the boards of major corporations. They know their ambitions are more likely to be realized if they have acquitted themselves admirably in government as able defenders of the business community against the democratic demands of the public.  Sacrificing profits to public welfare could not possibly recommend them to high-level, munificently remunerated private sector opportunities.

This is not to say that the Ontario government is indifferent to public health, only that public health comes second, and not at all, if one must be sacrificed to the other. The metaphor of sampling delights at a local bakery (protecting profits) while paying some heed to weight-management (protecting public health) illustrates the relationship. Capitalist governments like to say they’re protecting public health, and they are, to a point, but they’re only doing so, so far as they don’t endanger the health of the most important patient—profits.

Who gets harmed by a business-first, public health-second policy? In the case of the Ontario government, not its cabinet. After all, its members have been vaccinated, and have access to private medicine or connections that allow them to get priority access to the public health care system, even one under stress. And while the people who go to work every day in factories, warehouses, and construction sites will, along with their families, bear the brunt of the escalating crisis, what does it matter from the perspective of the business community and their representatives in government? In a capitalist system, factory, warehouse, and construction workers exist for one purpose: to promote shareholder value. Those who the virus ushers along the path from workplace to sick bed to cemetery, to no longer serve their useful function as means to shareholder ends, are easily replaced. The business-friendly fiscal, monetary, and immigration policies of the Ontario government’s federal counterpart have seen to that; they have underwritten a reserve army of potential replacement employees, ready to rapidly fill whatever void the virus creates.

From this perspective, the decision of the government to ignore its science panel’s advice to close non-essential businesses makes perfect sense. Seeing the logic in the decision requires that we ask: Government for who? Policy for who? Democracy for who? If the pandemic policies of the Trump and Johnson governments were disasters, who were they disasters for? They may have been catastrophic for the bulk of US and British citizens, but were they disasters for major investors and shareholders?

In a multitude of ways the interests of private profit-making enterprises, and those of the public, are antithetical. Businesses have an interest in paying their employees as little as possible, and employees have an interest in resisting their exploitation, and eliminating it altogether. The public has an interest in clean air and water, and polluters have an interest in shifting the costs of remediating pollution to the public. Employers have an interest in making their employees work under unsafe conditions if it means healthier bottom lines, and employees have an interest in safeguarding their health.

 In competitions that pit investors and shareholders against employees and consumers, businesses often come out on top. Their ownership and control of the economy equip them with the resources and leverage they need to ensure their policy preferences are transformed into policy directives—not always, but most of the time. They do so by ensuring their representatives are elected to public office, by funding think tanks to propagate their policy preferences, and by lobbying governments to adopt policies that are congenial to corporate aspirations. 

Moreover, the business community sets the ideological tenor of the times. It influences public opinion through its ownership of the mass media and influences the academic agenda by endowing university chairs and funding research programs. As a result, a pro-business ideology is instilled in politicians long before they arrive in government.

In an analysis of over 1,700 public policy issues, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [1]

In other words, the demos, the ordinary people referred to in the word ‘democracy’, have virtually no influence on public policy, while wealthy business people and their lobbies and representatives in government, who constitute only a tiny fraction of the population, have substantial sway. G7 countries, and many others in the world, are not democracies, but plutocracies, countries ruled by the wealthy. And the public health policy of a plutocracy is one which, not always, but for the most part, addresses the concerns, interests and aspirations of the country’s financial and business center, not Main Street.

If government policy makes no sense within the logic of public welfare, but makes perfect sense within the logic of capitalism, the reason why is plain; it’s not incompetence that leads governments to stumble into public health catastrophes; it is capitalist logic that produces public health catastrophes as a by-product of the pursuit of capitalist interests.

A publicly-owned and publicly-directed economy is preferable to one predicated on a capitalist logic, for three reasons.

#1. A public system is specifically designed to redress the capitalist shortcomings and inequities that affect the lives of the majority.  

#2. Democracy. Capitalism, by definition, is a system for privileging capitalists, an infinitesimally tiny elite, at public expense. In contrast, a public system—which is accountable to the public at large rather than a small minority of private business owners—is democratic, by definition.

#3. People matter more in a public system. This can be seen in the superior pandemic performance of countries that have moved, to varying degrees, toward the ideal of public-ownership and planning of their economies, namely, Cuba, North Korea (DPRK), China (PRC), and Vietnam—countries led by what I’ve called Communist, or people-centered, governments. While none of these countries has achieved the ideal, they are the furthest along the path. 

In the graph below, I’ve shown per capita fatality rates for four Communist countries, as well as for major capitalist powers. I’ve also included capitalist countries and jurisdictions in East Asia and Oceania which have performed well in pandemic management. Since a country’s ability to manage a public health crisis ought to vary proportionally with income, I’ve juxtaposed fatality data against GDP per capita.

The graph shows that countries with higher incomes (Italy, France, the UK, and the USA) have performed poorly in protecting the health of their citizens, while the four Communist countries have performed well, despite having considerably lower incomes and therefore fewer resources for pestilence-management. The graph also shows that with the exception of Cuba, the best performers have been the East Asian and Oceanic countries, both capital- and people-centered.

The graph below shows that the three East Asian Communist countries have performed better than South Korea (ROK), Japan, and Australia, but only as well as Taiwan and New Zealand. However, the region’s people-centered  countries have achieved comparable levels of pandemic management despite lower per capita incomes than their capitalist regional counterparts.

The final graph compares the four people-centered countries with the capitalist world as a whole. Clearly, the East Asian and Oceanic capital-centered countries are anomalies, and the performance of the capitalist countries as a category has been significantly worse than that of the Communist countries in protecting their citizens from COVID-19.

Moreover, the superior public health performance of the people-centered countries has been achieved with significantly fewer resources than are available to capitalist countries, which have higher incomes per capita, and therefore more resources to protect public health if they choose to allocate their resources to this project. This finding suggests that Communist countries are not only more committed to safeguarding the health of their citizens, but do so with greater efficiency, since they have achieved better outcomes with fewer resources. This is consistent with the well-established finding that public systems deliver better public health outcomes at lower cost than private systems.

The graph also demonstrates that the idea that the public health role of government is to protect its citizens, while valid in connection with people-centered countries, is invalid as a description of capital-centered countries as a whole. Clearly, in the capitalist world, business interests trump public health.

Together, the graphs also show that public health disasters and recurring waves of infection are not inevitable outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic, and that it is possible to provide a high level of public health protection against the dangers of COVID-19, even with limited resources. Given that the people-centered governments have performed admirably without wide-spread vaccination roll-outs, it can also be concluded that vaccination is not the sole route to public health protection in the face of a novel virus. It is widely believed in the leading capitalist countries that vaccines are the offramp from the pandemic, but the data  presented here suggest that it was capitalist logic that steered most countries onto the pandemic freeway in the first instance—a freeway on which the Communist countries have never travelled.

