Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990
THE CANCER EPIDEMIC is the most important single issue confronting the left in the first (industrial, capitalist) world because it represents the most pressing danger in our lives and in the lives of our children. While the epidemic of cancer and environmental collapse in the Third World has at least as devastating an impact as it does in the first, there starvation is the survival issue.
Environmental crisis and the epidemic of cancer can only be successfully challenged through a revolutionary transformation of the global economy. Most people do not make revolution to secure civil rights; in solidarity with another people’s oppression, however severe; or in response to forced overtime. They only seem to be willing to endure the extreme personal sacrifice that revolution demands when their lives and their children’s lives are at stake. The epidemic of cancer is the revolutionary issue that is most relevant in the lives of first world people, and it presents a logical strategic focus for a mass movement.
We will show here that the epidemic of cancer is an issue that capitalism cannot co-opt Nor is the epidemic amenable to social democratic solutions. The struggle for a non-carcinogenic process of production generates day-to-day antisystemic resistance.
Why then does the left seem to ignore this issue? We cannot discount the personal terror that cancer inspires: that we might contract it, and that our children might, that the only real solution is revolution, which seems so far away.
Moreover, the left does not have good information. The epidemic was only becoming evident by the late 1970s, and since then the public agencies and the bourgeois press have relentlessly suppressed the evidence and denied its existence. Discussion has been limited to the small world of oncologists and epidemiologists, few of whom are active in left politics. Also, that school of thought which once held women’s and racial issues to be subordinate to and separate from working-class issues still holds true when it comes to the environment. For them the environment is an “extra economic good,” a hippie issue, somehow separate from the struggle of the working class, the most cancer-ridden folk in bourgeois society.
An examination of the political economy of the cancer epidemic first establishes that it is /the consequence of practices that are essential for maintaining the power of the capitalist class./ Though it is most likely structurally impossible for capital to make meaningful reforms in its use of petrochemicals, what’s certain is that the sacrifices would be so immense that it is inconceivable that capitalists would ever make them anyway. This, then, is an issue that they will not be able to co-opt.
“Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible” – the Monsanto corporate slogan. Except in its most literal sense this chemical company slogan is self-serving drivel. The new products of petrochemistry are mostly toxic substitutes for natural products that usually served our purposes better. It conversely, the Monsanto public relations department had offered “without petrochemicals late capitalism would be impossible,” it would have presented us with a profound insight into the circumstances of today’s world.
To understand the value of petrochemicals to capital, one must first observe who composes the most powerful segment of the ruling class. At the very top of the capitalist hierarchy, there are oil merchants integrated into vast networks of banks, chemical companies, pharmaceutical firms and various types of manufacturing and service enterprises. Thus every barrel of oil that is sold feeds dollars straight into the maw of the beast.
Consequently, when it became possible to make shirts, bottles, fires, shoes, furniture and so on from oil, it was an immensely profitable transformation for the most powerful sector of the capitalist class, allowing it to consolidate control of capitalist production.
The Indian economist Narindar Singh has observed that ecological crisis under capitalism is inevitable given capital’s insatiable demand for growth, but that the crisis we endure has its particular features because the leading sector of the capitalist class are oil merchants.
Capitalism is — must be — a system designed to reward the largest concentrations of capital. Petrochemical production is the most capital-intensive form of manufacture; hence, the centering of the world economy on petrochemicals that has occurred since World War II. This process has favored capital over workers, large capital over small capital and the capital of the major industrial powers over that of the Third World.
Organic compounds are rat labor-saving devices, replacing human labor in agriculture, manufacture and forestry. This allows capital to perform a highly skilled, labor-intensive task such as farming, replacing the mental and physical labor involved in this process with chemicals. Farmers, forestry and factory workers replaced by chemicals join the army of the unemployed or re-enter the labor force at semi-skilled positions where they are cheap to hire and easy to replace.
Within the capitalist class, the war for control is fought on multiple levels. The immense resources that are required to establish a petrochemical refinery mean that at the primary level only the largest blocs of capital will be able to compete in chemical manufacture, in effect eliminating competition from small family-owned firms. This also favors the much richer capitalists of the first world over those of the Third, particularly in the very expensive process of continually advancing the technology of production. Technical complexity acts as a type of first world patent while the power of the product is its market justification.
