Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Simpleton Sobstory

Between 1843 and 1848 Charles Dickens wrote five "Christmas Stories", the most famous of which being "A Christmas Carol". As its only a couple of days before Christmas I thought I would leave off the normal blog, and instead write a short story. Its not in the spirit of Dickens' Christmas stories, but anyone familiar with his work will I hope recognise both the style and characterisation.

Times were hard in Much Crapton. The town depended on the R. Sole Shoe Company, and following an offer from a Dutch multinational clog manufacturer, the owners had decided to sell. As is normal in such situations, the owners walked away, having pocketed several million pounds from the sale, while the loyal workforce found themselves without a job as production was moved to the Dutch town of Aalbealright. No doubt, had the boot been on the other foot, the owners would have thought twice about the sale. As it was the factory closed and most of the town found itself on its uppers. Shops lost trade and before long everywhere began to look down at heel.

“Now my young lad, you’ll just have to knuckle down, now that you’ve lost that job,” said Mrs. Violanda Meangit, a rather straight-laced widow.

Her words were addressed to a young man whose age we may assess to be greater than eighteen, having worked for a period of two years at the aforementioned factory, after having left school at the prescribed leaving age. The young man had a sparkle in his eye, that his life, of which we shall shortly say more, had not yet managed to dull, let alone extinguish. Yet, it was not clear whether this sparkle was the result of a bright intelligence, alive with the excitement of ideas and dreams, or just the bliss that comes to those who lack the intelligence to understand the poor hand they had been dealt from life’s rigged deck of cards. There were times when his maternal aunt, for it was she who had addressed him, thought it might be the result of some narcotic, but she realised this could not be so, for she did not give him any money from his paltry wages, which he was required to hand over each week, and, even if he had money, he was too busy, engaged in household chores, and attending to his aunt’s needs at evenings and weekends to associate with the potential suppliers of the aforementioned substances.

This young man, who we can now introduce as Mr. Simpleton Sobstory, had found himself in the care, if care his state could truthfully be designated, of his aunt, following the death of his parents some ten years earlier. We have neither the time nor the inclination to relate the circumstances of their deaths, but needless to say, it was of a suitably tragic nature, as is always the case in stories such as the one we are about to relate to the reader. If truth be known, the arrival of Simpleton, in the household of Mrs. Meangit, had been fortuitous for that lady, because only two months earlier, her own husband had been taken to an early grave, robbing her not only of a loving husband, but, more significantly, for Mrs. Meangit, a very good handyman, who, having put the bread on the table, htrough his employment at R. Sole Shoes, was also required to butter and fill the sandwiches, for the Meangits, upon his return from that establishment. Needless to say, Mrs. Meangit felt herself to be above such preoccupations and found the idea of having to work or perform household duties following the death of her husband preposterous.

It was this circumsatcne, which led many people, acquainted with the Meangits, to comment that, although Mr. Meangit undoubtedly loved his wife profusely, in death he had truly found peace, and it may well have been his preferred option. It was also this circumstance, which, as we have said previously, rendered Simpelton’s arrival as fortuitous. During the ten years that passed between that time, and our current events, Simpleton learned how to perform many useful tasks such as cooking and cleaning, and others such as cutting Mrs. Meangits toenails, which, she assured him, would be invaluable in later life. It is to that later life we must now return in order to proceed with our story.

“Here’s a job for you in the paper,” announced Violanda, in a voice that set all the dogs in the neighbourhood barking.

The job was as a Toilet Attendant. Of course, the advertisement did not actually use the words Toilet Attendant, it was described as Sanitary Engineer, but, nevertheless, it was a toilet attendant. Simpleton was once more grateful for the love and concern his aunt showed him, as she lay reclined on the sofa, waiting for him to bring her afternoon tea. He rushed off to the Much Crapton Council offices, to apply for the job. There had been two hundred applicants, but, Simpleton must have impressed in some way, because we can gladly relate that his application was successful.

It was not much. One could describe the pay as crap. However, we shall refrain from the temptation, because poor Simpleton would find himself the butt of more than enough toilet jokes for us to add to his burden.

Simpleton was told to turn up to a small public convenience on the outskirts of town. He was met by the sanitary engineering Supervisor, Mr. Baldly Humorous. Baldly was a kindly man of around forty years of age. His protruding belly was witness to his usual pastime of spending the evening in a local hostelry with friends in a convivial and jovial atmosphere that became more convivial and jovial the more of that establishment’s home brewed ale was consumed.

“Now, Simpleton, let me tell you the most important things for you to know. Let’s start by outlining your position in the organisation.”

Baldly pulled out a piece of paper.

“At the top of the Council is the Chief Executive. Beneath him is the Deputy Chief executive who is really the person in charge, because the Chief executive is rarely here between all the conferences and seminars and meetings with other Chief executives and dignitaries he has to attend. It’s a wonder to most of us he has time to fit in his two months a year annual holidays. The Deputy Chief Executive is over two Assistant Deputy Chief executives, who actually carry out the functions of the deputy Chief executive while he is filling in for the Chief executive, or when the Deputy Chief Executive is on holiday or sick, which he is quite often.

“Beneath the Assistant Deputy Chief executives are the Departmental Directors of which there are seven in total. Our department is the Department of Sanitation and Public Hygiene, and our Director, Mr. Fortuitous Timeserver, is likewise titled. Beneath Mr. Timeserver is a Deputy Director, who like the deputy Chief Executive, is really the person in charge, because the Director, also, is far too busy attending conferences and seminars and other such important functions to spend much time in the Council Offices. Two Assistant Deputy Directors, who in their turn perform the same functions as the Assistant Deputy Chief Executives, support the Deputy Director. Beneath them are three Divisional managers, who are responsible for the three Service Areas covered by the Department. Our Division is the Public Sanitation Division. The Divisional Manager is supported by a Deputy Divisional manager, but, because the Divisional manager does not have so many functions to attend, they don’t have any Assistants at the moment, although a proposal is shortly to be put forward to introduce at least one. Beneath the Deputy Divisional manager, there are four District managers, who cover the North, South, east and West Districts of the Borough. They don’t have Deputies or Assistants, but each one has three Supervisors under them, and that is the level I’m at. We report to a Senior Supervisor who reports to our District manager. Beneath me there are four people of which you are one. So you can see in more ways than one, you’ll be starting at the bottom.”

