Some elements of the social problem

Wherever man may be and at whatever period we may examine his condition, one plain fact is apparent to even the most casual observer—that man never gets away from the elementary needs which his body requires to perpetuate its life. No man has yet learnt to live without at least food and drink and in all probability never will do so. To-day, at all events, may be added also shelter and clothing. It is obvious, then, that at all times man has to obtain for his upkeep a certain quantity of materials, as for example, food and clothimg, which materials we sum up under the name of wealth.

There is only one way in which this wealth which is so necessary to human life can possibly be produced, and that is by work by man applying his labour-power to the manifold natural resources of his surroundings and adapting them to meet his needs by transforming them into objects of utility to him.

To-day only a section of the whole scciety apply their energy in this way, and this section is appropriately termed the working class. In the factories, the fields, the mines and the shipyards ; on the fishing boats, the merchant ships and the railways, the working class toils to pile up the vast quantity of wealth which the community uses and consumes. But, as every workman is aware, the workers do not possess the wealth thus produced by them. The workers in the factory do not own the boots they have made, nor yet the value in other goods which they represent. Neither are the products of labour owned by the society as a whole. The wealth produced by the working class to-day is turned over in the first place to either individuals or groups of individuals of another class in society distinct from the workers—the employing or capitalist class.

But the workers must needs continue to live if they are to continue to produce, and therefore wealth in a certain quantity must be allotted to them. This wealth vrhich is returned to the worker—called wages—stands, however, in no direct relation to the quantity of wealth which he produces. Wages usually vary according to the supply of and demand for labourers, just as the price of butter is high when the demand for it outreaches the supply and is low when the supply exceeds the demand. And, moreover, this comparison reveals more than a mere accidental resemblance, for under present-day condititions the labour-power of the working man does take on the character of merchandise just like butter. The worker’s labouring energy is bought and sold to-day as a commodity, and the “labour” market is as commonly referred to to-day as is the cattle market. Wages, indeed, are the price of labour-power. What it costs to keep the workman up to the required standard of efficiency and to enable him to reproduce his kind in sufficient numbers, is the normal point about which the price variations caused by supply and demand fluctuate.

This explains how it is that, although the amount of wealth produced by the workers has progressed by leaps and bounds, and is continually increasing, their position, estimated by the quantity of wealth which they receive, dees not materially improve. This is so because the amount of the workers’ wages is determined by circumstances which are quite different from those which fix the productiveness of their labour power.

The use of improved machinery in production, for example, increases the wealth-producing capacity of labour. But does this cause a corresponding increase in the wages of the worker ? Not at all. By a little elaboration, in fact, it can be shown that the opposite actually tends to occur. Perfected machinery renders less labour necessary to turn out the same or even a greater number of products in an equal time. Fewer workers are required and the superfluous ones are dispensed with, forming a more or less permanent body of unemployed. This increases the supply of labour-power relative to the demand, and tends to lower wages. By lessening the ekill and dexterity required by the worker, machinery also enables unskilled labour to be employed which costs less to produce by eliminating special training, and is therefore cheaper. This also lowers wages, and the same effect follows from the fact that with machinery less strength is usually required and the cheaper labour of women and children can be introduced.

With these facts in mind we will not be surprised to find that despite the enormous and increasing body of wealth created as the process of production becomes ever more perfect, the wages of the working class, as estimated by their purchasing power, have since the beginning of the present century gradually declined. On the other hand the wealth remaining with the capitalists after the wages of the workers are deducted, and out of which they obtain their profits, shows a corresponding tendency to increase.

The capitalist, as such, takes no part in the production of wealth, yet he retains possession of the product of the worker’s labour. This he is enabled to do because he is the owner of the material means necessary to production—the factory, machinery, raw materials, etc. He owns the wealth produced as the result of his ownership and control of the means of its production. In the Middle Ages the craft worker also owned the tools and material of the productive process, and was able to appropriate the resulting product. But there is this immense difference between the economic status of the modern, capitalist owner and that of the handicraftsman of old : whereas the capitalist does not partake in the labour process himself, but reaps the return of the labour of others, the craftsman was a worker and himself used the means of production of which he was the owner. He therefore appropriated in normal cases the full value of the product of his own labour. As a consequence, in spite of the primitive tools and methods then in use, and of the small quantity of wealth which a given expenditure of labour yielded in comparison with that of to-day, the lot of the hand-worker was in many respects better than that of the modern wage-worker.