Venezuelan capital, for instance, is quite competitive in the production of the more conventional organochiorines or phosphates such as malathion and DDT, but does not have the technical expertise to compete with first world firms in the production of the small, fast molecular chemistry that provides the phenoxy acids. The much more sophisticated chemistry of the pharmaceutical firms, still a monopoly of the first world, is far better suited for turning out the dioxin-producing poisons of the agent-orange genre, which are today the world’s best-selling pesticides.
The immensely carcinogenic phenoxy acids are at the cutting edge of maintaining the first world’s markets for commodities and loans in the Third World. About half of Brazil’s foreign debt is for agricultural development. Petrochemistry is also a device for maintaining Third World dependency on foreign technology and finance, which translates into an opportunity to dominate their state systems.
But nowhere do we see the irreplaceable role that petrochemicals play in maintaining the world order more clearly than with modem agriculture. The chemical transformation of global food production was not prompted by its intrinsic superiority as a system for producing food. Traditional agriculture has fed our species for 10,000 years without a single application of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and, along with its contemporary variations, can produce far more calories per acre and per calories of energy invested than its carcinogen-shrouded modern counterpart.
This transformation, which began with the introduction of hybrid breeding, created a mass market in agricultural commodities. As R.C. Lewontin and Jean-Pierre Berlan explained in their article, “Technology, Research and the Penetration of Capital” (Monthly Review, vol. 38, no. 3, July 1986), this was not a transformation of an existing market, but the creation of a totally new market, without which it would be difficult to imagine the post-war boom that the capitalists of the first world have enjoyed.
The transfer of wealth and power is astounding. Before World War II, almost all of the world’s food was produced by farmers who generated about 90 percent or more of their own inputs – seeds, fertilizer, pest control, labor etc. Then, beginning a few years after the war, all the food in the United States — and now in virtually all the rest of the world – was produced with petro products. The seeds come from the store and require the farmer to buy chemical fertilizer, insect poison, weed poison, fungus poison and gasoline to run the irrigation equipment, tractors, combines and threshers. All the wealth that had been created by small capitalist or non-capitalist farmers now flows into the center of the capitalist class — a series of families owning conglomerates that are oil / chemical] seedbreeding / equipment manufacturing / financial corporations.
Needless to say, when one can sell food and virtually everything needed to produce it to a substantial proportion of humanity, large profits can be made. And it does not hurt to be able to do it from a flexible position. If the price of oil is low — as it has been for the last few years -— Exxon, Arco, Shell and their colleagues simply reap their profits through their chemical products divisions instead.
To understand the implications of modem agriculture it is necessary to look at the fathers of the “green revolution.” By the late 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation (Exxon) had begun to confront the specter of land reform during the Cardenas presidency in Mexico with a system that would use chemicals to make it possible for major landowners to enclose the lands of tenants and small farmers. Then, in the mid-1950s, as agricultural equipment and truck sales began to slump in the United States, the Ford Foundation turned its attention to world hunger.
In the early 1960s, when the Kellogg corporation discovered a method for cutting the cost of fertilizer production in half while doubling the output, it decided to join its corporate brothers in helping their Third World brethren struggle against starvation while coincidentally eliminating a ferocious glut in the fertilizer market Nor should it be overlooked that Rockefeller et al created immense profits for their banks by selling the financing to underwrite this “modernization” of Third World agriculture.
The “green revolution” not only meant that the capitalists of the center had made agriculture in the Third World dependent on their financing and technology, but also that they had gained a large measure of control over workers all over the world. Chemical – capital-intensive – agriculture meant that droves of peasants and farmers would be driven from the land and into urban labor markets. This huge army of unemployed allows capital to control their work conditions and lower their wages.
We can’t survive consuming pesticides, but capitalism cannot survive without our doing so. Even the safe employment of petrochemicals, when possible, is circumstantially if not structurally against the interest of capital. Any number of chemicals can be manufactured, used and have their waste destroyed in perfect safety, if enough capital is invested in protective systems. However, to do this would push the price of many petrochemical products past the point where they would be competitive with the conventional products or processes they were designed to replace.
Even when safety precautions wouldn’t price a commodity out of its market, the money would earn the capitalist no return. It makes by far the best sense to screw the workers, dump the chemicals into the river or turn them over to the Mafia.
