Grenfell Tower: What is ‘Social Murder’?

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July 16, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith


On the Andrew Marr Show this morning Labour Chancellor John McDonnell was asked whether he was prepared to take back his comment that the Grenfell Tower fire was ‘politician murder’. He refused to do so, saying that he believed in the concept of ‘social murder’. He said he believed that the constant choices to make cuts to fire services, which doesn’t just include firefighters but also the resources needed to prevent and then deal with a fire at the time of it breaking out (alarms and sprinklers) led directly to peoples’ death. McDonnell said he was ‘angry’ about it and regardless of which party had been in Government he wanted to hold the people responsible to account.

So what is social murder? Close watchers and listeners of McDonnell will know that he is and has always been a student of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and so not surprised that the concept comes from the writings of Engels in 1845. Here is the relevant quote:

‘When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call that deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call this 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 the bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them … 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 …’

Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845 [1967]), p. 126 (Panther Press)

This was written in 1845, and was related at the time to the conduct of capitalists, who at time were not actually linked to the Conservative Party (in fact, the activities of the Conservatives in the following years were actually a reaction to the injustices brought about by capitalism. 

But recently a paper has been written and then turned into a by Canadian academics  Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson called ‘Social murder and other shortcomings of Conservative economics’. The abstract states the following: 

‘the authors take inspiration from Engels’s 1845 account of the social murder committed by British capitalists to assess the contemporary impact of conservative economic policy, which they define as policies designed to maximize the accumulation of profit while socializing the associated risks and costs. Conservative economists argue that if their policy prescription is followed, it will produce broad-based economic benefits including more rapid growth, higher incomes, less illness, and, even, more democracy. The authors contrast the myth of conservative economic policy with the reality. What conservative economic policy has actually accomplished is a redistribution of wealth and power away from the vast majority of the population to firms and their owners. The effects of these policies on citizens and workers have been socially determined economic instability, unemployment, poverty, inequality, dangerous products, and infectious and chronic disease’

John McDonnell’s view will be that it doesn’t matter whether the decisions that led to the Grenfell Tower Fire took place under Labour or Conservative governments, because he views the 1997-2010 Labour government as just as ‘Tory’ as the Conservative governments from 1979-1997 and 2010 to now. His accusation of social murder may be a genuinely held personal belief but do not doubt they are a deeply felt political and economic belief too, allowing McDonnell to once again present capitalism as the cause of all ills. 

Remember, what McDonnell is effectively saying is that political decisions were made by people who knew it might lead to murder and carried on anyway. It is a serious allegation. Its aim is partly to make sure that this political decisions are part of the public inquiry that is about to take place as well as change in the way the country is run that McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are searching for. The difference is that McDonnell’s use of the word ‘murder’ means that politicians can and might be convicted of causing the deaths. So if it sticks around, it is serious. I think McDonnell knows that.

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