Social murder and the Doug Ford government
In 1845, Friedrich Engels described the phenomena by which working-class residents in Manchester died prematurely because of their living and working conditions. He did not simply label the occurrence as we usually do today: “Premature deaths due to unfortunate circumstances,” but rather coined the term “social murder” to make explicit the source of these premature deaths.
This extensive quote from his Condition of the Working Class in England begs careful attention in relation to the austerity agenda of Premier Doug Ford.
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.
What is the relevance of this analysis for Ontario today? Statistics Canada documents that Canadian men in the lowest 20 per cent of the income distribution are 67 per cent more likely to die in any given year than the wealthiest 20 per cent. For women, the figure is 52 per cent more likely.
And what do they die of? These men and women respectively are 67 per cent and 53 per cent more likely to die from heart disease, 46 per cent and 30 per cent more likely to die from cancer, 249 per cent and 264 per cent more likely to die from diabetes, 231 per cent and 211 per cent more likely to die from respiratory disease and 88 per cent and 83 per cent more likely to die from injuries than their wealthy counterparts.
Statistics Canada also makes clear that these differences in health outcomes are primarily due to the material living circumstances and the associated psychosocial stresses associated with not being as well off as the wealthiest 20 per cent of Canadians: “Income influences health most directly through access to material resources such as better quality food and shelter.”
Any reasonable leader would do all they could do improve the financial situation of these at-risk for disease and death individuals.
Instead we see, Doug Ford cancelling a minimum-wage increase and reducing social assistance increases.
We see him promising to cancel the Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs Act that provided improvements to the workplace life to those who do not enjoy the benefits available to the better well-off.
And there is little doubt there will be a massive imposition of cutbacks to services that are vital for the 20 per cent identified in the Statistics Canada study.
What are the terms used to describe such a public policy agenda? Austerity. Neo-liberalism, Conservative politics.
And what are the effects of these policies? I will let the titles of these scholarly works divulge the answer:
- The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills — Recessions, Budget Battles, and The Politics of Life and Death by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu.
- How Politics Makes Us Sick: Neoliberal Epidemics by by Ted Schrecker and Clare Bambra.
- Social Murder: and Other Shortcomings of Conservative Economics by Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson.
And make no mistake about it. Doug Ford policies will kill. And these policies will not just kill the least well-off but affect the quality of life of all.
Let’s not put neutral labels on what Doug Ford is doing. It is more than austerity, cutbacks and conservative politics. It is social murder.
Dennis Raphael is a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto.