2000s >> 2006 >> no-1217-january-2006

Working till we drop

The motto of the ancient Roman slave owners was that slaves should work, or sleep. It seems the modern capitalists’ version of that term is that wage slaves must work till they drop. In November last year the media was filled with furore over the publication of the Turner Report into the future of the pension system – calling for the retirement age to be increased from 65 to 68 by 2050.

The proposals in the report appear to try and be balanced, playing off the increase in retirement age with an end to means-testing, restoring the link between pensions and earnings (so that pensions will rise with wages and thus be a more secure hedge against inflation) and compelling employers to contribute towards individual pensions of employees. It also proposed that individuals should be encouraged and facilitated in providing a personal pension for themselves. Essentially, the report seeks to spread the burden of the ageing population among all concerned parties. Turner himself told the BBC: “Unless we want the state pension to get meaner and meaner we either have to have higher tax or a higher state pension age, we have decided on both.”

That’s how it is presented in the media, that is. We are all getting older, and so pensions are going to cost more. How are we going to pay for them? Put another way, though, with the reality of the class struggle in mind, the problem looks more like: workers living longer means that the share of the national income going to the working class and away from the capitalists will rise if the current settlement is maintained. This is clear from Turner’s choice. The reality of paying for the pensions through higher taxes would have been to take the cost of pensions from the surplus value produced by the working class as a whole and channel it back into their total life-time wage packet. It would have meant a transfer from capital to labour.

It obviously cannot be about real privation, real shortages – there is more than enough food, clothing and housing to go round. What will happen, though, is that relative to capital invested – and more importantly capital put aside in pension funds – the cost of outlays will rise. From this comes the myth that we are not saving enough – as if in choosing not to eat a loaf of bread today, it would mean there will be two loaves of bread tomorrow. Further, many of these retirees go on to do much useful work in the community or in family life – but it is work which does not generate profits directly and so is invisible to the capitalist planners.

This is a clear example of capital holding back production and distribution – causing complications and distortions to rational economic activity by compelling us to play the game of turn-over. The system always ensures that production leads to the creation of more money and value and ultimately more money (and capital) for capitalists real and imaginary. Put another way: the advances from our labour – including an increased life span – are being clawed back by capital to its advantage.

In seeking, therefore, to try and spread the pain around, what the report is proposing is in fact to push the burden from the capitalists and onto the workers. We need to be clear: raising the retirement age of workers is a very real pay cut. We will be asked to work more years and for a greater proportion of our lives than we expected. For some this will be a very real loss.

Already there is a marked difference in life expectancy across income groups, with unskilled manual male workers having an expectancy of 71 years as compared to an average of 79 for professionals (and of course, these being averages means a great many do not reach them). That means that more than just cutting these workers’ pay, these proposals will actually cost them a great deal of any extra life expectancy they might gain by 2050.

The distinctly Old Labour reforms to pensions of ending means-testing, linking pensions to earnings and compelling employer contributions are just a way of buying off the unions and disguising the reality of the attack. Of course, this report is just a set of proposals and it will be up to the Government to implement changes which may include some parts and not others. Already Gordon Brown has been making ominous noises of concern – preferring his model of means-testing (he calls it targeting resources on the poor) to a general simplified and slightly increased state pension.

The unions, though, are obligingly making noises about the poorest and least well off being hit hard by these proposals, but are essentially content with them. Now that ‘class warfare’ is a term to be derided in the labour movement, these organisations are blinded to the reality of the situation and the working class is left intellectually disarmed before a media barrage of lies about people living longer meaning paying more.

Rousing the unions to defend the workers’ position within capitalism, though, isn’t the job of socialists. Even if these reforms were stopped, the next economic crisis, the next half-baked excuse would soon come along to try and roll back the workers’ share. Our mission is to show clearly both how we are robbed and exploited by the system ruled by capital and how we can untap the wealth of our collective productive power by taking control of the means of production directly.

In socialism everyone would have the opportunity to contribute to the community for as long as they could. Their contributions would not have to be strictly rationed nor controlled and all would be able to share in the common produce. The creation of second class cast-off workers known as pensioners would cease to be and in its place we could have a fair share for all. The struggle for such a society is in our immediate practical interest.


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