1920s >> 1929 >> no-303-november-1929

Editorial: Affluence in the U.S.A.

Comfort ! that’s what we want. And prosperity also, peace and prosperity. And what, about affluence? Ah! affluence; that is the stuff. Give us affluence, and all else follows. And to think that the problem has been solved. Yes, solved. The Daily Telegraph—a respectable and reputable organ, surely—has said so. As recently as September 18th, too. The dull business of reporting has its compensations after all, for what nominally could be duller than the reporting of luncheon and dinner speeches? There was the luncheon the other day, for instance, of the American Chamber of Commerce, at which a Mr. Thomas J. Watson let himself go. The Daily Telegraph thought it worth half a column, and headed it, attractively enough :

“MACHINE AS THE KEY TO

PROSPERITY.”

“AMERICAN WORKERS’

AFFLUENCE.”

“THE COMFORT AGE.”

Then followed the tale told by Mr. Thomas Watson :—

“Our experience of the application of machinery in industry,” he said, “is that it makes men dear and their products cheap.” From this he developed the usual bilge of the introduction of machinery ultimately reducing prices, resulting in wider distribution, and so on. Following which he gave a few figures. Now figures are not attractive things, and most people simply hear them or see them and rapidly glance at something more arresting. But these, in view of the headlines, are really interesting. In 1914, he said, the average annual wage was $590, roughly, we will say, £2 8s. per week.

” Adjusting the average wage for changes in the buying power of money, the worker in 1925 received at least 35 per cent. more than in 1914.”

And that is affluence. That is the Comfort Age. The equivalent of a 16s. rise on a weekly wage of £2 8s. is affluence. Save the mark !

True, Mr. Thompson did not permit himself the words comfort, prosperity and affluence. But one course we can recommend him. He should get into touch with Mr. G. De Vere, who has recently returned from a tour of U.S.A. He was telling us all about it over the radio about a fortnight ago, and just as the spectator sees most of the game, so the visitor apparently often sees more than the native. One of his first ports of call was a camp of the Y.W.C.A. in the Hudson Valley, where a delegate meeting of industrial women was in progress. Here he gathered that normal unemployment was very serious, although no reliable figures existed, and that the previous winter’s unemployment had been more serious than usual. Groups of women workers were beginning to push for better social conditions.

At a big factory near Boston he saw the conveyor-belt system in operation, and later he found few factories where the system was not in use. The workers stand or sit on either side of a moving belt, and each contributes some small operation to the article on the belt, until the finished product is delivered at the end. One can imagine joy-in-work reaching its apex in the belt system. Experiments were being conducted in changing the speed of the belt at different times of the day, and in what is called psychological study. Several foremen he interviewed regretted the early scrapping of men in the prime of life by the introduction of machinery, and also the rapid wearing out of those who were retained. In Mr. De Vere’s own words, “from twenty to twenty-five years was the average period of efficiency at fast work, after that it was generally a question of lighter or slower work, or the scrap-heap. In fast Detroit shops the period would be shorter.” Craftsmen do not earn so much as fast repetitive workers. Some Britishers he asked for a comparison of the conditions in the two countries, said the U.S.A. was a better country to earn money in, but not so good to live in. Social life as we understand it, does not exist in the U.S.A. factory towns.

In Hartford, Connecticut, he heard of some amazing increases in workers’ production by means of motion study with micro-motion pictures taken on the job. Trade-unionism generally is at a discount, the company-union being almost universal. Of course, in a land of comfort, prosperity and workers’ affluence, such social safety-valves as unemployment insurance and sickness provision would be anomalies. One worker he asked what men did when out-of-a-job, replied, “it is a case root hog or die.” Doubtless they would die rather than falsify the Telegraph’s headlines.

In a summing-up at the end of his address, De Vere said, “for the mass of the workers, I doubt whether the standard of life is much, if at all, higher than in England. Life is expensive, especially with regard to such things as rent and clothing.”

So there you have it. Either the Daily Telegraph uses its own private dictionary for everyday words, or else comfort, prosperity and affluence have aspects with which we are not acquainted. We cannot fit any of the three words to a life spent alongside a conveyor-belt, with every physical movement so studied as to eliminate every jerk of the muscles that does not spell profit. Big wages may mean anything, but it is of the nature of wages inevitably to be a reflex of social standards. Where big wages equal big rent, food and clothing bills, and little wages equal little dittoes, the words big and little cease to distinguish anything real. And when, in addition, the journey to the scrap-heap has become abbreviated to a twenty or twenty-five year period, one again wonders whether the editor of the Daily Telegraph contemplates changing his occupation for one of comfort, prosperity and affluence. Doubtless his fatal weakness for self-sacrifice will assert itself, and we shall find him denying himself the temptations of American affluence for many years yet.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, November 1929)

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