Baldly laughed to let Simpleton know this last comment was intended as toilet humour.

“Now, anyone above you, you call Mister, or Missus in the unlikely event it’s a woman, apart from if you’re up for promotion, in which case its Sir or madam, said with a smile. Anyone beneath you, you can call whatever you like, but its customary to use their first names just to show you can. In your case there’s no one lower, but don’t be discouraged; fifteen years ago, I was at your level, but through hard work, good fortune and sucking up to my boss, I moved up to Supervisor. At that rate, in just another hundred and fifty years I could have risen up to the rank of Chief executive, and be earning six times what I earn now.”

Simpleton recognised the sarcasm in Baldly’s comments and guessed he was not overly impressed with the Council’s organisation. He was right. Much Crapton Borough Council employed a total of seven hundred and fifty people. Of these, six hundred were employed in various tiers of upper, middle and lower management, a large number in administration and, of course, a very sizeable section responsible for collecting the citizen’s Council Tax, the majority of which went to pay for the aforementioned, and only a much smaller amount of which went to the remaining one hundred and fifty employees who actually provided the services the public thought their taxes were financing.

“Now, I know this isn’t the best job in the world, Simpelton,” went on Baldly. “You’ll get all the jokes about that’s a shitty job, that’s a crap job etc. I’ve heard ‘em all. But, the fact is its not that bad. In fact, most days you’ve just got to go thorugh the motions.”

Baldly laughed loudly as he slapped Simpleton on the back.

“Now, do you have any questions before I go?” he asked walking towards he exit.

“Is there a chair I can sit on? It’s a long time to be standing between cleaning up.”

“No chairs son, but plenty of stools,” replied baldly as he walked off laughing heartily.

So it was that Simpleton began his new career. We have already alluded to the fact that ten years in the service, we should say care, of his aunt had already equipped him with many of the talents required for being an efficient sanitary engineer. If the truth be told, and why would we not tell it, his predecessor had not taken a great deal of care in his work, and the facility was not one of the better examples of the Borough’s similar establishments. Simpleton set himself the task of making his toilet the cleanest, if not the best, that the Borough could offer. Every day he set to work with various compounds and assorted implements to remove a piece of lime scale here a stubborn stain there. He brought in gentle soothing music on tape, which he played in the background. He brought in his own air freshener, scented candles, and pot pourri to give the facility the feeling of some refined Roman Bathing house rather than the cemetery Road Public Convenience, which was its official name. By and by a number of people became close acquaintances of Simpleton, and would call in whether or not they needed to, fining in the facility a place of calm tranquillity where the cares of the day could be flushed away.

Baldly too noticed the transformation that Simpleton had effected and recognised that there was benefit to himself in advancing Simpleton’s career. He brought him books and arranged for him to take time off in lieu to attend a college course. Simpleton soaked up the knowledge like a good quality, quilted toilet tissue. When a number of the facility’s clientele wrote to the local newspaper remarking on the high quality, and delightful atmosphere in the toilets, it prompted that journal to run an article with a number of photographs illustrating its finer features. Of course, the main quotes came not from Simpleton, but the Director of Sanitation and Public Hygiene, Mr. Fortuitous Timeserver. H had faxed them, after they had been cleared by the Council’s large Public Relations Section, from a very important seminar he was attending that week. He said what a fine fellow Simpleton was, or at least he understood him to be, having never actually met him in person. He went on to stress that the quality of the facility was in no small part due to his own personal commitment to the highest possible quality of provision, and to the support given by the many back-room members of staff to front-line employees.

It almost goes without saying, but we shall do so anyway, that, before long, Simpleton had progressed from Cemetery Road to the crème de crème of Public Conveniences – the main Town centre facility. Simpleton knew this was his chance to shine, to make a big splash. For one thing, many a big knob from the Council and local business could be seen in there at lunch time. That was despite the fact that, whatever Mr. Timeserver said about his commitment to quality, everyone knew that the Town centre facility was, as the graffiti outside proclaimed, “a shit-hole”. If he could transform the place, surely they would make him a Supervisor. Then, if he could bring about a similar transformation of all the toilets under him, who knew what prospects would open to him. He didn’t realise that things didn’t work that way. Someone who was good and efficient like Simpleton would never be promoted, he was too valuable doing the job he was in; the fruits of his labour reflected too well on those above him for them to give that up. No, as baldly knew only too well, only those who failed, posed no threat to their superiors, and sucked up to them were destined for higher things. After all, that was how those at the top had got there themselves.

Simpleton, unaware of this basic fact of life, set about a radical transformation of the facility. At night he would call by outside his normal working hours to check that everything was all right. For a time, he made rgular patrols to prevent vandalism. It was fortunate that he ws young and strong, because as well as spending long hours in the toilet, he was continuing his studies as well as, of course, attending to the needs of his Aunt Violanda. Indeed, that venerable lady was somewhat put out by the amount of time young Simpleton was devoting to these other activities. She wondered whether there was some other reason for his nocturnal wanderings. Her greatest fear was that Simpleton might be seeing a young woman. What might that lead to – marriage? No, that would never do. To lose a husband had been tragic. To lose Simpleton would be downright careless. Every day she tried to think of ways to keep him in the house, and to ascertain if there was a love in his life. There was, but it was not a woman. It was the theory and practice of sanitation. His mind was on fire with ideas to transform the bog standard into the special.

It was the middle of July, and for some reason the rain had abated and rays of sunshine were glistering on the stainless steel door handles of the Town Centre facility. Simpleton stood admiring the effect.

