Monday, December 3, 2018

Unions & Saving Jobs (1984)

From the December 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In addition to their concern with wages and hours of work, all of the five hundred unions in this country have an interest in the number of jobs available to their members, as highlighted by the strike of coal miners.

In this they are confronted with three facts of capitalism. In the first place the total output of each industry is not the maximum that is physically possible but the amount that companies and nationalised industries are able to sell at a profit: production is governed by the market. In capitalism's periodic depressions most industries suffer a decline in sales; hence the present unemployment of over 3 million.

Secondly, companies and nationalised industries, having to meet competition from home and abroad, try to hold their share of the market by producing more cheaply. This they achieve by labour-saving machinery and other methods designed to secure the same output with fewer workers; that is by increasing the output per worker. Official estimates show that, since 1980. average output per worker has increased by the exceptionally high figure of ten per cent, which means that the number of workers in work could have been kept at the 1980 level only if the market had expanded by ten per cent — instead of which it has been shrinking in the depression.

The third factor is that there is no permanence about the size of the different industries. Old ones decline or disappear often with devastating effect on the workers. In recent years manufacturing industry has lost a million workers, because from being a big exporter of manufactures this country is now on balance an importer. The railways, which displaced horse transport and the canals, have themselves been hit by motor transport and air transport. Coal has been largely displaced by oil, gas and nuclear power so that the number of miners has fallen from over a million in 1926 to about 200,000. Postal traffic declined with the expansion of telephones, and farms employ far fewer workers. One industry that has grown remarkably is banking, finance and insurance. In 1965 they employed 645,000 workers; the figure is now 1,366,000 and has continued to expand during the depression.

There is one notable exception to the dependence of output on profitable sales. It is the willingness of all governments, either for political reasons or having wartime needs in mind, to keep some loss-making industries and companies alive with subsidies. For a century governments did this with the loss-making inland telegraph services and have in recent years given big subsidies to agriculture and shipbuilding. Subsidies to the coal industry have been based on the expected long-term position when North Sea oil runs out and coal may expand again.

Unions with members in declining industries have long been to the fore with campaigns to induce governments to grant subsidies to their industries. (It was a big issue in coal mining and agriculture in the years after World War One.) But it is not only the unions. Employers’ organisations in the various industries have been equally active with their claims — companies supplying equipment to the coal industry and agriculture; companies making equipment for railway electrification and many more. Often the unions and the employers make joint representations to the government.

In the nature of the situation conflicts arise within the ranks of the employers and between the unions, as for example in the competition between the railways and road transport. That the railways would lose traffic to the often cheaper and more adaptable road transport was inevitable, but the Labour Party, whose government had protected the railways to some extent, complained that Tory governments “had deliberately encouraged road transport” at the expense of the railways and had "made sure that the railways would be fatally crippled in the contest". (Twelve Wasted Years, Labour Party 1963)

It goes without saying that capitalists in industries not benefiting directly or indirectly from the subsidies protest vigorously about their profits having to contribute through taxation to finance the subsidies.

In recent years there have been similar conflicts in the energy field, as between coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. The claim of the National Union of Mineworkers that coal should be given absolute priority, coal imports restricted, power stations converted to coal-firing and nuclear power reduced or phased out got the backing of the Labour Party but unions with members in the industries that would be adversely affected take a different view. At the Labour Party Annual Conference in October an Executive Committee resolution reaffirming the Party’s policy and condemning “the gross inefficiency of nuclear power stations and the dangerous risk to health they create for us and future generations", was defeated—3,483,000 to 2,967,000. (Financial Times 2 October 1984)

Such claims and conflicts relate to attempts by individual unions to induce governments to promote the expansion of one industry at the expense of others but there have been other policies framed to get joint action by all unions with the aim of increasing the number of jobs for all workers. One such policy is combined action by the unions to raise wages so as to expand total demand and create more jobs. This is arithmetical nonsense; higher wages do not expand total demand.

