Thursday, April 9, 2020

Letter: Big Brother (1994)

Letter to the Editors from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

A firm in Manchester specializes in making secret videos of the working class. But don't you go expecting to be the next star of Beadle’s About.

A letter from them luckily intercepted and sent to union representatives, makes it plain that this scum is out to kick members of our class, already knocked down by industrial injury, in the teeth.

It concerns a member of NORWEB’s workforce who has been injured at work and then had the temerity to seek compensation for his back injury. It describes how they had questioned neighbours about the man’s habits and then, surreptitiously, using a number of vehicles, set up surveillance on his house.

When, after a number of days of watching, this man finally found the strength to leave his home, hobbling on a walking stick, they followed videoing all the while. Having managed to complete two simple tasks this firm of non-qualified Peeping Toms conclude from the film that their prey is swinging the lead — lying.

Obviously nothing less than total paralysis is good enough for workers in this condition to qualify for industrial injury compensation. Workers are forced to pull their guts out in unsafe working conditions and when they injure themselves this is how capitalists repay them as they twist and squirm to avoid paying for the results of working conditions. Watch your back!

The name of the firm? Specialised Investigation Services Ltd.
Gary Cornwell, 
Blackburn

Between the Lines: Public parades (1994)

"The Hopefuls"
The Between the Lines column from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Public parades

Public participation programmes have taken off in recent years. Channel 4 have been in the forefront in providing a new type of entertainment whereby programme content is at least in part controlled by members of the public other than professional media types or politicians. Comment and Right To Reply stand out as among particularly good examples of programmes where individual members of the working class are able to take the opportunity to put across their views on a topic of their concern to them.

In the United States, things have gone much further still. There, the public can actually create their own shows in some instances at minimal expense, so long as they have the time and energy to do so. Public Access Television, as it is called, started as a big hit in New York and has since spread to other American cities. Programmes cost next-to-nothing to make and any profit for the network comes mainly through advertising. Clips from some of the more eccentric and bizarre Public Access shows have been aired in Britain on C4's Manhattan Cable and the currently-showing United States of Television (Saturdays, 11.05pm).

It would seem that the "anything goes" atmosphere of Public Access Television is unlikely to find a home in Britain for a while though, which is a pity. The state authorities control television output in this country tightly, as is evidenced by the fact that Britain still has only four terrestrial channels. This is a shame indeed, for while Public Access TV is a showcase for the bizarre and ridiculous at times, it represents a democratization of the airwaves which the more serious, including socialists, could benefit from.


Give us a twirl

Instead, British TV is currently dominated by public participation programmes of a rather different sort. These are shows where the main aim is to make the public look foolish for entertainment purposes. Some of these programmes are innocuous enough like Bruce Forsythe’s Generation Game where contestants compete to make bad wobbly pots. But others have a more sinister undertone. These programmes can be spotted easily as they are invariably based on a mass-hysteria on the part of the audience who are required to leave all their critical faculties at home. This is presumably because only those in such a mental state, fortified by a sip of alcohol, are likely to consent to taking part in a show whose object is to humiliate them and their class.

These shows were developed in the United States but are certainly a less welcome import from genuine Public Access TV. Blind Date on ITV was one of the first and it still remains compulsive viewing for millions. Far from attempting to find everlasting love, most of the contestants seem to be part-time disc-jockeys or budding actresses desperate for publicity, fame and fortune. Few if any actually attain this, and their fragile egos are invariably dented before the show is over, to the delight of the studio audience and the satisfied curiosity of the watching millions.


Hear the word

Currently the worst example of public humiliation TV is a spot on Channel 4's The Word (Fridays, 11.05pm), entitled "The Hopefuls". This is a feature where a member of the viewing public is allowed ten seconds of fame on the condition that they will do anything to receive it. It is public humiliation taken to its zenith. Typical tasks allocated to the hopefuls have been to wallow in a bath of horse shit, to drink their own urine and to eat a plate of pig’s eyes.

Channel 4 also seems to have introduced a similar, occasional spot on its new Saturday night show hosted by Chris Evans, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush (10.05pm). On one show a contestant had to French kiss a stranger for thirty seconds if she was to be eligible to win a prize.

Just where, we might ask, will all this end? Have sex with your grandmother for a tenner? Lose an eye and win a holiday? For sure, this is capitalist "entertainment" which has sunk to its lowest ebb. Dangle the carrot, don't spare the stick and dress it all up as "fun" in front of audiences who would have presumably laughed and "whooped" at the Nuremberg Rallies. Precisely what sort of society is it that glorifies in demeaning its inhabitants and in draining them of every last ounce of self-respect they have left in this way?

Socialists have the answer. It is a society rotting on its feet, hooked on hysteria and seemingly addicted to mindless competition and glory-seeking in all its forms. The collective hysteria of the television studio acts as a substitute for real social solidarity and the public humiliation spectacle it feeds on is little more than the sickest of jokes at the expense of the often desperate. If society is judged by the way in which it treats its own inhabitants, then this one is surely ripe for drastic change.
To this end socialists have a sound piece of advice for the millions of viewers of public humiliation TV. Let’s overthrow this muckheap before it engulfs us all.
Dave Perrin

50 Years Ago: Miners and leaders (1994)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain wishes to express its deepest sympathy with our miner fellow-workers. By the time this article appears, the struggle in South Wales will no doubt have been "settled." Even in the extremely improbable granting of the strikers' full demands, the miner will remain one of the worst victims of capitalism. We speak as worker to worker. All of us in varying degrees have tasted the bitter pill of poverty and been under the harrow of callous employers.

We rejoice that the miner has not been driven so low as to be indifferent to the taste of the dirt of life offered by his masters, and explained away by his pastors.

The Daily Herald has offered you advice. It bids you "Go back to work: Trust your leaders."

The S.P.G.B. begs its comrades of the pit to review their history, especially in the light of this advice . . .

When the rank and file of the Unions cease to be gulled by the "leader" who too frequently is seeking to round his own life into a success, when a secretary becomes a servant and not a boss, the Trade Unions will be a big factor in assisting at the birth of SOCIALISM.

Fellow-workers of the pit: In Socialism alone can your degradation be liquidated. Don't be misled as to what constitutes "Socialism." Study the eight points of our "Declaration of Principles." and be assured that our "Object" is no pious expression of impossible attainment. In the politically instructed worker lies the future hope of all mankind.

(From an article by "Reginald" in the Socialist Standard, April 1944).

Sting in the Tail: The spying game (1994)

The Sting in the Tail column from the April 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

The spying game

The outraged howls coining from America because Aldrich Ames, a top CIA official, had been recruited by the KGB to spy for the USSR, were sheer hypocrisy.

After all, Ames had in the past been busy recruiting Soviet officials and KGB agents to spy against their own country, but what had the howls rising to crescendo was that after the collapse of the USSR Ames had then carried on spying for Boris Yeltsin’s Russia which is supposed to be an ally of America.

