Capitalism has created life-enhancing possibilities. It has even realised some of them. My older daughter has epilepsy. In pre-capitalist times, if she’d had medication at all, it would have had no, or harmful, effects, and the seizures would probably have become more severe until they disabled and killed her. Today, she has been able to end the seizures with just a few pills, without side-effects.
Not only in Britain, but in many poorer countries too, almost everyone learns to read and write, almost everyone has easy access to music and visual arts, a sizeable proportion can study at university. Most jobs are cleaner, quieter, and require less physical strength than they or their equivalents used to. Food, clothing, and housing sufficient for all can be produced by maybe 20% of the total labour-time of society, while previous societies required almost all society’s labour-time to produce a scantier minimum. At the same time that capitalism, by advancing technology, creates those possibilities, it also stunts and warps them. It diminishes and threatens human life. And in some respects the stunting, warping, diminishing, threatening increases.
Capitalism threatens human life through global warming. Capitalism has given rise to technologies which, with judicious development and use, could reduce carbon emissions and save the environment. Yet in recent years most energy investment has gone not into improving and cheapening renewables or nuclear power, but into “extreme”, high-carbon-emission, extraction of oil and gas: oil sands, shale oil, hydraulic fracturing. That offers the best profits in the short term. And capitalism puts profit before life. Other industrial emissions into the atmosphere threaten life. In the UK, 60,000 people die early each year because of such pollutants as nitrogen dioxide; world-wide, 3.3 million. London went above its safe limit for that air pollution over the whole of 2016 as early as 8 January this year. Corporations like Volkswagen, in pursuit of profit, have the technology to limit the emissions, but also have also used technology so that vehicles observe the limits only in test conditions and spew out 70 times as much pollution in actual use.
Emissions into the atmosphere threaten everyone, rich as well as poor. But capitalism also works to diminish and shorten the lives of the worse-off and favour the lives of the rich. In Britain, people in well-off areas can expect to live much longer than people in poor areas. And they can expect to live in good general health, free of permanent limiting ailments, 20 years longer. In the poorest areas, on average you live to 52 without permanent limiting ailments. 52! Remember, the government wants to raise the state pension age to 70. In well-off areas, on average you live to 71 without permanent limiting ailments.
Defenders of capitalism say that its inequalities are necessary to make it dynamic — by way of the striving generated by the competitive “rat race” — and benefit even the poorest, because we get pulled up along with, although behind, the rich. Yet, once economic life has reached the level that basic necessities can be produced by a small proportion of the available labour-time, and so almost no-one starves or freezes to death through sheer shortage, the evidence is that inequality, or relative poverty, is the major stunting factor.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level, show that among the more prosperous capitalist countries, a composite index of health and social problems shows much worse levels in the most unequal countries (USA, Portugal, UK) and better levels in the less unequal (Scandinavia, Japan). The correlation with the country’s inequality of incomes is high. The correlation with the country’s absolute level of average income is low or zero. The same pattern — high correlation with inequality, little or no correlation with absolute income level (within the relevant range) — is shown by comparisons between states in the USA.
Children’s well-being is better in less unequal countries, worse in more unequal countries, largely uncorrelated with absolute income level. People’s levels of confidence that they can trust neighbours and workmates are higher in less unequal countries, lower in more unequal, but by no means necessarily higher in countries with higher average incomes. Rates of mental illness are much higher in more unequal countries; so are murder rates, and rates of imprisonment.
In the abstract, a highly unequal society could still give better chances for an individual from a worse-off family background to rise high, and a less unequal society could rate low for that “social mobility”. In fact, the more unequal countries also have less social mobility. Exactly why being much worse-off than the other side of the tracks is more blighting than low income as such (above a certain minimum level), we don’t know. The fact is a fact. It is also a fact, documented in detail by Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century, that inequality, and the dominance of incomes from property, has been and is rising steadily across the most developed capitalist countries.
Despite crashes like 2008, on the whole capitalism tends to increase production. On the whole people get more smartphones, iPads, PCs, etc. than they used to. But simultaneously capitalism increases inequality and its blight on life. Some of the elements of inequality’s blight we know. Being overstressed; frustrated; isolated; “alienated” in the sense that your creative abilities are appropriated, manipulated, and abused by others for alien purposes, diminishes your resilience, and eventually your physical health.