An objection to this analysis is that Communist China and Vietnam are not people-centered but profit-centered, since both have embraced capitalism. While it is true that these countries have flourishing private sectors, it also true that they have substantial and growing public sectors and significant state planning. Moreover, Communist parties remain in charge, and while China and Vietnam may appear, at first glance, to be Communist in name alone, the red flag continues to fly in Beijing and Hanoi. In Bright Red: The Chinese Communist Ideal, [2] French Sinologist Alice Ekman examines the Chinese Communist Party’s internal documents and concludes that China’s true color remains red. China’s orientation toward capitalism compared to that of the United States, in which there is no ambiguity about its capitalist identity, is perhaps best illustrated by the following observation from the Wall Street Journal. “A figure like [Apple’s Tim] Cook commands a great deal of respect, even deference, in Washington. In Beijing, he’s treated like any other business executive—as a supplicant, angling for favors to keep his market hopes alive.” [3] In other words, unlike in capitalist countries, where government is but the means to capitalist ends, in China, capitalists are but the means to Communist ends.

Pandemics are inevitable. Whether they become disasters is contingent on who is prioritized by the underlying logic of a society’s organization. As the data above suggest, it is in capitalist countries, where capitalist logic elevates the interests of a tiny minority of wealthy business-owners above public health interests, that the coronavirus pandemic has become a disaster. In contrast, in Communist countries, where capitalist logic has either been eliminated or subordinated to Communist goals, public health has been protected to a degree far in excess of what is true of capitalist countries as a whole.  Avoiding future pandemic disasters will depend on learning the lessons that the public health catastrophes of COVID-19 have been the catastrophes of capitalism, its successes the successes of people-centered Communism, and that a pandemic of catastrophes need not happen the next time a zoonotic pathogen breaches the species barrier. Whether we, in the capitalist world, meet the next public health crisis as effectively as China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea have met the challenge of COVID-19, will depend on the choices we make about whether to transition to a democracy where our common interests are brought to the fore, or whether we continue to accept our subordination to a capitalist logic in which we are only the means to capitalist ends.   

Sources

GDP per capita (PPP), The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency.

“Mortality Analyses”. Johns Hopkins University, Coronavirus Resource Center, March 28, 2021. Accessed on 7 March 2014.

Notes

1.Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall, 2014.

2. English translation of the book’s French title, Rouge Vif: L’Idéal Communiste Chinois.

3. Andrew Browne, “China’s dream is Apple’s nightmare: US tech firms cave for Beijing’s rules,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2017.

DPRK. While there are no solid COVID-19 data for North Korea, there are a number of indications that the country’s infection and fatality rates are low. First, we can assume that the factors that have uniquely contributed to the superior performance of East Asian countries in managing the pandemic also apply to the DPRK as a fellow East Asian state. Second, a number of news reports refer to Pyongyang implementing vigorous measures of pandemic control.  For example, the New York Times’ Korea specialist Choe Sang-Hun reported on July 25, 2020 that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus, and did so sooner than most other nations.” It is clear from the example of China, that countries that have prioritized public health, and have acted quickly and decisively to curb the spread of the coronavirus, have achieved impressive levels of infection control. Additionally, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 26, 2021, that “Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said on the embassy’s Facebook page earlier this month that ‘thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, [North Korea] turned out to be the only country which didn’t get the infection.’”

Given these reports, along with North Korea’s reported commitment to effectively managing the pestilence, and its unquestioned ability to manage other crises, including the collapse of its foreign markets in the early 1990s, flood- and drought-induced famines in the same decade, and the unremitting threat of US aggression, it seems highly likely that the DPRK has responded to the threat of COVID-19 with a high degree of competence. Accordingly, for this analysis, DPRK deaths per 100,000 were set to the minimum for all other countries.

Taiwan. While the analyses include Taiwan, the territory is not recognized here as a separate country, but as a part of China under the control of the government of the Republic of China. Since the ROC offers an example of a capital-centered government in contradistinction to the PRC’s more people-centered approach, its inclusion in the analyses as a separate jurisdiction was warranted.

Cuba’s Low Level of Internet Use: Not a Policy of Restricting the Flow of Information

If you want to find examples of governments restricting the flow of information on the internet for political purposes, look to the United States and its allies, and not to the low-level of internet use in Cuba, which, notwithstanding press reports to the contrary, is a consequence of Cuba’s comparatively low-level of economic development, not communist ‘totalitarianism.’

August 22, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

cuba-computerPart of the dogma of capitalist societies is that communist states are inherently restrictive and ‘totalitarian’, in contrast to liberal democracies, which are portrayed as beacons of liberty. Communist states, we’re told, suppress dissent, while capitalist states allow it to flourish. This, of course, is nonsense. All states, regardless of how they’re organized economically, suppress dissent under circumstances of grave threat, and relax repression as danger diminishes. Those that are the most free, are those that face the least danger. Highly restrictive societies are typically highly threatened. The restrictions in the Soviet Union from its birth in 1917 to its collapse in 1991 are pointed to as proof of the totalitarian nature of communism (or “Stalinism”), but the reality that the country was in a permanent state of crisis is ignored, and restrictive measures have long been recognized as legitimate and necessary under emergency conditions, including in liberal theory and practice. Wave after wave of aggression crashed against the Soviet Union from its birth until its collapse. These included the aggressions of Wilhelmine Germany, the intervention of the Entente powers in the Civil War, Japan’s harassment of Soviet borders in the 1930s, the invasion of Nazi Germany, the Cold War, and Reagan’s program of spending the Soviets into bankruptcy. The objective of each aggression was the total annihilation of the communist state.

Totalitarianism has not been a stranger to liberal democracies either. Despite being sheltered by two oceans, having no hostile powers on its borders, and facing no realistic threat of invasion, the US state in two world wars invested its executive with dictatorial powers. These were used to direct the country’s economy, control the flow of information, crackdown on dissent, and herd potential fifth columnists into concentration camps. Even today, despite facing the comparatively minor threat of potential blowback from the political Islamic forces it has long supported to disrupt secular Arab nationalism [1], the United States, Britain, France, Canada and Australia have invested the political policing functions of their respective states with growing powers of surveillance and disruption.

Philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo observes:

In reality, although protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, every time it has rightly or wrongly felt itself imperilled, the North American republic has proceeded to a more or less drastic reinforcement of executive power and to more or less heavy restrictions on freedom of association of expression. This applies to the years immediately following the French Revolution (when its devotees on American soil were hit by the Alien and Sedition Acts), to the Civil War, the First Word War, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War. Even in our day, the sequel of the attack of 11 September 2001 was the opening of a concentration camp at Guantanamo, where detainees have been imprisoned without trial, and without even being informed of a specific charge, regardless of age. However terrible, the threat of terrorism is minor compared with that of invasion and military occupation, not to mention nuclear destruction. [2]

The restrictive practices, or ‘totalitarianism’, of communist states are not inherent. They are, instead, defensive measures against external threat. Cuba and North Korea have been under a greater sustained threat of invasion and military occupation than any other country (and North Korea is additionally under the threat of nuclear destruction.) It is in these countries that the pressure for restrictive practices is most acutely felt. Nor are restrictions on civil and political liberties unique to communist states. They are also found in abundance in capitalist countries, as well.

To illustrate how the dogma in capitalist society conditions its mass media to portray communist countries as inherently restrictive, consider a recent Wall Street Journal article on the expansion of internet access in Cuba (“Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” August 19, 2015).

The article attributes the comparatively low level of internet use on the Caribbean island to a theorized desire of Cuban authorities to control the flow of information, rather than to a more likely explanation, namely Cuba’s low level of economic development. We would expect that more developed countries would have a higher level of internet use, and less developed countries a lower level. If the level of internet use in Cuba is on par with that of other countries at the same level of economic development, the country’s low level of internet use can be explained by economic development, not a desire to restrict access to the internet to control the flow of information.

The graph below uses World Bank data to show the relationship between internet use per 100 people and GDP per capita. If the Cuban government deliberately restricts internet use, we would expect Cuba to depart significantly to the right of the trend line. Instead, it falls close to it, meaning the level of internet use in Cuba is typical of countries at an equal level of economic development. We can dismiss, therefore, the view that the Caribbean island’s low level of internet use is due to the government deliberately restricting access to the Web. The Wall Street Journal’s explanation of the low level of internet use in Cuba is a political argument, intended to mislead and discredit, not illuminate.

Internet users per 100At 30 users per 100 people in 2014, internet use in Cuba was on par with that of Egypt (32) and El Salvador (30) and greater than in Guatemala (23), Honduras (19), India (18), Nicaragua (18) and Haiti (11) (World Bank). The average for Central America, a region on which the United States has lavished much attention to keep it free from communist ‘totalitarianism’, was 29, virtually equal to that of Cuba. If Cuba’s low level of internet use is indicative of Havana deliberately restricting access to the internet to control the flow of information, then the governments of Central America, along with Egypt and India, must also be ‘totalitarian.’

More fertile ground for identifying governments that impede the flow of information for political purposes can be found in the US orbit, among such trusted US (and capitalist) allies as South Korea, Turkey, Britain, Canada and the United States itself.

The South Korean police state vigorously effaces online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against illegal content pops up. In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea. In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. [3]

In Turkey, “thousands of Web sites are blocked by the state, mostly without any publicized reason.” [4]

In Britain, government officials have met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry “to discuss voluntary ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest.” Free-speech advocates liken these policies to those the British government “has criticized in totalitarian and one-party states.” [5]

The Canadian government recently passed legislation that would give its spy agency, CSIS, authority to disrupt “radical websites” and remove “terrorist propaganda” from the Internet—that is, restrict the flow of information on the Web. [6]

As for the United States, in 2009 “the U.S. Treasury Department ordered the closure of more than eighty websites related to Cuba that promoted trade and thus violated U.S. legislation on economic sanctions.” [7]

If the United States, South Korea, Turkey, Britain and Canada restrict the flow of information on the Internet for political reasons, how is it that Cuba is totalitarian, but these states are beacons of liberty?

Two further points.

First, the United States has waged a campaign of economic warfare against Cuba for over five decades. It’s impossible to say how large the Cuban economy would be today had it been allowed to develop unimpeded, but some estimates put the cost to Cuba of US economic aggression at $750 to $975 billion. [8] One analyst estimates that “Without the blockade, the Cuban standard of living today might well be equal to that of Western Europe.” [9] If so, internet use in Cuba would likely resemble European levels of 76 per 100 people, rather than today’s 30.

Second, the US propaganda system can’t mention internet access in Cuba without making reference to blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose online newspaper 14ymedio “is blocked in Cuba,” according to The Wall Street Journal. [10] There is a good reason for this. Sanchez’s web site appears to be a hostile project of the United States, a country in a virtual state of war with Cuba. Despite her status as a grassroots dissident, Sanchez’s web site is miraculously “available in no less than 18 languages….No other site in the world, including those of major international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD, and the European Union, has as many language versions available. Not even the U.S. State Department web site or the CIA has such a variety.” [11]

Moreover,

The site hosting the blog of Sanchez has a bandwidth 60 times higher than Cuba has for all its Internet users! Other questions inevitably arise about it: Who manages these pages in 18 languages? Who pays the administrators? How much? Who pays for the translators who work daily on Sanchez’s site? How much? Furthermore, the management of a flow of more than 14 million visitors monthly is extremely expensive. Who pays for that? [12]

Jose Luis Martinez, a spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, attributes the blocking of 14ymedio to the Cuban government’s desire “to have some type of control” and of being “a totalitarian regime trying to operate in the 21st century.” [13] US client state Egypt has locked up nearly 500 of Sanchez’s fellow political bloggers [14], while Washington’s strategic partner and major arms buyer Saudi Arabia has sentenced one blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his dissident views [15], yet Havana, the ‘totalitarian regime’ that insists on ‘some type of control’, has spared Sanchez a similar fate. By Martinez’s reasoning, Egypt—which receives $1.3 billion annually in military aid from the United States, second only to Israel [16]—must be a totalitarian state on steroids. And yet it suffers none of the denigration Western news media heap on Cuba.

Losurdo observes that if Cuba’s measures for repressing some political dissent are totalitarianism, then West Germany, which did not shrink from repressing communists, and which, like Hitler, banned the Communist Party, would also have to be regarded as totalitarian. [17] The same could be said of South Korea, whose infamous National Security Law continues to be used to lock up leftists. The South Korea police state recently disbanded one left-wing party, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. [18]

Decades of low-intensity warfare against Cuba carried out by the United States, including a blockade, unremitting military threat, sabotage, support for fifth columnists, and occasional terrorism, has created a de facto state of war. Nevertheless, Cuba has reacted to this situation with measures no more drastic than those implemented in the United States during two world wars, [19] and no more drastic than those once implemented in West Germany and currently practiced with vigor in South Korea.

It’s not ‘totalitarian’ Cuban government policy that has limited internet use in Cuba. Internet use in Cuba has been limited by the comparatively low level of development of the Cuban economy and the US economic aggression which has stifled it. What restrictions Cuba has implemented are warranted defensive measures against the predations of its hyper-aggressive neighbor to the north. This, however, would be news to those who follow the mass media in capitalist societies. The sole interest of these media when it comes to Cuba and North Korea is to discredit ideological competitors through the propagation of dogma which treats the warts of all societies as uniquely present in those of communism and absent in those of capitalism.

