Disposable Bodies (Reading Health Communism)

In this episode

Is capitalism bad for your health? Let’s talk about this and other questions in discussing the book Health Communism by Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant.


Start gameplay

Hey, how are you doing? You’re feeling alright? Or are you maybe a bit stressed? Burnt out from a heavy week at work? No worries, mate. I’ve got something to take your mind off of things for a couple of minutes.

Oh and, by the way: Hello! Welcome to Vulnerable By Design, with me, Chris Onrust. In this episode, we will dive into a new-ish game that has been making the rounds for a bit, which you may have heard of? It’s called Capitalism.1 In particular, we would like to find out how all of this capitalism fanfare may be affecting your health. Are you ready?

Level 1: What is capitalism?

First things first: What is Capitalism? From what I have heard: ‘Capitalism is an intense strategy game (…) where players must constantly think ahead.’ It is ‘very realistic’, encourages ‘sensible strategies’, and allows even office clerks to ‘claw [their] way to the top’. They say that Capitalism offers ‘… hundreds of hours of gameplay for the corporate enthusiast’.2 Okay, good. But then how do you play Capitalism? Do you fancy having a go?

Let’s start with the basics. In capitalism, you have got an economic-political system that works on a cycle. Businesses, investors or other private parties control the wealth, the land, or other sorts of assets that are needed to produce, distribute, and exchange goods or services. They use wage labor to get other people to do the work of actually producing those goods or services for them. Those produced goods and services are then sold on a market for a profit, resulting in the accumulation of wealth and assets in the hands of those same initial businesses, investors, or other private parties. In short, we are working with a cycle of assets and wealth accumulation.

Terminology alert! This wealth and these assets are sometimes known as ‘ca-pi-tal’. And, by association, the businesses and people who own such wealth and assets can be known as ‘ca-pi-ta-lists’.

Okay, now for clarification: when we’re talking about wealth and assets, do I mean that if you’ve got a couple of quid on you, and you own a laptop, does that mean that you are a capitalist? No!

The hallmark of capitalism is not people owning or producing things. If you have a computer and you build software, that computer is not thereby capital, and you are not thereby a capitalist. If you own a loom, and you weave rugs, that loom is known to thereby capital, and you are not thereby a capitalist. If you have your own van, and you drive your mates to a rave, again: that van is not thereby capital, and that does not make you a capitalist.

But then when is something capital? What does make you a capitalist? We’re only dealing with capitalism in a very specific economic-political structure. When a person, business or whatever type of shell organization they can come up with, owns and controls things—computers, looms, vans, whatever—but does not use those assets to code, weave or provide transport themselves. No. It is when, instead, they get other people to do the actual work (of coding, weaving, driving). They pay those workers a wage that is lower than the actual value of the work that’s been delivered. They slap a price tag on it, and—cha-ching—they sell that for a profit.

So, my friends, having some savings or cooking utensils does not a capitalist make. It’s when you’ve got this—this specific structure—in place, that you’ve got capitalism.

Level 2: Player types

Let’s talk strategy now. The aim of capitalism, and the only thing that matters when playing, is capital accumulation. The language of this game is that of: profit, profit, profit, and that of growth, growth growth.

You’ve got different types of player options that you can choose from. The two main ones are: that of the capitalist, which today is mostly known by the more innocuously sounding name of ‘business owner’ or ‘investor’. For this player type, the challenge is to own things, and to cash in on value produced by workers.

There is also the player type of worker. For the worker, the challenge is to produce things for the capitalist, which the capitalist can then sell on the market for a profit. You will get some wage in exchange, but one that is always lower than the value of the work you delivered, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any profits. And you’re expected to consume and buy things as a worker. As a worker, you’re meant to satisfy all of your life’s desires by buying things from the capitalists. You do not DIY, you do not share things with your neighbor, nor will they be sharing any things with you. And you never, ever, ever are satisfied with who you are, with what you already have. In other words: as a worker, your job in capitalism is basically to act as a vessel through which the capitalists can get richer and obtain more capital. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

When the capitalist and the worker player types successfully collaborate together—successful from the viewpoint of capitalism, that is—then you will get a steamroller cycle of businesses raking in profits, to accumulate more capital, to gain more profits, for yet more capital.

