Science in a time of pandemic
Thursday, 13 August 2020 17:08

Science in a time of pandemic

Published in Science & Technology

Helena Sheehan continues the Culture Matters and Morning Star series on the Covid-19 crisis and various cultural activities, by looking at its effect on science. Photo: Dave McNally

OF THE many dimensions of the present pandemic, swamping our lives and suspending our normal reality, one of the most central to our culture has been the role of science. Every report on our all-virus-all-the-time news references science and the new media stars are epidemiologists, virologists, mathematicians, physicians and public health officials. My Facebook newsfeed has been dominated by amateur epidemiologists.

I do not mean this disparagingly. The times demand that we all inform ourselves and allow specialist knowledge to permeate our collective consciousness to find our way through this crisis. There have been all sorts of challenges to the fast-developing science of Covid-19, ranging from religious immunity to 5G susceptibility, but the over-riding story has been trust in science.

There was massive public pushback against the Johnson-Cummings flagging of a poorly conceived herd-immunity strategy and the Trump suggestion of disinfectant injections. In Ireland, where I live, the health minister — grandstanding with constant interviews and photo-ops — was quickly forced to backtrack and apologise after pronouncing on the 18 previous coronaviruses where no vaccine had been found. And there was disappointment in Africa when the Tanzanian president, with a PhD in chemistry, looked more to prayer than science and supported spurious theories on origins and remedies.

Science, of course, is not a simple matter. Science is always inextricably enmeshed in politics, economics, philosophy and culture. There is a long Marxist tradition of exploring science in all the complexity of its interactions, standing in contrast to the myopia of positivism and the obfuscation of postmodernism.
Generations of Marxists, from Marx and Engels, through Bernal, Haldane and Caudwell, to Gould, Levins and Lewontin, have embraced the cognitive capacity of science while highlighting the problematic shaping of science under capitalism.

Marxism explains this pandemic in terms of the whole network of interacting forces that have created it. Epidemiologists have been warning that such a pandemic was inevitable. Marxist writers who put epidemiology in a wider social-political-economic context, such as Mike Davis and Rob Wallace, have been clearly communicating to a wider public that industrialised agriculture, wildlife trafficking, hyperglobalisation, degradation of public health systems and big pharma-dominated research were creating the conditions for such a pandemic. Just as the 1918 flu spread by mobilisation for war, so Covid-19 has proliferated along the global circuitry of capital.

A Marxist approach also clarifies what is to be done. The current crisis demands that the priorities of public health override all other considerations — not only individual liberty but proprietary science and medicine. It thus runs counter to the whole trajectory of capitalism and points to the necessity for socialism.

This pandemic highlights the need for a global, public and open framework for science, focused on the urgency of finding preventative, diagnostic and therapeutic responses to this virus, particularly a vaccine. It should transcend all considerations of prizes, patents and profits. It requires transparent and international sharing of all relevant experimental and clinical information. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is the obvious body to co-ordinate this effort and the biggest obstacle to the optimal fulfilment of its mission is the US government.

The Trump administration has been negotiating with a German pharmaceutical firm to develop a vaccine for US-only use, pirating personal protection equipment en route to other nations and undermining and then defunding the WHO. This runs against everything the world needs today, with the US accusing China of trying to steal its research on vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, when clearly all such research should be in the public domain.

There is much media speculation on life after lockdown, some of it very shallow, but some of it more penetrating. In querying what has changed in us, in our society, as a result of this experience, many have said they do not want to return to our former normality. They have become increasingly aware of the devastation that capitalism has wrought on our bodies, societies and planet.

Things we were told were impossible suddenly became possible in these islands and elsewhere in this crisis — an end to a two-tier health service, increased funding for biomedical research and clinical resources, a ban on evictions, a rent freeze and a reduction in carbon emissions.

We have lived, however partially and temporarily, in a scenario where public health and welfare overrode the imperatives of the market. The government implementing these measures in Ireland were also responsible for running down our public health capacity and being on the other side of the class struggle. They will want to row back and it is the responsibility of the left, with considerable public support, to resist this.

Of the many memorable sights and sounds that have flowed through social media during this period, I could not refrain from sharing an image from a demonstration of New York health workers for this article. As you can see, its main banner reads CAPITALISM: DO NOT RESUCITATE.

Not the Feelies
Thursday, 13 August 2020 17:08

Not the Feelies

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell explains how Leviathan reveals the nature of capitalism.

The dystopias of the mid-20th century, Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), described with astonishing accuracy the world we live in today: thought police, news speak, genetic engineering, escapist drugs and a cinema that conditions people not to think about the kind of society they inhabit. Their films, in Brave New World, are aptly called ‘The Feelies’.

