Letter: “The Great God Waste”
We have received a letter from Mr. J. L. Hodgson criticising the review of his book that appeared in our July issue. Mr. Hodgson’s letter is given below, followed by our comments : —
July 7th, 1934.
In the review of my book, “The Great God Waste,” which appears in your current issue, your reviewer takes me to task for not doing things which I did not set out to do (such as evaluating precisely the productive power of modern industry), and accuses me of making statements which I did not make (such as that there is an absolute deficiency of purchasing power; that there was no poverty problem before 1844; that because a boot-maker, working with a machine, can turn out ten times as many boots as was possible by hand, the productivity of the boot-making industry as a whole has been multiplied by ten; that “specialists” and “experts” are better fitted than other people to handle the poverty problem; and so on.
In so doing he completely misses the main argument of those portions of my book with which he more especially attempts to deal. This argument is that in a society which is mainly controlled by maintaining a condition of impoverishment, vast Communal Wastes must necessarily fritter away most of the Industrial Savings effected by the engineer and his co-workers.
Among what I have called the Communal Wastes I instance such things as mass unemployment, strikes, resentment and lack of zeal on the part of the workers; the various obstructive activities of vested interests; our curious habit of digging up gold at great expense and then reburying it as quickly as possible in bank vaults; most advertising activities; most of the activities of middlemen; the sabotage of lands, raw materials and manufactured goods in order to restrict production and maintain prices; at least half of our foreign export of goods, for which—owing to the default of our debtors, and to other causes—we are never repaid in goods; the refusal to accept reparations in kind; most ticket-collecting, taxation and book-keeping activities; most wars and the preparation for wars; unnecessarily inadequate bodily and mental health; starved education; many forms of unnecessarily complex or ostentatious living, and so on.
If your readers or your reviewer will attempt even roughly to evaluate such Communal Wastes as I have indicated, they will begin to realise from a new angle the immense waste of actual or potential productivity of really desirable things.
Whether this waste is two or ten times the productivity that we are actually permitted to enjoy is of little moment beside the more vital problem of considering how we may reorganise society so that men may have economic and mental freedom, and how they may enjoy the abundance which we engineers, and those who work with us, are so surely able to create.
I suspect that your reviewers virulent objection to my book—he calls it a thoroughly bad book— is because he resents the idea that the potential productivity of modern industry and technique is more than adequate to raise the standard of living of all to a satisfactory level without necessarily reducing the standards of those who have already achieved high levels.
His amusing suggestion that some fifty people as effective as I claim to be would explain the whole of the unemployment problem in this country does not take into account the re-absorption of many of the unemployed in communally wasteful activities. For instance, during the past few months cheap goods from abroad have been prevented from coming in. There has also been an increase in the manufacture of war materials, and a recrudescence of shipbuilding (in spite of the fact that we have a vast tonnage laid up), and so on.
John L. Hodgson.
P.S.—I enclose a Broadcast Talk, which may further infuriate your reviewer.
Mr. Hodgson states that the review of his book, published in the July Socialist Standard, took him to task for not “evaluating precisely the productive power of modern industry.” This statement is absolutely erroneous. What the review charged against Mr. Hodgson was not that he failed to evaluate productivity precisely, but that he has not the remotest idea of the level productivity has reached, or of the rate at which it increases, and that his so-called evidences are utterly irrelevant, proving nothing one way or the other.
We say, for example, that Mr. Hodgson’s statement, that “wealth and amenities do not increase one-tenth as fast as they would do if the hidden leaks could be discovered and stopped” (p. 14), and his further statement that “ the effect of the leaks . . . more than doubled” during a recent period of a few months (ibid.) are grossly untrue, and are, moreover, utterly unsupported by a tittle of real evidence in his book. They are just childish guesses, clearly indicating that the author is not competent to write on the subject at all.
It is obvious, too, that he has not grasped the fact that the question of what is to be regarded as waste cannot be separated from the form of the particular social system in relation to which the problem is being considered. The necessities of one social system become redundant in a different one.
