A recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics entitled ‘Deindustrialisation and the post-socialist mortality crisis’ once again draws attention to the catastrophic effect on the working-class people of the countries of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe of the overthrow of communism. The word ‘katastroika’ has been coined to describe this disaster. It is estimated that it caused upwards of 700,000 premature deaths during the 1990s. The authors point out: “Male life expectancy in Russia declined by seven years between 1988 and 1995. …[After the end of the Second World War] … with … the [delayed] consequences of wartime malnutrition and injuries, the mortality rate was only nine to ten per 1,000, compared with 14–16 in 1994. Hungary also suffered a significant though less dramatic mortality crisis … Male life expectancy in Hungary declined by 1.5 years between 1988 and 1994, and death rates reached levels last observed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, that is, 14.5 per 1,000 in 1993”.
What the article sets out to consider is what exactly was it that had such a dire effect on people’s health, and it concludes that the major cause was de-industrialisation. It debunks the ‘theory’ of the apologists for katastroika that Russians died because Russians drink too heavily, which is obviously absurd because Russians drank heavily before katastroika as well as afterwards, so drinking of itself cannot have made such a huge difference.
What are the effects of de-industrialisation? The authors point out: “Deindustrialisation entails a loss of a complex set of socio-economic linkages that are very difficult to re-establish. As capital escapes from deindustrialised areas, local infrastructures collapse, with a loss of services, such as health, education, family support, or transport that were either provided directly by the large plants or by the local authorities that they helped fund. This creates a downward spiral of social and economic disintegration, leading to a regional lock-in of rustbelts… Deindustrialisation could lead to a cascade of social problems, such as increasing income inequalities as it creates winners and losers…, growth of precarious jobs and in-work poverty …, or the erosion of communities and communal identities …, which in turn could lead to ill health. The growth of service sector jobs is no substitute for the lost industrial capacity as ‘most skills acquired in manufacturing travel very poorly to service occupations’ …”
The ill health is well documented to be related to the stress placed on workers as a result of their reduced living standards, social isolation, etc.:
“The collapse of the industry as an institution engenders social disintegration, leading to ruptures in economic production and social reproduction. These ruptures entail job and income loss, increased exploitation, social inequality and the disruption of services previously provided by industrial companies. These ruptures in economic production affect social reproduction, leading to adverse outcomes, such as material deprivation, job strain, fatalism, increased domestic workload, anomie, community disintegration and alienation.”
The result is: “… [It has been] found that stressful situations cause a higher secretion of cortisol, endorphins, platelets, fibrinogens, fibrinolysis and other substances. These affect the level of plasma lipids, blood coagulability, blood pressure, cardiovascular reactivity, central obesity, responses to inflammation or infection, depression, coronary artery atherogenesis and a weakening of the immune system, that is, changes affecting cardiovascular mortality. Psychosocial stress has been shown to indirectly affect health via the increased use of stress relievers such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs, which influence health and social behaviours and the ability to maintain emotional balance … Through this stress mechanism, deindustrialisation can lead to worse self-reported health …, lower life expectancy …, and elevated drug- and alcohol-related deaths …, especially when accompanied with a mix of neoliberal policies …, as the extant literature on Western Europe and the USA has established.”
“The authors go on to point out that “Deindustrialisation in post-socialist Eastern Europe was a particularly painful social process. Socialist industry played a crucial role in workers’ lives, providing stable, life-time jobs and a comparatively high salary. Industrial workers enjoyed high social status as the backbone of state socialist societies … Companies also provided many free services, including healthcare, housing, holiday homes, sports- and cultural facilities. Russian enterprises spent around 3%–5% of GDP on social provision, while East European firms spent about half this amount, which is still very important for the beneficiaries … Industrial employment also contributed to social integration, vibrant work- and neighbourhood communities...”
Of course, in capitalist terms, spending so much money on workers’ wellbeing is highly ‘inefficient’, when that money should have been spent on improving the means of production in order to be able to produce with fewer workers and make a lot more profit! Obvious! ‘Spoiling’ workers was making Russian industry uncompetitive, so this absurd system had to go.
The authors express concern that workers plunged into misery by deindustrialisation are prone to seduction by right-wing populism, and they warn that the experience of Russia and eastern Europe is also relevant to imperialist countries that deindustrialise to export capital to places offering higher profits:
“Workers’ physical and mental suffering in left-behind areas is a critical correlate of anti-liberal, populist attitudes … Therefore, the insights from analysing the deindustrialisation–mortality association go beyond public health.”
Of course, the UK, Europe and the United States are all stained with rustbelts of disaffected workers, whose health and longevity are also adversely affected by the loss of their industries and communities. Of course, the disaffected workers are assisted in taking a populist direction by propaganda issued by and on behalf of the bourgeois billionaires who have robbed them of their wellbeing to the effect that it is other workers, especially immigrants or people of different ethnicity, language or religion, who are the cause of their problems. Nevertheless, the social unrest that can be stirred up by populists can interfere with the process of peaceful profiteering and is generally not welcomed by the bourgeoisie – although it is prepared to accept the risk bearing in mind that the alternative could be socialist revolution that would deprive its denizens of their ill-gotten gains.