Class Warfare Poverty Death

Nick Hedges, "Make life worth living," photographs for Shelter; at the kitchen sink in a tenement flat, Glasgow, 1970

Out of the hundred million people living in Soviet Russia, we should be able get 90 million behind us. The others, there’s no talking with them, they have to be annihilated. — Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev, September 1918


Results. Approximately 245 000 deaths in the United States in [the year] 2000 were attributable to low education, 176 000 to racial segregation, 162 000 to low social support, 133 000 to individual-level poverty, 119 000 to income inequality, and 39 000 to area-level poverty. — Sandro Galea, Melissa Tracy, Katherine J. Hoggatt, Charles DiMaggio, and Adam Karpati, “Estimated Deaths Attributable to Social Factors in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health, August 2011



In the course of the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and subsequently, the Bolshevik leadership sought not only to defeat its opponents’ armies but also to eliminate the propertied classes. Another famous line of the period comes from Lenin. In response to an uprising of wealthy farmers in a given region, he called upon his local allies to hang publicly at least 100 of these “rich bastards and known bloodsuckers. Publish their names. Seize all their grain.”

Nick Hedges, "Make life worth living," photographs for Shelter; couple and child in an Edinburgh tenement flat, 1972My goal here is not to revisit the history of the Russian Civil War and of what has come to be called the “Red Terror”—mass killings, torture, and oppression of nominally civilian enemies of the Bolsheviks. Nor will I do more than note that the Red Terror was a moment in a long history of violent class warfare. The American Civil War was another moment, as was the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century in which one-third of the German population was killed. Before Russia, there was, of course, la Terreur of the French Revolution. In twentieth-century Germany, the Nazis were backed by the leading industrialists and bankers, and one of the initial goals (and accomplishments) was to destroy the power of the labor unions and do away with their leaders. There are obvious parallels between the Bolsheviks’ activities and the Nazi Die Endlösung (Final Solution).


The line from Zinoviev brought to my mind another form of deadly class warfare: the exploitation of workers and the maintenance of an underclass, a surplus labor pool, to maintain constant downward pressure on wages. (And despite all the debates about immigration, it seems taboo to talk about the effects of immigration on wages or about how the threat of arrest and deportation are used by employers, at times in collaboration with the police and customs officials, to reduce wages and working conditions to the barest minimum.[1] More in the news is the battle over what the minimum wage should be. Lenin was for seizing the wealthy farmers’ grain; most American corporations, from tiny to huge, and including the major fast-food companies and retailers, have been for keeping the minimum wage as low as possible.)

“The thing about people living in slum housing is that there is no drama. . . . It’s about the absolute wearing down of people’s morale in a quiet and undemonstrative way.” Nick Hedges, Photographer

Poverty is a consequence of subsistence wages, which is what many, many Americans receive. The “Estimated Deaths” researchers and their institution, Columbia University’s school of public health, are to be thanked for their work, but did we really need that study to remind us that poverty leads to premature death and disease? Perhaps we did. The geographer David Harvey has pointed out that “[p]overty is a far more important cause of shortened life expectations in the United States than smoking, but it is smoking that gets all the attention.”[2]

Overall, approximately 2.5 million Americans died in 2000. The Columbia researchers’ article notes that heart disease is commonly considered the leading cause of death in the contemporary United States. However, “the number of deaths we calculated as attributable to low education is comparable to the number caused by acute myocardial infarction” (heart attack).[3]

The global statistics are more blunt. Worldwide, about 21,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, and this notwithstanding that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. Hunger is the number one cause of death in the world, killing more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. As puts it:

The problem is that hungry people . . . lack the money to buy enough food to nourish themselves. Being constantly malnourished, they become weaker and often sick. . . . This downward spiral often continues until death for them and their families.

Nick Hedges, "Make life worth living," photographs for Shelter; child waiting for his parents to come home, Glasgow tenement, 1971
Among the differences—between, say, the Bolsheviks and the US fast-food companies and other employers—there are these two:

1. The Bolsheviks were seeking to take power and to do away with centuries of oppression. The employers are seeking to maintain power and oppression.

