Who benefits from mass production?
Sir Edward Anson, Director of the Birmingham Guild, writing a Trade Survey in the Daily News (17/9/26), says, among other things, of mass production, that it has two obvious advantages : The owner of the business gains if he can keep up his sales, and the consumer benefits because of the resulting reduction in price.
Mr. Frank G. Wollard, Director and General Manager of Morris Motors, Ltd., challenged Sir Edward’s views in a contribution on October 1st, where he claimed that the employees also benefit. As there are not consumers apart from capitalists and workers, according to these two gentlemen, mass production would seem to be an inestimable boon to mankind. We shall see on examination, however, that although differing, both are right in one respect, i.e., the owner of the business gains.
Sir Edward’s attitude towards mass production is mainly critical. His chief objections are the monotonous character of machine tending and the loss of skilled craftsmanship. He says:
“It is the boast of the majority of mass production owners that there is no machine in their shops that an unskilled man cannot work if he has a day to practise on it. This is very useful when it comes to combating unemployment, such as has been so prevalent since the war, when men have been unable to find work at their legitimate trade, but what will be the outcome in the future. . . .
It has been said that half the misery of life is caused by monotony, and what could be more monotonous than spending day after day pulling the same handle or filling the same hopper? It is incredible to me that the human brain can stand such a test of idleness and not become completly atrophied.”
The reference to unemployment in the above is typical of the capitalist viewpoint; they are combating unemployment when one hundred men find work, no matter if they displace one hundred and fifty. The object of mass production, as with every improvement in machinery and methods, is to reduce the amount of labour time required for the production of a given commodity. If it accomplishes this reduction, unemployment will be increased, instead of diminished. Because, as we shall see later, any increase of sales that might follow as a result of lower prices cannot be permanent.
“What could be more monotonous than spending day after day pulling the same handle or filling the same hopper?” questions Sir Edward. Yet that is the lot of millions of men, women and children under capitalism. Their labour intensified and rendered monotonous, with no respite, except for the congenial atmosphere of the labour exchange and the streets, when the factory owners are unable to keep up their sales.
So far as the loss of craftsmanship is concerned, the people who seem most concerned about such a disaster appear to be those who dodge work of any kind. The average worker, whether engaged in making cabinets or filling hoppers, is always eager to quit at the end of his enforced period of labour. It is not craftsmanship or the opportunity to dally with favourite tools that draws men into the factories. It is sheer necessity, their only means of escape from starvation. Moreover, under modern conditions dallying is not permitted. There is no time for pride in workmanship. The slogan is, “Get on or get out.”
Under capitalism the conditions of labour are dictated by supervisors who are driven to maintain or increase profits by the fear of losing their jobs. Under Socialism, where the whole people owned the land and means of wealth production, they would arrange their own conditions of labour. They would naturally adopt the shortest, easiest and safest methods to achieve their object, because such a course would give them the maximum amount of leisure. In any case, freedom to exercise craft pride would be possible under Socialism, under capitalism it is not. The worker’s business is to work. He must work in such a way as to satisfy the capitalist greed for profits; there is no time for him to find pleasure in it.
Returning to Sir Edward’s original claim that those who gain by mass production are the owner and the consumer, and Mr. Frank Woollard’s objection because the employee has not been included, the latter says:
“In the first place, Sir Edward can see only two benefits from mass production—a financial benefit to the owner of the plant and a lower price to the public. He has forgotten the worker, who has his share in the general prosperity, both as an employee and as a consumer.
Even supposing certain owners are so foolish as to forget the employees’ share of their prosperity, there is at any rate something to be shared; whereas if we put the clock back 200 years there would be little or nothing over bare subsistence to divide.”
The cat is out of the bag ! There is something to be shared. There is prosperity; but it is theirs—the owners, or capitalists who are under no obligation to share and can, if they choose, forget. But what is meant by sharing? and why are some owners foolish in not sharing? Every sharing, bonus, or co-partnership scheme that has been introduced up to the present is based on the principle that the workers must first increase production by greater speed and efficiency before they can share. They then obtain as their share a small percentage of what is produced by their increased efforts. In these circumstances the owners who do not share are, as Mr. Wollard states, indeed foolish.
Sir Edward agrees that the owner gains, but adds a proviso, if he can keep up his sales. But every concern is subject to that obligation. That is the capitalist method of converting surplus value into profits. As a capitalist he is supposed to understand that side of the business. That is where the much-boasted directive ability of the owner is supposed to come in. He controls his own factory and directs the workers he employs. If he misjudges the market, or produces goods that do not sell, according to capitalist standards he is a failure. But his disappearance from the arena makes no difference. There is still an abundance of capital functioning on the industrial field. The world’s markets are not starved, though thousands of concerns fail every year. The failures are like water that overflows the banks of a river in flood. The main stream flows on.
So much for the owner, or capitalist, the fact is established that he gains. What of the consumer? Who is he to start with? Mr. Woollard answers the second question :
“And all the time, and every time, it must be remembered that the makers, i.e., the workmen, are the same folk as the purchasers. In the bulk the buyers are not different people living on inherited wealth—that is only for the few.”
This simplifies matters enormously. Mr. Woollard is evidently not deceived by the confusing use of these terms by politicans and would-be economists, who divide society into capitalists, workers and consumers. For him, as for us, there are, in the main, two classes, capitalists and workers. We have already seen that the workers, as workers, do not gain by mass production. We shall see that they do not gain as consumers.
It is no coincidence that, in the years that have elapsed since the war, mass production and improved means and methods generally, have made enormous strides. While the same period has been characterised by a continuous and steady reduction of wages all round, the masters are organised for this purpose more strongly than they have ever been before. Their chief reason when forcing a reduction is that the cost of living has fallen. With one and a half million workers unemployed and trade unions with little or no fighting funds, resistance is almost useless.
Mass production may reduce prices for the consumer, but the consumer who belongs to the working-class lives by the sale of his energy. The cost of reproducing that energy from day to day having fallen, its price on the labour market falls. He is forced to realise that the commodity character of his labour power cheats him of any share in the rich rewards of mass production.
(Socialist Standard, December 1926)