Saturday, September 7, 2019

Rifts in the Tory Party (1981)

Cartoon by George Meddemmen.
From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prior to the Cabinet meeting on 17 June the press, TV and radio worked up a lot of sound and fury about the impending great battle between the hard-line “drys”—Thatcher’s supporters—and the soft-line “wets” seeking to force changes of policy. The media spokesmen had many explanations of what the battle was about and what the outcome would be. And when it was over they offered a wide choice of verdicts, ranging from the official one that there wasn’t any battle, to reports that the rebels had been out manoeuvred. They were all agreed that the chief leader of revolt was Peter Walker, Minister of Agriculture, who only a week later publicly voiced his criticisms. “Without sending Mrs Thatcher an advance copy of his speech. Mr. Peter Walker, one of the leading ‘wets’ in the Cabinet, yesterday argued forcefully against the Government's rigid stand on monetarism when he addressed the British-American Chamber of Commerce in New York”. (The Times 23 June).

One interpretation is that Walker. who had backed Ted Heath against Thatcher when she was elected Tory Leader, has the ambition to take her place. In any event he never did agree with her “monetarist” policy. When, in the late seventies, the majority of Tories threw overboard the Keynesian nonsense as a cure-all for capitalism and adopted in its place the “monetarist” nonsense. Walker (like Heath and some others) remained an unrepentant follower of Keynes: it was he who described his party as the party of Keynes and Disraeli. (He shares his continued devotion to Keynesian doctrine with the various wings of the Labour Party, the Liberals and the TUC).

What brought about the conversion to “monetarism” was the course taken by unemployment. In 1944 the Tories, the Labour Party and the Liberals, all represented in the war-time coalition government, issued an agreed document based on the belief that Keynes was the answer to capitalism's problems and in particular that such policies would guarantee “full employment”.

For a decade unemployment did remain very low, both under the Labour Government (1945-1951) and under the following Tory Government. (From 1945 to 1957 it averaged under 400,000). So it was possible for Harold Wilson to claim in 1957 that “all major parties” (Tory, Labour and Liberal) were still committed Keynesians. But since then unemployment has risen to continually higher peaks: to a million under Heath’s government (1970-1974), to over 1,600,000 under Labour (1974-1979) and now to over 2½ million. The Thatcher wing of the Tory leadership concluded that the old agreed policy was wrong and they fought, and won, the May 1979 General Election on the new “monetarist” policy.

In practice the Keynesians believe that, by increasing government expenditure, unemployment can always be kept at a low level. The new, Thatcher, policy reversed this and aimed to reduce government expenditure, government borrowing and the level of taxation, and by so doing curb inflation and reduce unemployment.

Although the Tories do not mention it, their policy is in essence the one recommended by Harold Wilson in 1957 and which he said would be adopted by a Labour government to deal with inflation.
  In inflationary times . . . all are agreed in theory on the need for public saving through a large Budget surplus . . . 
  we should not hesitate to use monetary controls ruthlessly if necessary, as one in an armoury of weapons.
But after more than two years in office the Thatcher government has done none of the things it promised. Instead of going down government expenditure, government borrowing and the level of taxation have all gone up, one reason being the enormous cost of paying benefit to an added 1¼ million unemployed. The Tory leaders are now fearful that unemployment will go on rising and cause them to lose the next election, and the Walker rebels no doubt see the possibility that the Tories will, before then, go back to Keynes, and perhaps unseat Thatcher as party leader.

The truth is that capitalism’s periodic swings into depression and heavy unemployment take place no matter what policy the government follows. Apart from rigging the unemployment figures or subsidising employers to keep unemployed workers on the pay roll, there is almost nothing governments can do about it except wait for the depression to pass. But professional politicians, whether they believe it or not, have to pretend to the electors that their government can and will provide full employment: which means that they have to ignore the evidence.

A case in point is the claim by Foot, Healey and Bonn that Labour Government means low unemployment, indeed “jobs for all”. Here are the facts. Since June 1929 there have been four periods of Labour government, totalling nearly twenty years. In every one of those four periods unemployment has been higher when Labour left office than when it went in. In the first period (1929-1931) it went up by 1,600,000, and in the last period (1974-1979) it more than doubled, from 636,000 to nearly 1,300,000.

In the past the Tories have been luckier, with their electoral victories coming at a time when depression was passing, but they are now faced with the prospect that recovery from the present depression will not take place in time for the next election, in or before May 1984.