So what? William Webster, the CIA’s director, said in 1989 that following the demise of the USSR the CIA would now step-up spying on "our political and military allies" in order to gain technological and economic advantage for American capitalism.

As one newspaper editorial put it:
  "Does anyone seriously imagine that the CIA’s long-serving agents in the Kremlin have all traded in their false moustaches and invisible ink?’

No escape for Cuba

Economic reforms in Cuba mean that joint ventures with foreign capital and a growing tourist trade are exposing the island to market forces:
  "Dollars, illegal for thirty years before being legalised last July now circulate freely. A chain of state-owned hard-currency stores is flourishing, with people usually queueing up." (Guardian, 9 February)
The Castro regime has also legalised 140 categories of self-employment and, in a bid to boost agriculture, most of the state-owned farms are now semi-autonomous co-ops which can "lay-off surplus labour".

These changes are the result of Cuba losing its main trading partners, the so-called "communist countries", which had provided food, hard currency and oil in exchange for sugar. Now Cuba must buy what it needs at world market prices, hence the desire for dollars.

So Cuba follows the USSR and its European satellites along with China and Vietnam in learning that no country, whatever its political system, can distance itself from the global market economy that is capitalism.


Tell it like it is

Parliament was in a turmoil. TV reporters were buttonholing any MP they could find to put in front of a camera. We were told "MPs were infuriated".

What was all the fuss about?

William Waldegrave the minister responsible for "more open government" had been telling the truth to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee. He had stated:
  "in exceptional cases, it is necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons.. . The House of Commons understands that and accepts that".
It seems that such candour has alarmed MPs. One Tory is reported as saying "it is a terrible blunder". Giles Radice, the Labour MP chairing the select committee said, "I was amazed. I don’t think it is right that ministers should deceive or mislead the House".

This is of course the most awful hypocrisy. All professional politicians lie. It is their stock-in-trade. In order to get to Parliament they must tell the lie that capitalism can be made to work in the interest of the working class.


Farcical goings-on

Can certain nosh and booze actually be the body and blood of a long-dead Israelite? Did his virgin mother really float up to heaven along with him when she wasn’t even dead? Does an old Polish geezer living in Rome never make a mistake?

These and similar burning questions of the day were mulled over by a motley bunch of religious nit-pickers, paid and unpaid, when the Environment Secretary John Gummer changed his brand of superstition by dumping the C of E because he opposed women priests, and joined the Roman Catholic church.

The Anglican bishop of Sheffield called this a "kick in the teeth" and, with true Christian forgiveness, lambasted Gummer for his "ignorant silliness".

Meanwhile an Anglican group which shares Gummer’s views on women priests rubbished their own church for 'thinking it knows better than God", and so on.

Isn’t it pathetic when otherwise sane adults can debate in all seriousness these absurdities and fabrications as if they had any relevance to humanity today?


Age no barrier
  "At a reception for Britain's oldest workers in London, the Employment Minister, Ann Widdecombe MP, welcomed men and women in their eighties and nineties who labour at daily jobs."(Guardian, 15 February)
This stunt was part of the government’s campaign to cut social security costs as men and women of pensionable age who keep working would not be drawing state pensions and benefits.

However, the idea that people should be able to work for as long as they wish is one we heartily endorse, but this can really only happen in socialist society because in capitalism employers don’t want older workers. Indeed, Widdecombe said she wanted "to shame those employers who won’t take on workers in their forties and fifties".

And people who wish to stop working, for whatever reason, should also be able to do so, but that too is something that will have to wait until socialism.


One law for them

If parliament had voted to reduce the age of consent for homosexuals to sixteen it would not have applied to Northern Ireland. One argument given for this is that the age of consent for heterosexuals there is seventeen and it would never do if the age for gays was lower than for non-gays.

This wouldn’t have been the first time gays in Northern Ireland had been denied changes made in the law for the rest of Britain. When the last Labour government was trying to hang onto office at any price, it even sunk to bribing Ulster Unionist MPs with the promise that homosexual acts in the province would remain illegal:
  "Homosexual law reform for Northern Ireland appears to have been delayed once again, as a sop to the seven official Unionist MPs who could he the Government's only allies in the Commons next week." (Guardian, 3 March 1979)

When freedom comes

An item on ITN on the 17th February concerned plans for the takeover of the West Bank by the Palestinians when (or if?) that area is evacuated by the Israelis. Apparently a senior cop from the Nottinghamshire force has been given a nice little earner training Palestinian recruits for a new police force.

The item closed with a close-up of the recruits lifting long clubs from a pile while the voice-over told us that these men would have an important role in helping to establish the new Palestinian democracy.

Seems the Palestinian freedom fighters, like those in many other countries, are going to learn what they have been fighting for. No doubt they will be filled with patriotic pride at the thought of being attacked by a club-wielding Palestinian cop rather than an Israeli thug.

Love and Hunger. (1920)

From the September 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was a vision . . .

Two angels appeared to me . . . two genii.

I say angels, genii, because both, had no clothes on their naked bodies, and behind their shoulders rose long, powerful wings.

Both were youths. One was rather plump, with soft, smooth skin and dark curls. His eyes were brown and full, with thick eyelashes ; his look was sly, merry, and eager. His face was charming, bewitching, a little insolent, a little wicked. His full, soft, crimson lips were faintly quivering. The youth smiled as one possessing power — self-confidently and languidly; a magnificent wreath of flowers rested lightly upon his shining tresses, almost touching his velvety eyebrows. A spotted leopard’s skin pinned up with a golden arrow, hung lightly from his curved shoulder to his rounded thigh. The feathers ot his wings were tinged with rose colour; the ends of them were bright red, as though dipped in fresh-spilt scarlet blood. From time to time they quivered rapidly with a sweet, silvery sound, the sound of rain in spring.

The other was thin, and his skin yellowish. At every breath his ribs could be seen faintly heaving. His hair was fair, thin, and straight; his eyes big, round, pale grey . . . his glance uneasy and strangely bright. All his features were sharp; the little half- open mouth, with pointed fish-like teeth; the pinched eagle nose, the projecting chin, covered with whitish down. The parched lips never once smiled.

It was a well-cut face, but terrible and pitiless! (Though the face of the first, the beautiful youth, sweet and lovely as it was, showed no trace of pity either.) About the head of the second youth were twisted a few broken and empty ears of corn, entwined with faded grass-stalks. A coarse grey cloth girt his loins; the wings behind, a dull, dark grey colour, moved slowly and menacingly.

The two youths seemed inseparable companions. Each of them leaned upon the other’s shoulder. The soft hand of the first lay like a cluster of grapes upon the bony neck of the second; the slender wrist of the second, with its long, delicate fingers, coiled like a snake about the girlish bosom of the first.