Beware: as a system, capitalism is greedy. To continue accumulating capital, it has a tendency to try to dominate and extract value from ever more territories and societies across the globe, as it’s done over the past two and a half centuries. It also has an inclination to expand into ever more areas of life. In the old days, you might share books or music with strangers. Now, we have Digital so-called ‘Rights’ Management. In the old days, you would let a mate crash on your couch. Now they can make a booking. In the old days, people used to write blogs and newsletters. Now, the full thing is locked away for premium subscribers. In the old days, you used to be able to go for a walk, or just browse the web. Now, every single step you take and every website you visit is tracked, with someone, somewhere out there making money off of you.

In their book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the author Shoshana Zuboff suggests that data mining, manipulation, and the monetization of people’s personal experiences and behavior, means that today we are dealing with a new form of capitalism, namely: surveillance capitalism. But of course we aren’t. And, of course, this isn’t new. Expanding it to ever fresh territories for value extraction was part of the blueprint of capitalism from the very beginning.

Level 3: Capitalism has no winners

Then on to a more pressing concern: how do you win this game? What does it take to win at Capitalism? Uuuuuh… well… you can’t. There just isn’t any winning in this beautiful game.

If you play as a worker, obviously you can’t win, because you’re stuck in a cycle of wage exploitation and high-pressure consumption. But if you play as a capitalist, you also can’t win, because you can always accumulate more capital, right? The only end game for capitalism is when we have gobbled up all of the earth’s resources, monetized every dimension of life, and all we’ve got left to eat is stable coins.

Some fun facts while we are at it. It might be difficult to grasp if you’re living in a capitalist-run society today, but capitalism is not the only game around. Capitalism is not inevitable, natural, or somehow the only viable option. Plus, in the wider scheme of things, capitalism itself is actually quite a recent invention. It’s only been with us for what, two, three centuries? And throughout that period, always only for a subset of all of the people on earth.

Nowadays, many people living under capitalism can be, shall we say, a little fatalistic about their situation. ‘Of course, they’re going to monetize that.’ ‘A business is going to want to make a profit.’ Contrast that with the early days of capitalism, when this wage-labor-marketize-everything-frenzy first got forced down people’s throats. Back in the day, people were not so smitten. Millworkers, factory workers, shoemakers, people from all sorts of sectors protested. They thought that wage labour was humiliating and degrading. That it undermined your independence, your dignity, and your self-respect to have to sell your brain, sell your body, and sell the largest proportion of your waking life without being able to hold the fruits of your labour. And while someone else cashes in the profit from your toil.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in an address from 1883, compared wage labor to slavery. Douglass said that wage slavery was ‘… only a little less galling and crushing in its effect than chattel slavery’, and that ‘… this slavery of wages must go down with the other.’3

Maybe right now you’re thinking: ‘Ah well, my boss treats me fairly. My colleagues are nice. I get quite decent compensation—with stock options too! In fact, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!’

Good for you. But what I’m telling you is that, regardless of how nicely you’re treated, or whether your employer contributes to dental care, parental leave, or unlimited days off, if you are working for wages under a capitalist system, then you are always, by definition, and by design, being exploited. And I’m not talking about fair pay here. I’m not talking about earning a living wage. I’m talking about the principle. The basic setup of how capitalism works. The logic of capitalism requires that you, as a worker, be paid less than the value of the work you deliver. Why would that be so?

Well, remember, the aim of capitalism is to keep the engine of capital accumulation going. How do you do that? By making sure that you sell goods or services for a price that is higher than what it took to produce or procure them, so that you can cash in the difference as profit. And you do that by making sure that you pay the workers—those who do the actual work—less than the value of the work that was delivered. The capitalist needs to pay you less than the actual value generated by your work, because if they pay you the full value of what was brought in, then what would happen to their ability to siphon off profit? And without siphoning of profit, what would happen to capital accumulation? By any definition of exploitation that I have seen, this is exploitative. So that’s why wage labor under capitalism is always exploitation.

If you hear all that what sounds to me like misery, you might wonder: who would want capitalism? Why would anyone think this is a good idea? Capitalism lovers will at this point often mumble something about freedom. For example, the egoistic philosopher Ayn Rand, in their work Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal from 1966, says that ‘capitalism is the only system that answers yes’ to the question whether humans are, and should be, really free.4 Or consider the economist Friedrich Hayek, who in The Road to Serfdom from 1944 says that market capitalism is a precondition for political freedom.5

Which are both really lovely thoughts. Except that capitalism has, from the outset, always faired remarkably well under dictatorships and oppressive regimes, and has been the pretext of a huge number of mass murder episodes—often US-driven—for example, in Việt Nam, Indonesia, Argentina, and lots of more places. More on that, I suppose in another episode.

