1920s >> 1925 >> no-255-november-1925

Science and the social problem

A scientist died the other day while experimenting with gas. The event reminds us of the great amount of work done by numbers of scientists in different directions, and how often such work has brought about the death of those taking part in it, in the effort to control the forces of nature and to weed out disease from amongst us. We are tempted at times to enquire of what use is this vast expenditure of effort to the mass of the world’s population. Much talk there is of modern scientific progress, but the question is seldom asked whether this expenditure of effort is worth while, or whether the need for much of the scientific work is due to causes that can be removed.

The position may be looked at from more than one point of view. One may look at the wonderful results of microbe hunting; the fine buildings that have been put up; the marvellous results of the application of electricity to various purposes; the use and abuse of oil; the wonders of steam ; and so on, and standing appalled before the feats of the human brain, exclaim, “Yes, indeed, there has been progress, wonderful progress !” On the other hand, one may look at the festering slum ; the ill-clad and ill-fed thousands scurrying to work at the sound of the hooter; the lunacies from overwork and the suicides from underwork; the model dwellings that tremble at a blast of wind ; the miseries of the poor and the fatuities of the rich ; and seeing these things one might murmur, “Is this progress?”

Again, we might ask whether marvellous inventions are of any real service when the bulk of the people cannot take advantage of them ; or yet, again, whether discoveries are of any real value when the cause of the evils they deal with can be removed, thereby rendering the discoveries unnecessary.

Generally speaking, all work that involves the training and developing of the faculties has an element of usefulness, but if a similar result can be obtained by employing the faculties on work that is useful to society, then it is foolish to employ them on useless work. For example, the practice of the profession of burglary or company promoting stimulates mental activity and develops considerable manual dexterity, but a similar result could be obtained by taking part in work that was of real use to society.

Now let us examine two aspects of the matter more closely.

Over 90 per cent. of the population of this country does not get more than two weeks’ holiday at a time in one year; the majority of this 90 per cent. gets less than a week at a time. The average wage of this 90 per cent. is, at the best, only sufficient to provide the necessaries of life and a very modest holiday. This is taking an extremely favourable view of the state of affairs. Imagine, therefore, of what little value to such people is, for instance, the luxuriously appointed ocean-going liner, with its wonderful arrangements to meet every need of the traveller; or the marvellous feats of engineering in the Alps, the Andes or the Himalayas; the remarkable gadgets for the comfort and convenience of the owners of £6,000 motor cars; and hosts of similar marvels that are entirely out of the reach of the teeming populations of industrial areas who make up the bulk of the inhabitants of modern countries. It is interesting to know that at banquets of the wealthy, automatic carriers travel round the table, and guests can pick from them tasty morsels to suit their palates, but the information is of little value to a hungry man with a fat appetite and a lean pocket.

Thousands upon thousands of pounds have been expended, and investigators have used up a large part of their lives in the hunt for the microbes that are said to cause such diseases as consumption, typhoid fever, smallpox, and the like. If everybody lived in sanitary dwellings, worked under healthy conditions, ate unadulterated food, and got plenty of fresh air, the bulk of the illnesses would disappear. Flour, jam, and other things are produced for gain, and the goodness of the article is sacrificed for the gainful end. Cheapness of production is thought more of than good quality. If buying and selling were abolished profit would cease to be the incentive for production, and there would be no inducement to produce objects that are of inferior quality and harmful to the consumers.

Substitutes are produced instead of good quality articles for the same reason that food is adulterated.

The wage the average worker receives is small, and the housewife, or family buyer, is compelled to look for things that are cheap. Hence adulterated goods and cheap substitutes are purchased instead of the healthier, more nourishing, and better-quality articles. Much ingenuity is used, and many and wonderful are the inventions in the effort to provide such substitutes. At the moment of writing the papers report the formation of a company for the purpose of producing woolalose, as a substitute for wool. It is composed of 70 per cent. jute and 30 per cent. ordinary recovered wool. If there were a shortage of wool, then the production of a substitute would be a sensible procedure. But there is no shortage of wool, and the sole reason for the production of woolalose is the desire to obtain a cheap substitute that will allow of a good profit to the company and yet be within the purchasing power of those whose purses will not help them to reach the genuine article.

This business of substitutes and shoddy runs right through the heart of present-day society. Investigations have produced startling information of the wonderful things introduced into even the commonest articles to make their sale more profitable. Jam and bread are typical examples.

But rain falls on the innocent as well as on the guilty. The effects of adulteration are sometimes felt by the rich as well as the poor. A guide-book to Switzerland, giving advice to tourists, contains the following remarks on wines :—

“Travellers to France are generally advised when they drink vin ordinaire to take the white wine by preference, as from its colour it is less likely to be the subject of adulteration. In Switzerland, however, the adulterator shows great impartiality for colour, and exercises his craft with great liberality and fairness. Plaster of Paris is the principal ingredient, and Swiss wines have hitherto been largely plastered. With us plaster of Paris is used rather by confectioners than by wine merchants, and constitutes the principal adulteration for comfits and all opaque sweeties. The plaster of Paris is cheaper than sugar and does duty for it.”—(J. E. M., “Guide to Switzerland.” Introduction.)

