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Why Poorer People are Dying Younger: "Social Murder"


In 1845, Engels' great study of the City of Manchester was published. He notes the extent of poverty and deprivation there, as well as lives tragically foreshortened as a consequence of the lives they were forced to live.


Engels develops one of his key notions: the idea of "social murder." In the following extended quote, you can almost see his brain developing the concept:


'When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.'


Later in the same century began a long series of decades in which the length of life which the British expected to live began to expand. Although there continued to be deeply ingrained differences in the years of life lived between the wealthy and the poor in Britain, nonetheless medical and other social changes secured greater longevity. Until, that is, as recently as 12 years ago. When this century of progress came to a halt and to some extent went into reverse. But not for everyone. Whilst the most prosperous amongst the British continued to see increased life expectancy, the poorest began to see a decline. So now the gap between the poor and the rich is widening. The impact is seen particularly in the North of England. How do we know this? We know it because of the work of expert epidemiologists. The latest work of which was printed in the Lancet yesterday and was carried out by Imperial College London.


They show the disastrous situation facing many communities. But they also attribute causal effects. Here is a lengthy paragraph from the Lancet which is worth reading in full.


“There has been much attention on how poverty and the underfunding of public health have been associated with the large and unequal mortality toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in England and the USA.

Our results show that numerous communities in England had begun to have a decline in longevity before the pandemic, mirroring an earlier trend in the USA. In both countries, the decline in life expectancy was associated with the economic trends of unemployment and insecure and low-wage employment following late 20th century deindustrialisation. In England, these economic trends led to a larger loss of jobs in the north than in London and the southeast, where improvements in state education have given students, including from poorer areas, skills for jobs in a changing economy.

These long-term changes were followed by a reduction in social support and welfare payments and in funding to the local governments during the austerity period, which increased poverty, including in-work poverty, such that by 2018–19, one in five people in the UK lived in poverty.

These cuts also had larger effects in the north than in London and southern parts of the country and worsened the effects of loss of secure employment.

Poverty and reduced funding to services increase mortality through health behaviours such as smoking and alcohol use, poor nutrition and living environment, psychosocial pathways, and lower provision or use of preventive and curative health care.”


We need to be very blunt about this. Poorer people across the country are dying younger than they ought, as judged by any statistical measure. As it happens the first time this situation becomes clear is following the election of the current Tory Government in 2010.


Let’s be honest. They have made it worse and the cuts to UC, pressure on energy prices and so on this winter will make it worse. These are political choices made by a party which doesn't care. But the wider context is the neo-liberal turn which British Capitalism took in the late 1970’s.

The question which we are left with then is the following. If people are losing their lives because the social and economic circumstances which they inhabit lead to debilitating ill health and early death, then how are to characterise it? Surely, Engels gave us the way to judge what is happening. The charge is social murder and the verdict is ‘guilty’.


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