And I heard a voice. This is what it said:

“Love and hunger stand before thee—twin brothers, the two foundation-stones of all things living.

“All that lives moves to get food, and feeds to bring forth young. “Love and Hunger—their aim is one; that life should cease not, the life of the individual and the life of others—the same universal life.”

* * * * *

In the foregoing, Turgenev has, in his allegorical way, personified very strikingly the two forces to which can be traced the motive-power of all animal activities. The desire to live and the desire to propagate the species are common to all animals; but beyond this, the animal man, since he has developed along the lines which have set him apart from, and ahead of, the lower animals, has evolved further desires, to live as easily and safely as possible, and to be in such an economic position as will allow of his breeding and rearing offspring who shall develop a healthier physique and a higher intelligence than his own.

Let us examine shortly man’s place in nature and society looked at from this point of view. A society is defined by Professor Edward Jenks as “a group or mass of people, bound together by a certain common principle or object.” A political society, which is the particular type of society we are dealing with at present, the type of society, that is, in which the civilised peoples of the World are to-day grouped and organised, he defines as not being formed for any special or limited objects, but which has grown up, almost spontaneously, as part of the general history of mankind, and which is concerned with its general interests.

The last part of this definition must, however, be taken in a very limited sense. We shall see how far, and in what way, society—present-day capitalist society—is concerned with the general interests of the group of people of whom it is composed. While you have—as you now have —society divided into two classes, of which one is the dominant class and the other the class dominated, you must necessarily have a clash of interests ; in which case the advantage of the one section can only react to the disadvantage of the other. To-day, the members of the dominant or master class, by virtue of their possession of all the means of life, are able to maintain their position, as individuals and as a class, only by keeping down, and pressing ever harder upon, the class they dominate—the working or wage-slave class.

So you have a comparatively small number of people who are only able to satisfy their desire to live (as easily and as safely as possible) and their desire to breed and rear a progeny (healthier and more intelligent than themselves) by keeping the rest of society—i.e., the great majority of the people—in an enslaved, unhealthy, and mentally inefficient condition.

Hunger and love are quite as powerful in their effect upon the workers as they are upon the masters, but owing to the latter’s more intelligent conception of their class position, the one class is able easily and satisfactorily to obtain the necessaries and luxuries that make life for the individual, and the extension of that life in the form of the breeding and maintenance of offspring, worth the having; whereas all that the other class—the working class—can do is simply to lead a precarious existence, with little or no outlook for themselves or for the children whom the forces of nature compel them to bring into the world. Hence the paradox that instead of the life of the individual and the maintenance of the race being the concern of society as a whole, one section is fighting another section to the death because only by so doing can it satisfy the insistent demands that the forces of hunger and love make upon the units that compose that particular section.

To the Socialist, with his knowledge of the fundamental forces of nature and their relation to the individual and to society, it seems that such a paradoxical and unnatural condition of things must inevitably end in disaster unless some way can be found by which the equilibrium between man and nature can be satisfactorily adjusted. The contention of the Socialist is that the remedy is to be found in the abolition of the master or capitalist class. It is indisputable that a certain quantity of food, clothing, and shelter is necessary to human existence; without such food, clothing, and shelter mankind would vanish from the face of the globe ; but as all the necessaries of life are the product of human energy applied to nature’s resources, so it follows that actually the only necessary people in society are the people who do the work of the world—that is, the members of the working class.

The master class might very well go out of existence and yet all that is requisite for the maintenance of life still be produced. Food would still be grown and manufactured, clothing still be made, houses still be built, even though such a calamity (!) happened as the extinction of the members of the capitalist class, who, while themselves performing no useful function in society, yet manage to secure for themselves and their dependents the major portion of the wealth produced by the men and women of the working class, without whose efforts mankind would soon pass into oblivion.

The abolition of the capitalist class can only be accomplished by the strenuous efforts of a class-conscious working class. It is obviously futile to expect the capitalist class to abolish itself. Therefore it is that the Socialist Party, by oral and written propaganda, is striving to implant in the minds of the workers the consciousness of their real position in the society in which they live. Not until they have been brought to an appreciation of their position as wage-slaves and a further appreciation of the overwhelming power they possess as a political force, will it be possible for them—by organising with us, in a class-conscious political party—to wrest from their masters the power which will enable them, not only to win their freedom from class-domination, but also enable them, by harmonising their economic position with their desire or will to live and to maintain and develop the species, to secure for themselves and their children initial entrance to the vast and unexplored wonderland of life, only fleeting glimpses of which are at present vouchsafed to them when they are perhaps able to contemplate nature in its pristine grandeur ; to watch the demonstrations of a great scientist; or to study the works of a great imaginative and creative artist.
F. J. Webb

Correspondence: The Mystery of "Sovereigns as Sovereigns, and not as Gold." (1920)

Letter to the Editors from the September 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

To the Editors.

Dear Sirs — I understand that if one attempts to find error in your journal you lead off with “A superstitious Kaffir has,” etc, or something similarly showing innate race, creed, and colour bias. However, I will chance it.

F. F. in his article “Paradox or Illusion,” challenges Mr. Sandiway to explain why if Bradburys are not gold value they can be exchanged for sovereigns. True, they can be exchanged for sovereigns, but only sovereigns as sovereigns, not sovereigns as gold. Their gold value is limited by the reading of old law and Dora and its export restrictions. Gold on July 27 is quoted 108s. 9d. per oz., which is a considerable margin above sovereigns plus the highest freights to anywhere.

Also in the few lines previous to his challenge F. F. (I hope I am not misreading him) seems to distinguish between gold and commodities more than is necessary between one commodity and another. He must know that gold is merely the most suitable commodity to measure all other commodities, and that otherwise it follows strictly the law of commodities. Gold is a commodity which enters into all transactions simply to facilitate and expedite the barter of old days.—

Yours, etc., 
Bannochie.


Our Reply.

Quids Are Gold, Really.
When Bannochie says: “True, they can be exchanged for sovereigns,” he concedes my point. His further remark “but only sovereigns as sovereigns and not sovereigns as gold” does not qualify his admission for the simple reason that sovereigns are gold and gold to the full value represented. When the Government gave notes in exchange for sovereigns they gave, in effect, a receipt for so much gold, and the holder of such a receipt can to-day receive the same quantity of gold by tendering his receipt or note. The pound note has, therefore, the same gold basis that it had when it was first issued, and is accepted within the Empire as representing the sovereign.

The high price of gold in the open market explains itself when we remember that it is illegal to melt down sovereigns and unpatriotic to demand them from the Bank, which has held huge stocks of gold in reserve since the early days of the war.

The amusing side of Banaochie’s attempted criticism is that he endeavours to show that the “price of gold ” has risen, while my chief concern was to show that its “value had not fallen.” Apart from his confusion over the two terms, it is evident that even if his point were proved it would only go to support my contention—that prices have actually risen and not that paper juggling makes it merely appear so.

