A Better World to Die In

We live in a strange society which honours the dead more than it cares for the living—it builds monuments to mark graves, but does not house all the living; it makes social occasions out of funerals and makes death a source of profit for the undertakers. Under capitalism even death is commercialised.

From the moment we are born we begin the process of dying. It is difficult to speak in physical terms about “natural death”, but certain broad comments can be made. Firstly, human beings, aided by the best available scientific processes and given suitable environmental conditions, should have an average life span of seventy-five years—and could live healthily for several years longer. Secondly, given suitable environmental conditions and medical aid (including drugs), no person need die in pain. Thirdly, preventive medicine and health-preserving exercise can prolong life. In short, modern technology can allow us to live longer, to be fitter and to die painlessly. These are great social achievements but, as is usual under capitalism, humanity is denied the full benefits of them. Having created the means of extending and improving life, capitalism negates such an advance because it destroys life at an intense rate. It is a tragic paradox that the system which has enabled medical science to extend its horizons is one which creates more “artificial” deaths than it saves in avoided natural deaths.

Capitalism kills in many ways:

MALNUTRITION. Lack of decent food (or any food) kills thirty million people each year. On average, one death occurs each second as a result of malnutrition. The cause of this is not an inability of the world to feed everyone in it—in fact, we could feed every living being several times over but the simple fact that starving people cannot afford to buy food. Fifty per cent of deaths from malnutrition are of children under five.

LACK OF CLEAN WATER. Millions die each year because they do not have access to clean water. The reason is simple: it costs too much to irrigate the areas where they live.

LACK OF MEDICAL ATTENTION. In vast areas of the world health services hardly exist. In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America one doctor has to attend to thousands of patients. The mortality rate in such areas is phenomenally high. Even in Britain, where there is supposed to be a free health service, NHS treatment is second-rate and “on the cheap”, and recent government cuts have seriously affected services. Patients have died in ambulances which have been forced to drive around searching for an open casualty department.

WARS. Even in times of world “peace”, there are always local wars going on somewhere. In Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Biafra, Ireland, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq . . . thousands have lost their lives fighting for their masters’ interests. Modern weapons could kill us all within a matter of weeks.


CANCER. Dr. R. J. C. Harris, a leading cancer research scientist, has written that “ . . . between 80 to 90 per cent of cancers in man are caused by agents in his environment”. Many of these agents could be identified and removed, but it is not socially practicable to do so under capitalism. Harris points out how certain occupations expose workers to a very high risk of contracting cancer:


  In one coal-tar dye plant 25 per cent of a labour force of 366 men, exposed to these chemicals between 1912 and 1962; contracted bladder cancer. (Cancer, Penguin, chapter 4.)


Harris also points out that asbestos textile workers and iron-ore miners face a high risk of contracting cancer, as do people who are persuaded by tobacco manufacturers to smoke cigarettes. In Britain and many other industrialised countries one death in five is caused by cancer, yet government expenditure on cancer research each year is substantially less than government expenditure on armaments each day.


POLLUTION. Urban environments are made unclean and unsafe by industrially produced chemical pollutants which are cheaper to release into the atmosphere than to avoid or destroy. City-dwellers inhale regular doses of filthy air which cause sickness and contribute to many early deaths.


ACCIDENTS. Many of the accidents which injure and kill people in the course of employment are predictable and avoidable; but employers calculate that it is cheaper to make occasional compensation payments than to make working conditions safe. Many domestic accidents occur because it is cheaper for workers to run unsafe homes than safe ones.


STRESS. The strain of the competitive rat-race frequently leads to stomach ulcers, brain haemorrhages and heart attacks. People under stress are less resistant to minor ailments which can become potential killers. In periods of capitalist depression the suicide rate rises rapidly.


HYPOTHERMIA. Each winter many people die of the cold because they cannot afford to put on a heater. Hypothermia especially affects pensioners and the families of the unemployed. The recent spell of freezing weather led to many unnecessary deaths. It is not the case that society has a lack of energy to keep people warm, but that workers who need heat cannot afford to buy it. The Electricity Board has announced that it is cutting back on production in 1982 because it has “overproduced” in the past and there is insufficient “market demand”.


These artificial killers account for many millions of deaths each year. Even if workers think that they are immune from all of them at the moment, the insecurity of working class life makes them prime targets in the future. For those who survive capitalism’s ways of killing people, old age can be a depressing and impoverished period of life. In a society which is primarily interested in workers as exploitable commodities, once a worker has passed retirement age they are often seen as a social inconvenience old workers are “problems”. Unless elderly workers are fit enough to look after themselves (which is made difficult by having to live on a pittance of a pension) they run the risk of being stuck in homes to be patronised by vicars and volunteers or to spend their final years in a geriatric ward where the old are almost punished for not being profitable any more. In the early days of capitalism old workers were dumped in the workhouse and husbands and wives were split up, never to meet again. Many old workers look back on their lives with a sense of resentment: they gave so much; they have been rewarded with so little. Capitalism is a system which condemns many of its old to die in bitter indignity. They crave respect, but who can blame their children for not respecting parents who have passed on to them such a sick and rotten world?


Proof of death entitles the relatives of the deceased to a £30 death grant. The average cost of a burial is between six and eight times greater than the government grant. In many cases the death of an aged parent is the first time for months or years that the children of the deceased will have visited them. Deaths bring out the friends and relatives to claim their share of the deceased’s wealth. All too often the pomp of the funeral contrasts sharply with the dullness of the deceased’s final days, spent in loneliness. Religious hypocrites make foolish noises about going to a better place—for many workers any place has to be better. When ever they bury a capitalist who has died after years of social parasitism, the vicar usually forgets to mention the one about it being harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. (If this is true, the Pope and the Queen Mother had better take up a course in limbo-dancing.)


Under this wasteful, destructive profit system working class lives are frustrated. From birth to the grave wage slaves have to put up with conditions which scientific advances have made unnecessary. We could live and die in peace, but the majority of the working class consents to a system which dehumanises social relationships.


There is a better way to live. In a socialist society human beings will be free to live healthy lives in a healthy social environment. We will all have free access to what we need, so no one will die for lack of basic requirements to sustain life. Old people in a socialist world community will give according to their abilities and take according to their needs, as will all people, including the physically and mentally disabled. In a creative, satisfying society men and women will have no need to fear old age as an indignity, but will be respected for what they have contributed to society. In a democratic society the young will not regard the old as an inconvenience, for they will understand that they too will one day be old—and the old will have no reason to be intolerant of changes carried out by the young. Socialism will not be a Utopian society where all will live for eternity in total bliss; but the wasted lives and needless deaths which are a hallmark of capitalism will cease to be. Socialism offers a happier way of living—and a happier way of dying.


Steve Coleman