2. The Bolsheviks killed people in cold blood and in bursts (millions in the space of a few years). In the US, the premature deaths and disease do not come in bursts but year after year, a few hundred thousand per year, decade upon decade. And for employers and those involved in the legal regimes and propaganda that support this current system, these premature deaths and diseases of the poor are collateral damage. Were there a way to pay workers subsistence wages and have them, nonetheless, live long and productive lives, the employers would be overjoyed. Their only interest is in keeping the wages as low as possible (and in blocking occupational safety regulations, etc.). And, in any case, the poor don’t tend to die while cutting up, deep-frying, or stocking chicken—at their old jobs. They die in apartments and hospitals and, increasingly, on the street.[4]


Of course, even the wealthy people targeted by the Bolsheviks were going to die eventually, and a certain amount of poverty cannot be addressed by laws, government policies, and culture (by changing attitudes, points of view). But let us suppose that 50 percent of the people who die of poverty every year could live another ten years were food, water, and income distributed less unequally. This may help us appreciate what a devastating class war is going on year after year in the United States and throughout the world.

Oxfam has estimated that it would take $60 billion annually to end extreme global poverty—that’s less than one-quarter of the annual income of the world’s 100 richest billionaires.[5]

— Wm. Eaton


William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, was recently published by Serving House Books. See Surviving the website.


Credits & References

Nick Hedges, "Make life worth living," photographs for Shelter; tenements and wasteland near Red Road flats, 1971The photographs were taken by Nick Hedges for Shelter, a housing and homelessness charity in Scotland. In 1968, Shelter hired Nick Hedges to document the living conditions being experienced in poor-quality housing in the United Kingdom. For more, see Nick Hedges’ photographs for Shelter 1969-72.

My version of Zinoviev’s line is a translation from a French translation. The standard English translation is (and with a prior sentence added): “To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.”

Sandro Galea, Melissa Tracy, Katherine J. Hoggatt, Charles DiMaggio, and Adam Karpati, Estimated Deaths Attributable to Social Factors in the United States, American Journal of Public Health 101(8) (August 2011): 1456–65.

Nicholas Bakalar, Researchers Link Deaths to Social Ills, New York Times, July 4, 2011.

In the current, December 17, 2015, issue of the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman has a very good piece— Challenging the Oligarchy—about “the quiet class war that America’s oligarchy has been waging for decades.” I may write more about this in Zeteo next week. At least the phrase “class war” has finally made it out of the closet!


Nick Hedges, "Make life worth living," photographs for Shelter; mother takes her baby inside her condemned tenement block, Gorbals, 1970Endnotes

[1] One revealing example is given in The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent (New York Review of Books, July 9, 2015), wherein Andrew Hacker touches on the tremendous use Microsoft and other high-tech companies make of vulnerable, low-paid immigrant tech workers who are paid about half what tech workers with American citizenship would, otherwise, be able to earn.

See also a 1976 US Supreme Court decision: “[A]cceptance by illegal aliens of jobs on substandard terms as to wages and working conditions can seriously depress wage scales and working conditions of citizens and legally admitted aliens; and employment of illegal aliens under such conditions can diminish the effectiveness of labor unions.” De Canas v. Bica, 424 U.S. 351, 356-57 (1976). As quoted in ICED OUT: How Immigration Enforcement Has Interfered with Workers’ Rights, by Rebecca Smith, National Employment Law Project; Ana Avendaño, AFL-CIO; and Julie Martínez Ortega, American Rights at Work Education Fund.

[2] David Harvey, Marxism, Metaphors, and Ecological Politics, Monthly Review, Vol 49, No 11, April 1998.

[3] Dr. Galea, now Dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, has informed me that there is overlap in these statistics. For example, the same person may have been counted as having died due to both racial segregation and area-level poverty. So one cannot add up all these figures and end up with a cumulative death toll. Similarly, among those dying of heart attacks or smoking (pulmonary diseases), many may also have little education or social support.

