Editorial from the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
Tide-like, the total of unemployment rises remorselessly, perhaps eventually to wash the Tory government out to sea. Canute-like, ministers insist that although the waves are running higher and higher the land is actually becoming drier, safer, more fertile. They assure us that whatever impoverishment and distress is being endured is only temporary; their policies are beginning to work and, with success so close at hand, must not be abandoned now. There is no other way.
A devotee of this line is the Employment (sic) Minister Norman Tebbit, who is notorious as a political bovver boy. Tebbit’s determination to protect the interests of the British ruling class is unusually combative, even for a Tory. Discussing the latest 3 million unemployment figures he was reported:
Mr. Tebbit said that he could see signs of an economic revival. Apart from the improved vacancies, he highlighted higher industrial output, lower short time working and more overtime. (Guardian 2/1/82)
Part of Tebbit's usefulness to the Thatcher government is that, careless of common popularity, he is ready to be the fall guy, to absorb much of the anger generated by the statistics. This has a value beyond the Tory party; it promotes the myth that the problems of the capitalist system are in some way connected with the personalities of the people who try to run it. According to the myth, someone like Tebbit would cause unemployment even in the middle of a hectic boom, while the problem would easily disappear if a kindlier person (Gilmour?; Walker?) were in charge instead.
This is only one of the numerous false ideas about unemployment which are so popular. In truth, people are thrown out of work when commodities cannot be sold profitably. As capitalism is a system where wealth is produced with the object of profitable sale, if there is no profit there is no production. That is a simple, inexorable economic law. The difficulty—for Tebbit as for all his predecessors—is that that profit cannot be guaranteed. There can be no confidence that as wealth is turned out there will be a welcoming market for it. If there could be such confidence, the history of capitalism would be very different. There would have been no Great Crash of 1929, no recession of the 70s and 80s. Capitalism is anarchy. It cannot be controlled or regulated, whoever is said to be in charge.
An equally important fallacy is that employment is vital to the working class, to the extent that all would be well if only the dole queues could be made to disappear. Because of this fallacy governments are often assessed in terms of the presence of significant levels of unemployment. High unemployment is rated as failure (as the Thatcher government is finding out) while full employment is rated as success.
In one sense it is natural that the fallacy should be so popular. The vast majority of people under capitalism depend on being employed for their living. Having virtually no ownership in the means of wealth production and distribution they survive by working for a wage for an employer. That is why, concisely and accurately, they are called the working class.
Depending on employment for a living means that being out of work presents a special threat. But it does not therefore follow that being in work is particularly prosperous or even desirable. The working class sell their labour power (which is what employment actually is) for a wage. This represents in general terms—over a period, under varying conditions—the value of that labour power, which is the food, clothing, shelter, recreation which are needed to reproduce labour power. Workers’ wages are generally just about enough to keep them in existence. Their level of subsistence and consumption is restricted; they live at a sub standard. When they have bought what is needed to reproduce themselves there is little, if anything, over. The working class live in poverty.
It is clear from this that the workers’ concern should extend beyond the immediate intensification of their poverty which follows from unemployment. Their interests lie not just in alleviating their stresses but in abolishing them. They should not fret about changing a government minister like Tebbit but in establishing a society which will have no use for a government and state machine. Urgently, they should consider the case for a social system opposite in every way from capitalism.
The problems of capitalism stem from its basic nature as a system of commodity production. In contrast, wealth in socialist society will be made for human use. This will fundamentally change the social character of wealth and so will also change all social relationships. To begin with, there will be no social classes; no employers and employees. People will not depend for their living on being able to sell their labour power. Production will be a free process of co-operation for the common good and wealth will be freely available to all human beings.
Socialism can be reality now; in terms of its technical and productive capacity society can today support a system of common ownership and free access. All that is needed is for the majority—the world working class—to understand socialism and to opt for it. That is the only useful lesson to be drawn from the crises of capitalism. On whether, and on how effectively, it is absorbed depends the welfare and the prosperity—perhaps even the very continued existence—of human society.