The distinction between gold and other commodities is that the latter, whatever their magnitude or use, express their value in the former. Gold, in this country, is alone the material in which values can be expressed. The position it occupies to day is due to its physical properties and the historical development of wealth-production, together with the social relationships arising therefrom. It is, therefore, just as correct to speak of gold and commodities as it is to speak of king and subjects. In neither case can the one exist without the other. To find the origin of such relationships we trace their development backwards. But even when we have done that and discovered that gold is only a commodity, that the king is merely a man, the fact still remains that in one country there is only one king and that gold is the one commodity to obtain which all other commodities are produced. If society persists in distinguishing between gold and commodities even Bannochie must fall into line—in practice. For instance, in times of crisis gold is in demand everywhere, is, in fact, the only form in which wealth is recognised. Again, if Bannochie is a wage-slave with any experience of unemployment, he has been forced to recognise the difference between gold and his commodity, labour-power : the latter is often a drug on the market, and most other commodities have been drugs as well; but when has gold been a drug ?

Gold is not merely “the most suitable commodity to measure all other commodities.” It is the substance in which all commodities express their value—a far different thing. When gold has become money it is then the universal equivalent, and all other kinds of wealth are merely commodities. Only when the money commodity is isolated in this way can it fulfil its various functions, as measure of value, as standard of price and circulating medium. The fact that it is generally recognised as the measure of value—its chief function—isolates it from other commodities, but in the process of becoming isolated the days of barter are left behind, and the full development of gold as a circulating medium is a sign that barter (in its simple form of direct exchanges) no longer exists.
F. Foan

Correspondence: What determines the form of the social system? (1920)

Letter to the Editors from the September 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

To the Editor.

Dear Sir,—In the first chapter of the S.P.G.B. Manifesto Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto is quoted as stating that “the workers, to secure their emancipation, must first secure the control of the political machine.”

This is tantamount to saying that the social organism is determine by Political and not according to the general trend of Marx, “The economic condition of the people.”

Is this so ?
G. C. W.


Our Reply.
Exercising our enormous fund of goodwill to the uttermost in the endeavour to understand you, we conclude that when you speak of the “social organism” you mean the social edifice, structure, system—anything almost but what you say, in fact. To use the words of one who has gone before, is this so ?

If it is, then the answer to your question is, brother, it is not so.

The form of the social system is determined, not, as you say Marx said (poor old Marx, how they do love to dance upon your literary relics!) by “the economic condition of the people,” but by its economic base.

If you read the first clause of our Declaration of Principles you will see it there stated that society is based upon the private ownership of the means of living. How the form which the social system shall take is determined by this basic factor a little thought should reveal. For instance, the private ownership being confined to a section of the people, it is determined that society shall consist of two classes—those who possess and those who do not; it is also determined by the same factor that those who do not own property must work for wages Thus it is seen that the two most pregnant characteristics of present-day society, (1) its division into classes and (2) the wage-labour basis of its productive system, are clearly seen to arise from the private property base.

Now although private property is the basis of present-day society, private property is not an institution which can exist of its own force, like, say, gravitation. Minor infringements on the “rights of private property” are called theft, and our correspondent is presumed by the law to know how such cases are dealt with. Just as such minor cases are dealt with by the minor forces of the State—the police and the beak—so to preserve private property from the major infringements on private property—the revolutionary attack upon its very vitals—there exists the major force, the armed forces of the State.

To say that the wages system, together with the other phenomena peculiar to the present order, rests upon the private property basis of society, is to imply that the emancipation of the workers from wage-slavery can result only from the abolition of private property. This naturally raises the question: How is this to be accomplished in face of the armed forces of the State ?

The answer to this is that the workers must either fight the armed forces or control them.

The first course is obviously not to be thought of until the second is closed to us. Therefore the next question is : Through what medium are the armed forces of the nation controlled ?

The Army and Navy are part of the machinery of government, or the political machinery. As such they are controlled by Parliament.

That is why we tell the workers that in order to obtain their emancipation they must get control of the political machinery.

Now the point that our correspondent will observe here is that, far from our insistence on the need for capturing the political machinery implying that the political factor determines the form of the social structure, it simply indicates something the workers must do before they can be in a position to deal with the real determining factor in the shaping of society, the private ownership of property. This is the root of the social tree, from which every twig and leaf draws its life ; the political machinery is the fence around the tree, to keep donkeys and other things off. To deal with the fence is the necessary preliminary to doing things to the root, but that does not imply that the tree is based on the fence instead of on the root.
Editorial Committee

#    #    #    #

H. Dight. Your criticism has been handed to the writer of the article in question and we hope to publish the reply next month.

Socialism means co-operation (1979)

Editorial from the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The propagandists of capitalism represent it as a social system which is basically logical and which operates with a consistent humanity. If that were true there would be none of the problems with which we are so familiar — and there would be no need for a socialist party to argue that capitalism must be abolished because it is a mass of contradictions.

Capitalism has unlocked a vast potential for the production and distribution of wealth—nothing less, in fact than the capacity to satisfy the needs of every person on the earth. Yet at the same time capitalism fails to achieve that potential, or anywhere near it.

We often witness the destruction of food when there is what the economists like to call a “surplus” of it. This “surplus” is not something related to needs—while food is being destroyed there are plenty of people who need it. Indeed the destruction is carried out in one part of the world while millions are starving to death in another. Starvation is a chronic problem of capitalism. and this in a world which can also produce a “surplus”.

Capitalism has developed our technical accomplishments to a high degree, enabling complex tasks to be performed to precision and ending the need for much monotonous repetitive work. But these accomplishments are not reflected in the quality of what is produced. Much of the wealth turned out is of a low standard—jerry built houses, devitalised food, cars destined for an early end on the scrap-heap.

There are other examples of waste. Capitalism finds it necessary to devote a lot—probably the majority — of its effort to things which can only be called wasteful and unproductive. The enormous material and social effort poured into the armed forces, the police, the judiciary, the prisons—and all the hardware of weapons and equipment which they need—is one example of this. Another is the ubiquitous financial and commercial machinery of capitalism — insurance companies, banks, building societies, merchant houses, salesmen and so on. None of these produce any wealth : they only consume and destroy it.

These inconsistencies exist alongside a massive social contradiction. This social system has united the working class, in the sense that it has focussed all former class divisions into the one divide between capitalist and worker. But capitalism does not promote class unity. It splits the working class on grounds of nationality and, at times on grounds of “race". It sets one worker against another, in competition for a job, for promotion, for scarce goods, for any advantage no matter how slight.

