1920s >> 1920 >> no-187-march-1920

The Meaning of Unemployment

The most significant point about the question of unemployment is that it should be prevalent, and a subject of general attention, at the same time that increased production is being so strenuously advocated by our masters. The two things, unemployment and the need for greater production, existing side by side, are as inconsistent as the conditions so peculiar to industrial crises—increased starvation in the midst of plenty. Those who attempt to explain away the inconsistency do so by attributing it to the change from war-time to peace-time occupations. Quite recently Mr. Lloyd George has tried to make it appear that the trade unions, because they oppose his dilution scheme, are to blame for what unemployment there is. But as no occupation has, up till now, absorbed all its own unemployed, such a charge is utterly preposterous.


That the prevailing unemployment is due to the change from war-time to peace-time occupations will not do. Unemployment, always a feature of capitalist production, had reached an acute stage long before the outbreak of war. So acute had it become that two capitalist governments, at least, had felt impelled to establish unemployed insurance. Not that the Insurance Acts really insured the workers against unemployment, or that it was ever intended that they should by the cunning politicians who engineered them. Such a course would tend to disrupt the capitalist system, because the whip of hunger which drives the workers into the mills and factories for low wages would cease to operate.


A most significant fact about the insurance Act was that those responsible for it supported it by evidence as to the appalling poverty of the working class; and indeed, that the workers who needed such an act must have been poor— desperately poor—will be the verdict of future generations.


The Act that was to deal with this degrading poverty was mean and paltry in its scope and achievement—a pill for an earthquake ; and it must be evident that along such lines as these the problem of unemployment is impossible of solution. No capitalist government will carry the scheme to the point where the unemployed can live on the donation, while, on the other hand, no capitalist government can check the development of industrial processes, which increase the number of unemployed.


But does that mean that the unemployed problem is impossible of solution ? By no means. All that it implies is that it is against the interests of the capitalist class to make an honest attempt at solution. The solution must, therefore, rest with the working class, first because they are the class that suffer, and second because the ruling class have no need or desire for a solution.


To those who refuse to credit this indifference of the ruling class toward the sufferings of the unemployed it is only necessary to point out that the chief argument used against the continuance of the unemployment dole was that some men and women were refusing jobs while it was possible to obtain the dole. That the dole in some cases was actually higher than the wages offered did not enter into the argument, though in itself a biting commentary on the system.


Three points stand out clearly :

  1. Unemployment increases with the development of capitalism.
  2. Unemployment is not due to superficial causes like the change from war-time to peace time occupations, but is inherent in the system.
  3. It is against the interests of the ruling class to attempt a solution.


Of course, capitalist defenders will never admit these facts as being the basis of the problem. Generally they refuse to discuss them and, adopting an optimistic tone, talk endless platitudes about small beginnings, and smaller results.
The first point, that unemployment increases with the development of capitalism, is proved by the statistics published from time to time by the capitalists themselves. According to the “Daily News Year Book, ” 1910, in the ten years from 1899 to 1908, the foreign trade of this country rose from 814 millions to 1,049 millions, an increase of over 200 millions, while the estimated unemployed, who in 1899 numbered 332,000, rose to 1,330,000 in 1901, the actual percentage of unemployed rising from 2.5 to 8.8 during ten years of unexampled prosperity.


To-day, in spite of what unemployment there is—and government figures only relate to those registered at the Labour Exchanges—foreign trade goes up by leaps and bounds in this country. The January report of the value of the exports shows it to be the highest on record. But against this unequalled trade prosperity has to be set the general stagnation in the rest of European countries, where, once more according to capitalist authorities, there are millions of unemployed.


To this stagnation abroad England’s trade prosperity is largely due. When competition is resumed unemployment here will increase as it decreases abroad, because foreign countries will have a surplus of wealth to export as they did before the war. But with all the boasted prosperity of this country, unemployment is still extensive, far more extensive than the Premier would have us believe. Mr. Clynes, who nevertheless claims that greater output per individual will benefit the workers, proved in the House of Commons last December that “at Newcastle,” one of the places where a shortage of workers was said to exist, “there were 7,000 workers unemployed, the numbers were increasing at an alarming rate, and thousands have been thrown on the verge of starvation by the withdrawal of the donation.” (“Parliamentary Debates,” December 17, 1919, cols. 290-291.) “Our” enormous trade prosperity, therefore, still leaves us with many thousands of unemployed, and is chiefly built up on the stagnation of foreign countries. Capitalism is still international, in spite of the quarrels between national groups of capitalists. The results of capitalism have, therefore, to be taken internationally, and the unemployed of all countries must be reckoned against the system.


The second point, that unemployment is not due to superficial causes like the change from war-time to peace-time occupations, but is inherent in the system, is partially proved by its permanency. That it increases with the development of the system is a further proof: the more capitalism we have the more unemployment we get. But the strongest proof of all is the reasoned proof, the logical deduction from the facts.


If industrial progress means that the number of workers required to produce a given quantity of wealth is constantly diminishing, there can only be one result: a progressive increase in the number of unemployed. But there can be no relief, even, for the workers of any country that might succeed in outstripping its competitors, because the capitalists of any such country would take steps to keep up the supply of labour-power from those countries which had a dangerous surplus. Which brings us to the third point.


Unemployment is necessary to capitalism. It is, therefore, against the interests of the ruling class to attempt a solution. Capitalists want enough unemployment to compel the workers to submit to their terms and conditions, but no so much as will cause desperation and unrest, with its accompanying acceptance of the Socialist explanation and remedy. Capitalist experiments in unemployed insurance are attempts to ascertain this medium and nothing more. Such schemes can only have a palliative effect of small value to the workers.


All the labour leaders, capitalist politicians, and economists who demand greater production, do so on the grounds that a larger share of foreign markets would fall to the capitalists of their country as a result. But as foreign labour-power flows into a prosperous country faster than it can be absorbed — or displaces native labour-power because it is cheaper—the conditions of the workers in the more prosperous countries would not be materially improved.
While labour-power is a commodity its owners must sell it; and no matter where it is in demand, they must offer themselves for exploitation or starve. The capitalist only buys labour-power for the purpose of exploiting the seller.


All the cant and hypocrisy that is talked or written about the good services rendered by the capitalists to the workers in finding them work cannot conceal the fact that the capitalist method of production is merely a veiled form of robbery ; and robbery, either veiled or open, is a hostile act. Capitalism, therefore, being based on the robbery of the working class by the master class, is in its very essence a system based on the antagonism of classes.


Controlling the means of wealth production and the political machine, the ruling class have the workers educated to believe in the excellence and permanence of their system. They suppress by physical force every rising of the workers against, their authority, whether such risings take the form of revolution or attempts to raise wages by withholding labour-power, as in a strike.


With the increase of unemployment due to the development of capitalism, and the commodity character of human labour-power, class antagonism becomes more pronounced. The workers see on every hand evidence of enormous prosperity in which they do not share, and every effort they make to improve their conditions, within the system, is opposed by physical force. They cannot help coming to the conclusion, therefore, that unemployment is regarded by the capitalist class as being necessary to their system, and consequently something that must be preserved. Behind all the cant and humbug of capitalist reformers is the stern determination to maintain society in its present form. Unemployment cannot be abolished within the system. Nothing remains for the workers, therefore, but to realise this fact with all it conveys, and organise with us for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a system of society where improved methods of production will not mean poverty and suffering, as now, but increased time and opportunities for enjoyment and recreation.


F. Foan