Issue 75 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published July 1997 Copyright © International Socialism


A review of The State of Humanity. J L Simon (ed). (Blackwell, 1995)

Judy Cox

As the millennium approaches, media pundits and academics are beginning the tortuous process of analysing the progress made by humanity so far and our prospects in the 21st century. Few attempts are as comprehensive in scope as Simon's The State of Humanity which charts developments in a range of crucial areas of life; poverty, housing, leisure, productivity and the state of the environment. This book is unusual in the breadth of subject matter; it is also unusual for the political standpoint adopted by its contributors. While many pundits express a growing sense of unease at the state of the world, Simon's book is a celebration of the achievements of capitalism and the free market. 'Everything is getting better', the authors assert and they predict that 'by the year 2000 the world will be less crowded, the economy less precarious, and so on.' Any pessimism or uncertainty about our future is attributable to the forecasts of 'doomsayers', who cynically spread scare stories to boost the circulation of their newspapers. Or, alternatively, widespread pessimism may simply be a fact of our human nature, which inevitably leads us to look nostalgically at what has passed. Philosopher David Hume is enlisted in support of this view: 'The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature, and has an influence even on persons endued with the profoundest judgement and most extensive learning'.1

The optimism championed by the essays in The State of Humanity is almost unique amongst contemporary writers. Even those who do find reasons to be cheerful usually acknowledge widespread dissatisfaction in society at large. Brian Harrison, professor of modern British history and fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, wrote recently:

To someone of my generation ­ a child during the Second World War and a teenager in the early 1950s ­ the grumbling, cynical tone of present day public discussion in Britain seems significantly out of balance. Yes, too many people do sleep rough in London's shop doorways; too many people are out of work; there is sleaze at Westminster; and our inner city problems are indeed alarming. Yet these legitimate complaints seem seriously disproportionate because they don't capture my generation's sigh of relief that the Cold War has ended.2

President Clinton's US labour secretary, Robert Reich, could be expected to take an optimistic view of society and of those who, like himself, attempt to run it. Instead, he has been warning Tony Blair not to abandon all hope of changing the system. Reich recently acknowledged the growing inequality in US society:

Between 1950 and 1978, the wealthiest fifth of America's families saw their incomes double. And so did the poorest fifth. We grew together. That was how it worked in America... From Beijing to Berlin, courageous women and men took on tyrants in the name of the American ideals of personal liberty and shared prosperity.

That global triumph of the American model makes all the more troubling the current condition of the American Dream. Instead of an America that is growing together, the Class of '95 has been handed an America that is growing apart... From 1979 to 1993 ­ the years you were growing up ­ our economy continued to expand. But almost all the growth in income went to the wealthiest fifth of American households. The poorest fifth saw their incomes fall.3

The continuing economic malaise and growing social inequality of the last 20 years has led to a disintegration of the political consensus which dominated the post-war years in Europe and the US. Both Keynesianism and monetarism stand exposed, incapable of explaining, never mind providing solutions to, the series of recessions which have shaken the world's major economies for 20 years. In terms of political theories, the widely trumpeted 'end of class' which dominated official political thinking in the 1980s has not been replaced with a confident assertion of a new, classless society. New theories are seized upon, expounded by politicians and academics, then unceremoniously dumped. Thus, the Labour Party latched on to communitarianism, the idea that community had replaced class as the key unit with which people identified. Books by Amitai Etzione expounding this view were widely acclaimed and did popularise communitarianism. However, his new book, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, has been criticised by academics like Richard Sennett, sociology professor at New York University. He recently compared Etzione's vision unfavourably to that of the Utopian Socialists of the late 18th century, and suggested that Etzione's language of common values suits a media culture of sound bites and rests on 'sentimental clichés and self evident truths'. The Labour Party soon dumped talk of communitarianism for the authoritarianism of curfews and fast tracking for young offenders.

Another revision of traditional approaches to understanding social divisions was the development of the theory of the underclass. In 1995 the British Gallup Poll asked a series of questions about social problems, one of which was, 'Do you think an underclass is appearing in this country or not?' To this, 85 percent said yes, while 70 percent said they thought poverty was a very important problem in Britain compared with 66 percent when the same question was asked a decade earlier.4 Today, however, unease about the theory of the underclass is being expressed by some academics. The sheer scale of poverty and inequality in Britain (it is now estimated that over 25 percent of all children in Britain live below the poverty line) mean that the idea of the underclass cannot be reconciled with people's experience. The idea of a small section of society who are permanently excluded from the labour market, while the rest of society basks in middle class contentment, cannot begin to describe a situation where between 30 and 40 percent of those with jobs are estimated to be worried about losing them. Thus, the underclass has given way to talk of work-poor/leisure-rich and leisure-poor/work-rich, which has the advantage for bourgeois commentators of sounding as though the problems of the very poor are comparable with the problems of the very rich.

