The industrial revolution, for all its flaws and all the misery it caused, was a major step forward in human civilisation. Goods were now available cheaper than ever before and greater movement of population took place as people moved to what would later become factory towns in search of work. The creation of industries around producing certain goods created competition to build a better mousetrap. However, the extension of industry, with its desire for profit, to encompass essential elements of society is part of the reason we are in the situation we are now. From healthcare, to prison to the very defence of the nation, the involvement of industry in society’s essentials is a true problem.
Problem Industry One: Health Insurance
Perhaps the most egregious example of private industry involved where it is not wanted is for-profit health insurance. When there is a direct link between company profits and people’s health – you know, their continued existence – we have a problem. America is the most serious example of this, where rapacious, for-profit companies make money by, to paraphrase Bill Maher, screwing people out of coverage. It is in their interest to deny as much coverage as possible, because paying out claims is a running cost, and those tend to eat into profits. The very purpose of business is to make money, and as much of it as possible for the precious shareholders choir.
I am not advocating for banning all insurance companies, but merely limiting their scope. Supplemental care – that is optional extras (usually voluntary procedures) – is a good place for the private sector. In this context, all fees, premiums and other outlays are voluntary. But there should be a baseline of essential care that is provided by what is currently being advocated by Bernie Sanders and the pretenders auditioning for the part: Medcare4All. This is essentially a massive national health insurance plan where costs are largely (if not completely) covered by tax revenue. The average amount of money paid into the scheme is actually less because the insurance pool is so much larger. Unlike the private insurance company, a government run system does not answer to shareholders and has no desire to turn a profit.
Problem Industry Two: Prisons
Only marginally less egregious than a profit motive around healthcare is one around keeping people incarcerated. Those with such a motive are part of what is called the Prison Industrial Complex. These are businesses whose profits are tied in with the size of the prison population. This is not merely those who run the actual prisons. It is the security firms, those who manufacture the weapons, the uniforms, the clothes and meals for the inmates and all the associated items. All of these have to be paid for, and the more people in prison the wider the profit margin.
The very idea of linking profit to taking away people’s physical freedom is almost as outrageous as linking it to their health. This is a true perversion of the very idea of industry. Industry was intended to produce goods quickly and cheaply for commercial products. This refers to products like mattresses, video games, squash rackets and so on. Actual commercial goods. There is no place for the government in any of those items and their design, production and distribution. But when it comes to certain essential elements of society, if there is to be a place for private industry, it must be heavily regulated due to the profit-motives that are built in.
Problem Industry Three: The Military
The final industry worthy of mention is the military. In his farewell address, former US President Eisenhower warned against allowing undue power and influence to what he called ‘the military industrial complex’. Clearly, the Prison Industrial Complex mentioned is derived from this. During the war, the creation of a permanent armaments industry was seen as necessary, with factories being converted to the production of tanks and planes. However, it never actually stopped following the end of the war. US foreign policy post WW2 has been highly interventionist, with many countries being invaded, some multiple times, for purposes of extracting resources and installing corporate friendly governments.
As just one example, see the coup in Iran in 1953 to install the Shah. The immediate context for the coup was the previous government’s moves to nationalise the oil industry and distribute the proceeds to the people. Western corporations could not tolerate that, so the coup was staged and a tyrant installed. Remember, this is from the society that claims to be in favour of democracy and human rights. Indeed is all I have to say to that.
Conclusion: The Way Forward
You can see the problem and its solution coming, can you not? The issue is corruption: money in politics. Corporations would never have been granted the degree of influence they have were it not for our corrupt politicians. The deregulation and increasingly fascist relationship between corporations and government would never have been allowed to happen if it were not for corruption.
The purpose of this piece has been to outline three main industries were profits are determined by negatively impacting people’s lives: health, prison and armed combat. As long as these facets of society remain subject to the rationales of private industry (profit at all costs) there can, and will, be no progress.
To end, two quotes from people who get it
Jailing people, really, when you think about it, turned out to be a for-profit industry. I don’t know how we didn’t see it all these years
But my favourite has to be Star Trek DS9’s Quark, who said
No-one ever went broke selling weapons