1920s >> 1928 >> no-281-january-1928

The Psychology of Capital

Dr. F. Aveling, M.C., Ph.D., D.Sc., is a Reader in Psychology of London University, King’s College. In the course of an article in the “Daily Chronicle” of December 6th he discusses the question, “How can we make the most of Life?”

Quite correctly he points out the lack of scientific education in the art of living—the fact that “each one of us begins where his father began instead of where he left off” —and that as a consequence we are the embodiment of inconstancy, “square pegs in round holes and round pegs in square.”

As instances of the maladjustment prevalent in modern society he remarks that “no one has troubled till recently to find out what mental equipment is required to fit a boy or girl, say, leaving school, for the life-work he is taking up, or to see that he is found an employment in keeping with his powers.”

He laments the fact that “while science has been busy conquering time, annihilating space, and harnessing the forces of external nature to our service … it has left the most vital of all human problems to the speculations of the moralists.”

Nevertheless he informs us that “it has been found possible by motion and fatigue study to shorten the hours of work in many employments with great saving in output of human energy and great increase in actual production.”

This means “the advantage of rhe employer and the employees alike, a better understanding between them, less friction and discontent in industry, a greater enjoyment of life.” Thus does our psychologist answer his question.

Let us see where he stands. Production to-day is carried on for profit. When no profit is made industry comes to a standstill. Increased production usually means increased profit. Economy in the output of human encrgy means that fewer workers are needed in order to produce a given amount of wealth, in other words, increasing unemployment.

The larger capitalist concerns with their command of the most up-to-date machinery, their scientific staffs (including the psychologists), get more out of their workers in a given time and can thus undersell their competitors. In order to remain in business at all the smaller concerns must wring more than the normal amount of energy from their particular groups of slaves, by overtime. The efficiency of some of the workers thus leads to the worsening of conditions for the rest. Particular firms may rid themselves of the more obvious expressions of friction and discontent, by these means, but so far as society at large is concerned, these accompaniments of capitalism are on the increase.

There does not appear, therefore, to be any considerable ground for the optimism of the “Chronicler,” while a little further examination will show how entirely superficial his view of life is.

The discontent of the miner is not due to the fact that he is not a railwayman or a doctor or some other form of wage-slave. Whatever form of employment the individual may prove most efficient in, he or she has to be exploited. The wage-workers have to enable their employers to annexe a surplus from their efforts. They have to produce more than their keep. That is the fundamental condition of their employment and the rock bottom cause of discontent. Other sources of trouble are incidental and supplementary. They may to a large extent be minimised by the improved organisation of capitalism without abolishing or diminishing to the slightest degree the antagonism of interests between the classes.

Does the Doctor of Philosophy suggest that the mal-adjusted capitalist might become a wage-slave? Does he propose that a bank director suffering, let us imagine, from an OEdipus complex should find surcease from his cares in the packing department of a jam factory? “Put me among the girls” may be a cure for some mental complaints, but it is doubtful if any afflicted bourgeois is likely to take up work as his calling in life in order to get there.

Again, it is readily conceivable that an investor who has burnt his fingers over, say, oil, might arrive at the conclusion that his neglectful parents were to blame in not giving him sounder advice when young. Had more attention been paid to his mental equipment he might have made a fortune in rubber shares.

That, of course, is mere speculation, but one thing is certain. He would never think of blaming his old man for leaving him the wherewithal to invest. All the King’s College psychologists in the world would not convince him that shareholding was an undesirable career in his particular case.

However mal-adjusted he might be in other respects he would cling most tenaciously to that indispensable connection with his social environment.

Dr. Aveling, of course, does not deal with these facts. He is studious of the interests of the class which pays him, and so he presents the psychological problem as an abstract question affecting all equally and in the same direction irrespective of their class position.

He betrays no inkling of a suspicion that it is the needs of his employers which give his pretended science its present-day importance.

When the capitalist class was young and still engaged in the struggle to overthrow their feudal oppressors the physical sciences met their requirements. The development of the processes of production in order to meet the growing demands of the world market, coupled with the improvement in weapons of warfare, were their chief immediate needs.

Now, having definitely established themselves as the rulers in society, they must turn their attention to the task of preserving their system and increasing the benefits which they derive from it. In this pursuit they find a constant menace in the unrest of their slaves. They can employ force when dealing with particular sections, but in order to control the working class as a whole .they must use cunning. They must employ knowledge of the minds of those whom they would control.

Hence psychology comes to the rescue of priest and politician, journalist and factory, manager. Dr. Aveling refers to the need for “regulating the emotions.” How well the prostituted intelligentsia understand that art was exemplified in the recent war. Animal passions were unleashed and fed in order that markets might be kept, trade routes protected and raw materials supplies acquired.

Actions, which would have hung or imprisoned those responsible if done in the factory, became magnified into feats of valour when performed on the battlefield. To smash a bullying foreman’s nose was a crime. To bayonet a German fellow-slave (up till then unheard of) was a duty.

Oh ! Psychology ! What wonders are committed with thine aid ! Vegetarians and beefeaters, Atheists and Christians, discovered an instinctive harmony with one another when the interests of capital were threatened.

Self-knowledge and self-control are desirable enough, no doubt, to any individual in his endeavour to adapt himself to the conditions of his existence; but to be of any value they must be subordinate to an understanding of the environment itself.

It is by their interaction with the forces of nature that men have developed their powers as a race, and it is by contact with his fellows in the daily struggle with economic forces that the individual is moulded. At present that struggle takes the form of a class antagonism. The knowledge necessary to-day is, therefore, a class knowledge. It is a class-consciousness, or if you will, a class-psychology, which results from the very conditions of social existence so long as the means of life are owned by a class.

No metaphysical trick can get over that fact or rid us of the necessity tor struggling for the emancipation of our class. That is the only road to social harmony.

E. B.

(Socialist Standard, January 1928)

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