From the April 1921 issue of the Socialist Standard
An article in the "London Encylopaedia" 1837, dealing with the condition of agriculture in the 14th and l5th centuries, contains the statement that "the implements in use at that period were nearly the same as those employed at present." While it is possible that the strict accuracy of this might be questioned, it serves well enough to illustrate the rapidity with which this industry has progressed during the last two or three generations ; the most casual observer of developments in agriculture to-day could not fail to see that such a statement now would be ridiculous.
The same article enumerates the subjects with which the farmer should be acquainted, such as botany, vegetable and animal anatomy, etc., but does not mention mechanics. This is in striking contrast with the present, when in the words of an authority, the "agricultural engineer should first become an engineering expert and then acquire a knowledge of agriculture."
Apart from the technical aspect, which could be examined to show the general advance of human invention in the struggle with natural forces, this advance is of obvious interest to the workers on the land. The shortage of foodstuffs and labour during the war convinced the Government of the need for special measures, if they were to be better prepared when the attack of some other "Hun" on some other "Belgium" is made the excuse for another struggle between groups of capitalist States in commercial rivalry. In May 1919, therefore, the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as it was then, appointed a Committee having for its object the consideration of steps to promote the development of agricultural machinery. The Report issued by the Committee contains lessons useful to us as well as to the farmers and manufacturers for whom it was intended.
The aspects which chiefly concern us are these: the cause of the introduction of machinery into agriculture, the recent rapid extension of its use, and the effect it has had and is likely to have on the workers.
As for the first, the witnesses were in complete agreement (a state of affairs unusual enough at these examinations of "experts"), and the Report does not leave any room for doubt. The cause is the desire on the part of the farmers to lessen the cost of production by reducing their labour bill, in order to meet the constantly increasing pressure of competition. It is true that within certain limits the cost of production can be lessened in other ways, such as by improved, and therefore more economical, methods of cultivation, by the increased use of fertilizers, etc., but it has to be realised that much of the land in this country was well and highly farmed, and therefore it is not surprising that farmers look to machinery rather than to the further study of the soil to serve their purpose. One must consider, too, the immense advantage of the greater power and concentration of mechanical over human or animal energy in an industry where so much depends upon taking advantage of short spells of fine weather in winter.
It naturally follows that low wages offer but little, and high wages a great, inducement to employers to replace workers by machinery. One would expect the amount of machinery at any given period to bear some relation to the level of wages, and this is what is actually found.
According to a manufacturer of agricultural implements, steam ploughs were being largely used in the seventies of last century, but in the depression that followed many of them disappeared. From 1900 there was a gradual and from 1910 a rapid increase until the outbreak of war, since when what might be described as a revolution has taken place.
The movement of farm workers' wages over the same period was as follows : Starting at 14s. 2d. in 1879 there was a slight decline to 13s. 7d. in 1892, then a steady rise to 14s. 5d. in 1898, 14s. 8d. in 1902, 14s. 9d. 1907, and a sharp rise to 16s. 9d. in 1912. A slight fall to 16s. 3d. preceded a swift increase to 46s. in 1920. In the words of the report, "the unreadiness of many farmers in the past to adopt labour aiding devices .... is largely attributable to the cheapness of labour. . . It is a commonplace of industrial history that low wages tend to stereotype methods of production, and agriculture has not been exempt from that tendency."
Of course, that "labour aiding" is not meant to be taken seriously—you know your employer does not spend money on machinery merely to save you trouble. As one witness said, "many new implements, so called labour savers, actually only saved the labourer trouble and did not reduce the number of horses or men necessary to deal with a given area of land." "What a farmer wanted to know about an implement was, firstly, how much labour it saved . . ." This same farmer "deplored the fact that no systematic study had been made of the best methods of employing labour with such costly contrivances as the Elevator, nor scientific research into the avoidance of injury to the crops dealt with by the implement." Not, Mr. Landworker, the "avoidance of injury to you" in working the machinery, but the "damage to the crops" and the "care of the implement." The Elevator (appropriately spelled with a capital E) costs money to repair, while the farmer can insure against loss through injury to you.
The Committee came to the conclusion that a heavy labour bill could be met by the farmer in two ways: "by obtaining a more efficient service from each worker, or by adding his labour costs to the price of his products." It is always amusing to see a man make a virtue of necessity. The second of these two ways means the raising of the price of farm produce to the buyer, which if it were possible at will, would presuppose that hitherto the farmer had been selling cheaper than he need have done ; which isn't done outside of university text books on economics. So they took Hobson's choice and patted themselves on the back for not doing what they could not do. "Of these alternatives we do not hesitate to suggest, only the former can be considered."