All these contradictions spring from the basic one. which is peculiar to capitalism—the production of wealth as commodities. Capitalism turns out its wealth not for people to consume; that is secondary to the function of its being sold on the market. So people starve, or go without, or accept something below the best, because they cannot afford anything better. They become conditioned to accept their position as an inferior, exploited class who produce everything but own virtually nothing. Wealth is poured into the state machine, into armaments and the like to protect the privileged position of the ruling class, in whose interests this society of commodity wealth operates.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has something to offer which will end these contradictions. Socialism will be a society of common ownership of the means of production and distribution, in which all wealth will be a use-value. The social relationships of commodity wealth will cease to exist; everything will be made to satisfy human needs, whether these be actual material needs or other, less tangible, fancies.

Removing the restrictions of commodity production will be the setting free of human abilities. Wealth will be turned out in abundance; the amount of it, and the quality will be limited only by the material problems of the time. Socialism will have no social relationships of the sort to hamper production; its relationships will be those of liberation and plenty.

In socialism human beings will be able for the first time to realise their potential—and the world will witness a veritable flowering of talents and productive capacity such as dreams are now made of. In this will be expressed a new unity of people. Socialism will bring human beings together, in the common task of producing the best and the most humane society of which we are capable.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain, alone among political parties in this country, stands for this new. basically different society. We argue that the working class does not need to waste their abilities in the continual production of the sub-standard. They do not need to suffer the indignities and the suppressions of poverty. They do not need to stand and watch a world which could be beautiful, abundant and satisfying stagnate into an ugly, impoverished nightmare.

Socialism is ours for the taking; materially the world is ready for it. All it needs now is people.

Political Notebook: Honour Among Thieves (1979)

The Political Notebook Column from the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Honour Among Thieves

One of the main themes of Shakespeare’s telly spectacular Julius Caesar is that of “honourable men". Every schoolboy knows how Mark Antony (himself not averse to a little honest cheating) used that phrase over and over again to describe the conspirators who had recently murdered their former friend, Caesar. So successful was Antony in the use of these words that the mob eventually set off howling for the murderers’ blood. The parallels between this and some modern politicians and members of the capitalist class (all honourable men) are interesting.

Take for example, the Peachey Property Corporation. The former chairman of this group, Sir Eric Miller, shot himself. (It would have been more romantic had he run on his own sword as Brutus and Cassius did, but never mind). He did so when it was perfectly obvious that the huge financial fiddles that he had undertaken were coming to light. The Department of Trade report investigating Peachey Properties said, according to the Guardian (31.1.79) "Sir Eric covered his misdeeds by telling lies freely, fabricating false documents and causing others to fabricate and utter false documents.’’ (Which didn’t prevent him getting his knighthood).

Dead men are supposed to tell no tales, that Sir Eric’s ghost, like Caesar’s before him is causing other former friends some little problems. It appears that Sir Eric, according to the Department of Trade used the company’s money as his own instead of treating it as the money of others, which it was. As is well known, Sir Eric dispensed little favours to his friends. For example filing cabinets and £3304 worth of champagne to a party for Harold Wilson. (Perhaps Harold needed the filing cabinets to store the champagne.) Wilson of course was good to Erie; after all, Wilson knighted Eric before knighting himself. True brotherhood.


More Tales of the Dead

Then there was Reggie Maudling. Of course he is now dead. 1 say "of course” since there were those who maintained you could not tell the difference. He was another honourable man. No other politician was more often almost Prime Minister this century, and you cannot get more honourable than that. He too had his little friends—such as Sir Eric. Reggie did not get any champagne; but as is fairly well known he received more substantial benefits in the property market. The Observer (4.2.79) notes that the Department of Trade report explained the complicated deal whereby Reggie sold the freehold of his house to Peachey but received it back again on a long lease. Peachey then did £22,500 worth of improvements to Reggie’s house in return for £100 a year rent. Sounds like a bargain.

When Reggie became Home Secretary in 1970 and therefore honourably brought to an end his association with the honourable Erie, Eric sent Reggie’s wife a little present. It was only a chess set— pretty innocent. Usually only costs a couple of pounds in Woolworths. But this one was made of silver and was worth (1970 prices) a mere £2,750. Of course Reggie had plenty of other friends: such as Poulson (jailed for a long term for corruption).

We, unlike Shakespeare, are not sexist, so women get in on the act. Instead of "honourable men." Shakespeare could have had "honourable persons.” There is another member of the British peerage the Peachey Report did not even mention—former Secretary to Champagne Harold, Lady Falkender herself. This honourable lady also had little advantages from Peachey; like the loan of a Volvo car. Falkender explained it did not come from Peachey at all, but from Sir Eric personally. Well quite. That explains it.


Absent Friends

Then there is Lord Kagan of Gannex, recently on an extended holiday in Israel. He is finding it a little inconvenient to return home since there is a warrant for his arrest on currency offences involving £150,000. Still, small fry to this honourable man. His raincoat business must have been worth millions. According to the Guardian, when asked if he would come back to claim his ancestral heritage sometime, Lord K replied; “Oh yes . . . when the mood takes me". (31.1.79).

Just like any other worker really. When you go on holiday, I suppose you come back when the mood takes you too. The latest position is that Lord K is on his way to Spain (Guardian 2.3.79). Meantime his wife and son are on bail on corruption charges.

One interesting link in this is Champagne Harold himself. All these honourable persons (except Reggie—how was he forgotten?) have become knights, lords or ladies, thanks to Harold's little benefactions. He explained that “moving businessmen into the Lords puts an entirely different dimension on the honours system”. (Daily Mirror 2.3.79). You can say that again. Harold certainly had a revealing collection of friends.


Honourable Witness

Another honourable man on extended leave is George de Chabris. He is currently in Florida, also with no intention of returning in a rush. Among other little gems for which the police would like to "see" (presumably behind bars) this gentleman, are the following: a £10,000 transaction with a prominent liberal (unnamed as yet), donations to the Liberal Party, and Mr Chabris’s role as a "witness" to events at the National Liberal Club which interest the police. This one seems to have little to do with Champagne Harold. As the Guardian (23.2.79) put it; "Sir Harold Wilson said at Westminster last night that he did not know who George de Chabris was, ‘I have no recollection of this gentleman at all’”.


The Lesson

Meantime, while this honourable lot cheat and thieve and live it up at the worker’s expense, may I remind you that local authority workers, ambulance men and many others have been on strike— for a basic wage of £60 a week. And another honourable man, James Callaghan, said that figure is too much. At the time of writing £4.50 a week (about 11 per cent of these workers' current wage) is the absolute maximum offered. If Mark Antony had offered that to the mob they might at least have had the sense to lynch him.


