Amidst the many maladies of today’s global society, a tide of optimism brought by the latest cancer research news reflects a defiant response to one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. But although massive investments that involve venture capital companies and funds may be necessary for the pursuit of current and future large-scale scientific projects and ambitions, it is still sensible to ask the following questions: To what extent should capitalism be credited for rapid progress in cancer research and treatment? Moreover, can the profit motive, being an essential feature of capitalism, justify future investments in bioscience and related fields?
American-born British politician Boris Johnson draws attention to the importance of these questions, as much as he draws attention to himself, as he visits the US for second time in three months. The charismatic London mayor and Conservative Party politician who will be returning to the Commons as an MP in May this year is a staunch defender of capitalism who is also very much keen to promote his image as a global statesman in the run-up to this year’s British general election. During his visit to Boston a few days ago he states that ‘capitalism is essential if are to meet the biggest challenges facing the human race’, including fight against cancer. Boasting patriotically about the British scientists’ recent achievements he complains that they are not making any profit from their work, that this is not justifiable and that we need venture capital to cure cancer. Speaking from what has been described as a life-science Mecca given its world’s top research institutions, big pharmaceutical companies and clinical collaborations, Mr Johnson does a very good job at promoting Britain as ‘the place to come and invest’. However his enthusiasm not only smacks of morbid excitement, it also entails an absurd logic as well as dangerous contentions.
Mr Johnson’s claim has, of course, an important connection with the relevant facts. Cancer is on the rise. In the UK for example, in 1992, the proportion of people who got cancer was 32%. This increased to 44% in 2010, and according to Macmillan this figure will continue to rise, reaching around 47 between 2020 and 2030. Similarly, Cancer Research UK most recent analysis shows that one in two people who were born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer. This prognosis is chilling enough. On the positive side of things, cancer survival in the UK has improved a great deal; it has doubled since the 1970s through earlier detection and improved treatment, and the records show that half of those diagnosed with cancer will survive for at least 10 years. The increase in efficient cancer treatments is thus quite encouraging; in 1992, only 21% of those who had cancer did not die from the disease, while in 2010 this percentage rose to 35% and by 2020 this will rise to 38% surviving cancer and dying from another cause.
The implication of these figures and forecasts is that our society needs more resources and investments to cope with the challenges ahead. Since more people are likely to survive cancer, more people will need public health services. A major worry for the UK is that the National Health Service (NHS) – introduced by the post-war Labour Government in 1946 – will soon be brought to a standstill and unable to cope with the big increase in demand for services. Therefore whoever wins the next general election in the UK will have to do some very careful health care planning. Here is where Boris Johnson leaps in. The conservative London major who in 2013 said that economic inequality was useful because it encouraged people to work harder, argues that the Labour leader Ed Miliband suffers from ‘intellectual failure’ because he allegedly fails to grasp the fact that the profit motive can be both good and necessary for progress. Clearly, for Johnson, income inequality and the fact that the UK is the only G7 country where wealth inequality increased between 2000 and 2014, this being caused by the richest part of the population, is not a big problem.
One of Johnson’s points of inconsistency is that he also says in the same breath that capitalism is ‘compatible with satisfying the wants of the poorest and neediest in our country’. This means, to follow Johnson’s logic, that people like him – an upper-class Oxford graduate – are those who know best what the poorest people in a society really want and need. And this is absurd. High business acumen is good for business, however it does not follow that this disposition determines or that it is even compatible with one’s capacity to empathise let alone understand the poor. And anyway, what are the wants and needs of the poorest members of a society? Are they fundamentally different from the needs of those who are not poor? In thinking that the human needs are solely determined by their wealth and social status, Johnson exemplifies what Karl Marx once described the condition of ‘alienation’ in which people are divided from others, their world, their own activity and even themselves. And this goes for all people, whether workers or capitalists, poor or rich. Then, we may ask if it is Johnson who suffers from intellectual failure – capitalism-induced detachment.
Now even those who do not subscribe to the Marxist analysis of human nature and social conditioning could still appreciate the plausibility of the view that at least as far as health care is concerned, a major motivational drive is or should be altruism. Unless we are very sceptical, we might think that some form of practical philanthropy would exist in the absence of capitalism, motivated by motives other than profit making. Or at least, we have a good reason to believe that the profit motive will always be difficult to reconcile with our concept of morality. We need go no further than Michael Moore’s film Sicko which sends a powerful message that ‘we should have no talk of profit when it comes to helping people who are sick’. Johnson, on the other hand, whilst thinking that Britain could have ‘great and glorious future’ outside the EU, recommends that in terms of future heath care projects, we need to be ‘more ambitious, more tycoon-like, more ready to build vast commercial empires: in short, to be more American in our outlook.’
To add the twist, if not ambiguity, Johnson also believes that venture capitalists who invest in cancer research are not motivated by the profit motive only; they are also ‘fired by a desire to better the world’. Who is such a better world aimed for? This question lends itself to Johnson’s most dangerous contention. The makers of the glorious future Johnson envisages are people like scientists and successful businessman, in other words those with high IQ who, according to him, stand a better chance of being wealthy. We should therefore be ploughing more resources into helping those with higher IQ’s. We cannot deny the fact, he goes on, that people with IQ’s below 85 are destined to be less wealthy. Now, we can spell out Johnson’s contention more clearly: the needs of the poorest members of a society are modest because they can never achieve much anyway. However capitalism, he thinks, even with its good old-fashioned profit motive, is best placed to respond to the needs of the poor. And once again, what are the needs of the poor? Do they need to be cured from cancer as much as the rich people do? Do they need to eat healthy food, stop smoking, moderate their alcohol intake, play tennis and relax in art galleries? Are they even capable of appreciating art? And if the answers to these questions are ‘no’, in what sense is Johnson’s better world better for such people also?
This line of questioning could force Boris Johnson to make himself clear as a proper Nietzschean fancying himself a hero from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged who represents ‘the men on strike against an altruist-collectivist society’. In the meantime, his competence with the monoclonal T-cells coupled with his fuzzy logic and dangerous views leaves the British voters and the world at any rate puzzled about his blazing advertising of capitalism as a cure for cancer. Some will also wonder whether Johnson’s clumsiness amount to no more than a desperate cover-up for the fact that capitalism itself is in the stage of cancer. And why not think this way; the very characteristic of cancer – its invasive growth – is what is has in common with modern capitalism. Like cancer, capitalism threatens to break down our society’s immune system, reversing also all the progress that has been made toward social equality and stability.
The facts that scientists world-wide, those who are devoted to revealing the secrets of human life and how we can be protected from the most vicious diseases, need sufficient funds to support their research does not imply capitalists’ rightful ownership of their noble cause. Neither does it imply that capitalism helps cure cancer. Boris Jonson and his, and he calls them, transatlantic friends must be discouraged by a political environment they fear most: the environment that is sneery enough and depreciating about the very idea, if this means their idea, of suffering elevation and wealth creation. And not just in order to prevent absurdity, but more crucially to prevent a deceptively benevolent stroll down the Nietzschean road. We have been there once before.
Amna Whiston is a London-based writer specialising in moral philosophy. As a PhD candidate at Reading University, UK, her main research interests are in ethics, rationality, and moral psychology.