While attending the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s annual Conference at the Conway Hall, Holborn, I happened to pass the headquarters of OPCAS. OPCAS, as every informed Civil Service watcher knows, is the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, a government department headed by the Registrar General which collects statistics about the people of this country.
OPCAS had a display in the window about today’s expectation of life, and one of the captions was as follows: “On average everyone can expect a working life of about 50 years [Perish the thought — 50 years on the capitalist treadmill!] — say from age 15 to retirement age. But diseases like cancer, heart disease, and accidents can cause death at younger ages, so that some people do not reach retirement age. The 600,000 deaths in 1973 caused the loss of nearly 150 million potential working years. Of this total, nearly 30 million working years lost were due to deaths from cancer.”
No humanity there towards the 600,000 unfortunates who never made it to the Old Age Pension — just that their deaths caused the loss of 150 million working years. How inconsiderate of them to expire with this kind of debt to their employers still undischarged. Positively un-English: my dear, the place is going to do the dogs!
That window display demonstrated yet again that the working man is a “hand” whose personal existence does not interest the ruling class one atom. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his book Emile, relates the following incident. “‘My lord, I must live,’ once said a wretched author of satire to a minister who had reproached him for following so degrading a profession. ‘I fail to see why,’ replied the Great Man coldly.”
The 600,000 who so cynically escaped their employers’ philanthropy by opting for six feet of earth were noteworthy from the capitalist viewpoint in that they represented so many lost years of exploitation: 600,000 geese that were laying golden eggs in the form of surplus-value. Capitalism mourns the loss of gold. The fact that more than half a million workers have fallen victims years before their time leaves it undisturbed.
Many of those workers were murdered by capitalism. They were killed by a society whose stock-in-trade is want and neglect. Their illnesses were only what appeared on the death certificates. What really killed them was a system that first of all lays the foundations of bad health by the intolerable pressures it inflicts on the working class, and then airily concludes that this had nothing to do with their demise. The operation was successful but the patient died.
Miners and building workers figure prominently in accident and disease statistics. Heart disease is a product of a pressure cooker society where the fight to survive exacts an appalling price in working-class lives. Nobody yet knows what causes cancer, but we’re perfectly justified in leaving it to charity to find out — after all, if 1973 was typical it only kills 120,000 workers a year.
What price indispensability?