Review by Tony Sutton
The UK working class lost much sympathy after its stunning rejection of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist manifesto in last December’s general election. That they chose to be influenced by a three-word slogan – Get Brexit Done – from a Tory party that had savaged them with a programme of vicious austerity over the past nine years was an indication of both a lack of political awareness and the crushing power of unrelenting right-wing media propaganda.
Similarly, the continuing support for Donald Trump, who was propelled to the US presidency by another vacuous slogan – Make America Great Again – hardly invites affinity for the working class in shattered US heartland states. In more enlightened times, those voters would have chased Trump and his cronies out of town; but it seems certain they will re-elect the orange oaf later this year.
Despite the working class’s flair for electoral self-flagellation, Susan Rosenthal, the Canadian author of Rebel Minds: Class War, Suffering and the urgent Need for Socialism, is firmly on their side.
A retired physician and avowed socialist, she opens Rebel Minds with the uncontestable assertion that “People all over the world want the same things: effective shelter, nutritious food, clean water, sanitation, and access to information”, along with societal needs, especially “to know that others will support us in times of need.”
“Capitalism”, she declares, “delivers the opposite: deprivation, disrespect, distrust, disconnection, discrimination, meaningless work, social insecurity, pain, disease, premature death, and fear for the future”.
As an alternative to the present economic system that, she says, is rigged against ordinary people, Rebel Minds offers a ‘Marxist method of analysis’, forged in the belief that working-class people could run the world much better than billionaire rulers, who “fear Marxism because it exposes them as a class who are leading humanity to extinction …”
If the system is so obviously flawed, then how does capitalism continue to get away with such shameless, self-centred behaviour? That’s the question that Rosenthal confronts in the early sections of Rebel Minds, where she analyses the physical and mental torment created by ever-increasing demands of profit-hungry bosses on workers who have become numbed by mindless and meaningless, drudgery in jobs that barely pay their bills.
This situation is aggravated when whole communities are ravaged by avaricious corporations that establish profitable industries, “destroy the environment in the process, then relocate to more profitable areas, abandoning entire regions to rot”.
Rosenthal offers Detroit, former heart of the US auto industry, and the US Rust Belt as examples of capitalist contempt for workers, while reminding us that every Western society has its own horror stories of the distress created when “good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair … the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities”.
The pain created by this devastation, she says, is one of the main causes of the trail of opioid addiction that has added even more misery and despair to the hardest-hit regions.
“Some will object to my blaming the capitalist class for human suffering”, says Rosenthal, “I say that they control society, so they are responsible for what happens. We are responsible for allowing them to keep us down and for liberating ourselves from their rule.”
Readers will be forgiven for wondering if anything but another major financial catastrophe can slow down the growth of a pernicious system that creates fantastic riches for the few while increasing poverty and despair for the rest of us.
Can the union movement revive sufficiently to even the odds around the bargaining table? I’m not so sure, given the response of many of the workers I meet in my local pub and coffee shop.
I’m a strong believer in the bargaining power of union solidarity, but many of them are blinded by the arse-about-face notion – encouraged by the tabloid media – that unionised workers are greedy because they are better paid and have greater job security than their non-unionised neighbours!
When I suggest that, instead of moaning, they should join a union that will fight for them, the discussion tends to end in heated words revolving around ‘Russia,’ ‘socialism’ and ‘commie bastard’…
Rosenthal is also a staunch union supporter, although not without reservations. She’s wary of their infiltration by a ‘manager class’ of leaders who are often more comfortable in the executive suite than the shopfloor.
However, to cement the case for union solidarity, she quotes from a report from the Economic Policy Institute that every worker should read before their first day on the job, “Compared with non-union workers, the average union worker in America enjoys 28 percent higher wages and is more likely to have medical insurance, paid leave, a pension, and other benefits”.
The second section of Rebel Minds is a harsh indictment of the role of psychiatry and the concept of mental illness – the theme of much of Rosenthal’s previous writing – which she says,
is unique to capitalism and . . . hides the role of the capitalist class in creating mass suffering.”
