Has France Abolished Unemployment?
Recently the claim has been made that poverty and unemployment have been abolished in France, and one of the explanations given for this achievement—a surprising one if true—is the popularisation of Birth Control. Before we examine this to see what there is in it which might be copied in this country, it will be necessary to glance at the causes of unemployment.
It is really not at all a difficult problem. We do not need to look for a solution at the uttermost ends of the earth, because it is here, right before our eyes.
Being workers, we know that most of us get just about enough pay at the end of the week or the month to enable us and our families to live. We spend what we get as soon as we get it, a case of hard come and easy go. Most workers do not save anything worth mentioning because they cannot afford it. The rich are in precisely the opposite situation; they save money because they cannot help it. Many of them get much more than they can possibly spend in spite of their big houses, their servants, their expensive cars, expensive foods, and luxurious ways of living generally.
The surplus they re-invest. The effect of this is that instead of the incomes of the wealthy being used to buy the goods which the factories can produce in such vast quantities, their money is used to build more factories and instal still more efficient labour-displacing machinery, thus adding to the army of the unemployed. This is a permanent feature of the capitalist system, and it is an illusion to think that this or that capitalist country has somehow escaped the common fate.
How Unemployment is Disguised.
But although the politicians who seek to perpetuate capitalism cannot get at the root causes of unemployment, they have discovered many devices for mitigating the effects of those causes. In general, the devices are of two kinds. One kind consists in withdrawing workers from the labour market and keeping them unoccupied (or occupied on non-productive work); the other kind depends for its effect on the ability to make the wealthy spend their money by appealing to their sympathy, their patriotism, or their fears.
Thus we see Liberals, Tories, and the Labour Party busily engaged in popularising rival schemes for raising the school age, or for further old-age pensions, with the object of withdrawing old and young from the labour market. Large numbers of workers are subtracted from the army of unemployed, dressed in uniforms, and called soldiers and sailors. The capitalist class will tolerate the expenditure of their money on keeping hundreds of thousands of soldiers strenuously engaged in producing nothing, much more readily than they will tolerate spending smaller sums of their money on the other unemployed army, those without uniforms who line up at the Labour Exchanges. Expenditure on armaments, on charities, on wars, on missions, and on war service pensions, are all instances of devices which help to obscure the full extent of capitalism’s great problem, the problem of the wealthy with so much money that they cannot spend it, and the poor with too little money to buy the goods they produce.
The "Marvels" of Birth Control.
The argument of the advocates of Birth Control as a cure for poverty is two-fold. First, it is argued that if the birth-rate is reduced the expenditure of each family will be less and the family will be better off. If father had not got Maggie and Willy to consider, his £3 a week would extend to jam for tea for Thomas and Mary Jane. The second argument is that if the population were smaller there would be no unemployed. Before considering the matter in detail, it is as well to notice that the second effect, if it takes place at all, cannot do so until 15 or more years have passed. Father is not replaced at his job by his son Thomas, aged 1, but may be replaced by him when he reaches the age of 15 or thereabouts.
But are either of the arguments correct? These advocates of Birth Control entirely overlook the way in which wages are fixed and the way in which unemployment is created. They forget that if the cost of living of working class families is decreased, no matter how, wages tend to fall correspondingly, so that a general reduction in the size of families would be wholly counteracted by a decline in the level of wages. If this is doubted it is only necessary to consider the way in which money wages rose between 1914 and 1920, and the speed with which they fell when prices declined. Civil Servants, railway men, local Government employees, and many others have had their wages directly related to the cost of living, but whether the reduction in wages takes place automatically or not, it invariably does take place for workers as a whole. They are unable to resist successfully the pressure which the employers can bring to bear.
If the average working class family becomes smaller, father and all the other fathers will find that their £3 has shrunk with the shrinking of their cost of living.
Birth Control and the Unemployed.
We are told that if the population were smaller and there were no unemployed, the workers could keep their wages up in spite of their lowered cost of living. But unemployment is not the result merely of there being a large population. The organisation of industry and its private ownership are the important factors. The constant introduction of more efficient machinery and methods displaces workers from employment. It is much more direct, more important, and more speedy than anything which could be done by Birth Control.
