The Tragedy of Middle Age
The Manchester Guardian of June 8th and 9th, 1937, publishes two articles dealing with the unemployed women in the cotton towns. Socialists are continually being told that Socialism will destroy the sanctity of the home and family life, and the Guardian gives some interesting examples of what capitalism has done. The article commences:
“Continued unemployment has made its most disastrous inroads into family life. Married sons and daughters with children of their own have as much as they can do to support themselves.” It then goes on to illustrate the miserable condition of the elderly women operatives, mainly spinsters and widows, who cannot get work and who have to rely upon various charitable organisations. “These women normally remain at work at least until they are sixty.” Many women even object to taking the old-age pension because it separates them from their accustomed mill life. The Manchester Guardian correspondent notices also the psychological aspect of this particular unemployment problem.
He says, “For instance the tremendous asset of inherited and acquired skill and the habit of sustained and continued interest in work are disappearing among younger women and girls. Few of these have ever had steady employment themselves, or have lived in homes where the steady employment of parents has set the mould of family life. The lack of this habit of work has made the placing of girls and young women between the ages of 18 and 30 a most difficult thing. At the Blackburn Exchange it was recently found that there were 700 young women with no binding home ties for many of whom work was available in other places in a great variety of occupations.”
Work was offered in wireless, biscuit, and chocolate factories, also domestic service. Not many were prepared to take advantage of these offers, and the writer of the article puts it down to the gregarious habits of three generations and the undermining of their independence through lack of regular work. Amongst the elder unemployed women the writer says there is a sense of frustration and a constant fear lest health should go, and lest there should be any diminution of the regulation sources of supply. When viewing their budget he gives the following among other pitiable details. A single woman’s income of 16s. leaves her with 3s. 1d. for food when all her other expenses are paid. Dependence upon gifts and jumble sales for renewals of clothes and household goods. If out of benefit the extreme difficulty of getting medical supplies, such small things as lint bandages and spectacles, things which, as old age approaches, become more necessary, especially after long periods of under-nourishment. There is little variation in their diet, they simply have to leave out some item of food when they wish to vary it at all. Perhaps leave out dried fruit when they include jam.
Finally, the Guardian correspondent is staggered to find that an unemployed woman of 50, if she lives another 20 years, will cost the State £700. Then, summing up what can be done, he says: “A great deal can be done on the human side by clubs.” On the economic side the position is hopeless. The woman is not adaptable, and “the outlook is very drab and costly.”
It seems that, as far as these workers are concerned, Socialism will not rob their family life of any of its sweetness. These women workers have done everything that they should have done from the standpoint of capitalist morality, and such is their reward. They have been good wives and mothers. They have started work at a tender age (some at ten years). Married early and continued at work whilst doing their duty to the State by providing it with future wage slaves. They have been thrifty, even taking up mortgages on houses in order to have a roof over their heads in old age. Full of proud independence, they have paid into coffin clubs—no pauper burial for them, kept their houses clean and neat, and lo! at fifty years of age they are stranded high and dry. Each one of these women, viewed by the parsimonious eye of the Relieving Officer, is going to cost £700 until she is safely under the turf. Why don’t they die at fifty? What capitalism really needs is a brave new world, where all the industrially useless die off. Those that fall by the wayside and fill the hospitals, those inconvenient compensation-seekers should just fade away, leaving not even a memory. £700, the price, say, of a new car, or a fur coat, or a banquet, or twenty years of a worker’s life. Why won’t they die at fifty?
Just recently money has been poured out like water in a senseless display of Coronation finery and bunting. Beautiful women have each flaunted hundreds of pounds upon their persons. Hundreds of other women have been employed in getting these gaudy butterflies ready for their display. Meanwhile, hundreds of lonely, miserable women are facing the prospect of trying to live on an average of about £35 a year till they die.
Still, there is no satisfying some people. These women even object to leaving work and taking the old-age pension. They like the atmosphere of the mill. It offers a human interest, the back-chat of their fellows, but what an indictment of capitalism. The old and worn-out women clinging tenaciously to hard and laborious work, rather than face the struggle and loneliness of a pensioned backwater. The young, we are told, are even more awkward. They won’t shift over to other employment, not even to be a nice little slavey. They, of course, are demoralised by intermittent employment. They are not thrifty nor imbued with that fine, independent spirit for which their mothers were so richly rewarded. Maybe there is some hope that they will not be such malleable clay as their mothers, either, and that they might even ask for more than £700 for twenty years of useless life.
Socialists are often also told that Socialism means the end of individuality. How do these women clothe themselves? Out of jumble sales. All individual models: some other individual’s. Also gifts of other people’s hand-me-downs. When they eat their individual 3s. worth of food they can each individually decide whether it shall be jam or currants.. Such soul-crushing poverty could perhaps be understood were it the result of profligacy or wastefulness, but it has been shown that these workers have worked hard for years, and the youngsters simply haven’t had the opportunity. It could be understood if we simply could not produce enough for all. Such was the common poverty of primitive times, but to-day there is no excuse for lack of food, clothing and shelter for any individual.
The Guardian correspondent notices “fear of the future” and “frustration” as part of the outlook of the unemployed. This is typical, however, of employed workers as well. The average wage of £2 10s. to £3 cannot but bring frustration, and fear is engendered at the very thought of losing even that miserable amount. Even in the country districts, amidst abundant fresh air, the signs of undernourishment are painfully apparent. The’ agricultural worker’s wage is totally inadequate and unemployment in the country is even more hideous than in the town. The writer of the articles sees no hope except through humanitarian and charitable channels. Next to the crushing effect of poverty comes the crushing effect of charity. It must, however, be administered tactfully, says the writer.
Oscar Wilde had something to say about charity. He said it created a multitude of sins, one of which was gratitude. He said also that the best among the poor were never grateful. “They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious.” Among these people, then, let us look for our Socialists. The Socialist says: Let us take away the ownership of the land and factories from the present owners and make them the common property of all. Let us make all those people who now perform no useful function do some useful work in production and distribution. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, policemen, canvassers and a host of other people who waste their efforts on useless work, including society beauties, who don’t work at all, and the hundreds of people who minister to them. All of this energy could be pressed into service for the community, and the hours of labour considerably lessened. We will have plenty of leisure. We are all so work-weary that we do not really know how to play at all. Socialism will give us time to learn. Socialism means the abolition of poverty of the mind as well as the body. Capitalism means crooked bodies and crooked minds, but not all are so malformed that they cannot think in their own interests. To these we appeal to come and help us to clean up the mess.
Only through the establishment of Socialism can we get rid of poverty and unemployment. Only then can we get rid of Charity and her hateful sister Gratitude.