1980s >> 1988 >> no-1003-march-1988

Danger: capitalism at work

“The Conservatives were the first government to act on the issue although the dangers had been known for 15 to 20 years” declared Francis Maude, Minister of Consumer Affairs, in the House of Commons on 13 January. He was referring to the government’s intention to bring in legislation to ban inflammable foam furniture from the beginning of March 1989. In trying to score a point off his Labour critics the Minister avoided having to answer the real question: if the dangers had been known for 15 to 20 years, why wasn’t anything done before?

The short answer is: because we are living in a capitalist society where furniture, like everything else, is not produced for use but for sale on a market with a view to profit. If satisfying the need for it was the sole reason furniture was produced, then the problem of having to ban the use of inflammable foam or any other dangerous material in its manufacture just wouldn’t arise. Only furniture that was comfortable, solid and safe would be produced. But under capitalism the main reason furniture is produced is not to satisfy needs but to make a profit. Of course what is produced has to have some minimum use, otherwise it would not sell, but safety is a secondary consideration especially if catering for it will increase the cost of production.

Profit is the goal of production under capitalism. It is why production is undertaken and is what every firm, whether private or state-owned, must seek to obtain. Profits are created in the process of production in the form of surplus value and represent the unpaid labour of the producers, the value of what they produce over and above what they are paid as wages. Profits, however, are realised — converted into money (the form in which they really are profits) only on the market when the products in which they are embodied are sold.

All firms are therefore engaged in a competitive struggle to sell their products, precisely in order to realise the profits that are embodied in them. To succeed in this struggle they must be competitive in the sense that their production costs must be low enough to allow them to sell their wares at the going price and at the same time make enough profits to be able to invest in more up-to-date cost-reducing equipment. Competition can oblige all firms to run fast just to stay still. To remain in the race for profits, firms must stay competitive and to stay competitive they must continually increase productivity; to increase productivity they must make profits and accumulate them as capital invested in new. more productive equipment.

The furniture industry is no exception to this rule but. as an industry producing overwhelmingly for sale to wage and salary earners, it has an interest in keeping its prices low, not just through increased productivity but also through keeping the quality low too. The consumption of wage and salary earners is limited by the size of their wage packet or their salary cheque, so they are under constant financial pressure to go for the lowest-priced furniture on sale. This means that when there are two pieces of furniture on offer it will be the one with the lowest absolute price rather than the one with the lowest price-quality ratio that will tend to sell the best. In other words, the furniture industry is one of those industries that can make more profits by selling a large amount of low quality, low-priced goods than by selling a small amount of higher quality, higher-priced goods.

It is clear that in this situation, arising out of the competitive nature of capitalism combined with the restricted incomes it imposes on wage-earners, if no controls exist then furniture manufacturers will use the cheapest material in the manufacture of their goods even if this material is dangerous to the user. This is not contested by people in the trade; indeed, it is taken for granted, as can be seen from recent comments by them in the press.

A safer foam material has been available for some time but has not been used in all furniture because it is more expensive than the dangerous foam. The marketing manager of Dunlopillo, a firm that can produce the safer type of foam, was quoted as saying: . . .

  the [furniture] manufacturers are in a cut-throat business. They won’t ask for more expensive foam unless they have to (Independent, 6 January 1988).

A similar view was expressed the next day by the merchandising director of Harris Queenway, the furniture retailers:

  We are in a commercial world. I still have my doubts whether the public will buy the safer furniture. They seem more affected by price and comfort (Independent, 7 January 1988).

After March 1989, if the government’s legislation goes through, only the safer furniture will be available in shops. Before supporters of capitalism cite this as an example of how conditions under capitalism can be improved by reforms, they ought to reflect on the fact that, on the minister’s own admission, nearly 20 years went by between the discovery of the danger and the banning of the incriminated material. In the intervening period hundreds of people have died unnecessarily, including the 12 over Christmas — without whose deaths ministers would have gone on giving for even more years the same reason for doing nothing as that given by one of their predecessors in 1980: “Alternative fillings would lead to soaring costs in the production of furniture”.

