Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Redundant directors (1981)

From the April 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Walter Goldsmith, Director General of the Institute of Directors, did not like the fact that the Thatcher government averted, at least for the time being, the threat of a countrywide coal strike. He commented (Guardian, 20/2/81): “The events of the last few days have reduced the . . . government’s economic policies to a shambles . . .They have caved in on all fronts . . .They are . . . reinforcing trade union power”. Well, isn’t this jolly hard cheese! Here are the directors, rubbing their hands gleefully in expectation of the miners being put in their place, only to find the contest called off at the last minute! Unfortunately for the directors, and those who think like them, the capitalists cannot live as capitalists without the workers, from whom they extract the surplus value from which their profits come. Consequently, when these confrontations arise, concessions sometimes have to be made if the cost to the capitalists is less than that of a stoppage of production.

At times indeed employers and governments can be faced by quite awkward decisions. This was recognised by the Daily Telegraph, in an editorial (20/2/81): “A strike would have been grievously harmful to the coal industry and to the nation.” (By “nation” they of course mean the capitalist class.) However the Telegraph also looked forward to a possible confrontation later, when the government might be better placed. As was pointed out in a letter to the same newspaper the following day, coal can stand up to even severe outdoor exposure. Capitalist priorities are the deciding factor. Food, fuel, transport and raw materials are all vital commodities and workers employed in their production usually have some bargaining power, particularly if stocks are low. On the other hand hospital workers, for example, have very little going for them.

As for the directors, their role in the capitalist economy is not so vital. They ought not to be surprised when, despite financial backing which they receive from ruling class quarters, governments ignore their opinions when it comes to the crunch.
E. C. Edge

The Changing Public House (1954)

From the November 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last year every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom drank twelve and a half gallons of beer, statistically speaking. In addition, we disposed of a pint and a half of spirits and a quart of wine each. The only thing to be said in our favour is that our fathers, 60 years ago, drank nearly three times as much on paper and, the child population being larger then, probably four times as much in practice.

Figures are hardly needed to show that people drink less nowadays. A drunk in the street or a man with a grog-blossom is a rare sight; the pubs are empty—not literally, of course, but certainly by comparison with other, quite recent times. The local that was once the Pantheon of the neighbourhood, with knees-up in the bar, a Saturday night overflow on the pavement and a fight now and again, is now a comparatively quiet place where people drop in for a glass and not much more. And in the more newly built suburban areas, pubs generally are few and far between. Today in Britain there is roughly one public house to every 600 people: 50 years ago it was one to 350, and a century ago one to every 100-odd.

It might look as if the two centuries campaign against the horrors of drink has worn resistance down. In fact, there is probably less “temperance’’—the word should mean moderation, but has come to stand for a dogmatic extreme—less temperance today than there was in the 19th century, when its disciples wore blue ribbons and had every child sign the pledge whom they could lay their hands on. Most men and women drink, but not so much and not so often, and they do quite a lot of it at home. Those who visit pubs daily—ask for “the usual” and call the barmaid by her first name—are mainly older men. People under 40 go to pubs, but not as a habit. Their lives have different rhythms. That is what really has happened. Public houses and peoples’ drinking habits have changed: the real change has been in the pattern of social life, to which institutions and attitudes are shaped and fused.

The true significance of the public house is a communal one. Every well-knit community has its centres, places where people of all sorts go to do business, hear news, form opinions and enjoy one another’s company: the market place, the church and, since the Middle Ages in Britain, the inn. There have been and are others, like the coffee-house in the 18th century and the caff in our own generation, but each of them limited to particular social groups (the cafes in fact have a stratification of their own from arty haunts to good pull-ups for carmen). The pub accommodates many groups. Public bar, saloon, private bar and lounge, separate only by wooden partitions, are distinct milieus under the same roof.

The fact of modern counter-attractions to public houses is obvious. Fifty years ago there were no pictures, no radio, no speedways and so on; a good many people nowadays drink bottled beer at home while they watch the television. Something more than mere counter-attraction has caused the decline in public house life, however. It is worth remembering that music halls, the great entertainment at the beginning of the centuty, were also places for drinking. Their successors, the cinemas, have no facilities for it.

A great deal of everyday social activity has taken place in pubs. Workmen ate and were paid in them— farther back, trade unions and friendly societies met in them. Shopkeepers and small businessmen went to private bars for transactions. Less obvious things, too: not so many years ago, housewives took bowls of vegetables into the locals and sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes with glasses of stout beside them. Public houses had their own football teams, with a pitch behind the premises and several hundred habituees to give support (the writer played for one, and a very good team it was). There are not many such teams now, simply because few pubs can raise them from the regulars.

