1920s >> 1923 >> no-231-november-1923

The workers’ knight-mare

The following extracts from an article in the Birmingham Daily Mail (8/5/23) indicate the usefulness of reforms to the capitalists, and show the necessity which confronts them of adjusting the mechanism of their system to meet the requirements which its development calls for :—

“Everyone recognises that the present State scheme of unemployment insurance is a temporary expedient for tiding over a severe crisis. Nevertheless, it has served one useful purpose, writes Sir Robert Hadfield, the well-known Sheffield steel manufacturer. It has proved that in the future insurance against unemployment must inevitably form part of our industrial policy. The removal of the fear of short time and complete unemployment is as essential to industrial progress as is the invention of labour-saving machinery. In fact, it is a necessary corrollary to our national progress.”

In the above Sir Robert Hadfield admits that labour-saving machinery and industrial progress bring as an inevitable consequence unemployment; he forsees that there must be hopes of better conditions engendered among the workers, otherwise their growing discontent may become a serious obstacle to “industrial” and “national progress.” If these cant phrases of the various captains of industry who continually lecture the working class were critically examined, the conclusion arrived at by the latter would be that industrial progress means increased wealth for the capitalist class, but intensification of misery for the workers.

“With a steadily increasing population and our well-recognised dependence on overseas markets, the well-being of the population of Great Britain depends on a steady improvement in industrial efficiency. This can be attained only by improved methods of production. Those improved methods will be resisted actively and passively, by the workers unless they have some real guarantee that their standard of living, as represented by the purchasing power of their wages, will not be depressed thereby.”

Efficiency ! For what reason? To enable your masters to acquire greater wealth in a shorter time than previously. But that is not the only reason, for the national groups of capitalists are fully aware that increased efficiency and improved production are the necessary outcome of the struggle for trade; this struggle has now become so keen that each group is more than ever determined to speed up their workers and exploit them to the utmost. The result is that the markets become overstocked with commodities, a slump sets in, there is increased unemployment, and there follows keen competition between workers for jobs, resulting in the lowering of wages and deterioration of their standard of living. Also through the speeding up processes and the general fetichism of efficiency, physical and mental breakdowns will become a more frequent occurrence. These mishaps will, of course, make work for the penny-in-the-slot panel doctor.

“The increased scale of benefits introduced when the scope of insurance was widened to cover practically all industries was not so much a concession to fit the increased cost of living as a recognition of the need for provision of more adequate maintenance for the workers in times of enforced idleness. That need has been voiced repeatedly in the demand for ‘work or maintenance.’ Whether that will ever come within the region of practical politics is open to question. Meanwhile the problem must be dealt with on much less ambitious lines for which the existing State scheme will probably serve as a basis.”

There appears to be some contradiction here, for if we refer back it will be seen that Sir Robert deprecates any reduction in the standard of living as represented by wages, but now we find that something much less ambitious than “work or maintenance” must suffice; evidently that “real guarantee” amounts to words, words only.

“The estimate was recently given in the House of Commons that against a regular unemployment roll of 200,000 in pre-war days we must calculate on provision for 600,000 in the future. To contemplate with equanimity an industrial condition wherein half the present number of unemployed must be described as unemployable, would mean that industry was entirely bankrupt of ideas, and altogether selfish in outlook both on the employing and employed side. Even the bitterest protagonists of both sides would hesitate to pronounce so sweeping a verdict.”

The reader can now see to what a pass industrial and national progress has brought the workers, for the present number of unemployed (one million, two hundred thousand) appears to have become a normal condition of the present system, and no doubt Sir Robert Hadfield voices the uneasiness of the capitalist class, or that section who apprehend danger to the smooth working of the capitalist system, which such a vast number of unemployed portends. He is evidently desirous of trying every means to arrive at a settled position, chiefly through agreement with the organised trades, who are asked to link themselves up with their enemies to help to reform, and thus acquiesce in a system which should be overthrown. In reference to “selfishness” of outlook the workers may just as well face the facts, viz. : that material interests dominate action, that employers and workers have interest antagonistic to each other, that the employers are suiting their “selfish” interests in diverting the workers’ attention from that antagonism by talk of betterment and reform of social conditions. That is all that selfishness implies in this instance, although Sir Robert would cunningly desire the workers to think that selfishness, i.e., action along the lines of material interests, is not in accord with capitalism.

“Present indications point to the permanence of some kind of State scheme of unemployment insurance. The difficulties accurately defining the boundary lines of specific trades are the greatest barrier to the ideal system—insurance by industry itself. Even if the provision of the benefit were entirely a State concern, and its administration purely an industrial matter, many of the criticisms of the existing scheme would be met. Contributions could still be paid as at present but the distribution of benefits would be left to the employers or the trade union, or both. The unemployed would then he dealing entirely with their own employer or trade union officials, and would thus keep in close touch with the active agencies for the promotion of employment.”

It matters nothing to the unemployed whether the benefit is paid by the State, the employers, or the trade union, there will be just as much haggling and appearing before committees; and men and women will still be suspended from benefits or written off as “Not Genuinely Seeking Work.” It is apparent that the appeal is made to enlist the sympathies of the trade union members, for it is clear to the far-seeing capitalist that once these accept the principle of reform it will then be easier to get the remainder of the working class to follow suit. The trade unions will then in very truth be merely intermediaries for the supply of labour-power, and their branches payout offices for unemployed workers. As to being in touch with the active agencies for the promotion of employment, that will not bring the workers any nearer to their desire, for obviously the employer will only engage men when he requires them, and it will be useless for the trade union officials to send men after jobs that do not exist. At the present time any firm has only to advertise one vacancy, and there will be scores of applicants. In many cases, firms have established labour bureaus where names of applicants are registered. This constitutes a direct menace and threat to those within the factory. Sir Robert has no solution for the problem, which “is so complex that to expect a Government Department to evolve a system which will satisfy all demands is to hope for the unattainable.” He suggests “that industry itself in each of its component parts must set on foot an inquiry into its own potentialities and needs. Its employers can readily gain access to all the necessary facts regarding capital, machine equipment, and so on : its trade unions could without difficulty lay their hands on all the necessary information regarding the workers’ side of the question.”

In short, fellow-workers, you are asked to take part in a movement which if you are wise you will spurn. The progress of the capitalist system is not your concern, but the acquisition of knowledge that will lead you to overthrow it, is most important. The capitalist class are compelled from time to time to adjust by reforms the anomalies that arise within their system, but many workers are led to believe by astute captains of industry or wily Labour leaders that these reforms and adjustments are made entirely in the interests of the working class. If the latter are cajoled into joint action or agreement with their enemies, they will be acting contrary to their real interests. The Socialist Party of Great Britain is the only party that places Socialism forward as the solution of present evils, for the workers will only be freed from those evils when their cause, capitalism, is abolished. The working class must grip the fact that the capitalist system, itself a result of historical development, has evolved means of producing wealth which, if democratically controlled by the whole of the people, would give useful work to the able, leisure, comfort, and happiness to all mankind. It remains to the workers to taring an end to a system wherein they are looked down upon as Calibans of whom the Prosperos say :

”He does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood and serves in offices
That profit us,”

and contemptuously call forth at will as Prospero to Caliban—

“What ho! slave! Caliban! Thou earth, thou !”


(Socialist Standard, November 1923)

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