Letter to the Editors from the August 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard
A correspondent (Jacobus, Heme Bay) writes as follows: —
“This is declared to be an age of plenty, but there does not seem to be much sign of it. Can you say what means will have to be adopted so that all can share in the plenty? Will the State have to devise the means ?”
The phrase "Age of Plenty" has been popularised in recent times chiefly by the American "Technocrats” and the followers of Major Douglas. It is also used by Sir Oswald Mosley on the one hand, and by sections of the Labour Party and I.L.P. on the other. The meaning they attach to it is that there has recently been a stupendous increase in the powers of production, resulting from machinery and other improvements, and that it only requires some modification of the monetary system to enable those powers to be utilised, thus supplying plenty for everybody with a negligible expenditure of labour and without interfering with the essentials of the capitalist system of society. In this sense the notion of an "Age of Plenty" is almost wholly false. In addition it is exceedingly dangerous, since the acceptance of it turns attention away from the real problem facing the working class, and from the solution to that problem. For example, one conclusion arrived at by the Douglasites is that machinery is rapidly reducing to a negligible quantity the need for human labour in production. Therefore, say the Douglasites, there will soon be no working class, all will be unemployed, thus destroying the very basis of the working-class movement. Anyone who accepts this false argument will naturally come to believe that the possibility of the conquest of political power by a Socialist working class has also been destroyed. For these and other reasons the believers in an "Age of Plenty" necessarily find themselves on the side of the opponents of Socialism.
The true position can be summed up as follows. From the point of view of what would be possible under common ownership the present powers of production are to a large extent wasted, the waste showing itself in the voluntary idleness of many able-bodied persons whose property incomes enable them to live without working, in the compulsory idleness of the unemployed, the waste of competition and advertising, the waste of armaments, and the maintenance of armed forces, etc., etc. This aspect of capitalism has been known to Socialists ever since the beginnings of the Socialist movement. The question is gone into in our pamphlet, “Socialism," where it is shown that as regards the technical conditions of production, the volume of wealth produced could be approximately doubled if these various forms of waste were eliminated.
But how can they be eliminated? Only the Socialist can provide the answer. It is impossible to eliminate this waste until capitalism itself has been abolished. The waste arises naturally and inevitably out of capitalism; it is not accidental. Unemployment under capitalism is a necessity to the running of industry on a profit-making basis. The rivalry of interests of national groups of capitalists inevitably produces the danger of war and therefore necessitates the maintenance of armed forces. Likewise capitalism, by the stigma it attaches to work, will always encourage members of the propertied class to cultivate idleness and non-productive occupations.
Under capitalism the capitalist class own and control the means of production and distribution and there is no way whatsoever of getting those means utilised for “production for use" instead of "production for profit,” except by first taking them out of the ownership and control of the capitalists and making them the common property of society as a whole. That can only be done by a Socialist majority first obtaining control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces. When that has been achieved, the world’s powers of production will be utilised to the full, freed from the wastes and hindrances of capitalism. Even so, there will still be no question of an "Age of Plenty,” as envisaged by the Douglasites and others, for their fantastic visions of productivity already increasing tenfold and a hundredfold are the result of ignorant misreading of the facts before them. Human labour has not been ousted by machinery; productivity increases very slowly indeed, and although under Socialism all sorts of barriers will have been removed, the powers of production as they exist at present will not by any means suffice to enable the world to live without work, as is the fallacious belief of many who use the term "Age of Plenty.”