The baneful effects of Plaster of Paris on the human constitution do not need pointing out.

The same writer sent samples of Swiss honey and genuine honey to an analyst for examination. The result showed that the genuine honey contained only 0.94 of cane sugar, whilst the Swiss article contained 30.27 of cane sugar, thus proving that Swiss honey was a manufactured article, and the bees were innocent of the crime.

These illustrations show the lengths to which modern producers will go when putting on the market an article that is produced mainly for sale, and also that the rich are not always sure of being exempt from the evil effects of the system that allows them to accumulate wealth.

The Executive Council of the Food Committee recently reported having had evidence given them that paper-bag manufacturers were being asked for heavier sugar bags, and that when sugar was weighed in these bags the retailers could afford to sell sugar at cost price and make their profit on the bags ! (“Daily News,” 16. 10. 25.)

These are the kind of things that have accompanied the advance of society, and they are the result of much time and ingenuity being spent in fighting preventable diseases, producing makeshift goods, and deceiving people with poisonous products and faulty measures. Are they signs of progress? They each have their source in the same central fact, the modern private ownership of the means of wealth production, with all that such ownership involves.

Taking this as one test of progress, compare modern times with the Middle Ages, swathed in medieval darkness. The peasant and the guildworker produced articles that were at least genuine and free of adulteration. Progress, in this direction anyhow, would appear to have headed backwards nowadays. In spite of the development of sanitation we have little to boast of on the score of disease. Whilst cholera and similar epidemics ravaged the Middle Ages, we are still in the grip of epidemics, as the statistics of smallpox, influenza and syphilis bear eloquent witness.

The problems of disease, shoddy goods, and the like are economic problems. They can only be solved and real progress made when the central economic problem has been solved. Disease and shoddy goods are bound up with poverty, each flows from the same cause. When the cause of poverty has been abolished the effects will cease to exist. Under the heading “A Puzzle for Progress” the “Observer” (16. 8. 25.) printed an article on some slums in Limehouse, the surroundings of which are described as “a soaring temple of gasometers, a railway embankment, and a dead-cat kind of canal.” The slum consists of 9¼ acres, which the Stepney Council has condemned as insanitary. The suggestion to clear the slum has been met by a storm of protest from the occupants. The following description is suggestive of the elevating nature of the circumstances :—

“A century and a half ago fish-curing started there; to-day there are half-a-dozen curing yards in the area supporting, directly and indirectly, probably not far short of a hundred families. The sheds are, literally, in the backyards of some of the houses. In the evening, when stoking-up for the night is going on, you may stand at your back door under a gas attack of acrid deal and oak sawdust fumes, with haddocks hanging before you all arow.”

Plenty of examples parallel to this can be found in dozens of other localities. The description continues with these words : “It may not be ozone, but at least it is livelihood.” There is the crux of the problem. Against the matter of livelihood and low wages sanitary attacks and town-planning schemes are constantly collapsing. Slums are cleared from one locality only to rise and flourish in another. Ideal cottages are built, and look very pretty and inviting until the lodgers in every room convert them into poverty-stricken hovels and withered flowers of slumdom.

We see then that the bulwarks of misery are profit-making, poverty and ignorance. These three in turn bring forth shoddy goods, overwork, disease, and the multitude of other ills that flourish to-day. But profit-making, poverty, and ignorance are themselves the product of the present private property basis of society. To attempt to deal with present evils by part amelioration instead of striking the root of the trouble, and to claim the result achieved as evidence of progress is hypocrisy, the shoddy product of an essentially shoddy society.

People will be free of disease when they can afford to live in well-built, hygienic houses in healthy surroundings, and work under sanitary conditions with plenly of leisure for healthy exercise and rest; they will be free of shoddy goods when the aim of production is to provide the whole of the members of society equally with articles of consumption and adornment that are of the best quality obtainable. They will be free of ignorance when they have leisure to learn and access to the best existing sources of knowledge ; and they will be free of poverty when the means of wealth production are owned by society as a whole and operated for the equal benefit of all.

All the scientific progress of ages will be of little advantage to the majority of the world’s population unless and until the barriers of capitalist private property are removed and the need for the microbe-hunter vanishes.

It has been said by a philosopher, whose name I have forgotten, that the progress of a society should be judged by the health and the happiness of the men, women and children composing the society. Judged by this standard, the progress of capitalist society is a sham that conceals a weltering mass of misery. Yet it need not be so. There has been a tremendous technical development that enlarges the capacities of modern production to an extent that makes easy the provision of what is necessary to meet the economic needs of all. Once the bulwarks are broken down the forces that exist will be released and the progress of the mass of the population become a reality instead of a fiction.


(Socialist Standard, November 1925)

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