1920s >> 1921 >> no-205-september-1921

A Knight Errant

The apologists of the capitalist class are hard put to it to explain away the contradictions of the system manifesting themselves in the enormous production of wealth on the one hand, and industrial crises, unemployment, and unrest on the other. Underlying and outcropping here and there in their speeches and writings is the endeavour to throw the blame for these phenomena on the workers. Any reason but the correct one is given; yet if the workman who reads the effusions of such apologists will carefully examine the words and phrases embodied in these speeches or writings, the fallacy of the “arguments” will be fully exposed.


In the “Birmingham Weekly Post” (26.6.21), Sir William Joynson Hicks, M.P., enters the ring and lays about him with his bladder of wind as follows: —


   Among the main causes of industrial unrest—and most of them, when examined, are found to be quite elementary must be placed the fact that the workers of this country generally fail to realise that Great Britain lives internationally and not nationally.


If this means anything at all, it is that the workers are restless because they do not realise that trade is international. Well, when they do realise this, is it seriously put forward that unrest will disappear? The history of the growth of capitalism is against such a conclusion, for this worldwide development has, by bringing countries into communication with one another, unfolded to ever-increasing numbers of the workers of the world their identity of interest as an exploited class. Sir Joynson Hicks must try again: his ”elementary cause” (not worthy of an elementary schoolboy) is not a cause, but just nonsense. He continues : —


  If destiny had made these islands self-supporting in regard to food and raw materials, we should be able to pay as high wages as anyone could ever desire without fatal consequences. The only result would be that the purchaser would have to pay highly for everything he ate, drank, or bought.


“If” is a very useful word, and many an argument has been balanced on it by word-conjurers; but as Destiny has evidently set about her task indifferently, it would be better for the knightly champion to erect his defence of the capitalist system on a more substantial basis. However, for the nonce let us accept his assertions as quoted above. There would, then, be wages under this “if”; and it must also follow, that there would be profits, with the further conclusion that classes of exploiters and exploited would be in existence. In short, Sir William has merely formulated on a small scale the capitalist system of society, a system which he apparently looks upon, in general, as the absolutely final form of social production.


It seems as though Sir William has a difficulty in discovering a theory which will stand the test, and hides this deficiency behind a shower of verbosity.


Let us follow the adventurous knight into the depths of his argument.


  But we are not self-supporting either in regard to our food supply or in regard to the raw materials we require for our industries. That fact entirely alters the case. We are a nation of manufacturers and traders, and wages here are determined largely by conditions in other countries.


There is just one addition necessary to the above; after “manufacturers and traders” should follow “wage slaves.” However, as this country is not self-supporting, and “wages are determined largely by conditions in other countries,” it appears that he is making out a fine case for international unrest; but of course that is not his intention, for if the British unrest can be exorcised by falsely showing the foreign workers as enemies of the British workers, then he will have done his bit and earned the reward of fidelity from his masters. While our knight admits that Great Britain lives internationally and not nationally, he desires, and those whom he upholds desire, that the workers will, think nationally in terms of competition against the workers of other nations, and accept this competition as a permanent law. The possibility of such a culmination is inconceivable to anyone who gives a moment’s thought to the subject, yet, nevertheless, there are many people who are influenced by the spurious arguments of the supporters of the present system.


Continuing, Sir William tells us that—


“The laws of political economy have to be taken into account.”


As to what those laws are, we are enlightened more or less in the next sentence : —


  We have to remember that Nature still rewards the unskilled labourer with only just sufficient to provide him with the bare necessities of life. The unskilled worker to-day is no better off than before the war ; he is still subject to the same inexorable laws which ruled our rude forefathers after they left the Garden of Eden.


The admission that the unskilled worker is no better off to-day than before the war, is noted, but it would seem almost unnecessary that the statements before and after the admission should have to be attacked at this period of scientific literature and research. But, unfortunately, verbosity in speech and writing is accounted something by numerous people who do not critically examine the phrases of men professing to be the friends of the workers, but who are in reality their enemies.


Now, what is generally understood when we speak of the laws of political economy? We mean those laws which underlie the production and distribution of wealth. Hence, as the parliamentary knight professes to be concerned with these laws within the present system, why are we carried back, to the “inexorable laws” of Nature?


From the time our progenitor, savage man, discovered how to make fire, to fashion and use the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, etc., we have travelled further and further away from the “inexorable laws” which are such useful phrases in the armoury of the capitalist economist.