Industrial and political developments have eliminated much of this activity. There usually is a canteen wherever more than a few people are employed, and a wages office as well. The late 19th-century war between the Conservative brewers and the temperance Liberals linked anti-Conservatism with disapproval of drink; the growing Labour movement set up Trades Halls and Committee Rooms, taking the meetings out of the pubs. The small tradesmen, forced into political participation by the near omnipotence of combines and multiple shops, met in Conservative Clubs instead of public houses. Both ways, political parties helped to clear the bars. It is true also that the quality and amenities of everyday life have altered since those days when the pub exuded, to quote Trevelyan, “ its promise of warmth and welcome on to the wet inhospitable street.”

More than anything, however, there has been a falling-off in communal living and thinking. In modern industrial society, any sort of local community is exceptional. Apart from the family, which has disintegrated visibly in this century, and such exceptional cases as racial and political minorities, the only coherent groups are occupational and technical ones; possibly that is why the cafe, the small-group meeting place, flourishes now instead of the pub. The division of labour and the growth of cities where functions must largely be delegated and depersonalized have taken away much of the basis for communal activity. Law and order, education, charitableness, recreation, all are in the hands of professional specialists. The variety of experience that urban civilization apparently offers is too often variety only of vicarious experience. A man who says he is keen on sport nowadays is quite likely to mean that he does the pools or watches all the Arsenal’s home matches.

One of the best literary pictures of the status of the pub in pre-urban communities is contained in George Eliot’s “Silas Marner.” Marner’s appearance in the “Rainbow” is dramatic because he has never been there before, and so—nothing else is needed—lived in isolation. Discovering the theft of his gold, there is nowhere else to announce it but in the inn. The incident is the real climax of the story, the point where the recluse enters and is accepted by the community, and the inn is its symbol. Nowadays, of course, he would go to the police station.

Certainly some unpleasant things have largely disappeared from social life with the decrease in drinking. Sottishness has not much charm; nor has the sight of children dawdling for hours on public-house doorsteps while their parents are inside. The fading of these unedifying spectacles is usually put down to a change in peoples’ outlook, as if outlook meant a kind of communal revelation. It is true that social attitudes about drinking have changed, but the change is effect, not cause. Given the growth of town life, the diminished need for community centres, and a hundred and one facilities for solving the “problem’’ of leisure, there is less drinking in public houses: consequently there are fewer drunkards and waiting children and, in time, a feeling that there is actually something disgraceful about both. Go to a village where life is still centred in the pub, and you will find the same attitude in reverse—i.e., that the amenities of town life are not just frivolous but wicked too. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that much of the anti-drink propaganda of a century or two ago was directed not against public houses but against gin shops. Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” and “Beer Alley” series, commonly supposed to depict the horrors of drink, in fact aimed to show that beer was better in every way than gin.

The modern public house is more and more a shop where beer is sold, with perhaps some provision for amusement. The only places, apart from rural areas, where it retains something of its former character, are where there is a single industry and so a community is formed by an occupational group—docklands, shipbuilding, mill and mining towns and so on. In those areas the pub has not changed very much, even in its architecture, fittings and compartments—figured glass, rococo partitions, horsehair settees and sporting prints, in contrast with the aseptic, tiles-and-chromium, one- or two-room buildings of the modern metropolis and its suburbs.

Our society is less and less a community, more and more an agglomeration of individuals. Reference has already been made to the handing-over of former communal functions to trained, authority-bearing specialists: the more important point is that responsibility has been handed over too. It is not only that impersonal powers manage, instruct, entertain and generally provide for people—the more vital aspect is that people no longer have much to do in any of those matters. That is why a happening like a flood or a railway disaster makes news by bringing out men and women spontaneously to help, nurse and clothe the victims: ordinarily those are services provided by institutions. The war produced a good deal of such communality and showed that, far from being dead, it is always ready to come through the surface of urban civilization.

The public house is what its name implies—a house for the publicum, the community; and a community is no more to be found in it than a fifty-shilling suit in the Fifty Shilling Tailors’. Is that a bad thing? It is nice to feel superior and think that people nowadays have better things to do than go to pubs; balance the rise of aspirin-taking against the fall of beer-drinking, and you may wonder what the better things are. The pub in itself does not matter very much, but the social circumstances which have changed its character do. Historians of the future will record ours as an era of amenity and progress. Perhaps, too, they will record it as the age of insecurity, personal as well as economic: an age of crowded but lonely people, knowing little communal obligation or sanction for behaviour. Advice bureaux, help pages, marriage guidance councils, huge unseen audiences for the opinions on everything of petty oracles . . .  all these—and the aspirin-bottles—are the true monuments to today.
Robert Barltrop

Capitalism in Australia (1974)

From the July 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since the end of the second world war two-and-a-half million workers from Europe, including a million from Britain, have gone to Australia. The majority go in the hope that they are going to make a fresh start and are leaving their problems behind them. They have been attracted by advertizing. (One slogan declares “We are making Australia a better place to live in”.) The emigrants are going there to work. To be more accurate they will be “getting a living”, but as they will be doing the bidding of some employer they are not free men and women.

