16 February 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

I've been relying for some time on evidence of the disastrous decline in life expectancy in the Soviet Union as an indication of the negative effects of the rapid imposition of a market system. A detailed study published recently in The Lancet provides further underpinning for this case.

The key conclusion of the report is:

Rapid mass privatisation as an economic transition strategy was a crucial determinant of differences in adult mortality trends in post-communist countries; the effect of privatisation was reduced if social capital was high.

The authors are careful to avoid saying that a market system is intrinsically bad for your health. Rather it is the rapid move from one economic system to another that results in social, economic and consequently psychological dislocation. Other medical researchers, such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, would disagree with this. Their new book has acres of graphs and tables indicating that the inequality inherent in a market economy itself is, literally, a killer.

If it is the rapid change that causes morbidity and mortality then we can predict a very unhealthy future for Western societies facing climate change and depleting oil supplies. What the research shows is that it isn't the lower living standards but the shock to the system of everything you have always known falling apart. Loss of meaning leaves human beings suffering from what Durkheim called 'anomie', resulting in aggressive behaviour and lack of self-respect and self-care.

By contrast, if offered a strong vision and when encouraged to co-operate to reach a shared goal people thrive, even if their material consumption falls. This is the message of the Transition movement, but one that is distressingly absent in the prescriptions of our politicians, who are still clining to an outmoded and unworkable social and economic model.

Let other folk make money faster
In the air of dark-roomed towns,
I don't dread a peevish master;
Though no man do heed my frowns,
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my homeward road
To where, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

From Linden Lea by William Barnes, made famous as a song by Vaughan Williams (it's better with the music!)

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