Tobacco and capitalism.

Chris Burford cburford at
Thu Dec 10 23:59:06 PST 1998

At 10:06 AM 12/7/98 -0500, Doug wrote:
>Chris Burford wrote:
>>Freud is famously quoted as saying "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".
>>What a relief. But Doug, when I post an item totalling the annual profits
>>of the three major tobacco capitalists in the UK, a market of roughly 50
>>million inhabitants, at around 3 billion dollars, then we cannot say a
>>cigarette is just a cigarette.
>Oh yes, and the world food market is cornered by greedheads like Cargill -
>better do something about that eating habit! And medicine by Merck - better
>stop getting sick, too!!

I was not ignoring the post, but waiting before responding as I do not think much is gained by quick fire exchanges, especially with the moderator of a list.

Nicotine is quoted as being as addictive as heroin. It is less damaging then heroin in itself but my impression is that it is probably even more addictive. Capitalism markets commodities in order to exploit labour power and a commodity is something which is exchanged and meets a need whether of the stomach or the imagination (Capital page 1). The capitalist management of a drug of addiction is certainly a rather special case, and it could be totally abolished as it is in some countries by state ownership of tobacco manufacture, and the capitalist system could continue around it unscathed for all other commodities.

Your question challenges whether this is just a bit of moralism about tobacco or whether it has implications for the massive capitalist economy of food and of medicines. My reply would be: partly. This is the thin end of a wedge, and the campaigning skills learned on tobacco, can be used to make food manufacturers socially controlled, and also medicine manufacturers including especially biotechnology.

In the UK and Europe there is a lot of concern about genetically modified soya beans, which apparently have been rapidly incorporated into the food chain in the USA with little public protest.

>>The news item I reported actually shows how careful the new third way is to
>>avoid moralism.
>Huh? The Third Way approach is to avoid old-fashioned Christian style
>moralism, but replace it with Hillary-style social worker moralism (which
>you could argue is a mix of Methodism and Fabianism). It medicalizes morals
>- smoking and drinking are denounced not as stinkpots of corruption, but as
>a public health problem. Bill Clinton himself was big on this stuff until
>he got caught with his pants down; thank god for Monica Lewinsky so we
>don't have to hear him moralize anymore.

I think it is still difficult to define whether there is anything new about this "Third Way". Obviously I accept that it has a lot in common with other forms of reformism, opportunism and social democracy. But I think perhaps it takes total social management in a pluralistic society to the level of technical skill. The New Labour government is a government of technocrats in the subtle management of society. It is unprecedented that they are briefed by an army of focus groups. This could not have happened even a decade ago because the handling of information this way would have been technically impossible without computers. I think we are seeing how the economic base is primary and is shaping the ideological superstructure.

[NB this is not a full answer] Given that Clinton engaged in risk taking behaviour in a way he must have known would come out in public, his strategy has been remarkably skilled in managing the public reaction and shows the superiority of his skills to those of the right wing of the Republican Party. The Stock Exchange is unsettled by the impeachment talk.

>>What is bugging you about this campaign? Are you against it in principle or
>>are you just against moralistic politics? Can you give examples because I
>>do not accept that the campaign to curtail the power of the tobacco
>>capitalists has to be moralistic. It will also be more clear headed if it
>>is not.
>I'm against it because it's moralistic, and because as I said in my first
>response to your outburst, it's grossly simplistic (and unworthy of a
>psychoanalyst) to attribute smoking to the "power of the tobacco
>capitalists." Be careful or I'll inflict the list with long excerpts from
>Richard Klein's book Cigarettes Are Sublime. Well, here's just one:

Well presumably some of this list are smokers and some not. Readers can guess the likely habits of Doug and me on this question, which is a personal question for each person. I suppose one person's outburst is another persons cogent committed argument but Doug and I do seem personally engaged on this issue beyond the signficance for capitalism. Let me at least absolve psychoanalysis. Had I had psychoanalysis I would be much less neurotic than I display myself to be on these lists, and I generally regard Doug as much less uptight than myself and able to moderate a very active list much more flexibly than I could myself.

But this exchange does illustrate something much wider than our personal commitments about smoking. I do unite with Doug that there is a problem of moralism in left wing politics. Marxism does not have a moral stance which stands above classes and society. But many subjective leftists and socialists do. One of the reasons why the Conservative Party has been in power in Britain for most of this century is that 2/3 of the manual working class have always voted Conservative. The moralistic wing of social democracy has always alienated them.

I would note that the passage you quote from Klein starts off with a statement entirely accepting the capitalist ideology about bourgeois right:

>The most recent evidence of the link between smoking and liberation is
>visible in the struggle women have waged in this century for their freedom.

There is a crunch about bourgeois right for marxists.

While we want to eliminate the bourgeois right to the private ownership of the means of production we are easily seen to want to restrict the bourgeois right of individuals. Theoretically bourgeois right is an idealist fantasy. Everything is dependent on everything else, and because of these interactions bourgeois rights often clash. In the case of smoking, your right to smoke cigarettes in a restaurant infringes my right not to have to inhale carcinogens passively.

The socialist process of restricting bourgeois right is undoubtedly restrictive and must be done with great care. But if so people will support it.

The New Labour Government statement announcing a battery of measures against tobacco, is very carefully crafted to be based on the self interest of adult voters, including their selfish desire that their children on whom they have lavished so much social labour, should not die prematurely.

It is likely to succeed as a small reform which certainly does not necessarily imperil the future of capitalism. And yes, I support it both for its immediate sake, and for the precedent it creates for further controlling the private ownership of the means of production.

Chris Burford


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