b) The Badly Paid Strata of the British Industrial Class
Marx details how low real wages had fallen in 1862. Using nutritional data provided by Dr. Smith, for the Privy Council, Marx indicates that in December 1862, the consumption level of the cotton workers had fallen to the minimum levels – 29,211 grains of carbon and 1,295 grains of nitrogen per week, during the Cotton Famine. The study, which selected the most healthy families, found that,
“in only one of the examined classes of in-door operatives did the average nitrogen supply just exceed, while in another it nearly reached, the estimated standard of bare sufficiency [i.e., sufficient to avert starvation diseases], and that in two classes there was defect — in one, a very large defect — of both nitrogen and carbon. Moreover, as regards the examined families of the agricultural population, it appeared that more than a fifth were with less than the estimated sufficiency of carbonaceous food, that more than one-third were with less than the estimated sufficiency of nitrogenous food, and that in three counties (Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Somersetshire), insufficiency of nitrogenous food was the average local diet.” (p 613)
The worst affected were women and children. But, Dr. John Simon, who commissioned Smith's Report, comments,
“Yet in this point of view, there is, in my opinion, a very important sanitary context to be added. It must be remembered that privation of food is very reluctantly borne, and that as a rule great poorness of diet will only come when other privations have preceded it. Long before insufficiency of diet is a matter of hygienic concern, long before the physiologist would think of counting the grains of nitrogen and carbon which intervene between life and starvation, the household will have been utterly destitute of material comfort; clothing and fuel will have been even scantier than food — against inclemencies of weather there will have been no adequate protection — dwelling space will have been stinted to the degree in which overcrowding produces or increases disease; of household utensils and furniture there will have been scarcely any-even cleanliness will have been found costly or difficult, and if there still be self-respectful endeavours to maintain it, every such endeavour will represent additional pangs of hunger. The home, too, will be where shelter can be cheapest bought; in quarters where commonly there is least fruit of sanitary supervision, least drainage, least scavenging, least suppression of public nuisances, least or worst water supply, and, if in town, least light and air. Such are the sanitary dangers to which poverty is almost certainly exposed, when it is poverty enough to imply scantiness of food. And while the sum of them is of terrible magnitude against life, the mere scantiness of food is in itself of very serious moment.... These are painful reflections, especially when it is remembered that the poverty to which they advert is not the deserved poverty of idleness. In all cases it is the poverty of working populations.” (p 615)
Marx points out that the intimate connection between this poverty and the wealth of the capitalists can only be understood on the basis of the economic analysis he is undertaking. But, that is not the case in relation to the housing of the workers.
|150 years after Marx was writing we now have thousands of|
workers living in garden sheds in London.
That is not just a description which today fits the process of accumulation in Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Shanghai; it also fits with the situation in London, where clearances continue to make way for new palaces of capital, alongside workers living in sheds at the bottom of gardens. It leads to the price of property soaring way beyond what workers can afford to buy, and rents that can only be sustained on the back of large subsidies in the form of Housing Benefit, paid for by workers elsewhere in the country.
In the reports of the 19th Century, this kind of centralisation and overcrowding resulted in all sorts of sanitary problems and diseases. Ultimately, it provoked the bourgeoisie to introduce Environmental Health measures, and to promote the building of Public Parks. Later, it led to the creation of suburban developments as an escape from the misery of towns and cities. Today, with land prices having been sent through the roof, as a consequence of the house price speculation began in the 1980's, on the back of money printing and financial deregulation, capital seeks once again to squeeze workers into cramped, poor quality housing in the cities.
It does so by utilising environmental arguments about saving the countryside (despite the fact that existing urban areas are squeezed on to just 10% of the available land!) and promoting the idea of developing brownfield sites.
“'The result of this change is not only that the class of town people is enormously increased, but the old close-packed little towns are now centres, built round on every side, open nowhere to air, and being no longer agreeable to the rich are abandoned by them for the pleasanter outskirts. The successors of these rich are occupying the larger houses at the rate of a family to each room [... and find accommodation for two or three lodgers ...] and a population, for which the houses were not intended and quite unfit, has been created, whose surroundings are truly degrading to the adults and ruinous to the children.' The more rapidly capital accumulates in an industrial or commercial town, the more rapidly flows the stream of exploitable human material, the more miserable are the improvised dwellings of the labourers.” (p 618-9)
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