A Labour of Sisyphus

The position of the working class in capitalist society is like that of Sisyphus, the mythological king of Corinth, who was condemned to constantly roll a huge stone to the top of a hill, and when he got it there, it always rolled back down again. His task was unceasing. To-day a minority of the population, the capitalist class, own the means and instruments for producing wealth. It necessarily follows that the vast majority of the population, the working class, must sell their labour power to this minority. In return they receive barely enough to keep them at the customary standard of living. If they were to receive more than was sufficient to keep them they would attempt to free themselves from that economic enslavement. The working class then must produce wealth for the capitalist class and receive in return just sufficient to bring them back to the factory to produce more wealth for their masters—a labour of Sisyphus.

The tremendous productive capacity of man’s labour power applied to modern industrial equipment together with the working class receiving only the necessities of life results in the great difference in income that exists between most members of capitalist class and most workers.

Reformers seeking to bring about a more equitable distribution of income put forward the plea for taxation. They maintain that by taxing the “rich” and establishing social services a large redistribution of income between the two classes could be effected. But Douglas Jay, now financial advisor to the Treasury, wrote in a book called “The Socialist Case,” “ some may argue that whatever the statistics of income and property show, a huge redistribution of income has been achieved in the last twenty-five years’ by means of national taxation and the social services. . . . It is consequently rather startling to find, on an impartial examination of the facts, that there has been scarcely any redistribution at all.” (p. 45). A few pages later he quotes the “Economist”:—

“The poorer classes of the community have therefore received back from the Exchequer approximately as much as their increased contribution. But there is very little sign that the system of taxation has effected any redistribution of income between rich and poor.”
(From Budget Supplement, 13th April, 1935, “The Socialist Case,” p. 50.)

Then Mr. Jay sums up with, “All authorities are agreed, however, that the great bulk of the social services are paid for by the working classes themselves, and that there has been only a very slight shift in their favour even since before the war.” (Page 51.)

And the Labour Party after all this experience still cling to the view that taxation and social services will bring to the workers a bigger slice of the “national cake.” After the first five years of Labour’s majority Government the responsible ministers claimed that taxation had reached its peak. The rich couldn’t be taxed any heavier. All the social services and reforms that had been on the Labour Party’s programme since its formation had been brought about. Yet Mr. James Griffiths, Colonial Secretary, said at the Labour Party Conference held in Margate:—

“The ownership of wealth has by no means been adequately shared out. Far too much of the nation’s wealth is owned by too few people.” (Daily Herald, 4/10/50.)

And Sydney Silverman at the same conference said,

“There are hundreds of thousands of our fellow workers whose wages make a bitter mockery of our claim that we are providing fair shares ” (Daily Herald, 4/10/50).

The other side of the picture is filled in by the Tribune, a Labour weekly:—

“Flicking over the pages of those same popular dailies . . . in this grim austerity Britain with its food shortages, housing shortages and labour shortages, the Government’s guiding philosophy of fair shares for all worked out in practice so that one could still have a house in town run by eight servants, a mansion in the country, a cottage by the sea, pocket money on a scale that comfortably covered details such as £3,000 a year on presents to a lady friend, another £1,000 a year thereabouts to the same lady and when after all you decided not to marry the woman, £20,000 to console her for the loss of a good thing.” (February 9th, 1951.)

The “Economist” in an article examined the report of the EGA. Mission “Facts about the British Economy” and stated, “since it is the lower income groups which benefit mainly from social expenditure the report says, ‘the social expenditures are chiefly financed by transfers of income within the lower income groups in accordance with variations in the patterns of consumption, family size, etc., rather than by transfer between different income level.’ ” (1/4/1950)1

Labour Party supporters and other apologists for capitalism maintain that even if the wealth the workers produce was divided equally among all members of the population, the increase in the average worker’s income would be insignificant.

But this isn’t the socialist’s argument. He recognises the potential productive capacity of mankind with modern machinery and realises how production is misused in present society. He takes into consideration the waste that goes on under capitalism. In a system based on private ownership where goods are produced for sale a vast number of workers are engaged in all the multiple tasks which arise from the sale of commodities and the realisation of the profits contained in them. The waste of productive effort in the cheap shoddy goods the majority of the community must buy.

In a society based upon common ownership wealth would be produced solely for use. All members of society would be occupied in producing things to satisfy their needs. This is possible with the present industrial machinery. All that is required is that the workers realise this and take steps to bring it about.


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