Physical Deterioration

 It is a necessary deduction from the principles held by Socialists of the Marxist school of thought that the physique and the mental capacity of the working-class in every capitalist country are deteriorating. If the Socialist view of social development is, as we believe, a correct one, this deterioration is due to temporary economic causes which are remediable by combined human effort.

To the Socialist the question is fundamentally economic, and is to be answered only by an elimination into our modes of satisfying material human needs. One of the first things discovered on making such an examination is that the methods of producing and distributing the various means of living are different to-day from what they were yesterday, and that there is reason to assume that they will be yet again different to-morrow. The capitalist method of production by the wage-labourer under the control of the machine for the purpose of furnishing profit for the employer came into existence only in the last third of the eighteenth century.

The immediate result of the introduction of machine industry was the displacement of labourers. The old handicraftsmen were unable to compete with the new machine industry,and were consequently forced out of employment. At first the machine by cheapening commodities and extending the demand for them was able to absorb nearly as many men as it displaced. That day has, however, gone by. Machines are themselves produced by machinery and the markets for manufactured products are practically conterminous with the world’s surface. Hence, each improved machine introduced, every conquest over Nature made by the inventive genius of man, throws more of the workers out of employment, and renders more irregular the employment of those in employment.

Again, the machine necessitates the co-operation of many men in the carrying on of any manufacture. This combination of effort allows the specialisation of the various detail operations intervening between the raw material and the finished product, and distributes these operations in such a manner that each worker employed in the industry is bound throughout the whole of his life to the monotony of a single routine occupation. The harder work is also differentiated from the easier, and women and children become a feature in the industrial life of the capitalist era.

Another cause for the displacement of men’s labour besides the introduction of improved

machinery and of women and child labour, is the speeding up of the machine whereby each individual worker is required to tend a larger number of spindles or looms or to work the same machine at an increased speed. Thus labour is generally intensified and tends to rack the nervous system of the worker.

In return for this expenditure of his activity the worker is paid a wage which is fixed on the abour market and is determined by the cost of his subsistence as measured by the standard of comfort of the workers in his trade. This standard of comfort is kept down to the limits of bare physical efficiency by the existence of the unemployed industrial reserve population created, as we have seen, by the extension of the sphere of the machine in industry. The men out of work are prepared to accept a lower wage than that given to those in employment and thus palliate their own miserable condition. This competition for employment presents itself as an unceasing tendency towards lower wages. The final result of this competition between the workers is, that the wage of their labour power fluctuates on either side of the line of “bare physical efficiency.”

Looking at industry again, but this time from another point of view, we find that in the distribution of the commodities produced there is free competition between the various manufacturers in the markets of the world. Each manufacturer seeks to secure for himself as large a share of those markets as possible. Hence in periods of commercial prosperity he produces as rapidly as he can, and places his goods for sale, his rivals in trade do likewise. A glut of the markets follows upon this anarchic method of distribution. The manufacturer, finding the market suffering from glut and finding it necessary to transform his commodities into money, to be able to discharge his liabilities, endeavours to find a customer at reduced prices. His goods are usually purchased by one of his trade rivals who is possessed of more capital and longer staying power, and who thus augments his business. Thus we see as a result of free competition that large capitalists are crushing out small capitalists, and as this progresses monopoly ultimately results.

In America we see monopoly reaching its final and most logical form in the trust. When the trust is formed, it immediately discharges its commercial travellers, because, having a monopoly of the industry, the trust is the only available source of supply to the retail trader ; the small factories and the factories equipped with inefficient machinery are closed and the workers in them discharged ; the price of the products as well as the wages of those employed, are within the entire control of the all-conquering trust.

We have not as yet, however, reached the stage of the trust in every industry, and have, therefore, to consider the effect of the individual-capitalistic and the joint stock company industrial conditions upon the health of those employed.

We have seen the worker divorced from his tools by the introduction of machinery ; the introduction of women labour and child labour; the building up of the machine industry manifested to us in the modern factory ; the throwing men out of employment: let us see what is the effect upon the condition of the working-class of the present industrial system.

We see that in England the development of modern industry was at first in advance of its development on the Continent. From a number of well understood causes into which we need not now enquire, England obtained for a period the monopoly of the markets of the world. The produce of her manufactures were sent to every country, and had to be exchanged against the raw produce of those countries. At the same time, the agricultural workers of this country thought that it would be to their advantage to engage in the new industries that were everywhere springing up. They, therefore, began to flock into the towns, and thus commenced that rural immigration towards the great cities which has not yet ceased.

