Living wage or …

Dear Editors
I must declare from the outset that I am a fellow traveller with the SPGB in as much as seeking the abolition of the wage system, but in the Socialist Standard’s recent Cooking the Books column ‘What’s a “Living Wage”?’ (June), I was left disappointed by the way in which the living wage was represented.

The first problem with the article is where (discussing the Green Party’s flagship policy of raising the National Minimum Wage to £8.10/hour) it states that £16,848 pa. ‘hardly qualifies as an adequate “living wage”.’ This feels a little disingenuous.

Let’s be honest about this: of course £16.8k a year is not comfortable, and it is certainly not fair. It is still several thousand shy of the current national average, but it is also several thousand closer. However, the difference it would make (before we get onto potential wider economic repercussions of the wage rate) to those currently on NMW would be phenomenal.

This is a difference not only of nearly £5k a year but has a multitude of knock-on benefits the article neglects to mention, the most important and obvious being the positive impact on health (one of the key grounds for the living wage) due to reduced stress levels.

This leads me comfortably into my next point. As a seasoned London-based organiser around the London Living Wage, one of the most uncomfortable facts I’ve had to deal with in campaigning for the living wage is that paying the London Living Wage has been good for employers; it is good management of capitalism.

A better wage rate (albeit still suitably low) means fewer employee sick days taken and a much lower turnover in employee numbers. The former relates specifically to the aforementioned health benefits, the latter relates often to simple time-management.

So many NMW workers have to work multiple jobs to make up enough hours in order to gain enough money to cover rent and provide the cheapest meal for their families. Staff turnover can be high for NMW employers due to employees taking up work at sites marginally closer to home, etc. In many respects the living wage can be more about time rather than money.

The article states that the first effect of legal living wage rate would be that “some employers would go bankrupt.” Of course this is a definite possibility in the current economic crisis with many employers already teetering on the edge.

On the other hand, however, the kind of employers most likely to be adversely affected would (obviously) be those dependent on super-exploitation: I’m thinking especially of cleaning, security and catering agencies.

But the roles employers for these firms provide are those which are, broadly speaking, already exploited to saturation point, i.e. there is scarcely a surplus of workers (or at least not a surplus of work-hours – admittedly something different). These are by no means the only NMW job types, but they constitute a significant proportion and are (at our current level of technology) extremely difficult to substitute for any kind of improved machinery. We aren’t yet at the stage where robotic androids could perform all the tasks a security guard or cleaner does.

If these agencies – subcontractors, beneficiaries of privatisation – were to collapse under wage bills, this does not therefore necessarily mean mass unemployment (except possibly on a very temporary basis) as the roles require being re-hired for as immediately as they are lost.

In a lot of cases this would presumably take the form of these out-sourced services being brought back in-house to the sites on which they are employed. This can be and often is in fact cheaper for site-owners as it cuts out duplicate management posts between the site-company and the outsourced company (both of which are paid for by the site-owner).

In short, it can work out cheaper in more ways than one to pay workers more. It is not necessarily as straight-forward as the article suggests. A living wage can be as much ‘living’ for the employee as it is for the employer.

Finally, and in my eyes most importantly, the article ends that ‘workers should replace the green demand for a “Living Wage” by the revolutionary demand for the “Abolition of the Wages System”.’ As I mentioned, in principle I agree. However, this simple sentence does injustice to the value living wage struggles have.

For myself the main and most important benefit of the London Living Wage is that it lifts workers and their dependents not only out of the deeper throes of poverty (though not completely altogether) but that it also lifts them out of the harshest insecurity and psychological vulnerability imaginable.

It is not a coincidence that those on the NMW are among the least likely to be unionised. I’m certain the SPGB understands the mechanism used by bosses in holding workers down through the wage system. In London, living wage struggles have galvanised workers’ organisations (especially grassroots unionisation), and have recently begun to really politicise workers. It instils consciousness.

If the wage system can be represented by the image of a boss stamping on a worker’s face, then the living wage might be removing the boss’s foot from the worker’s neck. She’s still going to get stamped in the face, but she’s a little freer to start fighting back.

The demand to abolish wage-slavery is certainly the most important one. However, in our current situation it is only through living wage struggles that any kind of meaningful revolutionary discourse can exist. The living wage question is the first line in this discussion which, if followed to its natural conclusion, ends by agreeing to overthrow exploitation altogether.

An interesting question Cooking the Books should ask is where, if at all, in this discussion the ‘transitional demand’ for a National Maximum Salary might be.


… abolition of the wages system?

Let’s get one thing clear from the start. We have nothing against workers struggling for and getting higher wages if they can. We favour this, even if we think that ideally this should be tied to struggling to abolish the wages system altogether. Our members, as workers, join trade unions. So, we hope your campaign to get London employers to pay some of their workers more succeeds, even if we don’t like the term “living wage” any more than “fair wage”. There’s nothing fair about the wages system and we’re against people having to work for a wage to live.

Wages (and their other name, salaries) are a price – the price of the labour power, or working skills, that workers sell to an employer. Most people are forced by economic necessity to do this to get a living, to obtain the money to buy the things they need to live.

The wages system implies the division of society into those who own and control the means for producing wealth and who need to employ people to operate them and those who, owning no means of production, have to sell their working skills to them. It implies a class divided society. But more. Employers are not philanthropists. They only employ workers if they think there’s a profit in it for them. The source of their profits is the difference between what they pay their workers as wages and what they receive from the sale of what their employees produce. So, the wages system also implies exploitation, the extraction of unpaid labour from the workforce. That’s why there is not, and cannot be, any such thing as a fair wage.

