The apologists for Capitalism are all reluctant to admit the truth about the way wages are fixed. They do not like to admit in the first place that the means of production and distribution are owned by a small minority of the population and that society is divided into a propertied class that lives by owning and a working class that lives by the sale of labour-power to the owners. Nor do they like to admit that wages are fixed in a fierce, unequal struggle between employers and workers, so that the cost of the bare necessities of life of the various grades of workers provides the levels to which wages generally conform. Rather than admit that this is the way Capitalism works, those who defend it give much thought to formulating theories of wages which do not look so brutal and unprincipled. The theories differ in their phraseology. Some try to present the facts in terms of the so-called “value of work” of the different grades of worker, others point to schemes of co-partnership and profit-sharing, etc., but all have in common the assumption that the workers as a whole have little to complain about, although in particular occupations or industries there may be a need for some improvement. Social reformers who accept Capitalism, of whom Mr. Seebohm Rowntree is an outstanding example, have given years of study to the problem as they see it—but without the problem ever being any nearer to solution. Now the war has brought the question of engineers’ wages into the foreground and the theories are being examined again. The employers state that in their view it is against the “national interest ” to grant the wage increase asked for by the Amalgamated Engineering Union. They do not take their stand on “inability to pay” the increase, but on the plea that wages are already high enough and that the Government should exercise control. The view of the Union has been put in an interview with the Daily Herald by Mr. Jack Tanner, President of the A.E.U. :—
“We are still a democratic state,” he declared. “It is not for the engineering employers, or any other set of employers, to say what is in the best interests of the country.“We are anxious that the industries of the nation, together with the Navy, the Army, and Air Force, should be put on a common basis.“We raise no objection to the conscription of labour if that is necessary, provided that wealth is conscripted also.“Take the profit motive out of industry. Let there be a common pool for using all the resources of the nation—employers to be on the same footing as the rest of the community. Let payment from the nation’s resources be on the basis of service and value to the nation.“If the engineering employers are so concerned about the national welfare, I suggest that they agree that the industry should be nationalised as are the armed forces, so that the conscription of wealth may be the same as the conscription of life.”—(Daily Herald, November 29th, 1940.)
It will be noticed that Mr. Tanner, though he criticises the existing arrangements, offers as an alternative that “payment from the nation’s resources be on the basis of service and value to the nation.”
He is probably unaware that avowed defenders of Capitalism use the same nebulous phrase about “service and value to the nation,” a meaningless form of words which capitalist investors, who claim that they render “service” by their investment, will readily accept on their own interpretation. It also obscures the sectional point of view which permits workers with a non-Socialist outlook to believe that it is possible to measure the “value to the nation” of different types of work, and hence desirable to perpetuate different incomes for different grades of workers.
Coming back to the point of view of the open defender of Capitalism we find The Times (November 30th) expressing itself as follows: —
“In fact any increase of wages in an industry almost wholly devoted to munitions must be paid by the country. The questions to be decided are whether the wage rates and the earnings of engineering workers are fair and reasonable when related to human needs and to wages in other industries, and whether an advance, which the industry could pass on to the taxpayer, would be justifiable.”
The Times approaches the dispute cautiously and with an air of not being committed to either side. This is a reminder that there is a war on. In times of peace the issue would be fought out in the usual way by a strike or lock-out, but now that is the last thing desired. It is indeed one of the difficulties that beset Capitalism at war, for the normal cut-throat capitalist procedure cannot be reverted to when, for military reasons, output must not be interrupted. The employers, the Government, and The Times are all hoping that arbitration will avoid any such interruption, but notice the hollowness of the principle to which the National Arbitration Tribunal is to direct itself. It is asked to decide whether engineering wages “are fair and reasonable when related to human needs and to wages in other industries.” The Tribunal is therefore to take into account all those sections of industry where wage rates are at their lowest; for example, the agricultural workers’ 48s., and the Post Office and railway workers getting in some cases even less. (Mr. Tanner should notice Post Office wages when he pins his faith to nationalisation.) What kind of principle is this? All it does is to accept the fact of low wage levels in some industries and elevate it into a principle for regulating wages elsewhere.
And what of “human needs”? The simple minded, not used to the subtleties of arbitration tribunals, will suppose that human needs can only mean the needs of human beings. Nothing could be further from the thought of The Times ! The Times is not proposing that engineering shareholders, cabinet ministers, millionaire newspaper proprietors, church dignitaries, and arbitrators shall all be ranked together with engineers and labourers for the purpose of deciding what are the needs of all as human beings. What is meant is that the class division of society shall be taken for granted, and that “human needs” shall be considered solely in relation to the needs of that sub-species known as the working class.
This state of affairs will not be remedied until class-divided society has given place to Socialism. Then there will be no wages problem. Class struggle will have disappeared to make way for common ownership of the means of production and distribution and for the application of the Socialist principle, “From each according to his capacity; to each according to his need.”