Some useful advice for the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues
"So I say unto you, go ahead and preach and earn your pay, but for goodness’ sake leave the working class alone. You belong in the enemy’s camp. You have nothing in common with the working class. Your hands are soft with the work others have performed for you. Your stomachs are round with the plentitude of eating . . . and your minds are filled with doctrines which are buttresses of the established order. You are as much mercenaries (sincere mercenaries, I grant) as were the men of the Swiss Guard. Be true to your salt and your hire; guard, with your preaching, the interests of your employers: but do not come down to the working class and serve as false leaders. You cannot honestly be in the two camps at once. The working class has done without you. Believe me, the working class will continue to do without you. And, furthermore, the working class can do better without you than with you.
(From The Iron Heel, by Jack London).

Like with like (1979)

From the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Comparability Con Game
Buried deep in the jungle of remotest Whitehall there is a secret government factory which supplies ministers with meaningless catch phrases. This factory is always hard at work but is under the greatest pressure at times of what the ministers call National Crisis (which is itself a meaningless catch phrase). At such times, it has registered its most memorable achievements; like Export or Die, Free Collective Bargaining, the Social Contract. And now, its latest product—Comparability Study.

We are in danger of being driven into a frenzy by the repeated drumming into our consciousness of the word Comparability, because the Labour government are clearly hoping that it will help get them out of their sticky situation over wages. Here is one example:
  In the wake of criticism of the 9 per cent pay offer to nurses the Health Minister, Mr. Ronald Moyle, gave a guarantee in the Commons yesterday that the nurses' position in relation to other workers would be restored and maintained if they accepted the Government’s offer of a comparability study (The Guardian, 7/3/79).
The very next day the government announced the birth of something with the resounding title of the Standing Commission on Pay Comparability. Callaghan was in hopeful mood:
  These new arrangements . . . should help us in future years to avoid the dislocation and hardship that the public has suffered in recent weeks. (The Guardian, 8/3/19).
But of course the word Standing should not be taken too literally. Similar high hopes were expressed for bodies like the Relativities Board and the Prices and Incomes Board but they are dead and buried and there is no reason to suppose that the Commission on Comparability will have any longer life.

Teachers
Like most of the products of the Meaningless Phrase Factory, Comparability is not a new idea. In 1974 the government accepted a recommendation of the Houghton Committee, that teachers’ pay should not be allowed to fall behind that in “comparable” occupations. In 1958 the Civil Servants had made a similar agreement with the government, after the report of the Priestley Royal Commission. Both groups of workers have subsequently found that the government, enforcing a wage restraint policy, has broken the agreement—which is why civil servants of all people, are now on strike.

Comparability is supposed to ensure that workers in what is called the public sector—nurses, dustmen, local government employees—earn roughly the same as those in similar jobs in private industry. It sounds like an especially generous gesture by the government to help workers who. because they are in the “public” sector, have a limited bargaining power. There is really little reason for this strange idea; civil servants, dustmen and sewerage workers have already shown that they can cause quite a bit of disruption by striking and the bargaining power of nurses, although unused, is all too obvious.

It is not necessary to be a cynic, to realise that the government’s offer of a comparability study is anything but generous. The so-called monetarists, whose ideas on how to run capitalism become increasingly popular in a desperate response to the abject failure of interventionist theories, would argue that in any case it is unnecessary. In their view, wage negotiations should be left to run free and in that process comparability would be achieved by the process of workers moving from the lower paid jobs to the higher. This may be a callous simplification—an enforced change of employment can be a stressful experience for a worker—but it does illuminate some of the fallacies of the Comparability Game.

Dream
This game is played by two sides each with a different object. In some cases, a union may put a case for a rise on the grounds that its members earn less than those in similar jobs. On the other side governments can play the game as a delaying tactic—as the Labour government is doing now—by offering something less than the unions demand with a promise that an investigation into comparability will bring absolutely fair and balanced wages to everyone.

Now this must sound like a very reasonable and progressive idea to the City gent on the Clapham omnibus, who longs to see Britain a sunlit, strike-free land where all industrial disputes are settled by an infallible arbitration system and all wages balanced by a process of completely rational awards. The City gent does not nurture such fantasies alone:
  . . . you’ve got to get the balance roughly right. This again, is a function of government — to get the balance right between the groups in your society as well as between the individuals in your society.
  The Times had a marvellous leading article—I think it was in January last year—about a balanced society. It said what my colleagues and I had been saying for quite some time . . . (Margaret Thatcher, Observer, 25/2/79).
In this sort of dream society everyone earns a wage exactly suited to their job and accepts their place on the social and economic ladder. No dustmen envies the income of a solicitor and conscientiously carts away the latter’s rubbish because he knows that everyone does a Fair Days Work for a Fair Days Pay. He also knows that his dustman’s wages buy goods whose prices always represent exactly what they are worth, that the best solicitors get the highest fees and indeed the whole of capitalism moves smoothly on economic bearings lubricated by justice and good sense.

Reality
The reality is that there are no such things as fair pay or fair prices. Whatever the City gent might mean by justice and good sense—or Margaret Thatcher by balance in society—simply don’t come into the process by which wages and other prices are determined. By the same token Comparability is a nonsense. How is it possible to fix a “fair” wage for, say, the nurses who care for sufferers from terminal cancer? Or for the workers who operate sewage plants, remembering the consequences of a breakdown in sewage disposal? Can their wages be “balanced” or compared against those of members of the armed forces, whose work is wholly destructive? Is it "fair” that ambulance crews should receive a fraction of the income of stock-brokers and members of Lloyds?

Then what about a comparison with members of the ruling class, like the Duke of Westminster whose only significant achievement to date has been to be born into a family which acquired, a couple of hundred years ago, some stretches of swampy London water meadow which became Mayfair, Belgravia, Pimlico . . . If the Duke of Westminster received a “fair” wage, according to his usefulness to society, he would starve to death while his many stately homes would be occupied by dustmen and nurses.

But that, too, is a dream of a sort. The majority of people in capitalist society are compelled to work in order to live, whether as nurses or clerks or miners or whatever. When they work they are selling their mental and physical energies, their labour power, to an employer. Thus labour power is a commodity, like apples or cars or houses. In some way or other every commodity will struggle to be sold at the highest possible price; in the case of labour power this struggle is a deliberate affair of negotiation, threat, work to rule, strike, lock out and so on. There is no eternal morality in all of this; it is a matter of power and force.

In this struggle both sides will use any weapon or argument which comes to hand and Comparability is one of these. But like much trade union activity it has its dangers for the working class. Firstly, it is an argument which can be used in more than one direction; for example what happens if wages in the “comparable” industries fall below those of the workers who are claiming a rise on grounds of comparability? And, as we are seeing at present, it is something which can be used by employers as a delaying tactic, with the rewards doubtful.

Divisive
Secondly, it is divisive for workers to argue that one group should have wages related to another because this, rather than an attempt to achieve equality, is an argument against workers in one occupation getting more than those in another. For workers to compete against each other in the wages struggle, to try to use each other as rungs up the ladder of improvement, is not an exercise in working class unity.

