The reform fallacy
“It’s not the narrowness of the Bowl, but the smallness of their spoons.” — Marx, Value, Price and Profit.
Whilst it is frequently said that the concept of Socialism is quite easy—simple, in fact—the analysis of capitalism is by no means so. Any active Socialist propagandist will confirm that even after opponents confirm the desirability, or even necessity, of a new social order, their main argument for supporting reforms is the “practical” evidence.
Comparisons with the harrowing past, or the starving millions in the Third World, or the situation in Russia, are advanced as arguments for the great “progress” made by social reform meriting continued support. Yet it cannot be denied that the greater the “progress” the more acute the problems. And so we get the paradoxical result that the more reforms, the more sophisticated and elaborate the Welfare State— the more dissatisfaction and protest.
We are regularly reminded that ordinary workers now have colour television, motor cars, telephones, central-heated homes and more leisure. They have holidays abroad, medical treatment and pensions, all things which their forebears never enjoyed. Judged by superficial appearances, discontent should be allayed, strife assuaged, replaced by harmonious content. But it is not so!
To understand the reasons for this requires rather more than a fervent wish for a new society. It is a complicated problem based on relative proportions. If, in spite of the fact that the worker’s productivity has increased greatly by technical progress, the worker’s share or portion of the increased total wealth is relatively less than that of the capitalist, the worker is poorer compared with the values he now produces.
“Peter only establishes his own identity by comparing himself with Paul”, says Marx in Capital: i.e., his needs are what society can now provide. If the Company is able, by new machinery, to turn out twice as much wealth, the worker is producing the same values in half the time. If he goes on strike and gets a 25 per cent, increase in wages he is still 25 per cent, behind his employer, who has replaced a 50-50 division of necessary and surplus labour with a 75-25 one. “By the reduction of the necessary labour-time from 6 to 4 hours with a 12-hour working day, the rate of surplus-value has risen from 100 to 200 per cent., it had doubled.” (Kautsky, Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx.)
Marx gave some explanation of this relative position by the simple analogy of the happy man in his little house, contented enough until there arises
next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks into a hut . . . however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.
(Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital.)The more speedily the worker augments the wealth of the capitalist, the larger will be the crumbs which fall to him.
A recent TV interview with Kevin Keegan, the ex-Liverpool footballer, provided a similar analogy. He described his boyhood: dedicated to football, he was quite small compared with other boys. He said he was put in goal. With the small junior goalposts he could just about reach the top. But as he grew, so did the goalposts until they were so high that he was hopeless as a goalie!
The worker is the goalie and the posts are the system. However much the worker grows (his output) the goalposts always grow beyond his reach. “If, therefore, the income of the worker increases with the rapid growth of capital, there is at the same time a widening of the social chasm that divides the worker from the capitalist, an increase in the power of capital over labour, a greater dependence of labour upon capital.” (Wage-Labour and Capital.)