The restriction of the population is of no practical use for the purpose of lessening unemployment. An illustration of this exists in the United States. After the War the U.S.A. Government introduced a policy of restricting immigration. But in spite of the limiting of the numbers of immigrants, the introduction of labour-saving machinery has produced its millions of unemployed. Any attempt to raise wages immediately gives the employers an additional inducement to introduce such machinery. We see, therefore, that the standard of living of the workers is kept down by the joint effect of unemployed workers competing for jobs and of employers introducing labour-saving machinery. The restriction of the population, whether by birth control or any other means, is quite ineffective to safeguard the workers against this pressure.
The Position in France.
France, with a smaller population than this country, has a much larger number of workers withdrawn from production in some of the ways mentioned earlier in this article. Her army, navy, and gendarmerie number nearly 600,000. There were 1,500,000 Frenchmen killed in the war, and there are nearly another million disabled ex-service men capable of little in the way of productive work. In 1926 (the latest figures available) public assistance was given to more than 700,000 destitute persons. The number of aged poor registered for relief on 31st December, 1926, was 526,000. (See Statesman’s Year Book, 1930.) The French Government’s employees number about a million, which is much more than the number in the British Civil Service and local Government Service. A very large percentage of Civil Servants are, of course, engaged on non-productive work.
Actually, in spite of birth control, the total population of France is more than it was in 1911. In that year the population was 39,604,992; in 1928 it was estimated to be 41,020,000. (Statesman’s Year Book, 1930. Pages 849/851). This is due partly to a lower death rate, partly to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, and partly to the influx of workers from abroad. If we exclude Alsace-Lorraine (population about 1,800,000) the population of France is now some 600,000 less than it was in 1911. On the other hand, it has been pointed out by the French economist, Francis Delaisi (Daily Herald, 17th January, 1930), that the number of workers in France has been added to by 1,300,000 men and women who, before the war, were small property owners, but are now compelled to work for their living. They have been squeezed out of the ranks of the small capitalists.
Is There Unemployment in France?
It is true that at the present time the published figures of unemployment in France show only a few thousand, but it has to be remembered that the French Government does not keep records of unemployment for the whole of France. The published figures refer to Paris only. And it is a mistake to suppose that widespread unemployment is unknown in France. In March, 1921, there were 44,000 unemployed in Paris alone, while a year before the figure was 70,000. (See "Unemployment as an International Problem,” by J. Morgan Rees, M.A., 1926, Page 83.)
Another factor is the employment of foreigners. Hundreds of thousands of the low paid workers in French agriculture and industry are by nationality Poles, Italians, or Belgians. As soon as unemployment threatens to become serious, these people are sent back to their respective countries. It may be said that during periods of industrial depression the French unemployed will be found lining up at Mussolini’s Labour Exchanges.
Are French Workers Well Off?
One important fact is often forgotten. It is that unemployment is not the only or even the chief cause of poverty. In every country in the capitalist world we find that the larger part of the workers are poor in comparison with the employing class, and a very large percentage of them are permanently unable to secure more than the bare necessities of life.
There are, of course, differences between the rates of pay in different occupations and differences between the levels of pay in different countries, but it is nevertheless true that inside each country there is this contrast between the position of the workers and the position of their employers.
The absence from France of millions of unemployed workers competing for jobs has not enabled those in work to secure any appreciable improvement in their low standard of living; the competition of the machine is more than sufficient for the employer’s purpose. According to the International Labour Office the purchasing power of the French workers is about three-quarters of that of the German workers, and is only 58% of the purchasing power of the English workers. The comparisons made by the International Labour Office are not claimed to be absolutely complete, but they do suffice to indicate what is approximately the relationship between the workers' position in the two countries. So low is the standard of living that only a couple of months ago the Postal, Telegraph, and Telephone staffs in Paris came out on strike in order to try to force their employer to raise their wages to the pre-war level. (For the benefit of those who advocate Nationalisation, it may be remarked that the employer in this case is the French Government.)
An Industrial Revolution.
France since the war has been going through what amounts to an industrial revolution. Before the war France was predominantly agricultural, and the land was to a large extent worked by peasant proprietors, producing for their own use and for the home market. Owing to the acquisition of coal and iron and industrial areas from Germany, and owing to various changes in world trade and industry, France has rapidly developed as an industrial nation. This has been accomplished by a chronic decline of agriculture. The French correspondent of the “Economist” said in January, 1929, that the agricultural depression was rapidly approaching a critical stage. It is estimated that the cost of producing wheat in France can be met with a yield of 8 quintals per acre, but the actual average yield is only 6 quintals per acre. The area under wheat in 1913 was 16,250,000 acres. In 1927 it had fallen to 12,750,000 acres, or more than 20%, and it is still falling. France is faced with a steady decline of agriculture, and the abandonment of once profitable farms. (Economist, January 12th, 1929.)