Australia is a one-country Island-Continent. Its recorded history did not start until 1788 when the first Europeans arrived. Prior to that this huge land mass was an unknown land and, when discovered, was inhabited only by a handful of Aborigines. It was occupied without opposition, never knew feudalism, and has not known revolution or civil war. The early settlers “brought” capitalism with them and set in motion all the paraphernalia. The capitalist system was therefore imported into Australia.

Australia has vast prairies, formidable deserts, rich grazing lands, plentiful minerals, beautiful beaches. Its population has grown to 13,000,000, most of whom live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and small towns along the east coast. With Darwin, Adelaide and Perth, these cities are the major centres of commerce. World capitalism has booms and slumps, and Australia in its short history has experienced both. In the 19th century there were two slumps, in 1842 and 1892, but recovery was stimulated each time because of gold discoveries. Gold rushes always attract fresh emigrants with tradesmen, shopkeepers and so forth in their wake. By the turn of the century, capitalist development was again on the upgrade. After the first world war there was a boom which encouraged still more migrants but it was short-lived, for Australia did not escape the effects of the 1929 world depression. The older generation of the working class remember those years: the unemployment, the Labour Exchanges and the grinding poverty.

Today, Australia is called an “Awakening Giant”. It presents itself as an expanding capitalist country making the most of the “Winds of Change”. Its agricultural and mineral wealth are being exploited to the full. Exports in minerals alone (iron ore, zinc, lead, coal, copper) bring in millions of dollars annually. Vast amounts of capital, Australian and foreign, is invested to develop industry of every kind. The cities of Sydney and Melbourne with their teeming freeways, their busy dock areas and airports, their skyscraper office blocks, are the outward symbols of Australian capitalism. At the same time they testify where some of the surplus-value extracted by the exploitation of the working class has gone.

Propagandists describe Australia today as “the country of the future”, "young and vigorous”, and so on. But such words are idle chatter as far as workers are concerned. In Australia, as in all capitalist countries, the working class does not share in profits: those go to the capitalist class, the owners. During the boom period in Australia, for the capitalist it means full order-books, profit and prosperity. For the working class it means “full employment” and “regular wages” — which means rushing to and from work and the usual struggle to make ends meet.

In Australia wages appear to be high, but appearances are deceptive. The workers have to fight to maintain their wage levels in relation to increasing prices. A recent report in the Daily Mail said (9 May 1974):
A new campaign is being launched to lure Britons to well paid jobs in Australia. Miners will be offered about £100 per week and Electrical Fitters about £60 per week. The booming Kalgoorlie gold and nickel mines are hoping to take on 400 Britons in the next three years.
Like every other commodity, the price for labour-power fluctuates around its value according to supply and demand. There is an urgent demand for miners but in other trades £50 a week would be considered average. A trip around the shopping precincts, the big stores and the car showrooms makes clear the workers have access to little when the prices of goods are considered. Much in evidence are signs advertizing Easy Terms, Weekly Accounts and “Lay- By”, in other words workers have to mortgage their wages to get things they need. If they were receiving half as much as the propagandists imply, none of these tricks would have to be employed. In addition to food, clothing and the running of a car to get them to work, are their mortgages and rents. Many workers live out their lives in blocks of flats and others in Commission (Council) Houses. It is true they have access to the beautiful beaches and can go surfing or swimming. Sport is encouraged and Australian Rules football and cricket are popular, but what fundamental difference is there between the lives of the workers of Australia and those in Europe or USA? In the final analysis there is no difference. In the article in the Daily Mail appeared also the words of an Australian Government spokesman: “The money for Miners is good but it’s bloody hard work”.

About 2¼ million are organized in the trade-union movement; strikes are quite frequent. There is “National Arbitration Machinery” to cover the whole country in the event of strikes overlapping from one State to another. Each State has its own Industrial Tribune to intervene in strikes, make binding agreements and fix minimum wage rates. These bodies pretend the class struggle does not exist and are anti-working class as they uphold the whole structure of the wages system. Their existence and functions will end when the wages system itself is abolished by a Socialist working class.

To go to the polling booth in Australia is compulsory, but workers do not show much interest in politics. This is probably the result of conditions since the war for the younger generation especially. For 23 years there was a coalition Government of Liberals (read Tories) and Country Party but a year ago this was replaced by the Australian Labour Party. Not that it will make any difference. All are reformist parties. They act in the interest of the capitalist class, and the working class will have to learn this.

A small Socialist Party of Australia was formed nearly fifty years ago and groups exist in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. These groups are endeavouring, as do Socialists everywhere, to gain the ear of their fellow workers. The distances are vast, but nevertheless they keep in touch, distribute Socialist literature and use every opportunity to explain the cause of poverty, insecurity and war. The movement will grow. They are conscious of the fact that they are the only Party of Socialism and of the working class in Australia. They are indeed worthy of being one of the Companion Parties of Socialism. What more fitting phrase can be used to summarize their efforts other than “Good on You!”
J. C. Gormley