Besides, what is free about a system in which by design, the majority of the population is systematically being exploited? Is it the freedom to choose who you’re going to be exploited by? The freedom to be discarded when you’re no longer have productive use? The freedom to hop from gig to gig, not knowing whether you’ll be able to afford rent or food by the end of the week?

The website Investopedia, that fount of wisdom for aspiring investors, suggests, unsurprisingly: ‘Capitalism tends to benefit capitalists the most.’6

Level 4: What does capitalism have to do with health?

That was probably a way too long tirade about all things, capitalism, when all you really wanted was to settle into a cozy chat about bodies and health, to take your mind off the stress of things. Okay, I hear you!

We are officially gathered here today to talk about a book called Health Communism that came out not too long ago. Which, in a nutshell, says that the economic-political system that you live under can have dramatic consequences for your and other people’s health. Fine.

One of the challenges of this book, written by the authors Beatrice Adler-Bolton, and Artie Vierkant, is that it’s full of super interesting anecdotes, ideas and descriptions. But it gives you no definitions of any of the main topics that it’s covering. No definition of health. No definition of the communism from the title. And it mostly talks about the harmful effects of capitalism, but there’s no definition of capitalism either. This means that, as a reader of this book (Health Communism), there is a lot that you will have to fill in yourself. Because of the books focus on capitalism, we unavoidably will need to fill in what capitalism is to make sense of anything that’s being said here. That is what that lengthy tirade was for. And that we have now already completely covered, thank you very much. So with that out of the way, let’s turn to the contents.

Health Communism (the book) states that the political-economic system that you live under can have massive consequences for your health, for how you think about health, and for the healthcare that’s being offered to people in society. As you may have suspected from my intro (though, less so from the title of the book), the book’s main focus is how the capitalist political-economic system has such massive consequences for your health, for how you think about health, and for the healthcare that’s being offered in society.

Let’s start with the idea that capitalism may impact your health. As Adler-Bolton and Vierkant put it in Health Communism: capitalism needs health. So here’s the thought behind that.

We know that the aim and the engine of the capitalism game is ever-increasing capital accumulation. We also know that, for such capital accumulation to occur, someone needs to be producing goods and services to sell. Because for all the braggadocio of learning to live with no sleep, or of pulling off a 200 hour workweek—it’s a fiction people, there is no such thing!—I can tell you that the capitalist who owns an invest in things is not going to do that work themselves. No. The whole point of owning or investing in stuff is that you can just sit back and own, while other people do all the toiling and the grinding.

Now this is where health comes into the picture. Because those people who are actually doing all the work (the workers) at a minimum should be well enough, or healthy enough—physically and mentally—to be able to provide that labor to produce whatever the capitalist wants producing. Without at least some basic level of health that will allow the worker to perform these actions, there would be no production, there would be nothing to sell. And without any things to sell, there can’t be any profit, can there? Without any profit, there can be no capital accumulation. So without at least some basic level of health on the part of the workers, your whole capitalist fairytale begins to crumble. That is why capitalism needs health: capitalists need some healthy bodies to do the actual work for them.

At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, capitalism is extremely good at making you sick. And now, just a heads up: I am about to mention some examples of how capitalist actions and non-actions can cause health damage that may come close to home to some of your personal situations. So if you don’t feel in the mood for that right now, maybe just skip forward a minute or so? And we’ll find each other at the other end. All right?

How might capitalism be bad for your health? Here’s how. Capitalism is what leads factory owners to cut safety measures so that people lose hands or limbs. Capitalism keeps the unsuitable pipework in place, so that you are now drinking lead with your water. Capitalism is what leads chemical transport operators to eliminate inspections, testing, repairs, and cut back on maintenance costs, making a derailment bound to happen. Capitalism is what gets building owners to choose highly flammable cladding over its fire-resistant counterparts, just to save some pennies. Capitalism leads to falsified mission statements, causing all of us to breathe filthy air. Capitalism gets you addicted to opioids, and then also operates the clinic to help you get rid of your addiction. Capitalism get you Agent Orange, defoliation, disability at birth, and chronic health problems. Capitalism wants you to skip lunch or loo breaks, to ensure you meet productivity targets. Capitalism would also rather that you skip that cancer checkup too, so that you can do an extra shift. Capitalism tells you to do unpaid overtime to the point of burnout. Capitalism tells you that you are not enough, and that your only option is to buy your way towards being a proper human being. Capitalism gets you to waste hours and hours scrolling past pointless gunk that makes you feel miserable and depleted, just to have you glance at some ads for things that you may also like. Capitalism pressures people to work without proper protection, to shop, dine, and dance in unventilated super spreader spaces, in the midst of a full-blown pandemic with an airborne virus. Because you must keep producing. You must keep consuming. Because that office real estate isn’t going to rent itself, is it? Because it’s fine if you get ill. Because it’s fine if you get long term ill. Capitalism is bad for your health, because under capitalism, people’s bodies are disposable.

