Editorial from the September 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
The stubbornly high level of unemployment is producing a wealth of material for the use of economic and financial "experts" in comparing the present to the last time the total of jobless workers reached such heights. Even better, for the reminiscent journalist in need of a newsline, is the fact that it happened half a century ago—in 1932, when the post-1914-18 slumps were at their peak.
These comparisons usually overlook the period in between, when there was comparatively full employment—particularly from 1945 until the mid ’60s. Those were the days when Keynesian theories were supposed to have triumphed, when the economists and politicians claimed to be able to hold unemployment at bay by such measures as varying the rate of taxation—which, they assumed, was a controlling mechanism. If any of these measures were ever criticised in detail, it was usually enough for the politicians to threaten to discard the controls, which would inexorably bring back the misery of the 30s.
Now the Keynesian policies have been shown up in all their impotence. Unemployment remains high in spite of all the economists and financial wizards can do. The recession—world wide—is immune to all the curses, cajoling and incantations of the medicine men of modern capitalism. Indeed, in their more sombre moments (which nowadays means most of the time) those same experts will admit that the outlook is for the slump to continue, even to worsen, and for unemployment to increase. Workers who are sacked when they are in their forties and fifties, we are being told, may have to compose their minds to never being employed again. Those years the experts spent with their text-books, their lecturers and their calculators have left them as innocent of an understanding of capitalism as when they started out.
But are there comparisons between the present and the 30s and if so how valid are they? What contribution can they make to an understanding of society? As we pointed out last month, it is misleading to compare just the bald figures for unemployment. This game of doctoring statistics is played by politicians of all parties in their efforts to pick up the votes of the uninformed. The game takes no account of the fact that the level of unemployment has a specially awful significance for the working class, who depend for their livelihood on the sale of their labour power. It adds to the pressure in our daily survival struggle and debilitates our efforts to defend our living standards— as the railway workers have recently experienced.
This provides one valid comparison with the past. The period after the First World War was marked by some epic working class struggles against the pressures from the employers, as the world economy slithered into recession. Many of those battles ended in defeat for the workers; they were perhaps quickly humiliated, or like the miners after the General Strike, starved into a bitter defeat. In those days, as at present, workers who were trying to defend their living standards were castigated by the gutter journalists as wreckers, idlers and subversives.
As the ruling class felt their strength. the screw was tightened still further. Workers who were barely surviving on unemployment pay had what were called their ‘benefits' (a prime example of the political misuse of language) cut. In 1982 unemployed workers have waiting for them the ‘safety net' of Supplementary Benefit, which they receive after passing through an extremely humiliating experience. One of the ‘safety nets' of the 30s was the Unemployed Assistance Board, whose representatives were liable to advise workers to lighten their poverty by selling their furniture, cutlery and so on. The 30s, like the 80s, were times of exceptionally blatant degradation for the working class.
Yet through all this the political party which openly and arrogantly proclaimed its support for capitalism maintained its popularity. The Conservatives came through the 30s strong and united, apparently entrenched in power for ever. At election time, the workers gave them a hearty vote of confidence. The Labour Party was in disarray, with many of its leaders departed into a coalition with the Tories and the Liberals. There is a similar situation now, as an influential faction in the Labour Party runs for what they hope will be the cover of the Social Democratic Party, leaving the rest to contemplate an eternity in the political junk room.
If there are comparisons which can usefully be made over the past fifty years, they can be explained by the fact that this social system does not basically change. Capitalism in the 80s is the same society as it was in the days of Baldwin and Macdonald. It is similarly anarchic. It produces the same desperate, devastating problems. Its leaders are as impotent now as they were in 1932.
The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that, unless something is done to change this state of affairs, our successors in 2032 will be making similar comparisons, and reaching the same depressing opinion. In fact, capitalism cannot change. When it produces a war, or famine, or mass unemployment, it is not behaving in a wayward fashion but exactly in character. There can be no escape from the results of the system, in 1932 or in 1982, short of abolishing capitalism itself.
That is the crucial issue, the lesson to be gained from looking back over the past half-century. At present the working class absorb a staggering amount of punishment from the workings of capitalism and they dumbly accept that this must always be. But the future is in our hands. We have the power world wide to end capitalism and all its problems. We can have a world of common ownership and free access—a world of abundance and harmonious cooperation. If there is one lesson the past fifty years has for the working class it is of the urgent need for the new social system— socialism.