Fifty Years of Wagedom

It has been said that the searcher after truth seeks a creed to suit his reason while a sophist looks for reasons to support his creed. The Honourable John Burns, as the recent Blue Book “Public Health and Social Conditions” shows, belongs to the latter category. This interesting publication, received with acclamation by I.L.P’ers, is dedicated by its compilers to the successful John in these words : “The accompanying series of statistical memoranda and charts relating to certain aspects of existing social conditions have been prepared in accordance with your instructions.” Thus inspired it is an optimistic work. One harmonious pean and cry of exhultation over the improving working-class standard of comfort. Take any factor of working-class life—wages, prices, pauperism, sanitation, death-rate, indeed, excepting unemployment, the tale is unified, unanimous. Trade papers, political papers, servile sheets of all sorts, are welcoming this Blue Book as an armoury of facts with which to smite the sceptical student of things social. It proves a better standard of life ! Compared with when ? Tell it not in Gath and whisper it not in the streets of Ascalon, it is as compared with the year of our Lord 1850 ! The inventive faculties of our workman Cabinet Minister are not equal to his bombast or he surely would never have perpetrated this hoary dodge. Those “hungry forties,” how often have they served as text for Liberal free importers and “Labour,” P.S.A.-preaching M.Ps. ! Bring me the civet, good apothecary : it is a necessity.

We have all met the pleasant faced old gentleman who pompously informed us what the price of salt and sugar and wheat was in those “hungry forties.” Did he not tell us how in those times he went to Sunday school in clogs and fustian while the present generation boasts genuine cloth, honest boots and three-inch collars ? That is the individual back of Burn’s Blue Book (this meaning publication dedicated to that “symbolical sunflower constantly turning toward Royalty,” the quandam honest John). But he is an obsequious, silly fellow, and the hope of Socialists is that his sons and daughters will be able to take longer views, and will possess a comparative faculty more highly developed than did he.

These statistics are intended as proof that wages to day, as compared with 1850, are as 182 is to 100. Let us see what wages are, and how we may compare wages and prices at varying periods. A nominal wage is the amount of money for which the labourer sells himself to an employer. Real wages are the amount of commodities which the labourer can purchase with that money, wages as related to prices. We can also compare wages with the amount of the labourer’s product. The worker to-day receives a smaller proportion of the product of his applied labour-power as wages than ever in the past. Let us term this a relative wage. We grant that nominal wages are higher than in 1850. Then the gist of our enquiry must be : how about the real and the relative wage; what of prices and the fertility of labour-power as compared with that time ?

Now it is an excess of modesty to compare wages with the year 1850. Had wages continued at that level for long there would have been few proletarians to exploit. Says Marx in his Brussels discourse upon Free Trade,

“Thus the minimum price is the natural price of labour. And what is the minimum wage ? It is simply all that is necessary to accomplish the production of the objects indispensable for the sustenance of the labourer so as to put him in condition to nourish himself however badly and to propagate feebly his race. Let us not believe on that account that the worker will have only this minimum wage ; nor must we believe that he will have this minimum wage always.
“No, according to this law, the working class will sometimes be more fortunate. It will have at times more than the minimum ; but this surplus will be only the supplement of that reduction below the minimum it will be forced to accept in times of industrial stagnation.”

And if we examine the zig-zag line which may represent the movement of wages since the fourteenth century, we see the truth in Marx’s analysis. The cunning manipulator of figures can prove all things by skilfully choosing his periods ; he can prove the deterioration of the working-class standard of life by comparing present conditions with the years 1500 and 1750, and an improvement by comparison between the present time and 1840 and 1850. But taking long views and examining the oscillations and permutations of different periods it is proven that so long as the wage worker hawks his labour-power as a commodity he receives a subsistence wage.

Wages are the price of labour-power. If a capitalist be the lucky possessor of ten thousand he can buy openly on the market coals, wheat, cottons or so much labour-power. Labour-power is a commodity, subject to the same economic laws as other commodities. Now how are the values of commodities determined ? By their cost of production, or more particularly, by the average amount of socially necessary labour-power embodied in them. And wages—the price or money value of labour-power, are determined by the cost of production of the labourer plus a certain amount necessary to rear a young race of wage workers to perpetuate the misery of the race. This commodity characteristic of labour-power is the barrier to all sentimental efforts to lift up humanity.

This Blue Book also tells us that while, since the year 1872 the wages of the working class have risen as from 170 to 183, in the same period the produce of a penny Income Tax rate has increased as 100 is to 168. Accepting them for the nonce, the figures are suggestive enough. Not so?

And these forty years have been years of ethical movements, Fabian minimums, extensive religious organisation, Christian “Socialism,” paternal factory legislation, co-operation, profit sharing, death duties, super taxes on incomes, and other “ethical” attacks on capitalism for the benefit of the working class. And even yet there are Positivist qnidnuncs who speak of the “moralisafion of capital” ! The movement of wages since 1870 is an effectual reply to the rotund phrases of the “greatest intellectual asset to English Socialism” and to all and sundry who affeet the belief that capitalism can be temporarily repaired. The mills of capitalism grind on in spite of the wishes of emotional l.L.P’ers.

It has been well said that “along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation.” Every word of this indictment is terribly true. MISERY; pain of body and mind, wretchedness. No increase of money wages under present conditions can be any equivalent for the calm and healthy lives of our forebears before the birth of the machine regime. The spectre of unemployment, the insecurity of existence, the enormous number of industrial accidents, the awful loneliness of the poor amidst crowded towns and cities. oppression ; loading with heavy burdens, treating unjustly; torture, or imprisonment, or starvation, as fashion dictates in dfferent countries. SLAVERY ; dependence on the will of another individual or section for material existence, being wholly under the will of another or others, drudgery. The workers are slaves economically, for the most part, and mentally. Economically, for they are allowed a worker’s livelihood only when some privileged person believes that profit can be made from their toil. Mentally because the master class are able to force their ideas and morality upon the workers, through the Press, pulpit, etc., getting these to believe that after all there is no class war and that in religion lies their salvation. DEGRADATION ; condition of inferiority; perverted, sneered at by tricky Mallocks as receiving more than a just share of the wealth created by them. EXPLOITATION ; the obtaining of a value for which no equivalent is rendered. Robbery when applied to men. Employment and fleecing by Joint Stock Companies and professional philanthropists. The sponging up of Labour by Capital “With sufficient incentive capital is very bold. Two and a half per cent, certain will ensure its employment anywhere ; five per cent, will produce eagerness, ten per cent, positive audacity. For fifty per cent there is not a risk it will not run, for one hundred per cent, it is ready to trample upon all human laws.”

And that is our reply to Burns; human misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation, is the workers’ experience of capitalism.

We believe with Engels that “the greater industry has created the modern proletariat, a class which for the first time in history can set about the abolition not of this particular class organisation or that particular class privelege, but of classes in general, and it is in the position that it must carry out this line of action, on the penalty of sinking to the Chinese coolie ‘level.‘”


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