Investopedia agrees here, and admits that capitalism has some ‘negative externalities’ with a fancy term. Investopedia points out that capitalism creates inequalities, that it makes workers miserable, can damage the environment, and that it can harm people’s health.

Level 5: Reserve army of labour

Now you might spot a tension between the two things I’ve just said. Why, if capitalism so badly needs healthy bodies to work, why would capitalism want to make you sick? Squeeze all of the life out of you? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive? Wouldn’t it, to the contrary, be in the interest of capitalism to do whatever it can to keep people healthy? Good catch! Now, this is also what I initially thought. But it turns out there is more to the story. Here’s the situation.

Remember that we talked about the different player roles in the Capitalism game? It turns out that my initial description was a bit limited. Under capitalism that aren’t just the capitalist player role (meaning: the people who extract and own), and there also isn’t just the worker (meaning: the people who do the actual work). In addition, there is also the player role of what is traditionally called a member of a ‘reserve army of labour’.

The reserve army of labor consists of people who do not own things, and who are, for whatever reason, also not doing wage labor, but who would technically be able to work, and who could be drafted in to do so at any point. This reserve labour force contains people who are unemployed, under-employed, or who belong to what we nowadays call the ‘precariat’—which is the situation of being in temporary, part-time or gig work that barely allows you to scrape by and so engulfs you in a precarious, insecure day-to-day existence.

Here is the capitalists’ dream. The capitalists’ dream is for this reserve labour force—so, this pool of people who are looking for work—to be as large as possible. Because with a massive reserve pool of people who could pick up work at any moment, the currently employed wage workers have less of a negotiating position. They’ve got less of a fist to make when demanding safer work environment, or better compensation. The larger the reserve army of labor, the more easily any individual worker can be replaced. Because for you ten others.

You can see the recent massive layoffs in tech—at Google, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon and the like, they fired tens of thousands of workers—you can see those recent layoffs in this light. Layoffs increase the pool of workers available for tech labour. And so it makes employed tech workers more replaceable.

This, my earthlings, is where the tension that we mentioned earlier, disappears. The tension between on the one hand capitalism needing healthy bodies, and on the other hand, capitalism making you sick—this is where the tension evaporates, with the reserve army of labor. Because yes, capitalism needs healthy bodies to do the work to generate anything that can be sold for a profit. But as long as there are reserve recruits, it does not need those workers to stay healthy. The capitalist would be none troubled if you, as a worker, lose a limb, get burned, get burnt out, can’t sleep, can’t think, can’t breathe anything other than toxic air. The capitalist would be none troubled if it had to squeeze the last inch of life out of an individual worker, because with the reserve pool of labour, as soon as the poor worker tumbles over and collapses, it can just slot in a replacement. That is how under capitalism, individual workers, individual bodies, are disposable.

So yes, capitalism needs health. It needs healthy bodies to work. But because and as long as it’s got this massive reserve pool of unemployed workers, it’s got no trouble whatsoever if its cost-cutting and extraction makes people sick.

Now, if you live under capitalism, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant say, then that affects not only your health, but it also completely skews how you think about health, or how you’re pushed to think about health. What’s the idea here?

Naively, you might think that being healthy just amounts to not being ill or injured. Or maybe something to do with wellbeing or quality of life? Not so under capitalism, the authors of this book suggest. Because capitalism needs at least some healthy workers to keep the engine of capital accumulation going, and because capacity to work is practically all that matters about a worker, ‘health’ becomes almost synonymous with being able to do labour.

‘Are you healthy?’ just becomes, ‘Can you work for me?’ And similarly, the point of healthcare just becomes: not to help you get better or not to alleviate your symptoms, but rather, care gets only and exclusively directed at getting people back to work.

