1980s >> 1985 >> no-974-october-1985

Retired Hurt

Under capitalism old workers, like the old machinery they may have been operating, or the old car they may have been driving, lose their commodity value as they wear out — or, more accurately, as their masters insist they wear out. The machinery, having some small value as scrap, ends up in a foundry, no doubt. The old workers find themselves suddenly and ignominiously translated from “useful” members of society into what are euphemistically termed the “senior citizenry”. From this moment on they are free, as was Voltaire’s Candide, to cultivate their gardens if they have one. The bitter truth is that the majority of such workers end up as crushed as that elderly car they could only barely afford to keep on the road when they were working. Having sold their labour and brain-power for the smallest sums their employers could get away with; having tolerated for the best part of a lifetime a system which all too few ever bother seriously to question or examine; is it any wonder that when we are unceremoniously cast aside we experience an isolation which can have devastating — even fatal — consequences. Only now are we able to see how insulting are the euphemisms with which capitalist society hardly bothers to cushion this final rejection. Not that the relinquishing of a life of wage-slavery should in itself constitute any great sacrifice. Indeed, it should rather be a matter for rejoicing. So why isn’t it?

It is estimated that of a UK population of around 56 million some 18 per cent, or something of the order of 10 million, are of retirement age (60 for women. 65 for men). In addition we have now to include growing numbers of workers who are accepting early retirement — a euphemism for disguised redundancy resulting from the continuing economic depression. Whatever the exact figure may be. the accumulated experience and wisdom embodied in so vast a number — and this in just one country — is enormous. For it is not to be supposed that, because so many workers are thrown on the scrap-heaps of the labour market they have nothing left to offer. And in a world which is so manifestly in need of all manner of skills it is as obscene to waste such expertise as it is to allow grain or fruit to rot; to pay farmers not to grow foodstuffs, while millions starve. However, as we have already stated, labour-power is a commodity bought by a capitalist with a view to the realisation of surplus value, a proportion of which constitutes profit. But during a depression labour power may find itself without a market in a world which is over-producing — not in terms of need, but in terms of price-maintenance, which alone ensures profitability. So what hope for older workers, whatever their skills, when millions of younger workers are tossed aside to join the dole-queues? What it all boils down to is that we do not live in a society in which men and women may elect to do useful work (or not, as the case may be). What we actually see is something quite different.

The penny-pinching meanness of the standard old-age pension denies many millions of elderly people, who spent their lives producing surplus value for our capitalist masters (not to mention cannon-fodder for their generals) any chance of dignity in what is left of their lives. Quite apart from simple domestic hardship (sometimes lethal in its consequences) there is the inability of the old to play a full part in the life around them. Suddenly the salient feature of the capitalist system — that everything, but everything, seems to cost money you are no longer in any position to afford — dominates your every waking moment. However, since money paid out to old-age pensioners constitutes a tax on the surplus value which would otherwise accrue to the ruling class it is easy to see that no major increases would easily be tolerated. The domestic and social deprivation of ten million units of what, stripped of all cant, is seen by the ruling class as clapped-out labour power is an integral feature of capitalist society. (How long before we are offered voluntary euthanasia along with the barometer and the plastic garden gnome?)

From the cradle to the grave we are subjected. in one form or another, to the depredations and exploitation of the capitalist system. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that there are rich pickings to be had out of the old and infirm despite their own evident penury. The reason for this paradox lies with the arrangements under which numbers of old people are boarded out in private nursing homes. Phil Cohen (Hiving off the Elderly, New Statesman, 7th December 1984) has described how, as a result of “privatising” what have hitherto been the responsibilities of the state, the DHSS has been pouring money into the coffers of the “privateers”. Old people, often ill and bewildered. are being bundled out of NHS hospital wards and dumped, usually against their will, in private nursing homes away from their own communities. The wards are then closed down in an attempt to accommodate the government’s financial impositions. In the meantime the capitalist sharks, having smelt blood, are homing in for the kill on the property market (“large country houses, educational establishments, hotels, etc”) in order to exploit their new and evidently lucrative opportunities.

The cold steppes of society at large for the retired are one matter (a subject by no means exhausted in the foregoing). But what about that closer, warmer relationship which is supposed to exist within the circle of the family? The harsh truth is, that in the molecular society which is so essential to the survival of capitalism, it rarely exists. We live in a jungle, the laws of which allow for precious little distinction between the familiar and the foreign. Workers who struggle to feed, clothe and shelter a family of their own are bound to find the additional responsibilities of caring for ageing parents an almost intolerable burden. Of course, the same pressures are visited on all those unmarried women who sacrifice their own lives to the needs of their parents. Coupled with such embarrassment is the — understandable — independence of outlook which the old workers bring to their new, and as often as not unwelcome, circumstances. A woman who has brought up her own children. cooked in her own kitchen, managed her own domestic finances, finds it difficult to relinquish such hard-won sovereignty, however threadbare it might have proved. Of course the sparks must fly (and given the cramped living space which most of us are obliged to occupy it is a miracle if they don’t). Of course workers, of whatever age, provided they are not reduced by illness — senile dementia, for example — to absolute dependence, would ideally prefer to live their own lives. That this is so rarely possible has to do, not with any omission on their part, or that of their families. It is just another seemingly intractable contradiction of the social and economic system which thrusts so many of the more vulnerable of us into this impasse.

Some might argue that little better should be expected from the heartless bunch that governs us at present. And isn’t it true that Labour — or whatever — is stamping impatiently in the stalls only waiting for the chance to put matters right? This is a dangerously naive illusion which can have no reference to events, past or present. Where, for example, were no fewer than seven former Labour governments on being reminded — as indeed they were, plaintively and often — that millions of workers, lifelong wealth producers for their respective masters, have been, and are being, plunged into a thankless and degrading poverty? The answer is, that Labour administrations have found themselves no better placed to deal fundamentally with this problem than have any others. It is an ineradicable feature of the capitalist system. As such it is pointless and diversionary to draw attention to, or attack, this or that personality. The deep and abiding love and affection felt for Thatcher within the Socialist Party is as profound as anything to be discovered within the pulsating breast of her Denis. However, we delude ourselves if we begin to think that any transference of these sentiments to the unlikely Neil Kinnock can make the slightest difference. Indeed, we would deserve our inevitable disappointment. So, what must be done?

The only answer to this and our many other problems is the democratic overthrow of the capitalist system itself — nothing less will do. For it is capitalism alone which is responsible for them. And this historic work is a task for all members of our class — including the “retired”.

Richard Cooper