Friday, May 8, 2009

Free Work versus Forced Employment (1998)

From the December 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why do you go to work? Is it because you enjoy what you do? Did you choose to work at what you do in the way you do? Would you do your job were it not for the money?

A few lucky people can do what they like. These include a certain class of people who have the economic privilege of not needing to work. They can live by exploiting the work of others. This exploitation enables them to live by appropriating rent, interest and profit. They can do what they like with their lives. They can sleep all day. They can travel. They can spend their time shooting animals for fun or shooting drugs into their bodies. If they wish, they can be philanthropists and "do good" for the poorwho are poor only because the rich are rich.

While the capitalist minority who own and control the means of producing and distributing wealth are free not to have to work, the majority of us are unfree. We are dependent upon working in order to obtain a wage or salary. We sell our mental and physical abilities in a relationship called employment.

Work and employment are not the same. Humans need to work because work is the expenditure of energy and unless we use some of it we rot away. Even the most parasitical aristocratic layabout occasionally does the odd stroke of work. Looking after a garden or painting pictures or cooking fine food are all work activities, but if you do them freely they are not employment. To be employed is to work for someone else: to be at their beck and call; to be given money by them in return for producing values for them. Capitalists will only employ workers if there is a prospect of them making a profit out of us. They make their profit by receiving from us more value than the value of our wages or salaries. Without this surplus value they would not employ us - which is why millions of able-bodied and skilled people who want to find jobs are unemployed; there is no prospect of a profit in making them work. There is no point in asking the capitalists to give everyone employment regardless of profit. That would not be in their interests and we should not expect them to invest in us unless they can exploit us.

So, the majority works not by choice but in an unfree relationship of employment. We are wage or salary slaves. We are employed not for the good of our health but so that capitalists can live in luxury without working. Employment is a form of institutionalised exploitation - or legalised robbery.

Increasing Misery - How Works Getting Worse
Karl Marx, who was the first to explain scientifically how capitalism turned the producers of wealth into exploited wage slaves, argued in the last century that conditions for workers would get worse: the increasing misery of the working class. Some reformists believe that Marx was wrong: that life under capitalism has been greatly improved for the workers as a result of philanthropic legislation and higher wages. Even certain pseudo-Marxists have declared that Marx was wrong about this and that capitalism has produced a working class which, though technically exploited, is pretty affluent and no longer in poverty. Even discounting the condition of the majority of the worlds working class who live in conditions of poverty comparable to those suffered in Victorian Britain (which such pseudo-Marxists do, because they are essentially only interested in British rather then global capitalism), it is nonsense to suppose that the exploited working class is now somehow well off. In fact, in many respects, the late 1990s are one of the worst times to be employed this century.

Employment is the sale of time. Capitalists want to be sure that they get their full chunk of our lives, down to the last second. So theyve invented new electronic timesheets, such as Tempo, VizTopia and Carpe Diem, which measure what we are doing during every minute of their day. Arthur Andersen, the management consultants (the new holders of the foremans whip) have invented a new 70-unit day, divided up into six-minute periods, each of which must be accounted for by the employee. At a recent socialist meeting we heard from a worker at one of the major banks whose useless job was to sit in front of a computer transferring money. There is a button labelled "More Work" which she had to press on her computer each time she had completed a task. By comparison, the Victorian factory sounds pretty civilised--certainly no worse. The New Labour-supporting Daily Mirror reports enthusiastically on the Nissan factory in Sunderland where workers have a fixed 35-minute lunch break (16 July).

The "good old days" when even the humblest wage slave got an hour off for dinner and a chat have been replaced. All over the industrialised world workers are being encouraged to arrive on the job earlier, stay later and take less time out for a pee or a pie. Little wonder then that the same newspaper reported that "soaring stress levels at work are making it Britains biggest health hazard . . . It is affecting a third of the countrys workforce and costing industry 90 million working days a year" (19 October) The TUC report from which the newspaper quoted this information also stated that nearly a quarter of Britains firms were not meeting legally required safety obligations. And with trade-union membership having fallen--largely due to the smaller full-time workforce and increased job insecuritymost workers simply have to grin and bear it. Without organisation for self-defence the bosses can impose whatever lousy conditions they think they can get away with.

