That Blessed Five Bob

Undoubtedly the national pride is the national “qualities of head.” John Bull, whatever his heart may be, is blessed with a particularly hard head, and he knows it. It is no use trying to fill him up with yarn. No, he will tell you, he maintains a special corps of amphibians whom he designates the “horse marines,” chosen for the phenomenal capacity of their swallows, whose particular duty it is to swallow yarns of all sorts. To them with the “unvarnished tale,” the “bald and unconvincing narrative”: John will have none of them. He will believe his eyes and his ears. What he can see or hear or taste or touch or smell he knows and believes to exist. The concrete, the tangible, the material, “of the earth earthy,” ah ! he is at home there, and treads with bold and confident step where, if he were more of an angel and less of a hard-headed, practical man of the world, he might fear to tread. But when it comes to theories, when it comes to economic laws, when it comes to abstract principles, John is out of patience—he gave up the belief in spooks and spirits about the same time that he gave the Church the cold shoulder, since when the petrification of his head has become a happily completed process. His capacity for faith has been worn out, the only vestige of it remaining, like the footprint of some extinct monster preserved in imperishable rock to show what once was (and as warning to I.L P’ers and others who cannot adapt themselves to their times) being his belief in his brewer, and even this is founded on the knowledge that they always did make beer of hops and barley and always will, while as for arsenic, “why, how could they do it at the price?”

So, when John Bull, who, in the softness of his heart has been sharing his humble board and leaky roof with his aged mother, suddenly finds that the old lady’s services to her country in bearing and rearing such a hard-headed son, has received recognition in the shape of five shillings a week from the “illimitable resources” of the nation, the hardness of his head and the unwonted fatness of his pocket, tells him he has to some extent been relieved of his burden. He considers himself “five bob a week” better off. Five grossly material, concrete, tangible, visible, spendable, slippery, winged and light-footed shillings better off fifty-two times in the year, God sparing his mother, bless her dear old heart. “Ain’t I, eh ? ain’t I ?” he asks his mates, and in their hard-headed wisdom they sententiously answer—”Yus.”

“Ain’t I ?” he asks the man on the “Clarion” Van, the I.L.P. or S.D.P. platforms, and again, though not sententiously, he is accorded full assent, with the additional information, “that’s why we got it for you.”

John Bull propounds the question to the S.P.G.B. speaker, who, he knows has always inveighed against the advocacy of such reforms, and even here he is not denied.

But the S.P.G.B. man rejects the point of view. These others, on the right hand and the left, fail utterly to see things from the class standpoint. To us the individual is not of the greatest importance. John Bull may be five shillings a week better off, but if the other members of the working class, who, having no old people to receive old age pensions, have been relieved of no burden, are multched collectively of the equivalent of old Mrs. Bull’s pension, then the working class is (in the sense of increased income) no better off. And that something of this kind has followed, or sooner or later must follow, any old age or other doles handed out to the working class is the base of our opposition to reforms.

“But such has not been the case” declared a cerain I.L.P. Councillor during a debate with a representative of the S.P.—at which debate John Bull propounded his question. “Wages have not fallen, though we have the old age pensions.”

This is rather a wild sort of statement to make. In the absence of official figures, which cannot, of course, be available for some time yet, it is impossible to base our argument upon exact information. Nevertheless it is certain that, when the thing has had time to settle down, at present even I suggest, a large proportion of the old age dole will be paid to those who would otherwise be in receipt of indoor or outdoor Poor Law relief, and this portion cannot in any sense be considered an addition to the working-class income. It must be remembered that nearly one half (47.9 per cent.) of the total number of paupers in the Kingdom are classified as “aged and infirm,” and their share of the eleven and a half millions sterling comprising the total cost total cost of pauperism (1908) is vast enough to reduce the actual extra outlay of the old age pensions very considerably. Without any special information I suggest three millions as the extent of this reduction.

This would leave about four millions per annum of the pension which our opponents would say our theories demand that we should find an equivalent wage-reduction for. But what would our I.L.P. councillors and our John Bulls have ? Such a sum spread over the income of all those receiving less than £3 per week per family would be but 1d. in the £—1¼ d. per week off hard-headed John Bull’s five-and-twenty bob. Who would expect to discern it ? Perhaps it is looking for such microscopic mites that has so impaired the I.L.P. vision that they cannot see such broad-daylight facts as the class struggle.

And how is this extract from the May issue of the “Board of Trade Labour Gazette ?”

“The changes [in the rate of wages] taking effect in April affected 85,000 workpeople, of whom 7,000 received advances, and 78,000 sustained decreases. … The total computed effect of all the changes was a net decrease of nearly £4,100 per week.”

What the figures were for the previous three months and since I cannot say at the moment, but, without suggesting the probability, I wish to point out that a like reduction each month for a year would mean at the end of that time that those workers whom the returns cover (not by any means the whole body of wage earners) would be sustaining reductions at the rate of over two and a half millions per annum.