She illustrates practitioners’ inability to correctly diagnose ‘mental illness’ and ‘psychosis’ by recounting an experiment undertaken by Stanford University professor David Rosenhan who “sent eight volunteers to eight different psychiatric hospitals across the US.
All posed as people concerned about their ‘mental health’ because they heard noises and were admitted to hospital on that basis.
Immediately after being admitted, all eight volunteers reported that the voices had stopped, they had no other symptoms, and they felt fine. Nevertheless, seven were labelled with ‘schizophrenia’ and one was labelled with ‘manic depression’. They were kept in hospital for up to 52 days. After being released, none were considered cured; all were labelled ‘in remission’. During their time in hospital, no staff member discovered that any of the phony patients was an imposter, although some of the other patients figured it out.”
After this and a follow-up experiment, Rosenhan suggested that “we refrain from sending the distressed to in-sane places’ and focus instead on helping people to solve their problems.”
Rebel Minds also details the historical misery created by capitalism, including colonialism, racism, eugenics and genocide:
“Conquerors take what they want by force. Their moral justification is the racist belief that ‘savage barbarians’ are no more entitled to the land, or compensation for its loss, than animals in the forest … Since the beginning of colonisation, every capitalist regime has practiced racism, eugenics and genocide against populations who stand in the way of capital accumulation.”
That exploitation continues: we are subjected to an almost daily dose of TV news coverage of protests and demonstration around the world.
Much of that output, however, is stage-managed to emphasise the ‘battle for democracy’ in countries such as Hong Kong and Venezuela, while downplaying the fight against the sins of capitalism, evidenced by the near-total TV blackout of a year of increasingly violent government reaction to protests against the French state’s austerity measures.
What should the working class – and that’s what we all are, despite our cynical, corporate rebranding as ‘middle class’ – do to counter “the complex web of social institutions that keep the majority ‘in their place?”
After telling us that moral outrage, personal change and reformation of the present system won’t help us escape the societal ‘deep shit’ that looms, Rosenthal asks,
Will we stand by while the ruling class destroy everything that humanity has accomplished over millennia, or will we defend our right to a viable future? Undoubtedly, the majority choose to survive. The question is how?”
So far, I agree with most of Rosenthal’s analysis, but I discover I’m what she terms a ‘Pessimist’ when I dig into the final chapters of Rebel Minds, where she reveals how we can conquer the capitalist ogre, offering a disappointing and, I’m sure, thoroughly unworkable, solution to the problems confronting the 21st-century labour force.
Rosenthal states, “A successful socialist revolution depends on millions of workers rising together to remove the capitalists from power as quickly and painlessly as possible”, pointing out that, “A supremely organised working class could take power without using violence; workers would simply escort their supervisors, managers and bosses out the door. The violence comes when capitalists refuse to accept majority rule and try to regroup, rearm, and attack. We must anticipate and defend against this inevitability. The stronger the workers’ State, the less force will be required.
Then, a few pages later, we’re told, “Transitioning to a communist, needs-based economy will take time. In the meantime, people will need to be paid for their work. This will not be a problem”, she says, as the wealth accumulated under capitalism belongs to the working class, so workers “have the right to use it to launch the new economy…
When enough is being produced to meet everyone’s basic needs, money can be removed from the equation….
Imagine not having to worry about money: making it, losing it, keeping track of it, spending it, saving it, and never having enough! Making things free makes people free.”
There’s more along those lines as Rosenthal forecasts the eviction of greedy, rapacious capitalists, followed by the dawn of a brave new world, based on a revolutionary format that failed in 1917.
Yes, much has to be done to fix our unequal economies, but the solutions won’t be found in Rebel Minds. While Rosenthal adds to the debate about the in-justices of capitalism, her dream of a Marxist revolution and cash-free society will find little support in the pubs and coffee shops frequented by the workers she seeks to inspire.
They don’t want a revolution, just a fairer share of the contents of the corporate piggy bank.