On Why Capitalists Are Guilty of Social Murder / by Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels directing the construction of a barricade in the streets of Elberfeld during the riots of May 1849 in Prussia. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on November 28, 2022

In 1845, Friedrich Engels wrote a scathing condemnation of English capitalism, The Condition of the Working Class in England. In it, he accused the bosses of carrying out “social murder” against workers and the poor.

The following is an edited extract from Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in Englandfirst published in 1845. You can read the full text here.

Atown, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to the inference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing. This colossal centralization, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half millions a hundredfold; has raised London to the commercial capital of the world, created the giant docks and assembled the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames.

I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge. The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.

Friedrich Engels

But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realizes for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilization which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means?

And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honor another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space.

And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow selfseeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Hence it comes, too, that the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared. Just as in Stirner’s recent book [The Ego and Its Own], people regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.

What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.

Since capital, the direct or indirect control of the means of subsistence and production, is the weapon with which this social warfare is carried on, it is clear that all the disadvantages of such a state must fall upon the poor. For him no man has the slightest concern. Cast into the whirlpool, he must struggle through as well as he can. If he is so happy as to find work, i.e., if the bourgeoisie does him the favor to enrich itself by means of him, wages await him which scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together; if he can get no work he may steal, if he is not afraid of the police, or starve, in which case the police will take care that he does so in a quiet and inoffensive manner.

During my residence in England, at least twenty or thirty persons have died of simple starvation under the most revolting circumstances, and a jury has rarely been found possessed of the courage to speak the plain truth in the matter. Let the testimony of the witnesses be never so clear and unequivocal, the bourgeoisie, from which the jury is selected, always finds some backdoor through which to escape the frightful verdict, death from starvation. The bourgeoisie dare not speak the truth in these cases, for it would speak its own condemnation. But indirectly, far more than directly, many have died of starvation, where long-continued want of proper nourishment has called forth fatal illness, when it has produced such debility that causes which might otherwise have remained inoperative brought on severe illness and death. The English workingmen call this “social murder,” and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong?

True, it is only individuals who starve, but what security has the workingman that it may not be his turn tomorrow? Who assures him employment, who vouches for it that, if for any reason or no reason his lord and master discharges him tomorrow, he can struggle along with those dependent upon him, until he may find someone else “to give him bread”? Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness?

No one. He knows that he has something today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something tomorrow. He knows that every breeze that blows, every whim of his employer, every bad turn of trade may hurl him back into the fierce whirlpool from which he has temporarily saved himself, and in which it is hard and often impossible to keep his head above water. He knows that, though he may have the means of living today, it is very uncertain whether he shall tomorrow . . .

Friedrich Engels was a German socialist instrumental to the development of Marxism

While Elites Fret About Inflation and Worker Wages, CEOs Are Robbing Us Blind / by Branko Marcetic

The already massive CEO-worker pay chasm only widened over the course of 2021. (Alexander Mils / Unsplash)

The Fed has embarked on an anti-inflation policy designed to destroy jobs and keep wages low. But a new report shows just how exorbitantly CEOs are profiting from the price hikes.

As an impending war on workers’ wages gathers steam, there’s comparatively little talk about the gargantuan pay packets of corporate executives. That’s too bad, because a new report suggests those pay packets have ballooned to new, ever-higher levels even as worker pay has stagnated.

The report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) is the latest of the organization’s annual series of Executive Excess reports, this time examining CEO pay at three hundred publicly held US corporations that recorded the lowest median wages in 2020. What the IPS found is as depressing as it is unsurprising: the already massive CEO-worker pay chasm only widened over the course of 2021, and worker pay at many of the companies has fallen behind inflation, even as corporate profits have been turned into millions of dollars more for individual executives.

According to the report, CEO pay at these low-paying firms rose by 31 percent to an average of $10.6 million, pushing the average ratio of CEO-to-median-worker salary to 670-to-1, up markedly from 2020’s gap of 604-to-1. Forty-nine of the firms even recorded pay gaps of an astounding 1,000-to-1.

Few reading this will be surprised to hear who the worst offender was: Amazon, whose CEO-to-worker pay gap grew an unfathomable 11,062 percent over 2020. CEO Andy Jassy, who took over from Jeff Bezos in 2021, at least nominally — Bezos and Amazon have made clear he’s staying involved in the company and was mostly handing over day-to-day responsibilities — ended up making $212.7 million last year, or 6,474 times the average Amazon worker pay of $32,855. Besides union-busting efforts directed by the exorbitantly compensated Jassy, Amazon workers have to contend with intense workplace surveillancediscrimination and harassment,  and notoriously hectic working conditions that force them to pee in bottles or skip bathroom breaks.