Another big electoral issued involved in the Thatcher adoption of monetarism is that of inflation. Unlike unemployment, about which governments can do nothing, inflation—the rise of prices caused by an excess issue of inconvertible paper money—is entirely under government control. This was shown, for example, by the Lloyd George government when, in, December 1919, it decided on a policy of deflation. By reducing the notes in circulation it not only halted the price rise but brought about a drastic fall in prices.

In May 1979 the Thatcher Government declared its intention of curbing inflation and eventually stopping it entirely by means of “monetarism”. It is worth recalling that when in 1944 the three parties adopted Keynes, they too promised “a more or less stable price level”. The reality has been that prices are now more than ten times what they were in 1945, and Thatcher’s new policy has proved just as useless to curb inflation. In her two years of office prices have gone up by 36 per cent and are still rising.

It must be emphasised that the use by the “monetarists” of the term “controlling the money supply” does not mean that they accept Marx’s explanation of inflation or are repeating the deflation policy of the 1919 government. They explicitly repudiate the theory that an excess issue of paper money raises prices, and since May 1979 the Thatcher government has increased the excess of notes in circulation by a further £1300 million. And it is a delusion that the presence or absence of inflation makes any difference to capitalism’s periodic depressions and high unemployment.

Two other issues that were alleged to have been fought over in the Tory Cabinet were the foreign exchange rate of the pound, and the grant of further large sums to the nationalised Coal Industry and British Rail. Some commentators presented these issues in terms of the supposed preference of the whole body of business men for a low pound exchange rate, and their hostility to nationalisation. This superficial view overlooks that each company is concerned with its own profits and survival, and capitalist interests accordingly are divided. Companies heavily involved with exports or which receive profits from investments abroad gain by a low pound exchange rate, while importing companies gain by a high rate. Thus companies engaged in supplying plant and machinery to the coal industry or for railway electrification, were delighted with the government decision to make further grants to the Coal Board and British Rail.

Like all Cabinets, whether Tory or Labour, occupied as they are with handling the problems capitalism continually throws up, the Thatcher Cabinet will go on being divided by the infighting of ambitious politicians promoting their careers.
Edgar Hardcastle

"Bottoming Out"? (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is the current slump coming to an end, “bottoming out” as Francis Pym puts it? It is in his opinion, as well as that of the Governor of the Bank of England and Leon Brittan, Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

They could be right because sooner or later the slump will come to an end. As Marx pointed out “permanent crises do not exist”. His study of the workings of capitalism led him to the conclusion that “the life of industry” is “a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation” and to speak of “repeated self-perpetuating cycles, whose successive phases embrace years, and always culminate in a general crisis, which is the end of one cycle and the starting-point of another”.

The course of production under capitalism is cyclic: boom-slump-boom-slump-boom-slump. In the long-run the trend is upward but this is by no means a steady, continuous growth; it is a growth by fits and starts so that the graph of production is one of peaks and troughs with, generally (but not always), the last peak higher than the preceding one.

But we don’t have to go back to Marx for this. With the complete discrediting of Keynes in recent years, a little less misunderstanding of how capitalism works has crept back into the universities and even into government circles. Leon Brittan, for instance, told a meeting of the Teeside and District Chamber of Commerce and Industry on 24 April:
  My first answer to the question “How will the recovery come about?” is “naturally, just as day follows night”. The regularity of the business cycle in this and, I suspect, every economy may not be fully explicable, but its existence is undeniable. The Central Statistical Office have analysed it lucidly in their work on the “cyclical indicators”. They tell us that the normal cycle lasts a little over four years; that it begins with an expansionary phase of some 20 months, and ends with a slightly longer period of some 30 months of much slacker activity. Though the timing is not precise to the last month, the rhythm is well established. And, more important, though the extent of the expansion and slow-down differs, there has been no trade cycle since the first world war in which output has not grown significantly in the expansionary phase. So phases of growth are truly a central feature of the natural rhythms of our economy. One would need the most compelling evidence imaginable before believing that we had suddenly departed from that pattern of behaviour.
It is equally true of course that phases of slump are “a central feature of the natural rhythms of our economy”, but Brittan at least recognises that there is a business cycle and that it is “normal” under capitalism. And he is right that a recovery must follow a recession, as night follows day, even if he could be wrong about the timing. For while it is true that sooner or later the present slump will come to an end. there is no way of telling whether this will happen sooner or later. Brittan, as a politician, naturally hopes that it will be sooner. In the case of the Governor of the Bank of England (where Keynesian illusions are still fairly well entrenched), it is probably more an attempt to influence the psychology of businessmen by giving them the impression that things are getting better in the hope that this will get them to begin reinvesting. In other words, trying to talk them out of the crisis in accordance with one of the crack-pot ideas thought up by economists.