Prof. Thorold Rogers says of the artisan of the fifteenth century that he could supply his family with sufficient provisions to keep them throughout the year with what he earned in ten weeks.

To-day the working class, who form by far the greater part of the community, receive less than one-third of the total wealth produced, although none but themselves raise a hand or turn a wheel to help in its production. Over ten millions of the population of Great Britain live in a condition of perpetual poverty. This is certainly not because there is not enough wealth, for never before has it been so plentiful and so easily produced. The mighty mechanisms of modern production turn out goods a thousand times more quickly, and with a much smaller expenditure of labour-power than was possible in our fathers’ day.

This frightful poverty cannot, therefore, be due to limited production. The problem of producing wealth sufficient to supply the requirements of all in society has been solved. Therefore the material conditions necessary for the abolition of poverty already exist. Seeing that poverty is rampant, what are the conditions \which are wanting if the material ones are present ? The answer gives us the key to the poverty problem of to-day. It is the social conditions which would transform the existing giant means of production into agents for the elimination of economic poverty, which are the missing factors in modern society. The social conditions of to-day, based upon the commodity nature of labour-power and the private ownership by the capitalist class of the means of production and distribution result, as we have seen, in poverty for the workers and a superabundance of wealth for the idle capitalists, and must be superseded by other social conditions if poverty is to be abolished.

And what are the conditions which are necessary to bring about this much to be desired end ? Let us recall some of the points we have already noted.

1. The producing class to-day do not own the means of production which they use, nor yet the wealth which their labour produces.
2. The capitalist class to-day own and control the means of production and distribution, which they themselves do not use, yet they appropriate the product of the workers’ toil.
3. The handicraft worker of the Middle Ages owned and controlled the means of production which he himself used, and also the wealth, or part thereof, which he produced.

We can draw from these three examples the following general principle : to the possessors of ihe means of production goes the product of the labour process.

Seeing that the workers, who create wealth in such abundance as to be capable of providing ample comfort for all, are poor, the only sure way in which this condition can be changed to the workers’ benefit is by bringing the product of labour info the possession of those who create it. To do this it is necessary that the workers should own the means of production, as the handicraft worker did.

The puny tcols of the handicraftsman were, however, only suitable to individual use, and the worker who used them performed all the operations which were necessary to turn out the finished product. Consequently there could be no doubt as to where the product of his labour began and ended ; it was all his product ; he knew exactly what he had produced. But does this also apply to day ? No ! for in modern production the labour process is divided into numerous sub-processes each performed by different machinery manipulated by different workers. No one man makes a product from beginning to end. The labour product is the result of the collective activities of numerous workers ; the machinery is worked collectively and the raw material is consumed collectively.

The interdependence of the workers engaged in each industry is extended throughout the entire community as the various industries become more dependent upon each other, and it even develops on an international scale. To-day workers in England often rely for the raw material they use upon workers on the other side of the world, and possibly their product forms the basis of a further industry in another part of the globe.

To-day we can with truth say that the entire process of producing wealth has become social. The workers engaged in any occupation or industry are no longer independent and self supporting producers, but are only useful as producing agents in conjunction with, and as a part of, the producing class as a whole. No individual worker can, therefore, be said to use the means of production himself. At the most he could use the means of producing a part of the product, and he could not own and control these, for what control could be exercised over possessions which would be useless and a burden except in conjunction with the rest of the productive forces ? Likewise the impossibility of any worker owning personally the product of his labour under such conditions is obvious. There would be no means of ascertaining the amount of the individual’s product, and although, each individual might not lay out an exactly equal amount of energy, yet as the product only resulted from the combined labour of the whole, all would be equally necessary, one no more than another.

The only conceivable way in which workers collectively operating the forces of production, could own and control these forces would be by collective ownership—the means of production and distribution forming the common property of the entire working community.

When those who work, or, more exactly, all those essential to the continuance of the social productive process, by owning and controlling the means of production and distribution, also possess all the wealth they produce, there will be no means whereby an idle class in society could obtain their subsistence. Therefore there will be no idle class. All society will then form one united community of workers. In conformity, then, with the principle that the producers must own the means of production which they use, these means must be owned by the whole of society.

To abolish poverty and to guarantee economic security and comfort to all, what is necessary is “the establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.” That is the Object of the Socialist Party.


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