1960s >> 1969 >> no-780-august-1969

Plus Ca Change . . . Aristocracy, old and new

The French have a saying which, roughly translated, reads: “The more it changes, the more it remains the same thing”. This is a very apt description of one aspect of capitalist society. It is constantly changing. Lots of things are very different from what they were even a decade ago, while if a worker of a century ago could come back to life (we’re not saying he would want to, of course!) he would, at first at any rate, hardly recognise the dear old system. However, it would not be long before he realised that it really had remained the same thing: society was still divided into two classes and the minority that owned still lived on the proceeds of the exploitation of the majority that did not own. And although he would marvel at the fantastic progress over the last century (after all, when he died only that comparatively short while ago, he knew nothing of cars of planes or nuclear energy or even old-fashioned electricity), he might utter a sardonic comment or two before returning to the peace of the cemetery when he realised that the average worker still left behind him, when he kicked off, more or less the same as he did. Just his bones.

Nevertheless it is sometimes interesting to notice some of the changes which do take place within the system, while not affecting in the slightest its fundamental nature as a system of exploitation. One such change is in the relative positions of different groups of workers in the social scale. Before the war, the upper crust of the working class was generally thought to consist of such people as policemen, teachers, bank clerks and so on. (So much so, that if you met a bank clerk at the tennis club, the odds were that he would indignantly deny he was a member of the working class at all. His white collar qualified him for membership of some vague entity he would call ‘middle class’. Nowadays, he would probably not quarrel with the term ‘white-collared workers’. Some progress, anyway.)

Today, however, when one reads glib phrases in the papers about the ‘aristocracy of labour’, they seldom mean this type of worker at all. In fact, it is a complaint among policemen etc. that whereas before the war they were looked up to as the lucky ones because they had fairly secure jobs while the spectre of unemployment was always hovering around most groups of workers, nowadays they have fallen a rung or two on the ladder of jostling wage-slaves. Unemployment ‘only’ affects a couple of million people (including families) at present so that there is no longer a premium on security. Only the actual size of the pay packet counts now and in that sense these groups are not among the aristocrats. Who are the new aristocrats then? Well, it seems dockers are (among others of course). It seems they get the vast sum of about 30 quid a week and while there are still groups of workers, such as agricultural workers, who average less than half that princely figure, the dockers really are rich beyond the dreams of avarice. (It’s true that even 30 quid is only about five or six in pre-war money but let’s not quibble over details.

‘Love on the Dole’

Now, I am a trusting sort of chap and would never think of doubting government figures about that 30 quid. Indeed, not all government figures are automatically false (only most of them), One recalls, for example, that Marx went out of his way to praise certain government factory inspectors whose reports he used in connection with his researches. And it happens that, having lived most of my life in an inland part of the country, I doubt if I have stumbled across many dockers. I have merely read about them as being those difficult chaps who are not satisfied with their good fortune but who on the contrary persist in holding the country to ransom and going on strike. And it seems they they don’t even give a damn about ‘our’ balance of payment problem (which worries the rest of the working class so much) when they refuse to load the ships with those precious exports.

But a few weeks ago, I found myself early one morning in the heart of London’s dockland and went into a dockers’ ‘caff’ for breakfast. The little place was crowded with about 20 dockers and they looked anything but aristocratic. In fact, the whole scene looked very much like one from Love on the Dole, the famous pre-war play about the depression years in Lancashire. I have no wish to wring anyone’s withers and I am not  saying the dockers looked quite like the pictures from Biafra, but it was impossible to resist the thought that if these were the aristocrats the word has certainly changed its meaning. Or, to put it another way, if these were aristocrats, it was Gold help the peasants.

After I had risked my life by making some corny joke about how honoured I was to breakfast with the new aristocracy, one of the blokes pulled out a crumpled wage slip showing £12 and assured me that he had not averaged more than that in take-home pay for months. It seemed, too, that his mates were in more or less the same case. They were enjoying the benefits of ‘decasualisation’. One of the great reforms of recent years has meant that dockers (in return for certain concessions on their part, of course), were guaranteed a ‘fallback’ wage of around £12 a week in cases where they could not get work owing to the spasmodic nature of the industry. These aristocrats assured me that many of them had to live on that sort of money for many months. And how would I like to do that with the present cost of living in London? It seemed they could not even afford to throw bottles at their favourite Millwall football players because they couldn’t afford the beer. But while it is good to see that workers can still keep their sense of humour in such circumstances, it was difficult to see anything funny in the situation. Even less so a little later when I gave one of the men a lift to his dock a mile away. (When I ventured to remark en route that the general impression was that every docker had at least one car outside the door as a basic right under our ‘socialist’ government he merely gave me a withering ‘do me a favour’.) And there I saw how the dignity of man has been rescued under the new enlightened régime since decasualisation.

A group of dockers stood waiting patiently to see if any of them were going to be privileged to be exploited that day. If they were selected, then presumably they would be able to earn the rate of £30 a week we hear so much about. If not, then not. My friend explained to me that, except where there was a sudden spate of urgent work, there would always be a number who were not wanted each day. And, as one would expect, it was usually the same ones who would be chosen. Presumably the ones with the strongest arms. And the weakest tongues. Under any exploitative system, the exploiters will be bound to want workers who are docile and not those who kick against the pricks. It may well be that the old system was even worse. Which only proves that capitalism remains capitalism and the very act of one class buying the other’s labour power for the purpose of exploitation is degrading in itself, no matter whether the exploitation takes place under a (more or less) privately owned economy as in America, a so-called mixed economy like Britain’s, or a wholly state-owned one like that in Russia. Reforms are merely surface tinkering. It is the thing itself that must be abolished. The act of employment is in itself a degradation.

And just to complete the picture, by one of those little ironies with which life abounds, on the same morning I read in the papers that a real aristocrat, not a peasant or a docker, called Lord Melchett, was dissatisfied with his wage as chairman of the ‘socialised’ (ye gods!) steel industry which the Wilson government has bestowed on a grateful working class. It seems he was only getting around £20,000 a year and he needed another £5,000 to make it pay (figures very approximate; workers shouldn’t quibble about a few thousand here or there for their masters). And a little more irony here. How did his lordship become an aristocrat and a millionaire? Answer: he inherited both from his grandfather, Alfred Mond, the founder of ICI and in his day as fierce a fighter against trade unions as any capitalist could wish for. And now the successors of the union leaders of those days are happily rewarding Mond’s successor with the overlordship of their own ark of the covenant, the nationalised steel industry. It is as though they are trying to make it clear to the workers that the more it changes the more it remains the same. But when will the workers see?

One last item. My docker friend averred that the dockers’ position would be a lot worse were it not for their unofficial leader “good old Jackie Dash”. And of course it may well be true. The official union leaders have to try to play ball with the government, especially ‘our’Labour government. So a ‘communist’ like Dash can easily fish in troubled waters and gain credit for the Communist Party while so doing. I confess I did not even try to point out that if the Dashes had their way, then the rights of trade unions would go the same way as all democratic rights have gone in the CP’s fatherland, the Soviet Union. My friend was clearly in no mood for thinking about such things. He had enough problems on hand in trying to make ends meet that day. But until the dockers, along with the rest of the working class, aristocrats and the rest alike, start thinking about Socialism, they must be resigned to accepting all the miseries that capitalism has to offer.

L. E. Weidberg