Doing Nothing
One of the implications of the view that capitalist production goes through a series of “repeated, self-perpetuating cycles” is that government intervention can do little to influence this—except, as Marx pointed out, to provoke a crisis prematurely, but certainly not to bring about a recovery before it would normally occur anyway. Doing nothing is in fact just as effective, or rather ineffective, as applying the whole range of Keynesian gimmicks. The plain fact is that governments do not control the workings of capitalism and that capitalism will continue to go through the boom-slump-boom-slump cycle in its own time regardless of what they do.

The present Tory government seems to have accepted this fact of capitalist economic life. At any rate it is at the moment behaving as if it had, since, despite the howls from the die-hard Keynesians in the Labour Party and the TUC, it is in effect just sitting back waiting—hoping and praying too, no doubt—for the recession to bottom out naturally.

The reason a slump is sooner or later followed by a boom is that slump conditions themselves create the condition for a recovery: a restoration of profitability. It may seem paradoxical that, as at the moment, there should be increased company profits and rising share prices alongside industrial stagnation and massive unemployment, but this is what happens towards the end of a slump. At the beginning of the slump, just after the crisis, profits are hit but as the slump continues it creates the conditions for a restoration of profit levels.

First of all by leading to a “devaluation” of capital. In other words, to a fall in the value of the total capital on which the rate of profit is calculated, permitting, with the same amount of profit, an increase in the rate of profit. This devaluation of capital does not necessarily mean that it is physically destroyed (though this is an extreme form which occurs in all slumps, including the present one) but that the replacement value of the physical components of capital (machines, factories, stocks) falls. For instance, when a company goes bankrupt its assets are eventually sold, but well below the price at which they were bought. The company which buys these assets now has the same physical assets but, as they have a lesser value, will be able to register a higher rate of profit than the previous owner even if the amount of profit remains the same.

A similar process occurs within firms which don't actually go bankrupt. They are forced to write off part of the value of their assets, so restoring the rate of profit. This process—bankruptcies, closures, take-overs, mergers—has been going on for the last few years and, if the speculations on the Stock Exchange are anything to go by, the stage may have been reached where profit levels have been sufficiently restored for the recovery phase of the economic cycle to begin. Or it may just turn out to be a bump along the bottom.

A second reason why profit levels are sooner or later restored in a slump is that wages fall. The value added in the course of production is divided into profits and wages, so that a fall in wages automatically increases the share of profits. Wages—real wages that is, or what they can buy in relation to the prices of consumer goods—fall in a slump because all the closures and bankruptcies result in an increase in unemployment. An increased number of sellers of labour-power turns the labour market more in favour of employers. As always happens when supply exceeds demand prices tend to fall. The labour market is no exception: with increased unemployment wages, which are the price of the mental and physical energies a worker sells to an employer, tend to fall.

Actually, in this age of chronic inflation, the amount of pounds in the wage packet does not decrease (except through short-time working and less overtime but we are talking about basic wage rates here). What happens is that wages increase less than the prices of other goods. When, in a period of double-figure inflation, trade unions settle for single-figure wage increases—as they are at the moment being obliged by economic circumstances to do—this is, in terms of purchasing power, a wage decrease just as much as the decreases in money wages wages which trade unions were obliged to negotiate in the slump of the 1930s. Then there was no inflation so it was clear straightaway what was going on. The same thing has been happening in the current slump, but because of inflation it is not so obvious. But the economic effect of these wage decreases has been the same: to help restore the rate of profit, a fact which has not escaped the attention of Leon Brittan. He gave as one of the factors making for a recovery:
  The latest wage round is seeing much lower wage settlements and therefore substantial reductions in the growth of pay bills: and we are witnessing dramatic improvements in productivity. These changes should correct part of the loss of competitiveness in many industries, and strengthen profitability.
So when will the slump come to an end? This year, next year, sometime, never? Knowing how anarchical capitalism is we are not going to engage in crystal ball-gazing or sooth-saying like the professional economists and lay down an exact date for the recovery. The recovery stage of the capitalist economic cycle will be reached sooner or later, that is certain, but whether it will come in time for the run-up to the next General Flection in 1983 or 1984, as Madame Thatcher told the Scottish Tories at the end of May that it would, is a different matter altogether. Later could be as late as the end of the 1980s. Capitalism has seen prolonged slumps before.
Adam Buick