Besides the mechanical problem there is an other it is as well to consider here. The great obstacle the progressive employer immediately meets, is that the average worker has not had the training which will fit him to use to advantage costly and intricate machinery. Even the minimum of education and specialised instruction given to the industrial population has been largely denied to the children of the rural workers, and the war has taught our rulers that this has been quite insufficient. Little as the capitalists like spending their money on you, they have learned that they must have more highly skilled workers to enable them to compete with their late enemies, and particularly with America and Japan, more formidable commercial rivals, even although sometime allies.
The Committee reports that "with few exceptions all our witnesses were agreed that education must play an important part in stimulating the use of improved machinery. We believe that it will not be the least of the benefits conferred by the new Education Act, that the raising of the standard of general education will stimulate the interest and quicken the appreciation of all classes of workers in tasks other than dull routine; and this in itself will lead to a better and more instructed use of agricultural machinery, and a broader outlook upon its possibilities. But beyond this, direct instructions in the principles and use of machinery is required by all classes of the agricultural community." One of the suggestions they made was that instruction in the principles of mechanics and in their practical application to agriculture should be given to youths above the age of 14.
One witness of a type familiar to every worker was "opposed to the special mechanical training of labourers as it would tend to make them dissatisfied with farm life." What he meant, of course, was that he feared the land workers would want higher pay when trained than they did before, and it is to be hoped that they will; but because some farmers do not voice this sentiment it must not be supposed that they are essentially different. All employers have the same object, that is, to make, profit out of your labour, and naturally enough they want as much as they can possibly get ; but they differ as to the best method to be used. The obvious, but old-fashioned and uneconomical way is to pay as little in wages as they can, and demand in return as many hours work as are physically possible. The new way—the Leverhulme-Rowntree way— is to get the pick of the highly-skilled, healthy and capable workers "by offering comparatively good rates of pay, and by systematic speeding-up and elimination of waste, to obtain in a six hour day a bigger output than can their less far-sighted competitors in eight, nine, or ten hours. Remember, the capitalists control the sources of education as they control all the services of modern society, and they will not give you more than the working of their system requires that you shall have.
It is impossible to deal adequately here with the extent to which manual labour is being displaced, but some instances will illustrate the great strides that are being made all over the civilised world. The frequent exhibitions of farm machinery, and the advertising columns of any farmers' journal show a really bewildering variety of implements now in every-day use, and these are being improved and added to with each round of the sun.
The manufacturers will supply all sizes of machines, adapted to all kinds of work, from the powerful five-furrow steam plough to the handy little one-and-a-half horse-power machine guided by hand like a horse plough of the same size ; reapers and binders—to which an American firm has now added a machine for "stocking" or "shocking" ; hay-loaders which enable one man on the waggon to load in a fraction of the time it took several to pitch by hand; ingenious milking machines, now no longer in their experimental stage; seed drills, and potato pickers; machinery for the dairy, milk coolers, separators, butter makers ; in short, machinery for almost every one of the normal activities of the farm. Before long the traditional placidness of rural life will be a thing of the past, and it will be necessary to go to the pages of the novel for a picture of it; such, for instance, as the description of the almost impossibly pleasant dairy farms of the Dorset "milk" country in Hardy's "Tess of the D'urbervilles."
However, to return to our report.
A land agent referring to the acute shortage of skilled labour for farms in the West of Wales, owing to the continued demand for miners, gave an account of farms he knew of 140-200 acres "where the hay was secured in a very short time with only the farmer himself and a lad. The hay was mown, perhaps, with a tractor, then the tedder and haymaker were both used, then gathered by a side rake, . . lifted with a hay loader, and afterwards deposited in a Dutch barn by a carrier worked by a petrol or oil engine."
Perhaps the most striking case is that of the Scandinavian countries. True they possess what is almost lacking here—abundant and constantly flowing streams for water power ; but the initial problem, that of applying machinery to the working of the soil, is the same whatever the source of the power.
The General Secretary of the Agricultural Organisation Society had visited Denmark after an absence of twenty years and remarked on the progress made in this direction. ''In Sweden a number of huge hydro electric power stations were producing electricity much cheaper than was possible with any kind of fuel. Three of these (owned by the State) between them developed one-third of the total. As a result of the cheapness of this source of power there is a great and growing inducement to install electrically driven machinery on the farms. On one farm of 800 acres every machine except those used for cultivating was so driven. The farmer stated that previous to the electrification of the farms he had to employ for his threshing operations five pairs of horses, sixteen men and four boys, whereas under the electrified system, for the same work, he employed one horse, seven men, and two boys. To this he added the enhanced value of the product due to the smoother working of the electrical machinery and he estimated a total saving of £5 a day on this farm in respect of threshing operations." He considered that in addition to yielding interest on the outlay, the plant, which cost £1,250 at much inflated war prices, would pay for itself in fifteen or twenty years. His own opinion was that before long it will be the exception to find a farm or estate in Sweden or Denmark not so equipped.