“Looks good, Simpleton,” said Flo, the attendant of the adjoining ladies facility, as she rested against a wall puffing on a cigarette.

As he looked across to acknowledge the comment, his heart missed a beat, for just then, he saw a young woman of such loveliness he had never before seen. She was entering the ladies facility, and, as Simpleton caught a glance of her, he thought she looked sad. Thoughts like these had never affected him before. A strange sensation surged through his body, and he wanted to throw down his cleaning rag in order to find out who she was. He was about to go and ask Flo if the young woman was regular when he was called inside by someone. The voice that called to him belonged to a tall distinguished gentleman. He was in his late fifties with smartly cropped hair, that had a hint of grey at the temples, a pristine moustache, that was also flecked with grey.

“Young man, I want to congratulate you on your facility. I passed this way over a year ago and this toilet was a disgrace. I refused to use it. People have no pride in their toilets these days. Not like in my day. We used to spend hours in the toilet exerting a real effort. You remind me of how I was when I started out.”

“Thank you,” said Simpleton. Its nice to know that what you put into a toilet is appreciated by someone. So you started out in a toilet then?”

“I’ve been in toilets all my life, young man. Me and my brother now have the biggest sanitary business in the country. We are responsible for looking after toilets and washrooms in nearly every large hotel, office block and large factory in the country. We’re now looking to take over the running of Public Toilets as Local Authorities want to wash their hands of them.”

It was the first Simpleton had heard of this possibility and it gave him concern for his future. Had he invested all his time and energy in sanitation only to see it go down the drain?

“Actually,” went on the distinguished gentleman,” we could really use someone with your skill and enthusiasm as our Regional manager in this area to help us with taking on all these Public Toilets.”
The distinguished gentleman handed Simpleton a card, on which was printed, in elegant letter, ‘ N. Richable – Managing Director. Richable Brothers, Sanitary and Hygiene Co. Plc.’

“Give me a ring tomorrow morning.” With that, Mr. Richable was off.

Simpleton contemplated his good fortune and then remembered the young woman that had previously captivated his attention, and would that he knew it, his heart. He dashed out as quick as many of his clients dashed in. Flo was still leaning against the wall and about to light up once more.

“Flo, a few minutes ago a young woman went into your toilet.”

“Nothing unusual in that,” said Flo.

“There was in this one,” replied Simpleton. “She was beautiful and yet sad looking.”

“I think I know the one you mean.”

“Does she come here often?”

“No. I think I’ve seen her before, but I can’t be sure.”

Simpleton felt he had to see her again. But how?

The next day Simpleton rang Mr. Norman Richable – Norman being the name signified by the ‘N’ printed on that gentleman’s card. After a short conversation Simpleton was informed that Norman had consulted with his brother, and Joint managing Director, Norbert, and together, they had agreed that, after Norbert had seen him, the brothers should employ Simpleton as Regional manager without delay. A few days later he took a train to Pleasington where the brothers had their headquarters. Simpleton was impressed by the large gleaming office block. He was shown up to the brothers’ office. Norman took him in, and, behind a large oak desk, sat Norbert who was almost an exact replica of his brother apart from, if anything, looking even more distinguished and with a slightly greater proportion of grey in his hair and moustache.

Simpleton related to the brothers Richable his story of the tragic death of his parents, his devotion to his aunt, on which matter the brothers exchanged several glances, and his subsequent employment with Much Crapton Borough Council.

“Admirable, admirable,” applauded Mr. Norbert Richable, “wouldn’t you say brother Norman? And so like our own story.”

Mr. Norman agreed and it was decided that Simpleton should be employed under the immediate supervision of Mr. Pecival Goodchap as soon as possible. The news was not good news for Violanda. For one thing, Simpleton would need to undertake a one month induction course at Pleasington. How could she cope? Moreover, Violanda, as a worldly-wise woman, knew that with such a position it would not be long before Simpleton decided to leave the nest, to begin considering his own future and where would that leave her? She decided to seek a meeting with Mr. Timeserver. After all they both had reason to prevent Simpleton taking on this new position.

Fortunately, for Violanda, Timeserver had just returned from the Sanitation Institute’s Annual Conference. The following week he would begin a three week holiday in Corfu. Normally, he would not have considered an interview with a member of the public, but when Violanda told him it was a matter that might affect his own personal interest that was different. The day after this meeting was the day Simpleton submitted his notice. Just four hours later, at lunchtime, Baldly paid a visit to the Town centre facility.

“I’ve come to relieve you. You’re wanted by Timeserver,” said Baldly. “Watch out young Sobstory, there’s no good afoot here. I know what you’ve been offered, and you know when you’ve been in toilets as long as me when something stinks. Don’t let them bully you my dear friend.”

Simpleton made his way to the Much Crapton Civic Offices. He went to the Director’s Secretary’s Office. She was busy polishing her nails while waiting for the kettle to boil for Timeserver’s coffee. After an unduly long delay, Timeserver buzzed his Secretary and told her to show Simpleton through. He couldn’t believe the extravagance of timeserver’s office. He had been to other offices of this size in the building to check his wages and other matters, but they were occupied by six or more people not one.

“Ah, Simpleton my boy, please sit down,” began Timeserver. “I have your notice here. I understand you want to go to work for this private firm the now what is it… Oh yes, Richable Brothers?”

“That’s right sir,” said Simpleton innocently. “They want me to be their Regional Manager.”

“Well, I’m afraid that just won’t do. You see, we’ve paid for your training and besides I understand these Richable brothers are considering tendering for our Public Conveniences. That could be seen as a conflict of interest.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Simpleton firmly, “but the brothers have offered me a good job – better than anything I have been offered here for all my hard work. If you have a problem, I suggest you take it up with them.”

Timeserver was not used to people standing up to him.

“Oh, oh,” he said, “well if that’s your attitude we’ll see you in Court.”

This last threat concerned Simpleton, but he remembered the words of his old friend Baldly not to let them bully him. Simpleton made his way back to the Town Centre.

“So, how did it go?” asked baldly.

