1920s >> 1921 >> no-206-october-1921
“Higher Prices Mean Fewer Jobs.”
J. A. R. Marriott, M.P., on Unemployment
Mr. Marriott has been offering a solution for the problem of unemployment, and the headline quoted above from the Evening News (September 13th) is the text he uses.
His article is more moderate in tone, and contains a larger measure of truth and accurate observation than one expects to find nowadays among those newspapers described as “competent to write authoritatively.” He starts by making what must necessarily be for his readers a serious and distinctly unusual admission about industrial crises like the present : “Such crises have recurred at more or less regular intervals during the last century and a quarter,” but he believes, in spite of this, “that the overthrow of the existing order would involve us in far more acute and general distress than anything we are likely to suffer during the difficult months ahead.”
There is more truth in that last remark than Mr. Marriott thought, and I agree that for him it is not an unreasonable statement; but it is necessary to have clearly in mind to whom that “we” refers. “We,” the comfortable and leisured class to which Mr. Marriott belongs, are not suffering from the prevailing unemployment, “we” never have so suffered, and, whoever else does, “we” shall see to it that “we” never do. But what of the future ? If capitalism is overthrown, what happens to “us” and our privileged position ? Is it not enough to make the most open-minded of the capitalist economists pause when they find the direction in which their investigations are leading them ; to make them turn back from the path to the future which the workers alone can follow, and announce that the existing system is the sublime height of mankind’s upward progress. “After us the deluge” ?
“What, then, is the cause of the phenomenon of recurrent unemployment, and what is the appropriate remedy ?” Mr. Marriott dismisses off-hand the “glib answer of the Communists” that capitalism is the cause, and work or full maintenance, and the immediate abolition of the system, the ultimate remedy.
He admits that crises are “the concomitant of the new order in industry initiated by the industrial revolution,” and that unemployment is “an incident—perhaps an inevitable incident—of large-scale production for a world market” ; but this, he says, is not capitalism. I would like then to ask what was the “new order initiated by the industrial revolution” ? What was it if not modern capitalism ? Where can Mr. Marriott find an instance of “large-scale production for the world market” except under capitalism?
Although Mr. Marriott cannot face his own conclusions, he admits our case in its entirety. Unemployment is part, and an essential part of the system under which we live. He even goes so far as to speak of “that reserve of labour upon which the periodic prosperity of an industry is dependent.” It is, in fact, just because Mr. Marriott cannot help but recognise, as we do, that capitalism and unemployment are inseparable, that he does not even claim to have found the solution he set out to discover.
The utmost he can do is to suggest the speediest and least difficult way out of the present state of stagnation, without touching what he himself admits to be the real problem, the recurring crises.
Again, he tells us that prior to the present era chronic unemployment was unknown. Why, then, must we acknowledge our impotence to escape an alleged “inexorable economic law” which had no terrors for our ancestors of some hundreds of years ago ? Are we patiently to accept starvation for our class, knowing as we do that our powers of wealth production are a hundred times greater than then, just because of the class-biassed economic theories of Mr. Marriott ?
“So long as countries were self-supporting in agriculture and industry, crises occurred only at rare intervals, being the outcome of pestilence or famine, or some great upheaval in the natural world.” Poverty is no longer the result of natural phenomena; it is a product of society itself, of artificially restricted production, and unequal distribution of the product.
Mr. Marriott criticises the “Communists” for wanting to return to pre-capitalist conditions, but does not give evidence that they ever propagated such an absurdity. Anyhow, we know, and Mr. Marriott knows, that it cannot be done.
The case Mr. Marriott has to meet is this. He admits the existence in the recent past of a form of social organisation to which unemployment was unknown; he admits also the enormous increase of productivity since the inception of modern capitalism. What, then, is the factor, or what even is the kind of factor, which prohibits production for use instead of for private profit ?
In further criticism of the “Communists” he cites the experience of Louis Blanc in 1848 with his “national workshops” and the application of the theory of “the right to work.” He rightly says the provision of full maintenance for the unemployed is incompatible with the continuance of capitalism. Louis Blanc learned by experience what everyone now knows to be true. But here, again, Mr. Marriott might observe that the “Communist Party” have explicitly conceded the impossibility of their demand being met; it would mean “suicide for the capitalist class.” Incidentally, it illustrates the dangerous tendency of “Communist Party” propaganda that the uninstructed sympathy of the unemployed should be gained by promises incapable of fulfilment.
Now we come to Mr. Marriott’s remedy. It is that the wages of those still in work must be lowered. Lower wages—lower prices—more foreign trade—work for the unemployed.
It looks sound, but the chain has weak links. Firstly, lower wages mean not lower prices, but higher profits; and, secondly, this solution, if otherwise genuine, can only help one country at the expense of others. Can that be a solution for a problem of world-wide magnitude ? There is no corner of the capitalist earth immune from the effects of industrial, commercial, and financial depression.
The argument that the workers must accept less wages to enable their employers to compete with the sweating “foreign” manufacturer is used in every country in the world, unfortunately with some effect. But has anyone ever heard of an employers’ association which proposed to deal with such a situation by assisting the unfortunate foreign worker to organise and improve his status ? No, because the capitalist will always sell his goods at the maximum the market will bear, and he knows that the paying of a wage higher than he can compel his employees to accept is a dead loss to him, a subtraction from his profits.
True, prices must come down, for the simple and sufficient reason that stocks in hands are great and the owners cannot all wait indefinitely for an increased demand. They want ready money, and must sell at a reduction, at a loss even. Every penny, therefore, they can knock off their labour costs is a clear gain to them. Hence Mr. Marriott’s anxiety on behalf of the capitalist class to persuade the out-of-work that his enemy is the employed man who stands out against wage cuts. In conclusion, as against Mr. Marriott’s dicta that “the utmost the workless can claim is subsistence,” and that “those in work must be content with something not much above that level,” our advice is, that while capitalism lasts, the workers, whatever their condition, in work or out, will get, and will be entitled to, just as much as they can compel the capitalist class to give them. It is to be hoped that they will soon become so dissatisfied with their meagre portion that they will join us in getting the whole lot, the earth.