Friday, April 7, 2017

Pin-stripe power (1983)

From the April 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Civil servants have always had many detractors and few defenders. Among the latter was Bernard Shaw, with his back- handed tribute that “even those public departments that were bywords for incompetence and red tape were far more efficient than the commercial adventurers who derided them”, and Sir Leo Chiozza Money who, with experience to guide him, presented an argued case on the same lines of comparison with private industry. Among the criticisms may be listed that the numbers of civil servants needlessly keep on increasing and that they enjoy a privileged position in respect of pay, holidays and pensions and finally, that it is they and not the government who run the country. The criticisms are mostly based on ignorance of the facts and disregard of the purposes for which capitalism needs a civil service and the interest capitalists have in running the service as cheaply as possibly.

The numbers of civil servants have indeed increased enormously, from 21,300 in 1832 to 521,000 in 1982. As the population is now four times what it was in 1832 this means that, relative to population, the civil service has been multiplied by six. (These figures all exclude the postal and telecom services whose staff were, until 1969, civil servants, and the industrial civil servants employed in government dockyards and the Ordnance factories.) But the increases have all been the result of the government taking on additional functions called for by capitalism as, for example, in the fields of Income Tax. Customs & Excise, Education, Factory Acts and latterly the social services.

Governments have always been aware of their need to overhaul and reorganise the civil service periodically, to bring it into line with new functions and to keep the cost down. This began with a Report on the Civil Service in 1853 and a corresponding report in 1854 on the Post Office staff, and has been followed by several other enquiries including three Royal Commissions in this century, 1912, 1931 and 1955. Further enquiries and reorganisations have been undertaken under the present government. Some of the recommendations of the 1854 Report have a modern ring. It proposed paid holidays for lower grade Post Office staff—not in their interest, but in that of efficiency. The principle was laid down that it is possible to recruit suitable staff at low rates of pay by holding out the inducement that some of them may get promotion to a more highly paid grade. It observed that “subsistence allowances" to meet necessary out-of-pocket expenditure arising out of the job were not intended to be an undercover method of getting more pay.

The idea that civil servants are privileged appears to be based on the suspicion that this half-million strong army is a self-governing body which fixes its own pay and conditions in defiance of efforts of Parliament and government to control them. There was some justification for this in respect of the smaller body of civil servants before 1853. Each department had its own arrangements, appointment was by patronage or influence or the actual sale of jobs, and there were no qualifying examinations. This was progressively altered between 1853 and 1870, by which time most features of the modern system had been established. Successive governments and committees of enquiry have considered all sorts of methods for fixing pay and conditions, including leaving them to market forces, so that pay need only be enough to attract a sufficient number of applicants

Of course the civil service would, if it could, be "privileged" but no government or committee has accepted the claim made by civil service unions that the government should be “a model employer" in the sense of setting a "good" example to all other employers.

The idea of fixing civil service pay in relation to movements of outside pay, which had long been operated in the Post Office, was recommended by the Tomlin Commission in 1931 and in a much more elaborate form by the Priestley Commission in 1955. Under the latter comparison is made grade by grade with outside comparable work, taking into account not only pay but hours, annual leave, pensions and so on. Two particular points of criticism have been that full account in making the comparisons has not been given to the fact that civil service pensions are kept in line with the rise in prices ("index-linking”), and that in the depression little or no weight has been given to the civil servant's security of employment. Both have been under review.

Have governments then been unable to control the size and pay of the civil service? Actual events show otherwise. All awards of the arbitration tribunals have been subject to what is called "the overriding authority of Parliament", meaning that the government reserved the right to disregard an award. When the Thatcher government, at the end of the abortive strikes of civil servants in 1981, promised arbitration it was "on the understanding that the government reserves the right . . .  to ask the House of Commons to approve setting aside the Tribunal's award on grounds of overriding national policy". On occasion awards have been disregarded, arbitration itself has been suspended, as also the agreed application of the "fair comparison" operatives. Civil service pay was subjected to the "economy" cuts in 1931 and the present government has fixed overall limits on expenditure. From time to time the numbers have been drastically reduced as between 1945 and 1960 with the loss of 80,000 jobs and again under the Thatcher government with a reduction from 571,000 in 1977 to 521,000 in 1982. More cuts are threatened.

