Thursday, June 9, 2016

Overheard. (1905)

A Short Story from the July 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

Frank —(To Jack, who appears to be thinking furiously.) What is the matter now?

Jack —You fellows say we are wage slaves, and are cheaper to the masters than chattel slaves, but that’s rot.

Frank—Steady, old chap; why is it rot ?

Jack — Because the chattel slave had to work absolutely for nothing, while the masters must pay us wages.

Frank (laughing)—Well, even according to official figures the average wage of the modern worker hardy represents his cost of maintenance, and as the slave was always fed and lodged, he could hardly have got less, could he?

Jack — Well-er-of course. Anyway the wage worker is not a slave.

Frank — Oh? The essence of slavery is compulsion; the means employed are unimportant. Now is it not slavery to be compelled to toil for another?

Jack—Certainly.

Frank — Well, is not the modern worker absolutely compelled by fear of starvation to sell himself to a master? Can the workers get a living at all to-day without the permission of the owners of the mines, factories, railways, land, etc.? And are they not, therefore, the slaves of this owning class ?

Jack — H’m! But still the wage slave, as you call him, is very much better off than the chattel slave. Just compare them.

Frank—Well, in the first place the chattel slave had a considerable exchange-value, and was sought after; whereas thousands of modern workers are compelled to tramp the streets in search of a master, and are starving for a crust.

Jack looks glum.

Frank—In the second place a master will take more care of a thing that will cost him a big sum to replace, than of a thing that can be replaced for the asking.

Jack nods assent.

Frank—So that if a chattel slave falls ill the master will get him well quickly, for he cannot work or be sold when ill; but if a wage slave is ill he is turned out and left to starve, for another can be had for nothing.

Jack — That’s right enough. If you feel unwell and get to work late two or three times, on the street you soon go.

Frank— Further it would hardly pay the chattel slave owner to overwork his slaves, for he would use them up too soon and have to pay heavily for new ones. But a modern employer finds it to his interest to use up his wage slaves as quickly as possible, for there are always plenty more to be had for the asking.

Jack—Yes, just as the modem contractor takes very great care that his horses are not overworked, but continually overworks his men.

Frank — That is so. The up-to-date capitalist uses his men only for the best years of their lives, and throws them on the scrap heap when he has taken the steel out of them.

Jack — Right again. They are turning out all the old men now. Only young men need apply. And at the pace they drive one can’t last long at the game. But with regard to the chattel slave; he used to get flogged; we don’t.

Frank — No, Jack, it is not necessary to flog us in order to make us work hard. The threat of the "sack,” the fear of starvation, is quite sufficient. Between being flogged to death and slowly starved to death, the choice would be embarrassing, would it not? A large proportion of the working population of to-day suffer slow starvation even while in work.

Jack — I begin to see that we are the wage slaves of the owners of the means of life.

Frank — Yes. Private ownership of the means of life gives private power to absorb all the surplus produced. Slavery can only end by the democratic control of wealth by and for the wealth producers: that is Socialism.

Jack — Good' Speed the abolition of wage slavery!

Frank — You see, then, that wage slavery, which hides its ugly features under the mask of Freedom, is much more profitable to the master-class than chattel slavery. And let me whisper this: Had it been otherwise, chattel slavery would not been abolished.
F. C. Watts

On keeping up with the Joneses (1958)

From the April 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

  "Dr. Wintle, Medical Officer of Health for South Oxfordshire, offers advice in hit annual report on how to avoid coronary thrombosis. ‘Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses,’ he says.
   "The doctor gives bad advice.
   "It is competition which provides life, with the most health-giving dement of all—zest Britain would indeed be in a sad state to-day if her captains of industry, her scientists and inventors, had never had the urge to get ahead of the Joneses.
   "Besides, there are far greater dangers to human happiness than those which come from coronary thrombosis.
   "Worrying about an illness which may never happen is one of them.
   "Becoming a vegetable is another."
The above is taken from the Editorial Column, Sunday Express (29/12/57).