Anybody with a passing awareness of our own mainstream cinema realises that this is exactly what we have today. The ‘movies’, as opposed to ‘thinkies’, which dominate all our screens present us largely with private, relationship issues, mainly either set in or seen from the middle class perspective, and most definitely resolvable within existing society. Where issues of race or gender are addressed, from the safe distance of historical perspective, we the audience are reassured that we would have acted in an ethical, in fact radical way, if only we had lived at that distant time. And of course all is well now, we are assured and can leave the cinema affirmed in our self-righteousness.

Not so with some recent Russian films – rarely screened in Western cinemas. One of these is Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its title brings to mind two things. First, the Bible’s Book of Job, where Leviathan is described as an enormous, all-consuming sea monster. Secondly, the title evokes Thomas Hobbes’s 17th c treatise on the State, ‘Leviathan’, advocating the need for a strong State at the time of the English Revolution, including the alliance between State and Church as the best and most reasonable form of government for the people.

Zvyagintsev adds to this equation the story of US Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004, frustrated over a failed zoning dispute, ploughed his bulldozer into the town hall, a former mayor's home and other buildings in small-town Granby, Colorado. Zvyagintsev, however, sets the film in the culture he knows best – Russia. He changes details of the plot, while revealing the nature of a Leviathan society.

This film was gleefully hailed in the West as a film about corrupt Russia. It was even awarded the Golden Globe. It was condemned in Russia as anti-Russian. Both angles miss the point. The film exposes the mechanisms of capitalist society and its destruction of ordinary people, their lives, and their happiness. It exposes how little power, what scant hope for justice working people have when faced with the combined power of politicians, the judiciary and the Church. It is difficult to think of a recent Western film, outside of Ken Loach’s work, that presents the very nature of capitalism with such radical honesty and incredible cinematography. In that sense, the film is not only about Russia but at the same time about the inhuman system that is capitalism – anywhere.

Of course, its detail is Russian, no film can or should be made in abstractions. Films, like all artwork, deal in individual lives. Zvyagintsev’s film associates the greater context through its title. He also uses the landscape on the edge of the world: the Barents Sea bordering on the Arctic Ocean, frozen landscapes, wrecked boats and the skeleton of a blue whale to emphasise this more encompassing scope. Yet, the story is rooted deeply in the everyday minutiae of ordinary, working people’s lives. The film shows how the monster devastates this. There seems to be little hope for humanity. Perhaps some slight courage may be taken from the fact that a friend of the protagonist has the potential to challenge the beast. In Leviathan, this path is thwarted and seems unlikely, yet it is there. The fact that the film itself makes a statement about the Leviathan, too, is important.

Leviathan struck close to the bone in Russia, where despite everything, art is clearly still understood as a serious comment on society. The cultural ministry was outraged and indeed censored its ‘profanities’, amputating the film. It also questioned the right of such a film to taxpayers’ financial support. (Films clearly still receive state subventions!) Zvyagintsev himself called on people to watch the illegally copied film online in places where it was not shown in cinemas. The film’s impact was such that civic leaders and Orthodox priests and bishops of Samara called on the Minister of Culture to sack Valery Grishko, the actor who plays the bishop in the film, from his position in the state-sponsored theatre. The “image created by this actor is a cynical and dirty parody on Russian orthodox bishops, it offends the believers and in its essence is nothing else other than blatant mockery of Russian State and the principal religious confession of our country — The Holy Orthodoxy.”

To turn to ‘real life’: at the time of writing, there is an ongoing, growing truck drivers’ strike in Russia (since 27 March 2017). It demonstrates an awareness and readiness to fight against the insatiable appetite of the Leviathan. Leviathan and other recent Russian films help their viewers identify those who would rather send them to ‘The Feelies’ and remain hidden. By describing present day Russia, however, they reveal the nature of capitalism. Understanding this, is a prerequisite to change. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “the first revolutionary act is to call things by their true names.” We need films like this.

Monument in Pariser Platz, Berlin, 1936
Thursday, 13 August 2020 17:08

What's Happened to Sport?

Published in Sport

Professor Tony Collins starts a series of articles about the relationship between sport and capitalism with an introduction to the history of sport.

It’s been a rough year for sport. In the last few months we’ve seen match-fixing allegations in tennis, Russia banned from international athletics for alleged doping, and the implosion of FIFA over endemic corruption. That’s not to mention the billionaire takeover of football and the grip of satellite TV on the game.

So where did it all go wrong?

In reality, nothing has gone wrong – modern sport has always been about money. It emerged in the 1700s as part of the growing commercial leisure industry of Britain’s emerging capitalist economy. The first rules of boxing, horse-racing and cricket were drawn up in the eighteenth century explicitly to make gambling easier and more transparent. Even the MCC, that bastion of the gentleman amateur, included rules for gambling in its early rulebooks. Teams and athletes were effectively owned by their aristocratic ‘patrons’, many of whom owed their wealth to the slave trade.

Sport was an entertainment – and like every other aspect of life under capitalism, it was organised to facilitate profit.

The Peoples’ Game?