“He threatened to take me to court,” replied Simpleton, showing clear concern on his face.

“Ah, don’t you take no notice. He tries to threaten and bully people like that all the time. It’s the only way people like him know how to treat people. If I’d had more sense, I’d have got out of here years ago, but when you’ve been here for a while they sap your confidence from you. Besides, I’m too old now. I’ve got my pension to consider, but you’ve got everything in front of you.”

“Yes, still I’m a bit worried about how my aunt will cope while I’m away for a month.”

“Its not really my place to say this young Sobstory, but your aunt was in Timeserver’s office yesterday. Maybe its just me that’s an old cynic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t there discussing you. She may not have your best interests at heart my young friend.”

“Why would my aunt go to see Timeserver?”

“Everybody knows how much you look after her. If you weren’t here she would have to look after herself. She must be afraid you’ll leave her altogether, so she wants to stop you getting this job and saw him as the way to do it.”

“Yes, I see the way it is now,” said Simpleton. “All along I thought she was caring for me, training me, and providing for me, while all the time she was thinking only of herself.”

That night, Simpleton walked into his aunt’s house in determined mood. She was lying on the settee wondering why he was late making her tea. But, Simpleton did not stop. Instead he went straight to his room and packed the small amount of belongings he had. Downstairs Violanda was curious as to what was going on. She would soon find out.

“Aunt, I’m leaving.”

“Leaving, what do you mean leaving?”

“I have lived in your house since I was ten years old believing that you were caring for me, believing you had my best interests at heart. Now I find out that you have conspired against me, trying to prevent me making my own way in life. So now I’m leaving. Don’t expect to see me again.”

“You ungrateful wretch. You’ll be sorry. Just you see,” screeched Violanda.

Simpleton slammed the door behind him and marched out into the street with nowhere to go. He walked for an hour or so and found himself outside the “Mop and Plunger”. It was Baldly’s local and, sure enough, Simpleton could hear the distinctive sound of Baldly’s belly laugh echoing from inside. He had never been in a Public House before, but he was experiencing many new things now. He followed the sound of Baldly’s laugh to where that gentleman sat with a few friends.

“Ah, Simpleton, my good fellow, what are you doing here?”

Baldly acquired a pint of the pub’s famous Number Two Ale, for his new drinking partner and introduced him to the others round the table. Simpleton told Baldly that he had left his aunt’s and this led on to him telling his tale to those round he table. One of the men listened intently.

“If you have any problems with Old Timeserver let me know. I have some information about him that he wouldn’t want made public about contracts that were let to plumbers who just happened to do the plumbing work for him in his new six-bedroom house he had built,” the man said.

“Ohhhh,” went a knowing sound round the table.

“We’d heard rumours,” the others said in unison.

“But, you’ve got proof have you Crafty?” added baldly.

Crafty McDeal was a local plumber who knew everything and everybody. His materials were always cheap, but no one could prove they had fallen off the back of a lorry. If there was some job that was a bit shady, Crafty probably had some hand in it, or at least knew about it.

Baldly agreed to put Simpleton up in his spare room until he could find alternative accommodation. The next few weeks past quickly as Simpleton began work for the Richable Brothers and went to Pleasanton for his month’s induction. Timeserver knew he couldn’t stop Simpleton leaving, but he now had a score to settle. He was that kind of man. No one had stood up to him before, and that might give other minions ideas. Besides, if they saw a lowly toilet attendant becoming a Regional Manager what aspirations might that give them. Timeserver’s worst horror was that one day Simpleton might be earning more money than him! No, someday, somehow he had to have his revenge.

As we have now come to expect from our hero, he took up his responsibilities with gusto. Percival, who had worked for the Brothers from the beginning, immediately took to Simpleton. Freed from the need to look after his aunt he found he had more time to devote to his studies and he began to expand his interests into the wider issues of sanitation chemistry. It was a s a result of this interest that Simpleton made a remarkable discovery. It was a discovery which was to make him and he Brothers Richable wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

Simpleton had been unable to sleep all night. He had made an appointment to see Norman and Norbert, and he asked for his new friend Percival to be there too.

“Brothers, I have over the last year become fascinated with the chemistry of sanitation. I first became interested in the production of methane from solid waste, and was looking at how we might use it as a renewable energy source. However, I have now made a more significant breakthrough. I have discovered a way of turning urine into a fuel that can be used in a normal car engine. I call the fuel Peetrol.”

Simpleton explained briefly how this process worked and said that if they had a way of collecting urine they could produce petrol very cheaply. It was agreed that they would run a pilot scheme. Richable Brothers had taken over the running of the Public Toilets in Much Crapton, much to the disgust of Timeserver, who now had to deal with Simpleton. Simpleton was eager to use them for his pilot scheme. It took just two weeks for the new collection facility to be installed. A fortnight after that, Simpleton took a special tanker to the Town Centre facility.

“I’ve come to extract the urine,” he announced to a rather incredulous attendant.

“You’re taking the piss,” replied the attendant.

“Well, I wouldn’t have put it so crudely,” said Simpleton, “but, yes, that’s the general idea.”

From this small beginning, Richable Brothers opened a series of Urinluck Petrol Stations across the country. Of course, Simpleton had to undergo all the quips about “Urine the money now.” But, he didn’t care. The Richable Brothers made him a Director with lavish share options that soared in value.

Now, I suppose you are wondering what happened to the other characters in our story. Well, Timeserver, was questioned by the police about a number of contracts that were let to local plumbers, but nothing was proved. Shortly afterwards, he retired on a large pension, which was supplemented by consulting fees paid to him on occasion by the Council. It was not clear exactly what the basis of his consultations were for, but his former Deputy, who was now the Director, assured everyone they were vital.

Baldly took over from Simpleton as Regional Manager for Richable Brothers with a guaranteed pension which he took five years later.

Ah yes, and the young woman. Well one day while going to the Richable Brothers offices, Simpleton saw her rushing out. He enquired from Norman who the young woman was.