Further, although the depopulation of the countryside cannot be ascribed entirely to this one cause, it has nevertheless been a great factor. Whereas in 1851 on an average forty-three men were employed to each 1,000 acres of cultivated land in England and Wales, the number has now fallen to twenty! Whereas in 1914 there were 693,000 male agricultural workers, in January 1920 there were only 550,000. There has certainly, during this latter period been a marked tendency to put arable land under grass, which, of course, means a reduction in labour, but this by no means accounts for all the falling off; undoubtedly machinery has played a great part.
Now, while a reliable and exhaustive investigation into this subject has yet to be made, there can be no denying the most obvious consequence, that other things remaining constant the use of a machine means that some portion or the whole of the services of one or more workers is no longer required. If a farmer spends on machinery an amount which is equivalent to a weekly expenditure of £2 over the period the machinery lasts, it can only because for the same amount of work done he is going to save more than £2 on his labour bill. If, as in the past, the more keen agricultural labourer could get employment on the railways, in the police force, or in the towns, or could emigrate to regions where his skill was still in demand, then this tendency would not be felt so acutely as with industrial workers who had no such avenue of escape. Similarly, of course, during a period of agricultural prosperity, the position would be that a larger demand for farm produce would be satisfied by the same number of workers giving, with the aid of machinery, greater output per man than before.
Nevertheless, the process is going on and must make itself felt in due course. That this is realised, if without being clearly understood, is evidenced by the instinctive dread of machinery shown especially by the older men. It is only the younger ones who are considered worth the trouble of teaching new methods. It was further recognised by the representative of the Agricultural Workers' Union when he said that "It was very improbable that any general opposition would arise amongst labourers on the grounds, for example, that the introduction of machinery would diminish employment." His following remark that ''certainly any opposition of that sort would not receive recognition from the Union" was simply an admission that effective opposition was impossible, and that any attempt to resist would be as futile as that made by the Luddites in somewhat similar circumstances to prevent the setting up of machinery in the factories after the Napoleonic wars one hundred years before.
It is well to recognise the part that Trade Unions play in this. They exist for the purpose of obtaining by means of organisation, a better price for the labour power of the worker than he could get by individual bargaining. Their object is limited, and so must be their success, for to the extent that they raise wages they invite the purchase of machinery to put their members out of work. "Any action that increases the cost of production provides greater incentive to the capitalists to devise means to reduce it, and results in more determined efforts to improve existing, and introduce new, machinery. An increase in the number of the unemployed inevitably follows" (Manifesto, p. 18). This is confirmed by an instance of only recent date. The success of the Dockers in obtaining their 16s. per day was followed by a remarkable activity in applying machines to dock work, and the consequent unemployment had an admittedly serious effect on the strength and solidity of the Unions concerned.
This is not an argument against Trade Unionism. While the present system remains, that is, while the land workers, like their fellows in the towns, live by selling their labour power to their employers, it is not only desirable, but a positive duty, for them to see that they get the largest possible price for what they sell. It is for them to organise to that end, and it must be admitted that so far the new Trade Union movement among the agricultural workers has shown a commendable singleness of purpose in keeping to the main issue, that of getting better pay and shorter hours, at a time when many of the older organisations had turned into sick and unemployed benefit societies, and were apparently more interested in assisting the capitalists to run their war and exploit their workers more effectively than in advancing working-class interests.
Nevertheless war conditions and the labour shortage, have gone, and the agricultural workers will be hit by the prevailing trade depression just like other sections, even if less acutely and not so immediately, and it behoves them now to find a way out of the unhappy position in which they and all other workers find themselves—not a temporary expedient like the Government "doles," but a real solution. If experience teaches, as it surely does, that there are comparatively narrow limits only within which the Trade Union can function, that the strength of the organisation is sapped by the very evil, unemployment, which it seeks to remedy, they must look further afield and learn the reason. If the system is such that substantial improvement of the worker's position within it is impossible (and we contend this is the case), then it is for you who have suffered and will continue to suffer from its wars and from its peace—it is for you, the workers, to study its construction, understand its stupidities, and its injustice to you, and join us in the task of overthrowing it. It can be replaced by a system of society in which technical developments of machinery, inventions and discoveries will benefit you instead of rendering your position more insecure; in which education, real education, will be within your reach ; in which poverty will be a memory and nothing more.
It can be done, but your rulers will not, and your leaders can not, do it for you. You must do it yourselves. When you understand the system you can end it.