In the Post Office in North London workers, whose paid job began at 6 am, were arriving half an hour early in order to complete the extra workload that management was expecting of them. They didnt arrive early because they were insomniacs and couldnt sleep; they were scared that unless they delivered what the managers were demanding theyd be replaced by other wage slaves fresh off the dole queue. Now the managers (who are merely the errand boys for Capital) have insisted that the official working day must begin at 5.30after all, most workers are arriving then anyway. So, more work will be piled upon them and the next step will be for some to have to arrive at 5 am to deliver their pounds of flesh. This is the increasing misery of the working class.

A World Without Wages
Most of us want to work. What we hate is employment. We want to work for ourselves, our families and friends, our community, not some thieving parasite who can laugh as long as were dependent on his wages.

The abolition of wage slavery is no less than the abolition of class society. Because there are only two main classes left in society today--capitalists and workersthe abolition of capitalist exploitation must mean the beginning of free labour.

How will work be organised in a socialist society? Everyone who can work will work. They will work at what they do best, not for wages but as co-operative contributors to society. In return for giving according to their abilities they will be free to take from the common store according to their needs. There will be no wages. There will be no money. Instead of the market there will be free access for all to goods and services. It will be a more relaxed society. People in a socialist society will not have jobs but will do work. It is unlikely that any of us will choose to do only one kind of work all week or between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five. It is quite probable that the hours each week that each of us will be needed to work will be less than at present. Certainly, working conditions will be pleasant--because the object of work will be social satisfaction and not pumping as much toil out of each person as is humanly possible. People in a socialist society will have much more control than now over how their work is organised; the labour process will be democratised and no longer under the dictatorship of Capital and its managerial Gestapo.

Under capitalism what we call leisure is a snatched period of free time to use for rest and relaxation. In a socialist society the distinction between work and leisure will diminishperhaps even disappear. People will have an opportunity to use their hobbies and enthusiasms for the social good: to enjoy being useful. Whereas now much of the work that most workers perform is totally uselessfrom counting money to making munitions to guarding propertyevery human in a socialist society will know that their work is part of a process of producing for use.

We are not presenting the socialist alternative of a world without wages as a utopian dream for the century after next. This is practical now. Socialism is the sensible next step for humankind to take, away from a social system that wastes our energies, abuses or skills and stunts or creativity.

The Great Money Trick

Taken from classic working class novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, which was originally published in Britain in 1914. The text was found via the website of the Manchester Branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

"Money is the real cause of poverty," said Owen.

"Prove it," repeated Crass.

"Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour."

"Prove it," said Crass.

Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it in his pocket.

"All right," he replied. "I'll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked."

Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread, but as these where not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left should give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives of Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them, as follows:

"These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light of the sun."

"Now," continued Owen, "I am a capitalist; or rather I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present arguement how I obtained possession of them, the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the landlord and capitalist class. I am that class; all these raw materials belong to me."

"Now you three represent the working class. You have nothing, and, for my part, although I have these raw materials, they are of no use to me. What I need is the things that can be made out of these raw materials by work; but I am too lazy to work for me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins" - taking three half pennies from his pocket - "represent my money, capital."

"But before we go any further," said Owen, interrupting himself, "it is important to remember that I am not supposed to be merely a capitalist. I represent the whole capitalist class. You are not supposed to be just three workers, you represent the whole working class."

Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.

"These represent the things which are produced by labour, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent a week's work. We will suppose that a week's work is worth one pound."

Owen now addressed himself to the working class as represented by Philpot, Harlow and Easton.

"You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you plenty of work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week's work is that you must each produce three of these square blocks. For doing this work you will each recieve your wages; the money will be your own, to do as you like with, and the things you produce will of course be mine to do as I like with. You will each take one of these machines and as soon as you have done a week's work, you shall have your money."

