As the pandemic fades into the distance, recent statistics show that hundreds of thousands of workers have left the labour market, suffering from chronic pain and mental illness. Capitalist exploitation, austerity, and alienation are to blame.
The depth of the global economic crisis has left no country on earth unscathed. But this crisis has been particularly acute in the UK, on the basis of the long-term decline and degeneracy of British capitalism.
The delusional Tory government, and Starmer’s ‘patriotic’ opposition, ignore this bitter reality, instead banging their chests about British exceptionalism.
There is one measure in which the country is leading, however: workers dropping out of the workforce.
Pain and suffering
The aftermath of the COVID pandemic has seen the numbers out of work climb to 9 million, surpassing the previous estimate of 8.3 million.
The UK is currently the only advanced capitalist country where the share of the working-age population (15-64) who are outside of the labour force has continued to rise since the end of lockdowns.
In their most recent Labour Force Survey, the ONS revealed that the largest contributing factor behind this trend is chronic pain. The numbers experiencing persistent ailments rose by almost 200,000 in the past two years, surpassing countries like France, Canada, Germany, and Spain.
In addition, those with serious health conditions increased by 735,000 in the same period. This includes people suffering from the lingering effects of long COVID.
Following this, the second highest contributor is mental health issues. The prevalence of mental health problems was already increasing prior to the pandemic, but it has risen by a further 40% in the past two years.
The mental health crisis, it should be noted, isn’t just isolated to workers. Students too are increasingly suffering from the same misery.
Illustrating this, 95% of GPs believe that mental health services are critically failing. And 63% fear that their patients will come to harm due to a lack of treatment.
These problems are the product of a sick system, which has nothing to offer workers and youth but further attacks, as it stumbles from one crisis to the next.
The bleak prospects that lie ahead under capitalism – from the day-to-day worries of the cost-of-living crisis, to economic uncertainty, environmental destruction, and war – weigh down on the minds of ordinary people. No wonder, then, that so many are suffering from mental illness.
The epidemic of chronic pain, meanwhile, is the product of an intensification of labour, as the bosses attempt to squeeze yet more profits out of workers.
Instead of investing in production and technology in recent decades, the British capitalists have increasingly relied on the super-exploitation of precarious workers and casualised labour to make their profits.
This means back-breaking work in Dickensian conditions, such as Amazon warehouses; or endless exhaustion and insecurity for workers in the gig economy.
Such jobs often come without basic rights like sick pay or holiday pay. This is particularly the case for those stuck in bogus self-employment. At the same time, many have to work long hours on low pay, or are forced to take on multiple jobs, just to make ends meet.
The result is increasing stress and toil for millions, without any chance to rest and recover – all of which leaves its mark physically in terms of the long-term injuries and conditions that workers develop.
All the while, thanks to twelve years of austerity and privatisation, waiting lists for NHS treatment have grown from 4.43 million to a record high of 6.48 million. And the backlog is expected to rise to 10 million by 2024. This means that healthcare is increasingly out of reach for those who most desperately need it.
As Karl Marx accurately summarised in Capital:
“Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time an accumulation of misery, agony, toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, and mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”
Degraded by profit
Marx also explained in his magnum opus that it is the capitalists’ insatiable thirst for profit that is responsible for the degradation and suffering inflicted upon workers’ bodies and minds:
“In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight…
“It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose.
“Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.
“The capitalist mode of production (essentially the production of surplus-value, the absorption of surplus-labour), produces thus, with the extension of the working-day, not only the deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal, moral and physical, conditions of development and function. It produces also the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself. It extends the labourer’s time of production during a given period by shortening his actual lifetime.”
The problems facing workers in Britain today, in this respect, are no different from those facing the working class in Victorian times.
The faces of the bosses may have changed – but the same brutally exploitative system remains in place. And it is the working class who suffer the consequences, in terms of their health and lives.
Marx also noted that, without organisation, workers are reduced to being raw material for exploitation by the bosses.
When organised and mobilised, however, not a force on earth can stop the working class.
As Socialist Appeal founder Ted Grant emphasised: “Not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines, and not a telephone rings without the kind permission of the working class.”
The recent period in Britain has seen an immense upswing in the labour movement, with workers across industry – from rail to mail – downing tools and fighting back against capitalism’s intolerable conditions.
And more is yet to come, with coordinated action between unions likely in the months ahead.
This shows the way forward in the fight to turn the tables on the bosses, and ensure decent jobs, pay, and working conditions for all.
Socialism or barbarism
To truly put an end to the scourge of chronic pain and mental illness, however, this united movement must be connected to a bold programme of socialist planning and workers’ control.
Only by putting power and control in the hands of the working class – in the workplace, and in the wider economy – can the gruelling drudgery, anxiety, and alienation of modern work be brought to an end.
On the basis of a rational, democratic plan of production, society’s resources and technology could be fully utilised in order to automate tasks, share out work, and massively reduce the hours of the working week, instead of being used to boost the bosses’ profits.
With this, the numbers suffering from mental and physical afflictions would fall dramatically.
At the same time, by expropriating the billionaires, we could reverse the cuts and privatisation inflicted upon the NHS, mental health provision, and other vital public services – ensuring that those who require care and treatment could receive it, rather than falling through the cracks of this callous system.
Only in this way can we address the root cause of the sickness in society, rather than simply offering a palliative remedy or sticking plaster for capitalism’s maladies. Only then can we build a future fit for humanity.
The choice is clear: socialism or barbarism.