“That’s my niece, Norbert’s daughter,” replied Norman.

It transpired that the reason for her sadness was that unknown to Simpleton the Richable Brothers had been in some financial difficulty. On the day Simpleton first saw her she had just been to see her father who was concerned that the business might go bankrupt. Simpleton’s discovery of petrol had saved the day. Now without giving away too much, we can inform the reader that both Simpleton and Miss Richable both lived happily every after and together raised a large family in a large house. Of course, they needed to have someone look after the children and the house for them, and Simpleton was gracious enough to give the job to his Aunt Violanda.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive or dead is wholly coincidental.

© Arthur Bough 2008.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Alienation of Labour

In a review of “The Russian Revolution in retreat, 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite” by Simon Pirani, Hillel Ticktin, in Weekly Worker 750, refers to the alienation of Labour in terms of the alienation of the surplus product of Labour. This is a common use of the term alienation of Labour, but I believe it to be wrong. It is important, because the concept of the alienation of Labour lies at the heart of Marxist views on the nature of class society, and of the potential of a future Communist society. So, although I have written to the WW taking up this issue, I am replicating that here, because of the importance I believe this issue has for Marxists, and how we go about creating the future society.

I want to deal with this issue of the alienation of the surplus product by dealing initially with that in terms of our current society i.e. Capitalist society, because that is consistent with the Marxist method, to look at concepts within their specificity. The truth is always concrete. That means to look at this product in its specifically capitalist form – surplus value. I want to argue that what is alienated from Labour, from the worker, is not Surplus Value, and, therefore, not the Surplus product, but is the Use Value that the worker embodies in the product, and specifically under Capitalism that means in the Commodity. I wish also to argue that because this is the true nature of alienation it cannot end simply with the ending of Capitalism or class society. It can only fully end with the establishment of the higher stage of Communist society.

Something can only be alienated if it was originally a part of the thing from which it is alienated. For Surplus Value to be alienated from Labour it is then necessary for it to have been a part of Labour. But, quite clearly that is not the case. Marx tells us that Labour – the worker – sells not his Labour, but his Labour Power. In doing so Marx tells us that what the worker does is to give up something, which does not have Use Value to him, but which does possess an Exchange Value. What does not have Use Value for the worker DOES have Use Value for the capitalist. The Capitalist does not buy Labour Power for its Exchange Value, but for its Use Value, its ability to create new value, and thereby the potential of creating surplus value. The point is that the Use Value of Labour-Power is its ability to do precisely that to create new, and, therefore, surplus value, but it is a Use Value only for the Capitalist NOT for the worker. Labour-power is a Use value owned by the worker, and in the process of its sale the worker alienates it from himself, separates it from him. He does not alienate an Exchange Value, but receives an Exchange Value in the form of wages in return for the sale of his Use Value.

Moreover, what the worker sells to the Capitalist in selling his labour-power is that Use Value. The worker does not sell the Capitalist a particular amount of Exchange Value. It would make no sense for an Exchange Value to be exchanged for the same Exchange Value. What is exchanged in every commercial exchange is an Exchange Value for a Use Value. At the point of exchange Use values cease being Use values for those that possess them, and become Exchange Values, and instantaneously become Use Values for those that buy them. But Surplus Value, is Surplus Exchange Value. Consequently, because what the worker gives up to the Capitalist in return for a given quantity of Exchange Value i.e. wages, is not Exchange Value, but Use Value, the worker cannot have given up, alienated from himself, that Exchange Value and certainly not Surplus Exchange Value. What he has alienated from himself is a given quantity of Use Value, just as what the Capitalist has alienated from himself – in the form of wages paid to the worker - is a given quantity of Use Value that for him had no Use Value, but did have Exchange Value.

This is immensely important. At one time I was self-employed. Consequently, I did have control over the surplus value created. Yet, I would argue that my Labour was still alienated. I would argue that it was alienated because the product of my Labour was alienated to some other in the process of commercial exchange. Not to a Capitalist, but to the consumer who to me was an anonymous other – even if in reality I knew and met with that other. They had no link to me other than that of pure cash nexus. As far as I was concerned, then, my interest was not in Labour as an end in itself, but still purely as a means to an end. My interest like that of a worker working for a capitalist remained to give up as little time and effort as possible in return for as much money as possible. We should not assume then that just because workers become the owners of the means of production that the alienation of their labour ceases. It will not. It can only cease when every individual ceases to see themselves as an individual and instead sees themselves as simply a part of a collective whole. When, therefore, the product of their Labour is not alienated to some other, but is simply consumed by what each views as part of itself, and itself a part of.

Marx says that Labour is not the only source of Value, by which he means Use Value. Nature also is a source of value. And this Value is alienated from Nature too. The consequence of the alienation of labour is the corruption of Labour, and therefore, the corruption of man. The consequence of the alienation from Nature is the corruption of Nature, and the environmental consequences we see from it. But, in fact, the alienation of Nature is the product itself of the alienation of Man from Nature. Just as the alienation of Labour can only end with the ending of the alienation of Man from Man, so can the ending of the alienation of Nature only end with the ending of the alienation of Man from Nature. The Bhagavad Ghita actually sums it up within a different context.

“The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.”

By which it means I believe that everything is part of a single whole, and yet parts such as the dewdrop can appear to and for a time do have an independent existence. The dewdrop here meaning the human ego, id, soul or whatever that achieves Nirvhana when it recognises its unity with that whole, and returns to it.

If instead of Capitalist production we thing of other forms of class society we can see the point more clearly. In slave society the slave does not give up his surplus product, he gives up all his product, and the slave owner gives back means of subsistence. Actually that is true of Capitalism too. The conditions under which the slave alienates his Labour leads to him having even less regard for his labour as labour than does the wage-slave. But, the situation in respect of the Peasant is even more revealing. The peasant who produces for his own subsistence does not alienate his Labour in respect of this production. The peasant consumes the product of his Labour. But, under some kind of Corvee system, whereby the peasant works for part of the week on the Landlord’s land that is no longer the case. The peasant will have every reason to work much less hard during this period, to work more carelessly, and so on. Even where the Peasant pays the Landlord in kind with a proportion of his production, the peasant will have an incentive in ensuring that the best of his product is consumed by himself and his family, and the poorer quality produce is handed over to the Landlord.

