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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid! No, Seriously. I Mean It. (Some Thoughts on the HIV Epidemic, Social Problems, and Capital) (2010)

Deric Shannon

I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune recently on a flight from Madrid to Paris. My friend and co-conspirator, Abbey, and I have been doing a lot of traveling lately and a free copy of an English-language newspaper is a hot commodity for an hour and a half plane ride, particularly this one since I left the “Marx for Beginners” book I was reading at home! I nestled into my seat, prepared for being a little unsettled—what counts for “news” is usually disturbing as all hell, after all.
Amidst the stories about natural disasters, the economic crisis, authoritarian regimes (are there any other kinds?), rising tensions between nuclear-capable nations, hunger, deprivation—ok…you know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever read the news—there was a headline that screamed positivity:
African Studies Give Women Hope in HIV Fight
And so I skipped the doom and gloom and decided to start on this positive note. I mean, anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, has been hit very very hard by the AIDS crisis. 22.4 million people are living with HIV there. And women are hit particularly hard, in nearly every country in the region comprising more than half, often well more than half, of the people infected with HIV. And in the twisted chaos and illogic of capitalism, it is those with the least that suffer the most—poor and working people—where the numbers of people living with HIV are vastly over-represented.
So any good news on the front in the fight against HIV in this region is welcome news.
The first part of the article explained that there was a new gel that contains antiretroviral medications that helps prevent the spread of HIV. That was certainly good news and uplifting, but the next study really just kind of made my jaw hang slack. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me, being sponsored by the World Bank—an institution known for its complicity in bankrupting poorer nations in the process of making wealthier nations…well…wealthier.
Here’s the gist:
In Malawi, they gave different sets of young girls stipends, varying in amount, to see what effect that might have in preventing contracting HIV. Unsurprisingly, the girls with the largest stipends were much less likely to contract HIV than those given nothing, with a predictable blend in the middle depending on the amount of money given. Thus concluded the article, “(t)he likelihood that the girls would agree to sex in return for gifts and cash declined as the size of the payments from the program rose, suggesting the central role of extreme poverty in sexual choices. “
Ok. Now let me get right to the punch. The above conclusion is riddled with problems of its own. Access to resources doesn’t just mean less trading sex for money. For huge sections of the world, it also means access to sex education. It means access to birth control. It means access to condoms, spermicidal foams, and a host of other safer sex alternatives. It means access to a healthier diet, leading to being better apt to learn where access to education has taken place. In short, it means (greater) access to everything that people need to live dignified and decent lives. In the article, this is reduced to trading sex for money (a problem for these schoolgirls I’m not trying to trivialize, but one that contracting HIV is not reducible to). So more sex isn’t “the problem”, or, as Patrick McGovern, chief executive of Harlem United Community AIDS Center Inc. in New York, recently said, “”We don’t see greater promiscuity in poorer communities. We do see less access to diagnosis and treatment.”
And, so, the final conclusion of the study seems to be that access to resource means a reduction in rates of contracting HIV. This insight, of course, isn’t limited to this study. The reason it bothers me so much is that, to socialists, this is a truism. It has been for a couple of centuries now. This isn’t a new insight and not one we need multiple World Bank-sponsored studies to figure out. Capitalism creates and maintains structured inequalities that splits the world into classes—some of whom work, others who manage, and still others who just own a bunch of shit and get richer and richer by exploiting the work of others (a bit over-simplified here, but this isn’t intended as an exegesis on contemporary anarchist class analysis).
Add to this economic soup anarchist insights into hierarchies of all kinds (and their effects such as institutionalized racism and sexism) and you see that the people who exist in the dangerous intersections of these structured inequalities are always the hardest hit by social disasters. And let’s be clear, the HIV epidemic is a social problem and one that is compounded by living in a world that continues to tolerate the existence of this insane and immoral economic system that advantages some groups of people at the expense of others. And it is further compounded when we look at how that economic system intersects and interacts with other systems of institutionalized oppression.
I don’t know if we’ll ever find solutions to problems like the HIV epidemic. I do think, though, that we could substantively address it in ways that don’t advantage some groups at the expense of others. But this is going to require a re-organization of the totality of oppressive and hierarchical social relations into something new, participatory, and fundamentally non-hierarchical—and I think the perspective that best suits us for this project is anarchism.
There’s a popular phrase in American politics: “It’s the economy, stupid!” This was the rallying cry for Clinton as he ran against the first Bush, who seemed unbeatable at the time. A deep recession hit the United States near the end of his presidency, however, and Bush was ousted by Clinton. The phrase was intended as a statement about how voters react to the economy.
I want to re-introduce this phrase, but intend it in a different way. When we have social problems (and the HIV epidemic is just one example), they are compounded by living in a society organized into social classes with differential access to resources. At the same time, class society interacts and intersects with various other oppressions so that those with the least—and those specifically living in the dangerous intersections of these oppressions—are affected the most. Anarchism asks us: Could we organize society in a different way? Could we address some of the social problems fundamentally, and at their roots? And, if so, could we then start working towards solutions?
The best of anarchism sees the necessity of a (broadly meant) working class movement against capitalism. This anarchism sees itself as a part of the socialist tradition that stresses that it will be ordinary working people who change society—not CEOs, tenured academics, or royalty—and that’s the kind of movement we need if we are going to create a participatory and democratic society.
I don’t think we can create a perfect world. But I do think we can create a better one. And if we want to address social problems like the HIV epidemic, and many others (hunger, privation, domestic violence—the list could go on), we need to build the kinds of self-reflexive, participatory, working class movements stressed by the best in anarchism. And we need to argue within those movements for smashing capitalism in favor of better and more humane economic arrangements.
After all, it’s still the economy, stupid. No, seriously. I mean it.
For further research, see especially:

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