The Capitalist View of the Worker
The era of mere exploitation of workpeople as “hands” scrapping and discarding them when worn out, as if they were mere animals or machinery, has had its day and ought to cease. Such procedure is by no means universal, but it is far too prevalent; and the splendid work of engineering firms is too noble a service to the country to be spoilt by any such inhuman relations.—Sir Oliver Lodge, “Daily Chronicle,” 1.2.17.
I hope your readers will not doubt my sincerity when I say that I am out for the game and not for the stakes, and while I admit that I find business a very fascinating game I contend that by increasing the means of subsistence of the people I have in the aggregate contributed more to the material happiness and well-being of Welsh colliery workers and their families than have all the miners’ leaders combined, . . .’’—Lord Rhondda,” Daily Chronicle,” 7.13.16.
A system which renders it possible for the wage-earners to obtain too easily the money they require for the maintenance of their normal standard of comfort fails to provide a sufficient incentive. Report of “Health of Munition Workers’ Committee.”
The Labour troubles which are occurring in various engineering centres are most regrettable There is no real justification for them, and as the real facts get known we hope that the men’s minds will cool and that they will resume work. . . We strongly appeal to the men who are out to resume work on Monday. Their grievances, in so far as they are real, will be remedied. Fears as to what may happen after the war need not haunt them. Apart altogether from the solemn pledges of the Government, which are embodied in Acts of Parliament, the skilled worker may be easy in his mind: his future an this country is absolutely secure.—” Daily Chronicle,” leading article, 13.5.17.
One incidental consequence of the state of war has been a considerable decrease in the number of civilian patients, out and in, dependent for treatment on the public hospitals. This decrease is a real decrease, and indicates improved health among the people for whom hospitals exist, and the improvement of health is accounted for by the abundance of food which the military separation allowances have assured to many women and children for the first time. —“Daily Chronicle,” 12.2.17.
The man in the street who may possibly have read the above Press cuttings in their context at the time of their appearance, will probably see no connection between them, nor any purpose that can he served by bringing them together. A brief examination of each item may, however, not only bring out a connection, but even prove instructive.
The kernel of Sir Oliver Lodge’s statement is the admission that ’’exploitation” and “scrapping” goes on. He claims that the much boomed welfare movement will do much to remove them. Exploitation, he says, ought to cease. What is his conception of exploitation? Evidently only a portion of the workers are exploited, in his opinion—possibly the worst paid. He pretends not to see the real facts— that the purchase of labour-power only takes place because in its functioning labour-power leaves behind a surplus over the price paid for it, i.e., labour-power is bought so that the person in whom it is contained may be exploited.
Lord Rhondda, on the other hand, does not, presumably, believe that such a thing as exploitation exists at all. He claims that he increases the means of subsistence of the people by allowing the said people to work and produce the means of subsistence. The greater the amount of wealth produced, therefore, in any concern, the greater the “material happiness” of the people, irrespective of the wages paid. The essence of his statement is, however, one that is common to all capitalists — that he increases the world’s wealth by allowing the workers to use the tools of production and het raw materials of nature.
The report of the Health of Munition Workers Committee, together with the extract from the “Daily Chronicle” leading article, are both typical of the attitude of capitalists toward the workers everywhere. According to the first the poverty of the working class is ordained. The workers are born poor that their necessities may compel them to serve the capitalists. To ensure a continuance of their toil they must be kept poor—they must not “obtain too easily the money they require for the maintenance of their normal standard of comfort.”
This being the attitude of “capital” toward “labour,” it is not surprising to find the “Daily Chronicle” lecturing the workers for striking “without justification,” hoping “their minds will cool,” aspersing them generally, and finally appealing to them to place confidence in the government that has given them such solemn pledges. “Their position in the country is assured after the war,” they say. Of course it is — the position that has always been theirs— material for exploitation. As such they are necessary to capitalists; without them surplus-value is unobtainable.
The last quotation is an inadvertent but withering commentary on the capitalist system as a whole. A system that admittedly fails to provide adequate sustenance for women and children except when all its resources are concentrated on destruction and slaughter, is self-condemned. With modern machinery and methods wealth can be produced far in excess of the needs of the people; yet because of capitalism, which stamps labour-power as a commodity, the bulk of the workers are unable, in normal times, to obtain the food necessary to maintain themselves in health. And capitalist newspapers cannot help noting the improvement in the health of the workers when war, with its imperative demand for blood and sinew, absorbs the human commodities that are in excess of the peace-time demand.
And now we can link up the quotations and show how they run like a descriptive serial portraying the tragedy of working-class slavery. There is little need to refer to the increased sufferings of the working class due to the war. ‘Terrible as these sufferings are, we are reminded by the “Daily Chronicle” that separation allowances have assured to many women and children for the first time abundance of food: an admission that capitalism, in peace time, cannot guarantee to those who produce the wealth of society the necessaries of life. Labour-power before the war was so much in excess of the demand that men were too old at forty. After that age they were scarcely worth exploiting, and the system made no provision for them until they were seventy. Because the war has tipped the beam in the labour market, setting the demand for labour-power above the supply, we are told that exploitation and scrapping have had their day. But if wages rose till they stood at ninety-nine per cent, of the total wealth produced exploitation would not have ceased.
Before the workers can expend their energy on the materials supplied by nature, they must submit to capitalist organisation, discipline, and conditions. The wealth they produce belongs to the capitalists, who permit them to be paid out of it the market value of their labour-power— until circumstances connected with the disposal of the wealth produced on the world market bring about changes in the labour market favourable to the worker in the sale of his commodity. Then the boot is on the other foot. It demoralises the workers to earn their living too easily. Although the prices of necessaries have more than doubled and wages have risen but slightly over peace-time level; though trade-union safeguards against more vicious exploitation have been removed, strikers are told they have no justification for their action.
Acts of Parliament are passed against those workers who attempt to practice the first right proclaimed by capitalists—the right to withhold a commodity until the price demanded is forthcoming. Then, on top of all the insults and slander directed against the workers, they are coolly asked to put their trust in the representatives of the class that has robbed them— robbed them under the plea of freedom of contract — which is itself cancelled and made illegal when it begins to operate in favour of the workers.
The full story of capitalist exploitation, brutality and duplicity will never be told. But the five quotations given at least reveal the true nature of the system, the degrading conditions of the working class and the contempt in which they are held by their rulers. Such small things as these are but as straws which show the way of the wind, but as straws have their use, so may these trifles have if the workers will only learn.