Compare this with two other situations. Under primitive Communism there could be no alienation of Labour, because not only Labour is a collective act, but so is consumption. Just as with the peasant producing for himself and his family, the individual hunter-gatherer acting as part of a collective effort has reason to exert himself as much as everyone else to hunt as effectively as possible, because how much, and what quality of food is available to him and his family is as dependent upon that as is that of everyone else that will collectively consume the product. Moreover, this form of society, precisely because of its collective production and consumption creates within the mind of each that they are part of the whole. Or take the work done by a Father or Mother to make something for their children. Such Labour is not seen as a burden but a labour of love. When the product is given to the child it is not alienated, because the parent makes no distinction in making the thing for themselves or for the child. Of course, there is a condition here that the parent DOES have such a bond of love with the child. If no such bond exists then instead of the work being a labour of love, it becomes just as much an inconvenience a use of their time as any other act of labour performed for any one else.

And this is the point it is this separation of man from Man, not the worker from the means of production which results in the alienation of labour. For that reason it cannot be ended simply by the worker gaining ownership of the means of production, but only by Man once again being reunited with Man. That is not something, which some State Plan can achieve, it is only something which can grow up over a considerable period of time in the relations of free Men one with another. There is no reason that workers at a Tractor factory should feel any less alienated from the tractors they produce just because the instruction they receive from the Central Planning authority of how many to produce was arrived at democratically, than if it was a bureaucratic dictat, or simply the requirement of a Capitalist Manager. The central planning decision is too remote from their actual involvement in any democratic procedure for that to be the case. The labour of workers in a Co-operative begin as just as much alienated as in any capitalist enterprise, precisely because they are alienating the product of their labour to a market. But, there is a difference. Now their success depends upon the quality as well as the price of the goods they produce. The market itself begins to discipline the workers, but in a way it never can when they sell their labour-power to a capitalist. But, in developing personal links with other co-operatives that begins to change organically. They are no longer producing for some anonymous other, but increasingly for what becomes an organic part of their own production and consumption not mediated by market relations, but by personal relations. It is another reason that I believe that it is important for workers here and now to establish co-operatives, so that on the back of their ownership of the means of production they can gain greater freedom, and begin that process of entering into free voluntary agreements with others, to begin integrating their activities, so that increasingly they see that what they produce is not some alien thing, but a product of their Labour destined for consumption by others who they increasingly see as part of their own collectivity. Only on that basis can the idiocies of planning – which would arise with a democratically formulated central plan as much as a bureaucratically formulated central plan, be avoided, and a real planning for need be developed.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

And The Kitchen Sink

Yesterday the US Federal Reserve effectively admitted it had lost control over interest rates at the new historic low levels. Rather than setting an actual Target Fed Funds Rate, it had instead to set a target range of 0 - .25%, signalling that it could not actually achieve its target in the face of market action. Rates this low are unprecedented in the US, though they fell this low in Japan for a decade, and the Bank of Japan looks now under pressure, with a strongly rising Yen, to cut rates from their current .25% to 0. The Fed had been thought to give some hint that it would also look at using other measures to avoid deflation in the US by using other monetary tools, including so called "Quantative easing", that is the outright printing of money that I spoke about being likely to happen some weeks ago. Rather than make any such hints the Fed just came right out and said that that was what it intended to do, and pretty much everything else it could do to inject liquidity into the system. In other words they had decided that the risks of Deflation and the dislocation to the economy in general were so great that they decided to throw the kitchen sink at the economy here and now rather than wait.

The response was pretty quick. In CNBC's coverage market reporter, and former trader, Rick Santelli, at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, could be heard to exclaim loudly in the background, "Oh my God, look at the Euro." The Euro indeed spike upwards by several whole points against the dollar as it resumes its course back to becoming the world's new reserve currency displacing the dollar. The dollar, which has been resuming its decline against the Euro and other currencis, particularly Yen, in recent days, increased the speed of its decline as traders and investors decided that the US State has decided to destroy the dollar to save the economy, and in order to pay off its debts with worthless currency.

Earlier in the day, long-time, legendary trader, Jim Rogers, said that he had been getting out of dollars for some time, and was now selling what he had left. He had already let the US, and set up home in Singapore some time ago, and has been having his daughters taught Chinese, so convinced is he that the US is in terminal decline, and the locus of the world economy is now firmly entrenched in China and Asia. He's not alone the world's richest man, Warren Buffett, has been selling dollars, and investing overseas for some time, as has george Soros, who has also predicted the dollar will lose its reserve currency status within five years.

The US Stock Markets soared on the news, but the Futures Markets, this morning are pointing to a sizeable take back as investors digest what the action means about the dire state of the US economy. Asian Stock markets gained strongly overnight, but Europe this morning is muted. That could be a sign that investors and traders are looking for a similar response by the ECB, and Bank of England. The gains in Asia probably reflect the fact that Asia although it has seen some slow down over recent months, is still in the main growing, driven on by the momentum of growth in China and India, the world's two largest rapidly growing economies, both whom are still growing at around 7-8%. Partly, too it could be in response to the fact that China has been taking further measures itself to boost the housing market and domestic economy in China itself.

