1920s >> 1923 >> no-228-august-1923

Machinery and unemployment

One of the most heard of problems to-day is unemployment. On every hand one hears of general trade stagnation and men out of work, and yet on every hand one can see the installation of new ways and means for saving that very thing for which thousands are searching—WORK.

A few illustrations will make my point clear.

Only a few months ago each of the lifts at the tube railway stations had to have a man to manipulate it; now it is possible for two men to control, by means of a new arrangement of switches, four or more lifts —one man above ground controlling the down working, and one man below ground controlling the up working. Here we see a clear saving of 50 per cent. in labour alone is effected.

The latest device that has appeared in road repairing is the pneumatic concrete breaker. Two men are necessary for the operating of this machine, though one man can work it at a pinch. One man holds and directs the machine (chisel), and the other clears away the pieces to enable the first to see where to place the chisel. Judging by appearances the vibration the man behind the machine has to stand is likely to convert him into a nervous wreck in a short time. I am unable to say exactly how many men the pneumatic concrete breaker displaces, but I would estimate the number at about twelve !

One of the daily papers has just installed a remarkable machine for the rapid making of the moulds which are necessary for the production of the semi-circular sections of type used in the up-to-date printing presses; the presses themselves do away with many hours of labour by folding and counting the papers which they print. There is also another new machine lately installed in the printing trade for the casting of decorative border, etc., “virtually by the mile.”

In the shipping trade economy of labour is the order of the day. The great ships are rapidly being converted from coal into oil burning vessels. The economy effected by this is tremendous, as at least half the number of men previously employed as stokers can now be dispensed with, to say nothing of the other economies such as in loading and so forth.

The great strides made in agriculture have enormously decreased the number of labourers required to produce a given quantity. The steam tractor working the plough performs almost unbelievable feats; while the later oil driven tractor, which works with surprising speed, was often seen during the war driven under complete control by a girl.

The wonderful harvesting machine, which reaps and binds the corn, is another of the remarkable labour-saving devices introduced into agriculture.

The above examples illustrate the fact that the tendency in modern times is to reduce the amount of labour required for the production of the things needed by the population of the earth. Is it not, therefore, extraordinary that numbers of people should be suffering from a lack of the necessaries of life at a time when these things can be produced more rapidly and easily than ever before? In our midst we find men and women without the means of life, not because there is a shortage (the shops are literally choked with food, clothing, etc.), but because these people cannot find employment.

In spite of so many being without work, the people with, work to give must needs be always obtaining new devices to diminish the amount available. These devices which should lighten the burden of the worker, on the other hand have the effect of speeding him up and reducing his chances of obtaining employment.

The sole reason for this state of affairs is to be found in the fact that to-day all things are socially produced, but privately-owned. No article, however simple, is the work of one man alone ; other men had expended energy in the getting of raw material, transport, and so forth, without which such an article would be unable to appear upon the market.

Society has arrived at the stage of social production, but it has not yet reached the stage, only one step further, of social ownership. To-day, the privileged few take the whole of the product of the workers, returning to the latter on the average little more than the bare necessities of life. The reason this next step has not been taken is that the workers have not desired it.

The workers can only get out of their present slave conditions by their own efforts; no heaven sent genius can accomplish it for them. They must learn that they hold the means of emancipation in their own hands, as the working section of the community actually hold the overwhelming majority of the votes; at present, however, they lack the knowledge which would enable them to use that vote in their own interests.

When the workers have learnt how best to use their vote, then will come the “reckoning.” By “reckoning,” I mean the reckoning or calculating out of the capacity of men and machines to see how they can be best employed in the interests of the Commonweal, and how much the hours of labour can be reduced.

This will mean that the awful competition of men for jobs will be a thing of the past; that all will contribute their quota for the benefit of all and not, as to-day, for the benefit of a privileged few; in short, it means a re-organisation of the affairs of the world for the equal benefit of the whole of its inhabitants.

G. H. C.

(Socialist Standard, August 1923)

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