1920s >> 1921 >> no-206-october-1921

Unemployment. Tragedy or Farce?

Notwithstanding the claim, advanced by the daily press, that trade shows signs of revival, the unemployed figures are still in the neighbourhood of 1½  millions. A writer in The Observer, described as an expert and a member of Lord Saint David’s Committee, says : “The crisis is a real one, and doubts if any responsible leader in industry would maintain that the volume of available employment in this country can be increased to any appreciable extent before next June.” Another paper—The Sunday Pictorial, September 4th—says that the official figures on unemployment are misleading, because they take no account of those who have exhausted their unemployed pay, a body that grows in numbers every week. The Daily Chronicle, September 6th, gives the number of unemployed in the United States as six millions. In Russia and Austria, we are told, millions are actually starving. In fact, the workers of every country are unemployed to an extent never yet experienced, with one exception. We are told that Germany is the exception, and that unemployment there is scarcely known. If this is true, it is not the first time that the workers of a losing country in a great war have been better off than the victors. The same thing was noticed after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Some people might argue from this that the way to fuller employment for any country was to have a good war with a neighbouring country and lose it !


Such an argument, however, is on a par with the general capitalist principle that working-class prosperity in one country can only be built up on the unemployment and impoverishment of the workers of other countries. That is necessarily the outcome of the capitalist contention that unemployment can only be reduced by the capture of foreign trade. During the war the capitalist press insisted on the capture of the enemy’s trade in various directions, and, boasting continuously that it was a business war, prophesied greater prosperity for British capitalists and workers as the result of victory. But their prophesy was falsified, and the only fact that has been demonstrated is that the abnormal prosperity of any one country can only occur when other countries fall behind in the race for markets.


In normal times unemployment is fairly evenly spread over all capitalist countries, partly because depressions, when they come, affect them all, and partly because workers are attracted to those countries where trade is on the increase. The passage of workers from one country to another is facilitated by capitalist governments because a large army of unemployed insures cheap labour-power to the capitalist, who can sell his commodities cheaper than his foreign competitors with no reduction in his profits. But cheap labour-power to the capitalist means a lower standard of living to the workers. We thus see that the capitalist remedy for unemployment—capture foreign trade—is a delusion for the workers, because its application means worse conditions for themselves and increased unemployment for their fellow-workers abroad.


No single country can find a solution to the unemployed problem. It is a question that affects the workers of every capitalist country equally. The solution must, therefore, be one that can be applied all round ; it must be universal. Now, Socialism is international. As a remedy for unemployment it must be applied universally, and because it fulfils that condition should take precedence in the workers’ consideration. Before examining the full claims of Socialism on the workers’ attention, it might be interesting to glance at some of the suggested remedies, the hypocritical platitudes and solemn warnings of our masters and their agents. When facing a question of such magnitude, every suggested remedy should be carefully examined before being discarded or adopted.


At first sight unemployment insurance appears to many to be a remedy. Many who think so only find out their mistake when they have exhausted their unemployed pay and have failed to find a situation. Others find out their mistake in trying to live on it. But insurance cannot even be accepted as a suggested remedy, because it does not pretend to reduce unemployment. All that it does is to keep some workers from actually starving until the capitalist wants them back in the factory again. The Daily Chronicle (September 14th, 1921) contends that it is the best and the cheapest method of dealing with the problem. Referring to the immense volume of unemployment, they say that “it has been accompanied by singularly little acute distress or violent discontent.” “Acute distress” for the Chronicle might mean any stage in the starvation process down to actual skin and bones, but there is no mistake about the satisfaction it feels that there has been little “violent discontent.” Another item that gives satisfaction to the Chronicle is the fact that “by far the greater part of the ‘doles’ financial cost will be eventually recouped by the State from the contributions of employers and employed.”