1. See Robert Dreyfus, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt Paperbacks, 2005 and Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, 2010.

2. Domenico Losurdo. War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century. Verso. 2015. p 58.

3. Stephen Gowans, “South Korea’s Police State Wages War on Proponents of Democracy,” what’s left, January 27, 2015.

4. Sebnem Arsu, “Internet filters set off protests around Turkey”, The New York Times, May 15, 2011.

5. Ravi Somaiya, “In Britain, a meeting on limiting social media”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.

6. “Tell Parliament-defeat police state bill C-51!”, People’s Voice, February 5, 2015.

7. Salim Lamrani, “The Contradictions of Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez,” MRZine, December 11, 2009.

8. Aida Calviac Mora, “With Obama in the White House, the blockade hasn’t changed at all”, Granma International, September 16, 2010; Thomas Kenny, “Interview with Thomas Kenny co-author of Socialism of ‘Betrayed Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991,” PoliticalEconomy.ie, March 16, 2015.

9. Kenny.

10. Ryan Dube, “Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2015.

11. Lamrani.

12. Lamrani.

13. Dube.

14. Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, a blogger tries to spread ‘culture of disobedience’ among youths,” The Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2009.

15. Jay Solomon and Felicia Schwartz, “U.S. rebukes Saudis for sentencing blogger to 1,000 lashes,” The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2014.

16. Carol E. Lee and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. seeks to allay concerns of allies on Iran nuclear deal,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2015.

17. Losurdo, p. 312.

18. Gowans.

19. Losurdo, p. 312.

Promoting Plutocracy: U.S.-Led Regime Change Operations and the Assault on Democracy

January 11, 2015

PROMOTING PLUTOCRACY
By Stephen Gowans

Chapter 1. What the West’s Position on Iran Reveals about its Foreign Policy
Chapter 2. Democracy
Chapter 3. Foreign Policy and Profits
Chapter 4. The State in Capitalist Society
Chapter 5. Concealing the Influence of the Corporate Elite on Foreign Policy
Chapter 6. Syria: Eradicating an Ideological Fixation on Socialism
Chapter 7. Ukraine: Improving the Investment Climate
Chapter 8. Kosovo: Privatizing the Economy
Chapter 9. Afghanistan: Investment Opportunities in Pipelines and Natural Resources
Chapter 10. The Military-Industrial Complex, Foreign Aid and Marionettes
Chapter 11. How Foreign Policy Hurts Workers
o Divide and Rule
o Socializing the Costs, Privatizing the Benefits
o The Assault on Substantive Democracy in Korea
o The Terrorism of the Weak
o Bulking Up the Police State
o Obviating the Terrorism of the Weak
Chapter 12. The West’s Foreign Policy Priorities

Cuba: Still Making It Tough To Screw Others

By Stephen Gowans

New York Times reporter Damien Cave has written an article about changes that will allow Cubans to buy and sell their homes.

Cave seems to criticize the plans because they’ll likely outlaw real-estate-related social parasitism, limit “opportunities for profits and loans,” and prohibit foreign ownership.

Havana, 2011. Stephen Gowans.

“The plan outlined by the state media,” he writes, “would suppress the market by limiting Cubans to one home or apartment and requiring full-time residency.”

Gasp!

Cave seems ruefully pessimistic that budding entrepreneurs—both Cuban and foreign—will have much chance to get rich flipping Cuban properties. “Some Cubans expect rules forcing buyers to hold properties for five or 10 years,” he writes.

“Others say the government will make it hard to take profits off the island, through exorbitant taxes or limits on currency exchange.”

And Cave points to one Cuban who “cannot imagine a real open market,” anticipating, instead, that the government will set a per square foot price.

Finally, there’s a “thorny” issue that threatens to dampen the zeal of even the most ambitious social parasite: Evictions are outlawed.

How’s anyone to get rich on the backs of others under this plan?

A failed system’s failed promises

By Stephen Gowans

With Communism’s demise, and the return of Warsaw Pact countries to the capitalist fold, the world was promised a new age of peace and prosperity. The shadow of war would lift. Military expenditures would be cut back, and troops would be brought home from Cold War postings. There would be more money for new wars — on poverty and homelessness, this time. And capitalism, the single sustainable model of success (it had, after all, emerged triumphant in a decades-long battle with Communism) would deliver the poor from poverty, and bless the world with a bonanza of consumer goods.

Talk about failed predictions.

In place of peace, we got the lone remaining superpower waging war to sweep up the few remaining stragglers that continued to resist integration into the US dominated global economy. Iraq was conquered, at the expense of countless dead, homeless, mangled and ruined; campaigns of intrigue and bombing in the former Yugoslavia pushed the region into the US orbit; and a war on Afghanistan continues to blast away thousands of peasants but cements a US military presence in a Central Asia pregnant with the promise of oil and gas wealth. Wars on Iran and north Korea are real possibilities.

Today, the United States is asserting its military might over the face of the globe more audaciously than ever. There are 368,000 US troops deployed in nearly 130 countries around the world. (1) US citizens think their military protects their interests abroad and defends host countries from threats. They rarely pause to wonder whether what’s called “their” interests are really their own personal interests or those of people who live in bigger houses and get bigger tax breaks and have sizeable investment portfolios. Nor do they make a habit of wondering how it is that with the US exercising a virtual military monopoly over the world, host countries could be under a threat so imminent they would require a US force presence. Exactly which of the tiny collection of countries not hosting US troops are threatening the remaining 130?

Could it be that US troops gird the globe to enforce the access of US firms and investors to the land, labor, markets and resources of others? Do “our” interests equate to Iraq’s oil, Indochina’s tin, Central Asia’s natural gas, Kosovo’s mines, the Balkan’s pipeline routes, Africa’s treasure trove of minerals and oil, and Indonesia’s sweatshops? “A lot of people forget,” remarked Alexander Haig, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, that the presence of US troops in Europe is “the bona fide of our economic success…it keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren’t there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access.” (2) A lot of people forget, because they were told something quite different: That US troops were stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion, not to put a gun to the head of Europeans to keep their markets invitingly open to US firms and investors. The obvious question, With the threat of a Soviet invasion long passed, why are US troops still there?, is rarely asked. So it doesn’t really matter that we’ve forgotten. The most blatant of Washington’s latest exercises in imperialism run amok has a similar character. It was said that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons. None were found. But US forces stay in Iraq anyway, to ensure the conquered country remains the refashioned paragon of free markets and free trade Washington’s policy makers have turned it into.