But, will the ECB follow suit? Possibly. But, so far it has been a reluctant cutter. Jean Claude Trichet is an adherent of the "Austrian " school of economics, which disdains such intervention that it sees as distorting the action of the market to resolve problems through its own mechanisms. Effectively, they believe that Capitalism needs crises every so often, and that crises are made worse by State intervention such as lax monetary policy which encourage moral hazhard, the taking of bad risks, and discourage necessary saving to promote Capital formation. It is the same ideology adopted by Thatcher in the early 80's, and is a useful corrollary to Capitalist State's looking to throw the burden of a crisis on to the working class. In a Europe where the working class was never subdued to the extent that it was in Britain or the US, where the 35 Hour Week still has some grip, and so on, it is a useful means of exerting pressure on employers to resist workers demands. But, in Britain and the US in the 1980's, government's only followed this ideology as long as they needed to. Once the Labour Movement had been defeated, they ditched "Austrian" economics in favour of Monetarism, an ideology which alloed them to intervene to save the Capitalists by stimulating economic activity, raising prices precisely by injecting liquidity into the system.

Its likely that the ECB could face similar pressure to reflate. But, Europe is divided. Germany, Europe's largest, most dynamic economy, has resisted the idea of a big fiscal stimulus. Indeed, the german Fiannce Minister described Brown's recent stimulus as "crass Keynesianism". Ever since, the hyper-inflation of the 1920's, German politicians of both left and right have feared policies which might lead to a similar outcome. The huge injections of liquidity into the world economy, and now the outright printing of money, are leading inexorably in that direction. The Germans attitude is in some ways understandable. Germany as with other European countries has a different outlook to the so called Anglo Saxon economies. It has not embraced the idea of a "property-owning democracy", for one thing. Like other European countries, the majority of people rent their homes rather than buying them. This means that the kinds of swings in property prices witnessed in Britain and the US simply do not occur, along with the consequent effects on the consumer economy. Where people do buy houses they simply save up until they can afford to buy, in the same way they save to buy other commodities. In Germany, supermarkets and restaurants in the majority do not accept Credit Cards, and far fewer people in Germany have Credit Cards than in Britain or the US. Certainly, the idea of running up huge debts on them would be anathema to the average German for whom debt is a terrible stigma.

So, whereas the Chinese, the Russians, and the Middle Eastern Oil Sheikhs, have been following the course taken by the Pharaoh in the Bible, or by Louis Bonaparte in France, and saying to Britain and the US, "borrow as much money from us as you like to fiannce your spendthrift ways, soon we will own you body and soul", the Germans have been more circumspect. They realise that their hyperinflation of the 1920's came about as a result of the printing of huge amounts of paper money to cover Germany's obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans say, "You got yourself into this mess, by spending too much, and borrowing too much, don't expect us to get you out of it, by doing the same."

But, Germany is the world's largest exporter. If the US economy does really tank then it will be affected too, despite the growing proportion of its trade that now goes to its economic enclaves in Eastern Europe, and to China. Despite that Germany is likely to come out of the current crisis as the undisputed economic power in the EU, and that will give it an even more powerful political voice in Europe. In many ways it will fulfil a similar role as the centre of an economic hub of trade relations that China and Japan are vying for within the Asian trading bloc.

Since I wrote my blog, "Climbing a Wall of Worry", a week or so ago, Stock Markets have continued by and large to edge upwards. This still sems to suggest that investors and traders see the downturn ending by the second half of next year. Indeed, a number of businesspeople, including even some British retailers, interviewed on CNBC over the last week have echoed that sentiment. The depth of the downturn appears to be likely to be severe, but its duration if it does abate by the second half of next year will not be anywhere like as protracted as the recession that dragged on through the late 1970's into the 1980's, punctuated by short upturns into the 1990's. Certainly, it will not be as long or as severe as the economic crisis that wracked Europe during the 1920's and 1930's, or even the US during the 1930's.

The main problem policymakers will face as the world economy resumes, possibly an even more powerful upswing towards the end of next year, is how to withdraw the oceans of liquidity pumped into their economies - and in a globalised world into the world economy - without causing massive dislocations. The answer is they probably can't, and will have to accept a large dose of inflation, as I suggested some time ago would be likely. And as I said at the time that is likely to go hand in hand with a large reduction in the economic power of those countries such as the US whose currencies will get smashed as a result. The continued growth of the world economy will probably be sufficient to prevent large outright falls over the longer period in living standards for workers in the US, but they may well stand still, and will certainly fall compared with workers living standards in China, Asia and elsewhere, just as workers living standards in Britain fell compared to those in the US and Germany when Britain lost its dominance. Only by such a readjustment can Capital bring about the necessary realignment in the Value of Labour power as a globally traded commodity.

As I said a couple of years ago when predicting the current set of of economic events that will colour the nature of workers struggles. The locus of workers advance will shift inevitably to China and Asia, as workers become more militant and more confident as demand for their Labour-power rises, whereas in the US and Britain, and parts of Europe, workers struggles will tend to have more of a defensive character as they attempt to defend the Value of labour-Power against the tide of the laws of economics played out in a globalised market.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A New Aristocracy of Labour?

Towards the end of the 19th century Marxists analysed the phenomena of a section of the working class, which because of its nature as craft based, skilled workers enjoyed a relatively privileged position compared to the mass of unskilled workers. Particularly, in Britain with its vast Empire, which super exploited people around the globe, and brought some of those proceeds back home, a small proprtion of which could be used to sweeten this privileged layer, there was a tendency for this "Labour Aristocracy" to see itself as separate from the wider Labour Movement. It defended its Craft privileges against the unskilled, opposed unskilled workers joining its unions etc. and thereby divided and weakened the Labour Movement.

In addition, these economic and social differences led to a set of ideas commensurate to them. The fact, that this layer were able to negotiate better condiitons for itself was a strong motivational force to the basic ideas of reformism, that instead of repalcing Capitalism it was sufficient to simply negotiate improvements within it. In turn this attitude provided a foudnation for the establishemnt of a Trade Union bureaucracy that could fulfil this function of intermediary within this negotiation.

