“An Old Age Tragedy”

At election times both the Labour and Conservative parties proudly proclaim that they have been responsible for the establishment of “The Welfare State.” This term has been in vogue since the end of the last war and we are told that today it is the health, happiness and well-being of young and old alike that are the first concern of the State.

It is the claim of Socialists that family allowances, health services and insurances, increased old age pensions or public assistance, do not alter the basic position of the working class. Both Tory and Labour administrations have been concerned with maintaining the smooth running of the capitalist system.

Recently the most grandiose claims have been made in connection with old age pensions and services for the elderly. Here for example is a statement made by Mr. A. Bevan speaking in the House of Commons on 17th October, 1948:—

“In very many cases before the war before the nation enjoyed the social services which it has today, large numbers of old people were living in workhouses. Today they are living in the homes in which they have lived throughout their lives. They are insisting on doing so.”

Over five years have pissed since this statement was made.

Now the conditions under which many of these old people are living under “in their own homes” has been revealed in a number of articles published in the Manchester Guardian under the title “Neglect of the Aged Sick.” In its issues of 20th and 24th November, the following information appears.

An incident is related of a Queen’s District Nurse who found a woman of 78 in an appalling condition sitting in a chair from which she was unable to move, suffering from delayed shock. She was doubly incontinent and her back from hips to knees was “completely raw with gangrenous sloughing areas.” The whole room was “ alive with bugs ” and “ the stench was horrible.”

A medical officer in the south of England called upon an old couple in a basement room where he found two old people of about 80. The woman was swollen with dropsy and the man collapsed and helpless. The report relates the doctor’s struggle to get them into hospital and the difficulties he encounters in trying to do so, for there are about nine thousand people on the hospital waiting lists, of whom 75% are classified as the “chronic sick.” The Manchester Guardian points out in its report a number of cases of old people dying alone and uncared for as a result of this. Among them is the story of the recluse whose dead body was only found by his neighbours because of the noise set up by the howling of his starved dogs who had already started worrying the corpse. Perhaps the most supreme example of our highly civilised 20th Century welfare state is that of an old woman found with a bad leg which she carefully wrapped in newspaper. Upon the removal of the paper the leg was found to be infested with maggots.

The article continues—”since the creation of the welfare state, the lot of old people has, in some ways, worsened not improved” and on the question of the shortage of hospital beds quotes with approval the following statement made by an officer of the Queen’s Institute of District Nursing—

“This is in contrast to the system previously prevailing whereby the relieving officer would have no difficulty in getting the patient into the workhouses infirmary immediately she was found.”

We would not of course suggest that the conditions prevailing in the workhouses in the past have been anything but wretched, but we would ask some of those ardent reformists who talk so glibly of the achievements of the “welfare state” today to bear some of the facts given above in their minds.

The problems of the old people can in no way be separated from the problems of the working class in general. The difficulties that we face as we grow older can only be explained from a poverty that arises directly from the fact that we have to work for others for a wage or salary in order to live. This is not enough to enable us to save any appreciable sum in order to “retire” comfortably. Old age means that we are becoming a burden upon the capitalist system; perhaps we are not quite as efficient as we were in the past and no longer such a profit making asset. It may well be that the reports we have given from the Manchester Guardian are concerned with a few of the worst and most outstanding cases, but few workers can face the economic prospects of old age without fear and trepidation.

For the ruling class, however, there is no such problem. They will be able to solve the difficulties of their declining years very easily. For them there is no poverty and therefore no lining up for hospital beds, and they can retire to one of those exclusive nursing homes with exorbitant fees whose advertisements can be seen in all the newspapers or fashionable magazines. Wealthy people in their latter years far from being lonely are often surrounded by very large numbers of helpful friends who expect “to be remembered in the will.”

The elderly worker has always been something of a problem to capitalism. In times of mass unemployment and economic crises they are often regarded by capitalist and worker alike as a hindrance in the struggle for business and for employment. In 1931 Sir Charles Grant Robinson reported by the Daily Herald on 2nd October made the following statement:—

“I am not at all sure that one of the best things we can do would not be to take every one over 60 years of age and not necessarily put them into a lethal chamber but kindly and firmly tell them they ought to be on the unemployed shelf.”

In modern society the emphasis on dealing with this problem has always been to try and do so in the most cheese-paring and economical way possible. After all the main concern of this industrial, profit making world must be with the younger workers as cannon- fodder for new wars and the wage workers of the future. The Beveridge Report points out that it is dangerous to be lavish with old age until such time as adequate provisions have been made for the young.

The first appearance of old age pensions was itself an economy measure introduced by a Liberal Government in 1909. The maximum sum paid was 5s. pet week. Mr. Lloyd George regarded this as an extremely economical position since it cost double this sum to keep an inmate in the workhouse and he expected to save £1,600.000 per annum on the transaction. Most people would do their utmost to exist on however small a sum to save the indignity of entering a workhouse.

In the years since then we have seen the introduction of higher old age pensions, but today in face of higher prices they still remain totally inadequate. We have tried to show in the foregoing remarks that the reforms of the Welfare State have had behind them the same principle as that of Lloyd George in 1909, namely that Capitalism will be able to deal with those work-weary and war-weary workers who have spent themselves out in its interest in as an efficient and cheap method as possible.

The problem remains for the elderly, as it does for the majority of workers throughout the world, one of poverty and it can only be solved by the establishment of Socialism which will sweep away the class division from which it arises.

Men and women in the Society of the future will no longer look upon old age with the dread with which we regard it today. In a world in which everybody will be able to receive all the products of society as and when they need them, irrespective of the amount of work they are able to do, the miserable poverty of the old will be banished forever.

No longer will there be the loneliness of old age which is a reflection of the anti-social tendencies that Capitalism throws up, for under Socialism the never ceasing struggle which pits worker against worker and capitalist against capitalist will no longer exist. Instead the harmonious relationships which must arise from common ownership of the means of production will permeate our dealings with one another and instead of being without interest in our neighbours we shall be more interested in them as members of the human brotherhood.

Indeed the whole idea of retirement arises from a world in which employment is regarded as a necessary evil, but in the future with the production of goods for use, the people of the world will work for the sheer love and pleasure of doing so, part of the instincts of man as a creative animal. The old will no longer be regarded by the young as a burden standing in the way of their future who ought to be “pensioned off.” We are certain that the majority of people will take pleasure in adding, if only in some slight degree, to the joint productive efforts of society as long as they are able. If we look around us today it is easy to find the old age pensioner who has long since become mentally dead owing to the fact that he cannot find any interest in life now that his work, even under Capitalism, is now over. In the society of the future if people became too old or feeble to wish to work they will receive all the attention they require. Only under Socialism can it be said that there is no division between young or old any more than there is for male or female or black or white, because every individual will be the responsibility of the whole of society.


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