Other top offenders include Abercrombie & Fitch, whose CEO takes home a salary 3,282 times the size of that of his median employee, toy maker Mattel (2,705), tobacco supplier Universal Corporation (2,683), the Gap (2,485), footwear brand Skechers (2,265), and McDonald’s (2,251).

Some firms in particular saw their CEO-to-worker pay gaps widen astronomically over the course of 2020, like digital payment services company FleetCor Technologies (a 3,595 percent rise in the CEO-to-worker pay gap), clothing retailer Urban Outfitters (3,400 percent), casino and racetrack operator Penn National Gaming (1,145 percent), electronics multinational Methode (1,096 percent), and hair salon operator Regis Corporation (969 percent). Jay Snowden, the CEO of Penn National Gaming, which is planning to take full ownership of Barstool Sports next year, took home the third-largest payday of all the CEOs covered in the report, with $65.9 million.

At the same time they were doling out massive paydays to their CEOs, 106 (35 percent) of these 300 hundred low-paying firms paid their workers a median wage that fell behind the 4.7 percent average US inflation rate over 2021, states the report. In fact, sixty-nine of these firms saw their worker pay fall.

It’s not that these firms didn’t have the money to pay their workers better while inflation soared. As the report points out, of those 106 firms where median worker pay didn’t keep up with inflation, sixty-seven spent a collective $43.7 billion on stock buybacks to pump up their CEOs’ stock-based paychecks. According to the report, Lowe’s, Target, and Best Buy, for instance, could’ve given all of their employees a raise of $40,000, $16,000, and $32,270 each respectively, if they had spent the billions they blew on stock buybacks on their workforce instead.

The report’s findings come amid a national debate over inflation that has consistently stressed the impact of higher worker wages and government policies that put money into average people’s pockets. Meanwhile, the idea that corporate price gouging has played some role has been cast by some as a “conspiracy theory.”

Of course, the biggest risk of further inflation comes from the supply shocks caused first by the pandemic and now Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions that came in response. But the impetus has also come from opportunistic price hikes by profit-hungry companies taking advantage of the widespread public awareness of inflation to sneak through added price hikes. A recent Guardian investigation based on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings and investor calls for a hundred US corporations found executives disclosing they were raking in massive windfalls as profits far outpaced inflation, with executives openly admitting their price increases outstripped inflationary costs.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is embarking on a series of interest rate hikes that will at minimum cause job losses and at worst stagflation and a recession. The main target of these rate hikes is what Fed chair Jerome Powell called “an extraordinarily strong labor market,” which has given workers the leverage to get the higher pay Powell believes is now driving runaway price increases.

Powell has said his strategy for tackling inflation will involve “some pain” and declared in a May press conference that outlined his belief in the need to stifle wage growth that “we can’t allow a wage-price spiral to happen.” An imbalance in supply and demand for the job market means “wages are running at the highest level in many decades,” he explained, and the Fed’s policies would enable “further healing in the labor market” to bring them “back into balance.”  The “healing” Powell is euphemistically referring to in reality means the erasure of job opportunities, which will erode workers’ bargaining power and make them more willing to take on jobs with substandard working conditions, including low pay.

While all of this is taking place, the IPS report reminds us, the price gouging and extravagant salaries of corporate executives go conveniently ignored in the debate over inflation and the government’s seemingly willful failure to tackle them. The report notes that the Joe Biden administration has dragged its feet on using the federal government’s contracting power to tackle the widening CEO-to-worker pay gaps, which it could easily do: 119 (40 percent) of the 300 companies examined got federal contracts between October 2019 and May 2022, to the tune of $37.2 billion, a massive sum that could be leveraged to force the firms elbowing for a place at the trough to put in place fairer pay practices.

We seem to be on an irreversible course to repeat the disastrous economic shocks of the 1970s and early 1980s, all in the quest of suppressing whatever meager advances low-wage workers have seen in their paychecks these past couple of years. And meanwhile, the corporate profiteers robbing us blind laugh all the way to the bank.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.vely little talk about the

Jacobin, June 10, 2022, https://jacobin.com/

The already massive CEO-worker pay chasm only widened over the course of 2021.