There is, therefore, a general sense of unease about the state of our society as we approach the millennium, but it is a sense that is definitely not shared by those who have contributed essays to The State of Humanity. The central assertion of the book is that, 'almost every absolute change, absolute component of almost every economic and social change or trend, points in positive directions as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time.' This standpoint enables the contributors to conflate vastly different historical experiences and present human history as one steadily advancing straight line. Thus, the writers point to one of the crucial measures of human welfare ­ life expectancy. It took all the centuries from 8000BC to 1800AD for life expectancy to crawl upwards from an average of around 20 to an average of around 30 years. In the last 200 years, however, life expectancy has leapt from 30 to 75 in advanced countries, and in the last 50 years has leapt 15 to 20 years in the Third World. This is undoubtedly a real transformation in the lives of millions of people, but there is another side to the coin. In the 1990s, 40 million people die every year across the world purely as a result of hunger related diseases; half of those who die are children.5 Side by side with genuine advances in the conditions of human life go such horrific and unnecessary atrocities.

This apparent contradiction can only be explained with reference to a Marxist account of the capitalist economy. The development of capitalism led to a huge expansion of the productive abilities of humanity, a general expansion which was accelerated by the long boom, sustained by arms spending, which followed the Second World War. This meant that it was possible for human beings to control their environment in ways previously unimaginable. The research presented by the authors of The State of Humanity points to this potential to transform the conditions of human life, but they fail to acknowledge how that potential is destroyed by the anarchy of the market and the drive for profits. The real opportunity for progress is thus turned into its opposite ­ early and unnecessary death ­ for millions of people. They do not even refer to the fact that throughout the history of capitalism, economic expansion has led to economic slump, when the improvements in living standards won over decades can be wiped out in a few years.

On the question of poverty in the US, the authors assert that compared to 100 years ago, America's 'poor' live in uncrowded conditions, have the same diets as the rich, have access to cars and consumer goods and generally enjoy a standard of living far better than the rich of previous centuries. However, taking such a long term view of historical development means simply ignoring significant changes which have occurred in recent years. The Welfare Bill of 1995 removed state governments' obligations to provide basic subsistence to the poor. In addition, the bill introduced economic penalties for women having children while on welfare, and denied food stamps and other basic benefits to legal immigrants ­ yet these were the very same measures, which before they were abolished, protected the diets of the poor, according to The State of Humanity. It has been estimated that 2.6 million people, including 1.1 million children, will be pushed down below the poverty threshold by the year 2000.6 So the conditions of the poor in the US may be better today than they were 100 or 200 years ago, but they have not benefited from growth in the economy to the same extent as the rich.

The richest 10 percent of the US population now own nearly two-thirds of all the private wealth, and the top 1 percent own and control 40 percent.7 But The State of Humanity acknowledges no link between this enrichment and the poverty of the rest of the population. For example, we are told that '...for a portion of US history, income distribution did widen (though this is hardly proof that the rich were exploiting the poor). But there has been little or no such tendency during, say, the 20th century. And a widening gap does not negate the fact of a rising absolute standard of living for the poor'(my italics). The authors present a picture of a society where some become rich and some poor by a mysterious process beyond analysis, where inequality is an unalterable fact of life. This picture is blatantly inaccurate: the 1980s have seen an unprecedented increase in inequality in American society, much of it as a direct result of changes in government policy which shifted the tax burden from the rich to the poor, and increased the rates of exploitation of the working class, via reduced wages, increased working hours, etc. On a more fundamental level, the profits which sustain the wealth of the ruling class are all produced by the exploitation of labour; without the working class, there are no profits for the rich to accumulate.

This pattern of analysis is repeated in almost every chapter of the book. First we get statistics which point to the great advances made in standards of living, then an attempt to suggest that any diversions from this progress are the product of accident, aberrations easily resolved inside the existing structures of capitalism. Thus, on the question of racism, an essay on 'The Standard of Living of Black Americans' concludes that the socioeconomic conditions of today's black Americans bears no similarity whatever to those of their forebears of 125 years ago. In many respects the conditions of even 40 years ago are no longer recognisable.8 There is no suggestion that this may have occurred as a result of the political struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the upheaval of the great migration of black people to the Northern states. Rather, it is presented as another consequence of the onward, upward march of capitalism. Yet there is no evidence that the general improvement in living standards has lessened the inequality experienced by the majority of US blacks. Even in this essay, a graph shows that black unemployment continues to be steadily double that of white unemployment and the percentage of black people who own their own homes is consistently half that of white people.