The working classes accordingly set to work, and the capitalist class sat down and watched them. As soon as they had finished, they passed the nine little blocks to Owen, who placed them on a piece of paper by his side and paid the workers their wages.

"These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can't live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is one pound each."

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the capitalist's terms. They each bought back, and at once consumed, one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week's work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of things produced by the labour of others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital, for he still possessed the three pounds in money and in addition four pounds worth of goods. As for the working classes, Philpot, Harlow and Easton, having each consumed the pound's worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they had started work - they had nothing.

This process was repeated several times; for each weeks work the producers were paid their wages. They kept on working and spending all their earnings. The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pool of wealth continually increased. In a little while, reckoning the little squares at their market value of one pound each, he was worth about one hundred pounds, and the working classes were still in the same condition as when they began, and were still tearing into their work as if their lives depended on it.

After a while the rest of the crowd began to laugh, and their meriment increased when the kind-hearted capitalist, just after having sold a pound's worth of necessaries to each of his workers, suddenly took their tools, the machinery of production, the knives, away from them, and informed them that as owing to over production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.

"Well, and wot the bloody 'ell are we to do now ?" demanded Philpot.

"That's not my business," replied the kind-hearted capitalist. "I've paid your wages, and provided you with plenty of work for a long time past. I have no more work for you to do at the present. Come round again in a few months time and I'll see what I can do."

"But what about the necessaries of life?" Demanded Harlow. "We must have something to eat."

"Of course you must," replied the capitalist, affably; "and I shall be very pleased to sell you some."

"But we ain't got no bloody money!"

"Well, you can't expect me to give you my goods for nothing! You didn't work for nothing, you know. I paid you for your work and you should have saved something: you should have been thrifty like me. Look how I have got on by being thrifty!"

The unemployed looked blankly at each other, but the rest of the crowd only laughed; and then the three unemployed began to abuse the kind-hearted capitalist, demanding that he should give them some of the necessaries of life that he had piled up in his warehouses, or to be allowed to work and produce some more for their own needs; and even threated to take some of the things by force if he did not comply with their demands. But the kind-hearted capitalist told them not to be insolent, and spoke to them about honesty, and said if they were not careful he would have their faces battered in for them by the police, or if necessary he would call out the military and have them shot down like dogs, the same as he had done before at Featherstone and Belfast.

Further Reading and Viewing:

From the December 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard -

Robert Tressell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Andy Vine's graphic illustration of the Great Money Trick that originally appeared in issue 3 of the political comic, Warning This Is Propaganda.

Robert Owen: paternalist utopian (2008)

