Social murder is a term coined by Friedrich Engels in 1845 in one of his seminal works, The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Engels was Karl Marx’s close friend and collaborator, co-authoring some of the most influential works that stimulated worker revolutions across the world. Engels writes:
“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.”
Engels used the term social murder to describe how living and working conditions of English workers caused their premature death. Engels argued that since those responsible for these conditions – the ruling class or the bourgeoisie – were aware of the conditions that caused premature death, they were therefore committing social murder.
Increasing health inequities and premature mortality experienced by the working class populations — which became even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic — sparked our interest in the use of the concept and ways that it can be used to resist harmful public policies.
Our studies therefore looked at the use of the term social murder in the academic and mainstream news media literatures.
Although the term was seldom used in academia through the 1900s, since 2000 we documented a reemergence of the social murder concept. Specifically, this was because of the Grenfell Tower fire in London and the increasingly threatening health effects of austerity policies imposed by Conservative governments in UK and neo-liberal authorities elsewhere.
In the academic literature we found two primary concepts of social murder:
- Social murder as resulting from capitalist exploitation.
- Social murder as resulting from bad public policy across the domains of working conditions, living conditions, poverty, housing, racism, health inequalities, crime and violence, neoliberalism, gender, food insecurity, social assistance, and deregulation and austerity.
In our second study, we examined the use of social murder by journalists from 1994 onward. We documented an increase in usage after the Grenfell Tower fire and ongoing usage to describe problematic public policy and capitalist exploitation.
In mainstream news media we found five key stimuli for use of the term social murder:
- The Grenfell Tower fire as social murder (including politicians using the term to describe the fire).
- Conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic (including governmental responses to the pandemic).
- Austerity and social security policies as social murder.
- Job insecurity and suicides related to loss of employment in South Korea.
- Other public policies as social murder.
In both the academic and mainstream news literatures, we found that capitalist exploitation, bad public policy and serious or catastrophic events (such as Grenfell Tower fire and the COVID-19 pandemic) stimulated the use of the term.
Even though the social murder concept is still on the margins in both the academic literature and mainstream news media with its use well behind more palatable terminology such as health inequalities, and health disparities, the increase in usage by both academics and journalists is hopeful.
By calling social murder what it is – the premeditated causing of death — writers can mobilize the public to resist the powerful economic and political interests that control the media, academia, and indeed, our own lives.
We argue that the use of high valence terms like social murder can arouse anger and help mobilize the public to resist capitalist exploitation and bad public policies created by ruling authorities that threaten health and well-being.
The social murder concept makes explicit the source of excessive morbidity and premature death experienced by the working class in today’s society. Hopefully, it can stimulate public resistance to our exploitative economic system that sickens and then kills so many today.
Stella Medvedyuk is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program of Health Policy and Equity at York University in Toronto. Her research focuses on health equity, health policy, the social determinants of health, and historical analysis of public policy.
To read more, see Piara Govender, Stella Medvedyuk, & Dennis Raphael. “Mainstream News Media’s Engagement with Friedrich Engels’s Concept of Social Murder” in TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique2022 / Stella Medvedyuk, Piara Govender & Dennis Raphael. “The Reemergence of Engels’ Concept of Social Murder In Response to Growing Social and Health Inequities” in Social Science and Medicine 2021.
Image: Friedrich Engels around the time he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England. Unknown author via Wikipedia (Public Domain Mark 1.0; No copyright)