1920s >> 1925 >> no-253-september-1925

Hard Coal and Soft Soap

According to Professor Harebrain, the cause of the trouble in the mining industry is a very simple one. The miners eat too much, far too much. If they would only cut their animal needs down to, say, two meals a day, later to be reduced to one or less, their industry would flourish as of yore. Consequently, as their meals decreased, the need for wages would diminish, and when they had learned to dispense with meals altogether, wages could be brought down nearly to zero. Clothing they have already reduced to the minimum, and as for shelter, well, the roof of the mine is usually sufficient. An example so infectious could not fail to impress the railwaymen, who bring the coal from the pithead to the consumer. Working above ground, they would, doubtless, feel the need for more clothing than the miner, but even now, their benevolent employers insist upon supplying their needs in this direction. With only shelter to concern them, their wages would not be so near absolute zero as the miners, but obviously the room for an economic wage would be enormous. Then, look at the tremendous repercussion of these conditions on the rest of industry, and on the world. With coal at fivepence halfpenny a ton and rail carriage about the same, we could undersell and bankrupt the whole of Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australia and Bardsey Island. Doubtless, this would injure our foreign trade, but, as the Professor says, “damn foreign trade, anyway.” Food we should have dispensed with : clothing would become unnecessary; for with coal so ridiculously cheap, we would have huge fires all the year round. As for shelter—well, in the last analysis, all the population could enter the coal mines and so render even that superfluous. The eminent Professor realised that at this point the question arises—with the whole population safely stowed in the mines, why produce coal at all? Exactly ! Well, possibly the last man in will take a few dynamite cartridges in his pocket, and having cut the cage rope will set alight to himself and so solve the problem for all time.

It is easy to see that Professor Harebrain is a bit muddled. It should be just as easy to see that all the other well-meaning people who are just now tendering advice as to how the mining industry should be run are equally muddled. Some say that if the mines were grouped into areas all would be well. Others that only nationalisation will save the situation. Some suggest that the erection of super-power stations at the pithead will bring prosperity; others, again, the hydrogenation of coal into oil.

We will be paradoxical; we will take a wider, and, at the same time, a narrower view. The bulk of this nation is composed of workers. The nation has no existence apart from them. We therefore take their view. Nothing can be wider than that. It, therefore, narrows the issue down to the question of their interests alone, for whoever is not a worker is living at their expense. The mining industry, like all industries under capitalism, contains two living elements : a vast number of workers and a small number of owners. The workers, not yet having adopted Prof. Harebrain’s advice, are periodically hungry, cold, and in need of shelter. They are, as a class, destitute of all save the capacity for work. Bone, brain and brawn are all they possess. They are reservoirs of energy; an energy singularly valuable, for it has the magical quality of giving more than it gets. It can convert the worthless into the valuable. It can take coal, for instance, from the recesses of the earth’s crust, where it has lain for untold millions of years, and convert it into a desirable and useful article. Left where Nature placed it, it is worthless, one with the dried mud which encloses it. Operated upon by human bone and sinew, it becomes a thing of value. Looked at with a microscope, the coal at the pithead differs in no respect from the coal in the seam. But it is different, nevertheless. It contains something it did not possess before. It is human labour. Invisibly crystallised in every shining lump is the blood and sweat of the miner. Daily the miner enters the pit, fresh and vigorous, and daily he returns (if he has not been unlucky) tired and jaded. But his energy has not vanished into thin air. It is embodied in the coal. It can be measured. It is measured. This process is realised when the coal is confronted with an equivalent on the market. A thousand tons of coal may be worth a country estate, or a steam yacht. They are, therefore, exchanged, and the owner of 1,000 tons of coal becomes the owner of a house or yacht. If he were of a confiding, candid nature, he would call his workers together one afternoon and address them thusly :

“Brave lads ! You have worked hard and well. The day before yesterday, 1,000 tons of coal reposed in Stygian blackness in my mine. According to my son, late of Balliol, it had lain where you found it two hundred million years. He may be a few years out, but that need not detain us. Suffice it to say that you have got it out to the light of day for me, and as I had no possible use for such a quantity, I have exchanged it for a steam yacht. In this I propose to visit the Mediterranean during the ensuing winter, and you, my faithful friends can carry on with the good work. You have had an exhausting time, but, after all, you are used to it, and someone has to do it, anyway. My private opinion is that you like it, for look at the years you have been doing it. Before you so kindly presented me with my thousand tons, you had been doing similarly with other owners in the neighbourhood. They tell me that your patience is exemplary, but that, like a docile horse, there are moments when even you jib. But also like the domestic animal, you never get rid of your driver. This seems to me one of your most excellent characteristics. The newspapers call it your inherent good sense. Without doubt, it is a most excellent arrangement, and so long as you are prepared to do the working, I shall be happy to go on owning. (Interruption.) What’s that? Where do you come in ? I am glad you asked that question. I clearly recognise that, after all, you are human beings; you get hungry, cold and exposed to our inclement weather. I can see that your energy is in constant need of replenishment; that if you do not get the minimum of animal needs you will die. And as I could not extract 1,000 tons of coal from the earth myself, I should be hard put to it to escape a like fate, and might even be reduced to the necessity of working myself. This, or rather these catastrophies can be avoided, and, as a reasonable man, I propose to allow each of you a sum that will enable you to support life and renew the energy of which you are so prodigal. Obviously, I cannot do this unless you first make it for me (unless I borrow it), so that you will see the necessity for hard work (on your part) and huge output. True, in spite of all our efforts, I may not be able to sell the coal you have dragged up for me, and you may have to suffer great privation for having produced more wealth than is needed, but this is a state of things unfortunate but inevitable. My brother, who owns a newspaper, has repeatedly explained this regrettable feature of our system to you, and I am sure, having read it so often, you must agree with him that unemployment is a deplorable but necessary and inevitable evil, past the wit of man to remedy. I remember we talked over it quite a lot whilst we were wintering in Egypt last season. Rest assured that if the problem has not been solved, it is not from want of thought. If you only knew the amount of thought devoted to this problem alone on the Riviera, at the Casino, the Cote d’Azur, Aix les Bains, the Tyrol, Switzerland and numbers of other educational centres, you would be astonished. The principal adviser you must shun is the Socialist. He will tell you that I am unnecessary and useless; that, even if I were to stop in the Mediterranean, or drop in the Mediterranean, you could still get along without me. He will tell you that as the mines are vital to the people, the people should own them. He will contend that what is for the common good should be communally owned and worked for the benefit of all. He will ask you to vote your representatives into Parliament, in order to take my mine away from me, the railways and factories from their owners, the land from its owners, and so on. What fustian ! Does he realise that he will abolish the rich; that I and several hundreds like me will be reduced to the necessity of working like everyone else ? What crazy stuff ! Why everyone knows that it is the rich that supply the poor with work. And hard work is beneficial—at least for the great majority of people. So set to, my lads. Scientists say there is enough coal to last us two hundred years yet, so wire in and win it. Drop this talk of ending the present system, abolishing poverty, overwork and unemployment. Drop this short hours and high wages stunt and concentrate on hard work. There is nothing like it. When, in the Spring, I return from my voyage, I want to see every man-jack of you working like Trojans, and stacks and stacks of coal selling like hot cakes. I shall then get the deer forest I have been after, and you—well, you will be getting your wages, won’t you. Good-bye, my lads ! To it with a will. Good-bye!” (Loud and prolonged cheering.)

W. T. H.

(Socialist Standard, September 1925)

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