Monday, September 18, 2023

"Electionitis." (1905)

From the November 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard

Of course, the critics have been having at me anent my arguments in the last issue. It is a way that critics have, and I believe other notabilities have been victims of this species of organic life which is so hard to classify. The particular sample of the unspeakable order whom I have in my mind’s eye at the moment appears to base his claim to lay down the law economic on the fact that he has read W. T. Stead’s If Christ came to Chicago. One point he maintains is that the return to labour is dominated by the cost of subsistence, and, too modest to claim that his pronouncement alone places the matter beyond dispute, he says that Karl Marx agrees with him. Well, to save trouble, I will agree with him also, after which there is nothing more to be said upon the matter. But having thus simply established the great truth that the return to labour is dominated by the cost of subsistence, we have still to deal with the inquisitive man’s query, “Why?” And from what I know of the inquisitive man he is not likely lo be satisfied with the woman’s answer (if I may say it without raising the sex question) “Because it is.”

Now I do not wish to be understood to imply that the variations in the relative proportions of supply and demand in the labour market are to be explained by the accelerated or retarded growth of the working-class population. In stating that a greater material return to labour must result in an increased production of labour-power I have made the proviso that other conditions remain constant. Such a consummation under the given conditions would, of course, be only the insistence of the natural law of life. But capitalism has laws of its own ; and my point is that it is these laws of capitalism that determine that the return to labour shall fluctuate about a certain point, and which set limitations upon, or—I dare narrow it down to this—render utterly ineffective, any and all interference of man save such interference take the shape of the abolition of the form of production which is supported by these laws.

To insist that, under certain conditions, an increased return to labour will result in an increased production of labour-power is not by any means to say that such result will take place in fact. If other things did remain unaltered, that is to say, if the increased return to labour which the palliatives aim at did not set in motion certain antagonistic and irresistible forces which would presently compensate capital for its previous disbursement, then such increased return to labour must have the result I have indicated. I would venture to suggest, seemingly against the opinion of Marx, and therefore with humility, that capital does to a certain extent, and by a deeper and steadier movement than the more apparent ones to be mentioned later, as the tide is deeper and steadier than the waves, regulate the supply of labour-power to its average requirements (perhaps it would be more correct to attribute this activity to forces outside capital) by controlling the growth of the working-class population. It seems to me that only by this movement can the cost of its production dominate the value ol labour-power, while its price is more directly under the influence of other movements. Whether this is correct or not matters very little at this juncture. Karl Marx shows very clearly that the labour market appears relatively full or empty, not on account of any absolute increase or decrease of the number of the wage-workers, but because the contraction or expansion of capital, calling for less or more labour-power in its operations, alters the proportion of the employed to the unemployed among the workers. This, then, is the outline of the process by which capital controls the supply of labour :—

Capital, growing by the absorption of profit, increases faster than the working-class population, restricted as the latter is by the degree of exploitation, and presently outstrips the supply of labour-power. The result of this is a rise in wages ; and since this can only take place at the expense of the rate of surplus-value, the growth of capital is checked, firstly by the reduction of the proportion of profit which it could possibly add to itself, and secondly (owing to the decreased rate of profit offering smaller incentive to productive activity) by the reduction of the proportion of realised profit which is converted into new capital. So the growth of capital itself raises up obstacles to its continued expansion, and it next proceeds to remove those obstacles. The relative proportion of the unemployed to employed having fallen below the point of greatest advantage to capital, the latter sets about a readjustment of the labour-market. This is accomplished by the simple expedient of increasing the productivity of labour. Machinery already in partial use becomes profitable to a still larger circle of employers ; invention is quickened and new machinery, throwing many out of employment and consequently into the reserve army of labour on the one hand, on the other hand places at the disposal of capital another and lower strata of labour-power. And the supply of surplus labour-power having been so adjusted to the needs of capital, wages again decrease, larger profits again stimulate industrial activity, capital expands by leaps and bounds and rushes on fill it raises again in its path the obstacle to extension—a relatively small unemployed or industrial reserve army. And so the round is repeated.