From the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
1998 marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Robert Owen. The Owenites introduced the word “socialism” but Owen himself always opposed the class struggle.
Owen’s key idea, indeed perhaps his only one, was: “Man’s character is made for and not by him”. He thought that it was therefore possible to give a person any character you like. He was, in short, a ‘man moulder’.
Robert Owen was born in Wales. He had little formal education but through hard work and nous (including marrying the boss’s daughter) soon became a big cheese in the cotton spinning business. In 1800, at the age of 29, he moved to New Lanark in Scotland.
This was the real era of the dark satanic mills. Sans unions and sans factory legislation, the workers toiled endlessly for a measly pittance, existing in a degraded condition in filthy slums. Owen took New Lanark (which it must be said was even at the start one of the better mills) and made it a model factory estate. Nice Mr. Owen became well known as a genial entrepreneur and benevolent philanthropist. At his factory at Lanark he improved hours and conditions, introduced schooling, and banned ‘morally harmful’ out of hours activities (outlawing pubs and books and fining extra-marital sex). He raised the minimum working age from six to ten years. Entertainment for his workers was a little harmless music, some dancing and physical jerks. Military drill was introduced to “give them an erect and proper form, and habits of attention, celerity, and order”. In addition “firearms, of proportionate weight and size for the age and strength of the boys shall be provided for them”. A key element in the workplace was the public display of a block showing the behaviour of the individual (shades of Maoist self-criticism). This was said to be character building but also produced a disciplined and productive workforce. (All quotes are from A New View of Society Owen's account of New Lanark).
The aim at New Lanark was made absolutely clear in a letter from Owen to The London Times in 1834:
“I believe it is known to your lordship that in every point of view no experiment was ever so successful as the one I conducted at New Lanark, although it was commenced and continued in opposition to all the oldest and strongest prejudices of mankind. For twenty-nine years we did without the necessity for magistrates or lawyers; without a single legal punishment; without any known poors’ (sic) rate; without intemperance or religious animosities. We reduced the hours of labour, well educated all the children from infancy, greatly improved the condition of the adults, diminishing their daily labour, paid interest on capital, and cleared upwards of £300,000 of profit.” (quoted in GJ Holyoake’s History of Cooperation).
Like Lord Leverhulme at Port Sunlight, Owen found that treating your workers better makes better workers which makes better profits. The rest of Owen's life was an attempt to recreate the Lanark Mills experience on a large scale. True later on for different reasons. But Owen never really understood that at New Lanark he was able to impose ‘nice’ upon his workers by their very status as workers.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought a period of crisis including mass unemployment. This resulted in a high poor rate. Owen, being a businessman, sought to lower this with a plan for solving unemployment. Again this was the 5 percent philanthropy at work. Concern for the suffering was tempered by profit making – in the form of a lowered tax burden. Some time around 1817 this tax plan became a general scheme for the changing of society.

Essentially society was to be transformed by means of experimental communities. These self-contained and self-supporting complexes were to be built as grand squares, the parallelograms. In the communities the precise form of ownership of property was left open, leaving the way open for ‘community of goods’. However Owen was averse to this. Economics, like the precise form of internal administration in the colony, was unimportant. Education was the key to Owen's scheme and its purpose was to mould the individual into an ideal social character. Finance was to come by an appeal to the rich and influential. Such was not forthcoming. Owen blamed his failure on his relatively mild criticism of the established church and the family. Doubtless this had some effect but the rich really had no particular interest in solving the problem of poverty. So far as they were concerned the poor could rot.

From 1824 Owen poured his own money into setting up a community in America. New Harmony, in Indiana, failed within a few years, essentially due to lack of discrimination in choosing occupants (the great problem of freeloaders). Without the power that goes with being a factory owner, Owen was unable to make the communists behave as he wished, particularly as, despite his own high opinion of himself, he was not a particularly good organiser, often leaving deputies to deal with problems while he swanned off for parties with the wealthy (Owen was always fond of the Great and Good, dedicating the New View to the appallingly corrupt Prince Regent).

When Owen returned to Britain in 1829 after the dismal failure of his American experiment, he found the situation somewhat altered. Throughout the country the working class was making use of the repeal of the anti-combination laws to set up trade unions. These were as yet little more than local self-help clubs, often carrying out some form of cooperative trading venture. Many of those involved looked to Owen as a source of inspiration. Owen himself had lost virtually all his money and whatever slight influence he may have had amongst the wealthier classes. Bandwagonning a little, he began to associate himself with the various self-help schemes – co-operatives, barter schemes and trade unions. Although so far as he was concerned these were only of use in ‘preparing the public’s mind for community’, this short period (1829-34) was the making of Owen as a figurehead of the old Left.

Within a short time Owen had set up his own cooperative (Association for the Promotion of Cooperative Knowledge), union (Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) and labour exchange (National Equitable Labour Exchange) organisations. The latter functioned as an extension of the cooperative store, surplus coop produce forming the basis of its activities. Essentially goods brought in were valued by a committee and a note issued indicating the amount of labour required to produce the item. This could then be exchanged for other goods in the bazaar of the same labour time value.

The various groups were viewed as fund raisers and mind openers – fronts in modern parlance – rather than useful in themselves. Strikes were certainly not on Owen's agenda. And when the true class war came to a head in the summer of 1834, Owen bailed out, disassociating himself from the GNCTU. Extreme pressure from employers led to the failure of the union, which brought down in its wake the cooperatives and labour exchanges. The latter were probably fatally flawed in any case due to their limited ability to satisfy needs, most goods making their way there being unsaleable on the open market.