Marx dealt with this issue effectively over a hundred years ago, pointing to the obvious fact that raising wages reduces profits. Workers’ expenditure goes up but the expenditure of capitalists is correspondingly reduced, changing the kind of expenditure but not its total amount. Marx ridiculed the idea that pushing up wages would avert or cure a depression and so reduce unemployment. Unions affiliated to the TUC and Labour Party have also relied on policies aimed to increase the total number of jobs by government action. This was recently stated by Arthur Scargill when he called for a Labour government which would, he said, “get rid of unemployment and create meaningful jobs". In an early, crude, form this is a belief that any increase of government expenditure would create more jobs. But in 1974 government expenditure was £26,000 million and unemployment was 630,000; in every year since then government expenditure has increased and in 1983 was £115,000 million. Yet unemployment more than doubled under the Labour government of 1974-1979 and has more than doubled again under the Tories.

In a less crude form this theory was set out in the 1983 Labour Party election programme. which admitted that an increase of government expenditure financed by taxation would have no effect at all on employment. The increase of government expenditure would be offset by a corresponding fall in taxpayer's expenditure: “For the increased spending in one part of the economy would be cancelled out by the decreased expenditure elsewhere”. The programme then went on to say that the effect would be different if the increase of government expenditure was financed by borrowing. But how would it be different? Just as a taxpayer cannot both pay increased taxes and spend the same as before, so anyone who lends £1.000 to the government cannot also spend the £1,000. (Incidentally, the Labour government of 1974-9 and the Tory government since 1979 both increased the amount of government expenditure covered by borrowing.)

The theory is wholly fallacious as also is the opposite theory, advanced by the Tories, that the number of jobs would be increased if government expenditure were decreased. There is no way whatever in which government can increase its expenditure without a corresponding fall in the spending power of the population generally. The idea of the number of jobs being increased by some policy of the government is fallacious for another reason in capitalism itself. As has already been pointed out, the volume of production and therefore the total number of jobs rests on market conditions, on sales and profitability. It does not depend on some supposed overall deficiency of spending power which has to be made good by increased government expenditure or any other government policy.

The failure of the capitalists to continue to expand investment and production in a depression is not because they could not continue but because many of them choose not to do so. And they choose not to do so because they see no prospect of profit in it. Specifically it is not because they are all short of cash. As it was put by the City Editor of the Daily Mail (30 October 1984): “Companies have never had so much cash.” He could have mentioned GEC with its cash mountain of £1,500 million. much of it lent to banks. Now, or at any time in the depression, GEC could have spent its cash buying materials and plant and hiring more workers to produce more electrical goods. They have not done so because there was, and still is, no profit in it. If GEC had expanded production, the goods would have been unsaleable, except at a loss, and if they were sold the effect in existing conditions would have been to destroy the market for other electrical companies and put some of their workers out of work. GEC and other companies wait until market conditions make further investment and expansion of production profitable again.

Given the continuance of capitalism with its production for the market and the making of profit, there is nothing unions or governments can do to create more jobs for the workers as a whole. The idea of capitalism without periodic unemployment and depressions is a delusion.
Edgar Hardcastle

Ecology and Politics (1985)

From the December 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Strictly speaking, ecology is a science and not a party-political point of view. But as the science of the relationship between organisms and their environment it has clear social implications when the organisms in question are human beings. Whatever we might like to think, we are not the species that has “conquered” nature and freed itself from its laws; we are a part of nature and cannot, without serious consequences, permanently infringe the laws governing our relationship as an animal species to the rest of nature as our environment.

Basically, ecological science teaches that an ecosystem, as a pattern of relationships between various different plant and animal organisms and their common physical environment, can only survive over time if a certain equilibrium is established and maintained –what has been called “the balance of nature”. If this balance is not respected, then the ecosystem begins to break down with serious consequences for all the organisms involved.