And unity is an essential element in working class struggle. The ideal wage claim would be one in which the entire working class together demand everything that they produce. The capitalist class would find such unity irresistible; no meaningless catch phrase or delaying tactic could stand in its way. But of course a claim like that would mean a lot more; it would signal that capitalism itself was in its terminal stage, needing only to be nursed quietly to death.
Ivan

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

What is to be done? (1979)

From the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

The work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain requires active participation from workers who agree with the urgent need for a Socialist society. It’s no good sitting back and complaining that too few workers agree with us; the only solution is to carry out propaganda to tell them what is in their political interest. We need to put across our ideas to fellow workers, to sell them the Socialist Standard and other Socialist reading matter and to bring them along to the meetings. All of this is hard work. Here are some of the things that you can do to help:
  1. Sell socialist literature. The written word is a powerful means of communication. The reasonableness of the ideas found in the Socialist Standard, companion party papers and pamphlets can convince people. So don’t just take one Standard per month, take three, six or even a dozen.
  2. Attend Party Propaganda Meetings. In the coming months there are a number of indoor meetings designed for those who want to know more about what we stand for. Conference lecture on Friday, 13th April at Acklam Hall (near Ladbroke Grove tube station) is on ‘Fascism, Violence and the Left’. There will be May Day meetings this year in London, Glasgow and Bolton (advertised elsewhere in this issue). In June, the month of the Party’s seventy-fifth anniversary, every branch will be running a public meeting on ‘Why You Should Join The Socialist Party’. Other planned meetings are advertised at the back of this journal, including outdoor meetings which are well worth attending.
  3. Help in the election. The party will be standing a candidate in Islington South and Finsbury in the forthcoming election. This will give an opportunity to carry out extensive propaganda in the constituency, details of which will be found elsewhere in this issue. Volunteer now to assist in a genuinely Socialist election campaign.
  4. Tell people what Socialism really means. Talk to people at work, call in to the phone-in programmes, write letters to the local paper, attend the meetings of other organisations, display a poster in your window. If others don't know what Socialism means, then you can't blame them for not being Socialists.
  5.  Make contact with the SPGB. Many people agree with the Party for years, but don’t join. Contact your local branch or Head Office. Tell us what you think we should be doing. And then help us to do it.
The SPGB is only as strong as its working class support for it. You can agree with what we say and ignore us if you like. But can you ignore capitalism?

“There’s no more in the Kitty” (James Callaghan) (1979)

From the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

So ran the boring refrain of Prime Minister Callaghan’s speeches about this year’s wave of strikes. Apart from the obvious inconsistency (he said there was ‘‘no more money for wage increases of 5 per cent then 8.8 per cent, now 10 per cent” is it true that ‘‘the country” is going broke; that there is “no money” to pay people a living wage?

First, one point must be made clear. The “public” does not pay anybody’s wages. The “public” is mainly the working class, 95 per cent of the population who do not pay wages. They work for wages themselves, and have nothing to pay anybody else with. Ninety nine per cent of all industrial Company shares are held by wealthy investors, i per cent of the population, who are the real wage-payers.

Is it true that this small handful of the population, the owners of wealth, are going broke or doing badly? On the contrary, they never did better.

The country’s top economic researchers all agree that the greatest single concentration of wealth in the world, including the United States, is right here, in Great Britain,
  The fortunes of the Rockefellers, the DuPonts, the Mellons, and Howard Hughes, are no match for the steady accumulation of the wealth of centuries by the wealthy families of Britain. The Economics of Inequality (A. B. Atkinson).
On Sunday morning. February 11, the Chairman of the Stock Exchange informed the LBC reporter that about £700 million change hands a day there. Seeing that 99 workers out of a hundred have never even seen a Company share, let alone owned one. it is obvious that this is the capitalist class (or the stockbrokers they employ) shuffling the pack for a bit more lolly.

Estimates of the total wealth of the capitalist class are only guesstimates because reliable information is extremely hard to come by.

Most investigators A. B. Atkinson (Sussex) R. Miliband (Leeds) John Westergaard (London) Jack Kencaid (Leeds) are agreed that it is practically impossible to get at the truth. Richard Titmuss (London School of Economics) has produced a book, Income Distribution and Social Change, proving that much of the Government’s “statistics” mainly based on Income Tax returns, are largely rubbish.

The reason for this, as Professor Colin Harbury (The Economics of Inheritance) has reported; it is impossible to catch up with the tricks and fiddles of the slick accountants to under-estimate their clients’ real wealth.

We know that less than ten thousand people own £868 million of Company shares, but the value of land, property, rare wines, Old Masters, furniture, jewellery, yachts, buildings, vintage cars are anybody’s guess, and the economists argue about whether such assets should be assessed at “saleable” or “investment” values.

Wealthy people regularly evade tax by “gifts” and presentations, Trust Funds and Foundations like Nuffield Foundation and Ford Foundation. Also by “Generation Skipping” — bequeathing shares and investments to grandchildren seven years before decease, which is tax exempt.

Various attempts have been made to "guesstimate” the real wealth of the British capitalist class; one is £92 billion—£92,000,000,000—£92 thousand million (A. B. Atkinson) but however near the truth this may be, we can establish what some capitalists own, and how much they spend—on nonsense.
Harry Hyams (Property) £27 millions, John Sainsbury (Retail Trade) £30 millions, Sir John Ellerman (Ships) £150 millions.
Professor Atkinson has pointed out that Ellerman’s pittance would pay British Rail’s total wage bill for four months.

Henry Ford is being sued by his fellow-directors for £25 millions misappropriated.

Eric Miller, before committing suicide, had spent over £3,000 on champagne for Harold Wilson and £2,000,000 on a private plane.

Olga Deterding, the Shell Oil millionairess, left £47 millions.

The reason Callaghan refuses to pay hospital porters and cleaners more than £42 a week is to maintain these blood-suckers in ridiculous luxury.

The P. & O. Line reports their £58,000 world cruises are overbooked. When Claridges hotel kitchen staff were on strike the manageress was asked “whether the lunch service was impeded”. “Oh No! she replied, we are full every day." The “lunch is £33-00, without wine or service

Estate agents in Hampstead report a shortage of “desirable properties of £1 million or over. One changed hands recently for £8½ million.

Each week the News of the World reports the Wills of the Week—the money they left. Here is one week in February:
Mr. A. Wallace ... £1.641.169
Mr. A. Wood       £ 514.263
Mr. M. Greg       £ 514,263
Not very big capitalists these—small fry, compared to the Duke of Westminster’s one and a quarter million a year in rent.

Finally, one has only to watch the displays of vulgar opulence on TV like Callaghan at the Lord Mayor’s banquet at the City Guildhall, where more food is thrown into the pig-bin than would meet the City dustmen’s modest demands.

Callaghan, with his £23,000 a year, has the impudence to tell Trade Unionists that “there is no more money available”.