In 1835 Owen renewed the attempt to found a community. This time the attempt was made through a distinctly working class body. This was variously named the Association of All Classes of All Nations (1835-39), the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists (1839-42) and the Rational Society (1842-46). At its peak in 1841 there were 70 or so branches spread throughout Great Britain. In key centres, such as Manchester and London, meeting halls were built (the Halls of Science) and regular indoor and outdoor propaganda meetings held under the auspices of ‘Social Missionaries’. By late 1839 the efforts bore fruit with the opening of a community at Queenwood in Hampshire. This became known as Harmony.

Harmony was however distinctly unharmonious. Owen regarded the whole enterprise as a means towards the perfection of humanity, a great experiment in making people nice. The workers however saw Owenism in general and the community in particular, as a way of abolishing their own poverty. Conflict was inevitably the result, with control of the enterprise swinging back and forth between the paternalist Owen and the self-organising proles. The true downfall of Harmony however was really Owen’s responsibility. Having selected a hopeless site in the chalk uplands, he proceeded to build a hopelessly ornate ‘super workhouse’, burdening the society with unsustainable debts. In the summer of 1845 Harmony was sold off. Further details of the Harmony scheme can be found in Edward Royle’s excellent Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium (Manchester University Press, 1998).

Historically the attitude to the Owenites of the 1830s and ‘40s has been determined by the semi-religious millennial language that was used and group dismissed (e.g. by GDH Cole) as nothing more than a sect. Although there were elements of this, Owen as the secular saviour leading his chosen people to the glorious paradise of Community, the reduction is a rather unfair slur. Many contemporary organisations, including the Chartists, used flowery language. And the image of Owen as unquestioned leader was certainly far from the truth.

Owen has further been criticised for paying no attention to the main mass movement of the day – Chartism. Chartism was a movement for political democracy and as such was irrelevant to Owen’s aim – setting up experimental communities. It must also be said that so far as the starving worker of the day was concerned the issue of mere possession of the vote in itself would not have brought them food. The demand for the ballot was resisted by the upper class largely because it was believed anti-capitalist measures would follow in its wake. Owen recognised, unlike most Chartists, that political democracy is not the solution in itself to capitalist misery. He did not however recognise that it could be a means to this very end.

After 1845 Owen went into a form of retired senility. Seances, bumpreadings and other such garbage were the order of the day. Perhaps his greatest contribution of these years was his autobiography The Life of Robert Owen by Himself, published in 1857. Although obviously biased it is a great from the horse’s mouth source.

The principal practical result of Owen’s life was the setting up of utopian communities. The Owenite communities, both the official ones detailed above and the numerous examples in which Owen had no hand, failed to demonstrate Owen's theories of character formation, which was of course their main aim, because they never became properly established. What they do demonstrate however is how easy it is for such a community to fail. And since such communities would primarily be a demonstration of cooperation, providing a haven for a few from capitalism, the amount of enthusiasm and resources invested was surely wasteful.

Perhaps surprisingly, although Owenism was unfruitful in achieving its specified aims its by-products were far from inconsiderable. The Rochdale Pioneers, founders of the modern cooperative movement, were Owenites and the modern secularist movement can also trace its ancestry back to the Owenite movement of the 1840s.

The importance of the Owenites is that they marked a watershed; for the first time a complete change in the nature of society was contemplated by a section of the working class. We also owe them our name. Although previously in use, the name ‘socialism’ was adopted by the Owenites in 1837 to describe their aims and within a few years Owenism and Socialism were synonymous. The connection was so strong that Marx and Engels were forced to have a Communist Manifesto rather than a socialist one. The meaning of the phrase has altered much since then, primarily due to the influence of Marx and Engels, however the underlying assumptions of Owen and the Owenites that human nature is not eternally fixed and therefore a better world is possible remains the basis of socialism.