Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Capital I, Chapter 25 - Part 6

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.
Every unprejudiced observer sees that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding heaping together of the labourers, within a given space; that therefore the swifter capitalistic accumulation, the more miserable are the dwellings of the working-people. “Improvements” of towns, accompanying the increase of wealth, by the demolition of badly built quarters, the erection of palaces for banks, warehouses, &c., the widening of streets for business traffic, for the carriages of luxury, and for the introduction of tramways, &c., drive away the poor into even worse and more crowded hiding places. On the other hand, every one knows that the dearness of dwellings is in inverse ratio to their excellence, and that the mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit or less cost than ever were the mines of Potosi. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and therefore of the capitalistic relations of property generally, is here so evident, that even the official English reports on this subject teem with heterodox onslaughts on “property and its rights.”” (p 615-6)

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)

Back To Part 5

Forward To Part 7


George Carty said...

The rise of suburbia in the 20th century seems a lot like abolition of the town/country distinction which I understand was predicted by Marx.

It seems ironic that today most of the self-proclaimed "left" is hostile to suburbanization, usually on the grounds that suburbanites are totally dependent on their cars, because low-density residential areas cannot be efficiently served by public transport.

Another factor is that many suburbs have a dendritic street pattern designed to make them safer for children to play in (by eliminating through traffic from residential streets).

Is it just the case that since the fall of the Soviet Union, many well-meaning people have fallen victim to the siren call of reactionary anti-capitalist ideologies (chief of them all being romantic environmentalism)?

Boffy said...

Marx didn't predict abolition of the town/country distinction, he said it would be something that Socialism would bring about. I don't think suburbanisation is exactly that. I don't want to go into it too much because I'll be dealing with it in part 2 of my posts on Housing Policy.

I do indeed find much of the Left's Kowtowing to environmentalism rather annoying. When I was a County Councillor I drew up a proposed Plan as part of setting up a Regeneration Forum for the area I was responsible for. I will be dealing with some of the proposals in it in the next part of that series.

The problem with some of the left's position is that it fetishises the Environment i.e. treating it as something separate from Man. In truth the Environment is the environment in which we have to live, and our aim should be to make that environment as pleasant and sustainable as possible, not simply defend the idea of keeping large areas of green fields where no one lives, green forever.