The Passing Show: The Optimists

The Optimists
How times change! For a dozen years after the war successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, exhorted the coalminers to sweat and strain and push up coal production at all costs. The National Coal Board regularly took advertising space in the papers to tell us all how much the miners were earning, and to insist that never in our lifetime could there be too much coal. The miners, they said, had an assured job for as long as they wanted. Unemployment, dismissals, the dole—they were all things of the past. The future could not have been rosier.
Occasionally lonely voices were heard to observe that there is no security under Capitalism: that Capitalist industry has its booms, but also its slumps: and that the strenuous drive to produce more coal might well lead only to a situation in which there was more coal than people could buy—which would mean the sack for many miners.
But the N.C.B. and all the great parties derided these fears. Much scorn was poured on the “pessimists,” who were “living in the past.” All these things, it was said, might have been true in Marx’s day, but now everything was different. The laws of Capitalist economics, of expansion and recession, had somehow ceased to operate, so we were told. Capitalism in the coalmines was transformed now that it was administered by a state board instead of by the private owners. Many a well-phrased sneer was launched at those who “hadn’t moved with the times,” who “sought to apply nineteenth-century theories to twentieth-century conditions,” and so on.

The Pay-off

And now, what happens? On December 3rd last the N.C.B. announced that it had too much coal, and that it was going to close thirty-six pits. Between twelve and thirteen thousand miners will be affected. Of these, there can be found no other jobs for four thousand: they will have to “leave the industry.” Many of these are in Scotland and Wales, where there is already a high degree of unemployment. Their chances of getting other jobs near their homes must be slight.
So much for the pledges made to the miners that their jobs were secure. So much for those who said that Capitalism in the nineteen-fifties was not at all the same thing as Capitalism in the nineteen-thirties.

Sound Economics

Of course, these sackings are not the fault of the Coal Board. It has too much coal—to sell. If every family had all the coal it needed to keep warm this winter, no doubt the stocks the Coal Board have been accumulating would disappear quickly enough. But the system of society under which we now suffer does not operate like that. Coal is not dug out primarily to burn: it is dug out to sell. If people can’t buy it, even though they may want it to put on their fires, then, in the language of the Capitalist economists, there is “too much coal.” And when the Coal Board cannot sell all the coal it produces, it simply closes down mines, and sacks miners. In this it does exactly the same as would the board of Tate and Lyle’s, or the Imperial Chemical Industries, or any other private concern, in the same circumstances. Coal is a Capitalist industry just as much as sugar or chemicals.

Dr. Attlee’s Remedy
Back in the brave days of 1945, the Labourites used to claim that nationalisation was Socialism. Some of the simpler ones still do. But even these ardent souls must have been given a chill by the latest news. As for the Labour Party spokesman in the Commons discussion on the announcement, Mr. Robens, he had no explanation of how an industry now dismissing four thousand men could be called “Socialist” (The Times, 4th December, 1958). True, he pointed out that the losses on imported coal had been unfairly thrust by the Government upon the Coal Board, although strictly speaking they were nothing to do with the Board at all: and that apart from this fiddling with the accounts, the Coal Board had made a surplus of forty million pounds in its ten years of operation. This argument, while quite justified, only goes to show that the coal industry is now a profitable state Capitalist concern.

The moral of this story is that Capitalism doesn’t change merely because it is twenty years older.

On December 4th there were two illuminating items side by side in the Manchester Guardian. The first was about the recent strike of the Argentine railwaymen for better pay. The Argentine Government’s answer to this was to mobilise the railwaymen under military law, and court-martial two hundred of the strikers for “indiscipline.” The strikers were sent to jail for terms from five days to fifteen months.

Workers who go on strike are merely acting on the fundamental assumptions upon which our society is based. Everyone has something to sell, and everyone tries to sell it for the highest price obtainable. The great majority, the workers, have nothing to sell but their labour-power. The small minority, the Capitalists, sell the goods and services the workers produce for them. When a chain of baker’s shops put up the price of bread from sevenpence a loaf to eightpence, all that has happened is that the baking firm has gone on strike as regards the sale of loaves at sevenpence, and is now demanding eightpence before it will sell. When workers demand a rise in pay from seven pounds to eight pounds a week, they are not refusing to work, for that would mean greater privation: they are simply putting up the price of a week’s labour-power from seven pounds to eight pounds. They are just as much available at the new price of eight pounds a week as loaves are at the new price of eightpence.

It all depends who does it
What the Argentine Government has done, by jailing those workers who refuse to work for the old price, is to introduce a policy of forced labour at a forced wage. The most the railwaymen can be guilty of is a breach of contract: and under the Capitalist’s own law this is only a civil wrong, for which a defendant can be made to pay damages, but not sent to prison. But apparently the Argentine ruling class doesn’t consider itself bound by pre-existing law when profits are at stake.

When evidence comes through of forced labour in the Soviet Union, how horrified are the rulers of Britain and America! What denunciations are made of the Russian tyranny! But not a word has yet been said of the forced labour in the Argentine. The reason is not hard to find. The Argentine Government, with all the other South American rulers, is the close ally of what is called “the free world.” In the column next to the news about the Argentine railway strike, the Manchester Guardian remarked (about the United Nations debate on Cyprus):—

  “At this point the mute allies of Britain thought wistfully of the Latin Americans: the only reinforcements always available to the Anglo-Americans in a jam, but only to be recruited at the bidding of the United States, who had sought and cherished a back seat in the grandstand. Mr. Lodge was faced with the unpleasant alternative of risking the victory of the Indian resolution or mobilising the Latin Americans behind an opposing resolution, and so enraging the Greeks.”

There we have it. The Latin Americans, including the Argentines, can always be relied on to back the American Government in world affairs. No wonder the American and British rulers have nothing to say about the denial of human rights in Argentina. But what a commentary it makes on the claim of the British and American Capitalists to be fighting for freedom and democracy, when they openly accept the support of a country where the ruling class introduces forced labour to safeguard its profits.

Alwyn Edgar