Our case in brief
The previous article under the above heading showed how several very undesirable features of our social existence arose from the private ownership by a portion of the community of the means of production and distribution—the land, factories, machinery, railways, raw material, and the like. It was concluded that private ownership would therefore have to be abolished, and it was finally promised that in a subsequent article it would be shown what would follow that abolition and the substitution of common ownership in the means of living.
A necessary preliminary to the proper understanding of the consequences of abolishing the private ownership of property is a thorough realisation of what that form of ownership is and what it produces.
Now as the very basis of life is the means of subsistence, the production of the means of subsistence is the most important matter in human affairs. The ownership and control of the instruments and resources by and from which these means of subsistence are produced therefore become of tremendous importance. As a matter of fact the property condition is not a mere skin-deep feature of our social life, which can be changed with no more than local disturbance in that life. It is the very rock and foundation of the social edifice, and therefore a change in this property condition must involve a change in every aspect of our social existence.
Let us try and build up the main lines of our social system from the basis indicated, i.e., the private ownership of the means of living.
The first result of the means of producing and distributing wealth becoming the property of a few is to divide the community into two classes. These classes are the propetry-owning class and the property-less class.
These two classes occupy entirely different positions in society—-positions which must of necessity create antagonism and strife.
Those who do not possess the instruments of labour have no means in their hands of gaining a livelihood, except by selling their strength and skill to those who own the means through which alone that strength and skill can he productively applied. The positions, then, of the two classes are those of buyers and sellers of labour-power respectively.
It now becomes clear how the antagonism between the classes arises. Fundamentally there is antagonism between buyers and sellers in every market. Everywhere the seller strives to sell as dearly as he can, while the buyer tries to buy as cheaply as possible.
If this is true in the ordinary commodity market, how much more inevitably true must it be in the market where human labour-power is the commodity bought and sold !
For, be it remembered, human labour-power, applied to nature-given material, is the source of all that wealth by which men and women live (except, of course, such forms as are freely supplied by nature, such as air and sunlight). The wealth of the rich, the wages of the poor, are alike the product of the application of labour-power to material. Consequently, the struggle between the buyers and sellers of labour-power becomes a struggle for the possession of the product of that labour-power.
Let us be perfectly clear upon that point. To use the illustration of Marx, the product of the wage-worker is like a stick which is to be divided into two parts. The whole of the stick is comprised in the two parts, and one part can only be larger at the expense of the other. The product of the worker is divided into two parts—one part going to the worker and constituting his sole means of livelihood, the other part going to the employer and constituting his means living. The part which the worker receives is his wages, the price which the employer pays for the labour ; and as the larger this portion of the “stick” is the smaller must be the portion left for the employer, the struggle between the buyers and the sellers of labour-power must be of the very bitterest nature.
Nor is this all. The private possession by the few of the means of producing wealth alters the whole character and purpose of production. While the workers had access to the means of production—while they had rights in the land and owned the tools with which they worked—they commonly produced goods for use. The peasant-proprietor of the Middle Ages wanted corn for his own bread, barley for his own ale, and so on. He set to work, therefore, and grew his own corn and barley, and his women folk turned them into bread and ale.
Now mark the different sentiments with which the old-time peasant-proprietor and the modern baker and brewer would view the articles bread and ale. The former would feel a lively interest in the product of his hands ; he would be glad to know that the bread was wholesome, and he would not have to taste of the ale to know that it was good. For he and his would have produced the bread and beer to satisfy their hunger and thirst, and the idea of producing anything but the most wholesome food and drink, or of adulterating such products, would have been ludicrous to them. With what a different eye would the modern baker or brewer look upon the product of his factory ! The baker would take no interest in the bread as such. Possibly he would take care to eat none of it himself. The brewer’s chief concern would be to see that his beer was not a thirst-quencher but a thirst creator. Neither the baker nor the brewer produces his goods for use ; they both produce them for sale.
A simple illustration will show the difference between the two methods. The peasant-proprietor started cut with a need—bread. The master baker also starts out with a need, but that need is money. The former, having produced his bread, had finished his round. If he had recorded his activities which he had no need to do—he might have written “Finis” there. But the modern master baker is required by law to record his activities, and that record commences with money and ends with money.
The baker expends money in the purchase of flour and other material, and labour-power, and he must record the fact for the edification of the Official Receiver. These are converted into bread, but that is a detail of secondary importance which may or may not find a place in some minor book. What is important is the conversion of the bread into money. When that is accomplished, the round is completed, the books, as far as that operation is concerned, may be closed. They record the conversion of money into material, etc., and the conversion of these into money. The money that the record started with can be compared with the money with which it finished, and the difference between the two sums shown. And only this will any man of business accept as the conclusion of the operation.
So is shown the difference in the systems of wealth production in a society based on the monopoly of the means of production by a few and a social system in which the means of production are owned by those who use them. In the one case all wealth produced presents itself as articles produced for sale, in the other case wealth, with a few exceptions, is produced for use.
The exigencies of space prevent the completion in this issue of this brief examination of the manner in which the whole of our social structure arises from and rests upon the social base—the ownership by a section of the community of the means and instruments of producing and distributing wealth. The subject will be resumed next month.
A E. JACOMB