If Sir Chiozza Money were alive today and making his comparison between the size and efficiency of the civil service and the position in industry he would certainly want to look into what happened in the fourteen years 1953-1967. For those years the government Statistical Office published figures showing the changes that had taken place in respect of the staff employed in manufacturing industry as a whole. The staff were divided for this purpose into "wage-earners" and “salary-earners" and presumably a large proportion of the latter were doing jobs similar to those of the clerical civil service.

While during those fourteen years there was hardly any increase in the number of civil servants, manufacturing industry showed a fall in the number of wage earners from 6,160,000 to 5,780,000 but the number of salary earners in manufacture went up from 837,000 to 2,040,000, an increase of 1,203,000.

No doubt the employers would say that the increase resulted largely from the masses of paper work thrust on industry through legislation on taxation, factory acts, and the provision of information to government departments; but it is factors like these which have explained the increase in the number of civil servants in those periods when the civil service was growing.

All of the above relates to the civil service as a whole. A different interpretation of civil servants "running the country" concerns only the permanent officials at the top of each department who are in direct contact with the political heads, the Ministers. Professor Brian Chapman has defined their role as being "To advise, warn, and assist those responsible for State policy and when desired, to provide the organisation for its implementation. The responsibility for policy decisions lies with the political members of the executive, and customarily civil servants are protected from public blame or censure for their advice". In the modern British civil service it has been accepted that, whatever their own political views may be, those permanent officials will give their advice objectively, irrespective of the politics and policy of the government. (In America the "spoils" system has operated, under which the incoming administration appoints its own political supporters in place of the old lot.)

In practice governments have not always been satisfied to rely on the permanent officials either to carry out their internal administrative responsibilities or their work of advising Ministers, as when Thatcher appointed Derek Rayner from Marks and Spencer to secure economies of staffing and Professor Walters as adviser on economic matters.

Ministers in charge of departments are there to see that the permanent officials carry out cabinet policy. They work under considerable disadvantage. They are not, and are not intended to be, expert in the work of the Department, and may be shifted, at the will of the Prime Minister, from one Department to another. That they immediately make speeches about the work of their new department is possible only because the permanent officials provide them with informed briefs.

Opinions on how the system works vary greatly. Some politicians have said that they have had the fullest co-operation. Others (the late Richard Crossman is one) have complained of greater or less degrees of obstruction. The Times, (20 December 1982) pin-pointed the problem in relation to the Defence Department when John Nott resigned and a successor had to be chosen: “There is undoubtedly a mammoth administrative challenge if the Secretary of State is to run the three services, rather than the three services running the Secretary of State". In the Defence Department and all other departments the government has its remedies. It can change the Minister, choose the men it wants to be the top permanent officials and of course it controls the finance.

So what remains of the charge that government policies are determined by the permanent officials in the Civil Service? The case with which different governments adopt different policies, and the same government goes in for U-turns, shows it to be baseless. The same, or the same kind of. permanent officials were there when steel was nationalised by the Labour Government. de-nationalised by the Tories and re-nationalised by the next Labour government. The same applies to the “privatisation" policies introduced by the Thatcher government. The permanent officials went along with Labour and Tory Keynesian policies for thirty years after 1945 and then fell in with monetarist policies when the Thatcher government came to power.

If there are Labour Party members who complain that the old Keynesian rubbish did not solve the unemployment problem, and Tory Party members who complain that the Thatcher government's old monetarist rubbish has likewise failed, they really cannot blame the Civil Service permanent officials. They brought it all on themselves, as the determination of both parties to perpetuate capitalism.
Edgar Hardcastle 

Commodity production and its abolition (1985)

From the April 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
In July 1979 we published extracts from a pamphlet published in France Un monde sans argent: le communisme ("A World Without Money. Communism") — as evidence that the spread of socialist ideas does not depend exclusively on our own efforts since capitalism itself generates the idea of socialism as a classless, stateless, moneyless society. We publish below a chapter from another pamphlet published in France last year, entitled Communisme: éléments de reflexion, as a further confirmation of this view (though in this case, as certain references in the text show, the authors were clearly aware of our existence). As in 1979, we are once again compelled to record our difference with the views expressed elsewhere in the pamphlet as to how communism (or socialism, the same thing) should be achieved.
In traditional societies, whatever the status of their members, the hierarchy, rules and norms which divided human beings into rulers and ruled were counterbalanced by a whole collection of rights and duties and were regularly transgressed by social practices (festivals, etc.). Further, the relationships of dependence and authority which bound people together were essentially personal relationships. Oppression was real but it was transparent. On the other hand, from the moment that commodity relations became widespread and extended to the buying and selling of labour power through the wages system (an extension which both allowed and accompanied the establishment of capitalist relations of production) it was no longer the relationships between persons that was decisive but the production of commodities.

