The Old Age Pension snare

Pursuant to their policy of buying working-class support with spurious coin, the Liberals have added another to their list of cheap sops. They raised a “working man” to the Cabinet, and it has been counted unto them for righteousness at the ballot-box. They have given a Small Holdings Act to enable those poor devils of workers who have saved a trifle under capitalist slavery, to get back to the slavery of petty enterprise and lose it. They have announced with temerity (later overwhelmed by trepidation) a measure to save the worker sending his “soul to hell” with hops (?) aud arsenic. And now they have decided to administer another dose of “The Mixture,” the antidote to Socialism, from the bottle labelled “Social Reform”—Old Age Pensions to wit.

What has led them to this act of magnanimity concerns us little here. Our business is to show how hollow is the claim that the realisation of this great item of the programs of the S.D.P., I.L.P. and other reform bodies masquerading as revolutionaries, contributes one iota to the material advantage of the working class. Well indeed can the capitalist captains quell the murmurings which the seeming waste of so much good provender calls up among the more ignorant of their own hosts with the cynical assurance : “Dear brethren, it is entirely compensative.”

Entirely compensative it certainly is from the point of view of capitalist interests, and it is because of the vital importance of the workers understanding this that this criticism is penned.

“Now to dip the test-rod in.”

Viewing the working class as a whole we see a mass of workers living by the sale of a mass labour-power for a mass of wages. This “mass” view of the workers becomes daily more imperative as the development of capitalist production daily eliminates the personal from human affairs, crushing individual opportunity, disfranchising individual skill, reducing all to the mean level on the workers’ side, as it obliterates the individual on the masters’ side, depriving capital of a personal owner, of nationality even, and making the productive machinery of the world less and less private property in the sense of separate and detached ownership, and increasingly a class possession.

Karl Marx has clearly shown the commodity nature of this labour-power, and has proved that the wage (apart from temporary fluctuations which cancel one another) is merely the equivalent of the labour-power which it purchases in respect of one quality common to both—the only quality common to both—that is, embodied necessary human labour.

Man creates nothing—he merely alters forms. He labours at the plough and in the mill, produces necessaries of life, and consumes them. And consuming them he produces latent energy, or labour-power, which he sells. And just as, when the woollen manufacturer consumes coal in his furnaces, the value of that coal lives again in the woollen fabric, so the value of the necessaries of life socially necessary to the production of labour-power is resurrected in that labour-power. Again, man labours in the gold-mines and produces gold, and this gold preserves in full—not the value of the necessaries consumed by the miner to enable him to produce his labour-power, oh, no. That was represented in the miner’s wages, and if the gold had no greater value than was paid in wages for its production there could be no profit for the employer. Between the cost of production of labour-power and its power of production—what it costs to create it and what in turn it is capable of creating—there is a vast difference. The day’s labour-power which the mine-owner bought cost only the product of a quarter of a day’s labour to produce. A quarter of a day’s labour, then, is the value of a days’ labour-power, but this labour-power expended (with utility and prevailing economy), a day’s labour-power is converted into a day’s labour, and that which reappears in its product—gold—is the same that appears in labour-power, viz., the cost of production in units of human labour time.

We see, then, that the labour-power which the workers sell and the wages they sell it for are equivalents when they exchange at par. They are equal values by virtue of the congealed labour they contain, as the two-pound loaf and the two-pound weight are equivalents by virtue of their one common quality, weight. And just as no other commodity owner can force the price of his goods (or shall we say sell them) above their value in the face of competition, so can the workers obtain for their labour-power no more than its average necessary cost of production. Less will not suffice to reproduce the requisite efficiency and maintain continuity of supply : more is debarred them by competition.

The crude statement that wages tend to sink to the level of subsistence under the prevailing “standard of comfort,” faulty though it is in view of the fact that the wages of the workers as a body are never high enough to enable them to provide subsistence—fresh air, pure food, maternal knowledge, and the like—necessary to rear more than half their children to the age of six years, is a fair shot at the truth. But the mystifying element, of course, is contained in the idea of a Standard of Comfort, for this seems to indicate a power in the human will that one can hardly credit, to defy the operation of the laws of competition. What, one asks, is this Standard of Comfort ? How is it established and how maintained’?

The Standard of Comfort is, as Karl Marx says, the creation of an historical process, but today the most potent factor in its determination is the advance of capitalist production itself. The growing intensification of labour, the increasing insecurity of livelihood, the rising tide of unemployment, the herding of vast numbers in slums, the stripping of every rational pleasure from life—all these things make stimulants and intoxicants a necessary part of the Standard of Comfort, as does the more general education demanded by modern capitalism render literary and other “refined” indulgences a part of the necessary bill of fare, and therefore a part of the necessary cost of production of labour-power, into the value of which they enter, to demand an equivalent in its price—wages.

