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Britain: a rolling crisis

April, 2001 Le Monde Diplomatique by Ignacio Ramonet

Antonin Artaud wrote that plague uncovers an underlying level of latent cruelty that reveals in an individual or people all the perverse possibilities of the mind (1). The foot and mouth epidemic ravaging the British countryside seems to offer both that "underlying level of cruelty" and the "perverse possibilities of the mind". As historians have shown, any epidemic is both the cause and the consequence of a precise historical moment.

So it is no accident that in Britain there is an atmosphere of fear and devastation and medieval scenes of mass bonfires as hundreds of thousands of animals are burned - pointlessly (2). Britain has been a laboratory for ultraliberalism for the past 20 years. For its unfortunate people these nightmare scenes complete a winter of woes - BSE, floods, whole regions snowed under and blacked out, rail disasters. And the explanation is not some divine malediction or "the fates conspiring" (3).

The decisions paving the way for this drama were taken consciously, based on dogma drawn from the textbooks of neoliberalism. For instance, the lightning spread of the foot and mouth epidemic, which may not yet have peaked and is already "out of control" (4), derives from the pressures of the market economy. Producers have reduced costs - at the expense of safety - in order to increase profit. In the 1980s, in the name of deregulation, Margaret Thatcher's government chose to abandon the precautionary principle and cut back the country's network of ministry vets. Then in 1991, with an eye to building exports and saving upwards of a billion euros, another disastrous decision was taken - the European Union accepted Britain's proposal to halt the routine vaccination of livestock.

These two measures, typical of an agriculture driven by profit, laid the basis for the present outbreak. Since Pasteurian medicine has been rejected as a first line of defence, the spread of the disease has to be fought by archaic methods. In line with Hippocrates: Cito, longe, tarde (flee quickly, go a long way away, come back only slowly). These methods, adopted in the name of "agriculture without frontiers", have paradoxically resulted in a rigorous protectionism. People forgot the obvious fact that viruses have no frontiers. In these days of globalisation, remarks the International Herald Tribune, they travel with a fluidity comparable only to that of the movements of capital (5).

The desperate quest for competitiveness - the fattest livestock at the cheapest cost - also explains the origins of "mad cow" disease. "All the research shows a clear link between Britain's decision to change its process of manufacturing animal feedstuffs and the arrival of the prion," writes Le Monde. "In 1981 the British decided to skip one stage of the manufacturing process: they reduced the temperature (saving energy costs) and stopped using solvents (saving material costs). As a result the prion was not eradicated and was able to spread" (6).

In 1979 a similar logic underlay the British government's rush to privatisation. In 1994 they sold the railways to the private sector. Since then there has been a series of major accidents, with 56 dead and more than 730 injured. The media accuse the new train and rail operators of sacrificing safety in order to increase profits and keep the shareholders happy.

Has any of this changed since the election of Tony Blair and the Labour Party in 1997? Not really. His social-democratic "third way" is simply a variant of Mrs Thatcher's neo-liberalism. Under his government public spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen to its lowest for 40 years. Britain has the biggest social divide of any country in Europe. State education, for example, is slowly being privatised. By deciding to impose steep charges on students going to university, Tony Blair has introduced educational selection by wealth.

In healthcare, World Health Organisation statistics show that Britain has the longest waiting lists for hospital treatment in the European Union. Inequalities between rich and poor have increased. More than five million Britons are defined as poor. Almost half of all women are in part-time employment. And a quarter of all children live below the poverty threshold. In theory Europe's socialist parties are fighting for social justice and a reduction of inequality. Are they critical of Tony Blair and New Labour? Plainly not. The conference of the European Socialist Party will be held in Berlin on 7-8 May and Robin Cook, Britain's foreign minister and one of Blair's closest friends, has just been selected as sole candidate for the post of chairman.

(1) Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, Calder, London, 1981.

(2) Foot and mouth disease is extremely contagious. It was first descri bed in the 16th century and the virus was identified in 1898. It is not lethal for cattle (the death rate is less than 5%). Historically Europe has suffered dozens of foot and mouth outbreaks. After a few weeks the animals recover and the quality of livestock improves.

(3) Daily Mail, London, 1 March 2001.

(4) International Herald Tribune, 24 March 2001.

(5) International Herald Tribune, 16 March 2001.

(6) Le Monde, 13 March 2001.

Translated by Ed Emery


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