You can see this in the phenomenon of disability assessments, where medical professionals will determine how much labour the authorities can still reasonably expect to squeeze out of you. You’re missing a limb? Oh, well, let’s call you 21% disabled then. You’re unpredictable but chronic pain with bursts of sudden fatigue? Hmm, okay, well, that’s rather more difficult to measure. So let’s just classify you as ‘healthy’ even though you’re just curled up in a ball on the floor wanting it all to go away from time to time. Whatever their pretext, all of these fit to work assessments are to ensure that nobody who could be in wage work will escape it.

You can also see this and how recently, the UK government called upon GPs, not to write out so many sick notes. This happened not because those in government somehow, magically, realized that people weren’t actually sick. Most likely lots of people are sick, because … uuuhhh … pandemic? But the reality is that the level of sickness are getting so bad and so high, that they are causing staff shortages for employers.

Level 6: Extract and abandon

And then what happens if you’re sick? What happens if you’re long term, chronically ill or disabled to such an extent that you can’t work? Adler-Bolton and Vierkant suggest that under capitalism, there is a very real possibility that in that case, the doors will close for you. That you will simply not get the care that you need.

They say that with capitalism, there is this massive push to think about health care as some scarce good that needs rationing. And that definitely can’t be given to everyone. ‘Do you know how expensive a hip replacement is? Try to walk on this one a little longer.’ ‘You didn’t really think we could give everyone mental health support, did you?’ ‘Sorry, radiotherapy is only offered on our premium plan.’ Especially if you are long term ill or disabled, there is a very real possibility that in effect, under capitalism, you will be abandoned.

The rather morbid label that sometimes is used here is that of ‘relative surplus population’. This surplus would include everyone who for whatever reason, finds themselves surplus to requirements for capitalist production. Surplus in this sense are both anyone in the reserve pool of labour that we discussed earlier—so people who can work, but are not in wage work at the moment. And it includes all people who are too ill, too frail, or who for whatever other reason can’t work.

I think you can guess from the label already that the ‘relative surplus population’ is not obviously a group that you would want to be part of. Although I hope that someone, somewhere, will someday start a post-punk band calling itself The Revenge of the Surplus.

But seriously, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant suppose that this worker/surplus-distinction marks a big, painful cut and division within capitalist societies. And I think there’s something to that suggestion.

Think of casual questions such as: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Toward the people concerned, it is very clear that this question is not asking about a child actually being someone or something. They will just be themselves, presumably with a larger body, more experience, and different daily habits. Instead, the question is asking: ‘What type of employment would you like to perform to ensure your survival?’

Or consider the question: ‘What do you do?’, when meeting new chaps at parties. What I’m doing is, most likely, holding an alcohol free G&T with some olives and crisps on the side. What you mean is: ‘What sort of money-generating activity do you do to earn your place within society?’ And if you don’t have an impressive answer to that, it is likely to be a very brief conversation.

Or consider how people who are sick or frail or who, for whatever reason, can’t work have been portrayed as being in some way ‘less’—less deserving, of less social value, as not full members of society? Or even how they are portrayed as something of a burden. For, since the start of the CoViD-19 pandemic, it has been made very clear that your dying was somehow fine, if you had any of those pre-existing health conditions.

Through all sorts of subtle but persisting messaging, the idea gets reinforced that you don’t really count, unless you’ve struck big in employment. The idea gets reinforced that becoming surplus is a pretty miserable thing to happen to you, something to be avoided at all costs. And as a worker, you’ve got this risk of ending up in the surplus always continuously hovering over you, as some perpetual threat of what can happen if you do not join the wage exploitation bandwagon.

Level 7: Profitable tricks

Also, let’s not forget the flip side. When, with true capitalist zeal, they have marketized everything, then also medicine, treatment, checkups, or any form of therapy … then those too become products that you will need to buy. Which rapidly brings us to the familiar story of: having your healthcare delivered at the lowest possible cost, skimping on materials, regulations and safety checks, and being charged the highest possible price that the capitalists can get away with.

Speaking of highest possible profits: there are so many fun tricks of the game to help you squeeze out cash from people’s ill health or well-being. Privatize healthcare! Privatize health insurance! Privatize anything that you can lay your hands on!