These are some of the reforms capital must make if the cancer epidemic is to be stopped: its mass market for agricultural inputs, disposable plastic and aluminum, must be drastically curtailed or eliminated; production must be retooled to eliminate carcinogenic processes and the systematic dumping of poisonous waste in the environment All of the waste in the old dumps must be retrieved and if possible destroyed, or at least stored in secure, above-ground, earthquake-proof vaults. In each instance the reforms will cost capital billions – in lost markets, in retooling, and in recovery of waste. Each reform will tend to increase the value of labor.
We should hope that capital will make these reforms — no one wants to be poisoned to maintain a revolutionary issue. However, it does not seem likely that capitalists will address the epidemic or the environmental crisis with anything other than rhetoric.
Consequently, no coherent analysis or strategy to confront the epidemic is likely to emerge from the social democrats. Three formations prominent on the left or in the environmental movement are the Rainbow Coalition, the “post-Marxists” as represented by Michael Albert and the staff of Zeta Magazine, and Earth First These are all populated with deeply committed, politically valuable people, but because they do not grasp the role of capitalism in the environment, their analysis is incoherent and their strategic response can result in either a waste of scarce time and resources or in a dangerously racist, anti-labor and misanthropic response.
The Rainbow Coalition has been unable to design a meaninfu1 program for a sustainable environment and has given no evidence that it would be able to implement such a program in the Democratic Party if it had one All the energy of the Jackson campaign seemed to coalesce at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta around a series of compromises in which the Rainbow forces would refrain from demanding open debate on a reduction in defense spending, a no-first-strike nuclear policy, an independent Palestinian state and an end to U.S. support for the oligarchy of El S1vador, in return for Jackson and his colleagues receiving seats on party policy-making boards.
The Jackson campaign moved the wretched Dukakis campaign to address key left issues in no discernible way. Will Jackson now be telling Robert Strauss, Lloyd Bentsen [both of whom are oil-linked Texas Democrats –ed.] and their clients that they must cut their own throats? If he does, are they likely to do so?
Post-Marxism attempts to construct a left analytical framework that removes class from the center of political life and, by necessity, anticapitalist struggle from the center of political activity. Albert suggests that social life is propelled by four categories of equal impact culture, economics, politics and kinship. Depending on the circumstances, other spheres of influence – such as race, gender and authoritarianism – emerge from these divisions as the primary actors in social events.
In South Africa, for instance, Albert would have racism rising to the fore as the motivating force that shapes the apartheid regime. Thus the white folk of South Africa are so repelled by black skin, woolly hair and superb music that they choose to rob the people of Southern Africa of their resources, labor and liberty, feeding it all into the maw of the voracious capitalist world economy.
A post-Marxist analysis would not give a clue as to what the forces are that propel the cancer epidemic. At no point in this brief analysis of the cancer epidemic does the evidence ever suggest that these chemicals are employed to bash a gay or lesbian, dominate a woman, oppress a racial group, or reinforce a state bureaucracy.
Nor does the concept of economy really explain this phenomenon. In the economic lives of the American people, the cost of medical treatment for cancer and birth defects, the loss of productive labor, and the squandering of natural resources far outweigh any savings that come from dumping numerous poisons into the environment Even with all questions of the social cost of pollution put aside, corporations will use chemicals when it would be much cheaper in the short term to employ labor.
The forces that propel the epidemic of cancer only become clearly visible when viewed in Marxist terms, as a process by which a ruling class maintains control of the process of production and accumulates profits. The bourgeois state refuses to design and implement laws that will protect the public interest, not because the issue is unpopular with the electorate – environmental protection enjoys overwhelming support—but because it is not in the interest of the capitalist class.
Capitalism could be absolutely race and gender blind, indifferent to sexual preference, run by a state system free of bureaucratic Napoleons, and there would still be a cancer epidemic and an environmental crisis.
Capitalism propels the cancer epidemic and destroys the environment because it is what it is. Homophobia, misogyny and racism are tools that it employs in its struggle for profit and control of the process of production. It has lent those tools a dynamism that no previous regime of accumulation was capable of giving them.