Which is to say, the emergence of US capitalism triumphant hasn’t given us peace, as promised; it has given us a bold US military prepared to wage war. And it seems to be waging war to facilitate US capital settling everywhere, nestling everywhere and establishing connections everywhere, to paraphrase a shockingly topical passage from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document whose irrelevance was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground. Yet, today, it seems to be more relevant than ever; certainly more relevant than when a competing ideology forced the stewards of capitalism to tidy up the image of their vaunted system lest the rabble get it into their heads that they could do better. It’s said in newspapers and on TV that Washington’s wars have to do with fighting terrorism, but the documents which define the US national security strategy are long on paeans to free markets and free trade and capitalism and short on concrete measures to protect the lives of US citizens from attacks by radicalized West Asians bearing legitimate grievances against the United states. On the contrary, the strategy is a recipe for provoking terrorist attacks.

Marx and Engels: While the irrelevance of Communist Manifesto was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground, today it seems to be more relevant than ever

Bourgeois society,” to use Marx’s and Engels’ phrase, hasn’t given us prosperity either, unless by “us,” you mean the people who own and control the economy. For the bulk of humanity things are a lot worst materially than they were when communists, socialists, and nationalists kept upsetting the capitalist apple cart by bringing vast tracks of national economies under public control, and putting the public welfare ahead of the profit interests of bondholders and investors.

According to the United Nations, 54 countries are poorer today than they were in 1990, about the time Communism was declared failed, and capitalism lionized as the single sustainable model of success. More children under the age of five are dying in 14 countries, and enrollment in primary schools is down in 12. Extreme poverty remains the fate of over one billion people. And in former Soviet republics — cradle to what has been dismissed as a failed system — poverty had tripled one decade into their liberation from Communism. Seventeen countries in Eastern Europe and the countries that made up the former Soviet Union have hardly become dynamos of prosperity, which should leave anyone with an ounce of gray matter wondering by what standard success is measured; surely not by the majority’s well-being. (3)

After having been demonized for decades by a capitalist establishment bent on making Communism radioactive (along with anyone so cavalier about their standing in polite society to utter a kind word about it) it’s sometimes forgotten, if ever apprehended in the first place, how impressive Communism’s economic achievements were…and still are, considering the barren and poisoned ground in which the lone holdouts have been forced to eke out precarious existences.

Let’s start with the most reviled of the hold-outs: north Korea. The idea that north Korea is a threat to the United States is about as believable as the idea that a colony of ants is a threat to the elephant whose foot hovers three inches over its hill. North Korea hasn’t a single solider stationed outside its borders. Washington, on the other hand, has 37,000 troops deployed, on, or near, the north Korean border, 65,000 troops stationed in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet lurking in nearby waters, and bombers within striking distance. It has dismissed Pyongyang’s pleas to sign a nonaggression treaty, declaring bizarrely that it will not succumb to blackmail. And what has north Korea done to threaten the United States (or to blackmail the country)? It has fired up a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but only after Washington reneged on an agreement to build light water reactors and provide fuel oil shipments. And only after Washington issued a virtual declaration of war, designating north Korea part of “an axis of evil.”

Could a north Korea with one or two crude nuclear bombs pose much of a threat to the United States poised to strike with overwhelming force? Quite the other way around. Indeed, north Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can be said to be a rational response to an overwhelming US threat. And there have been plenty of signs the threat is real.

“This is just the beginning,” a Bush administration official told the New York Times, after US and British troops marched on Baghdad. “I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and north Korea as for Iraq.” (4) The Pak Tribune cited CIA sources that revealed a “list of countries where replacement of government has been declared essential.” (5) The list included north Korea. US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Pyongyang to “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.” (6) It has. “The DPRK (north Korea) would have already met the same miserable fate as Iraq’s had it compromised its revolutionary principle and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its followers for ‘nuclear inspection’ and disarmament,” declared the official daily of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Rodong Sinmun. (7) Later, the government issued this statement: “The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.” (8)

Washington ultra-hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, anticipating similar words US Secretary of state Hilary Clinton would utter seven years later, warned, “north Korea is headed down a blind alley. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not protect it from the real threat to its security, which is the (internal) implosion brought about by the total failure of its system. Indeed the diversion of scarce resources to nuclear weapons and other military programs can only exacerbate the weakness of the (government).” (9) So what’s the choice? Head down a blind alley, or turn over the country to Washington, and the multinational corporations it represents? Who’s the blackmailer?

History has not been kind to the tiny country. The mountainous north was once the center of the peninsula’s heavy industry, the south its breadbasket. The Korean War, which saw US bombers destroy every building in the north over one story, changed that. The north was reduced to rubble. But it rebuilt, and until the 1980s, outpaced the south economically. By 1961, it was self-sufficient in agriculture. North Korean children were better vaccinated than their counterparts in the United States, according to the World Health Organization and United Nations, who commended the country for its delivery of health care. And life expectancy was higher than in the capitalist south. (10)

Then disaster struck. The socialist trading bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of its major trading partners. Oil subsidies from Russia ended. And if that weren’t enough, floods and droughts ravaged crops. Famine followed. But, for a time, the country had enjoyed impressive material gains, an affirmation of what can be achieved outside the capitalist system, even where resources are diverted to defense against an unrelenting foe than remains poised on your borders to strike. Imagine what the country could have achieved without the United States breathing fire down its neck.

Cuba, in many respects, fits the same mold: Astonishing social and economic gains under a communist government, the implacable and unrelenting hostility of the United States, and some backsliding after the collapse of its major trading partners. (The United States has maintained an economic blockade for half a century.) Still, despite these challenges, Cuba is a much kinder and egalitarian place today than it was before the revolution, under the rule of the US-backed Batista regime, when the country’s economy was an appendage of that of the United States. The United States fears Cuba, journalist Seamus Milne observes, not because it is a threat to the safety of US citizens, but because it’s an example of what can be accomplished outside the US dominated capitalist model. (11 )

In 1953, the illiteracy rate in Cuba exceeded 22 percent. Today it is under one percent. Three percent of those over the age of 10 had a secondary school education. Today, almost 60 percent do. Back then, at the height of the sugar harvest, when unemployment was lowest, eight percent were jobless. Today, the unemployment rate is three percent, making Cuba one of the few countries in the world to boast full employment.

Well over 80 percent own their own homes, and pay no taxes. The remainder pays a nominal rent.

No other country has as many teachers per capita. Education is free through university. The country also provides free university educations to 1,000 Third World students every year. And classroom sizes put those of Western industrialized countries to shame.

Health care is free. And while the United States has deployed over 300,000 troops in almost 130 countries to keep markets open to US investment, Cuba has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 Third World countries to heal the sick. (12)

Infant mortality is lower than in any other Third World country and even some Western capitalist countries (it’s higher in Washington, DC.) Life expectancy is 76 years, and is expected to rise. (13) By comparison, the return of capitalism has pushed life expectancy down in former communist countries.