Theoretically wages, since they are the equivalent of the necessary cost of continued production of labour-power, are paid in order that labour-power may be produced. When therefore they are spent on expensive food when cheaper would do as well, on white bread when brown would afford as much sustenance at less cost, on meat when vegetarian diet is so much more economical, on whisky which conceivably gives no sustenance at all, on maintaining the aged whose period of usefulness to the capitalist is passed, then Capital is aggrieved, and capitalists look askant and wonder why all this leakage.

Long ago they discovered that if they reduced the workers’ drink bill they lowered the cost of production of labour-power, and hence cheapened it. Now they have discovered that if they in some measure relieve the workers of the burden of their aged they once more reduce their cost of subsistence and depreciate their wages. It is entirely compensative.

The workers have to learn that so long as their labour-power remains a commodity, remains an article produced for sale in a competitive market, it can command no more than its cost of production. Indeed, they are not robbed here (except in the sense that the sale is compulsory), for it is an exchange of equivalents. (It is in the conversion of that labour-power into labour that they are robbed—robbed of the difference between the value of the one and the other, which the masters call profit.) They have to learn that all those things which the conditions they live under render necessary to the production of their labour-power, in such volume and quality as the labour market needs must be surrendered to them out of the wealth they produce. The woollen manufacturer aforesaid supplies coal for his boilers in order to get motive power, but if his engineer makes a first charge upon it for other purposes, if he takes part of it home for the kitchen grate, then the deficiency must be made up. It is a law of mechanics that we cannot get more out of a machine than we put in, and the same applies to the human machine. If the wages which are paid to the workers as a body (we are taking the “mass” view, not the individual) for the purpose of continuing the supply of labour-power is generally expended upon things which are not fundamentally, but only conditionally necessary to that purpose—on whisky, appearance, maintaining the aged and incapable, and so on—then the fuel for the labour-power still must be provided. Therefore, what does it matter to the workers as a class whether these things which circumstances make so necessary to them that they are ready to make them first charges upon their means of subsistence, are allowed to them as wages or as “State assistance” ? They might be “State” housed, “State” clothed, “State” educated, “State” doctored, “State” washed, lathered, shaved and shampoo’d, but still, while the last essential—food—is withheld from them, they must fight in the labour market for work, be overworked and unemployed, hungry and anxious and toil worn, just as much for the remnant of the necessaries that they cannot exist without as for all.

Any such reforms as State Maintenance of School-children, Old Age Pensions, and so on, are mere shuffling of the cards, and can add nothing permanent whatever to the material wealth of the workers. Indeed, some of them may have the reverse effect, for under the present arrangement the teetotaler has some monetary advantage from the fact that a modicum of the cost of the generally necessary stimulants appears in the value of his labour-power, while the single man with no children outside the workhouse is the better paid because provision is made for the (capitalistically necessary) children in the general wage instead of in “State Maintenance.” Even an overwhelming Socialist majority in the House of Commons could not increase the “return to Labour” by reforms, for all the reforms still leave the competitive labour market untouched. The only way is to abolish that labour market by abolishing the property condition out of which it arises, by substituting, that is, common for private ownership in the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth. That is revolution, not reform. That is ending the capitalist system, not mending it. That alone is the object of a Socialist party and of working-class politics.

So we denounce the Old Age Pension Bill as a useless and mischievous reform measure—useless because it leaves the workers where they were, mischievous because of its power for misleading them. Unfortunately the “mind’s eye” is peculiarly subject to optical delusions. As the sun appears to travel round the earth, as the water seems to race past the ship, so to the untrained “mind’s eye” of the average worker the so-called palliatives appear to palliate. As when “General” Booth finds a job for one poor downcast wretch, it is forgotten that without his interference another would have got the job who must now be work-less, and the impression is created that unemployment has been lessened by this “invaluable agency,” whereas all that has been effected is a shifting of the suffering, so these paltry reforms, so fondly hugged and cuddled by all other parties in this country claiming to be Socialist save the S.P.G.B., seem to be ameliorative, and so seeming capture the popular fancy, revive and strengthen the working-class belief in the goodwill and magnanimity of capitalist politics, ay! serve even to lure our own from beside us, and range them, bitter and militant, against the very cause they profess to revere—Socialism.

And this is why they are such powerful instruments in the hands of the master class for diverting the gaze of the proletariat from the revolutionary proposal. Truly “social reform” is perfectly summed up in the sententious description of that astute politician, Mr. A. J. Balfour—”the antidote to Socialism.” For this reason we cry out upon all those reform parties who, falsely, describe themselves as Socialist, and denounce them for what in truth they are—misleaders of the working class, and therefore adjuncts of the capitalist parties.


Leave a Reply