The abolition of the wages system involves abolishing the class division of society by making the means of production the common property of everybody under democratic control. Then nobody will be obliged to work for someone else for a wage. Instead, the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” will apply. People will co-operate to produce what is needed and then everybody will have free access to it to satisfy their needs, without having to pay. In fact money will have become redundant.

What we were criticising in the article was the proposal of a political party to increase the present legal minimum wage by over 40 percent and call the result a “living wage”. We pointed out that this was just another empty vote-catching promise which, even if implemented, wouldn’t have had the expected effects. We would have thought that it was generally accepted that higher wages do lead employers to introduce labour-saving machinery. An example of this in reverse would be how many garages have abandoned car washing machines as hand washing done by asylum seekers (probably getting less than the minimum wage) has become cheaper. You yourself concede that an imposed increase of the order proposed by the Green Party – by nearly £5k a year – could lead to an increase in unemployment for the lowest-paid, even if you think this would only be temporary.

We do not agree that “in our current situation it is only through living wage struggles that any kind of meaningful revolutionary discourse can exist.” These probably are producing an increased trade union consciousness among a section of the working class, but the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions (better conditions for the sale of labour-power) is not the same as socialist understanding of the need to get rid of the wages system altogether by bringing the means of production into the common ownership and democratic control of the whole population. That does not rise spontaneously out of the mere struggle for higher wages but requires the presence and activity of socialists to point this out directly.

Incidentally, for what it’s worth, Marx didn’t think much of such demands as “fixing the minimum wage by law”, which was one of the reform demands of the French Workers Party he had a hand in helping to set up in 1880. He wrote, referring to the proposer of this: “I told him: ‘If the French proletariat is still so childish as to require such bait, it is not worth while drawing up any program whatever.’” (Letter to Sorge, 5 November 1880, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/letters/80_11_05.htm)

As to the demand for a “National Maximum Salary”, we don’t think that this is something that those who want to abolish the wages system should get involved in. The bloated “salaries” received by many top business people and government officials are not really the price of their labour power but a disguised way of getting a share of the surplus value extracted from the unpaid labour of the workers. – Editors.


Dear Editors
It was reported on Sunday 11 July 2010 that a boy of seven works a 98-hour week in Delhi to supply products to the British high street chain Poundland.
What is the SPGB position on the conception of imperialism through Lenin, Bukharin and Luxemburg and the idea of an aristocracy of labour?
Wirral Socialists (http://www.wirralsocialists.com)

We have never accepted the view that a section of the working class in the developed capitalist countries – the so-called “aristocracy of labour” of skilled workers – shares in the proceeds of the exploitation of colonial and now ‘Third World’ countries, The wages paid to skilled workers here reflect the higher quality – due to more education, training and skill – of the labour power they have to sell.

It was only in 1920, in a preface to the French and German editions, of his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism that Lenin introduced the idea that a section of the working class in the imperialist countries shared in the booty extracted from capitalists, workers and peasants in the rest of the world. This was to try to secure the support of anti-colonial movements for his beleaguered regime in Russia. It was a political manoeuvre – “workers and colonial peoples unite” – that went against the basic principle of Marxian economics that wages represent the value of the labour-power a worker sells and contain no element of surplus value.

The original 1916 edition of the pamphlet did not contain this. It was a fairly run-of-the-mill analysis of imperialism and colonialism as put forward by Social Democrats of the time: that it was due to the higher profits to be made in the colonies and less developed countries than at home. The only real objection was to its subtitle of “the highest stage of capitalism” since capitalism had been “imperialist” in the 18th century too.

Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital (1912), however, was based on a faulty analysis of capitalism: that it suffered from a chronic shortage of home purchasing power that drove capitalist countries to seek markets outside capitalism, in the less developed parts of the world. Apart from its descriptive parts it is of little value.

The Bolshevik Bukharin’s Imperialism and the World Economy (1916) developed the idea of a single capitalist world economy and anticipated the role that the state was to play in supporting the overseas economic interests (markets, raw material resources, investment outlets, trade routes) of the capitalist firms established within its borders.

All three (and others) were trying to analyse the phenomenon of capitalism coming to dominate the whole world, as it did towards the end of the 19th century, to which the term “imperialism” was given. This was not the best term since imperialism is not something separate from capitalism and all capitalist countries, not just those normally labelled “imperialist”, are prepared to use force to further the vital economic interests of their capitalist class. – Editors.

Pete Seeger again

Dear Editors
For a nonagenarian, Pete Seeger sure possesses some staying power. First Roy Beat and now Stephen Shenfield (April and August issues) have gone into print, both missing the main thrust of the March article. Instead, they laser-in on my flippant swipe at the Left’s perennial practice of hijacking every convenient bandwaggon –”good cause” – to promote itself.

In no way was I “dismissing” or “belittling” the Civil Rights Movement as they suggest; merely noting its inbuilt shortcomings. A southern negro could, of course, be summarily lynched for much less than displaying revolutionary tendencies; a reluctance to step into the gutter or an admiring glance (“rape”) sufficing.

All of us abhor Capitalism’s myriad injustices and obscenities but recognise that the solution begins with a rational understanding of the root causes rather than an emotional piecemeal assault on their effects. Is this “Sectarian”? Having pored long and hard over my dictionary, I can only conclude that in commonsense everyday terms it’s nothing of the sort. Personally I’m happier with “Socialist”.

Andrew Armitage

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