The Running Commentary column from the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
On their bikes
The Norman Tebbit theory of unemployment, that people who are out of work are really too lazy to get on their bikes and ride out looking for a job, is by no means unpopular with the working class. There was. after all, little sign at the last election that any substantial numbers of voters thought that Tebbit is wholly mad or bad.
There was a similar feeling in the thirties, when the government refused to pay unemployment benefit to anyone who was not immediately available for work. Hunger marchers, who were tramping the long road because they were desperate for employment, were caught out by this; while on the road they lost their dole because they were not available for the jobs which did not exist. The government got away electorally with this outrageous turn of the screw, perhaps because so many workers thought that if anyone was out of a job it must be through choice.
Of course no one could explain why laziness should so abruptly grip millions of people simultaneously all over the world and why it should decline in the same way and why the ups and downs in sloth should coincide with slumps and booms in capitalism's economy. Neither could they explain why people should choose to slowly starve themselves in preference to working, when they could have brought about their end quickly and neatly by jumping out of a window or under a train.
A strange exception to the present pattern of international laziness is to be found in the West Midlands, where clearly they have not heard of Norman Tebbit and his dad. Unemployment in the area is nearly 17 per cent, with almost half the unemployed males having been out of work for a year or more.
Recently, a rumour spread that the Austin Rover factory at Longbridge had some vacancies. The plant was swamped with work-hungry applicants; at the local Job Centre dozens queued in the snow and rain before the building was open; by early afternoon over 400 enquiries had been received. The manageress reported that some people travelled almost 30 miles: “It shows how eager people are to get work” she commented.
Workers need to be eager for — or at least resigned to — employment because that is the only way to get a living. Unless they are able to sell their working abilities to an employer they descend from the customary level of poverty into destitution. Their desire to avoid that is natural.
The theories that unemployed workers are lazy is a customarily convenient explanation for the fact that, in this as in all other ways, capitalism cannot meet the needs of the majority. That fact should be pondered by all workers, whether in work or out of it, whether in the factory or on their bikes.
The other Dockers
What memories were summoned up by the news, last December, that Lady Nora Docker was dead!
In the 1950s she and her husband, Bernard Docker, who died in 1978. were hardly ever out of the gossip columns. They travelled in a gold-plated car, they disported themselves at Monte Carlo in the fabulous yacht Shemara. She was famous for her clothes and her addiction to the high life.
Bernard Docker was chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms Company which manufactured bicycles and was especially famous for its motor cycles. In the boom of the immediate post-war years BSA prospered along with the rest, but as foreign competition began to bite the company was first exposed as very vulnerable and then finished off. The motor cycle market is now dominated by imported models, notably from Japan, and any BSAs still on the road are merely vintage models for the connoisseur of the outdated.
Bernard Docker was sacked in 1956, after a boardroom upheaval largely masterminded by the big institutional shareholders who thought that under his management BSA was not as profitable as it might be. When he fought back against his dismissal the new board spelled out the charges against him, making play on the Dockers' well publicised, vulgar and costly life style, implying that without this the company would have been more prosperous. It was all rather unfair, since high living is what is expected of — and applauded in — the ruling class. The morals of capitalism are clear that riches are not a cause for shame; they are a badge of a privileged social standing. The Dockers’ populist attitude to their riches made good advertising copy for capitalism, for it encouraged workers to believe that the system of class conflict and exploitation was really a bit of rollicking fun.
In the event. Docker’s dismissal did not save BSA. In the early 1950s the company, as any capitalist concern would, was preoccupied with making the most of the boom. The new management brought little change and was particularly at risk when conditions altered and life in the capitalist jungle became a lot harsher and less certain. BSA was among the first of the big, famous firms to go under.
The boom-slump cycle is endemic to capitalism. Its effects may be delayed, or perhaps quickened or accentuated, by a particular style of management but they cannot be avoided. The Dockers epitomised the heady delusions of the capitalism of the fifties, when industrialists and politicians and economists assured us that they had solved capitalism's problems for all time. There was some irony in the fact that of all people the Dockers should pay the price for this; when they died they were no longer glamorous trend-setters but social clowns, both comic and tragic.
The Marriage Guidance Council is one of many well-meaning organisations which exist in the unreal world of attempting the impossible. Its counsellors are usually well- preserved people who enjoy a little emotional rag-pulling with married couples whom they describe as motivated, which means that they are articulate as well as confused anti unhappy. Analysis is the name of this game and a gruelling, futile game it can be, played out in ignorance of the fact that human relationships are at present distorted by the demands of a social system which discourages us from cooperative. tolerant behaviour.
Aside from that, the monogamous family of capitalism is not in tune with any human needs or drives. That is why something like a third of marriages collapse into divorce, while a lot of those which hang together do so through shame or inertia or fear or financial necessity.
An inkling of that particular reality may be getting through to the MGC, who have suddenly awoken to the fact that, as unemployment persists, marriages are being put under increasing strain. Last year 38,000 new cases came onto the pretty selective books of the MGC.
Their response to this has been disappointing. if predictable. They have not commenced any analysis of the social system which makes human relationships so difficult but have increased the therapy. Backed up by a grant from the Manpower Services Commission, the MGC has launched a campaign to recruit voluntary counsellors among the unemployed.
The plan is that the voluntary counsellors will free the permanent workers to run extra group therapy sessions in which clients will be encouraged to express their frustrations, perhaps by screaming and shouting, on the group rather than at home. Of course when this first aid is finished and the cracks in the marriage have been papered over the couples can go back to being unhappy, frustrated, perhaps unemployed and penniless — but quietly.
Capitalism, which causes the problems of modern society, is by no means threatened by such analgesic exercises, which leave the seat of social pain undisturbed. Better by far to turn such efforts towards analysing this social system which, when we need to act like human beings, presses us to behave like beasts.