1910s >> 1919 >> no-179-july-1919

Correspondence: Do Working-Class Conditions Tend To Grow Worse?

To The Editor.

 

Dear Sir,—The readers of your paper frequently let upon the statement that the “condition of the working class tends to grow worse,” but one looks in vain for verification of the statement.

 

Do better houses and rapid transit not brighten and better the lot of those sections of the working class who take advantage of them, say, by residing in the outlying districts of the larger cities, where modern houses and domestic conveniences are so much more congenial than in the slums of the city proper? Do not all the efforts made by local and national authorities to effect improvements in health, houses, travel, industrial relationships, unemployed donations, for the working class count for nothing? Have the housing conditions of the whole working class of England improved none since the commencement of the industrial era, even in the present century? I declare they have. There may be very bad spots upon which you could possibly lay your finger, but is it a reasonable claim to make now-a-days that conditions are worse than they were twenty years ago.

 

It does not refute my point to say that it but amounts to gilded chains, or that it makes more efficient slaves, which answer seems to me but admissions that the conditions under which the working class live and labour are better to-day than formerly. Yet we repeatedly read in the “S.S.” that the conditions of the working class tend to grow worse, also that we as a working class are worse off. We are not, and I speak as one of the workers.

 

Is it not also a fact the natural concomitant of economic progress is to make more efficient the workers which compel improvements in their conditions of life? Is not that a bettering of conditions rather than its reverse ? And it is not always that these reforms are effected by agitation. Were the unemployment donations wrung from the capitalist class? I think they were not. Is the new Ministry of Health wrung from them ? Rather is it a concession made by the capitalist class to effect a more virile and healthy race of workers—perhaps advantageous to the former in the end; still, the advantage gained by the workers disproves the repeated statement in the “S.S.” that the conditions of the working class tend to grow worse.

 

—Yours, etc., A. Webster.

 

Reply:
Our correspondent in the last part of his letter shows the absurdity of his statements in the first part. We will, however, proceed in the usual manner, taking his points one by one before dealing with his general statement as to the conditions of the whole working class.

 

His most preposterous claim is ”improvement in Industrial Relationships.” The growing antagonism and the increasing bitterness between masters and workers in every occupation and industry, because it is universal and affects the bulk of the workers, gives the lie to it.
But apart from that fact there has been an accumulating mass of evidence, coming from the capitalist side, that exploitation becomes more thorough and business-like, leaving no room for sentiment. The brutal relationship between employers and workers has for several years been a constant theme with every capitalist rag from the “Times” to “John Bull,” to the tune of “never again” ; and the outcome has been “Whitley Councils “and “Welfare Committees” that have aroused the suspicion of the workers, and are in bad odour with them everywhere.

 

The nature of modern industry makes unemployed donations a necessity to the exploiting class. In the first place capitalist production requires an army of unemployed to keep down wages, and that unemployed army must be maintained. In the second place trade is subject to fluctuations in volume, and the workers must be available when it is necessary to increase production. The problem for the exploiting class is, therefore, to maintain the unemployed at a standard that will not seriously impair their efficiency, while, at the same time, it places them under the necessity of seeking work. This is effected by the present system of granting donations for a limited number of weeks in each year. The donation not being sufficient in itself to satisfy the barest requirements, and being immediately stopped if the recipient refuses work, it is easily seen that the whole scheme is a cheap method of maintaining the unemployed army for the contingencies of trade and as a weapon to keep down wages.

 

In his remarks on housing our correspondent is most unfortunate. Overcrowding is worse now than it has been throughout all the twenty years he mentions. So much is this admitted that the subject takes first place among all the scandals on everybody’s tongue to-day.

 

Addressing a conference at Nottingham on the 16th June, Dr. Addison, President of the Local Government Board, said: “In vast numbers of our industrial centres people were now being compelled, through shortage of houses, to herd together in a manner it was disgusting to think of.”

 

One of the most significant facts in connection with the proposals to build more houses for the workers is the recognition by the Government that wages are so low that it will be impossible to charge what is called an economic rent—surely in itself a powerful commentary on working-class conditions generally.

 

With reference to “travel,” it is perfectly true that several millions of workers during the last five years have had exceptional opportunities of seeing the world, while endeavouring to annex more of it for their masters. But the majority are glad to be back in the slums and factories, with the slender facilities they had previously, paying sixpence a week toward the annual beanfeast, or denying themselves many comforts in order to spend an uncomfortable week or so at the nearest overcrowded seaside resort.

The “rapid transit for those living in outlying districts” is also more or less of a fraud while those depending upon it have to wait their turn in long lines, watching the vehicles come and go. Even when there are no breakdowns the time taken up in waiting and travelling is considerable, and must be regarded as an addition to the working day and consequently shortening the time for rest and recreation. Hence it is an extremely doubtful “advantage” to live in the slums on the outskirts of large industrial towns.

 

There is only one other point: “the new Ministry of Health,” but this, like all the others, has been replied to in the general sense by Mr. Webster himself. Economic progress, he says demands higher efficiency, which is impossible without improved conditions. He argues; that the growing efficiency of the workers is evidence of their improved conditions of life, in spite of the fact that higher efficiency is everywhere insisted upon, at the present moment, as a preliminary to improved conditions. The truth is, of course, that the workers are driven through increasing unemployment and competition, to submit to a more intensive exploitation.

 

But even if we admit that the unprovements he mentions have materialised, he still is against the fact that they are introduced by the exploiting class in order to extract more surplus valae from the workers—and surplus value representing more wealth than the workers consume through their improvements. While the workers submit to this process their exploitation intensifies, their slavery becomes more degrading, and their dependence on the exploiting class is increased. Exploitation is the cause of poverty and the extent of exploitation is the measure of poverty.

 

Fed on potatoes, the life object of the workers is to produce wealth for the master class ; fed on bully beef and custard all their energies are confiscated for the same purpose. If the quality or quantity of food the worker obtains determines the amount of surplus value, its provision can safely be left to the capitalists; there is no necessity to “wring”, concessions of such a character from them. The advantage to themselves is clear. It is a parallel case with the fertilizing of land to produce a better crop.

 

While the workers submit to exploitation they are subject to numerous experiments carried out over their heads The continual changes in the means and methods of production call for modification in the structure of society. Confronted with new problems at each economic turn new institutions must be devised to preserve the equilibrium of capitalist society. Our correspondent says it does not refute his points to say that “it makes them more efficient slaves.” Yet all the points raised by him are effectively replied to in that sentence. He admits as much when he says that the object of the capitalist class is “to effect a more virile and healthy race of workers,” i.e., wage slaves. And
 their real purpose he admits when he says—”perhaps advantageous to the capitalists in the end.” If the object of such “concessions” is more complete and extensive exploitation, their true nature is at once revealed as a campaign against the workers, increasing their poverty, insecurity, and wretchedness.

 

F. Foan

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