These gains, seldom mentioned in the United States, place the country head and shoulders above other Latin American countries firmly ensconced in the US orbit, for which Washington’s single sustainable model of success continues to deliver grinding poverty, misery, and gross inequality, but the profits necessary to keep the capitalist system afloat and the capitalist class awash in mansions, retinues of servants, stables of luxury cars, exclusive schools and private clubs.

There are elections, and, contrary to Washington’s anti-Cuba propaganda, Cubans do vote. But they don’t choose among two largely identical parties, as in the United States, where the parties, and their candidates, are almost invariably in thrall to, or are representatives of, the capitalist class. As for human rights, Cuba stands as a model of what can be achieved by way of economic and social rights, the basic rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education and jobs, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not recognized as human rights in the United States. (14) Washington, on the other hand, has made a fetish of civil and political liberties, which, in the case of its relations with Cuba, has everything to do with giving its agents in the country, mistakenly called “independent” journalists and “independent” librarians (they’re not independent of Washington, which bankrolls their activities), room to maneuver to organize destabilization, with the object of overthrowing the revolution and banishing economic and social rights in favor of investors’ rights. That Cuba, a poor country, has been able to guarantee the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and jobs, despite trying economic circumstances and US hostility, can be seen as extraordinary, or simply what can be readily accomplished outside the strictures of capitalism. If a poor Third World country, harassed by a powerful neighbor, can deliver high quality health care and education for free, why can’t the world’s richest country do the same? The answer: Capitalism drives towards better profits, not better lives.

Ever since the US-dominated global economy has, with the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism over 10 years ago, more boldly sought purchase everywhere, US military imperialism has run amok, wars of aggression have been started, and poor, and formerly communist, countries have become poorer. The leaders of the Western world declare capitalism to be the single sustainable model of success, but countries that rejected capitalism, and committed to egalitarianism, have done better in terms of guaranteeing economic and social rights than comparison countries, despite difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, those that have rejected egalitarianism in favor of a return to capitalism have regressed. The promises of peace and prosperity that attended Communism’s collapse were a fraud based in the self-interest of a narrow band of wealthy people in the world’s richest countries. That it is a fraud is richly evident in the failed promises and dismal record of the post-communist era.

1. “Where are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces,” GlobalSecurity.Org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm)
2. UPI, January 7, 2002.
3. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.
4. “Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come,” The New York Times, March 23, 2003.
5. “Iran to be US next target: CIA report,” Pak Tribune (Online) March 24, 2003.
6. “U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea ‘Learn from Iraq,” Reuters, April 9, 2003.
7. “North Korea vows to make no concessions,” Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2003.
8. “Administration Divided Over North Korea,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003.
9. “Wolfowitz Visits US Military Base In Korean Buffer Zone,” AFP, June 1, 2003.
10. “Peace, the real resolution to famine in North Korea, ZNet, July 23, 2003.
11. “Why the US fears Cuba,” The Guardian, July 31, 2003.
12. Ibid.
13. Speech by Fidel Castro on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 2003.
14. Karen Lee Wald, “Democracy, Cuba-Style,” Canadian Dimension, July/August, 2003.

Originally written in August 2003, revised and updated May 2010.

Cuba and the real battle for democracy

By Stephen Gowans

While Obama may have contrived to create the impression at the recent Summit of the Americas of extending an open hand to Cuba, it’s clear that his aims are no different from those of George W. Bush or any other of his presidential predecessors, all the way back to Kennedy. The point for the US state has always been to recover Cuba as a field for US investment, and the surest way to achieve this goal is to dismantle Cuba’s socialist system, or at least to severely limit it. So it is that after making the obligatory rhetorical references to Cuba needing to improve its human rights situation (see Netfa Freeman’s recent Black Agenda Report article on Cuba and US hypocrisy), Obama’s “aides outlined a series of steps that Cuba…could do to demonstrate a willingness to open its closed society.” The principle step was “allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island.” (1) In other words, moves would be made toward lifting the US embargo, if Cuba first made moves toward opening its doors to US capital. Since the purpose of the blockade has always been to extort this concession, how could it be said that the Obama policy is any different from that of his predecessors?

That the prize is an “open society” in Cuba, which is to say, open to capitalist exploitation from abroad, was made plain when Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, remarked that, “If the objective is to see change in Cuba, it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.” (2) Harper opposes the blockade, not because he wants to see Cuba’s socialism thrive, but because he thinks lifting it is the best way to undermine Cuba’s socialist economy. Engage Cuba has always been the Canadian position. Eventually it will come around to our way of thinking.

Cuba’s socialist system offers a materially secure existence to all, with free health care and education through university. It does this despite limited resources and in the face of nearly 50 years of economic warfare by the United States. Imagine what it could accomplish if the United States wasn’t continually trying to undermine it.

Prying open Cuba’s economic system would profit Western banks and corporations. But would it benefit Cubans in the majority?

Not under conditions the US government would favour. The ideal situation from the point of view of the US state and the corporate interests it represents is the replacement of Cuban socialism with an open, multiparty electoral democracy – which to Westerners, even most leftists, is a political summum bonum.

To those with lots of money, and the need to find places to invest it, multiparty electoral democracy offers two advantages.

The first is that practically everyone is for it. Accordingly, marshalling support for measures to build democracy abroad is never difficult. The US government can act in whatever way the structural imperatives of the capitalist system demand without incurring too much opposition so long as it says it’s promoting “democracy”, implicitly understood as regular electoral contests between two or more parties (not the ancient’s rule by the rabble or Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.)

The second advantage of a multiparty electoral democracy to the states and interlocked corporate interests that favour it, is that the entire process can be easily hijacked by the rich. Modern elections, popularity contests contested by ambitious exhibitionists who vie for the backing of wealthy patrons, are driven by money. Generous campaign financing – or lack of it – can make or break a campaign. Ambitious politicians know this, and make their peace with the reality, or are weeded out. Once in office, they know that if they play their cards right, there are perks and handsome opportunities awaiting them in their post-political lives. Easily circumvented electoral laws forbidding foreign donations fail to stop funding from foreign sources rolling into candidates prepared to sell their country’s sovereignty, natural resources and labor to the imperial center. It may be facile to put it this way, but the golden rule of multiparty electoral democracy is that those who have the gold, rule. And so democracy has travelled the path from rule by the plebs to the dictatorship of the proletariat to ambitious lawyers chasing after the patronage of the rich.