But while many farms have been abandoned, the full effect of the slump is not shown.
If the production of coal or boots becomes unprofitable, the factory owner closes down and the workers become unemployed. But when a small farmer finds himself getting poorer, the final process of squeezing out may be deferred for years. He, and his family, work harder and longer, live on a lower scale, and postpone the final calamity while it is humanly possible.
“An Immense Economic Crisis."
A special factor has operated since, and as a consequence of the war. Reparations payments received from the German Government have been used to make good the enormous destruction wrought during the war, and to re-equip French industry. This has made work for French and foreign workers in France, and has meant a big sale for goods produced in various groups of French industries.
Now, however, that reconstruction work is finished, there is less demand for workers and less home demand for the products of French industries.
At the same time, the demand from abroad is also falling off.
In 1928 the French Government stabilised the currency on a gold basis. The way in which it was done had the result that for the time being the franc had a higher purchasing power inside France than outside. English or other foreign buyers could purchase more goods in France with 124 francs than they could buy abroad with although £1 could be changed into 124 francs. In other words, French prices were below world prices. The consequence was that until French prices rose, or foreign prices fell, French manufacturers were able to sell abroad more cheaply than their foreign competitors. Factories were working full-time and unemployment was reduced to a low figure.
But now that condition is passing. At the end of 1927 the price level of French products (compared with 1914) was below the price level of products imported into France. By April of this year the price level of foreign imports had fallen well below the level of French products. French manufacturers are losing their temporary advantage. Exports from France during the first 6 months of the year were appreciably below the value and quantity of exports during the first 6 months of 1929.
French industries cannot in the long run escape from the conditions which apply to industries elsewhere. English textiles are depressed; so are textiles in France. British coal exporters complain of foreign competition. French coal interests protest against the increasing imports. of cheap coal from Russia. Wine growers are being drowned financially in the enormous stocks of wine which they cannot sell. They are appealing to the Government to rescue them by increasing the soldier’s free daily ration of wine.
The newly appointed Minister for Finance states (Economist, July 5th) that “the country is faced with an immense economic crisis.”
Sooner or later it will be evident that Birth Control in France is just as ineffective as a cure for unemployment as are all the other schemes for saving capitalism from the evils which it produces.
Anti-Working Class Busybodies.
In conclusion, some comment appears to be called for on the impertinence of the busybodies who advocate such remedies for economic ills.
There are human problems for which birth control may provide the solution, just as there 'are good reasons why some people should avoid alcohol, why others should spend more time in the open air, and why most of us should have more leisure and use it profitably. What, in fact, happens under capitalism is that many workers cannot afford to marry or to have children; they are driven to alcohol or some other stimulant owing to the fatiguing and depressing conditions of their work and their lives; they are worked too long and too hard and have not the money or the time to cultivate, properly the occupations of people with more leisure.
We want the working class to resent this utterly unnecessary denial of opportunities for enjoyment and for making the most of their lives. The world is rich enough if the workers would but rid it of the out-of-date capitalist system. But we find our work for Socialism impeded by the muddle-headed enthusiasts who preach salvation through prohibition, birth control, industrial psychology, and what not. Nominally, they are actuated by pure sympathy for the workers, but invariably their remedies consist of ingenious methods of indirectly helping the employing class. The only reason they admit for doing anything or changing anything is to lower the employers’ costs of production. Our natural desire for sexual intercourse and for children is to be limited so that the employers may get cheaper labour; we must not “waste” our money on alcohol because without it we should be more efficient workers; we must keep out of cinemas and spend our week-ends in the parks and playing fields, which our kindly employers or the state provide for us; if we do we shall be fine and fresh on Monday morning. We must work reduced hours; but only if the industrial psychologists can show that it will pay the boss, and only reduced just to that precise point at which it pays most.
We are to be born, educated, married, rationed in children and alcohol, our whole lives carefully supervised, and finally we may expect to be killed in war, all for the sake of the employing class, and all conducted under a smoke-screen of propaganda carried on by the birth controllers, the family endowment advocates, the prohibitionists, and all the other mischievous people who do not grasp or who deliberately obscure the simple outlines of the one great social problem.