[4] Approximately 1 percent of New York City’s population is now homeless. This is three times as many people as were homeless fifteen years ago.

[5] Technical note, let’s call it. As an advanced-degreed professional in New York City, I have earned rather more than the average global citizen. In the early nineteenth century one of my ancestors proved to be a quite savvy, and likely also quite aggressive, real-estate speculator, and I have inherited a little money from him. Supposing that not just the United States but the world as a whole returned to the situation prevailing in the US in the 1950s, the situation in which, it is said, CEOs earned “only” ten times more than the lowest-paid workers in their organizations. That is, supposing that my annual earnings were taxed or otherwise channeled so that they were not more than ten times the amount earned by the world’s lowest-paid workers (and rentiers—people living off their investments). My income would be reduced, and likely significantly, and likely even if the new system factored in the differential costs of living (e.g. in New York City, where I live, as compared to other, perhaps less costly areas). Whether my “standard of living” would, as a result, go down is a rather more open question than might be realized. (A “meal should taste better if one eats it with the knowledge that other people are not starving to death.” — On Savoring.)

Nonetheless, I must note this one aspect of the income-inequality discussions in the Western media: the super-rich are being attacked by people, like me, who are, from a global perspective, ourselves quite rich. A skeptic might say that nothing needs correcting so much as other people’s morals, and that our position is that no one should be very much richer than we are. A student of class warfare might say that our position is that the professional classes (teachers, writers, artists, etc., most definitely included) should have more power and the business classes less. Another might say that we are not seeking equality, but rather moderation, a reduction in inequality. My answer for the moment is “all of the above.”

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Class Warfare Poverty Death


  1. Ed Mooney

    This is brutal — I mean the facts are brutal, and the next to zero chance of changing the system that creates that brutality is itself a brutal realization. People worry about endless warfare in the middle east without reflecting, as you point out, on the endlessness, decade after decade, century after century, of class warfare (with no end in sight). I’d say “thank you” but like the old days at the dentist, it hurts.


  2. Ed Mooney

    Let me add a “morning after” reflection. This is a brave and analytically astute snap-shot of an impossibly large and important and neglected world-historical phenomena. It’s one I’ll return to more than once in weeks ahead. Path breaking!


    • William Eaton

      Yes! In the Krugman NYRB review, mentioned at the very end of my piece, he asks how one would get the political power necessary to change economic inequities. That is, since wealth brings power in our society — as opposed to the “good ol’ days” when brute force or swordsmanship did? — how would the wealthy ever be convinced to reduce their wealth in favor of others or, say, of the world (environment) as a whole? I may write more about this anon. Among other things, it seems to me that the FDR and his gang responded to the Great Depression by convincing the major stakeholders that they were only going to recover their lost wealth and get their businesses started again if consumers had more money to buy, buy, buy (and greater security for their savings, etc.), and this led to a temporary reduction in economic inequality. It is possible that FDR had no other choice but to take the steps he did, whereas Bush, Obama and their gangs felt they could save the system, recover the lost wealth, without addressing the inequities (indeed while allowing them to continue to increase!). In the near term at least, this is greatly to be regretted.


  3. William Eaton

    This just in from Anna Aslanyan and the London Review of Books (“Cold Homes Kill”). Almost hard to believe.

    “Winter excess deaths in England and Wales in 2014-15 – the number of people who died between December and March minus the average over the rest of the year – have been estimated by the Office for National Statistics at 43,900, the highest for 15 years. According to the World Health Organisation, at least one third of those deaths are likely to have been caused by fuel poverty.”

    Url for Aslanyan’s post:


  4. Daniel D'Arezzo

    After the Bolsheviks killed the wealthy farmers, or kulaks, and took their grain, there was no more grain. The peasants who owned a couple of cows and had a few acres of land more than their neighbors were labeled “kulaks” by Stalin, who accused them of hoarding. Farms were collectivized. The peasants resisted, fearing a new form of serfdom, and Stalin, predictably, retaliated. Millions died. No one has come up with a better system for farming than rich farmers and/or rich peasants. Land redistribution is temporary; the land always ends up in the hands of a few, and even more so in places where wheat, corn and soybeans are grown.