With every improvement of tools and weapons, with every fresh invention and discovery, man has found himself better able to cope with natural forces, thus nullifying, so far as mankind is concerned, the tendency “to multiply beyond their means of subsistence” (“Descent of Man,” page 94). Under the present system, based as it is on the private ownership of wealth, the necessities of life can be produced in a shorter time and in vaster quantities than in any previous system. The machines socially operated have been socially produced, and the commodities piled up in the factories and warehouses are the embodiment of social labour; it is, therefore, the mission of the working class to convert the privately owned instruments of production into the property of the whole community.


But Sir William Joynson Hicks would have us believe that wealth sufficient and ample for all cannot be produced, and that it is a law of Nature which “rewards the unskilled labourer with only just sufficient to provide him with the bare necessities of life.”


After the Garden of Eden the valiant knight arrives immediately at the machine ago, for he continues:


  When machinery comes into use the skilled man holds an advantage over the unskilled, but he is still in competition with underpaid and more efficient labour in other countries. That of itself prevents his wages rising beyond an economic level, beyond a level which similar work commands elsewhere.


Now in reference to the above, it is hardly necessary to say that it is only as long as the work of the skilled man cannot be done by a machine that the skilled man holds an advantage, but there are very few trades at the present day which have not been affected by progress in machine construction and in the division of labour, thus causing special skill and strength to become superfluous. This development makes it possible to replace the labour of men by that of women and even children. With the introduction of machinery begins wholesale exploitation of the most helpless, who fall victims to revolting ill-treatment and spoliation. The capitalist system of production effects an enormous increase in the number of workers at its disposal, and there is also an ever-increasing productivity of human labour in consequence of the progress in technical improvements and inventions. Further, capitalist exploitation increases also the possibility of using the labour power of the individual to the highest degree by speeding up the workers.


The laws of political economy—and there should be no need to emphasise this—are quite different from the “inexorable laws” of Nature. Competition amongst the workers for the bare means of subsistence has no law of Nature basis, neither has capitalism itself; and the system, with the competitive struggle which it entails, can only continue so long as the workers, fail to realise the necessity for changing the whole basis of society from private to social ownership.


After discussing the cost of coal and iron, claiming the necessity of cheaper production of these, Sir William says: “To my mind there are only two ways of reducing our cost of production: either we must work longer or we must work cheaper.” This is a rather interesting statement, as there are included, apparently, the diligent knight and his capitalist friends; but he slipped: there is no likelihood that they will show the workers how to do it even to the extent of working one hour, much less “only seven hours a day.”


Our capitalist apologist says: “Very few politicians care to tell the public the truth, but here I have stated no more than the bare truth.”


Of course, it is no news that politicians, find great difficulty in telling the truth, and one must compliment the knight on his endeavour to become master of a great accomplishment. He is under the impression that he has succeeded where others failed, and does not, perhaps, realise that he distorts the truth by arguing from a false basis. He has a great respect for Trade Unionists, and appeals to them to apply “their common sense to get us out of our difficulties”; and he whines that “the Belgian worker puts in eleven hours to our seven.” Brave little Belgium! It seems that every British worker must have been seized with a “desire for doles” instead of a “greater desire for work” ; but may I suggest that the markets were supplied with the commodities required for the time, and that unemployment arises from the capacity of the working class to produce vast quantities of wealth and the inability to buy commodities to the extent of the values produced. The capitalist class, on the other hand, cannot immediately squander all of the wealth of which they rob the workers; therefore, arising from these facts, the markets of the world are periodically glutted with goods, an industrial crisis sets in, and millions of workers are unemployed. These crises occur more often than formerly, and embrace a wider area, so that for politicians, Coalition or Labour, to tell the workers to work longer or work harder amounts to directing them to worsened conditions, a fact with which they are generally well enough acquainted.


There is one thing more to be said: the time is not far distant when the words with which Sir William concludes his case, “unless a man work, neither shall he eat,” will be fulfilled. And that will be when this system has been placed in the museum of antiquities, and capitalists and their henchmen have ceased from troubling; a tune when men will no longer be, as the poet finely puts it:


“Even as the slaves by force or famine driven Beneath a vulgar master to perform A task of cold and brutal drudgery, Hardened to hope, insensible to fear, Scarce living pulleys of a dead machine. Mere wheels of work and articles of trade That grace the proud and noisy pomp of wealth.”