All this is on the authority of Karl Marx. Whether it, is endorsed by the author of If Christ came to Chicago I am unable to say : perhaps my critic can. And that reminds me that the latter has led me rather away from my intended line of argument, which was to show that, given the competitive labour market—the very vital spot of capitalism,—the return to labour is prescribed by laws which, while permitting temporary interferences, use the effects of these interferences as a means of restoring the normal degree of exploitation, and even of exacting compensation for the earlier advantage such interference may have given the workers, and that, therefore, all such artificial interferences with the return to labour (in which category we must place nearly all the so-called palliatives) must fail to effect their purpose of bettering the material conditions of the working-class. That they might benefit a section I will not deny, but I, for one, if I desired the advancement of any section, see no reason why I should not rest content with the magnificence of the capitalist section.

Let any thinking man study the working of the marvellous laws by which capital, sensitive to every fluctuation in the flow of its life’s blood, profit, controls the material conditions of those whom it only suffers to exist for the purpose of producing that profit, and then, having learned how faithfully capital is served by these laws, he may judge how little they may be defied or circumvented. Let him observe how a rise in wages is met by the extension of the circle of the profitable employment of machinery, how the shorter day is counterbalanced by speeding-up and increased output, how the depleted labour market is rendered fat and redundant by the contraction of capital and the greater use of labour-saving machinery, how every effort of man to find some little amelioration is baffled and beaten by those vigilant, sheep-dogs, the laws of capital; and observing all these movements, tireless and irresistible as the tides, he will begin at last to understand why we so steadily refuse to direct the workers’ strength to be broken against these implacable laws.

The palliatives, so far from being desirable to the workers, are very quicksands for the entanglement of working-class feet. They are the means of seduction in the cunning hands of capital, and possess a power for capitalist defence that only the stewards of capital seem to realise. These gentlemen know that they properly belong to capital’s armoury. To how many of us is the tale familiar, of the Russian noble who was chased by wolves. He was up to the palliative dodge. One article after another he flung to the wolves for them to wrangle and delay over, and they missed their prey after all. This is the chief use of reforms. Cleverly handled there is a century of respite for capitalism in the palliative programme of the reform parties—and who can doubt that they will be cleverly handled ?

Those who are urging the workers on after the palliative chimera are assuming a responsibility of profound gravity, notwithstanding that they take it up lightly as a child draws breath. That they assume this responsibility in the name of Socialism compels our strenuous opposition : we dare not be silent because we dare not be implicated. We do not doubt that a certain early progress will attend the efforts of the reformers : that is always the portion of those who take the line of least resistance. But when the lever meets little resistance it is moving little weight; and the weight we are trying to get our lever under is a stupendous one.

The effect of “electionitis” upon those who yield themselves guarded by anything less than the most stringent and exclusive of Socialist restrictions, up to its seduction, is utter political prostitution. Examples of the truth of this statement might be given ad nauseam, but one case which has recently come under my notice will suffice. At this November election in West Ham the Stratford Branch S.D.F. contested the High Street Ward. A really sterling Election Address was rounded off by the usual list of palliatives which the candidate pledged himself to work for in order to “ease” the condition of the workers. And among others appears this :—”School Board and Poor Rate to be a national charge.” I do not know whether I should be sooner forgiven if I credited the participants with unshameable dishonesty or with incredible ignorance, but, fortunately, the choice is not mine. The clear drafting of the Address testifies to their knowledge of the position, and so doing convicts them of dishonesty. Further, the members of this branch have recently lifted themselves on to the pedestal of notoriety by the vehemence with which they have publicly asserted that rates are no concern of the workers, and that they did not care if they went up “to twenty shillings in the pound.” If rates are the concern of the workers it is dishonest to say they are not; if they are no concern of the workers it is treachery for working-class representatives to pledge themselves in connection with them. It is interesting to recall that “electionitis” three years ago led the Committee fighting this ward to dodge a resolution which the present scribe got passed, to the effect “that Terrett be not allowed on MacAllen’s platform,” by the simple expedient of putting MacAllen on Terrett’s platform ! Which makes one sigh for the honour even of thieves.
A. E. Jacomb

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

I'm a big fan of Jacomb but that was a hard read.