With the domination of capitalism, human relationships seem no longer to depend on men and women, but are realised and determined by a symbol: money. As all human activities can be represented and transformed by money they become a collection of objects subject to laws independent of the human will. Relationships between people take place through produced things and through the relations between these commodities.

In capitalist society all goods are produced for sale, for profit. They can therefore only exist as commodities, defined by their value. Thus the millions of different kinds of objects produced by human activity are reduced to a common denominator — their commercial value — measured by a common standard: money. This allows them to be compared and exchanged, to be entirely dominated by the market.

Money becomes the universal abstraction through which everything must pass so that people are most often led to see themselves as potential competitors whose absence of relationships finds compensation in the fetishism they have towards commodities. By a proliferation of objects which have no other use than to bring in money, and which are at the same time substitutes replacing human activity, the commodity and the desire to own present themselves as expressions of a person s individuality. Capital responds to human needs by a profusion of artificial satisfactions: to individuals who want to "rediscover" nature capital offers it to them functional and mechanised; to individuals stifling under the weight of constraints capital provides leisure; the individuals seeking love as a refuge for their emptiness are submerged by capital under a cheap eroticism. Never has any society so united, so linked human beings to each other, to the extent of making their activities depend on those of others; yet never has any society made people so indifferent to other people, and more hostile to them too since the links which join them the market. competition — also divide them.

The logic of commodity domination is also a system of widespread waste and destruction: goods are made not to last and to lead to other sales, natural resources are plundered, food is no longer natural, the "surplus" agricultural products of one part of the globe are destroyed while the other part is kept in a state of shortage, the war economy becomes general, etc.

The internal logic of capitalism is such that the goods it produces cannot be considered independently of the commodity process. Commodities are not "neutral" goods (use value) which it suffices to rid of their subjection to money (exchange value). Commodity exchange and use are only two aspects of the same social relation. Capitalism has fused production, sale and use into a coherent whole. People prefer to deprive themselves of what might logically appear to be essential rather than deprive themselves of the latest gadget which makes them be "in fashion". Through consumption a process of distinction takes place with regard to those who do not buy such and such a product, and a process of identification with the group of those who have bought the same product, whose use is supposed to let us live the moments we don’t live and to allow us the relationships we don’t have. The important thing is that the advantage should be apparent and it matters little that it is only apparent.

The point has been reached where the necessary degradation of objects is calculated and decided. The market must not be clogged with products that last too long. These represent money that is tied up. The faster capital turns over — the faster it resumes the form of money to lose it once again in becoming a concrete commodity again — the more it brings in. It is reinvested increased by a profit. Everything must circulate quickly.

For this, the commodities offered on the market form an extremely hierarchised whole. There is not one or several commodities for a given need but a whole multitude of them of the same or of competing marks. This diversity claims to respond to the variety of people's needs: "the customer must have a choice!" In fact, customers only have the choice allowed by their financial means and social roles. Many commodities respond to the same need but are differentiated by their quality and price. Different products may correspond to different uses, but these different uses are not available to the same individuals. Like production these uses are socially determined.

In order to disguise the alienation of the human being, reduced to the role of producer and then of consumer, capitalism has to maintain the illusion of a separation between production and consumption. The separation between production and consumption thus appears as a natural division between two quite distinct spheres of social life. Nothing is less true. First, the frontier between what is called production time and what is called consumption time is moving. Into which category come cooking and a number of other activities? Secondly, every act of production is also necessarily an act of consumption. It is only matter that is being transformed in a certain way and for a certain purpose. In destroying, or if you want in consuming certain things, other things are at the same time obtained, or if you want produced. Consumption involves production; production involves consumption.

The concepts of production and consumption are not neutral. The capitalist use of the concept of production obscures the fact that the human being is a part of his milieu and of the whole of nature. A chicken becomes an egg-making factory. Everything is then interpreted in terms of domination and use. Man the producer—supposedly conscious and master of himself—sets out to conquer nature: he wishes to be his own master just as he is the master of the object he fashions, but in fact he does not cease to be an object himself, his own object.