The writer does not feel qualified to comment on the merits or demerits of the doctor’s medical opinions. It would appear, however, the Sunday Express is of the opinion a desire to get ahead of the Joneses is the driving force of scientists and inventors. Yet if we read the lives of many famous scientists and inventors, we find many of them spent their lives pursuing their aims regardless of reward. A British inventor died in poverty; yet he revolutionised the cotton industry by his invention of the spinning jenny. For though a great inventor he was no business man and was in fact swindled out of the patent rights of his invention. No desire to outdo the “Joneses” here. If we turn to France we find an even better example of devotion to science for its own sake without thought of gain; Pierre and Marie Curie discoverers of radium, steadfastly refused to make money out of their discovery. To use the words of Marie Curie in a conversation with her husband Pierre: “If our discovery has a commercial future, that is, an accident by which we must not profit. And radium is going to be of use in treating disease. It seems to me impossible to take advantage of that” So much then for the comments of the Sunday Express on the driving force, with its avowed belief in the health-giving qualities of competition. There is, however, nothing healthy about present-day competition, since it breeds resentment, jealousy and frustration.

It brings out all the worst in man. Co-operation on the other hand fosters goodwill and friendship.

The Sunday Express, just like the Dally Worker, is most concerned that people should not give up the ghost, but go on striving for success within the framework of capitalism.

The Daily Worker encourages workers in Britain but not in Russia, of course, to strike for more pay, but they never mention the abolition of the wages system, while the Sunday Express talks about a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage (whatever that is supposed to mean). As for “becoming vegetables” -the writer is of the opinion the workers are behaving like cabbages in allowing the capitalist system to continue a day longer.

Instead, they should behave like mature adults organising to introduce a Socialist society, where all inventions will be used for the good of all mankind, and where the necessity for “getting ahead of the Joneses,” imagined or otherwise, will have taken its place in the limbo of capitalist society along with "healthy competition” and all the rest, including the Sunday Express, Daily Express, Daily Worker, Tribune, and all the other "tripe."
Phil Mellor

The Curse of Work: The Right to Live (1907)

Editorial from the July 1907 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party will soon need to cry “Save us from our friends”! The other “Leaders” who failed to secure election are turning upon them.

Mr. Russell Smart, in the columns of the Labour Leader, asserts that, since the General Election, they have lost ground because of the “tame and unheroic policy the Labour Party has followed in the House of Commons; in the eyes of the electorate it has scarcely justified its existence.”

But what does Mr. Smart expect? The Labour members cannot go beyond the people who elected them. As these people were not Socialists, in some cases as at Leicester, Halifax, etc., avowedly Liberals, the Labour members can do no more than ordinary Liberals would do. Surely Mr. Smart does not expect them to sacrifice any of their respectability by making themselves unpleasant in the House of Commons. It’s much more to their liking to stump the country telling the people how they “love” the Liberal Leader and how "gratified" they are at the measures which the Government introduce.

And does Mr. Russell Smart know where he is? It would appear not. He rightly asserts that to get public support and enthusiasm the Party must have something worth fighting for (assuming they desire to fight, which we doubt). As he says “the people will rally to a ‘Cause’; they will remain cold to a policy.” What is the “Cause” that is to rally them? The Social Revolution? Oh, no! All that is suggested is that the Party could rally to its support the whole Labour world, organised and unorganised alike, by putting into concrete form the “great and inspiring idea" — the Right to Work !

No wonder Mr. Ramsay MacDonald describes Labour Party Politics as a “confused jumble of futilities.”

The God-given Curse.
The Right to Work ! In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread. So runs the “ God-given curse.” And in the twentieth century, “when Labour is awakening to a sense of its power and responsibility," its attention and efforts are to be concentrated on the Right to Work!