The chief advantage of insurance for the capitalists is that it is elastic in its application. It can be extended or reduced, in time or amount, to suit the severity of the trade crisis through which they happen to be passing. The Chronicle says that “it is the most scientific policy that any State has adopted. As compared with relief works, it covers much more fully the actual field of distress, while it also entails far less outlay.” But the controversy over the relative values of the “doles” or relief works need worry the worker but little. Both will be applied while the crisis lasts and discontinued as soon as it is over. The return of normal trade conditions, while it solves the problem for the capitalists at the moment, still leaves immense numbers unemployed, which increase with every such crisis.


In his presidential address to the Trade Union Congress, Mr. Poulton fell foul of several capitalist papers. Among many other things he said of little or no importance, was the outstanding declaration “that the facilities for producing goods were never more abundant or more efficient than to-day, enabling enormous quantities to be produced at very short notice. This, in its turn, whatever economists might say, had the effect of throwing out of employment multitudes of workers. It was no wonder that we heard at times of workers restricting output.” (Chronicle, September 6th, 1921).


Mr. Poulton’s remedy is to shorten the working week. But this, like the dole, is no remedy. With an 8-hour working day, the United States is no better than other countries, either in normal times or during the present crisis. If one country alone adopts this measure it inevitably falls behind in the race for markets, unless greater efficiency is exacted from its workers or more up-to-date methods and machinery introduced, or both. It is a well-known fact that American workers gain nothing by their shorter working day. The pace at which they work makes them cheap when compared with European workers.


On the other hand, a universally applied shorter week must remain the dream of impossiblists. Capitalist groups are too deeply engrossed in the struggle for markets to come to a common agreement among themselves on a question that might give the workers more time to think about and discuss their slavery and the way to escape from it. While if the workers were sufficiently united internationally and powerful enough to enforce a universally shorter week, they would be powerful enough to completely overthrow capitalism and establish Socialism.


So much for Mr. Poulton’s suggestion. Now for the other capitalist agents of whom he fell foul. The Daily Chronicle, September 6th, 1921, refers to it as “the old blind idea that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done in the world, and that therefore the less one man does in return for his wages, the more there will be for others to do . . . He ought to know that the amount of work available in the world tends to be diminished by every increase in the costs of production; and therefore that reduction of hours, however desirable it may from time to time be on other grounds, must in relation to unemployment normally exert a bad and not a good influence.”


The latter part of this statement is entirely false. An increase in the costs of production which affected the world would make no difference whatever in the amount produced, other things remaining as they were. All that would happen would be that higher prices would rule all round. Goods would have their money name changed, including labour-power. Even this need not happen as a result of a shorter working week or higher wages. Under such circumstances competition might not permit capitalists to raise prices, in which case the workers would obviously be encroaching on profits, if the increased cost of production were due to higher wages.


Apart from this, however, it is only when one set of capitalists are faced with a rise in the cost of production, and are unable to compete in the open market, that they are forced to curtail or stop production. The proof of this is seen when we compare two countries like Spain and the United States. The former is a century behind the latter industrially, because it has never adopted to the same extent cheap and efficient methods of production. Yet America, with all its efficiency and cheapness—the qualities that exert a good influence on employment, according to the Chronicle—surpasses every other nation in the numbers of its unemployed.


This brings us to the “old blind idea” of the Chronicle. If low costs of production give more, instead of less employment, why do American factories periodically close down, stopping production while they unload their goods on the market? Why does every country do the same? Not because “there is only a fixed amount of work to be done in the world”—a phrase which only an ignoramus in economics would use —but because within a given period the demand for goods will be limited, if not by the needs of the people, by their ability to pay for them. In the next period the demand may be higher, or lower, but the outstanding fact is that the world’s workers with modern means can always meet that demand with millions of idle days to spare. Days of unemployment without wages spread over the working-class. Under a sane system of society, where production was carried on for use, instead of for capitalist profits, they would be days of rest or recreation.