Not in Cuba. But if Obama and Harper had their way, the golden rule would prevail. And what would the consequences be? A minority of Cubans – those who facilitated the exploitation of their country by foreign business interests — would benefit. But the majority would find their lives becoming increasingly insecure, roiled by the vicissitudes of the market, and in turn, by decisions made in foreign boardrooms. Hollow promises would be solemnly made. Cuba needs foreign investment, and the way to get it is to turn Cuba into an investor-friendly environment. Do this, and Cubans will be lifted out of poverty. The deception is evidenced in the state of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours, in Haiti, in Jamaica, where free trade and the open door and untrammelled foreign investment have piled up misery and poverty at one end, while vast riches are accumulated at the other, hundreds of miles away, to the north.

While lifting the trade embargo would be a welcome step, the act, by itself, would in no way represent a lessening of hostility to Cuban socialism, only a different tact in the unceasing campaign of corporate-dominated governments to recover Cuba as an open field for investment and cheap labor.

There are no changes Cuba needs to make to accommodate the US; the US has not been wronged. But it would be naïve to think that whatever concessions Washington makes, if any, will represent Washington taking the first step along the path to peaceful co-existence. So long as the United States remains a corporate-dominated (that is, a capitalist) society, and Cuba a socialist one, a structural compulsion will exist to shape US foreign policy toward unceasing efforts to remove whatever obstacles are in the way of profit-making. Since an egalitarian system which defines a materially secure existence for all as the summum bonum is the antithesis of one based on the incessant drive of the few to accumulate great wealth by exploiting the many, there shall never be peace between the two. The only hope for peace is the destruction of one by the other, and in these days of renewed economic crisis, it is clearer than usual which system it would be in the interests of the bulk of us to prevail.

It may be objected that whatever the advantages of Cuban socialism in offering a materially secure existence to all, it is still an existence at a lower level than enjoyed in advanced capitalist countries, and therefore, how can socialism be the preferred system?

To this could be replied, first, that to the bulk of humanity, which lives outside the advanced countries of the West, capitalism is hardly a system of consumer riches and abundance. It is instead a system of dearth, misery, and ceaseless toil. This too is true of tens of millions of poor people who live in the advanced capitalist world.

It is true that socialist countries have been poorer than advanced capitalist countries, but their lower material level has not (and in the case of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European people’s democracies had not) been caused by socialism; on the contrary, it had been largely overcome as a result of socialism. The socialist countries started out at a lower level compared to their advanced capitalist counterparts, building their productive assets without the benefits of the slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism advanced capitalist countries relied on to get rich.

In popular Western discourse, the division of the capitalist world between the affluent countries of the north and the underdeveloped countries of south is glossed over. Capitalism is equated with the West, and therefore with great affluence. Capitalism could just as readily be associated with the south, and therefore with great poverty, for the south is as thoroughly capitalist as the north. But it suits the purposes of spreading the capitalist doctrine to equate capitalism with a part of the world whose affluence is due to capitalist imperialism rather than capitalism itself, as if any country that embraced multiparty democracy and free markets would soon find itself a facsimile of the United States.

In 1983, Shirley Ceresto found that if you divided countries into poor, middle income and rich, the socialist countries occupied the middle range, even though most were poor before embarking on paths of socialist development. In terms of satisfying basic human needs, the socialist countries did better than all the capitalist countries combined, better than middle income capitalist countries, and as well as advanced capitalist countries. (3) (What socialist countries offered that advanced capitalist countries didn’t, was security of income, gender equality, and secure access to health care, education, housing and necessities.)

As the socialist countries were struggling to catch up to the West, they found they needed to safeguard their revolutions from the incessant threat of military intervention from a stalking capitalist world. This diverted a significant portion of their more limited resources to military spending and away from productive investments. Despite these handicaps, socialist countries did grow at a rapid pace, and were closing the gap with their capitalist adversaries. At the same time, the socialist community was becoming more egalitarian, both within and between countries, and an increasing portion of necessary goods were available to their populations for free or at highly subsidized prices. (4)

Nowhere is the incidental (and not causal) connection between socialism and poverty more evident than in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the regression to capitalism has done nothing to close the gap with the former West Germany or make the lives of east Germans better. After experiencing two decades of a resurrected capitalism, half of east Germans want to return to what they had before. Reuters, hardly known for promoting socialism, revealed that a public opinion poll had found that 52 percent of east Germans had no confidence in capitalism, and most of them wanted to return to a socialist economy. Here’s what east Germans told Reuters’ (5).

Thomas Pivitt, a 46-year-old IT worker from east Berlin:

“We read about the ‘horrors of capitalism’ in school. They really got that right. Karl Marx was spot on. I had a pretty good life before the Wall fell. No one worried about money because money didn’t really matter. You had a job even if you didn’t want one. The communist idea wasn’t all that bad.”

Hermann Haibel, a 76-year old retired blacksmith:

“I thought communism was shit but capitalism is even worse. The free market is brutal. The capitalist wants to squeeze out more, more, more.”

Monika Weber, a 46-year-old city clerk:

“I don’t think capitalism is the right system for us. The distribution of wealth is unfair. We’re seeing that now. The little people like me are going to have to pay for this financial mess with higher taxes because of greedy bankers.”

Ralf Wulff:

“It took just a few weeks to realize what the free market economy was all about. It’s rampant materialism and exploitation. Human beings get lost. We didn’t have the material comforts but communism still had a lot going for it.”

The former socialist countries have not been transformed into the consumer paradises many of their citizens believed they would become. Instead, citizens of former socialist countries have been liberated of materially secure existences and are now dominated by decisions made in boardrooms, many located in foreign countries, and are governed by ambitious exhibitionists who cater to the interests of the wealthy by necessity (for if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have access to the resources they need to get elected.) The same retrograde fate is the desired future for Cuba of the Obama administration, and will remain the desired fate for Cuba of every succeeding administration, until such a time as corporate interests no longer dominate the US state and the few no longer exploit the many; that is, until the real battle for democracy is won. (6)

1. Ginger Thompson and Alexei Barrionuevo, “Rising expectations on Cuba follow Obama,” The New York Times, April 19, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Sprint 1982.
4. Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Still Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today, Zed Press, 1983.
5. Reuters, October 16, 2008.
6. “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Democracy would be exercised through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class would use its state powers to repress its class enemies and prevent their return. Since dictatorship and democracy are today understood to be opposites, it’s difficult to grasp how a dictatorship could be thought of as democratic. The democracy Marx and Engels were thinking of was closer to the original definition of democracy than the current understanding based on universal suffrage, representative democracy and regular multiparty elections. Democracy from antiquity had always been a class affair, which is why anyone who mattered was against it. The Marxist view was that capitalist democracy couldn’t be democracy in the original sense, because it allowed the majority to be governed by the few, who use their money power to dominate elections and the state. In a democracy as Marx and Engels understood it, the state would be dominated by the working class, its policies aimed at the interests of the working class and hence encroaching upon those of the capitalists, who would ardently seek to recover their previous advantages. The only way to secure democracy against the counter-revolutionary designs of the capitalists would be to be dictatorial in a new way – against the capitalist class. To socialist countries, most of which had had no tradition of liberal democracy, this meant that elections needed to be dominated by the Communist Party, as the leader of the working class. What was clear was that no party committed to reversing the gains of the revolution could be allowed to operate freely. In Cuba, elections are not party-based, and the Communist Party has no role in them. Instead, individuals stand for election. It is understood that elections are carried out within the socialist system and that the reversal of socialism is not on the table.