Think of patents. A patent is when one child has come up with something fun or useful and then bars all the other children from playing with it—unless they pay them their lunch money, of course. Remember that fun time in 2015 when ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli bought the manufacturing license for the anti-parasitic drug Daraprim (or ‘Pyrimethamine’), also used by people living with HIV/AIDS, and took the liberty to up the price per pill with over 5,000%, from around $13 to over $700 per pill pretty much overnight?

Think also about trade agreements between countries, which when it comes to anything to do with medicine or health care, are often pre-drafted by big, for-profit pharmaceutical companies. As a result, these trade agreements may often make trade between countries conditional on, for example, the selling off of parts or all of a country’s healthcare system to for-profit providers. They may also require trade sanctions against any country that decides to produce its own non-branded version of a vaccine or a cancer drug. Because health and well being, they’re nice and all that, but what really matters is preventing intellectual property infringement.

All this, according to Adler-Bolton and Vierkant, and is the effect of capitalism on health: on how people think about what health is, and on how healthcare will be delivered within a capitalist society.

All right, well, then where are we at? It looks like we are stuck at level whatever of this capitalism extortion game, and now it’s suddenly not so fun anymore. It’s getting late, it’s getting dark, and you would want to go home. Can you?

In Health Communism, Adler-Bolton and Vierkant seem to say that if people and societies would take an alternative approach to health, then that could make the whole capitalist system come crashing down. More specifically, what they have in mind is a system in which care is not rationed. Where it’s not made conditional on your doing wage work for capitalist production. Where it’s not locked behind paywalls or formal ability assessment. But where instead, healthcare and other forms of care are provided in abundance. Where everybody has access to all the care they need. So that gives us a slogan, they say what we need is: all care for all people. And they say that such a system, if it were to be realized, must be understood as fundamentally threatening to the existence of capitalism. So basically, their idea is: change how you do health, and capitalism will crumble.

To which an alert reader might respond: Yeah, maybe? Maybe not? How would we know? Health Communism (the book) gives readers flamboyant statements. But it is pretty sparse on the theory, stats, or the causal logic of how any of this might work.

Now, I’m also just a reader in this case, and I shouldn’t go about just making any of this up on the authors’ behalf. But what I can do is give you two pointers that could, just potentially, help us signpost way out: one that’s firmly grounded in our earthly reality, and another a blatant alt-world time-travelling fiction.

Level 8: Reality check

Let’s start with the reality check. It might be easy to forget if you’re living in a capitalist society, but there are in this world, in 2023, also non-capitalist healthcare systems out there. Think of healthcare in China. Think of Việt Nam. Both of which have communist constitutions and already offer, or working towards offering, universal health care coverage. Though, as I understand it, both also operate a privatized, for-profit health market in parallel.

But the radiant example here is of course Cuba. Cuba’s health system has universal access, and is consistently recognized as among the best in the world. Cuban doctors regularly deliver medical care internationally. Cuban health researchers have developed a vaccine against lung cancer, and were the first to eliminate birth-parent-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Plus, not to forget, Cuba achieves all of this despite the United States trying to crush its care system with a decade-long trade embargo on medicine.

Now, Health Communism (the book) doesn’t discuss any of this—I suppose, because of its hyper-focus on the United States and Europe. But, just so you know, there are non-capitalist healthcare systems out there. So if you want to liberate health from capitalism, then hey, maybe these living breathing examples are ones to learn from?

Level 9: News from Nowhere

The second signpost I would like to give you is a fiction and a utopia. Drawn from the novel News from Nowhere, written by the designer and socialist William Morris.

In News from Nowhere, which was published in 1890, Morris sketches a society that has successfully transitioned into what they call ‘pure communism’, which is a society-of-equals type of communism. So very different from any sort of hierarchical state communism, which Morris abhorred.

Under this pure communism, people are free and live in a fellowship of equals. They’re not oppressed or exploited for business interests. They live without wage labour and without government. In this society, everybody does work that they enjoy, or that will benefit either themselves or the community, rather than produce things for some ‘… vague market (…) over which they have no control’.7

Morris’s community came from a system that was not too dissimilar from the capitalism that many of us are living under today. In the old capitalist days, Morris describes, people were forced to engage

‘… in a most elaborate system of buying and selling, which has been called the World-Market; and that World-Market, once set a-going, forced to them to go on making more and more of these wares, whether they needed them or not.’8

To this system:

‘… everything was sacrificed: the happiness of the [worker[ at [their] work, nay and [their] most elementary comfort and bare health, [their] food, [their] clothes, [their] dwelling, [their] leisure, [their] amusement, [their] education—[their] life, in short.’9