A death on the ocean wave (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

The profit making drive of capitalism demands that no institution, however steeped in the traditions of history, is immutable or inviolate. Nothing—and most certainly not the vapourings of the nostalgically-inclined—will be permitted to stand in the path of exploitation and accumulation.

So it is with that steadfast and patriotic instrument of human misery and oppression, the Royal Navy. In an age in which British capitalism, no longer in a position to plunder the riches of a colonial empire, has found it more convenient to throw in its lot with Western Europe, the Navy in its present form has come to be seen as an increasingly expensive anachronism. (Philip Geddes, in an article contributed to the New Statesman of 29 May, compared the cost—£7 million—of a Leander class frigate of eight years ago with its £130 million successor, the all-missile-armed Type 22).

That the Navy is still required to “defend" British shores does not alter the fact of the increasing irrelevancy of much of its hardware: an ocean-going battle-fleet is a highly impracticable proposition when it comes to keeping open the Channel ports. And, as Geddes has observed, “The fishery-protection and offshore-resources squadron is something of a joke—sometimes, its ships can be outrun by modern trawlers." In short, some sections of the sea-going Navy are ripe for the chop.

The Navy is also farcically top-heavy in other areas. For example, there is an admiral for every front-line ship currently in commission—nearly 100 in all. The Admiralty also employs 32,000 workers in its naval dockyards and a further 5,700 personnel in its administrative and design departments at Bath. So the dockyards are to be run down and savings made elsewhere.

These decisions must be viewed in the context of the government’s determination to arm itself with a Trident missile submarine fleet. For this baleful indulgence Britain’s capitalists must stump up £6 billion—a figure already challenged as a gross under-estimate. Then there is the (again, conservatively-estimated) £10 billion to be found over the next ten years to pay for the replacement—with the Tornado—of the ageing Jaguar and Vulcan bombers. Set these figures alongside military spending during the current financial year alone of £12.3 billion, to which must be added the £220 million spent so far on the recently-launched and almost certainly abortive aircraft carrier Ark Royal and we have some measure of British capitalism's current arms-spending problems.

One conclusion must stand out clearly from the current debate on the condition of the Navy and of the armed forces as a whole: it has nothing to do with a reduction in the destructive capacity of the British ruling class. As has been indicated, if the Navy is to be pruned it is because it has become, at least insofar as its surface vessels are concerned, inordinately expensive, and highly vulnerable to attack from guided missiles.

The Trident missile system, on the other hand, is massively effective and relatively invulnerable. A frigate tied up in port or sinking in the Channel is no match for a submarine containing—should the Defence Ministry opt for the most advanced form of Trident—sixteen D5 missiles each fitted with fourteen independently-targeted warheads.

Arms Sales
A revealing—and wholly characteristic—factor in ruling class thinking on armaments is what is sometimes euphemistically termed “spin-off”. This means the sale of military hardware to “friendly" powers. Such sales not only line the pockets of the arms manufacturers and traders but can also offset in part the manufacturing country’s own arms budget. Capitalists the world over vie with each other to exploit the available markets. One has only to recall the deal short-circuited by the Iranian revolution—made by the British government to sell the Shir-Iran tank to that other implacable enemy of the working class, the late unlamented Shall of Iran, to understand how much profit is up for grabs in such transactions. Not that such profiteering is confined to western capitalism: its eastern counterparts, as represented by Russia and China, paddle in the same stinking morass.

The crowning irony, even to those who view the more bizarre of capitalism’s activities with relative equanimity, must be the projected sale, by the USA, of arms to the Chinese. And this coming on top of the disclosure by US Government officials that the USA has equipped two listening posts in north-west China for the purpose of monitoring Russian missile tests. What price America’s alleged ideological differences with “communist” China now?