The Chronicle was not the only paper that chastised Mr. Poulton for his suggestion. The Sunday Pictorial (September 11th, 1921) took a different line. One of its writers jeered at him because he “advised the workers to press for a shorter week,” and then went on to say “that the needs of the world were under-supplied.” This deep thinking agent of capitalism then asked, “How is the supply of things needed by the world to be increased by diminution of the hours spent in making them?” Let him ask any one of the millions of unemployed. They have hands and brains. Why are they idle if the world is under-supplied ? Because it is not the needs of the world that determines the quantity of goods to be produced. The capitalist calls a halt when he can no longer sell at a profit. Or, to be strictly accurate, he only allows production to proceed when he receives orders that will enable him to realise profits. The Sunday Pictorial writer must be a first-class nincompoop if he thinks that it takes all the world’s workers all their time either to meet the effective demand or satisfy the world’s needs—two very different things. The fact that the world’s markets are periodically glutted in normal times, and millions unemployed, with further millions working short time and many millions of days lost through industrial disputes, together with an enormous section of the population engaged in unproductive work, proves the contrary.


With modern machinery and methods, only a small proportion of the workers would be needed for actual production if kept continuously at work.


The biggest mistake made by the workers lies in their willingness to be led, instead of studying and discussing the question among themselves, whether in or out of work. All workers are subject to unemployment. No job under capitalism is sure ; consequently unemployment is the concern of every worker.


There are always plenty of unscrupulous or mad-brained adventurers ready to pose as leaders where a number of people have a grievance. But even if they belong to the ranks of the aggrieved, it does not follow that they are to be trusted as leaders. At Liverpool the Rev. J. Vint Laughland advised the workless to capture the Art Gallery and led the attack personally. They captured the Art Gallery all right, but it proved to be a trap. The doors were closed, and in the words of an eye-witness, reported in the Daily Chronicle, September 13th, 1921 : “A vestibule was crammed with men, who one after another went down under the blows of the constables’ batons,” and “a stream of injured men were led out or carried away on stretchers ; while many more were led from the building in batches, and taken to the police station in vans under escort.”


In Poplar, as in other districts of London where Labour councillors find themselves unable to fulfil their election pledges, they are confusing the issue by dragging in the question of rates equalisation, which is not the concern of the workers at all, but purely a question for the capitalists who own property in the different districts.


The Observer (September 24th, 1921) says that : “The real and permanent cure for the ills of Poplar, and other poor and populous districts now in like case, was, is and will remain the discovery of the essentials for co-operation among those engaged in production.” In other words, those who have the luck to be employed must agree to terms that are acceptable to employers, and the unemployed—not being engaged in production—may be safely ignored.


Read where we may, in Capitalist or Labour journals, there has never yet been brought forward any scheme that can cure unemployment. Some boasted remedies, like co-partnership and guild-production, only aggravate the evil. Others, like insurance and relief works, do not affect it at all. In regard to the latter, The Observer (September 18th, 1921) says: “They must not compete with the legitimate opportunities of employment that trade will present as it recovers.” When the capitalist wants workers to exploit, there must be plenty of unemployed in order that he may get them cheap. Equalisation of rates is a confusionist cry. A shorter week may or may not reduce unemployment. Electrification schemes, forestry, reclamation of foreshores, and widening of roads are things that capitalist governments may want but dare not undertake because of the outcry against the necessary taxation or the interference with private enterprise. Capitalist governments are bankrupt in ideas to cope with the question. Their agents, political and industrial, religious or patriotic, and sympathetic or unsympathetic with the workers, are only concerned with their private ambitions. Sooner or later the workers will be forced to recognise these facts, and in increasing numbers will focus their minds on the question for themselves. Others will come into contact with genuine Socialist works and workers, and will be convinced that unemployment is the inevitable product of a system in which a small class owns the means of wealth production, and imposes upon the rest of society the necessity of selling their energy as a commodity, in order to obtain the necessaries of life.


Without this knowledge the workers are the slaves of the employing class. With the knowledge lies their hope of emancipation. Determined to organise and act on their knowledge, they can, by first dispossessing the employing class of the means of wealth production, and secondly by making them the common property of society, to be used by all for the common needs, and controlled by all through the democratic administrations they deem it necessary to set up, realise their freedom and satisfy all their needs as freely associating men and women.


F. Foan