Did any government protect people from such exploitation? Oh, no, it didn’t. Instead, as Morris writes, the function of government, ‘… with its army, navy and police…’, was to make sure that ‘… the interests of the Upper Classes took no hurt.’ Where for ‘upper classes’ read: business owners, investors, capitalists. ‘It was a function of government to protect the rich against the poor.’ And the government’s function was also ‘… to delude people into supposing that they had some share in the management of their own affairs.’10

The escape from the misery of capitalist oppression did not come easily for the society that Morris describes. In fact, it had initially seemed completely unachievable to them. People didn’t think that it could work, because looking around them, they only saw masses of fellows who were overwhelmed, miserable, stressed, trying to survive the day-to-day, where the only chance of escape that they could think of was one of becoming a capitalist themselves and start exploiting other people. The ‘get rich or die tryin’-mentality. From the exploited to the exploiter.

So what changed? How did they manage to bring their unfathomably large move away from capitalism about? I’m afraid, or pleased, to say that the short answer is: They just began. There was not one single big turning point. There was no top-down coordination. There were just local networks of people realizing that either they’d be stuck with this wage exploitation game play forever, or they would opt for freedom and equality with a communist system of life.

People just stopped working for the capitalists, the reactionaries. The factory, the shipyards, the mills, the farms, and the docks, owned by for-profit, oppressive businesses—they just stood empty. Everyone refused to work for them. And obviously those owners weren’t going to do the work themselves, were they? Instead, people started working—weaving, forming, soldering, baking, coding (well, okay, I added the coding)—for themselves, for society, for the good and the benefit of everyone who was ready to move away from capitalist exploitation.

Let me jump in here. This is not in the book, but translated to a health situation that might mean: setting up basic, non-profit GP surgeries in your area. Starting a communal online therapy group to support one another. Saying: ‘Bollocks to that!’ with all this patent and intellectual property folly. Doing CoViD-safe meetups. Running a community kitchen to make sure that everyone can eat healthily. That, with such cumulative refusal from within society to participate any longer … that is how the change came about, in Morris’ utopia.

Playing the capitalism game may have been fun, for some players, for the few centuries it’s lasted so far. But today, with the earth simultaneously flooding and on fire, with people getting sick and depleted all around, with the most valued occupations among the young being either that of influencer or of naked short-selling professional, you’ve got to ask: Is capitalism still enjoyable to play? Because if not, then maybe it is time to hit the escape button.

At the end of News from Nowhere, when the narrator time-traveller reflects whether all that they have witnessed about this pure communist society was all a dream, they start musing to themselves. They say:

‘Go back and be happier (…) for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labor needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness. Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then maybe it may be called a vision rather than a dream.’11

Level 10: Game over

Game over.

Thank you for tuning in to Vulnerable By Design this week. If you would like to hear more or get in touch, you will find all of our episodes and more information on vulnerablebdesign.net. I am Chris Onrust. Thank you for listening, and bye for now.

  1. Capitalism 2 Official Site ↩︎

  2. Quotes from: BusinessWeek (21 October 1996), Thomas Kosnik, Drew Fudenberg, CNN, and Computer Gaming World, stated on Capitalism 2 Official Site. (Accessed 20 February 2023) ↩︎

  3. Frederick Douglass, ‘Address to the people of the United States at a Convention of Colored Men held in Louisville, Kentucky, 24 September 1883’, in: Three Addresses on the Relations Subsisting between the White and Colored People of the United States, 1886, p. 13. ↩︎

  4. Ayn Rand. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York, NY: Signet, 1966. ↩︎

  5. Friedrich August Hayek. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1944. ↩︎

  6. The Investopedia Team. ‘What Is Capitalism: Varieties, History, Pros & Cons, Socialism’. (Version: 9 March 2023) ↩︎

  7. William Morris. News from Nowhere: Or, an Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1908 [1890], p. 107. ↩︎

  8. William Morris. News from Nowhere: Or, an Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1908 [1890], p. 102. ↩︎

  9. William Morris. News from Nowhere: Or, an Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1908 [1890], pp. 102-03. ↩︎

  10. William Morris. News from Nowhere: Or, an Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1908 [1890], selections from pp. 82, 84, and 86. ↩︎

  11. William Morris. News from Nowhere: Or, an Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From a Utopian Romance. London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1908 [1890], p. 237. ↩︎