While the “monkey wrench” tactics of Earth First are right on target, their focus on “technology” and overpopulation is elitist, racist, misanthropic and dead wrong Technology is a creature of the system that employs i1 when it oppresses, it does so by choice. Nontoxic alternatives exist for modern manufacture. Technology is not carcinogenic capitalism is.
Technology represents an immense source of wealth. Most of the people in this world need more- – not less — access to the benefits of technology. Babble about the evils of modern technology is usually followed by calls for sacrifice. Working people around the world need have no doubt as to who will be called upon to make the most sacrifice and remain forever in poverty. Not only does placing blame for the epidemic on technology mask the real source of environmental crisis, but calls for sacrifice make a lousy recruitment line as well.
Overpopulation only exacerbates the ills of capitalism. The poisoning of the environment, the destruction of the tropical forest and the extinction of the seeds of traditional agriculture are propelled by the logic of the market and class rule rather than by numbers of people. If the world’s population were halved, the forest would still be cut, the poisons would still flow, and the ozone layer would shrink while greenhouse gasses accumulated. Extinction would just advance at a slower pace.
Overpopulation is a real problem, but it is a consequence of the distribution of resources and the oppression of women. There are now enough agricultural resources to feed everyone. Population control is a problem when a high percentage of children die before the age of five, child labor is an important component of family income, parents are dependent on children to care for them in their old age and women do not have control over their bodies – problems for the most part caused by the same people who are responsible for environmental crises. An obsession with overpopulation is a great misanthropic whine that the problem is “there are too many of us,” which actually means there are too many of them, the poor and the brown.
An inability to critique capital leads to a capitalist analysis of the problem – that it is the responsibility of the most victimized – while a class analysis shows why there is an epidemic of cancer and that a strategy to combat the epidemic is entirely consistent with a left program. What follows is not an attempt to design a left program but to show that an ecological socialism is entirely consistent with the methodology and goals of left struggle for democratic socialism, where control of the process of production is centered on the factory floor and in the communities.
The working class occupies the physical center of the solution to the epidemic of cancer If a worker is not poisoned at the factory or in the field, or if a working-class family (the ones most likely to live closest to the factory, dump or farm) is not poisoned by the air and water, then no one will be. Workers stand at the front line of each location in the process of production where physical injury to the society can occur. Workers must have the responsibility and power to make sure that commodities are produced, employed and destroyed safely. The rest of society has the right to demand that workers produce commodities with greater caution.
There must be a system of elected community and national committees regulating the production and disposal of hazardous materials. The composition of these committees should reflect the geographic movement of major air currents and watersheds. This type of organization will insure that no institution within a community, nor any community (at the head of a watershed for example), will be able to compromise the safety of other members of the society. All the information that these committees would employ to regulate the compounds and processes used in the production of a Commodity —- as well as the methods of disposal and records of their regulatory activities – should be available to the general public.
A democratic environmental movement must by definition be anti-imperialist. The commodities of nations that were produced so that the workers and the environment were poisoned must be barred from the U.S. market, as must commodities produced by labor that did not have the right to freely organize. Nor can the Third World continue to be a dumping zone for first world poisons. Not only is this practice morally despicable, but it only delays the impact of these poisons in our lives. Environmental crisis is a social disease propelled by undemocratic regimes; only militant support or socialist democracy around the world can insure the safety of the global environment.
Worker democracy and a safe environment are absolutely dependent on the return of women to the center of political economy. The most important task of the working class and of humanity is the reproduction of the species. The left must create structures to insure that the labor of bearing and raising children receives the economic and political power that it deserves.
Women, and particularly pregnant women, have always and will likely continue to most powerfully represent the interests of children, and thus must at least have an equal role in deciding what can be produced, as well as in what fashion it can be produced. The right to refuse a burden of fungicides and high temperature lubricants — hence insuring a degree of safety for children — and to be both free from threats of physical violence and terminate a pregnancy at will are inseparable parts of a woman’s right to control her body.
It will most likely be impossible to establish a sustainable, non-carcinogenic agriculture in the first world without the genetic material and technology of traditional agriculture in the Third World. Women typically are responsible for most of the labor — and particularly the seed breeding — in traditional agriculture. Their highly skilled labor and complex science are absolutely essential in maintaining the genetic base of world food production. We can only have such assurance if Third World women have control over their land, just as we can only finally be sure that Third World manufacture is not slowly poisoning the globe when Third World women have the same control over the process of production that first world women must have. A successful strategy to confront the cancer epidemic is fundamentally a struggle for women’s rights all over the world.