These figures are meant to indicate nothing more than that it is possible that those who say the old age pensions have not resulted in a fall in wages may be very far from the truth. But as a matter of fact it is not necessary for the reduction to take the form of an actual lowering of the money wage. It might take place through a change in the purchasing power of those wages. For instance, let us suppose, firstly, that circumstances have forced the capitalists to add to working-class income by old age pensions a net sum of £3,000,000. Let us secondly suppose that through increased duties on beer and tobacco the workers’ necessaries cost them £3,000,000 more. We have now an increase in working class income beyond the cost of production of their labour-power, counterbalanced by a rise in the cost of the means of subsistence—a lowering, that is, of the purchasing power of nominal, or money, wages.

The first supposition, existing by itself, would, according to our theory of the nature of labour-power, be followed by a fall in wages, since the working-class cannot, over an extended period, get more than the cost of producing their labour-power. The second supposition, existing by itself, would be followed by a rise in wages, because over an extended period the workers cannot get less than the cost of production of their labour-power. But the two cancel each other. Each supplies the necessary sequence of the other. The fall in actual wages has taken place through the lowering of the purchasing power of nominal wages.

In this way the ruling class can always recoup themselves for any dole they are forced to hand over to the working class without waiting for the slower process of reduction of wages by competition in the labour market. Old age pensions are hardly given than it is determined to sponge up the possible million or two of added working-class income by an increased duty on beer and tobacco. Of course, in the ordinary way, any rise in the cost of necessaries (and economically beer and tobacco are necessaries so long as, and to the extent that, the workers are prepared to make them a first charge upon their wages) will no more affect the worker than will a rise in the price of hay affect the horse. Each must be fed by his master if he is to remain in working condition. But nevertheless the power of taxation enables the ruling class to forestall the operation of the forces of competition and to immediately take away with their left hand what they give with their right.

The I.L.P. debater aforesaid, also said that he admitted that any dole the master class could be forced to give could only be of temporary benefit, and implied that the workers’ position was to be continuously bettered by the accretion of new palliatives before the effect of those previously obtained are exhausted. Something might possibly be said for this point of view were it necessary for the capitalists to refer the readjustment of the working-class income to the force of competition. But it is not. Directly the working-class income rises above the cost of production of their labour-power they can to that extent bear taxation. It is not at all necessary for the capitalists to know the cost of producing labour-power, or the amount of working-class income in excess of that necessary sum. Nor is it needful for them to understand these economic laws and to act in the intelligent light of this knowledge. Their class instincts and greed will not let them go far wrong. If they dole out one million in pensions or free-meals or what not, which our I.L.P. friends (or those ol them who have any appreciation of economic laws at all) expect to be a gain to the workers until competition has accomplished an equivalent wage reduction, they take care to impose a tax-burden in excess of this sum, and so refer, not the adjustment of the increased working-class income to the reducing power of competition for work, but the reduced working-class income to the lifting force of competition for workers. That is to say, instead of the workers having the advantage until wages fall and negate the palliative, the capitalists (as a class) have the advantage until wages rise to compensate for the margin of taxation above the sum of the palliative. Hence the boot is on the other foot.

And on the other foot it must remain so long as the master class retain possession and control of the political machinery, for it is precisely this that enables them to supplement and anticipate the economic laws of competition in their own favour. An increase, then, of a palliative nature (as distinct from one gained in the competitive labour market) in the working-class income, in-as-much as it is something above the cost of production of labour-power, is something which can be taken away without impairing the power of the workers to reproduce their strength and efficiency. It, is therefore taxable, which wages, in-so-far as they represent the cost of producing labour-power, are not. And so long as the master-class retain political power, they are in to always immediately counter-balance by duties on necessaries any palliative money concession, which otherwise they would recover by the slower process of competition.

Of course it may be argued that such a dole as old age pensions is not a general, but only an individual accretion to working-class income, and would therefore not affect the ability of the workers to bear taxation. But the truth is that the working-class income is much more a general fund than may be thought for the purpose of reproducing the general mass of labour-power, a fund, any reduction from or addition to which is pretty generally felt. That touching mutual assistance that has been memorized in the phrase “what the poor are to the poor,” goes far to make the fund a general one. In addition, of course, such a paltry accretion as the old age dole cannot stand alone, but must take its place as one among many additions to and subtractions from the working-class income, a drop in the ocean, the sum total of which must equal, and cannot more than equal, the necessary cost of producing the total mass of labour-power.

Once again then we conjure the workers to set their faces resolutely against the so-called palliatives and reforms. The former don’t palliate, the latter are utterly useless. The only purpose they can serve is to confound and confuse the working class as to the true position, to trap and mislead the blind working-class Samson groping in the dark for his enemies. The only haven is Socialism ; the only path is the Social Revolution ; the only way is by organisation on the political field for the capture of the machinery of government.


[The Editor accepts the above as an expression of personal opinion, and invites discussion on the points raised.]

Leave a Reply