Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Servility or Freedom?

by Maurice B. Reckitt


The fundamental basis of the revolutionary case against Capitalism is not that it makes the few rich and the many poor though this is true; not that it creates social conditions which are a disgrace and an amazement in a civilised community though this also is true; not that it brutalises the rich by luxury, stifles beauty, and frustrates the hope of craftsmanship for the worker though, indeed, it does all these things ; but that it denies and degrades the character of man by the operation of a wage-system which makes the worker of no more account than a machine to be exploited or a tool to be bought and sold. The seed of all our glaring social failure and distress to-day lies not in any imagined "problem" of poverty, nor in any inevitable "stage" of economic development, but in a vile conception of human relationship that has entered into and now dominates all our social life and has invested it with its character of injustice and insecurity. This spiritual failure to which we have come finds its concrete expression in the wage-system. Its assumptions and even its ideals (if we can call them so) have won so great a victory over the minds and wills of every section of our countrymen that its creed is the creed of England to-day. Few challenge it; few have the spirit even to desire an alternative, far less to struggle for one. That men should be forced by the menace of starvation to accept a price for the labour which is all they have to sell, to subdue all their purposes and all their gifts to the purpose of others (and that purpose profit), to lay claim to no right of control over the conditions of their working lives, nor any power of government over those who direct them in the workshop, to be divorced from responsibility and all the attributes of free status, to have upheld before them no standard but that of gain, no incentive but the bribe (often fallacious) of higher wages this pathetic distortion of human fellowship, this vile and perilous imprisonment of the human spirit, is actually accepted as natural, and even providential, by nearly all those who triumph by means of it, and by the vast majority, indeed, of its victims. The existence of the wage-system conditions all our "reforms"; it is (as has been well said) our " permanent hypothesis." It has even infected our very language, so that we can speak without compunction of the workers as "hands,*' the process of their hire as the" labour-market," and the return for their services as the cost of labour." Catch-phrases reflect it : as when we tell the worker (with equal insolence and truth) that he is "not paid to think," or inquire (with the standards of gain transcending all others) what a man is worth."

Capitalist society, combining economic tyranny and insecurity with political democracy" and civil liberty, is something quite new in history. Its industrial princes and their Parliamentary hirelings, while preserving and even extending the machinery of human rights and the show of political power, have reduced this parade of freedom to a hopeless mockery by affording to the vast majority no resource in the economic sphere by which that freedom might be translated from theory into fact. For Capitalism demands as the condition of its successful working that the bulk of mankind shall own nothing at all of the means of production, nor even assume any real degree of responsibility for the control of the circumstances upon which their livelihood depends. The worker is thought of not as a man, not even as a labourer, but as labour " a mechanical aid to the purposes of another, something to be purchased, a tool. And, indeed, the familiar phrase of the economists, "Land, Capital, and Labour," exposes the whole error on which the wage-system rests. Human labour has come to be regarded, both in theory and practice, not as the employer of the instrument of production, but as one of the instruments of production. A separate class of persons has arisen, almost fortuitously in the first instance, but now ever more rapidly becoming circumscribed and defined, whose function it is to buy labour-power in the "market " as a commodity and pay for the cost of its subsistence with a wage. Labour-power under the wage-system is but machinery under another name ; and as soon as human hands can be replaced more cheaply and efficiently by mechanical devices, the labourer is thrown on to the scrap-heap without compunction, while labour- saving inventions are extolled as the sign of economic progress. And so they would be if the worker being in command of his own economic life their effect were to save labour and not dividends. But so long as he is content to barter away his personality and all his priceless potentialities of creation and control for a mere money payment, the basis of which he is almost powerless to determine, the worker must of necessity remain only a factor in production, or, as a recent writer on industrial affairs complacently puts it, "our most precious raw material."

We may resent the phrase, but it is an exact one none the less. The "orthodox " economists will generally shirk so bold an admission of the commodity theory of labour. Professor Marshall, for instance, seeking to distinguish wage-labour from slave-labour, says:

The first point to which we have to direct our attention is the fact that human agents of production are not bought and sold as machinery and other material agents of production are. The worker sells his work, but he himself remains his own property.


How much value lies in this distinction the professor then proceeds to expose:

The next of those characteristics of the action of demand and supply peculiar to labour which we have to study lies in the fact that when a person sells his services, he has to present himself where they are delivered. It matters nothing to the seller of bricks whether they are to be used in building a palace or a sewer : but it matters a great deal to the seller of labour, who undertakes to perform a task of given difficulty, whether or not the place in which it is to be done is a wholesome and a pleasant one, and whether or not his associates will be such as he cares to have.