Neil Clark, Progressive Cuba Basher

You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.” -Humbert Wolfe

By Stephen Gowans

Neil Clark, British journalist, blogger and self-described paleo-lefty, has joined the unctuous club of “progressive” Cuba-bashers, by writing a screed against “Castro’s Cuba” that repeats hoary right-wing myths about the socialist country and adds some of Clark’s own.

In a 20th February 2008 article published in the Spectator, Clark launches a broadside against Cuban socialism with sneeringly ironical references to a “left-wing Utopia” and “socialist paradise” – the stock-in-trade phrases once favored by anti-communists, both of the paleo-lefty variety who eked out livings writing for “democratic left” publications financed by the CIA, and the unabashedly pro-capitalist editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

The workers’ paradise moniker was never one Cuba or any other country that has ever called itself socialist has adopted for itself. Instead, anti-communist ideologues invented the phrase, attributed it to Marxism-Leninism, and then used it to discredit communist countries by showing the reality didn’t live up to the Utopia they had supposedly claimed.

Clark, whose own socialism amounts to nostalgia for Old Labour, says he turned sour on Cuba when he discovered, on a visit to Havana, that it was terribly poverty-stricken! You might think he would have turned sour on Washington’s five-decades long blockade of the country – one of the principal causes of Cuba’s poverty — but as Richard Levins once wrote of other progressive Cuba-bashers, maybe Clark wanted “a cheap and easy way of being a little more mainstream” – helpful when you supplement your income, as Clark does, by writing for mainstream newspapers.

The origins of Cuba’s poverty are plain enough. Unlike Britain, whose wealth was built on centuries of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, presided over just as enthusiastically by Clark’s beloved Old Labour as by his hated Conservatives and New Labour, Cuba had always been on the exploited, not exploiting, side of the global ledger. With aid from the socialist bloc, it was, for a short time, able to pursue a new developmental trajectory, but the fall of the Soviet Union has deprived Cuba of its old supports. Add nearly five decades of unremitting US effort to strangle Cuban socialism, and Cuba’s poverty ought to come as no surprise.

Clark acknowledges US sanctions on Cuba, and denounces them as morally indefensible, but fails to acknowledge the connection between Washington’s blockade and all the things about Cuba he despises (and attributes to Castro) — from its poverty to the inequalities that have arisen as a result of the country being forced to turn to tourism to attract foreign currency. Clark notes with disgust that while Cubans have to wait in a queue for two hours to buy ice cream, tourists and Cubans with convertible pesos can buy their ice cream immediately.

You would think Clark’s egalitarian sensibilities have been outraged, but his over-heated rhetoric points to his playing at propaganda. The inequality between the peso- and convertible peso-economies becomes, in Clark’s hands, “a form of apartheid” that still operates “14 years after South Africa abolished apartheid.”

Heaping slur upon slur, Clark reaches into the anti-communist grab-bag for this pearl: The “regime” uses sanctions as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption — a line Clark could have lifted directly off the pages of a George Bush speech. If the line is true, why not drop the sanctions, and deprive the Cuban government of its smokescreen?

The use of “regime” to refer to Cuba’s government also marks Clark as a propagandist — or as a journalist ingratiating himself with editors of mainstream newspapers (the same thing.)

The typical discourse in the Western media used to be to refer to the Soviet Union as having a regime, secret police, and satellites, while Britain had a government, security services, and allies. Clark borrows from this lexicon, referring to Cuban ministers as Castro’s “cronies” who make up “a tiny, corrupt, elite” that “lives in luxury.” The luxury, according to Clark, is a fleet of BMWs used to ferry high state officials from one appointment to another. As to corruption, it’s impossible to say what Clark is referring to because he doesn’t follow up. He simply makes the corruption charge, and moves on to more bashing.

Much as Clark dislikes Brown and his ministers, I’ve never heard him refer to the cabinet as Brown’s cronies, who head up a regime, and live in luxury, because they have access to government limousines. But maybe that’s because Britain has never claimed to be a socialist paradise or a left-wing Utopia. But, then, neither has Cuba.

Indefatigably mimicking tired right-wing nonsense, Clark warns us that in Castro’s Cuba you can be threatened with prison “just for criticizing the country’s leadership,” but offers no examples of anyone this has ever happened to. No matter. Despite the mainstream press’s boasts about its devotion to fact-checking, anyone who writes for the Spectator, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Times and Guardian, as Clark does, is free to make whatever allegations are necessary to blacken the reputations of socialist states without having to bear the burden of producing a jot of evidence to back themselves up.

But if Clark’s making unsubstantiated accusations paints him as someone who’s happy to stoop to innuendo to grind an ideological axe, his complaining that in Cuba the threat of prison can be made just “for querying a medical bill” marks him as a rank propagandist.

Clark is referring to himself here. Visiting Havana, Clark came down with an earache, and consulted what he understood to be a nurse at his hotel, but turned out to be a doctor. Presented with a bill for services rendered, he refused to pay. When he tried to skip out, the hotel threatened to call the police.

There is a huge difference between being threatened with prison for querying a bill and being threatened with a visit by the police for refusing to pay a bill. But in the hands of a journalist trying to shore up his mainstream credentials with a bit of Cuba bashing, the difference disappears, and becomes a tall tale to discredit a country led by real socialists.

Clark’s lament that “Castro’s Cuba was no place for a socialist like me” puts me in mind of a self-proclaimed Italian paleo-Anglophile visiting London after the Blitz. “I’ve certainly witnessed devastation, but nothing prepared me for the back streets of London,” he writes. “German bombing is routinely blamed by Britain’s defenders for London’s plight. But while the bombing was harsh and morally indefensible, there’s little doubt it has been used by the regime as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption.”

Absurd, but no less absurd than Clark’s Cuba bashing.

Sicko

By Stephen Gowans

Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.

While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.

What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.

Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)

For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.

The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.

While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.

In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”

In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.

The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.

But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:

Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?

Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?

Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?

Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”

Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”

So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?

Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”

Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.

But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?

CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.

Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.

Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.

Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.

Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?

As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.

•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.

•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.

•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.

It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.

Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.