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

The “Wisdom” of a “Captain of Industry.”

Happening to glance through an old copy (1.6.21) of the “Daily News,” the writer came across an article by H. Gordon Selfridge entitled “The Fixed Price Fiction.” As one or two of the points raised in the article are an interesting example of the lack of knowledge, or the deliberate perversion of the truth, of a leading capitalist, a column will be usefully occupied with a few comments on them.


Mr. Selfridge sets out with the following statement:


  “The present condition of things exists because the buying abilities of the peoples of the world has been diminished. . . It is a phase, and a phase which can be overcome by time and hard work.”


How fond is the capitalist of preaching “hard work” ! Mr. Selfridge’s alleged solution to the problem will not be very satisfying to those hundreds of thousands who are tramping, far and wide over this country, looking for the hard work that eludes them like a will-o’-the-wisp. A week or two ago hundreds of unemployed waited all night outside a London timber yard to answer an advertisement for a few porters; some of them had walked many miles (one was reported to have walked from Portsmouth, and others from a still greater distance !), on the chance of getting work. Only the other day about four thousand workless lined up, and waited for hours, in Holborn, on the same errand. All over the country “short time” and the discharging of workmen is the order of the day. The fact is there are many slowly dying at the present moment on account of the lack of the hard work that Mr. Selfridge advocates.


The tragic side of the situation is that, from one point of view, hard work has had much to do with the bringing about of the present state of affairs. Hard work on the part of the working class in the past has been the means of devising and building the stupendous machinery and methods of production which render so many workless today. Wealth is turned out so rapidly, and so prolifically, that all effective demands are met almost immediately they are known, and factories and shops are overflowing with the goods for which there is no customer with the wherewithal to buy. At the same time would-be workers are walking about starving, ill-clad, and badly sheltered for want of the very goods for which the owners can find no buyer; and (the irony of it !) these unemployed workers have been thrown out of employment because too much wealth has been produced! Instead of hard work solving the problem it has brought about the problem itself.


A little farther on in his article Mr. Selfridge makes a statement that is often heard by the Socialist; a statement that is becoming hoary with age. It is usually put forward as a clinching argument to prove that the existing method of producing wealth has always been in operation, and must go on to the end of time. The statement referred to is as follows :—


  “Production for one’s own individual use is both made possible and limited by one’s own individual requirements. But production for the use of other people can be based on nothing else than the profits of the one who goes out of his way to so produce. We should very soon find that no profit meant no production, for there must be an incentive to work of that kind.”


With minor exceptions the whole of the work involved in the production and distribution of wealth under capitalism is performed by the working class. The working class performs this work in return for wages that, on the average, barely allow the members of that class to live, and to reproduce their kind. Consequently “the one who goes out of his way to so produce” does not do so for a profit; he works in order to live. The profit incentive only concerns the capitalist; the individual who does not take part in wealth production.


A sufficient refutation of Mr. Selfridge’s contention is contained in the record of the numberless inventors, artists, and scientists of all types, who underwent years of drudgery in following the path that attracted them, with no other hope or reward than life-long poverty and a pauper’s grave. Here and there we have the illustration of more fortunate individuals, placed outside the necessity of working for a livelihood (for example, Darwin, and Robert Owen for the greater part of his life), who have occupied almost the whole of their lives with arduous labour that not only brought no return in the shape of profit, but actually used up a considerable portion of the wealth they already possessed.


Finally, let it be borne in mind that, in the past, wealth was produced and distributed for thousands of years under different forms of communism before the conditions that developed the idea of profit existed.