Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Running Commentary: Ice-cold death (1985)

The Running Commentary column from the March 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ice-cold death

Each winter, in this land of microchips and nuclear power stations, people die a primitive death through the cold. Sometimes this is caused by hypothermia, the reduction of the body's heat below a critical level. Others die of pneumonia or suffer strokes and heart attacks as the blood pressure is forced rapidly upwards by the cold.

According to the Sunday Times of 27 January, during three weeks in this year's cold spell, over a thousand people had to be treated in hospital for hypothermia. A consultant who has made a special study of the problem tells a grim story: about nine thousand deaths a year from straightforward hypothermia and several times that figure for deaths from diseases induced by the cold.

Of course this could all be avoided if only people like pensioners heated their homes properly, except that they, of all people, know how the expense of this would be an added stress in their everyday struggle to make ends meet.

There is, to be sure, an extra state allowance which can be paid to them when there is "exceptionally severe weather". This condition is officially defined according to temperature readings taken in different points and the level required to activate the extra allowance varies from point to point.

For example, when the bureaucrats in control of benefits for East Anglia, Essex and some parts of Bedfordshire were satisfied that the thermometer was reading -2.8°C at Honnington they allowed the payments. The rest of Bedfordshire was not so lucky: although they were just as cold they were covered by a different measuring point.

People who are forced to survive on a pension or some other state allowance are those who once depended on a wage. All their working life they have suffered the indignity of hawking their working abilities to an employer. When they are deemed no longer employable they face the even deeper degradation of scraping by — or not. as the case so often is — on niggardly state handouts. Provided, of course, they are able to navigate their way through the labyrinth of bureaucratic controls and checkpoints.

This is not a problem of age or of climate but of social class. Rich people are never rushed into intensive care through hypothermia. Cold weather need not be a problem; it is capitalism's social relationships which turn it into a killer. It should be abolished. Not the weather: capitalism.

Sailors’ tales

As if they don't already have enough to worry about, the unemployed now have to contend with the pound's falling exchange rate against the dollar and the rise in interest rates.

The dollar exchange rate was one of the earliest crises for British trade after the war. If only, we were told, we could get back to the good old days when the pound was worth about four dollars all would be well. The rate was then fixed by the Treasury; devaluation, when it came, was seen as the failure of the Labour government's wild political theories.

Since then many other alleged causes of he crises have held the stage for a while. We have heard about the Balance of Payments, the Gnomes of Zurich selling sterling short, inflation . . .  Each time, the workers have been told that they could cure the problem by tightening their belts, working harder, keeping wage rises small.

Whoever is Chancellor has assured us that he has been in charge, sensitively manoeuvring the financial controls to bring the situation into balance. Now we have Nigel Lawson, who described the interest rates panic of January as a storm which blew up largely through events outside his control and which would eventually blow itself out. "Meanwhile", he said, "we have battened down the hatches and the ship remains on course."

There is a familiar ring to these confident words. Nautical and meteorological metaphors have always been very popular with devious politicians. Harold Wilson described one of his government's crises as being "blown off course". Jim Callaghan greeted a brief respite with the advice "Steady as she goes". The message is that the troubles are temporary; if we put our trust in the captain and the crew the ship will soon arrive safely in port.

Both Labour and Tory governments have wrestled unsuccessfully with the same problems. Both have used the same empty excuses, the same comforting turns of phrase, to hide their impotence. Clearly, the matter goes beyond which particular capitalist party is in power and the workers have to think about taking over the ship for themselves.

Modern times

"I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent in their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities . . . The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages."

This quotation from the very end of Marx's pamphlet Value, Price and Profit, given initially as an address to the General Council of the International Working Men's Association in 1865, has a very modern ring. The women cleaners who work for Exclusive Cleaning Services on the army base at Deepcut in Surrey had their hourly rate cut from £1.71 to £1.60 in November last year. Then, in December, they found that their wages for the month embodied a further cut of 5 per cent to £1.52 without warning.

It is presumably on the grounds of this contractual issue of warning that they have sought the help of a solicitor. This is probably what has also caused the resignation of the firm's director for that region and the restoration of the hourly rate to £1.60. Only four of the fifty cleaners are reported to be in a trade union; but even if they all were, as long as Exclusive act within the letter of capitalist law, they cannot offer much resistance to wage cuts in the present economic climate.

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