1920s >> 1928 >> no-287-july-1928

Some Effects of Combination and Machinery.

This world of ours does change ! Or, rather, the evolution of Capitalism compels its apologists to perform astonishing somersaults in reasoning.

Not so many years ago one of the principal arguments against the Socialist was that he proposed to do away with competition and thus take away from industry its greatest means of progress. Since those days the war and post-war scramble for markets has so speeded up the introduction and improvement of machinery and commercial organisation, that amalgamations on a gigantic scale have been the general order of the day. Matters have reached a point now that it has become futile for Capitalists to attempt any longer to throw dust in the eyes of the majority of people with any hope of real success. However, these people do not eat their words; they do better, they forget what they have said in the past and now try to prove what advantages are coming from trustification in comparison with the old methods of cutthroat competition.

To the Worker who cares to think calmly over the situation, and looks at it entirely from his own point of view as a Worker, the position is simple. The needs of the whole inhabitants of the world are limited ; as machinery and organisation is improved it becomes more and more easy to meet these needs. Thus, relatively fewer and fewer people are required in production. The improvement in machinery and organisation, in contrast with the needs of the population, is practically unlimited, so that there must ultimately come a time when a comparatively small number of Workers will produce all that can be consumed. This is the dead wall up against which Capitalism dashes its head.

In ancient Rome, where a parallel situation arose, though, of course, only on a minute scale, the situation was met by the distribution of free food, etc., amongst the somewhat unruly unemployed. In modern times the rulers are more niggardly than Roman Patricians were, and they try to meet the situation by the distribution of carefully supervised doles that a dog could hardly live on, let alone a man with a family. But then, the Capitalist is up against a difficulty that did not exist in those old days. He must have a supply of labour, and if the dole is made enough to live on— well, who would want to work his energies out at the pace demanded by modern industry? Surely not anyone of intelligence ! Yet a “dole” that is insufficient breeds rebellious workers, and as the majority of workers are at one time in employment and at another time dole-takers, and as the future is going to bring a greater and greater tightness in employment, the Capitalist is finding his difficulties reaching a point when it will require a considerable amount of strategy to keep matters running smoothly—particularly as the Capitalists are by no means the most intelligent portion of the population.

I have been moved to make these remarks by two articles I read recently. One was by the New York correspondent of the Daily News (June 4th, 1928), who said, writing of conditions in America (where the breadline has recently appeared, to the astonishment of the Capitalist world) :

“American enterprise in the use of machinery is shown by the statement made at a recent meeting of manufacturers that in the motor trade one man can now do work which in 1914 required three.”

He goes on to point out that the average of the countries’ industries shows that only 71 men are now needed to do the work of 100 in 1914, which means a proportional reduction in employment of 29 per cent. He points out that American writers complain that still “better” results would have been obtained if out-of-date machinery was more rapidly scrapped, as is happening in the motor industry. He adds that

“American employers insist that machinery is creating a finer type of workman. It takes more brains to watch a machine than to handle a pick and shovel, they say.”

Speaking as one who has both handled a pick and shovel and has seen others “watching” a machine, I must seriously question the view. I discovered, to my cost, that it required, not only a good deal of intelligence, but a considerable amount of experience, to handle a pick and shovel properly. And as to pushing a loaded wheelbarrow along a narrow plank—well! ! !

But farther on comes the joke—unconscious humour is one of the principal characteristics of those who endeavour to bolster up the present system.

“The new problem is how to keep the worker awake and alert at his job. One method now being tried is to design machinery which signals the need for attention by sound and not by sight. . . .

Another suggestion seriously made is that a regular stimulus should be given to the worker, perhaps in the form of a regular vibration of the platform on which he stands.”

Now either machine minding is such an exhausting occupation that the worn-out worker falls to sleep from exhaustion, in which case that worker can be little more than a work-beast, like the little children of the early factory times in England in the last century, or is so dull and monotonous, and demands such little mental energy, that the workers are driven to sleep by it. They can have it which way they like, but surely, fellow worker, you would rather not have it either way ?

The other article to which I referred was written by Harold Cox in the Sunday Times (June 3rd, 1928). There are some interesting extracts from it :

“That there is an increasing tendency among leaders of industry to organise trade combinations is a matter of common knowledge. The movement takes two forms : in some cases firms which still maintain their separate identities are linked together in a federation or cartel, for purposes of common defence and common advantages; in other cases separate firms are completely amalgamated in a single unit or “combine.” Both forms of this modern industrial movement are far advanced in the United States and Germany. . . . Nor is this modern industrial movement confined to national areas. Already several international combinations have been established, and there are prospects of the creation of more in the near future. . . .

With the aid of modern machinery we can now produce goods at a pace that was hardly dreamt of a hundred years ago, and the result is that in many cases the power of production has overtaken the world’s capacity for consumption. In the earlier years of the nineteenth century, and, indeed, during the greater part of that century, there seemed, so far at any rate, as British trade was concerned, to be an almost insatiable demand for the goods that machinery was able to produce. . . . To-day, except in the case of new industries created to meet a new world demand, such as the motor industry and the artificial silk industry, the need for additional factories in Great Britain has practically ceased. Our trouble now is to find work for many of the factories already in being.”

There is the position in a nutshell. Production has outstripped consumption, and yet the children line up outside the baker shops in the morning for bread; more is produced than can be consumed, and yet thousands are unable to obtain sufficient for their bare needs. Industry promises you more unemployment, and harder work when you get employment, and yet wealth is produced with an ease and abundance undreamt of a century ago ! Are you satisfied that the present organisation of society is satisfactory? Can you think of anything worth while that you are likely to lose (except poverty and insecurity!) by abolishing private property in the means of production and substitution for it the common ownership of these means of production?

You hear a great deal of “tariff walls” and the like; set your mind at rest, the international combines are reducing tariffs to a joke. Treat tariffs and their expounders with the humour they deserve, and concentrate your mind upon the removal of the shackles of wage slavery. It is Capitalism that is your enemy—abolish it.


(Socialist Standard, July 1928)

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