    Feeding the world is doable, but how? By one estimate (UN Environment Programme, Oct. 2015), 30-40% of food produced in the U.S. is thrown away. But the idea of feeding 300 million people somewhere else with America’s leftovers isn’t the solution. The solution, surely, is for most countries to grow their own food and/or trade for it.

    The implication of Oxfam’s estimate that extreme poverty could be eliminated (or alleviated) with one-quarter of the income of the world’s hundred richest families is that the rich ought to cough it up. Why does that strike me as utopian thinking? In fact, some of the wealthiest people do give money to help the poor, mostly (and this seems right to me) by attacking the plagues and chronic diseases that afflict people and prevent them from being productive. There are foundations that do development and foundations that work for social justice. Liberate women, educate them, empower them to start small businesses: if we could manage that, we could change the world. But it’s a long hard slog. One might even envision ISIS, or Daesh, as resistance to the liberation of women (Mamma mia!), although it is also a reaction against imperialism and colonialism and modernity in general.

    I agree that the billionaire class has waged class warfare against the rest of us and that we ought to fight back. The worst of their warfare is a strategy of constructing a Frankenstein monster from the body parts of bad policies (military adventurism, easy access to guns and ammo, religious exemptions for the sincere beliefs of persons and corporations, deportation and obstruction of immigrants, discrimination against women and minorities, defunding of health initiatives) in order to cobble together a constituency of bigots, a confederacy of dunces, so they can slip in the one thing that really interests them: protecting their wealth. For those, like the Koch brothers, whose wealth comes from fossil fuels, this includes science denial, which may be the worst policy of all.

    William Eaton’s contention that the U.S. Civil War was one “moment in a long history of violent class warfare” articulates a thought I’d had recently–namely, that the One Percent of today resembles the One Percent of the antebellum South, the large landowners who needed slave labor to grow cotton and needed new slave territory in the American West where they could sell their excess slaves. The Southern aristocrats developed a notion of the superiority of the Southern lifestyle and a sentimental attachment to the South that inveigled even the white Southerners who only aspired to own slaves. For decades after the end of the Civil War–even to this very day–many Southerners believed that the war was not fought to defend the right of some people to own other people. Southerners had to believe that they had suffered for a noble cause, not for some infamy. Our current infamy is to deny opportunity and a safe haven to people fleeing the murderous narco-states that our idiotic War on Drugs created as well as to people fleeing the catastrophic conditions created by our ill-conceived and bumptious military adventures in the Middle East. We do this on the grounds of self-defense. Any attempt to redress our sins and help our victims is decried as “weakness” and “lack of leadership.” It is clear that the billionaires don’t believe any of this nonsense, and, in fact, the candidates favored by the oligarchs oppose this kind of demagoguery–but not much. They are watching the process unfold and calculating whether, this time around, a little nativism could get them elected. Maybe Ted Cruz is their man, the child of immigrants who promises secure borders and no amnesty for illegal immigrants.

    Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, keeps the focus on the oligarchy. He really doesn’t want to get drawn into the patriotic gore–the smoke and mirrors of Benghazi, the Iran nuclear deal, Vladimir Putin, Paris, San Berdoo–because it’s mostly dust in the eyes of a public terrorized by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. The real war is over whether the oligarchy can write the tax code and labor laws to its advantage or whether the working class and middle class should have a say. And also whether we can lay to rest the Frankenstein monster.

    This is critical. As William Eaton suggests, income inequality isn’t about envy of the rich; it’s about life and death. I’m not against fashion, jewelry, beautiful homes, art collections, private yachts, fine wines, lavish parties. Have a ball! But take your foot off the neck of the masses and you’ll enjoy yourself even more.


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