In the dining room of the House of Commons, in the luxurious saloons of the Carlton Restaurant, the Pavilion, the Popular, the Trocadero, and the Mansions of the West End, word is to be conveyed to those who “ toil not, neither do they spin,” that the Labour Party is anxious that the “right” of the wealth-producers to work shall be conceded by Act of Parliament; that the separation of the master class from the working class shall be even more legally recognised; that it shall be by law enacted that the working class have the "right" to work, as distinguished from the master class, which has the “right” to enjoy the good things of life without toil, and over the “apples and nuts,” over the wine and cigars, the master class and its parasites will smile the smile of smug satisfaction, and drink the health of that, from their point of view, beneficent institution, the Labour Party.

Many years ago when, at the behest of the “leaders” the unemployed were—as they are doing now— praying to spooks, following priests, petitioning kings, appealing to politicians, looking to leaders,—anything but relying upon themselves, a demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square. On the plinth was Mr. Ben Tillett, amongst others. With broad-brimmed hat covering the top of his face, with coat collar (it was winter) turned up and covering the bottom part of his face, he bellowed: “To day we demand the right to work, next year we will demand the right to live.” Why wait until next year, he was asked, but did not reply. And to-day, ten years after, the same old fraud is being put forward as a “Cause,”—the Right to Work.

The Evil of Compromise.
Could we have a better illustration of the evil of compromise? If the people have any right to live, they have it now, not next year or at any future time.

And what does the “Right to Work” mean, under Capitalism? The unemployed are to be put to work, in accordance with an Act of Parliament which the Labour Party is to get passed. Is there not already sufficient wealth produced to satisfy the needs of every member of the community? There is enough wasted every night to feed all who lack food. It is therefore evident that what is required is not more work, but a sensible distribution of present work and the wealth already produced. This fact, however, seems to be ignored by our “Right to Work’’"friends.”

If the “Right” of the working class to work is conceded by Act of Parliament, to what work are the unemployed to be put? Already there is produced not only as much as there is an effective demand for but in many cases more. If, therefore, those not required by the capitalist "organisers”of industry are put to work under the usual conditions as to hours, etc., their product must tend to glut the market and, competing with the product of other factories, involve some capitalists in loss and throw other men out of employment. Does Mr. Smart expect the capitalists to pass a measure providing for this?

If, on the other hand, they are to be put to work producing only those things which they require for their own use, the necessary hours of labour would be so very few that the working class would recognise the extent to which they are robbed by the master class and—the capitalists’ game would be up. The master class are quite aware of this, and are not to be caught in this direction.

Useless Work.
Work will only be provided by a capitalist government for those of the unemployed who make themselves objectionable, and menace capitalist property. When it is found, it will consist mainly of the useless kind digging holes and filling them up again.*

What the unemployed and all other folks want is food, and also clothing and shelter. That these can be obtained by some individuals without working for them no one can dispute. We object to any able-bodied person obtaining them without doing his share of the necessary labour, but seeing that they can be so obtained, the unemployed have as great a right to obtain them in that way as the members and parasites of the master class. Let the unemployed throw over the misleaders who urge them to appeal to their masters to find them work. Let them recognise that only the common ownership of the means of life will solve their problem and proceed to convert their fellows. Pending the conscious effort of the working class that shall establish the Socialist Commonwealth, let the unemployed determine that they will not starve.

When our Right to Live is conceded we are prepared to recognise our obligation to perform our share of the necessary labour, but not till then. Let our rallying cry be “Down with the ‘Right to Work’: Up with the ‘Right to Live.’ ”

* In his pamphlet, “The Right to Work,” Mr. Russell Smart urges that the unemployed should be set to stone-breaking as a labour test.


Rocked by poverty and despair (1995)

Theatre Review from the May 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Knocky by Michael Wynne (Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court)

Michael Wynne—a young graduate in politics—comes from Birkenhead, and his first play The Knocky is set in a council estate in his home town. Tommy Kelly and his two older children are out of work; another child, traumatised by a personal assault, remains forever indoors; but mother and young son, Stephen—two wonderful performances—remain optimistic, dreaming their dreams.

In many ways Wynne presents us with a vivid and authentic slice of life. The plight of the Kellys, and the community (sic) of which they are a part, must be mirrored hundreds of times across the country. Rocked by poverty and despair theft is commonplace, as victims steal from one another in an attempt to clear their debts. Young Stephen witnesses his elder brother stealing the family's video and is torn. Should he say nothing out of loyalty or tell his parents?