As detail operations in trades were specialised within the factories, so were the various industries of the country specialised and localised within the nation — Lancashire becoming the principal seat of the cotton, Yorkshire of the woollen industry. Round these specialised industries great cities sprung. Built upon no settled plan, the individual greed of the possessor of building land rather than the health and needs of the community being the determining factor, problems were created which remain still without solution.

Crowded together in insanitary areas, the air befouled by the smoke from the many factory chimneys, disease and vice and crime were germinated to an unprecedented extent. We find that the general condition cf the life of the wage-worker is one of extreme poverty and misery. Receiving a low wage, he can maintain only a low standard of comfort — maintaining a low standard of comfort, his competition with his fellows provides him with a low wage. Thus runs the vicious circle.

His food is of the cheapest description, usually adulterated ; his clothing is shoddy ; he lives in overcrowded and insanitary areas ; the air of the factory in which he works is befouled ; the atmosphere of the rooms in which he lives is vitiated ; his wife in many trades has to find employment and the family wage is little higher than when he was the sole breadwinner ; his children are neglected and go breakfastless to school ; the mother of the family is often employed to the time of child-birth ; alcoholism is engendered by unhealthy surroundings : these are but a few of the conditions of working-class life directly due to the class ownership of his means of livelihood. These being the facts is it to be wondered at if we assume that their result must be a lowering of the stamina and the physique of the working-class section of the community?

I do not think that any will gainsay that nutrition is the first essential to the building up of a healthy physique. Without the provision of a sufficient supply ot good, wholesome food any attempt at arresting deterioration will be futile. We are told that over 100.000 school children in London alone go breakfastless to school. For them there is little hope for a sturdy manhood. Arrest the progress of physical deterioration amongst the children through the provision of meals by the State to all school children and you will do much to strengthen the physique and stamina of the race.

I have before me the Report issued by the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, and I have looked through its pages to see whether my a priori views on physical deterioration are borne out by the investigations of the Committee.

It is to be observed that it was not from any desire on the part of the governing class to improve the lot of the working-class because they were physically deteriorating that this Committee was appointed, but because of the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient supply of recruits for the army. The government of every country is founded upon force and depends upon the organised force of the army for the maintenance of its stability, and any falling off in the efficiency of the worker viewed as raw material for the army is, therefore, a matter which they deplore. When, therefore, they find that in spite of repeated reductions in the physical standard for recruits there is maintained a percentage of rejections ranging from 40 to 60 ; when the worker presenting himself for enlistment is designated as “rubbish” by General Borrett, the late Inspector-General of Recruiting; when of those accepted nearly two-thirds have to be subsequently weeded out: then the governing class considers it high time to make enquiries into the physical condition of the people.

I do not propose to quarrel with the Committee because of this, neither am I in any way sanguine that the recommendations of the Committee so far as they would tend to benefit the workers, will be carried into practical effect. Even it Parliament carries through legislative reform, there is no reason to believe that the class that has control of the administrative machinery will let it be other than a dead letter. Indeed, in this very Report instance after instance is given where the very people against whom the Acts are ostensibly directed are to be found administering them on the judicial bench. Let one instance suffice. The evidence given before the Committee by a Miss Garnett is to the effect that—

“The local authority in the Potteries was as inefficient as you could find anywhere. Most of the bad houses are owned by members of the local bodies and the sanitary inspectors are too much in awe of their employers to carry out their duty.”

The general finding of the Committee is that there is not sufficient data from which to determine whether there is going on continuous physical deterioration among any section of the community. It may be mentioned in this connection that in the discussion on the subject by the Anthropological Section of the British Association, the existence of such deterioration was taken for granted by many of those who discussed the subject. It was not, of course, to be expected that the Committee would search too deeply into the economic conditions of production to find whether there they might discover a sufficient cause in the very basis of present day capitalist production itself tor the deterioration. Their enquiry only scratched the surface of the subject.