Another chapter features an analysis of infant mortality rates among black Americans. In 1915 white babies died at the rate of 100 per 1,000 births, and black babies at a rate of 180 per 1,000. By 1990 this figure had fallen to 9 per 1,000 for white and 18 per 1,000 for black babies. This is a real advance, and yet a reader may be tempted to ask why the rates of infant mortality have become more unequal between 1915 and 1990 and today? What does this tell us about the access to healthcare of poor blacks in the world's richest country?

In addition to the economic inequalities which do warrant a brief mention in The State of Humanity, there is a wealth of evidence which points to the racism of American society. A study by the Sentencing Project in 1996 reported that there are now more black men in US prisons than white men, although blacks are only 13 percent of the population. Incarceration rates for black women have risen 20 percent in the last decade, and all this when crime rates have actually fallen for the last 20 years.9 In addition, the racism endemic in wider society leads to situations where, for example, 30 percent of the jobs lost through 'downsizing' between 1990 and 1991 were held by black workers. Thus, the poor do not benefit equally with the rich from economic boom, and it is the poor, and especially the black poor, who suffer disproportionately more from the impact of recession.

This sleight of hand method of using long term historical comparisons to throw a golden glow on present day conditions is at times totally ludicrous. For example, when discussing the prevalence of infectious diseases, the authors compare the rate of mortality today favourably with the disastrous impact of diseases carried by colonists in 1492 on the indigenous people of the New World. Given the huge transformation of daily life brought about by the rise of capitalism, it hardly seems comforting to compare our destinies with those of the people wiped out in one of the greatest plagues in human history! Furthermore, some assertions about health and disease are simply inaccurate. For example, a graph from the essay 'Health and Disease through the Ages' apparently shows a steep fall in the death rate from tuberculosis. This is undoubtedly a product of an improvement in living standards. However, it masks recent developments which point to a less comforting picture. The School Milk Report, recently published in England, revealed that tuberculosis is now more prevalent in Britain than whooping cough, with more than 4,000 cases reported in 1994. In addition, the report discovered that since water companies were privatised, a total of 93,771 families have had their water supply disconnected, and associated cases of dysentery reached nearly 7,000 in 1994 whilst water companies' profits in same year reached £1,839 million. The report also suggests that up to 40 percent of children in some deprived areas could be anaemic, a condition which affects both mental and physical development.

Typically, we are told that 'at no time in history has the world been as well fed as it is today'; 'Were it equitably distributed, the supply of food would be adequate to feed all.'10 There are countries which have experienced famine, but this is a consequence of 'insufficient effective demand'11 ­ in other words, the poor cannot afford to buy the food they need. In reality, an estimated 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished, and one third of the world's children are malnourished. Global demand for food is growing, but the growth of global production is falling, from 3 percent annually in the 1960s to 2.4 percent in the 1970s to 1.6 percent between 1985 and 1995. Of course, the authors of The State of Humanity have easy solutions to lack of world resources: if undercultivated land in the US and Argentina were put over to growing grain, there would be no problem. Of course, this will only happen if poorer countries can exert enough 'demand' to make it profitable enough for these lands to be drawn into production. In a sane system, it would be easy to rid ourselves of famine and hunger for ever; but in a system dominated by the need to accumulate profit, there are huge obstacles to this simple solution.

Today, stocks of wheat are at a 20 year low, those of maize at a 50 year low, but these shortages will not be solved by the market ­ they are a product of the market. While people starve to death, 'shortages have pushed up world market prices by 30-50 percent adding an estimated US$3 billion to the food bills of "low-income food-deficit countries"'.12 The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, suggested that this was the result of a 'levelling of demand ­ saturation in developed countries and inadequate purchasing power in developing countries'. The market forces, so beloved of Simon and friends, have meant that agricultural exports can no longer be subsidised by governments, but richer countries can give income support to their farmers (EU support for farmers increased 25 percent in 1994). The so-called free market ensures food shortages and corresponding high prices, however desperate the need for food becomes.