But in this same field, perhaps the ruling class of India must take the highest a- ward. In 1978 ninety of their surplus Centurian tanks found their way, through the Spanish arms firm Barrieros Hermanos and a Norwegian broker, Fearnley and Eger Chartering, of Oslo, to, of all places, Pretoria. (Guardian, 15 May).

Both western and eastern capitalists can fall foul of their own perfidy as a consequence of shifting political and economic alliances: the USA and Vietnam, for example; or Russia and Egypt. In each case the client state changed sides. But, whichever way the cat jumps, the mercenary crooks who enrich themselves by dealing in arms are unlikely to require a change of pillow in the night. Rather will they buy themselves a new phrase-book.

The cost of fighter aircraft has become astronomically high. Jan Connell, Defence Correspondent of the Sunday Times (29/5/81) quotes a study by James Fallows, Ex President Carter's speechwriter: “One aircraft manufacturer estimates that 'if present trends continue, by the year 2054 today’s entire American defence budget would buy just one plane' ”. Dare we hope that capitalism will one day strangle itself in the entrails of its own ludicrous “defence" policies?

Who Loses
As for us of the working class, we may indulge ourselves with hand-wringing lamentation — our masters' withers will remain unwrung. The fact remains, however, that it is through the efforts of the working class alone that the arms race is allowed to proceed at all. Who, after all, makes the weapons? Who makes the machines that make the components that go to make up the weapons? Who works the mines? and who pours the steel? Indeed, who makes the paper and metals to provide the capitalists with their money-tokens and their bills of exchange, without which no marketing could take place? One thing is certain: it is not the capitalist. (But who will sweep up the profits?)

The largest question of all, however, must be: who are destined to slaughter each other in unprecedented numbers with the sterile products of their own labour-and brain-power in the next of capitalism’s wars? Once we start to ask ourselves questions such as these we are halfway toward finding the answer to others even more pertinent. But such interrogation is a service we can only render ourselves; nobody else can do it for us.
Richard Cooper

Blackpool Lights (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

An event of some interest to 400,000 members of the working class took place at Blackpool in May. It received a bit of coverage in the daily press, although this was mainly concerned with matters that had little to do with the supposed purpose of the event. There was the speech by Denis Healey, headed in the Guardian (13/5/81) “The Enemy Within”, designed to further his bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. There was also the odd mention of the “nasty Left”, “little Stalins”, and “dogmatic sectarians”. Oh no, you may cry, not another Labour Party meeting or Left Wing gathering. No indeed. The event was in fact the Bi-Annual Conference of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbers Union—the EETPU, a trade union of 400,000 members.

The Conference was one of those stage-managed affairs that anyone acquainted with the majority of non-socialist organisations soon gets used to. The daily press, while seeing fit to cover Healey’s speech, showed little interest in the fact that 5,000 members of the union in Birmingham were without any representation at the Conference because the Executive had decided to suspend the meetings of Midland Branch 18 months before. Nor was much print given over to the similar plight of London Central Branch, whose 7,000 members made the mistake of wishing to elect their own delegates to the local Labour Party; their main Branch activity soon became the collecting of members’ dues. Then, of course, there was the compositing of motions, weeding out those that might rock the boat, all helping to ensure that the Conference ran smoothly, without any significant opposition. Finally, there were the lost resolutions. No, not those lost through voting those resolutions lost in the post, that for some strange reason never reached the Conference at all. Like the one from Worcester Branch about Branch suspensions and—coincidence of coincidences—their delegate did not receive his credentials in time for Conference either.

There should be no illusions about democracy under capitalism. It’s ten to one that the word will flow from a politician’s or trade union leader’s lips whenever they mount a rostrum, but more often than not it’s a smoke screen for a power struggle over who is going to help run capitalism. The dispute between Benn and Healey in the Labour Party is mirrored in trade unions like the EETPU. The form of elections and voting is structured by those with power for the purpose of furthering their positions, and keeping any opposition out. While in the Labour Party the struggle is over whether MPs or the block union votes should dominate the election of the leader, in the EETPU it has been over whether Branches and local union organisations or the central executive backed by the periodical voting of the members should be the main decision makers. The latter sounds more democratic, but in reality little opportunity to put their case is given to those who wish to stand in opposition to the executive council backed candidates. The executive of the union have control of the union media, the EETPU paper, plus greater access to the national press. Besides this, any opposition that is elected stands a good chance of being ruled out of order for infringing some rule or other.

