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The Poisoning of Flint: A Public Health Crisis

The poisoning of Flint water and the water cut-offs in Detroit are public health disasters. Both are a result of a failing economic system and a State apparatus, which is stripping all avenues of democratic governmental responsibility, through the dictatorial authority of the Emergency Management system. Rotting inside the corporate State lie the ruins of a public health infrastructure.

Historically, the U.S. public health system was administered locally and funded by a tax on sailors administered by the Marine Hospital Fund and Service. Public health’s military origin squarely placed it within the U.S. State apparatus. As such, it was organized to secure and protect the requirements of a capitalist class for a healthy productive source of labor power.

The needs of the industrial working class for illness prevention and health at times coincided with the needs of a growing capitalist society built around the system of wage-labor.  Capitalists needed a public health system to stop disruptions in commerce and production, caused by the scourges of infectious diseases.  Working class families benefited from vaccines and clean water, the containment of epidemics. Along with the need for a capable military force, this defined and drove the government’s development of public health. It also held the seeds of the 21st century starvation and privatization of public health, that have been so painfully exposed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and now the poisoning of the city of Flint.

A Crisis of Democracy

The City of Flint was placed under the Emergency Manager Law in 2011. Ostensibly to save a little money, in April of 2014, Flint’s Emergency Manager switched the city’s drinking water source from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the highly polluted Flint River. Almost immediately, residents complained of foul smelling yellow-brown water, rashes and other maladies. They were met with dismissive arrogance by all levels of government. It was the Governor’s appointed Emergency Manager who cut off water to 91,000 Detroit homes and it was Flint’s Emergency Manager, who refused to safeguard the quality of water when he switched its water source to the Flint River.

The refusal of government to act in the interests of the people of Michigan highlights the merger of corporations and government, reflecting the real intent of the Emergency Manager system. At the heart of the EM system, as well as the destruction of a meaningful system of public health, is the changing role of the State.  For corporations like Veolia and Nestlé, water is the new gold.  Removing Flint from Detroit’s water system makes privatization schemes for the Great Lakes’ waters easier.  By October 2014, General Motors announced it would get off the Flint River due to the damage the corrosive water was causing to its production of auto parts. It seems that “what’s good for GM” was not good for the rest of Flint. What the agencies of the government did in Michigan underscores the dysfunctional, starved and privatized condition of public health today.

The industry that grew the cities of Detroit, Benton Harbor and Flint has been devastated. Michigan has seen a 50% job loss in manufacturing since 2000. Flint’s GM employment dropped from 80,000 in1978 to less than 4000 today. The accelerated introduction of labor-replacing technologies in production has disrupted all former arrangements between workers and capitalists.

Increasingly, laborless production has forced the property owning class to use these other ways to maintain existing property relations and power. Public health functions, by definition require democratic institutions in order to address the health of whole communities. Those functions are becoming superfluous as human labor in production is replaced by digitalization and robotics. The enactment of Michigan’s Public Act 4 in 2011, established the sweeping powers of Emergency Managers to void union contracts, seize, sell and privatize public assets, and transfer any elected authority to an Emergency Manager. In this context, public health controls the public in the interests of private property, not the people.

In the decades following World War II, the labor and civil rights movements, along with thousands of dedicated scientists and technicians ramped up public health institutions and scored temporary victories. From freely distributed polio vaccines and OSHA laws, to the publicly financed Medicare and Medicaid, and the end of global smallpox, the working class benefited.  Lead in paint and gasoline was banned and clean water laws were passed in the 1970’s. Paradoxically, it was General Motors who promoted lead in gasoline in the 1920’s and it was General Motors whose industrial parts were being corroded by Flint’s lead-laced water in 2014. Corporations knew then as now that any level of lead is unsafe, especially for developing children. Neither gasoline, nor paint was intended to be ingested – but water is.

The Perfect Storm: Austerity and Fascism

Those aspects of the public health system that benefited a productive workforce of the past, fell victim to austere budget cuts in the 1980’s. Funding for public health programs were thrown back on the states, who in turn punted to county and municipal governments. Sequestration budgets cut public health functions by more than $46 billion. Capitalists, losing the source of their profits from labor power, pivoted to privatization of public resources and speculation. In turn, the corporate State reduced public health to a budget beggar at best and at worst, to a deceitful nonentity serving the interest of corporate private property.

Today there are 50,000 fewer public health care workers than 20 years ago.  Sample surveys of local public health departments found that over 73% contract with private sources for core public health functions, resulting in muddled, or no public accountability. Private Medicare Advantage Plans have swallowed 32% of its public funds, and now 50% of Medicaid funds are in private managed care plans.  Democracy – even limited democracy – becomes a strategic obstacle for the corporate take-over of public assets and functions. The Emergency Manager system is an expression of fascism in America.

As the public health crisis in Flint has unfolded, the political crisis has become clearer. Existing laws, science and regulations were ignored.  Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) disregarded the obvious deadly implications of water-borne E Coli outbreaks and the subsequent dangers of carcinogenic total trihalomethanes (TTHM’s.)  Eighty-seven cases of Legionnaire’s, including 10 fatalities, only resulted in ‘boil water’ advisories. No other information was given to the public, a core public health responsibility. The open hostility of the state of Michigan and the indifferent response of federal agencies made clear that economic austerity for the working class necessitated political fascism. Flint isn’t only a water crisis; it is a national political crisis of democracy and as such must be confronted politically. A unified working class response is necessary for the immediate needs of this city to be met now, by the government ,without hesitation, conditions, or other limitations.  The crisis in public health is both a cause and effect of a political crisis of democracy rooted in existing property relations.

Class Unity:  Practical and Political

Enormous bureaucratic complexities, mired in a totalitarian culture that devalued human life, falsified and withheld information until the determined people of Flint confronted the State. The complete failure of the State to protect the public health of the people forced residents to seek outside scientific verification of their worst fears, lead poisoning of children.  Flint residents independently organized with scientists to adopt accurate protocols for lead testing of water. They took their children outside of Genesee County to get blood lead level testing and results they could trust. Amid calls for the Governor to step down, there is the beginning of a programmatic response to the crisis in Flint, that is both practical and political.

It is clear to many that Medicare for All should be applied to all residents of Flint immediately. There is precedent. Residents in Libby, Montana, the site of a deadly airborne asbestos contamination, have used a provision in the Affordable Care Act to guarantee Medicare, with no time limits,  to all who lived in that northwest section of Montana during the exposure. The families of Flint deserve no less. But granting this would only verify the immediate need for government to guarantee that all public assets, including water and healthcare be nationalized in the interests of the public’s health.

The workers of Michigan necessarily are relying on each other. Their struggle for clean, safe and freely distributed water objectively sketches the outlines for another kind of society that values human life above private property. The need for a lifetime of free publicly administered healthcare for all of Flint could not be any clearer.

Fighting in the interests of the children and families of Flint and against the Emergency Manager system is a fight for the future of the working class and society as a whole. Many cities and towns are experiencing scarcity in a land of abundance, as the old industrial infrastructures fail and along with it, any remaining democracy. Developing class unity becomes both a practical and political process. It unleashes the development of new ideas and incubates a vision of a cooperative, communist society that serves the interests of society, not the ruling class. Michigan is a harbinger of the future – our future is up to us.

July/August 2016 Vol26.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.

Photo of Protest

30,000 March in Support of
Chicago Teachers Union Strike
Photo by Ryan L Williams
used with permission

The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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