Although there are still some completely self-sufficient tribes and communities in various parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America—which, incidentally, have only survived, apart from their isolation, through being perfectly integrated into their ecosystems—the ecosystem of which humanity is part now embraces, and has done for about a hundred years, the whole globe. A moment’s reflection on what goes into making the articles we use every day is sufficient to demonstrate this: they are made of materials—of metals like steel, tin and aluminium or of plastics derived from oil—that come from all parts of the world. The same applies to much of the food we eat. The environment on which we depend, then, is the whole world, its atmosphere, its natural and industrial resources—in short, all that is in and on the Earth. The equilibrium which ought to exist between us and our environment is thus an equilibrium between us, as a species, and the whole of the rest of nature, an equilibrium which would allow us to use nature to satisfy our needs without upsetting the ecosystem to which we belong.

Yet, if we look around us, it can clearly be seen that no such equilibrium exists or is being respected. The Earth is being plundered and polluted: non-renewable resources are being used up in a reckless manner while other parts of nature are being rendered unusable through pollution by non-biodegradable and toxic wastes. What makes this worse is that this does not even ensure the survival of the human race in adequate, decent conditions: millions of members of our species suffer from hunger, lack of shelter, disease and ignorance. Even those of us in the so-called developed parts of the world, though not suffering from problems of material survival to this degree, still do not consume proper food, nor have adequate housing, education or health care, and generally lead unsatisfying, stressful lives. Clearly something is radically wrong with the way we relate as a species to our environment.

The way humans are organised to obtain their material means of survival both as individuals and as a society is in fact the basis of any form of human society. All other aspects of human social life—decision-making procedures, art, religion, morality and ideas generally—are ultimately determined by this basic social relationship of how human beings get their Irving. So, if we are to understand why present-day society is so anti-ecological we need to begin by examining its basis.

The first point is that natural resources, the ultimate source of our means of material survival, are not owned in common, but are the property of individuals or groups of individuals. This seems to be quite normal, even natural, but in fact it is a quite irrational and abnormal way for human beings to organise their access to the fruits of nature and their own labour. For it means that a section of society monopolise the means whereby the rest of society live. It means that this minority can hold the rest to ransom and exact a tribute from them in the form of a privileged non-work consumption. It thus rules out co-operation to produce what is needed and makes exploitation and conflict the basic social relation of production.

So abnormal did this seem that a whole series of thinkers since ancient times have seen common ownership (the absence of property, or no-ownership) as being “natural” and property as being “unnatural”. This was expressed in such popular sayings as “the Sun shines for everyone”, or, in religious terms, as God having given the Earth and its fruits to all humanity to be enjoyed by them on an equal basis. And every time that the excluded, non-owning class has revolted against its exploitation by the propertied class the demand for a return to common ownership, regarded as the natural state of humanity, has been raised. In fact the whole of political philosophy, as still taught in schools and universities to this day, can be seen as a permanent attempt to justify property and refute the more reasonable common ownership.

In any event, natural or unnatural, property in the means of production is the basis of present-day society as of many past societies and this has certain serious implications for human relations with nature. For where there is property nature cannot be regarded as the common heritage of all, to be respected and looked after in the common interest. There is no common interest and the sectional interest of the property-owners is to utilise the part of nature they monopolise for their own personal benefit, without concern for the rest of society and future generations. So, already, an anti-ecological bias is built-in to any property society.

Another, even stranger, feature of present-day society is the fact that items of wealth are produced, not to satisfy human needs, but to be sold on a market with a view to obtaining a monetary profit. Not even previous property societies had this feature since, although they were based on exploitation, the aim of production was still use even if that of the ruling class. Generalised production for sale too seems normal today, but is really quite odd for it means that the main reason food is produced is not to be eaten, nor houses to be lived in, nor clothes to be worn; everything, literally everything, is produced for its exchange-value, not its use-value. The aim of production today, far from being the natural one of producing useful things to satisfy human needs, is to accumulate more and more capital in the form of exchange value. In fact production today is governed by an economic mechanism—the accumulation of capital—that is beyond human control and forces humans to obey and apply it even though this clearly does not serve human interests.