When football was transformed into a mass spectator sport in the late 1800s, it quickly became commercialised. Soccer may have been ‘the People’s Game’ in terms of popularity, but it was as much a plaything of businessmen as it is today.

There’s no better example than Manchester United. When Newton Heath F.C. went into liquidation in 1902, they were bought by J.H. Davies, owner of Manchester Breweries. Renamed Manchester United, the club became an appendage of Davies’ business. United’s seven-strong board consisted of Davies and six other employees of the brewery. In 1909 Davies provided the cash that allowed the club to move to Old Trafford. And just as the Glazer family today has leveraged the club for their own financial interests, so did Davies: an FA enquiry in 1910 discovered that he received £740 rent from the club for land it did not use.

The same story was repeated across football. Chelsea was created by the owners of Stamford Bridge as an attraction to bring crowds into what was becoming a white elephant stadium. Most clubs that weren’t created as openly commercial ventures were formed by churches as a way of bringing Christian morality to working-class youths, such as Aston Villa, or by employers seeking to foster corporate unity in opposition to trade unionism, such as West Ham. Football made for great entertainment – but it was a never a people’s game.

Amateurism, Class and Race

The idea that sport was originally free of money and played only for love is a myth that was invented by the Victorian middle classes. Books like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity across the British Empire, promoting the idea that sport was a moral force for good. This was how the idea of amateurism was invented, based on the belief that sport should be played without financial award.

But behind this lay naked class hatred. The first rules of the Amateur Athletic Club, the forerunner of the Amateur Athletic Association, explicitly stated that anyone who was ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ could not be an amateur. In 1895 rugby split into two distinct sports – league and union – when rugby’s middle-class administrators refused to allow working-class players to be paid compensation when they had to take time off work to play. Until 1963, cricket even divided its players into middle-class amateur ‘Gentlemen’ and working-class professional ‘Players’.

As was made clear in militaristic poems like Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ - with its refrain ‘Play up and play the game’ – this was the ideology of the British Empire. Sport, proclaimed the Yorkshire Post, the organ of the northern English industrial bourgeoisie, had ‘done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.

In 1911 the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells from boxing against Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion. Between 1907 and 1948 no black boxer could fight for a British boxing title, thanks to a ‘colour bar’ introduced in response to Johnson’s success and the perceived threat he posed to white racial superiority.

The ‘level playing field’ that sport was supposed to provide for everyone regardless of background was never level – and some could not even play on it.

Sex and Drugs

This was doubly true for women. The famous sporting motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) referred not to the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free from effeminacy and the temptations of adolescent sexuality.

Modern sport was above all male, and founded on a strictly policed gender division. Women were discouraged and sometimes actively excluded from taking part in sport. In 1921 the Football Association officially banned women soccer players from using its football pitches. Even when women were allowed to take part, ideas about supposed female ‘weakness’ meant the Olympics barred them from events like the marathon until 1984.

It was the belief that successful women athletes were less than feminine that led to so-called ‘sex testing’ in the 1960s. The tremendous success of Soviet bloc women athletes led to Western paranoia that they were not ‘real women’ and in 1966 sex-testing was introduced in athletics. But this had no basis in science and was merely a more brutal way of enforcing traditional gender norms. Today, sport’s governing bodies assign themselves the right to define an athlete’s gender, an act as arrogant as it is reactionary.

It was also the Cold War that brought hysteria over drugs into sport. Drugs of varying forms had long been used in sport – even Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers were taking monkey gland extracts in the 1940s – but the rise of Soviet and East European athletes from the 1950s saw the West take the offensive and accuse the Soviets of ‘cheating’ by using drugs. As the ethical force of amateurism declined in sport in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral arguments previously used against professionalism were re-focused on medical stimulants.

Paranoia about drugs now replaced fear of professionalism as the raison d’être for tight control over athletes. Thanks to anti-drug legislation in sport, professional athletes today live in a totalitarian world where their every move is monitored and their civil liberties stripped away. And where sport goes, so too does government.

The Future of Sport

Nothing has gone ‘wrong’ with sport. For almost 300 years it has been an essential part of the capitalist leisure industry. There was never a golden age when it was pure; and the attempts to purify it by introducing amateurism led to the systematic exclusion and persecution of all those who fell outside its middle-class norms. Today it is a plaything of the rich and an instrument of control – just as it has always been.

Yet it remains a uniquely compelling form of entertainment. It is unscripted melodrama that allows the participant and the spectator to experience great emotional peaks that are rare in everyday life. It offers opportunities for physical artistry and collective endeavour that can sometimes touch the essence of what it means to be human.

Its liberation lies not in appeals to a mythical past or a morality invented by apostles of the British Empire but in the creation of a society where capitalism no longer exists and in which the full range of sporting experience can be had by all members of society. Only under socialism, in a society free of economic necessity and shorn of stifling bourgeois morality, will sport truly become a level playing field.