Monday, January 16, 2017

A Plea for the Human Race (1967)

From the February 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Well we have taken the first steps into 1967 and by now most people have probably forgotten the good wishes and the resolutions with which they welcomed another new year and have settled down to the same old grind.

Nineteen sixty six, let us remember, was supposed to be “make or break” year. So far, the Labour government have not committed themselves on whether we made or broke; like most of their instant propaganda slogans, “make or break” is something they are trying to forget. In its place, they are assuring us that 1967 will definitely be the year (just as 1966 was going to be) when the British balance of payments comes into balance.

Workers who think that the international finances of the British capitalist class have some effect on their lives will be impressed by Labour’s assertion that in 1967 they will also crack the Rhodesian crisis, take a big step towards joining the Common Market and solve many of the social problems, like destitution and poor housing, at home. Workers who think like that will be impressed by anything.

They were probably deeply impressed, for example, by an interview the Prime Minister gave to James Margach. the Sunday Times political correspondent, which was published on New Year’s Day. Wilson first said, in effect, that his government had got away with an unprecedented confidence trick on the working class:
Not many people in July would have said that we could have got to the end of the first six months of total restraint with the high degree of success we have achieved . . . the wages policy for the first six months has been carried through without a single strike on a wages claim . . .
There is no need to add anything to this; it is adequate enough comment on the docility of the majority of the trade unions in the year of Labour government grace of 1966. But more follows. Wilson went on to say what effect he thought his government’s policies had had:
. . .  the cutting out of waste —- wasteful expenditure, waste in the boardroom and a growing awareness of the need to cut out waste in the use of labour.
It is clear that Wilson hopes 1967 will see more of what he calls the “shake out and application of economic methods to management”. This may be fine for shareholders and for politicians but not so fine for those who are shaken out and who have the economic methods of management applied to them.

What this means in direct terms is that thousands — perhaps millions — of people will be out of work, will have to take jobs at lower pay, or grab one of the few places at a government training centre on a miserly grant in the hope of finding another job when they finish their course. Or perhaps it means tearing up a family’s roots and moving them and all they have to a place where another job may be found.

It need surprise nobody that this is happening under a Labour government, who somewhere in their history have had supporters who hoped to build a world free of unemployment and who thought only Tory mine owners could properly be concerned with economic management. Labour is now a fully fledged party of capitalism, standing proudly and openly for capitalism modern, automated, shaken out, economically managed.

Why, it may be asked, the hurry? An unavoidable feature of capitalism is that goods and services are produced for sale. The profits which are realised when goods are sold go to the people who provide the capital - the investors, who invest their money precisely because they hope to get a profit. If the investors think their profit is in doubt they will usually withdraw their capital, very often in a rush. The Labour government have spent some time assuring the investors that they have no objection to profits and to make the point even clearer they have indulged in the customary juggling with taxation relief and allowances to provide what they hope will be the only incentives investors appreciate to sink their money in certain industries and areas.

But if the investors are concerned about selling their goods at a profit, it follows that they must be concerned about two other aspects of this — the price the goods can be sold at and the cost of their production. When the market is easy and the demand is high prices are high also and there is consequently little need to worry overmuch about the costs of production. When the opposite is happening — when the market is depressed, as it is in many fields at the moment — there is a severe pressure upon production costs and the employers are continually looking for ways of reducing them.
Here Labour's doctrine of economic management, and of cost effectiveness, comes into its own. Cost effectiveness means hard bargaining at every stage in buying whatever is needed for production. It means haggling with the suppliers of every nut and bolt, every envelope, every elastic band. It means pricing everything down to three decimal places of a penny. It also means hard bargaining with the unions over the cost of that most vital part of the productive process — labour power.

This is where the wage freeze comes in, as Labour's help in backing up the employers in their making a stand, at this time of troubles for British capitalism, over wages. It is Labour’s encouragement to the employers, to be cost conscious over wages as over everything else.

There is no end of this in sight. In 1967 the freeze, under whatever name, will continue and so will Labour’s policy of making British industry grudge every penny it spends on production. There will, as part of this drive, be more schemes of merging companies to bring about economies in production and to cut out duplicated research and administration. A by-product of these mergers will be the forming of larger and more powerful opponents for the unions to face. Labour have already successfully carried through their merger policy in the aircraft industry and their Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, under their new convert Sir Frank Kearton, is only just getting into its stride. When it does, it will give something to think about to those old Labour men who thought their party was opposed to cartels and monopolies which to them stood for capitalism impersonal and ruthless.

All of this is quite normal as far as capitalism goes. The balance sheets will probably look healthier for it and there may be a few more cigars smoked at the annual general meetings of some companies. There will also probably be a lot more votes for Harold Wilson. But somewhere in all this there are a lot of human beings; what about them?

Nobody has yet thought up a productive method which can do without human beings; even Wilson has not been able to dream up a future which does not have men and women. Automation and redeployment may move humans about, it may take them from one industry and put them into another (usually with not as great an effect upon overall production as the planners and the scientists claim) hut it cannot eliminate them altogether.

The trouble with human beings, as anyone who has mixed with them knows, is that they are — human beings. They are too often different from each other; they have different tastes, capacities, abilities. Some of them have what can only be called whims and foibles. They are really very tiresome.

Capitalism does not, and must not, see human beings like that. From its beginnings it has had the need to flatten individuals, as far as production and exploitation are concerned, into the same mould. The story of capitalism has been the story of the death of one individual craft after another, of the refinement of productive techniques and of the progressive separation of man from the things he makes. The first crude steam engine was part of this process and so is the most recent computer.

To capitalism human beings are units on the production line, just like nuts and bolts although needing different handling. They are part of the costs of production, a column in a ledger, a hole in a punched card, a blip on a computer tape. Capitalism tries to dehumanise men. At the moment there is enough in man to resist; so far we are not automatons.

But the pace is quickening. If the sorting machine throws out the card because the hole is in the wrong place, if the blip on the tap reads off the wrong data, then the principles of capitalism’s economic management say that human beings are not profitable to employ. The computer takes care of the rest; it makes up the final wage packet, it works out the redundancy pay. it deletes the name from the payroll.

At one time it was usual for workers to be laid off after a market had started to decline. Things are different now. The modern company, in good times, as well as bad. is always looking at its payroll, always asking itself who can be dispensed with, what further cuts can be made. Most up to date firms —the sort which Harold Wilson likes — have their own departments, staffed by earnestly spectacled young graduates, to work all this out for them. If not, there are plenty of firms outside who specialise in just this work.

The neatest and most accurate way of describing this way of treating human beings is degradation. The Labour Party are the disciples of this degradation and this is the end of what they look back on as their glorious history.

But millions of workers, shaken out and degraded, vote Labour, don’t they? Here is the unkindest cut of all. The very people who suffer this degradation — the holes in the cards, the blips on the tape — do not realise it or, if they do, will admit to seeing little wrong with their treatment. Yet they alone have the power to end it all and to free themselves so that they can begin to live like human beings

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