Not all stress is unhealthy. Complete languor is not the ideal. Hard work is not necessarily unhealthy. Marx, while strenuously avoiding detailed blueprints of the future cooperative commonwealth, described the expansion of free time, as against enforced drudgery, as its cardinal feature. Yet by “free time” he didn’t just mean idling. “Really free activity, e.g. composing music, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion”.
While the demands on physical strength of many jobs have been eased, they have been made more harmfully stressful by the way they are organised. Sometimes this involves long and arbitrarily-imposed hours. Generally, as Michael Marmot, a researcher in this field, notes: “Stress at work is not simply a matter of having too much to do, but also results from too little control over the work, and from insufficient reward for the effort expended”. (“Insufficient reward” means not just low wages, but lack of satisfaction in having done something useful, lack of appreciation from others). “The way work is organised is crucial. The way to address the problem of stress at work is to look hard at the organisation of the workplace”.
Capitalists look hard at the organisation of the workplace — but with the priority of exerting more control and squeezing out more profits, thus increasing stress. School teachers are rated by the Health and Safety Executive as the most overstressed trade, with a suicide rate 40% above the average. Most of that is due to arbitrary, often educationally counterproductive, impositions by school management. Those impositions are constantly increasing, and driven not by direct profit-seeking but by an imperative to imitate competitive profit-seeking norms. There is much talk about “executive stress”. Some managers, especially middle managers, are overstressed. Usually the highest levels of stress are not at the top of the heap but at the bottom. The trades with the highest levels of suicides are teachers, cleaners, construction workers, health workers, not top managers. In schools, students may well be more unhealthily stressed than the teachers — not because they are working hard at learning, which may be healthy, but because of petty school discipline and arbitrary and often irrational impositions from a competitive exam system.
In 2015, I spent a lot of time on a 24/7 picket line run by Brisbane dockworkers fighting sackings. New technologies have created the basis for making dock work much less life-sapping. Dock work now involves little heavy manual labour. Container terminals are quiet and clean. Yet the dockworkers smoke much more than Australia’s average (low by world standards). A doctor told me why: shift workers, especially shift workers with shifts that change constantly, smoke more than others. Although nurses know the dangers of smoking better than others, they smoke more because of the shifts they work. Those dockworkers are unhealthily stressed, despite the technical advances, because of the capitalist way the work is organised, with round-the-clock and unpredictable shifts, and arbitrary sackings.
In one of the most technically-advanced capitalist economies, Japan, since the 1970s “karoshi”, death through overwork, has become an officially recognised condition. Each year, hundreds of families, on an increasing trend, win compensation because a family member is officially certified to have died from overwork. Yet the compensation is from the government, not the employer! Since the late 1980s, “karojisatsu”, suicide from overwork, has also been officially recognised, with similar compensation. Overwork, in this context, means not just long hours, but “frustration”, “psychological burdens”, “lack of job control”, etc. The difference in other capitalist countries is only that “karoshi” and “karojisatsu” are not officially recognised. A poignant finding from research in 2002 shows that people who become convinced that they will end up lonely suffer damage to their complex-reasoning abilities. Their simple information-processing capacities are not damaged. Expectation of future physical injuries does not damage their complex-reasoning abilities. But the conviction that they will end up lonely does.
And for many it is a well-grounded conviction. In Britain, 11% of all elderly people say that they talk with a neighbour, a friend, or a relative — someone they are connected with in a human way, rather than through market transactions or official procedures — less than once a month. Once a month!
Millions of less extreme cases are achingly lonely. In an 1845 book, Engels wrote about how capitalism had atomised people in a way unknown to all previous societies. In the big capitalist cities, people “crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another... [with] brutal indifference... unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest... This isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, [and] it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city”.
Capitalism has generated the possibilities of privacy, of “a room of one’s own”, of having “time to oneself”, of choosing a path in life radically different from one’s parents and neighbours. Those possibilities are progress compared to the conformity and narrow horizons imposed by many pre-capitalist communities. But capitalism also perverts those possibilities into enforced isolation and loneliness, and not only for the elderly. At the same time, the atomised nuclear-family households of modern capitalism create an imposed “togetherness” for young children, frequently over-supervised by their parents.
Capitalism is creating grand possibilities, but simultaneously stifling, blighting, and threatening human life. The choice for each one of us is passively to accept the stifling and blighting, and try to create a niche of relative contentment within it; or actively to take part in the collective struggle for collective democratic control over our economic life.