The State of Humanity is blasé about the world's resources. It points out, rightly, that human ingenuity has always provided solutions to the world's needs, but fails to acknowledge that the overriding drive for quick profits can have a potentially disastrous effect on our relationship with nature. Chapters entitled 'Pesticides, Cancer and Misconceptions' and 'The Carcinogen or Toxin of the Week Phenomenon' give a hint of the editorial line pursued by the writers. So for example, the editor argues that 'the scare about species extinction has been manufactured in complete contradiction to the scientific data'.13 However, the FAO has acknowledged a problem, stating, 'The chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern, commercial agriculture'.14

The authors continue in a similar vein on the question of nuclear power; we are told that public fears about nuclear power are greatly exaggerated. Bernard L Cohen, author of the chapter, 'The Hazards of Nuclear Power', employs the usual trick of pro-nuclear writers. He compares deaths caused by radiation from nuclear plants with those caused by the pollution from coal burning power stations. The comparison is inherently biased since the deaths which have occurred because of nuclear weapons (for example at Nagasaki and Hiroshima) or accidents, such as that which occurred at Chernobyl, or indeed the unacknowledged consequences of the nuclear industry, such as the clusters of childhood leukaemia around Sellafield, are never included in the statistics. Despite the benign face of the nuclear industry presented by Cohen etc, 80 percent of the American public persists in being concerned about nuclear safety. Why? Because media stories about radiation dangers are 'exciting and therefore get wide coverage'.15

However, public concern over the nuclear industry cannot be reduced to a media plot. Even papers which have previously agreed that nuclear power is relatively safe, have recently reported things differently. According to the Financial Times, between 2020 and 2030 some 108 nuclear power stations will be shut down in western Europe, in eastern Europe 50 stations will close and in the US 75 of the current 132 power stations will shut. The only new orders for commercial reactors are from China because the 'Chinese government, which brooks little dissent, is one of the few governments in the world that can ignore popular misgivings about nuclear power and push ahead with development plans'. In the words of the New Scientist, 'The nuclear industry is at a standstill almost everywhere in Europe, and in the US it is now 20 years since an order was placed without subsequently being cancelled'.16 This is partly because of public response to the disasters of Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl (where children today have twice as many mutations in their DNA as their British counterparts).17 It is also because nuclear power does not bring the huge profits once imagined. The British government's plans for privatisation of the nuclear industry confirmed that despite billions of pounds of investment, the liabilities of the industry have expanded as fast as its assets. In market terms, the relatively new Sizewell B water reactor is today worth only a quarter of its £2.5 billion construction costs.

So while many of those who have written essays in this book are openly apologising for the status quo, ridiculing scientists, social campaigners, and the environmental movement, who allegedly manufacture scares in complete contradiction to the scientific data and the scaremongering media, there is another aspect of the research in this book which does provide an insight into how the world really works. This is in the section on historical trends in murder and suicide. The author suggests that 'in literate societies, suicide rates are high, while murder rates are low, and vice versa...homicide accounts for about one death per 100,000 while suicide is between 10 and 20 per 100,000 in developed countries and under 10 per 100,000 in underdeveloped ones'.18 There are major exceptions to the established pattern. Hungary, from the Soviet invasion in 1956 until the mid-1980s, had a steadily rising rate that culminated at 45 per 100,000 ­ unprecedented in the world ­ at the beginning of the 1980s. The previous world peak was Austria in the 1930s which had a rate of 41 per 100,000. Implicit in this information is the effect of social conditions on human behaviour: firstly, the conditions of capitalist society, the alienation and atomisation of urban living, lead to a general increase in despair and suicide. In addition, Austria and Hungary were both countries where people rose against invasion by Hitler and Soviet Russia respectively, but were defeated. Suicide is a product of increasing alienation of our societies, considerably sharpened by specific political events.

John P Robinson, in the essay 'Trends in Free Time', asserts that 'Americans of working age have more free time today than ever before',19 but the length of the working week has not changed significantly for the last 40 years. The decline in work, therefore, is not due to a reduction in the working week, but to changes outside work; women spend less time on housework, there are fewer households with children, and people generally live longer in retirement. This change in people's lives is not due to the benevolence of the market, but rather to changes beyond the direct control of the bosses. A further essay on outdoor recreation also points out how the decades following the Second World War saw a huge explosion in visits to national forests, which peaked at 710 million, because of 'an increase in family income, growing leisure time, improving transportation and other factors,' but in the last two decades this boom has slowed down drastically and suggests 'pressures for use of scarce leisure time have intensified, growth of family income has slowed, more women have entered the labour force'.20 In addition, the author fails to mention how social class affects both quantity and quality of leisure time.21

The following quotation sums up much of the argument presented in The State of Humanity:

The 20th century may seem to be the century of death with two overwhelming world wars, the Holocaust, a nearly endless slaughter of ex-colonial tribes killing one another. But if due proportion is kept, it is even more truly the century of life. Its immense reduction in death rates has been without precedent... Many more children were saved than adults slaughtered.

