Rates, and Rates of Wages
The National Council of the Independent Labour Party have issued a manifesto entitled “How to deal with the rates; what a Socialist Government would do.”—New Leader, October 19th, 1923. In a final paragraph they say :—
Socialism approaches the subject of rates from a new point of view. To-day most people denounce rates as an imposition. To-morrow they must look upon them as a first-class instrument; as a method of providing cheap communal services, and therefore, a means of increasing real wages; as a protection against slums, diseases and dirt; as a guarantee of decent education for their children; as a contribution towards a healthy and fully developed community.
This view is neither new nor socialistic. The Progressive Party have claimed it as their policy, in and out of office, for many years, while never once making the dishonest claim that it was socialistic. The constitution of the I.L.P. is not socialistic and no fundamental principles have ever been laid down by that party that could be described as the necessary basis of the socialist movement.
The National Council speaks for the I.L.P. It thinks for the I.L.P., reproaches the workers for their apathy and indifference, yet up till the present moment has never once set out a simple straightforward statement outlining the workers’ position in modern society, the cause of the evils from which they suffer, the line of action they must follow to remove them and the principles upon which society must he established for that purpose.
The I.L.P. in the course of its propaganda completely ignores the facts of vital importance to the workers if they are to consider fully any public question from their own point of view as workers : The class ownership of the means of wealth-production, the consequent slavery of those who do not participate in this ownership; the antagonism of interests between these two classes and the consequent struggle between them, which can only end in favour of the workers when the latter take over the means of wealth-production and control them democratically for the purpose of satisfying all their needs.
These are the vital and indispensable facts for the workers to bear in mind when considering any question of political or industrial interest. Any party that claims to represent the workers should base its antagonism to capitalist governments on these principles. It is not sufficient that it should be opposed to both Tory and Liberal. It is possible to oppose both these parties on purely capitalist grounds and for purely capitalist reasons without being socialist.
If the workers are to come to a right conclusion on the rates question, they must first understand clearly their class position and how they are enslaved by the capitalist class. Wage-slavery is different in form from all preceding systems. It is more effective in binding the worker to his task while at the same time conceding him the freedom to leave it. How this can be is easily seen without much knowledge of economics. Every worker is free to leave an employer but his physical needs compel him to find another. To use an economic phrase, he is compelled to sell his labour-power in order to obtain the necessaries of life. His wage is the price of his labour-power.
In their general propaganda the I.L.P. denounce the capitalists for treating the workers as mere commodities. As human beings they say that the workers have rights above material commodities. The facts are, however, that the workers themselves are not commodities, nor are they treated as such by their masters. Every worker is the undisputed owner of his labour-power. He can sell it to any capitalist who is willing to buy. He sells it for stipulated periods and can discontinue the sale by giving notice according to the terms agreed upon. These are the extent of the workers’ rights, his actual position.
Moreover, it is all that they claim. Nor does the I.L.P. claim any higher rights. The right to work. The right to a living wage, with or without work, is their latest ‘cry; concede them so much : How is it possible for the workers to pay rates while their share of the wealth they produce is a living wage? How may they consider themselves ratepayers when their wages are subject to modifications with changes in the cost of living?
Let the National Council carry out its programme, municipalising supplies and services in order that the prices of necessaries may be reduced, and what happens? Cost of living falls and wages, the price of labour-power, follows; with greater certainty, too, because the cheapening of supplies and services is effected by labour-saving methods; in other words, by increasing the number of unemployed. If wages always fall for the bulk of the workers, when the cost of living falls, the workers would not benefit if rates were entirely abolished. Nor would the fact that their wages fell prove that they previously paid rates. On the contrary, it would go to show that the capitalist paid them, by the mere fact that he reduced wages to that extent. The result for the workers being a living wage based upon the same standard as before the reduction in rates took place.
Commodities are always subject to changes and fluctuations in price. The price of a commodity changes under three sets of conditions: when it is produced with a smaller or greater expenditure of labour-power; when supply and demand are unequal, and when the material of which money is made can be produced with a smaller or greater expenditure of labour-power. Labour-power is a commodity and subject to fluctuations in price under all three sets of conditions.
During the few years immediately preceding the war, wages were affected by the last named condition. Through improved methods of gold-production the sovereign bought less of the necessaries of life, and as a consequence the workers were compelled to struggle for higher wages. During the war prices rose still higher, with the result that capitalists were compelled to raise wages in order to avoid widespread discontent through serious depression of the workers’ standard of living. How the cost of living more than doubled during that period is common knowledge, but the workers were in a favourable position to enforce a rise, though never as a whole to the new level of prices, because there was little or no unemployment. The demand for labour-power was exceptional.
Since the war new sliding scales have been introduced into a number of industries. Cost of living figures have been systematically used by employers in a continuous effort to “get back to pre-war standards.” The fact ignored by most people is that the standard of living for the workers to-day is approximately the same as it was in 1914. The money name of the amount of necessaries they obtain in a week has risen, but if anything, their standard of living has slightly fallen.
The policy of employers to-day is to keep before the workers and their leaders on the industrial field these cost of living figures. They form the plea and the reason for every reduction of wages enforced. A living wage is the demand of trade unionists; their leaders dispute the figures but never debate the principle. Why then does the National Council confuse the workers’ minds with questions that do not concern them?
By their schemes of municipal ownership and production they propose to reduce the cost of living while making the workers more efficient. A reduction in the cost of living means a reduction in wages that need not mean a reduction in the standard of living. An increase in general efficiency, however, would intensify competition and increase unemployment. In operation their policy would be as harmful to the workers as its propaganda is confusing.