The combination of property and production for sale means that each property owner, or rather these days each property-owning establishment or capital-accumulating enterprise, whether private or state owned, is seeking to maximise its own monetary profit. Each enterprise is a separate profit-and-loss accounting unit seeking to maximise its relatively short-term economic gain, once again without concern; either for the common interest or for longer term ecological considerations.

In other words, present-day capitalist society is constitutionally incapable of regarding nature as anything other than a resource to be plundered for short-term, sectional economic gain. It is true that from time to time the state does step in to prevent excesses but this does not alter the basic mechanism of capitalism. Indeed, as William Morris pointed out with regard to food adulteration, laws against this are only necessary in a society where the economic tendency is to do this, since in a rationally-organised society it just would not occur to anyone involved in producing food to deliberately adulterate it. Similarly, laws against plundering and polluting the environment are only necessary where the tendency to do this is built-in to the economic system. It also means that such laws, besides being frequently broken, can only be palliatives, attempts to deal with effects while leaving the cause intact.

Politically-oriented ecologists thus have a tactical choice to make. Either they go for more laws and restrictions to try to protect the environment or they go for a radical social change to bring about a society in which the environment wouldn’t need protecting. It’s the same dilemma that the early socialist movement faced: reform or revolution? Trying to patch up and change the spots of present-day society or working to establish a new society as a preliminary to being able to do anything lasting and constructive? Experience has shown reformism, in whatever field, to be basically a futile exercise: at best it is only running fast to stay still, at worst it is only solving one problem at the expense of creating others.

The nature of the only social framework within which human beings could live in harmony with, not at the expense of, the rest of nature is easy enough to discern: it would have to be a society based on common ownership not property and a society in which the aim of production was to satisfy human needs, not to make and accumulate profits. In short, communism in its original sense, what the Socialist Party today calls “socialism” (and which of course has nothing to do with the various states and regimes throughout the world which are falsely labelled socialist today).

Respecting ecological principles does not involve a “return to nature” in the form of a return to primitive agricultural and artisan techniques. Agriculture, even in its primitive forms, has always presented an interference with nature and upset the pre-existing balance. Humans have to do this in order to obtain their material means of survival. But the point is to establish a sustainable balance between our use of nature as a source, of wealth and nature’s ability to keep on supplying us on a self-regulating basis because we allow it to recreate what we take from ft.

What respecting ecological principles involves is, first of all, a recognition that there is a balance of nature which can be upset by the choice of techniques of food, energy and industrial production. It involves choosing techniques in the light of this knowledge, including developed industrial techniques since nothing prevents these from being in principle integrated into a sustainable ecosystem. Change, involving upsetting a particular balance, is not at all ruled out nor is it necessarily undesirable in itself but, once again, it must be realised that change can upset the existing balance of nature and that steps must therefore be consciously taken to help a new, different balance to be found. Having said this, however, it is likely that, after an initial increase in food, energy and industrial production to help overcome the problems of world hunger, destitution and disease which socialism is bound to inherit from capitalism, production levels will become stabilised in socialism and be tied to population levels (which will also be stabilised). In other words, socialism will eventually become a society with a stable level of production, integrated into a stable relationship with the rest of nature; a particular balance with nature will be achieved and sustained.

In this sense, and even though our choice of words would be different, socialism will achieve the first of the principles on which the Ecology Party says in its leaflet Politics for Life that its policies are based:
to ensure basic material security for all, putting people before profit within a stable economy, based on sustainable alternatives to the Insane rat race of economic growth.
We would in fact go further and say that this aim can be achieved only in a society based on the common ownership of natural and industrial resources in which production could therefore be oriented solely towards satisfying human needs. In any event, it is quite incompatible with the existing capitalist system which, because of its very nature, will never “ensure basic material security for all”, cannot put “people before profit” and is in fact “the insane rat race of economic growth”—the blind mechanism of capital accumulation out of profits realised from sales on a market.