But these internal struggles for power and the manipulation that goes on cannot be divorced from the fact that the majority of the union members take little active interest in its affairs. For many, the union card has simply become a job ticket. Further, some of the traditional benefits of trade unionism, such as unemployment payout, have been taken over by the state. On top of this, the bulk of union funds is now spent on administration. Even when members are in a dispute they often find they have to fight the union as well as the employers.

Democracy is only as powerful a tool as the desires and aspirations of those who have access to it. It is not much use having the vote if it is not used, nor is it much use if its potential is not appreciated. While workers go on electing and believing in leaders, whether in unions or in government, then voting systems will never be more than potential means of creating a democratic society. But past experience shows that at election after election Labour or Conservative governments have been returned to run an economic system that operates against the interests of the majority of people. And, whether because of scepticism or a general recognition that it doesn't make much difference who runs capitalism, many don't bother to vote at all. The position in the EETPU in many ways reflects this, with only a small percentage of members bothering to vote at those few elections that do take place.

Frank Chapple, the General Secretary of the EETPU has a long history of participation in the internal power struggles of the union. He was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s at the time when the CP took over many of the posts in the then Electrical Trades Union. The electrical trades being at the heart of most industries, this influence inside the union gave the CP a degree of power to disrupt large sectors of production. The union only had to get a few members to stop work for a short time and whole industries and areas could be brought to a standstill.

In the 1950s the revelations about Stalin’s atrocities in Russia led to many former believers abandoning the myth of Russian socialism. Frank Chapple was one of the the ETU members who left the Communist Party and who, along with political figures such as Woodrow Wyatt, worked to get rid of the CPers. They eventually succeeded, with the help of the law courts, in exposing cases of ballot rigging.

For most members of the union there was little immediate change. The exposure of ballot rigging and the subsequent change in leaders made little difference. The new executive council said it would ensure that democracy in the union was upheld, traditions respected—the usual rhetoric. All this happened in the early 1960s. Then changes were made. Certain members of the executive went to the
USA, were influenced by the business type, centrally organised unions there, and came back with big ideas. In 1965 major changes in the rule book were made. In the years that followed the streamlining measures included the abolition of area committees and the appointment by the executive of what were formally elected union officials. Members were sent voting papers which, on the face of it, appeared to be concerned with with wage rates, but in fact included changes in rules and conditions. Union members found themselves voting for all manner of things even though their main concern would be the increase in wages. On one of these votes even tea breaks were abolished (this writer remembers one socialist, at that time a member of the union, who on hearing of this decision tore up his union card). The last 15 years have been a constant process of movement toward a highly organised, bureaucratically controlled union, centralised to the point where nearly all correspondence has to circulate through the General Secretary.

What then has Denis Healey’s speech, at Blackpool, and the power struggle in the Labour Party, got to do with defending the wages and conditions of workers in the EETPU? Precisely nothing. It shouldn’t be surprising then that such Conferences are used as political platforms for expressing the views of one side or the other in the Labour Party’s power struggle. And just as “unity” is the constant call of all sides in that struggle (while they stab each other in the back) so “unity” in union affairs means keeping those who oppose the present leaders outside of the Conference. That is in fact where they were.

Robots at your service (1981)

From the August 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We are entering into a second industrial revolution, the era of automation. This time it is not man’s muscles that are to be replaced and extended but rather man's brains 
Though the above statement appeared in a book published in 1952, the underlying sentiment is not altogether modern. The chilling thought of man the creator threatened by his own creation is echoed for example in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, published in 1817.

But the early nineteenth century was the era of the Luddite riots when workers protested not against automation—the word was first coined in 1946 by Del Harder, an executive with the Ford Motor company—but mechanisation. In the 1950s however, when a survey was carried out in Detroit asking people whom or what they feared most, automation came second in the list behind ‘‘the Russians.” But what exactly is automation and what is the nature of the threat it is supposed to represent? In an article in the New Scientist (12/2/81) Peter Marsh explained.
  Every activity has three essential elements: power, action and control. When control is exercised by a mechanical device it is called automatic or self-acting.
  An example is the pressure cooker (invented in 1680). But automatic is not the same as automated. For something to be described as automated requires that it has at least one of three additional features. It must firstly make use of a “systems approach” whereby things are made by passing them through successive stages of a manufacturing process without human intervention. Secondly, the device must be programmable, that is, able to do more than one kind of job. And finally, it must have the capacity to receive and process feedback information through sensors to adjust its routine according to changes that occur around it.
On the basis of this analysis Marsh defines three broad technological revolutions that have taken place over some two and a half centuries (roughly the time capitalism has been in existence).

