1970s >> 1979 >> no-904-december-1979

Running Commentary: Capitalism Condemned

The objections to capitalist politicians is not that they are dishonest (though they usually are) nor that they are incompetent (though this is the norm) nor that they are a particularly nasty sub-species (though on the whole they are). The objection is simply that they claim to be able to run capitalism in the interests, of the majority, but they can’t, haven’t, don’t and won’t.

Evidence floods in of the palpable fact that this society works in the interests of a small minority and that problems of the majority are, by and large, left intact.

Poverty
The Supplementary Benefits Commission defines poverty as a standard of living so low that it cuts people off from normal community life; people are not warm enough, not fed enough and do not have sufficient clothing to appear in the street without embarrassment. It must be remembered that poverty is not an absolute concept but a level relative to what can be expected at any particular time. But even by capitalism’s standards (which are low enough) poverty still stalks the working class in the form of depressed living conditions.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission’s report for 1978 issued in October stated that the amount paid in supplementary benefits was insufficient to keep the people who depend on it out of the Commission’s definitions of poverty. As to how many people in this country are in this position one can turn to the report of the Low Pay Unit, also issued in October. This claimed that one family in eight were living below the bare official minimum. These people will not have gained anything from the so called tax cuts introduced by the soak-the-poor Tory budget. The Low Pay Unit expects that one effect of the budget will be to plunge a further 10,000 families below the official poverty line.

The former director of the Low Pay Unit, Frank Field, (now a Labour MP) estimated that if a realistic level for the poverty line is taken, 14 million people in this country are living in poverty (Guardian 1/10/79). What Field does not explain is what he is doing as a Labour MP if he condemns the system the Labour Party has run and is so keen to perpetuate. But Frank’s unfrankness here is only the norm for an MP.

But perhaps the most interesting survey of poverty to emerge in October (for some reason a good month for reports) was Peter Townsend’s massive book Poverty in the United Kingdom. This provides a wealth of statistical evidence about poverty under British capitalism. In effect, it refutes the claims of politicians that they have solved the poverty problem. The Observer commented that this book, together with the Supplementary Benefit Commission’s report, “. . .  remind us that Britain, 35 years after the end of the war, retains a shameful sub-culture of poverty, striking almost arbitrarily at the old . . .  large families, widows, the disabled, one-parent families and others.” (28/10/79.) Such facile comment is remarkable. When the Observer refers to the old, the large families and widows, it should have made it clear that it was referring to one class only. Old, widowed, disabled, large familied capitalists do not come within the scope of the poverty problem. Perhaps the word “others” is supposed to mean about ninety per cent of the population?

The Joys of Work
Meanwhile most workers still have to work. The conditions in which they do so vary from the despair of the mind-bending repetitive manual and clerical jobs to the outright appalling — those that are likely directly to cause an early death. Take some of the recent grisly revelations on asbestosis. A government advisory committee on asbestos also reported in October. It appears that as early as 1906 the government knew that asbestos was a killer. The link between asbestos and lung cancer was discovered in 1930. The link with other forms of cancer was made clear in 1964. No government cared much about it. Now after three years the government committee has recommended new standards which will be an improvement; if they are adopted, instead of one worker in ten in the industry contracting (and painfully dying from) asbestosis, only one worker in twenty will do so. What progress. And there is a good old-fashioned conspiracy by the rich and powerful asbestos industry to keep back the truth about the dangers of asbestosis. Meantime asbestos continues to be used and people who work with it (in particular the laggers-people who lag pipes) die young, in agony.

The Guardian (24/10/79) reports on one man who, never having been warned of the dangers, worked as a lagger from 1946 to 1958. At the age of 41 he was told he had the disease. At the age of 44 he was almost paralysed. Now he lives as a cripple: in constant pain, he is unable even to climb the stairs to his bed.

There is no cure, only the inevitable agonising death. And just to add insult to the injury, the invalidity pension for that man, his wife and four children is £54.70 a week. Not only does capitalism maim you, it then lets you continue what’s left of your existence in wretchedness.

Year of the Child
As the Year of the Child comes to an end, we may well ask is there a better future for children? On the whole things look worse than ever. Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience Report, also issued in October, reminds us that children throughout the world are being tortured and murdered. Ethiopia—5000 young people slaughtered in 1977/78; Central African Empire—100 children battered to death under the megalomaniac Bokassa; Chile—children tortured in front of parents to extract confessions and information from them; Russia—children wrenched from their parents who have committed “crimes” such as distributing private essays. The International Labour Office published a report (Observer 4/10/79) showing that more than 52 million children in the world under the age of 15 worked for a living—although child labour is prohibited by law. Most of these figures are made up from children in countries where poverty is rife and either children work to the detriment of their physical and mental well being or face starvation. The report, which contains horrifying case-studies from Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand, Italy, Argentina and Greece, draws the hard conclusion that “child labour cannot be prohibited by law”.

The Amnesty and ILO reports only skim the surface. And as these lines are written children are dying like flies of starvation in Kampuchea. Reports on numbers vary, but even the most conservative estimate is chilling. In the meantime, British, American, Russian, Kampuchean and other politicians argue about the “best” way to send in the food—an argument which is heavily concerned with their respective standing as powers in world capitalism.

Ronnie Warrington