There was a heart-warming story in The Times on Monday, albeit one with a rather unfortunate headline. “Gene cure for babies allergic to life”, it said, announcing that NICE, the rationing body for NHS-provided healthcare in the UK, has approved Strimvelis as a treatment for ADA-SCID, a vanishingly rare condition in which a patient’s genome doesn’t code for the adenosine deaminase enzyme (“ADA”).
Lack of ADA causes immunological compromise (“SCID” is “Severe Combined Immunodeficiency”). Children without ADA are unable to combat the sort of minor infections which their peer group can shrug off. Their life expectancy is not good; their experience of life not much better.
In other words, Strimvelis isn’t “just another drug”, though I use the quotation marks for ironic purpose: there’s no such thing as “just another drug”. No medicine — nor any other therapeutic intervention, even those we now take for granted — is anything less than a hymn to human ingenuity, and their development is the scientific equivalent of building St Paul’s Cathedral, or writing Middlemarch, or formulating the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh: a human drama of great adversity, with success by no means guaranteed. Human ingenuity empowered — and human lives saved — by capitalism.
And here I must give a statement of “full disclosure”, which is both absolutely necessary but which will cost me credibility with, I’d guess, at least half the people who read this. But that’s OK; it’s the point of this piece.
Because Strimvelis was co-developed, and licensed for sale, by GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company. And I work for GSK; am a shareholder in GSK; indeed, for a time, managed statisticians who worked directly in support of Strimvelis.
This fact — that I work for “big pharma” — will be sufficient to discredit both my integrity, and my argument, with many readers. No matter that GSK doesn’t review or pre-approve a single word I write (and has recently announced a withdrawal from developing medicines for rare diseases like ADA-SCID): “big pharma” is by definition wicked, because it seeks to make a profit on the back of human misery, profit that it passes to its shareholders.
My politics are at least partially refracted through this capitalist career prism. So when I hear of Jeremy Corbyn’s desire for a “new kind of politics” — words echoed by New Zealand’s new Left-wing Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who this week described capitalism as “a blatant failure” — I don’t just snort with derision (since the “new way of doing things” seems to involve a curious quantity of anti-semitic tropes and twitter-mob bullying.)
Nor do I merely panic about Mr Corbyn’s eager promotion of massive renationalisation programmes, and the deleterious impact this would have on my oh-so-carefully built up pension savings (though I do panic about this, a lot.)
No: my greatest concern is with the fervently anti-capitalist tone of the New Left; that to be dismissive of capitalism — that is, the act of investing one’s money at risk, in the hope that the product developed with that investment will lead to a return — is the new norm, a semiotic short-hand of moral worth.
Capitalism, in the New Left schema, is a “dirty” activity, which good people avoid. Say “capitalist” to most people and their mental image appears to be a swirl of cartoon fat cats, puffing on cigars they’ve lit with a tenner nicked from your pocket, while a righteously-snarling Robert Powell overturns money-lender tables in the background. Way to go Jezza/Jesus!
It’s not a historical surprise that disdain for industry holds sway in a stratum of British society; lofty disapproval of the process by which value is added to materials has been present since the industrial revolution. It is mildly disconcerting to find the party of Labour as the muscular champion of such disapproval.
How much better, to this New (old) Left way of thinking, would the world be, were medicines developed — or trains run, or telephones operated, or airlines managed, or steel produced — without any grubby private companies making a profit along the way.
Well, says the empiricist: how many life-changing medicines were developed in East Germany, before the wall came down? In the entire history of the Soviet Union? If Corbyn’s anti-capitalist schema becomes the template for Western democracies, how many new medicines would you bet will be discovered in the next five decades?
Now replace “medicine” with any other product you find necessary for the good life: in Venezuela, this now includes “food”.
This is a necessary defence of capitalism, but it’s not sufficient. Because there are too many fat cat spivs making a mint off the back of our misery. To travel from Brighton to London on the privately-owned Southern Railway, for example, is to understand the swing to Labour in the three Brighton seats at the last general election. Brighton’s commuting workers get up pre-dawn to be abused by an expensive train system that wouldn’t pass muster as cattle transport. Yet the train company owners are rich; rich as Croesus; rich beyond your dreams. And you want me to vote for more of this?
The user-experience of capitalism has too often become “the boss class does what it likes; I work another five years to pay off its mistakes.” The banking crisis of 2008 is only the starkest example: in the US, a few dozen bankers were imprisoned. The net total of industrial and political rebalancing in the UK: some guy lost his knighthood. And, er, that’s it. Back to work wage-slaves. Haven’t you got a mortgage to pay?
It doesn’t, to coin a phrase, have to be this way. But neither should the “way” be socialist.
To save capitalism, centre-Right parties must demand its reform, and not only via the mechanism of regulatory oversight. Conservative parties should stoke shareholder activism — should organise such activism: there’s no law of market economics which says that CEO incomes should accelerate so disgustingly far ahead of median corporate wages (and do so, moreover, whether the corporation is run well or not.)
Conservative politicians assumed that the anger expressed at all those marches in London and Washington wasn’t shared by their working- and middle-class electorates. This may well turn out to be the most expensive political mis-diagnosis of the 21st century. The rage of the working man and woman at their user-experience of the current system isn’t wrong; manipulation of that rage, as a tool to deliver socialism, is the psychological perversion.
I don’t want to be metaphorically trite, but our body politic wouldn’t be so open to infection by discredited socialist ideas were it not compromised by a Right-wing incapable of producing a coherent — or even experientially credible — response to the anger which underpins the rise of the Left.