A Question of Incentives

We are often told that a society operating on the socialist principle of — from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs — must fail. All the incentives that bring out the best in mankind are missing. Something called a reward in the form of cash payment is needed to overcome a natural reluctance to get down to a bit of hard work. The argument goes on that this is especially so where unpleasant working conditions are involved. How could large cities get people to man the essential services without monetary reward? So unpleasant are tasks such as sewage disposal, rubbish collecting and pest control we are told, that only the fear of losing their affluence keeps people at those jobs. Under Socialism, without wages to keep us working, we would laze our time away and end up engulfed by our own dirt. Let us see what this argument in defence of capitalism is worth.

How well does the “pot of gold” technique cope with routine tasks of keeping such vital services going? At the time of writing the people doing these jobs are exerting themselves to get more of that ‘reward’. Are they doing it by working harder? Not likely, experience has taught them that less work helps them in this respect. The strike and go-slow by virtue of the inconvenience they cause employers are weapons in the workers’ quest for more wages and better working conditions. It must be noted that employers can and do use the no-work technique to bring pressure to bear on their employees; that is the lock-out. The society of wage labour and capital is one of conflict and antagonism. On the one hand the workers must if they are to defend their interests act anti-socially. On the other, employers must resist and be no less anti-social. As in most strikes dire warnings are issued. This time they are not about “the nation’s trade” but about the danger to “public health” due to pollution from untreated sewage getting into rivers and a plague of rats thriving on uncollected garbage.

The Daily Telegraph (8 October) quotes Conservative Minister Peter Walker speaking on the environment at his party’s conference.

  Referring to the strike of local government employees, he said no responsible authority could go beyond the offer the men had rejected. As a result of the men’s action rivers had been polluted and in some cases, if the pollution continued it might take years to put right.

Here the threat of pollution is being used as a weapon in the struggle. What an equation, the workers demand 55s a week pay- rise; the employers (responsible authority) offers 36s a week and over the difference of a miserly 19s, years of river pollution could result. As Walker well knows pollution is rapidly becoming a major problem for capitalism. Not because of strikes but due to the need to keep costs down; industrial and domestic waste including sewage is dumped as cheaply as possible and pollution follows. The quarrel over pay claims is bound up with this cheese-paring procedure. Far from being well paid it is recognised that these jobs are amongst the poorest. So much for rewards..

When it comes to taking adequate precautions to safeguard the public wellbeing in other ways we find that capitalism is just as niggardly. When dustmen strike we are warned of plagues of rats. In spite of the warning, those who pay the wages don’t seem to be in much hurry to settle the dispute. However it was admitted in a recent survey in the Evening Standard (8 October) that other factors are involved. One is demolition work. Another is economy measures. The G.L.C. borough of Islington has seven council rodent operatives whereas there had previously been twelve for the same area. The Evening Standard comments “no wonder they can’t cope. (Last year the seven operatives made 3.500 visits in the borough)”.

If capitalism runs its services for preventing disease on a shoe string, how does it do when curing the same? The same London evening paper ran a story that started:

  A casualty patient can wait up to three hours to see a doctor in most inner London hospitals. The cause : A severe shortage of doctors and nurses.

Need we go on? If there is one thing about capitalism it is that it provides plenty of evidence to expose the fallacious arguments about incentives and efficiency. The new government have sworn that things won’t change. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer put it:

   Employers both in the public and the private sectors must be prepared to resist unreasonable claims even if it means standing up to strikes. (Evening News, 9 October)

We wonder what he made of the report in the Times (9 Sept.) of a survey of directors’ salaries that showed “an increase of 91 per cent between 1968 and 1969 in the remuneration of part-time chairmen”.

What is the answer then? This strike has shown the potential. A call was made for volunteers to keep the sewage works going. Not with the lure of financial gain but on the basis of helping out in an emergency. That many people offered their help no doubt strengthened the employers’ bargaining position. This is typical of capitalism that it perverts people’s finer feelings, in this case by having them as potential strike breakers. At present the working class accept capitalism and are easily divided against their fellow workers. Once they understand their class position and how they are exploited through the wages system. they will unite for the political task of establishing Socialism. Socialism must operate on a basis of voluntary co-operation. Once the question of cash payment no longer intervenes, that of removing drudgery from work must dominate. It will only be in a free society where production is solely for use that human welfare will come first.

Joe Carter

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