If the revolutionary left confronts the cancer epidemic it has an issue that the right cannot co-opt – one demanding worker democracy, anti-imperialism and feminism, and responding on a personal level to the most pressing dangers in every first world person’s life.
It is also a program for prosperity. A transition to a non-carcinogenic economy will not mean a loss of jobs, but full employment. Many workers would simply begin to use different processes and materials or begin to employ petrochemicals safely. New industries would also have to be created. The safe cleanup of dump sites and aquifers should provide high wages and long-term employment for any chemical-industry workers who would be laid off by the termination of unsafe production processes.
Rebuilding the nation’s water systems, dramatically enlarging the rail lines and providing insulation and solar retrofits to buildings throughout the United States are new endeavors that would be constituent parts of a clean economy. The hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be provided would be a powerful stimulation to the general economy.
In agriculture and forestry the demand for labor, and particularly for skilled labor, would rise dramatically as natural products and labor replaced petrochemicals. The profits the oil merchant receive from the sale of pesticides would be transformed into agricultural wages spent in local communities, and a rise in agricultural employment would then reinforce the position of labor as it bargained for wages and control in manufacture. The specific varieties of a crop most suitable for chemical-free production would be least suited for the corporate marketing system. But such a program would be consistent with an entire system of food production from the farm to the marketplace that favored small local organizations over transnational corporations.
Environmental struggle must be equated with class struggle. Above all, the awful image of the neo-Malthusian elitist must be purged from the environmental movement. As Marx put it Malthus provides an ideology for people who are unable to confront the control of property.
Inevitably there are going to be short-term contradictions between individual groups of workers and left groups about environmental issues as well as over gender and race. Corporations will often threaten to shut down or move, and they will use environmental restrictions as an excuse to lay off workers. How effectively we are able to resolve those contradictions depends on the class content of our work. A group that militantly supports working-class struggle and actively seeks solutions for laid-off workers is far less vulnerable to a fascist response than an elite organization that focuses only on its own poisoning and ignores the consequence to workers who can lose everything for which they have been working.
The cancer epidemic is coming at us like a bat out of hell and there is nothing that capitalism can or will do about it Obviously whatever we do about it is going to have to be quick and revolutionary. Because of the very general nature of the epidemic and its very specific cause and development, there is a wide potential base to organize that cuts across class, race and gender lines, and which clearly separates the interests of the ruling class from those serving the rest of humanity. The immediacy of the crisis and the breadth of the affected population does not call for a classic Leninist, vanguard party, but a looser affiliation of independently organized groups bound by common principles but responding primarily to whatever is most important to their particular constituency.
For most people in the United States there are crises more immediately important than the environment. It is hard to imagine a single mother, earning five dollars an hour and terrorized by some brute, then running from her trailer to support a group that does not actively address her oppression. A revolutionary organization that tried to help this woman organize daycare and defend her safety would find her quite willing to understand that capitalism exploits the material conditions in the natural world which support her life, just as they do her Iabor, and that the bourgeois state is no more willing to protect her from the physical attack of capitalism than it is from that of violent males.
Similarly, an organization that militantly supports Black liberation struggles can anticipate Black support on environmental issues. The failure to overcome racial and ethnic divisions has been the single most crippling event in the experience of the U.S. left Single-issue politics can only ensure that the legacy of failure continues. Black and Latino support are essential to the success of any liberation movement in the United States. As Mike Davis notes, equal economic citizenship for them “would require levels of change dangerously close to the threshold of socialist transformation.”
Nature is dying. Humanity is suffering a cancer epidemic. Two distinct groups have emerged, comprising-those who profit directly from this process and those who do not Capitalism can only confront the crisis of our impending extinction by laying the groundwork for its own destruction. The day-by-day attempt to respond to this crisis generates antisystemic elements of protest and demands political solidarity. The practice we evolve to survive the epidemic of cancer shall be determined by our analysis of these events.
September-October 1990, ATC 28
© 2020 Against the Current
© 2020 Against the Current