Industry and the Banks: Wicked Bankers and Kind Captains of Industry

Owing to high interest rates in New York and Berlin, and the consequent transfers of balances from London to those centres, the Bank-rate on September 26th, was increased from 5½ per cent. to 6½ per cent. At once the Press and the platform became a fierce battle-ground between those who charged the wicked bankers with “throttling industry,” and the apologists who explained that this process, although painful, was in the best interests of the patient. The Times assured its readers on September 14th, when a rise was already being proposed, that failure to take this step would result in an increase in the cost of living. Lord Melchett (formerly Sir Alfred Mond) wrote in the Sunday Express on September 29th, under the title “Unemployed—by Order of the Bank,” pointing out that if the Times policy were carried out, industrial activity would be slowed down and unemployment would grow. What Lord Melchett said he wanted was that—

some of the hundreds of thousands of workers to-day walking the streets, idle, searching for employment, should be placed into productive industry, to increase the national wealth.

Mr. Philip Gee, speaking for the coal-owners, said (Daily News, 27th September) :—

This rise is very unfortunate, coming at the present time, when many collieries are faced with the necessity of borrowing money for development, rationalisation, and mechanisation, and when many collieries already have large overdrafts at the bank. It will restrict development.

Seventeen manufacturers’ associations and sixty individual company directors combined to send a memorandum to the Government demanding a fundamental change in financial policy “if Great Britain is to retain her industrial importance” (Daily Express, October 8th). They protested that an increase of 1 per cent. in the rate of interest meant an additional burden of £25 million. Among the signatories were the Master Cotton Spinners’ Associations, the British Wool Federation, and the National Union of Manufacturers.

Mr. E. G. Pretyman, President of the Land Union, added the protests of the farmers and landowners. He told the Daily Herald (October 8th) that “nearly all farmers and most landowners had bank overdrafts, and the usurious interest of 7½ per cent. had to be paid now on these overdrafts.”

Added to the clamour were the voices of the trade union officials, the Daily Herald, and the Independent Labour Party, all demanding prompt and drastic action against the villains of this piece—the financiers.

On the trade union side the oratorical laurels belong to Mr. Ben Tillett. He told an audience of trade unionists at Bristol on September 29th that “our financiers and usurers had contrived to put millions of the world’s population under their heel.” . . . “Our National Debt was an octopus, bleeding white the British nation.” “The banks were squeezing the life-blood out of British industry.” (See Daily Herald, September 30th.)

According to the Manchester Guardian’s report of the same speech, Mr. Tillett denounced these wicked men as “dragons of usury” exhibiting the “sardonic malignity of the sordid dogs in the mangers of British commerce, banking and usury.”

A week later he became really angry. Then he said (Times, 4th October) :—-

If Mr. Montagu Norman were tried by Court-Martial he would be shot for raising the bank rate to 6½%. He should thank God that we were more merciful. He (Mr. Tillett) would let him off with a caution—and sack him.

Mr. James Maxton, M.P. and Chairman of the I.L.P., also had something to contribute to the discussion. He recalled

the period of the war when banks and financiers had manipulated credit and gold to enrich themselves, heedless of the consequences to the workers. (Daily Herald, September 30.)

In face of this show of heat it is not surprising that many workers who know little of the ways of the banks should have concluded that here was a matter of very great concern to them. Let us then consider the whole question, and start at the beginning by asking ourselves what are the banks and what is industry.

The banks are companies, owned by their shareholders, which receive the money of people who have a surplus, pay them interest on it, and lend it out to industrial and commercial concerns which are willing to pay a higher rate of interest for the use of the money than the banks pay to the depositors. Industry, the mines, the railways, the cotton factories, etc., also consists of companies owned by private individuals or bodies of shareholders. In both cases the shareholders put their money into these concerns with a view to making a profit. The bank depositors, whose money is lent out by the banks, are in effect investing it in industry in a roundabout way. The chief difference is that the person who deposits money in a bank can, at any time or at short notice, resume possession of the amount which he originally deposited, whereas the shareholders in a company may possibly find it difficult to sell his shares at a given moment except at some loss. On the other hand, the latter stands the chance of selling his shares at a profit and of re­ ceiving a much larger return than the banks find it necessary to pay their depositors. In brief, some investors desire a rela­ tively higher degree of security and want to have their money easily accessible and therefore allow all or part of it to remain in the possession of a bank.

