Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The King's Question Answered (1936)

From the April 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard

Slums and Luxury Liners

After some caustic remarks about the Glasgow slums, King Edward VIII, on his recent visit to the new wonder liner, “Queen Mary,” turned to a member of his party and said, “How do you reconcile a world that has produced this mighty ship with the slums that we have visited?” Lord Melchett, who reports this (Daily Telegraph, March' 12th) does not say what answer, if any, was given to the King’s question, nor does his own toying with it throw any light on what to him is evidently the unsolved mystery of our age. Lord Melchett, faced with a problem which can only be solved by a complete change, a social revolution, could only recoil from such a notion and proffer its opposite, “ The only inkling I can give you in regard to its solution may be summed up in one word — equilibrium. . . . We have got to produce things in a balanced way, and in relation to all other things of which the community has need.”

Here Lord Melchett just touched the fringe of the problem, but without having even an inkling of what is under his nose. There is no such thing as "the community,” and its "needs” are, therefore, an abstraction that has no meaning. We live in a world which consists of two communities, those who own and control the means of producing and distributing wealth—the capitalists—and those who, not having property on the income from which they can live, have to work for wages or salaries. Lord Melchett is so accustomed to viewing the monetary aspect of things that he cannot be expected, without assistance, to see below the surface. Let us, then, assist him by pointing out that the wages system, which looks so natural and inevitable when viewed from above, is purely capitalistic and will pass with capitalism. It disguises a conflict of interests, an exploitation of one class by another, every whit as callous as chattel slavery. The chattel slave produces wealth for the slave-owner, but must, of course, be provided with the necessities of life. The wage- and salary-earners, making up the great majority of the population, produce wealth for the capitalists, the owners of the means of production and distribution. In return the workers receive, when they are at work, the price of the commodity they sell, their labour-power. If their standard of living is sometimes above the chattel slave level they suffer the torments of insecurity unknown to the latter.

Now let us examine Lord Melchett’s phrase, “Things of which the community has need.” A glance is sufficient to show its absurdity. The community of the rich needs good and abundant food, roomy, luxurious and well-situated houses, expensive cars, and foreign travel in luxury liners. The community of the rich, having property rights in all the wealth produced by the workers, and having to return only a part for their upkeep, not only wants these things, but can pay for them, and has them. It is their privileged position, their ability to pay for whatever they want which determines how the world’s resources shall be used.

On the other hand, the workers also want these things, but cannot pay for them and, therefore, do not get them. The workers lack what the economists call “effective demand.” They get slums, poor and inadequate food, shoddy clothing and ineffective advice from Lord Melchett.

In face of these two worlds, the world of the rich and the world of the poor, talk of equilibrium gets us nowhere. Producing more and better food, so far from improving the state of things, would actually increase the disequilibrium Lord Melchett has in mind, for the workers could not buy it, and the capitalists already buy all they need. Like a bumper crop, or a big increase in productivity in any industry, any such increase of food production would merely throw out of work thousands of the workers in the food trades, because the owners could not sell the increase at profitable prices.
What, then, is the remedy? It is so plain and reasonable that the slowness of the workers to accept it is a matter for recurring amazement. Abolish the capitalist ownership and control of the means of production and distribution. Rid society of this institution which has now become a fetter for the mass of the population. Let society itself, through its own democratic control, utilise the land to produce food for the needs of the whole community, and the factories and railways, etc., likewise. Let us have our means of life turned into means of producing the requirements of humanity, not the profits of a class. Let us turn our two hostile communities into one real community, freed for ever of the rivalry of interests between those who own and those who do not own, a rivalry which restricts the production of useful and beautiful things, condemns vast masses to sordid poverty, excites class hatred and international war, and poisons human relationships in a war of the jungle instead of a co-operative endeavour to enrich life.
Edgar Hardcastle

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