As communism is the creation of new social relationships between people which would bring about a quite different human activity, it must be understood that production would not be what it is today without money. If we can, for want of a better term, still speak of production to express the process by which a part of human activity would be devoted to reproducing existence and in which would be expressed the human ability to create, to innovate and to transform, the disappearance of exploitation and the abolition of money would mean that this production would not involve the subjection of people to it since it would be they who would decide its aims, its means and its conditions. It would therefore be an expression of their humanity and would not strip them of their other dimensions (love, play, dreaming, etc.). Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers would not exchange their products, just as little would the labour employed on the products appear as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them. These goods, not having the quality of value, would not be able to be hoarded nor exchanged (in accordance with this value, whatever its method of measurement), nor, even less so, sold. They would have no other role than to satisfy human needs and desires as these would be felt in a given period.

With the elimination of commodity production would disappear the domination of the product over the producer. People would rediscover the links with what they make. With the disappearance of money goods would be freely available and free of charge. It would no longer be a question of having to have a certain amount of money in order to have the right to obtain such and such a thing. But communist society would not be an extension of our "consumer" society. It would not be an immense supermarket in which passive human beings would only have to help themselves. There would no longer be a scramble for exploitable resources without concern for the future, nor a rush for useless gadgets which give the illusion of inventiveness and newness. If it was decided to save one or two well-made articles from this pile of rubbish, human activity would be both simpler and richer. Thus would be eliminated a number of the consequences of production linked to the "necessity" of profitability and competitiveness: the decrease in the importance of human activity in the production of things, waste, pollution, the international division of labour, etc.

Communism is not an appropriation of value by the producers but its negation. The fact that a product had been produced by such and such a person would not at all imply the persistence of the principle of property, not even "decentralised ”. Productive activity would no longer be linked to the idea of ownership, but to individual and collective creativity, to the consciousness that human needs, individual and communal, have to be provided for.

With the substitution of common ownership for exchange, goods would cease to have an economic value and would simply become physical objects which human beings would be able to use to satisfy some need or other. In this respect these objects would be fundamentally different from those (even those of the same appearance) which capitalism has created and developed. It would not be a question of simply taking over the goods of the past, but of rethinking them, sometimes replacing them, according to the criterion of enjoyment rather than that of profit. To this change of aim would correspond just as profound a change in the productive process and thus a rethinking of technology involving in addition to the use of the "achievements" left by capitalism, the rediscovery of technologies previously abandoned as unprofitable, and innovation which does not subject human beings to machines.

This new organisation of productive activity would not eliminate the need to estimate the needs and possibilities of the community at a given time. But these would no longer be reduced to a common denominator measured by a common unit. It would be as physical quantities that they would be counted and would interest people. But once again communism must not be reduced to problems of calculation. If this were to be done, this would be to substitute a technocratic ideal for the perspective of a human community, to perpetuate work as a social activity external to men and women.

In the past communists have put forward the idea that the distribution of products could be settled by the introduction of labour vouchers corresponding, after making certain deductions for the common funds, to the average social labour-time undertaken by the individual. In fact, the existence of a common standard to measure products and work cannot amount to a real abolition of the wages system and exchange. and so not of value. Further — to be "fair" — variations (which, besides, would be quite arbitrary) would have to be introduced in respect of the difficulty of the work, its degree of interest, etc. So there would be a return to an "economic calculation", requiring a “unit of value" whether this was expressed in money or directly in labour-time. Communism, as a moneyless society, would, on the contrary, not need any universal unit of measurement but would be able to calculate in kind. The attraction of such and such an object would then come from the object itself and no longer from a value attributed to it more or less arbitrarily. Its production and use would be determined according to what they implied for human beings and nature.

Along with the disappearance of commercial value would disappear the division of the human being into a producer and a consumer. In communist society, consumption would not be opposed to production since there would be no contradiction between being concerned with oneself and concerning oneself with someone else. The group or the individual would express themselves through what they did. Unless this was imposed by the very nature of a product, people would no longer need to hurry all the time as they would no longer be constrained by the necessity to produce commodities. The "consumer'’ would not be able to blame the "producer" for what he or she did by invoking the money that had been paid since none would be given in exchange, but simply to criticise from the inside. not from the outside. What would be at issue would be their common effort.

