“The less well-off (95% of the population) live in cities, sometimes in old-age homes, more often in their own apartments. In New York, lots of them have lived in their own apartments for 30 or 40 years. The bathtub is in the kitchen, the toilet in the hall, and the apartment may be on the fifth or sixth floor of a walk-up. Their lives are circumscribed by their church and maybe a friend or two. Their children are too busy with their own lives to spare any time. So they spend their days watching television. In summer they would like to go outdoors but in most areas there is no place for them to sit and they are too frightened of muggers to go to the park. THEY’VE WORKED HARD ALL THEIR LIVES and they may have saved a couple of hundred dollars but they want that money to go to their grandchildren and they would rather die than touch it. Gradually they just wither away, alone, unnoticed, unattended and uncared for . . . A great many elderly people are so poor they must live in cockroach-infested rooms in dingy rooming houses or welfare hotels.”
The above sounds the sort of thing you could read in the Socialist Standard any month over our seventy years and it might seem eccentric of us to be quoting ourselves at such length. But it isn’t. It’s not even from our American companion journal, the Western Socialist. The quote is from The Guardian and is from one of its New York correspondents, Jane Rosen; the only liberty taken is to put one phrase in capitals. The Guardian gives it a heading: “The American Way of Lingering Death”. The article certainly justifies it. What an indictment of the whole appalling capitalist jungle it is. This is the story of the vast majority of the population who constitute the working class. This is America, agreed by everyone to be the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen. God’s Own Country. The Land of the Almighty Dollar. And who produces all that unbelievable wealth? Well, who else can it be, if not the working class? (Nobody would even suggest that God makes any of it.) So it’s just too marvellous, isn’t it? The working class works hard all its life and produces wealth that makes Croesus or Midas look like church mice.
It’s true that even the capitalist doesn’t take it with him. He has to engage tax lawyers to cheat the revenue out of as much as possible when he dies (as he has been doing that all his life this is clearly fair and consistent). At any rate, that is one problem the working class are not bothered with. The tax man is not going to waste time with their derisory couple of hundred dollars. So we can confirm (in case anyone doubted it) that the net result of a worker’s lifetime of hard work is just his own bag of bones. And instead of the evening of life being reasonably pleasant and restful before the inevitable end arrives, we find that the article under review has a special quote: “When I went to sleep at night, I used to pray I wouldn’t wake up.” Which is the sort of sentiment you would expect from the poor devils who are confined to the Gulag Archipelago (and they have those in many countries in the world besides Russia). Living in a concentration-camp society, it is only natural to pray for a merciful release from a life worse than death. But we are not talking about that. We are talking about America, the Land of the Free.
Of course, the sad part is that there is not the slightest sign that any of these aged poor, with nothing to do but think of the life they are leaving behind (or which is leaving them behind), get a glimmer of insight, late in the day, into the society which has swindled them out of the fruits of their lives. Has in fact conned their whole lives off them. Perhaps it would be too awful a thing to contemplate at that stage of the game, when it’s clearly too late to do anything about it. But unfortunately there is no reason to believe that even that is the reason. The workers who spend their lives working to produce the good life for a small minority of parasites without, for the most part, even thinking as to what it’s all about and why they should be the victims of this iniquitous social set-up, don’t think any harder when the end draws nigh and they can see with appalling clarity that they have been robbed of all that they have worked for. As they finish up with nothing, that must surely be clear even to the blindest worker.
It is even sadder to note that another worker in the picture doesn’t cotton on to this, either. Jane Rosen who writes the article is capable of writing a piece that is both cogent and compassionate about the lot of the elderly members of her own class. But you will look in vain for the slightest sign that she understands the truth behind the sordid scenes she (quite movingly) writes about. And this despite the fact that she tells us that many old-age homes are run by capitalist sharks who batten on their victims in a way that makes a concentration camp seem a not-unfair comparison. As these operators are flouting the law in their machinations, they can look for protection— and get it—from no less than Nelson Rockefeller, formerly the Governor of New York and now Vice-President of the USA. This scion of Rockefeller the First, a legendary figure in the history of truly vicious exploitation, is himself supposed to be a comparatively nice guy (well, it would be difficult not to be)—though he inherits the blood-soaked billions without complaint, of course. But he regards it as an integral part of his duty as a ruler of the system, to ensure that the robbery and degradation of the working class goes on unimpeded till death.
Jane Rosen knows all this and writes very ably in describing it. But she sees no more clearly than the wretches—members of her own class, of course, although perhaps she would be loth to admit this—she writes about, that all this misery in the midst of dazzling wealth is the result of legalized fraud and could be altered almost unimaginably by a change of society to social ownership.
L. E. Weidberg