So far so good but sadly there is a downside. Wynne’s play is full of scouse humour, but too frequently we seem to be laughing at the characters rather than with them. Wynne seems to be inviting us to patronise the Kellys rather than to sympathise with them. And the introduction of Mary, mother’s outrageous sister, further undermines our sympathy. In his desire for laughs Wynne has Mary remove her bra and flaunt her breasts in front of a supposed peepingTom peering from an off-stage window. And when her victim has a heart attack and dies before the arrival of an ambulance, Mary affects not a jot of concern. Mary is a monster—the family of which she is a part is guilty by association—and sympathy is transformed into circumspection.

Perhaps next time Wynne will be strong enough to resist cheap laughs if the price is the integrity of his characters and the honesty of their predicament. Perhaps, too. he will look beyond descriptions of unemployment and poverty, and the feelings and actions which these induce—good though he is at dealing with these things. What, in part, marks out the successful playwright is the capacity for analysis as well as description. Wynne shows us folk ground down by unemployment and despair, and he seems to be sympathetic. But he appears unable to offer any explanation for their situation, or to suggest any alternatives. Presumably degrees in politics at London University don't offer insights into the nature of capitalist economics? 
Michael Gill

This is life? (2016)

Book Review from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'This Is London: Life and Death in the World City'. By Ben Judah, Picador. 2016.

This is a sad, insightful and ultimately haunting insider account of life in London by a writer who can really write. It is a picture of what life is truly like for hundreds of thousands of London’s current inhabitants by someone determined to identify their struggles and recount their lives – people who most of us know are there, but perhaps never quite get to know. The Romanian beggars working for gangs to pay off their debts in the subways under Hyde Park Corner, the Mayfair Arab princess out of her mind on skunk most days because her every move is controlled by her father (even remotely via his security team), the itinerant Polish builders of Beckton creating the ‘dig down’ basement flats for the rich in Knightsbridge, the East European and Latin American street walkers of Ilford Lane, ever fearful of the next attack from a punter.

Judah’s opening lines tell us his motivation: ‘I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics. I don’t trust columnists. I don’t trust self-appointed spokesmen. I have to make up my own mind. This is why I am shivering again, in Victoria Coach station, at 6 am.’

By spending months trying to uncover the ‘other side’ of London to the one the tourists see, he has managed to create a fascinating and compelling book based on his experiences of the street. The facts are clear – as few as 45 percent of Londoners now are ‘white British’ and over a third have been born abroad. But this is not a UKIP manifesto in disguise, it is book that focuses on the lives of real people who are now more genuinely representative of those scraping a living in ‘the world city’ than the occupants of the glossy colour supplements and property magazines. These are the 95 percent of cleaners working for Transport for London who are immigrants, doing the job that others won’t do or can’t. The occupants of Zones 3 and 4 who have been pushed by the global elite out of central London – the traditional first home to UK immigrants – into what were once mainly white working class suburbs full of semis and terraces. This is where multi-occupancy now reigns courtesy of buy-to-let landlords, and life is precarious and often dangerous – the Edmontons and Leytons of this world, the Harlesdens and Neasdens. This is the world of pounds shops, ‘cash converters’, mobile phone un-locking, and pubs now converted into African churches, of betting shops, and fried chicken and kebabs.

You will have sensed this not an uplifting read. Some of the laziest racism, for instance, is to be found among poor, black evangelical Christians in Peckham, ever suspicious of the Asian shopkeepers they think fleece them at every turn. And when you have nothing, materialism and competition can be brutish enough and a descent to drink, drugs and desperate gambling close around the corner.

It is partly because of situations like this that socialists are socialists – not because of some abstract moral pity for those less fortunate, but because the society we live in is based on the need to keep us insecure and fearful, with a descent into the ‘underclass’ or ‘precariat’ all too vivid a misfortune for those who struggle every day in the grandly- named ‘market economy’.
Dave Perrin