The Trade Unions should now see the folly of pouring money into Labour Party funds, to support a Labour Government intent on breaking their strikes.

There’s money in the kitty all right;—as Karl Marx pointed out years ago, "it’s not the smallness of the bowl but the workers’ spoons” which prevent them gaining a decent livelihood.
Horatio

Homeworkers — reserve army of the half-employed (1979)

From the April 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
With fingers weary and worn.
  With eyelids heavy and red,
A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
   In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
   She sang the 'Song of the Shirt!’ 
'Work — work — work
   Till the brain begins to swim.
Work — work — work
   Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
   Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep

   And sew them on in a dream! 
'O, Men with Sisters dear!
   O Men! with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out.
   But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch — stitch — stitch,
  In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread
  A Shroud as well as a Shirt

Whatever the outcome of this winter’s campaign by many union-organised low-paid workers, it will do little or nothing to improve the situation of homeworkers. These freelance, “self-employed” workers, mainly women, work in or from their own homes, some as envelope addressers, others putting toys, balloons or mottoes in Xmas crackers, while a great many are in the rag-trade. The Daily Mirror (Jan. 30, 1979) exposed some typically atrocious conditions:
  Mary Fabri gets paid 80p a dozen for making fashionable Broderic Anglaise petticoats which sell at £4.75 each. Her earnings are £20-£22 per week, out of which she has to pay about £1.30 for electricity to power her sewing machine. Rachel Tomlinson used to “slave away till two or three in the morning”. She machines trouser suits at 75p each, using a twentypart pattern: these suits are sold by mail order at £26. Pat Frolich and her friends, getting 4p for putting tassels on football supporters’ scarves, tried to get 1p increase, and on being refused they joined the General and Municipal Workers’ Union. “I didn’t get any more work which amounts to the sack, and the Union couldn’t do a thing.”
In the nineteenth century, before the factories superseded the domestic system, the lace-makers, milliners and spinners working at home, were all employed in much the same way. There was also then the notorious “rag trade”:
  One of the most shameful, the most dirty, and the worst paid kinds of labour, and one on which women and young girls are by preference employed, is the sorting of rags. It is well known that Great Britain, apart from its own immense store of rags, is the emporium for the rag trade of the whole world. They flow in from Japan, from the most remote States of South America, and from the Canary Islands. But the chief sources of their supply are Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, Belgium and Holland. They are used for manure, for making bed-flocks, for shoddy, and they serve as the raw material of paper. The rag sorters are the medium for the spread of small-pox and other infectious diseases and they themselves are the first victims. (Capital vol. I.)
The homeworkers of today, as of Marx’s time, are part of a fluctuating pool of labour on the fringes of unemployment.

From the capitalist’s point of view the advantages of employing homeworkers are many. The main and most obvious is that their labour-power is cheap. As Marx observed of the “so-called domestic industries", “unlimited exploitation of cheap labour-power is the sole foundation of their power to compete” (Capital vol. I). Since there is not enough work to go round, each homeworker is competing against thousands of others, all equally desperate. Also, as unemployment has increased many housewives are driven to supplement the breadwinner’s inadequate paypacket by turning their homes into factory annexes. According to the Low Pay Unit, the number of full-time workers earning less than they would be able to get on Supplementary Benefit (the government-decreed poverty norm, on which families can survive) increased from 130,000 in 1974 to 290,000 in 1976 (Observer, 17 Sept. 1978). If we add to this figure the one-parent families where a mother struggles to bring up her young children on Supplementary Benefit, we can see how large a number of homeworkers there are on the fringes of the employment market.

Another advantage for the capitalist is that the homeworkers’ working hours and conditions are totally unregulated and unprotected: no Factory Acts, no National Insurance stamps, no income tax. The hours worked, and pay obtained, are entirely a private matter between the individual homeworker and his or her “employer". Homeworkers do not normally have any contract of employment so it is rare for them to get the sack: but if the “employer” just stops sending them any work they have no legal protection. Because they are isolated from one another, they seldom get the chance to organise and protect themselves from the imposition of harsh work norms. (Some Market Research firms go to quite extraordinary lengths to prevent their interviewers meeting up with one another: in such firms the only personal contact the interviewer has is with her supervisor, never with other interviewers.)

Because most of them are on piece-rates (inevitably extremely low) home workers have to work exceptionally long hours to obtain something like a wage. For instance, a hand-knitter made a complicated Fair Isle sweater which required 30 hours work. For that job she was paid £5.20. Employers take the cynical view that “very often women are grateful to us because we are paying them for their hobby” (Daily Mirror, 30 Jan,.1979). The same woman whose hobby is toiling at her knitting machine or typewriter for long hours at a miserable pittance is worth, as a housewife, £87.90 a week (Daily Mirror). At least, that is what she could get if she was paid for doing some one else’s household chores and caring for someone else’s children. Then consider some of the less agreeable jobs, such as delivering sales leaflets door-to-door in all weathers. In one typical area, women and schoolchildren who deliver a free local newspaper and sales material get paid £3 basic, a rate which has not changed in ten years. No one would describe this as a “hobby”.

Another advantage to the firms that exploit homeworkers is that, should their work-load fluctuate, as is the ease with Xmas crackers, market research and the rag-trade, the employees can be left high and dry without work (without pay) during slack periods, yet can be required to work almost round the clock in a busy season. There is absolutely no limit to the number of hours homeworkers may work in a week, other than their own physical limits. (Pit-ponies however are limited to 48 hours a week).

Homeworkers are a mere footnote in the economic history of our times. Yet their low rates of pay serve to depress those offered to factory workers in the same area. How else would Grunwicks be able to offer such low rates to women working part-time.

The reformers of British capitalism have introduced legislation to control the length of a working day, the conditions of work within factories, the protection of workers from “unfair” dismissal or discrimination, to provide paid holidays and sick pay, to insure workers from actual destitution when injured or unemployed, and to provide pensions and maternity leave. All these regulations are easily evaded by those firms which exploit the reserve army of the unemployed in their own homes. In addition this practice reduces the firm’s own overheads (power, light and heating, and in many cases depreciation of machinery).

In one of his novels, the Russian writer Dostoyevsky described a widow who stitched away all night. In his Autobiography, Charles Chaplin described how his mother slaved at shirt-making, starving herself to feed her children when there was not enough money coming in. Her reward was premature senility, caused by malnutrition.

Marx described the domestic industries as “the last resort of the ‘redundant population’ ”—capitalism’s safety-valve. So long as people can be made “redundant”, so long will this cynical exploitation of the very needy continue. Fashion firms will flourish while factory rates of pay will be depressed and women will be degraded to the point where to many prostitution seems preferable.

The wages system with production for profit is the root cause of all these social evils. Reforms of the law can do next to nothing. To end exploitation in the home, as in the factory, we must abolish the wages system. There is no other way.
Charmian Skelton