Who wants an Incomes Policy?
Anyone who reads newspapers, listens to radio or looks in on TV, must be aware that there is supposed to be a thing called incomes policy and that it is most important. It is not, in the main, spoken of as something anyone actually knows or has, but as something we ought to have, and all good citizens are looking for. Some unofficial seekers claim to have found it. The Prime Minister, with more modesty or more caution, is setting up the National Incomes Commission to operate the as yet undefined policy, though the TUC has, in advance, rejected the Commission as “both irrelevant to the nation’s needs and unworkable in practice.”
Mr. Macmillan, addressing a Conservative rally at Luton Hoo towards the en of June, had told them about “ two great policies” he has for putting this country on the right road. The first is joining the Common Market. The second, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph on June 24th, “was to find further means, with the general consent of the people, to implement on a continuing basis an incomes policy based on fairness and common sense.” If we find such a policy, said Mr. Macmillan, and successfully applied it, we would “be able to keep our four great objectives, full employment, steady prices, a strong pound and steady growth.”
With the promise of fairness and common sense as its foundation, and so many nice things flowing from it, how could anyone not accept Mr. Macmillan’s N.I.C.? But the truth is that when the TUC slashed the Commission on the ground that it is the Government’s device for restricting wages, they were echoing the thoughts most workers have when their own wage claims are being met with arguments about “putting the national interest first.” They think, with good reason, that it is to help profit.
Yet, despite its refusal to participate in NIC, the TUC (and the Labour Party) agrees that in principle there must be an incomes policy: only Socialists take another view.
People and unions and political parties have been arguing about an incomes policy and trying to frame one that would satisfy everybody, for a century and more. The ideas of the Unions have been rather restricted, going no deeper, for most members of each Union, than the belief that they at least ought to have higher wages even if the claims of the rest of the workers were a bit thin. The Unions found one slogan they could all agree upon: “A Fair Day’s Work for a Fair Day’s Pay.” They and Mr. Macmillan both h mean by fair—such a comfortable word and so completely lacking in any meaning substantial enough to be got hold of. How can there be “fairness” between wages to workers who produce all wealth, and property incomes to non-workers?
Others, who thought a little more deeply about the question of incomes, discovered that it is impossible to justify the incomes we see being paid and received, on grounds of logic, humanity, or the moral tenets of “just reward” that are supposed to govern the world of work and which in fact have no influence whatever. So, a number of people totally rejected inequality of income and decided that there should be universal equality. Among these people may be named the late G. B. Shaw and the Labour Prime Minister, Lord Attlee, who were writing on these lines thirty years ago. What they meant, and what the leaders of the Russian Communist Party meant when they promised equality in Russia in 1918, was that there should be only one rate of income all-round, with no, or at most, only small variations. There would in fact be one standard of living for everybody. Socialists were not surprised that both in this country under Labour Government and in Russia under the Communist Party, equality never happened. It never had the slightest chance of happening, for the good and sufficient reason that you cannot retain capitalism yet hope to impose on it an abstract conception of equality which was quite alien to it.
In the very early days of British capitalism there were individuals, Jeremy Bentham was one, who thought that that society was moving towards equalitarianism under its own momentum. We have seen how wrong they were. Inequality of accumulated wealth and property-income grew apace while Bentham was expecting the reverse, and once a high degree of inequality was reached it has remained, not at all affected by reforms supposed to end or at least to mitigate it. And with the growth of bigger and bigger companies and combines inequality has strengthened its hold, so much so that demands for equality are hardly heard any more.
But Socialists are still aiming at Socialism; which does not mean equal incomes, but the introduction of the only possible distribution principle for a Socialist social system—” From each according to his ability; to each according to his need,” and this, of course, involves the end of wages and salaries as well as the end of rent, interest and profit. As Marx told trade unionists back in the 19th century, they should scrap their slogan, “A Fair Day’s Work for a Fair Day’s Pay,” and put in its place the abolition of the wages system.
(Socialist Standard, September 1962)