What it is important to notice is that the people who own and control industry and the people who own the money which the banks lend to the controllers of industry are similar in the important respect that they are in the main propertied people, members of the capitalist class, able, because of their ownership, to live without working. On the other hand, the people who do the work of industry and of the banks, from the coal miner and the bank clerk to the mine manager and bank manager, are in the great majority of cases members of the working class. They do not own sufficient property to be able to live without working and must therefore sell their power to labour to the property owners or their agents. The amount they get as wages or salary is roughly speaking the amount which is sufficient to keep them alive and efficient and to enable them to bring up their families. What that amount is will vary, of course, from place to place and from one occupation to another, and will necessarily change according as prices rise or fall. It also involves a number of other factors. It is, however, prevented from rising much above the actual cost of living by the constant pressure of the unemployed who are able and willing to take the place of the employed man.

Having purchased the mental and physical powers of the workers for a day, a week, or a month, the employers then set them to work producing articles for sale. In general the value of the articles, after making all necessary deductions for cost of materials, wear and tear of machinery and other incidental expenses, is far above the amount paid in wages and salaries. It is out of that difference, that surplus, that the whole capitalist class derives its income.

It is customary, in this country at least, for the capitalist who invests his money in a factory or a mine or other business to have to rent the land from a landlord. It is also usual for him to depend to some extent on loans from a bank or loans from other investors who are prepared to lend in the form of debentures at a fixed rate of interest. The industrial capitalist is com­ pelled, therefore, to hand over some share of the surplus to other capitalists who have invested in land or who lend money direct or through a bank. Naturally these three types of capitalist are continually trying to increase their respective shares at the expense of the others. If rents go up, one or both of the other two parties has to suffer. If interest rates go up the industrial capi­ talist or the landlord has to foot the bill.

The most obvious way in which these groups try to gain an advantage is by controlling or influencing the Government. The political party in power looks after the interests of its friends. The group whose friends are not in power just as naturally tries to force the ruling faction to make concessions, the final deciding factor being the possibility of gaining the support of the electorate. It would, of course, be fatal for the capitalists in an industry to ask the electors to support the introduction of a protective tariff, or a reduction of a tax on the article in which they were interested, and to put forward their real reason, i.e., that they were merely trying to get larger profits. What they do is to try to persuade the voters that these measures are desirable “for the good of the country,” or that they will “make work for the unemployed” or will “encourage trade.” Any excuse serves so long as a sufficient number of voters can be induced to believe it. As a matter of course other sections of the capitalist class will resist these demands because they know that if any section gets an advantage one or other of the various sections of the capitalist class will have to pay for it, directly or indirectly, through increased taxation or through higher prices leading to higher wages, or in some other way. This is the great game of politics as played by the capitalist parties.

An excellent illustration was seen in the Derating Act passed by the last Government. Lord Melchett stated at the 1929 annual meeting of the Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. that the company gained £200,000 a year relief from rates through that piece of legislation passed by the political friends of a group of industrial capitalists. (See report in The Times, 19th April, 1929.) Mr. Lloyd George, it may be remarked, estimated the figure at no less than £600,000, but Lord Melchett denied its accuracy.

For a like reason we have the industrialist capitalists demanding that the present Government take steps to compel the money-lending capitalists (the banks and their depositors) to lower the rate of interest. And it explains why industrialist capitalists like Lord Melchett’s fellow director, Mr. Szarvasy, and Sir J. P. Benn, the evangelist of “individualism,” are in favour of the nationalisation of the coal royalties, and the nationalisation of land respectively. (See Manchester Guardian, 18th September, 1928, and Times, 24th July, 1925.) In each case we see the industrial capitalist seeking to use political power for the purpose of helping himself at the expense of the capitalist who has put his money into coal-bearing or agricultural or building land.

