1920s >> 1924 >> no-240-august-1924

The Useless Capitalist. The Effects of Economic Evolution

Although it is a century and a half since the commencement of thè most rapid expansion of the productive forces in the history of human society, institutions and ideas still prevail which were adapted only to the conditions preceding that expansion. In an age when the Capitalist has nothing to do but draw dividends, we are still told by people who profess to know, that we cannot do without him. Let us examine this assertion.

It is, of course, obviously true that so long as Capitalists own the means of wealth production, non-Capitalists must depend upon them for permission to exist. To the worker who thinks, however, it is equally obvious that what he cannot do without is the property, not the property-owner. Without access to the soil for raw materials, and machines for dealing therewith, human beings cannot satisfy their most elementary requirements ; but where is the necessity for the ownership of the land, factories, etc., by a special class of privileged individuals who derive a work-free existence because of their ownership?

How did the Capitalist class come into being? What necessity brought them on to the stage of social life? History furnishes us with an answer. It shows that less than . five hundred years ago in this country production was carried on by the worker and his family independently. The peasant in the country cultivated his plot of land, mainly for his own use, selling only his surplus produce. In the towns the craftsman and his apprentices (limited in number by rule of the guild) worked in his own shop with his own tools. His goods, of course, were mainly for sale, at first in order to meet a local demand. In the course of time, however, as trade developed between different localities, the national and even international, markets developed also. Obviously, the workers could not travel far and wide with their goods. Consequently, they came to depend upon a special class of traders. The isolation of the producers placed them at the mercy of the middleman.

From this middleman trader has developed by stages the Capitalist of to-day. For a time his activities were mainly confined to buying and selling, but with further increase in trade and in the productive powers of the workers, he began to hunger for the surplus to be obtained by having his own workshop and employees. The conditions were favourable. The break up of feudalism and the enclosure of large estates set free by degrees a landless, masterless class of men and women from whose ranks could be drawn as much labour-power as was required.

The merchants commenced to set up small factories in competition with the workshops of the craftsmen. In these factories the work was split up into its various detail processes, each worker being confined to one process. Greater speed and a greater output were thus obtained at the sacrifice of the worker’s general skill and interest in his work. At this stage the Capitalist was not merely the owner of the factory. He took part in the direction of the workers and in the supervision of the whole process of production. Nevertheless, he was from the first an exploiter. The wealth produced belonged not to the whole body of workers but to him. Private ownership of socially produced wealth was thus established.

At this point commenced the sharp antagonism, which is the principal feature of modern life, between Capitalist and worker. Capital, ever restless, seeking to grow at the expense of the worker’s energy, chafed at the limitations of that energy. The division of labour above described was developed to the highest pitch, its possibilities were exhausted and still capital longed for fresh worlds to conquer.

At this time new countries were being discovered, explored and opened up for trade, and a rapidly developing world market seemed to offer a limitless demand. How to satisfy it? That was the problem.

Although much reduced in circumstances a certain number of handicraftsmen still lingered on trying to compete with the slaves in the factories, but their extinction was at hand. In the textile industries at first invention after invention replaced detail labourers by machines, and steam-power provided the means of driving them. The handicraftsmen were finally ruined and the conditions of the wage-slaves in the factories became more and more degraded by this new onslaught of capital. The reader can refer to H. de B. Gibbins’ “Industrial History” for an account of the horrors which followed. The increase in the power of producing wealth proved to be a weapon in the hands of the exploiting class to reduce to grinding poverty and degradation the great bulk of the population.

In order to ensure its own survival the exploiting class has had to moderate the reckless indulgence of its greed by legal restrictions. Its essential character is in no way altered, however, while its one-time function as director of industry has, passed into the hands of a special section of the working class. Managers, superintendents, foremen, etc., have long ago relieved the Capitalist of any direct personal concern with the supervision of the process of production and distribution. The wealth produced is so great that he can riot in luxury thousands of miles from the scene of his slaves’ labour. Originally an agent of economic progress the Capitalist has been rendered superfluous by that progress. Henceforth he is simply a parasite on the social body, preventing the workers from enjoying he fruits of their, increasingly productive labour.

It is an oft-repeated assertion that society has always been divided into rich and poor and always will be. People who make this assertion show, by so doing, that they have entirely left out of account the continual expansion in power to produce wealth, which has taken place since prehistoric times. A moment’s reflection will convince any thinking person that in the remote past it was a sheer impossibility for society to be so divided, since the productive power of labour was so small as to be sufficient only for the needs of the labourers themselves. A rich class freed from toil cannot exist unless the labourers produce a surplus over and above their own wants. Such a class, therefore, did not, in fact, arise, until the tools of production and the possibility of organising the producers had made some considerable advance above the level of. the savage and the barbarian.

The enjoyment of leisure and comfort, however, was necessarily limited to a small class so long as the productive forces were yet too limited to provide leisure and comfort for all. Under such circumstances wealth inevitably became the object of a struggle within society itself. It could be obtained only by those whose position enabled them to exploit the producers.

To-day, however, we are faced with a situation entirely different. There is no question about the possibility of producing sufficient wealth to provide comfort and leisure for all. The industrial revolution has swept aside all the old limitations of production. The “problem” to-day is one of distribution. So long as the Capitalist class is allowed to hold the means of labour as a source of profit that problem will remain unsolved. The failure of the master class to solve it is demonstrated by periodical industrial, commercial and financial crises; by gluts, bad trade, wars and the growing menace of the unemployed.

It is upon the workers that the task of finding the solution falls, since until the solution is found they must endure increasing suffering. The Socialist Party points to the solution. The means of life, operated as they are by the workers collectively must be controlled collectively; they must be made the common possession of society. Wealth must be produced for social use and not for private profit. The industrial revolution has made the social revolution possible, nay, inevitable.

E. B.

(Socialist Standard, August 1924)

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