From this it is clear that what the worker sells is not merely his labour but his body, and this not as a result of any free contract in which the seller bargains for his own terms, but under duress at a price determined by the condition of the "labour- market." Nor is the area of that market a matter of free choice for the worker ; he may be constrained to fly from one end of the country to another at the bidding of the capitalist in order to dispose of his labour-power. Indeed, Labour Exchanges exist to facilitate this very object. Again to quote Professor Marshall:

Since, however, no one can deliver his labour in a market in which he is not himself present, it follows that the mobility of labour and the mobility of the labourer are convertible terms : and the unwillingness to quit home, and to leave old associations. . . . will often turn the scale against a proposal to seek better wages in a new place.


If the conditions of sale to which the labourer is subject under the wage-system, as revealed in the passages quoted, do not reduce the labour of man to the status of a commodity, it is difficult to see what meaning can be implied by the term.

It is upon the wage-system, then, that our industrial life is founded, and upon the willingness of the worker to sell his body for wages that the ability of his masters to exact rent, interest, and profits depends. It is the foundation-stone of all Socialist criticism that the existence of private property in the means of production involves private property in the destinies of society and in the lives of its members ; and it follows that the proletarian not only cannot enforce his right to a share in controlling the society in which he lives he cannot even enforce his right to live in it! But though every school of Socialism that is more than merely sentimental implicitly involves a repudiation of the wage-system, in practice, as we have seen, Socialists have allowed themselves to be tempted from the highway of emancipation to lose themselves in tangled bypaths of "reform." On the one hand, some have sought to mitigate the captivity of the wage-system by urging schemes of "workshop control" which, though they may be harmless and even valuable in themselves, do not necessarily involve any attack on the wage-system itself. For the most part, however, Socialist reformers have been blind altogether to the wage-slavery of Capitalism, and have talked only of its exploitation of the worker. But though they have talked of it, they have been ready to perpetuate the very system by which it operates as if the worker's labour ceased to be a commodity because it was purchased by a public and not a private employer. Meanwhile they have sought salvation for the proletariat in a programme of " higher wages," though (apart from the spiritual surrender which a concentration on this demand involves) it must be obvious that in the majority of cases wages cannot be indefinitely increased if profiteering is to be maintained. For the profiteer lives by pocketing the profit (or "surplus value") remaining after he has paid the landlord his toll in rent, provided for the cost of keeping up the necessary plant and other standing charges, and handed over to the worker the price of his labour-power or wage. There will come a point 1 when the profiteer will no longer feel sufficiently assured of his "surplus value" to carry on his business ; and unless the workers are prepared to advance out of the wage-system and shoulder the responsibility for the maintenance of the industry themselves, they will find themselves on the streets with no wages at all. Wages may be raised here and there by skilful organisation, though even in these cases the capitalist will generally contrive to recoup himself by raising prices, by introducing labour-saving devices, or by "speeding-up" his workpeople. Increased production, indeed,"is likely to be the only means by which Labour will be able to maintain its standard of life after the War. But higher wages, on anything like a large scale and over the whole field of industry, are probably impossible within the wage-system that is to say, a permanent increase in the return for labour is not to be expected as long as the worker looks for it in the form of a wage. Sir Hugh Bell, a prominent employer in the iron trade, states the matter quite bluntly. After an examination of the balance-sheet of his industry and its various items of expenditure, he concludes that "the moral is that, under existing circumstances, the present division of the products of industry cannot be divided in any very much different way from the present." It is hardly necessary to point out that the "existing circumstances" are the facts of the wage-system, by which, so long as he accepts it, the worker is imprisoned and impoverished at the same time.

We see, then, that not only must the wage-system be repudiated if the worker is ever to be spiritually free, but that until it is abolished he can never be assured of a due reward for his labour, unless the miserable" standard rate "of to-day (that is, the rate of wages established by Trade Union action in any district for any given class of labour) is to be accepted as such. We do not deny the value of the "standard rate" as a temporary safeguard ; but there is grave danger in regarding it, with some modern progressive economists, as conferring a more or less satisfactory status on the worker. Mr. Henry Clay, for instance, goes to perilous lengths in this direction. He says:

This standard of life is a conception which, though difficult to formulate, is not indefinite. . . . Any worker in an established industry has a pretty clear idea of what the standard of his grade in that industry and district is; and to that standard he conceives he has a right. It gives an ideal colour to a material struggle, because it converts a demand for twenty-five shillings a week into a demand for a right and the assertion of a status in society. . . . The demand for it is the instinctive reaction of the average man against a system of free contract, which leaves him free to get rich in his own way, but guarantees him no secure status if his interests and ambitions do not happen to lie in the direction of amassing wealth, or if inequality of opportunity prevents him from using his "freedom."


And a few pages further on he declares that:

Whether our ultimate aim is the conservation or the abolition of the wage-system, we must recognise that the insecurity of status of so many wage-earners is an evil. It prevents them from giving much attention to schemes either of reform or of revolution, and its removal is a necessary first step to any considerable social advance.