I may have occasion, in a future number of THE SOCIALIST STANDARD, to return to this matter. By then Vol. II of the Committee’s proceedings, containing the detailed evidence, and Vol. Ill, containing several important appendices, will probably be available. Meanwhile I content myself with selecting a few pertinent passages and trust that all Socialists will read through the Report, which contains, in spite of all its limitations, much valuable propagandist material. Dr. Neston, ot Newcastle, says:

“There is undoubtedly great deterioration in the paysique of our City population, and that is attributable to two chief causes; first, a decadence in home life, which entails improper food and clothing, irregular habits (drinking and gambling), absence of order and thrift; second, the miserable housiug and high rents which prevail; overcrowding with its consequences, is, an important factor in physical and mental deterioration.”

Dr. Eichholz, who draws a distinction between physical degeneracy on the one hand and inherited retrogressive deterioration on the other, says:

“There is every reason to anticipate rapid amelioration of physique so soon an improvement occurs in external conditions. particularly as regards food, clothing, overcrowding, cleanliness, drunkenness, and the spread of common, practical knowledge of home management. In fact, all evidence points to active, rapid improvement, bodily and mental, in the worst districts, so soon as they are exposed to better circumstances, even the weaker children recovering at a later age from the evil effects of infant life.”

The Committee says:

“There is reason to fear that the urbanization of the population cannot have been unattended by consequences prejudicial to the health of the people, and these have been considered under the three heads of (I) Overcrowding, (II) Pollution of the Atmosphere, and (III) The conditions of employment.

“The general death-rate in these tenements (one room) in Glasgow is nearly twice that of the whole city, and the death-rate from pulmonary tuberculosis is 2.4 per thousand in one-roomed tenements, 1.8 in two-roomed tenements, and .7 in all the other houses.

In Finsbury, again, where the population of one-roomed tenements is 14,516, the death-rate per thousand in 1903 was 38.9, yet the rate among occupants of four or more rooms was only 5.6, and for the whole borough 19.6.”

”I should trace much of the anaemia (in Manchester) to the deprivation of sunlight and to the lessening of the vivifying properties of the air.”

“Factory labour is mentioned as a predisposing cause ” (to alcoholism among women of the working-class).”

Describing the life of a boy of fourteen in a textile district, who has probably been bred in unwholesome environment and nourished on unnatural food, Mr. Wilson, H.M. Inspector of Factories, said :—

“The hours will be long, fifty-five per week, and the atmosphere he breathes very confined, perchance also dusty. Employment of this character, especially if carried on in high temperatures, rarely fosters growth or development; the stunted child elongates slightly in time, but remains very thin, loses colour, the muscles remain small, especially those of the upper limbs, the legs are inclined to become bowed, more particularly if heavy weights have to be habitually carried, the arch of the foot flattens, and the teeth decay rapidly.” He continues :

“The girls exhibit the same shortness of stature, the same miserable development, and they possess the same sallow cheeks and carious teeth. I have also observed that at an age when girls brought up under wholesome conditions usually possess a luxuriant growth of hair, these factory girls have a scanty crop which, when tied back, is simply a wisp or rat’s tail.”

I think, then, that the Socialist is justified in his belief that there exists sufficient evidence to verify his conclusion obtained by deduction from Socialist principles. Man is a creature of his environment, susceptible to its every change. In present day society the multiplicity of wealth which he creates keeps him in poverty, and the conditions of poverty are conditions of an inferior standard of comfort. An inferior standard of comfort engenders an inferior physique. Improve the standard of life of the people and you remove every tendency to deterioration. Such an improved standard of living is prevented only by the maintenance of a class-owned method of wealth production and can be secured by the working-class using its voting power to the end that all the things necessary to the welfare of the people shall be owned and democratically controlled by the people in their own interests.

Under a society in which individual private property is replaced by social property, when each unit of society shall aid in the production of social necessaries, there will be laid the physical conditions which shall ensure a healthy subsistencr under healthy conditions for each man, woman, and child in the community, and by guaranteeing to each a healthy physical organism will present those conditions most necessary for the mental and moral development of the race.


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“As a preliminary to any further legislation on the subject of hours of employment, particularly employment of women and children, it is, in the view of the Committee, (on Physical Deterioration), highly desirable that there should be a strictly scientific enquiry into the physiological causation and effects of over-fatigue.” Meanwhile, the women and children are crushed down by over-work!

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“Poor in physique as they all are, and poor in mental capacity and power of application as many of them must be, what becomes of them? Many of them probably marry girls as weak as themselves, and have children, some of whom go to swell the lists of infant mortality, some to join the criminal classes, while others grow up more weak and incompetent than their parents.” —Sir Lauder Brunton, on certain setions of the working-class.

(Socialist Standard, September 1904)