The first of these was the Machine Revolution (1750-1860). It brought about big advances in both the “action” and “power” elements of activities such as textile manufacture. Next came the Scientific Revolution (1880-1920) characterised by the growth of science-based industries such as chemicals and electrical goods. It was followed after the second world war by the Computer Revolution which has greatly extended, and is continually extending, control over the processes of manufacturing.

Some indication of the tremendous strides that have taken place in the world of computers can be seen from the following:
  One authority has observed that the first computer sold in 1950 filled a room yet it is now possible to buy a micro-computer with a lot more capacity which is 30,000 times smaller. At the same time the cost in 1950 adjusted to present values was £1 million, whilst the equivalent micro-computer today is £200. Because there are no components there is very little to go wrong and thus the possibilities of failures and breakdown which cannot quickly be restored by replacing the relatively cheap silicon chip, are very small. The micro-computer is therefore very reliable. (Management Accounting May 1981)
The job of a computer is to interpret a series of binary digits, which in the earliest computers were represented by cumbersome and inefficient thermionic valves, which were superseded by the electronic switch or transistor. Yet a further development was the integrated circuit, which enables all the electronic components of a whole computer to be contained on a tiny wafer of silicon: the silicon chip or micro-processor. But already a successor is within sight: the Josephson circuit, which will make computing thousands of times faster by utilising the super-conductivity of certain materials at temperatures near absolute zero.

In the fifties the first “automation scare” was at its height. Subsequently, concern subsided only to reappear recently. Last year, for example, a confidential Labour Party policy document captured the headlines by arguing for a “socialist planned economy” (more state managed capitalism) to meet the challenge of the micro-chip.

But what justification is there for this renewed concern? Marsh offers four reasons why “1980-style automation will have a bigger effect on work than the first computer controlled factories”. The first is the growth in the number of computers. In 1960 there were a mere 10,000. Today there are around 700,000 “big” computers costing more than £10,000 as well as tens of millions of smaller ones based on micro-processors.

Secondly, the technical advances in micro-electronics have enormously increased the versatility and scope of computer technology. The significance of the chip is in its size: it is not only cheap and fast (messages don’t have far to travel) but can be used in places where a computer could not be accommodated before. As a result the purpose of computers is no longer simply to store, manipulate, retrieve and organise masses of statistical information. Increasingly they are used in control, monitoring, regulation and automation.

The emergence of the industrial robot neatly illustrates the point. A robot is defined as a mechanical arm which is controlled by a computer. Of the 8000 world robot population in 1980 almost all were “first generation”—big, clumsy, expensive devices used mainly for such work as welding and paint spraying. The newer lightweight “second generation” robots now being produced can manipulate items with amazing precision. An example is the PUMA made by an American company, Unimation, which costs £20.000 and can position things to within 0.1mm.

One reason robots have hitherto made little headway in Britain is the low wages here compared to mainland Europe. As an article in the Guardian explained: “We are in a curiously inverted trap; low labour costs depress the necessity to use advanced technology which in turn decreases the rate of development of technology itself.” (22/11/79). And as the same article pointed out, Britain does not have an overfull order book nor an insufficient workforce to cope with it. Not that the absence of an “overfull order book” signifies that people's needs have been satisfied; true to its absurd and contradictory nature, capitalism is in a slump, intensifying the poverty it compels workers to endure in an age of potential plenty.

But the growing dexterity of robots together with their declining costs in relation to labour costs, make them an increasingly attractive proposition. Indeed, according to statistics from the US car industry, the total cost of the human worker is now $19 an hour while that of a robot is $5.40 an hour (Guardian 19/5/ 81.) And there is another factor to take into account. While automated equipment may work all the anti-social hours an employer may want and not go on strike, it does have a drawback; it cannot be sacked should the state of the market render its loyal services redundant.

To some extent this disadvantage has receded with the advent of the robot. Hitherto, it was mainly the biggest firms with funds to match, involved in the mass production of thousands of items in a single production run, who could afford to automate. The equipment is normally unprogrammable, designed to carry out a fixed routine.