Ignoring the offensive tone of this quote, it may actually be statistically true. The contradiction, however, remains: the greater our ability to conquer natural causes of death, the greater becomes the pressure towards manmade warfare. So, for example, during 1994, 35 states in the world were at war outside their own borders.22 Nor can we disassociate the 'nice' capitalism which provides the conditions for lower infant mortality rates from the 'nasty' system which produces war. The wars and the Holocaust are not some aberration, or unfortunate accident. Economic competition is both the driving force behind the dynamism of the system and the propulsion towards military conflict between nation states. Such conflicts are as much a part of the capitalist system as are the economic upturns and increases in living standards. Indeed as the system ages they are more and more likely to occur.

At the heart of The State of Humanity is the simple argument: life is better than it was 100 or 200 years ago; it has improved and will therefore continue to improve as long the market is left to function unhindered. Most problems which worry the public have simply been created by 'doomsayers'. But the obvious poverty of this explanation of public unease itself suggests that an alternative account is necessary. The truth is that most people do not compare their situation with that of their grandparents or great grandparents and consequently feel relief and satisfaction. Ordinary people compare themselves and their lives to the rich, to what they know society can deliver for some, and they question why it is not available for all. Even the expectation that things should get better can contribute towards the formation of class consciousness when that expectation is smashed by the onset of recession.

The authors suggest that any genuine problems can be solved easily via the market. Increasing concerns about the availability of water, for example, are considered to be justified, but the solution is at hand: 'in the absence of market incentives for both supply and demand, gloom and doom predictions regarding water will likely come true'.23 It is ironic that these crass arguments are advanced at the very time that the privatisation of the water supply in Britain has caused draught, infection and widespread public anger.

A brief look at the history of the 20th century, one which gives a complete picture rather than the consciously partial one presented in The State of Humanity, contradicts this blind faith in the market. For example, conditions for European and American workers during the recession of the 1930s fell dramatically, but that international slump receives no mention in this book. Indeed, the catastrophes of the last 100 years receive scarcely a mention. For example, there is only the tiniest admission that the influenza epidemic which killed millions after the First World War could be considered as a blip in the great advancement of humanity.

This book gives no sense that capitalism itself is a system which develops and changes. In its early stages, capitalism represented a massive opportunity to increase standards of living. However, even when the system was new and dynamic, every boom in the economy contained the seeds of its opposite, economic slump. Today, the world economy is ageing, its booms are shallower and shorter, its slumps deeper and more prolonged. The world economy has experienced three recessions in the last two decades. Today's 'miracle economy' is tomorrow's debtor nation. This means two things: firstly, there is no room inside the system to concede improvements in living standards for the majority without it eating into the profits of the minority. Secondly, economic crisis leads inexorably to political crisis. War and instability are not exceptional accidents but are an inevitable consequence of the crisis in the system. The State of Humanity inadvertently highlights the huge potential which capitalism has opened up for improving our lives and the simultaneous crushing of that potential by the drive for profits and the encroachment of the market. All the research and statistics presented in this book cannot for one moment disguise how far from reality its conclusions are.


1 J L Simon (ed), The State of Humanity (Blackwell, 1995), p3.

2 The Observer, January 1997.

3 R Marris, How to Save the Underclass (MacMillan, 1996), p10.

4 Ibid, p8.

5 Atlas, p38.

6 B Ransey, 'US: the Black Poor and the Politics of Expendability', Race and Class 38, p2.

7 Ibid, p5.

8 J L Simon (ed), op cit, p183.

9 Ransey, op cit, p6.

10 J L Simon (ed), op cit, p396.

11 Ibid, p403.

12 B Ransey, op cit, p 64.

13 Simon, op cit, p358.

14 B Ransey, op cit, p67.

15 J L Simon (ed), op cit, p487.

16 New Scientist, 6 November 1993

17 New Scientist, 27 April 1997.

18 Ibid.

19 J L Simon (ed), op cit, p214.

20 Ibid, p326.

21 See, for example, J Clarke and C Critcher, The Devil Makes Work: Leisure in Capitalist Britain (MacMillan, 1985).

22 M Kidron and S Segal, State of the World Atlas (Penguin, 1995), p101.

23 J L Simon (ed), op cit, p432.

Return to Contents page: Return to International Socialism Journal Index Home page