The meaning behind our working class politics
What concrete difference could Republican Socialism make for ordinary people? To put it in simple terms, our fundamental political argument is that society has to chose whether it wants to promote sickness or promote health and the well being of individuals.
The current social and economic system, capitalism, increases inequality, which results in more people being sick and ill. This is why we argue for socialism, a way of organizing society and the economy which aims at reducing inequality and enabling people to live longer and better.
Our current society is based on inequality. In 2008, the top fifth of the world's people in the richest countries consume 86% of the world's goods, enjoy 82% of the expanding export trade and 68% of foreign direct investment -the bottom fifth barely more than 1% of all this. (1)
The market economy far from diminishing poverty and inequality will increase them. According to a United Nation report published in October 2008: "The cumulative effect of unequal distribution [of wealth] has been a deep and lasting division between rich and poor. Trade liberalisation did not bring about the expected benefits." (2)
The benefits of economic growth over the last 25 years -a period of rapid globalisation- have been shared most unequally among countries. In 1980, the richest countries, containing 10% of the world's population had a gross national income 60 times that of the poorest countries, containing 10% of the world's population. By 2005 this ratio had increased to 122. Income inequality applies of course not only between but also within countries. The trend over the last 15 years has been for the poorest quintile of the population in many countries to have a declining share in national consumption. (3)
What about Ireland? Last year, the United Nations published its Human Development Report. In an effort to compare like with like, it assessed the Human Poverty Index for 18 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries - and the 26 counties ranked 17th.
Last year also marked the publication of another report: Bank of Ireland Private Banking published its annual Wealth of the Nation report - and the picture painted was rather different. According to it, in terms of net wealth per capita, the 26 counties was the world's second-richest country after Japan.
At first glance, it is difficult to square those contradictory and remarkably symmetrical figures - second in terms of wealth, and second in terms of poverty - unless one examines how that wealth is distributed. The internationally accepted measurement of wealth equality/inequality is the Gini coefficient: a score of 0 indicates perfect equality, while a score of 100 indicates perfect inequality - ie, one person controls all income and assets.
According to the most recent figures published by the UN, the 26 counties score 34.3 - together with Greece and Indonesia, and just above Egypt. (4)
The 6 counties fare even worse. The Poverty and Social Exclusion NI survey revealed that inequality in the 6 counties is greater –a Gini coefficient of 42. (5)
Capitalism is literally a sick system, because it is bad for your health. In its 2008 report, the World Health Organisation states that the inequality generated by capitalism is killing people "on a grand scale". For example, In the United States, 886 202 deaths would have been averted between 1991 and 2000 if mortality rates between white and African Americans were equalized. (This contrasts to 176 633 lives saved in the US by medical advances in the same period.) If the infant mortality rate in Iceland were applied to the whole world, only two babies would died every 1000 born alive. There would be 6.6 million fewer infant deaths in the world each year. (6)
Research by the Institute of Public Health and the Combat Poverty Agency estimates that in Ireland today, there are 5400 premature deaths each year as a result of social and economic inequality. Official figures from their 2008 Tackling Health Inequalities - An All-Ireland Approach to Social Determinants report show that those further down the social ladder run at least twice the risk of serious illness and premature death as those near the top.
For example, almost 40 per cent of people at risk of poverty in the 26 counties report suffering from a chronic illness, compared with 23 per cent of the general population. The pattern is repeated in the 6 counties, where some 47 per cent of unskilled workers suffer from long-standing illnesses compared to 30 per cent of professionals and managers.
The difference in age-related death rates between the lowest social and highest classes is 200 percent. People in the lower occupational groups die prematurely of cancers, cardiovascular diseases and other fatal diseases at a rate of twice, three times, six times, even 20 times the rate of people in the higher occupational groups.
The report quotes research by the Department of Health in the 6 counties which estimates that at least 5,000 fewer people would die prematurely each year across the island of Ireland through the tackling of social deprivation and inequalities. So the more inequality there is the more people are sick and ill.
The example of China shows that when a country attempts to build socialism, its citizens tend to have better health, whereas when it promotes free market policies, more people are ill. According to the WHO: 'Even globalisation's vaunted 'winners' such as China achieved much of their growth without adhering to anything approximating free market policies. Most of China's poverty reduction and improvements in population health occured before integration into the global market.
Between 1952 and 1982, infant mortality fell from 200 to 34 per 1000 live births and life expectancy at birth increased from about 35 to 68 years. Indeed, it is since China deregulated its domestic markets and accelerated export-oriented industrial development that both income inequality and inequity in access to health care have increased dramatically.' The WHO report also commends Cuba for its universal child development services. (7)
Brian Cowen's recent budget does not advance socialist policies. Nor does that of the Stormont Assembly. On the contrary, they will increase inequality and therefore deaths. It is a "lethal" budget. Expect longer waiting lists, more people on trolleys, more premature deaths. Already over 5400 people die prematurely in Ireland every year because of the scale of inequality in this society. This Budget means the premature death rate will increase, killing them softly with the words 'protecting the most vulnerable'. But is an alternative materially possible? The gross national income of the 26 counties in 2007 was €162 billion.
Vincent Brown made the following calculation to illustrate how a redistributive policy could work: "Say the State needs a generous one-third of this to supply security, the justice system, policing, education, health care and the rest (aside from social welfare). That would be €54 billion: way in excess of what Brian Lenihan is proposing to spend, including social welfare, next year and no budget deficits or borrowings. That leaves €108 billion for the 1.4 million households, which works out at €77,000 per household. No problem. We can all live on that. No poverty, no premature deaths because of inequality.
Some people that we need to stick around would, perhaps, sulk and leave if they got only €77,000. Okay, let's agree to give 20 per cent of people twice that figure on average. So, they get €43 billion and the rest of us have to make do with €65 billion, which leaves us with €58,000 per household.
That's still okay, for the State would be providing entirely free health and education and there would be lots of public transport and housing. All right, say they need more, three times the average, €231,000 per household. This would still leave €43 billion for the rest of us, which would work out at €38,000 per household. We could settle for that even if 80 per cent of the population were getting only one-third of the annual national income." (8)
Republican Socialism could prevent the premature death of over 5000 people every year, reduce the suffering of thousands of others, and provide health and well being for the people in general. The quality of life of ordinary people would be much better. This is what our politics are concretely about.
(1) Commission on Social Determinants of Health - Final Report, Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health, World Health Organisation, 2008, 36
(2) John Vidal, Wealth gap creating a social time bomb, The Guardian, 23 October 2008
(3) Commission on Social Determinants of Health - Final Report, op.cit., 37-38
(4) Paula Clancy, Shocking price of inequality not one we can afford to pay, Irish Times, 7 October 2008
(5) Goretti Horgan, Class in Northern Ireland, in Sara O'Sullivan (ed), Contemporary Ireland: A Sociological Map, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007, 322
(6) Commission on Social Determinants of Health - Final Report, op.cit., 29-30
(7) Ibid, 132, 55
(8) Vincent Brown, Talk of protecting vulnerable is claptrap, Irish Times, 15 October 2008