Even if some legislation to protect people’s safety and health is eventually enacted, the long delay in reaching this stage is in itself proof of the inherently anti-social nature of capitalism in which it is normal that profits should come before safety. What has happened in the case of dangerous foam in furniture is the general rule every time that some issue concerning people’s health or safety arises under capitalism. Two members of the Green Alliance environmental lobby group give us another recent example:

  In 1976. the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended changes in our air pollution regulations. Six years later, the Government agreed to consider these recommendations. After a further four years it published a consultation paper. Shortly after the election, however, it announced that there was no parliamentary time for legislation (Independent, 13 January 1988).

Legislation will no doubt eventually be passed, perhaps in time for a minister to declare “our party was the first to act on this issue although the measure to protect people’s health had been recommended for 15 to 20 years”.

Its exactly the same story with regard to water pollution. In 1975 the EEC Commission proposed a Common Market framework directive “on the quality of water intended for human consumption”. Five years later, in 1980, the EEC Council of Ministers adopted the directive, giving Member-States two years (to 1982) to incorporate it into their national legislation and a further three years (to 1985) for the higher standards to be applied. The directive, however, also allowed for exceptions and for a longer time-limit for compliance if justified. The higher standards, which in any event represent only the minimum that scientists consider should be done to reduce the danger to health, have still not been applied in Britain. The British government has in fact invoked one of the exception clauses to request a delay in implementation until 1989.

Among the substances whose presence in water is to be controlled are nitrates. These chemical substances have been linked to stomach cancer and to the “blue baby” syndrome. They get into drinking water through some of the artificial fertilisers farmers spread on their land to increase yields — to be able to stay in the race for profits — being leached off by rain into water supplies. The problem is particularly acute in East Anglia. The National Farmers’ Union are demanding compensation for the “loss of competitivity” that will result if restrictions are imposed on their use of nitrate fertilisers.

That water supplies have been polluted by artificial fertilisers has been known for many years but nothing much has been done about it until now because, as the NFU rightly points out, to do so would have reduced the competitive power of farming firms which, like all other firms, are in business to make profits rather than to supply useful things. This is a classic example of the environment being polluted as a consequence of the competitive struggle for profits.

Another dangerous farming practice has been the use of anabolic steroids to fatten up cattle for sale. These stay in the meat and are still there when it is eaten by humans, and so get passed on to us. As a result of a scandal a few years ago, a ban on the use of these hormones for this purpose was adopted and came into force in Common Market countries on 1 January 1988. Once again complaints about loss of profits have been made, revealing why they were employed in the first place. Michael Leathes, secretary-general of Fedesa, described by the Times (24 December 1987) as “an animal health association funded by the European animal drug manufacturers”, stated:

  The ban will result in the loss of about 10 per cent extra bulk in an animal that a farmer would expect from using previously legitimate implant steroids — that effectively kills his profit.

Some of those involved in the administration of capitalism are very well aware of the limitations that the operation of its economic laws impose on what can be done to reduce the danger to health and to the environment resulting from current farming practices. Consider the following statement by James Kerr, Head of the Farm and Countryside Service to the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture:

  While it is right and proper that environmental considerations should be given much more attention than in the past, it must be not be forgotten that farmers are in the business of producing food and unless they can do this efficiently they will not be able to compete in the marketplace and will go out of business. Such a situation is clearly not in the interests of either farming or conservation. Farmers must therefore continue to take advantage of new developments in technology to remain viable (Europe in Northern Ireland No 38. December 1987).

It is not that all new cost-reducing techniques are necessarily more anti-ecological than the techniques they replace but simply that the effect on people’s health and on the environment is not the deciding factor in their adoption, as it would be if the aim of production was to provide for needs rather than to make profits.

It is true that in the end capitalism is forced to take some account of these considerations but only after the damage has been done — after some source of water has been polluted. after people have died or had their health damaged — and then only to the extent that the damage done raises production costs, either directly or through reducing the productive efficiency of wage-earners, to a level where it becomes less costly to take steps to reduce pollution than not to do so.

Too little, too late is neither a rational nor a satisfactory approach to protecting the environment and people’s health and safety but it is the very most that the rigid economic laws of capitalism will ever permit.

Adam Buick