Mr. Hodgson’s superficiality can be seen from a passage in his present letter, where he describes as forms of “communal waste” the export of goods for which other goods are not received in exchange, and also the refusal to accept reparations in kind. These two passages gloss over the fact that goods (whether export goods or reparations) do not belong to society as a whole; and the world is not made poorer or richer by the ability of the capitalists in one country to get goods for nothing from the capitalists in another country.
Dealing with the question of the deficiency or otherwise of purchasing power, Mr. Hodgson says, in his present letter, that he did not allege an absolute deficiency of purchasing power. It is true that he nowhere states so in those words, but that he has (or had) that idea can reasonably be assumed from his proposal (p. 49) that “Purchasing Power must be distributed as a gift,” and his approving reference on page 46 to Major Douglas, whose whole conception is based on the fallacious assumption of an absolute deficiency of purchasing power. However, if Mr. Hodgson holds no such view, then his proposal to distribute purchasing power as a gift must mean taking it away from those who have it and giving it to those who lack it; in other words, the useless and dangerous panacea of the Labour Party and other believers in “redistributing wealth,” while retaining capitalism, that is, while retaining the system whose very basis is monopoly by the few and propertylessness for the many.
Mr. Hodgson denies saying that there was no poverty problem before 1844. Then may we ask what the following statement means?
“ . . . Credit Power—the right to grant or withhold the permission and encouragement to do and to use things—must be widely diffused throughout the community, as it was in the days of the banks of private issue ” (p. 45). (Our italics.)
(Elsewhere (p. 29) Mr. Hodgson has given as the date when the banks of private issue were abolished, the year 1844.)
The reference to boot-making in our review consisted of the criticism that Mr. Hodgson’s statements tell us nothing whatever about increasing productivity. It will be observed that Mr. Hodgson, in his letter, carefully avoids dealing with this point. Here is another of his statements. We challenge him to tell us what (if anything) it means. “The modern Industrial Efficiencies are exemplified . . . by brickmaking plants, which enable one man to produce many thousands of bricks a day.”
Mr. Hodgson denies that he considers “specialists” and “experts” better fitted than other people to handle the poverty problem. What, then, does he mean by his own description of his Chapter VI, worded as follows (see footnote on p. 4):—
“This chapter suggests that the highly industrialised countries, with their complex organisations, can only change over to the New Order when the specialists and experts, whose skill and knowledge make these complex organisations possible, see the necessity for the change.”
As regards Mr. Hodgson’s general observations on waste, these (to the extent that they are valid) have always been familiar to Socialists, and are, for example, dealt with in our pamphlet, “Socialism.”
Mr. Hodgson blandly assures us that, “Whether this waste is two or ten times the productivity that we are actually permitted to enjoy is of little moment beside the more vital problem of conceding how we may reorganise society so that men may have economic and mental freedom . . . . etc.”
With regard to the first point, it is of vital importance that the Socialist case should be based upon truth, arrived at by the use of scientific methods. It cannot be built up on the kind of unscientific guesses in which Mr. Hodgson indulges.
With regard to the second part, it is impossible to separate the solution from the true or false conceptions by means of which it is reached. Because Mr. Hodgson’s “facts” are almost wholly false, he arrives at the fantastic “solution” which consists of leaving almost untouched the cause of the poverty problem (viz., the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production and distribution) and concentrating on distributing purchasing power as a gift, making the bankers the servants of “planning bodies,” and similar useless measures. Socialists, because their case has a firm foundation, propound the only solution; which is to make the means of production and distribution the common property of society as a whole, to be used by society to produce goods for the use of the members of society.
We do not propose to follow Mr. Hodgson in the guesses by which he attempts to explain the dislikes which he (Mr. Hodgson) believes he can discern in the mind of the reviewer. It is this habit of guessing at supposed facts and then constructing fantastic explanations of them of which we complain in Mr. Hodgson’s book.