1970s >> 1970 >> no-791-july-1970

Everything has its price

One fact which is made very clear by the operation of things like the welfare state, social aid agencies, criminal records, is that a capitalist state simply cannot function without some means of identifying people. There are of course simple ways of doing this— the policeman asks you your name and address—and there are more complex and refined methods, like matching fingerprints.

 

Another method, which has only recently come onto the scene, is by referring to speech patterns. This works on the theory that each person speaks to an individual style, has a personal vocabulary and uses some words and phrases persistently while others hardly at all. (Professional footballers on television seem quite unable to utter more than a couple of words without interjecting “y’know” but perhaps that is a social, rather than an individual, fashion.)

 

Now there is no reason to confine this method to the identification of people. If we apply it to society, it has its uses in telling us something about a social system. One word, for example, which is in constant use under capitalism is “market”. We hear about the Common Market, market economics, market research and so on. What does that tell us about capitalism ?

 

A market originally meant a gathering of people for the purpose of buying and selling goods. Time has rather modified this; a market need not now be a place where people gather but it is still, in some shape or form, a place where goods are sold. So one fact from capitalism’s constant use of the word is that it is a system of buying and selling where the dominating motive for production is profitable sale. It follows from this that everything must have a price and that there are laws and principles and procedures which operate to arrive at that price.

 

This may seem like labouring the obvious, were it not that there are unpleasant implications to the pricing of everything and that lots of people who think that capitalism and its market economy are examples of eternal sanity often find themselves protesting at the way the economy has to work. For example there is the case of Stewkley Church.

 

This is a church in Buckinghamshire with enough ancient material in it to justify the description 12th. century; in fact it is said to be among the finest Norman village churches in England. The mediaeval craftsmen who built the place, who knew nothing of modern technology or market research, were unwise enough to put it down in a place which may be needed for the third London Airport. If the airport is built at nearby Cublington, Stewkley Church will be destroyed.

 

The location of the airport is at present being considered by the Roskill Commission and one of their jobs is to put a price on each of the four possible sites. This price will be made up of the costs of such as new communication systems, the loss of agricultural land, the destruction of buildings. So it came about that, about six months ago, a firm of business consultants made what is called a cost-benefit analysis of Stewkley Church. The euphemism is itself enough to illuminate the function of the consultants. They costed the church at £51,000.

 

This figure, however represents only the fire insurance value and some local people don’t think this covers the situation. The chairman of Buckingham County Council has said that the three Norman arches in the church are worth, as works of art, about £1 million each. The secretary of the church preservation committee thinks it is impossible to put a value on the place; he probably agrees with the chairman of the group who are resisting the airport, who says “It is like trying to put a value on a summer’s day.”

 

In fact, capitalism does put a value on a summer’s day. And on a work of art. On a church. A social system which works by profit, whose wheels are lubricated by money, must put a price on everything. It bruises many sensitivities in the process, but capitalism can work in only one way. That is why vandalism is part of its history. Stewkley Church would not be the first bit of history to be trampled under in the march for profit.

 

Then there is the case of the judge’s life. A couple of months ago, a High Court action began, in which an American rubber company sued three other firms for alleged infringement of a patent on a production process. One judge heard the case for 30 days and then died before he could give judgement, which of course was not only inconvenient but also very costly.

 

The original hearing cost about £60,000 and the repeat, before another judge, was expected to come to about another £50,000. So all four of the companies united to take out a joint insurance policy on the life of the judge, for the estimated cost of the retrial.

 

One can imagine the judge—and judges are not notoriously slow to react to any slur on their dignity—fuming at the thought of a bunch of accountants coldly assessing the price of his life, even if it was rather higher than the price they put on the lives of most of their employees. But of course it was not the value of his life which was being insured—only the price it had in relation to the use the rubber companies were hoping to make of it. Or perhaps that only makes it more of an insult.

 

Yet insult or not, this is all perfectly natural under capitalism. Since the judge would hear the trial, and assess the rival cases, in terms of the system’s profit motive and the protection of property rights, he cannot logically complain (not that he probably wanted to) if some of the essential degradation of the system rubs off onto him.

 

The judge does not stand alone in this; the valuation of human life is commonplace. One impetus which has been given to this is in the building of new roads, which may make transport cheaper—and so bring more profit to the industries using them — and save some lives, but which also costs a lot of money. How to decide, then, between building a motorway or leaving the old road to carry on ?

 

One factor which counts in the decision is the price put one each human life which a new road may save—what is it worth? A recent (31 March) article in The Guardian said that the Ministry of Transport has fixed a value at £8,800; they are thinking about raising this figure to £9,800 because after all wages have gone up and there is the higher cost of training and replacing workers to be considered.

 

There are pressures for other ministries to join in this inhuman, unavoidable piece of calculation and for the whole thing to be tidied up in that thing beloved of the profit-conscious accountant—a standard code of costing. Professor Alan Williams of York University has done some calculations on this and has come up with the notion that “. . . every year of life is of the same intrinsic value to the community” although he hints at what he means by “community” when he adds “This sum will then be added to the economic benefits of providing various facilities” and that “certain weightings” could be applied to increase the price of people of “greater value to the community.” The same Guardian article says that a senior civil servant has actually suggested a figure to suit the “typical” man in England and Wales—£30,000, based on his potential earnings. The usefulness of all this research is that, if an agreed figure can be put on the worth of a human life to capitalism, the accountants and the cost benefit analysists and the planners would know where they stand when they are considering the economics of things like preventive medical services, new transport systems, industrial safety measures. In other words, the capitalist class would know, before they invested in a new road or a hospital, whether they were putting their money into saving lives which would bring them a return on their investment.

 

This may make the blood run cold yet it is all very necessary, and sensible, once we accept that capitalism must continue. Capitalism exists by profit; its wealth is made to be sold; under it everything must have its price and, as human beings provide an essential part of the productive process, they too must be costed and valued like nuts and bolts and raw material.

 

Too bad for anyone who comes out on the wrong side of the balance sheet and whose wellbeing, comfort or even whose life, may be written off as uneconomic. Too bad if something which might be worth keeping stands in the way of profitable progress. If capitalism is to be assessed and identified by its characteristics—by its market economy—then it is an inhuman, degrading system whose concern for human life and dignity is ever diminishing. There are plenty of other reasons for getting rid of capitalism, but that on its own is enough.

 

Ivan