Not so with the robot, which can be programmed to make a variety of products. This means that automation need no longer be restricted to mass production by the economies of scale. Using the same robot—which is within the price range of of even small firms—the automation of small-scale “batch production" has become a distinct possibility, allowing the manufacturer to rapidly switch to a different product should the need arise.

The implications of such flexibility are significant. According to the Economist (24/3/78), “ . . . over four fifths of the world's manufactured products are still made in batch lots of between 10 and 50 units usually at a cost of at least five times that of a mass produced item". The automation of batch manufacture will also be made easier by the chip based computerised scheduling of changes in the raw materials needed.

Moreover the potential scope of robot applications is growing. Recently, the Japanese Industrial Robot Association reported that there are more than 100 products. among them freezers, calculators and TV sets, now assembled by human factory workers that could be made by existing robots which can “see". (New Scientist 12/6/80). As for the future, Joe Engelberger, president of Unimation, has estimated that “. . . the next generation of robots-mobile, multi-armed, understanding speech, talking and with rudimentary vision and a finer sense of touch — would be around for practical use in about three years time.” (Guardian 19/5/ 81)

The impression that may have been gained, that the drive to automate will spell a massive loss in jobs, needs to be put in perspective. Though the increased use of computer technology will entail a certain amount of job loss, its application will open up new areas of work—for example in software (programming). This is shown by the increasing ratio of software to hardware costs which were 2:1 in 1973 and are forecast to be 10:1 by 1985. Mass unemployment is not the result of technological progress but is a feature of capitalism in a depression. The bleak outlook for the world's economy is another reason for Marsh's concern over automation. The growth rate in the seventies was roughly half that of the sixties. This, argues Marsh, “decreased the opportunities for governments to create and pay out of taxation, the jobs in services that did much to absorb the people squeezed out of manufacturing over the past 20 years.”

The suggestion here that automation will serve to exacerbate the problem needs to be examined in the light of the circumstances that persuade or dissuade an employer to automate. Under capitalism the direction, pace and extent of technological innovation is dictated not by human need or conscious will, but by the prospect of profit. Without profit production grinds to a halt, irrespective of the needs of people or the degree of technical sophistication employed.

Another characteristic of capitalism is its basic instability. Unplanned, it moves in continuous cycles of market expansion and contraction. Though a boom cannot be sustained indefinitely neither is there such a thing as a permanent slump. Marsh observes that the effects of new technology on the labour force will be far less marked when it is introduced at times of increasing demand for goods than when demand is falling. But in a recession when much existing technology is often underused, the incentive to introduce new technology will be considerably less anyway than at a time of rising demand, when firms strive to increase output and offset the increased cost of labour power.

If the decline in manufacturing industry is irreversible, runs the argument, future employment would have to be found increasingly in the service industries if mass unemployment is to be averted. Ironically, the pessimistic view of the effects of new technology on work is centred more on service than manufacturing:
  The information occupations (secretaries, typists, clerks managers) are thought to amount to 65 per cent of the working population so that even moderate improvements in productivity could bring about unemployment levels in the region of 10 to 20 per cent unless offset by compensatory increases in demand in these and other activities. By comparison, the impact of new technology on employment in manufacturing is expected to be relatively small. The overall consequences are said to be comparable with the industrial revolution. (New Scientist 26/4/79)
An example of “improved productivity" would be the truly paperless office, a vital requirement of which would be a practical electronic method of filing documents quickly and cheaply. Philips have already developed a prototype system called Megador which achieves the necessary speed—it can read and store an A4 page in one second and retrieve any document in 5 seconds—but is regarded as too expensive for all but the largest firms (New Scientist 23/4/81) Twenty years ago in America Congressman Adam Powell launched an official investigation into “the impact of automation on employment” with a warning that “the Frankenstein of automation has come closer to us”. If ever there was a case of mistaken identity it is this. That the elimination of drudgery and the increases in productivity that automation makes should come to be seen as a threat is an indictment of the society we live in.

Machines are neither masterful nor submissive. It is men and women, having or lacking possession of the means of wealth production, who relate to each other in this way. Capitalism is the monster we ought to fear and hate. Who can regard a system that perverts technology into a means of inflicting global destruction with anything but apprehension? Who can say that such a system is efficient, when so much of its productive effort does not satisfy the needs of people?

Thanks to the computer revolution we are potentially better able now than ever before to organise effectively the socialist production and distribution of wealth. All that stands in the way is an increasingly outdated social system.
Robin Cox