Thursday, December 20, 2018

"The House of Industry" (1931)

Book Review from the December 1931 issue of the Socialist Standard

The House of Industry by S. G. Hobson (Pub. P. S. King & Son, Ltd., price 1/-, 112 pages).

Mr. S. G. Hobson, who has in turn been a member of the I.L.P., a Fabian, and an advocate of Guild "Socialism" has written a book in which he advocates workers’ control. This is to become effective by superseding the House of Lords by a "House of Industry,” which will have full legal authority from the House of Commons to control "all industrial processes, including banking, finance, credit and insurance; and in which labour will have a permanent majority.” The members of the "House of Industry” are to be elected by economic groups and to be representative of all factors. Needless to say Mr. Hobson does not propose dispossessing the capitalist class. He proposes that shares should be changed into "some form of debentures” bearing a fixed rate of interest.

The problems of Capitalism are very simple matters to the "House of Industry.” Unemployment will be solved by "increasing wages, adjusting economic factors, by co-ordinating industry and controlling credit.” How it is going to be done or how the details will work themselves out we are not told. We are left to believe that the magical formulae, "Control of credit ” . . . "finance” . . . "co-ordination of industry,” etc., etc., which are repeated almost on every page, will perform the miracle.

The most interesting part of the book is perhaps the foreword contributed by two prominent Trades Council officials, A. M. Wall and A. A. Purcell. Concerned because the Labour Party has forsaken its policy of Nationalisation (see June S.S.) in favour of Public Utility Companies, they advocate support of Mr. Hobson’s proposals for "workers’ control” through a "House of Industry” as outlined in his book.

"The politicians,” they say, "are actively engaged at this moment in legislating away their control over industry . . .  We need only instance the creation of the Electricity Commission and the proposed new authority for the passenger transport system of London as illustrations of this tendency on the part of Parliament to give away its control of economic affairs.”

They continue:—
   The indications are that a decade of legislation under Labour Governments will give us a whole group of independent corporations of this type, administering railway and road transport, electricity supply, the cotton textile industry, and probably others. These concerns will not be, as the Post Office organisation is, under Parliamentary control, administered by Government departments, and with responsible Ministers at their head. If the proposed new transport authority in London is to be taken as a model, questions of wages and conditions of employment will be handled by these new bodies in exactly the same way as any powerfully organised capitalist-controlled industry handles them now. Trade Unions will negotiate with these boards of Commissioners as they now negotiate with employers' organisations; and the policy of the board in dealing with the Unions cannot be any more effectively challenged in Parliament than the policy of any capitalist organisation of employers can be challenged to-day. Labour members who are returned to the House of Commons at the expense of the Unions by working-class votes as Members of Parliament, will be as powerless to protect the interest's of their organisations whose members are employed under these corporations, as the group of miners' M.P.s are to protect the workers in the coalfields under capitalist ownership. Our Labour members, in fact, who are consenting to the creation of these corporations, are not only voting away their usefulness as Union watchdogs : they are legislating against the workers' control of industry. And if anybody alleges that the principle of workers' control will be safeguarded by the inclusion of one or two prominent trade unionists among the commissioners we can only say we do not agree. We take leave to say further that anybody who thinks the appointment of a Trade Union representative on one of these boards is a step towards workers' control understands neither the meaning of workers' control nor the purpose of Trade Unionism.
It will be seen that Mr. A, M. Wall and Mr. A. A. Purcell both vigorously denounce Mr. Morrison’s and the late Labour Government’s London Passenger Transport Bill. They represent it—quite truly—as the abandonment of the Labour Party’s old policy of Nationalisation. But is there any fundamental difference between these proposals? The difference is merely one of form. In the case of Nationalisation control is vested in a State Department; in the case of the Public Utility Trust in a Committee of business men who are responsible to a State Department. In the case of "workers' control,” on the lines of Mr. Hobson’s proposals, control would nominally be in the hands of elected officials. In each case, however, the capitalists still retain ownership, and perhaps more securely than ever. Instead of their shares being liable to considerable fluctuations in the open market and to possible complete loss, they are to receive a fixed rate of interest on bonds having Government backing.

Public ownership in any of these forms is capitalism in a new garb. The defect about these schemes is that they do not so much as touch the fundamental problem of the workers. What is the problem? It is that we live in a world where the means of production and distribution are the private property of the capitalist class. The workers produce everything that is necessary for the sustenance and continuance of society; the capitalist class own it. The workers receive wages based roughly on what it costs them to live and be efficient, and bring up families. The capitalist class keep the remainder. It has been calculated by a Liberal economist, Professor Henry Clay, that one-twentieth of the population own between them five-sixths of the accumulated property, land, buildings, shares, etc., and retain every year nearly half of the total product of industry. That is the workers’ problem. That is why they are poor. There lies the cause of unemployment and wars. The solution is that the means of production and distribution should be made the common property of society as a whole. When that has been done there will no longer be a working class, producing wealth but not owning it, and a propertied class owning-wealth but not producing it. That will be Socialism. Nationalisation, Public Utility Companies, etc., do not solve that problem. They leave the property owners still in possession of their property rights, still able to live at the expense of the producers.

The only difference is that they exchange shares in a private company for shares in a public utility company, or for Government securities. The workers are more or less where they were before, getting just enough to exist on, and faced with all the harrowing problems of how to make ends meet. Changing the form of capitalism from private companies to State-controlled concerns is a problem of interest to the capitalist class, the form of whose property is being changed, but it is not a question that is worth the attention of the workers.
Harry Waite

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