All this is plausible enough; but what we have got to be sure of is that if we so magnify the importance of the "first step," we do not postpone indefinitely those further steps which have got to be taken if "any considerable social advance " is to be achieved. The only crusade which really promises an increase in status for the workers is the crusade against the wage-system; and there is only too much danger that, if they are persuaded to adopt a policy of reculer pour mieux sauter, they may act upon the first part of the advice, but not the second. In giving "an ideal colour to a material struggle " we push into the background that spiritual struggle which is alone of any permanent consequence. This was the result of that Fabian programme of a "National Minimum of Civilised Life" which commended itself so readily to the "best men of all parties," which were delighted to find the worker's "assertion of a status in society " (to reverse Mr. Clay's phrase) converted so easily into "a demand for twenty-five shillings a week." The analogy with Fabianism becomes closer still when we find Mr. Clay declaring that "the most direct way of improving the position of the wage-earners will be by imposing conditions on the contract that will give it stability," and adding that " the intervention of the State is necessary, in order to enforce those conditions when discovered." "Stability" passes swiftly into servility, and the status which Mr. Clay is so anxious to see crystallised in law and guaranteed by the State is likely to be the status of a slave. There is no possibility of a change in status for the worker while the wage-system is maintained, unless it be a change for the worse. If the worker once admits that there is a certain price at which his body can " reasonably " be hired to serve the ends of others, and allows the State to guarantee it for him, his surrender to Capitalism is complete. Yet a short while ago a "revolutionary" programme was put forward as a Charter for Labour " by a group of people regarding themselves, no doubt, as extremists, which had as its main plank the alluring cry, "A pound a day is the worker's pay." However this formula might be explained, it could only give rise to the impression that a wage-slave ceases to be a wage-slave on receiving 300 a year.

In view of the many confusions which surround this simple but essential fact of the exploitation of the many by the few, we cannot too often insist on the elementary definition of wages as the price paid in the competitive market for labour as a commodity. It is sometimes objected that between "wages" and any other term for the money which the worker receives there is no difference, and that it matters nothing what word is used. The objection is specious, but it is in reality very foolish ; for between "wages" and "pay" there is all the difference that there is between slavery and freedom. "Wages" represent the cost of hire, a price paid for the upkeep of the worker as for that of any other machine. "Pay" represents the reward for service, something due to one who is contributing to the common interest ; and it carries with it the recognition of an honourable status. "Wages" are a toll which the profiteer finds it necessary to pay before he can collect his profit. "Pay" leaves nothing over to be appropriated by persons who are not serving the community. "Wages" are what the capitalist is constrained to give. "Pay" is what he who renders a service is entitled to receive. The worker, while he is producing dividends for his master, receives "wages," which cease, however, when his job ceases. The soldier in the service of his country receives "pay" whether he be fighting or not; he serves as a man; he is not "taken on" as a "hand." The wage-slave knows nothing of service; without responsibility and without honour, his life is servitude interrupted occasionally by starvation.

A false and very ignorant defence of Capitalism (and its corollary, the wage-system), that it is "inevitable," that we cannot get on without it, and that on the whole it works as well as we can reasonably hope to expect of any social system, is often made, and can best be met by a direct "The commodity valuation which Capital places upon labour, and enforces upon labour, is governed by the knowledge that starvation is the only alternative. Capital ascertains the cost of housing and feeding labour, and adds to this an allowance for the maintenance and training of children, in order to ensure its supply of future labour. Free education was the signal for an immediate all-round rise in rents, or, in other words, a reduction in the purchasing power of wages. The cost of educating is negative. The wage-system is not inevitable, but an evil choice permitted by our forefathers, the making of which might have been avoided and the escape from which we may achieve if we will. Far from its being indispensable, it is manifestly breaking down, and has to be patched up and supplemented in a hundred ways by statutory "reforms" and private charity. And, finally, it works so badly that, with all the increase of prosperity at the top of the social scale, it has reduced the masses to such a pitch of wretchedness and want that innumerable agencies, public and private, have been forced to step in to prevent their perishing altogether. For it is not even the case that the wage-system brings with it any social or economic benefits which might appear as compensations for the loss of liberty and the crushing of personality it involves for those whom children being no longer borne by the worker, the capitalist ceased to allow for it. It is exactly the same calculation as the slave- owners formerly made. But, apart from the political enfranchise-ment of Labour, there is this difference : Slavery tended to one dead level of sustenance, whereas modern Capitalism requires far more various grades of labour skill. It, therefore, first finds the bare cost of living and, as occasion determines, adds to it the extra cost of training labour to some special purpose. It is this difference in wage-rates that confuses many people. They cannot understand why there are so many variations in wage-rates if wages are really based upon the cost of sustenance. The real formula is that wages are primarily determined by the cost of sustenance necessary to the trade concerned. In this way we discover that wagery is equally degrading to the highly-paid artisan and the lowest-paid labourer. It is the wage-system as a system that is repugnant to the nature of free men, and must therefore be abolished.

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