Some ecologists would seem to be on the way to realising that the achievement of an “ecological society” Involves a complete change of economic and social system. Thus, one ecologist in a recent letter to the Guardian (21 September 1985) expressed herself as follows:
Green politics is concerned with a materially realisable future, not with a mythical past, and is actively working towards a more equal and more humane society. A non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society is a practical goal not an ideal, one which necessitates a social order based on the common ownership of natural resources. This is not a matter of sprigged muslins, spinning-wheels and wholemeal porridge but of uses of science and technology (“soft” rather than “hard”) which will enable us to realise our full human potential.
A non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society based on the common ownership of natural (and, to be absolutely clear, industrial) resources enabling us to realise our full human potential is not a bad description of socialism as we understand it.

It would, however, be going too far to say that any more than a tiny handful of the Ecology Party think along these lines. In practice, the Party concentrates on pushing its programme of reforms to be realised within the money-wages-profit system that is capitalism and published elsewhere in its leaflet under the heading A Ten Point Action Programme. These include such measures as “a National Income scheme to remove the poverty trap”, “phase out National Insurance, introduce a Natural Resources Tax”, “abandon all plans for more nuclear power stations”, “set up an Environmental Protection Agency”, “ban lead in petrol, the asbestos industry and cigarette advertising”, etc, etc, etc.

In other words, the Ecology Party seems to be unaware of the tactical dilemma faced by all those advocating something that is incompatible with capitalism and are becoming bogged down in “green” reformism. Already at their last Conference in May there were complaints that parts of their programme were being stolen by the established reformist parties. But this is only possible because the party’s list of reform demands can be accommodated within capitalism — and it was of course these demands that the other parties have stolen and not the idea of “a stable economy, based on sustainable alternatives to the insane rat race of economic growth” and certainly not that of “a non-exploitative and non-hierarchical society . . . based on the common ownership of natural resources”.
Adam Buick

Obituary: Alf Atkinson (1998)

Obituary from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Comrade Alf Atkinson died aged 80 at his home in Shrewsbury on 21 December last year. Most members will remember Alf from the period he served on the EC and as the Party's General Secretary. But in fact most of Alf's political activities took place in the Manchester area after the Second World War.

Alf joined the Socialist Party in 1946, influenced by his older brother Walter, after both of them had been open-air speakers for the Secular Society. He soon took to the Party's outdoor platform in central Manchester and combined his talents as an outdoor speaker and indoor lecturer with his outstanding abilities as an organiser, working tirelessly for the Party in what were, at times, relatively lean years.

In the late 1960s Alf was instrumental in the reformation of Manchester Branch. The next few years, during which he was branch secretary and organiser, became a particularly successful period for Manchester Branch. In the early 1970s his unstinting work in the North-West led directly to the formation of branches in Bolton, Liverpool and Lancaster. Always generous with support and guidance, his advice was frequently sought by members in the area.

On moving to East Grinstead, his hard work and attendance at meetings continued. He joined Guildford Branch and later helped to form Croydon Branch. Around this time Alf was elected to the Party's Executive Committee and when the post of General Secretary suddenly fell vacant in 1981 he stepped in to take over. He was then re-elected in subsequent years. All of Alf's talents were put to good use and he proved a most effective and popular General Secretary.

His interests in life included astronomy, anthropology and history. He loved poetry and would often recite favourite verses. He was also a keen gardener and wine-maker.

Alf's funeral was held in Shrewsbury, attended by family, friends and comrades. A moving final tribute was given by Comrade Ron Cook. Our sympathies go to his widow, Margaret Hopwood, and children Owen and Adele, all members of the Party.

Alf Atkinson's contribution will spread over many years. His enthusiasm and hard work was reflected in the number of members drawn to the Party and the number of branches that flourished around him. The Socialist Party has lost a dedicated, staunch and active member and a unique human being.
Hughie McLaughlin