Poverty in the USA (1963)

From the September 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

From time to time the London Times draws attention to admissions of poverty in America. One such article from their correspondent in Washington appeared in the issue of April 19.

It starts off with the statement: ‘‘Every fifth American lives in poverty, and many more in deprivation, according to official statistics. Altogether 77 million are either poor or are denied an adequate standard of living.”

Criticising Professor Galbraith for his over optimistic assumptions about iminishing inequality, the Times article goes on:--
  The starting point could well be the figures of the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics which draw the line between poverty and deprivation at $4,000 a year (£1,428) for a family of four and $2,000 (£714) for an individual living alone. These figures do not necessarily mean cash income, but include the price of food grown by small farmers, and in 1960 nearly 10,500,000 families received less.
  The line drawn between deprivation and a modest but adequate standard of living was drawn at a family income level of about $6,000 a year (£2,142). Again according to the Labour Department, in 1960 an urban family of four required between $5.036 and $7,678 a year to live adequately. More than two-fifths of the population do not earn $6000 a year.
  The areas of poverty and deprivation are easily defined. Studies of the Conference of Economic Progress showed that 37.2 per cent. lived in the south; 18.3 were unemployed; 16.2 per cent. were elderly; 16.2 per cent, were non-white; and 12.1 per cent. lived on farms.
    Circumstances have changed little since 1959 when two-thirds of all farm workers earned less than $1,000 (£357) and some migratory workers earned less than $500. Nearly 80 per cent. of all non-white families lived in poverty or deprivation, and about 32 per cent, earned less than $2.000. Retired couples received social security pensions of $1.500 a year but many poor people do not contribute to the scheme.
Among other interesting details it is stated that in the years since 1929 inequality of income has in one respect increased: “If the poor did not become poorer the rich became richer.”

It is hardly necessary to remind readers that Socialists do not think that poverty is a peculiarity of any one part of the world. All countries are good to live in for the rich and all countries have the poor for the rich to shed tears over.
Edgar Hardcastle

Cooking the Books: Bill Gates on Robots (2017)

The Cooking the Books column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The online magazine Quartz (17 February) put up a video interview with Bill Gates under the headline 'The robot that takes your job should pay taxes, says Bill Gates'.
Gates didn't say anything particularly profound. The point he made was that robotisation would release workers for other kinds of work, but that this would have to be paid for, one source of money for this being a tax on robots, i. e., on capitalist firms installing them. The other kind of work he had in mind was catering better for some particular human needs:
'what the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs. You know, all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.'
It does make sense to use work resources freed up by robotisation to meet these, and other, needs. This is what would happen in socialist society since it would a society directly geared to meeting human needs. But we are not living in socialist society, only under capitalism where this is not the case. So it's not that simple.
Robotisation is no different in principle from the mechanisation that has gone on since the beginning of capitalism. It is, in fact, the latest application of machines to production. Machines have always displaced living labour but, despite dire predictions by some, this has not led to steadily increasing unemployment. Capital accumulation has continued, with the displaced labour (though not necessarily individual displaced workers) being transferred to other industries (making the machines as well as in new industries) and also in the 'service sector'.
This sector includes providers of personal services to workers (and capitalists) for profit, but, also, in large part, services provided by the government and paid for from taxes. Apart from its own administration, national and local, the government provides for health care and education, for the benefit of the capitalist class by providing and maintaining an educated and healthy workforce to produce their profits.
These are part of the necessary expenses of running the capitalist system which capitalists are prepared to pay for out of taxation, which in the end is a burden on their profits. But there are limits. They want these expenses kept to the minimum necessary to benefit them, not to provide an adequate service for workers and their dependants.
Gates favours some of the benefits of the increased productivity that robots bring being used to 'do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs.' He should ask himself why this has not happened already. Why are services for the elderly and those with special needs not adequate? Why are there not smaller classes in schools? After all, sixty years ago automation was said to hold out the same promise.
The answer is that capitalism is not a system geared to meeting human needs, certainly not the needs of worker's dependants who don't contribute to production. As a profit-making system, its priority is profits and conditions for profit-making.
Robotisation under capitalism will not benefit people in the way Gates said he would like. The service sector may well expand but mainly for those who can pay. The needs of those who can't will still be neglected and grossly inadequate.