Editorial from the June 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
The current level of unemployment should be a cause for disappointment and bewilderment to the reformists who claim that capitalism can be organised in the interests of the majority of the people. In fact it is more than that; it is a damning indictment of the reformist theories on which capitalist politics have been fashioned for some time.
It is almost fifty years since unemployment in this country was at a similar level; between the wars, once it had reached one million it did not fall below that figure. This was not confined to Britain; capitalism was in global recession and millions were out of work in other countries such as America, Germany, France, Italy . . .
But capitalism does not languish for ever in recession, any more than it flies high in perpetual boom. Inevitably, there was recovery which was sealed in the outbreak of war in 1939. The timing of that recovery fertilised a rich crop of fallacies, for governments attempted to deal with the slump with savage cuts in state spending and when this had no effect there arose the theory that recessions could be cured by increasing that spending. And from that developed the notion that the economy of capitalism could easily be controlled through adjusting and varying that expenditure in tune with the level of economic activity.
So seductive was this theory, bolstered as it was by the seemingly full employment which capitalism experienced during its post-war rebuilding phase, that there was hardly an economist to be found between the forties and the sixties to argue against it. The economic debate was not about the validity of the basic policy but about its intensity and timing.
And after all this there are now 2½ million people registered in Britain as out of work, with the many typical symptoms of the pressures which a recession exerts on the working class, such as the specially intensive threat to workers in their middle age of a premature projection onto the scrap heap.
Again, there are places—Scotland, South Wales, Northern Ireland—where unemployment is high and concentrated enough to qualify them for the dread description, reminiscent of the ’30s, of Distressed Area. Other places, which once rode high on the post war boom, are being brought up against harsh reality. In the West Midlands, for example, the once flourishing car industry is being throttled by the classical pressures of capitalism in difficulty glutted markets, fierce foreign competition, low consumer demand.
The fact that decades of this particular reformism have been discredited should encourage workers to consider some approach other than that of the protest march, the demand for the Right to Work. It should encourage a more fundamental questioning of the way in which capitalism works, and why. Is there a factor in society more basic than that debated by the politicians and the economists? If there is such a factor, is it really affected by the alleged remedies which that debate has been about?
Present-day society is accurately labelled as capitalism because the production of its wealth is a process of the accumulation of capital. Investment in production is as capital; it is wealth which is applied to produce more of it, for disposal for profit. Thus capitalism is a society in which wealth takes the form of commodities—although it has a use value, it is turned out only when there is a prospect of it being sold at a profit to the class who own the means of production and distribution.
This profit can be realised only when the wealth is disposed of on the market and the market, however the experts may theorise and debate and juggle, is neither predictable nor controllable. That is why losses, as well as profits, are made on the market, why some firms (a lot of firms nowadays) go bankrupt, why there are such things as booms and slumps and unemployment. If, as claimed by the reformists, the system of capital accumulation and commodity production was susceptible to control, capitalism would have a very different history. There would be no scars of former recessions, no black memories of the dole queues of the ’30s, no crisis of the ’80s.
So if unemployment is an unavoidable by-product of capitalism, the clear conclusion is that the only way to cure it is to abolish capitalism. This entails a majority of workers throughout the world taking the conscious decision for political action to abolish the basis of capitalism—the class ownership of the means of production and distribution—and to replace it with common ownership.
This fundamental change in society will affect all human relationships; it will for example abolish employment as the all-pervading relationship through which the non-owning majority are forced to get their living. This new society will be socialism and at this time when capitalism is in a crisis of unemployment, as at all times, it is the only thing worth workers protesting, demonstrating and working to achieve.