Cancer and Capitalism

Lately, as friends, relatives, and celebrities have had encounters with cancer, I have spoken out several times about how I think the cause of this suffering and death is, in many ways, systemic. I’ve had a variety of responses to this that I find irritating:

  1. “You’re politicizing a tragedy!”
  2. “It’s just how it is.”
  3. “You’re always blaming capitalism for everything.”

Of course, a major problem is that “capitalism” is a word that just gets thrown around by people who don’t really understand what it means. It’s become a hollow word for trendy leftists to use when they want to sound radical, not a tool of political analysis. In that incarnation, it’s about as relevant to a scientific understanding of economics as the fashionable claims of anarchism are to the works of Kropotkin.

So what is capitalism?

Capitalism is not greed. Capitalism is not industrialism. Capitalism is not consumerism.

Capitalism is not a moral term or an ideology (though there are ideologies that support it).

Capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is production for individual profit, not common need.

In other words, capitalism is a system. A way to structure society and its relationship to the material world. Such a system is totalizing: it affects every single aspect of our lives. That’s not a moral judgement. All economic systems, circumscribing our everyday experiences as they do, must by definition affect everything society produces.

I’m not asking you to live a non-capitalist life. You can’t, because capitalism is not a lifestyle. It’s not about how much you buy or what clothes you wear. It’s not about you. Or me. Or Bill Gates. I don’t blame the rich or glorify the poor. We’re talking about systems. Systems are impersonal. It’s just how things are organized.

And right now things are organized badly.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me. That’s a different matter. But do please try to understand what I’m talking about.

Things don’t just happen. History, the sum of human experiences, is produced within a socio-economic context. There is no outside of this context, as various survivalists and back-to-nature fantasists imagine. You can’t unsubscribe from the system. And this system is not eternal. It changes. It’s changed many times, usually through some form of revolutionary action. Capitalism itself overthrew the previous system only a few centuries ago. Things not only change, they change radically. The life you are living now was inconceivable to an average person a thousand years ago.

And with the big systemic changes come radical changes to how we live. As our ability as a species to employ and refine the means of production changes, so does our ability to alter the world. We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years, and it’s tranformed our lives for the better. We’re frequently told that it hasn’t, that there was some utopian world of rural tranquility that once existed, but this is pure fantasy. What makes that fantasy seem real is simply a lack of knowledge, an assumption that everything was always as it is – the tendency people have to underestimate just how much of what they take for granted is, in fact, a fairly recent invention. The imaginary rural life rarely includes the endless drudgery of pre-industrial agriculture or the rates of child mortality our species once suffered.

In fact, it was a radical new system – capitalism – that helped us eradicate many of those problems.

Progress is not a fantasy or an ideology, but a real, observable phenomenon. Postmodern academics deny this not because of facts, but because it is convenient for those who benefit from the status quo. Nothing is more useful to the upper echelons of society than a population that does not demand more, that believes things are merely as they are.

So when someone dies of cancer, as my aunt just did, and I blame capitalism, I’m not blaming some bogeyman. I’m not talking about “everything is the fault of this thing I don’t like!” What I’m doing is looking at the history of our species, at all the problems we’ve eliminated, at all the systems we’ve overthrown, and noticing that right now we’re wasting our resources. We’re allowing our avenues of research to be dictated by what would be the most profitable for a tiny handful of people. We’re using supercomputers to crack your emails instead of cracking the secrets of cancer. We’re spending trillions on blowing each other up and on stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. We, a species capable of utterly amazing feats of analysis and engineering, are wasting our time and our energy on bullshit.

And I don’t buy that this is just what we do, that this is some essential “human nature” that can never change. History shows such a view to be utterly wrong. Because things do change. All the time. It’s not just “how things are.” Things aren’t any one way, not permanently.

How many diseases were once considered incurable? Or not just incurable, but a punishment from God himself?

How many systems that were considered eternal are now not just gone, but largely forgotten?

How many phenomena that once were terrifying are now easily understood?

You don’t see a whole lot of people defending the plague these days. The divine right of kings does not seem like a great political concept anymore. Do you know what happened to smallpox? We stamped it the fuck out.

I’m not interested in blaming Big Pharma for this, or imagining that if only everybody became a little kinder, everything would be great. Neither conspiracy theories nor collective guilt are particularly useful in changing how the world works. When we’re talking about the allocation of resources, we’re talking about production – and so we must look at systems, at the core structures that define how society functions, how the goals of production are determined, not at the epiphenomena.

So my argument is simple:

  1. History demonstrates our ability to solve problems (such as diseases).
  2. We have the economic and technological resources to eliminate many of our problems.
  3. We are not using these resources in a way that solves these problems.
  4. This is because capitalism, which was once a vital and powerful system, has reached a point in its development where its internal contradictions make it ineffective and crisis-prone.
  5. History demonstrates our ability to change systems.
  6. We should change the system and fix our problems.

I don’t want to “smash capitalism!” I don’t have a Che Guevara poster in my room. And I’m not looking for some vaguely-defined entity to blame the tragedies I encounter on. But there is a clear and direct connection between the death of my aunt – or David Bowie, or Alan Rickman, or millions of people I don’t know – and where our civilization chooses to spend its resources.

I’m not politicizing it. It is political.

Now, if you disagree, as I said, that’s fine. Got some other way of fixing these problems? Have you thought about it a lot and believe it can work despite the limitations of the current system? Good, fight for that. I think you’re wrong, but so what? I could be wrong, too. But if you think radical change is impossible, or unnecessary – then I’m really sorry for you, because somewhere along the line you’ve lost track of your humanity, and that’s a shame. I hope you find it again, because I think humans are pretty great. You can do better. You deserve more.