In the present controversy the issues are just as plain. Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. and other branches of industry are busy introducing new and expensive plant and machinery in order to meet intensifying competition from their foreign rivals. This process is a long one (Lord Melchett at the meeting referred to above stated that in some branches of his concerns it will take two years), and while it goes on high rates of interest have to be paid on very large sums of money borrowed from the banks or raised in the form of debentures. That is what all the fuss is about. As Sir E. W. Fetter, of Fetters Ltd., explained in a letter to The Times (9th October), these in­ creased charges “cannot be passed on to the customer” (foreign competition will prevent that) and “must be paid out of the manufacturer’s profits.”

That is why Lord Melchett is so solicitous about the troubles of the unemployed; and why the Times is so deeply concerned lest your cost of living be raised. Lord Melchett is trying to get working class voters to back him up in a policy which will help him against the money-lending capitalists ; and the Times, no more disinterested than he, tries to secure, by its reference to the cost of living, your support for a policy which is in the interests of the bankers, and against that of the industrial capitalists.

The whole question is one of the conflicting interests of sections of the capitalist class. It does not affect the workers’ interests. They are robbed by the whole capitalist class, and the way in which the capitalists divide the spoils between themselves makes no difference whatever to the workers. When Lord Melchett talks about his desire to see the unemployed placed in productive industry “to increase the national wealth,” and when Mr. Tillett laments that the bankers are upsetting “even the wonderful miracle of the mechanisation of industry (Manchester Guardian, September 30th), they are both misrepresenting the real line of industrial develop­ ment. Lord Melchett and his associates are concerned primarily not with making work or with increasing the national wealth, but with securing the maximum profit. Lord Melchett is a keen supporter of what is called rationalisation, and he has himself defined it, not as a policy of increasing production, but as

the adjustment of production to consumption in any commodity. Basically it is simply the rational control of industry to ensure that, as far as possible, you do not produce more than your market can absorb. (Daily Telegraph, Jan. 14th, 1929.)

Mr. Tillett’s “miracle of the mechanisation of industry” is the process which every worker knows and fears, the creation of more unemployment through the introduction of labour-saving machinery. Lord Melchett needs loans because his concerns are carrying out a costly reorganisation scheme to secure greater productivity per head of his workers; not more production, but cheaper production.

There is another factor which complicates this question of industry and the banks, but again a factor which does not concern the workers. The banks, being called upon to lend larger and larger sums of money to industrial and commercial concerns, are able more and more to insist that they or their nominees shall be given some share in the control of the borrowing companies. This they do partly to influence policy in order to safeguard their interests as lenders and to secure a greater share in the earnings of the company, and partly to use the connection as a means of securing new banking business at the expense of competing banks. But it is plain enough that this change in control, while naturally resented by the industrial capitalists, does not lead to any change in the position of the workers either for better or for worse. It will also be noticed that this struggle has no direct connection with the question of a high or low bank rate.

As against the policy of Mr. Tillett and Mr. Maxton and their respective parties which leads the workers to throw themselves into the fray on the side of the industrial capitalists, the Socialist Party points out that the whole question is of no concern except to the capitalists themselves. The Labour Research Department (Monthly Circular, July) estimates the 1928 profit of Lord Melchett’s “Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd.” as equal to £113 per head of the workers employed. But what docs it matter to us whether that profit, totalling £6 million, goes wholly to the shareholders, or partly to the bank depositors ? What does it matter to the workers whether their lives are controlled by Lord Melchett, “captain of industry,” or some new master, a “king of finance”?

When Mr. Maxton singles out the bankers as having enriched themselves during the war “heedless of the consequences to the workers” he forgets the cotton mill owners, the shipping owners, the coal-owners, the iron and steel interests, and all the other commercial and industrial capitalists who were striving with greater or less success to do the same. That is the object of all capitalists both during war and peace.

And who should know this better than Mr. Tillett? In 1929 he wants to shoot Mr. Montague Norman—banker. Many years ago he earned great hatred and great popularity by calling upon God to strike dead Lord Devonport, starver of dockers. Yet Lord Devonport was no banker, but head of a great trading firm.


(Socialist Standard, November 1929)

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