The concept that ideas, and ideological tendencies are a reflection of material conditions, that they are an ideological representation of the interests of social forces, and that changes in the dominance of different sets of ideas are themselves a reflection of changes in thesesocial forces, and the changing relative of strengths between them, is fundamental to Marxist class analysis. Trotsky's analysis of the Soviet bureacracy, the reason for ist rise, the ideas it held etc. is a classic example of that - though perhaps, THE classic example is Marx's "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte". Trotsky, demonstrated, how it was the decline in the economic and social power of the working class, and the rise of a new petit-bourgeoisie growing out of the NEP, together with the increasing number of State functionaries, bureaucrats with the typical petit-bourgeois mindset shared by all bureaucrats, that led to a rise in those ideas within the Communist Party reflective of the interests of such social strata.

In recent posts discussing the Statism of much of the Left I have pointed to the historical roots of such ideas. Ideas that go back to the beginnings of the Socialist Movement, which although gradually thrown over by Marx and Engels, remained at the heart of the main workers parties, including its most authoritative representative - the German SPD. But, perhaps if we were to apply the marxist method we could identify objective root for the dominance of statist ideas, and in particular for the benign attitude of much of the left towards the bouregois state itself.

In every developed country in the world the State accounts for around 50% of all economic activity. It not only holds vast numbers of people in a State of dependency upon it, almost like feudal serfs dependent upon their Lord and Master, through the development of Welfarism, but the bouregois State is THE bigest single employer in all of these countries. It employs vast armies of people in a huge bureaucracy as well as large number working in the direct provision of various services from healthcare and education, to fire and protection, to public transport, and the wide array of Local Government services. A look at the facts of unionisation in Britain, and this is almost certainly true of every other coutnry, shows that rather like the situation of the Labour Aristocracy at the edn of the 19th century, these workers represent the bulk of unionised workers, and certainly the most organised.

Could it be that one of the reaons that so much of the Left today has such a benign attitude to the bourgeois State, that rather than seeking to limit its influence it seeks to expand it, that it calls upon it to act in the interests of workers and so on, is atually a reflection of the fact that that Left itself is employed in large numbers by that State?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Fool Me Once, Shame on You……..

A couple of years ago I spent a fortnight on holiday in Ireland. The first week was spent in a bungalow in Donegal, where at night, after pleasant days exploring the coastline or a trip inland to Derry or other places of interest, I read Engels’ “Anti-Duhring” again. The second week we spent in a beautiful cottage down in Kerry, literally yards away from the sea on the opposite side of he inlet to the Dingle. Having run out of my own books to read I picked up a Bible from in the cottage, and decided to read that.

I’d been intending to read the Bible for some time, and for several reasons. When I was at school I refused to participate in Religious Knowledge classes for the last couple of years. I excelled at history, and my history teacher tried to get me to do it for another ‘O’ level by encouraging me to see it as just History, but he was wasting his time. But he was of course right in a sense. The Bible is an important source of ancient history, provided you look beyond the mysticism, and have some knowledge of the times, and development of human civilisation. From that perspective alone I thought it was worth reading. I’d also decided that when you read Marx, or any of the great thinkers of the past they all had a sound knowledge of classical works including religious texts. So I had some time ago resolved to read some of the major works such as the Bible, Koran, and the I-Ching (the last I was particularly interested in as a student of Kung Fu. The intention had remained mostly that, an intention. When I first began to suffer with severe depression a few years ago I found great satisfaction in sitting in the garden reading classical works of fiction that had sat on my bookshelves often since I was a teenager without having been read. I had ploughed through Dickens, Jules Verne, Dumas, Walter Scott and others but the heavier stuff still didn’t beckon, so being on holiday with time to sit and relax and read was a great opportunity. As with everything I read now I kept a notepad at my side, making copious notes, examples of contradictions, and thoughts on how various events tied in with other bits of history. For example, as an illustration of just how class society had developed at the time, you should read the bit about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and what it says about Thou shalt not commit murder. In particular what it says about if you kill someone else’s servant, or if you accidentally beat your own servant to death.

Anyway that’s all a bit beside the point of what I wanted to say, but is a bit of a background or introduction, a bit like one of Ronnie Corbett’s monologues. What I wanted to talk about was three examples of what appear to be pretty much the same thing of how people get dispossessed. I originally wrote this back then, and it has been fairly prescient of what has happened over the last year or so.

Joseph and the Multicoloured Fleece

The first example, comes from the aforementioned reading of the Bible, and the well known Joseph whose rather flamboyant attire was the subject of a musical featuring the long forgotten Jason Donovan, and also Philip Schofield, who everyone tries to forget. I’m not interested in the first bit of the story where Joe gets stitched by his brothers, but with the later bit where he’s become an advisor to Pharaoh. When you read this bit of the story it is clear that what is being described is the beginning of class society. Basically, society is made up of a lot of people who are Nomads, and an increasing number of people who are giving up Nomadic life in 0order to settle down and become farmers. All of these people remain free, except for a few who are servants, though these do not appear to be actual slaves. This corresponds to the picture painted by Engels in “The Origin of the State, Private Property and the Family”, of the old tribal society being replaced by a society in which private property begins to be established under the ownership of individual families.

Now what Joseph does is to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream about 7 fat cows and 7 lean cows etc. and tells him that this is a premonition that there will be 7 bountiful years, followed by 7 years of famine. He urges Pharaoh to store up food during the bountiful years. Of course when the famine begins, all the other farmers not to mention the nomads begin to run out of food, and have to come to Pharaoh to buy food from his store. Before long Pharaoh has cornered the market, and become a monopolist supplier able to charge monopolist prices. The nomads have to give up their cattle and other chattels, the farmers give up first all their stored wealth in gold, and then, as things fail to improve they are forced to sell their land to Pharaoh in return for food. Eventually, they have nothing else left to sell except themselves. It is the beginning of slavery.

The Peasants Are Revolting

A few thousand years later the same trick was pulled off again – twice – once in Britain, then in France. In Britain it was done by force, in France by stealth. Slave society in the form of the Roman Empire came to an end when that empire collapsed. Slaves continued to exist, but they did not form the basis of the mode of production. The Dark Ages, which in my opinion are misnamed, were essentially a return to the type of communal societies that existed before slave society, but now with powerful clan or tribal chiefs, who were eventually to become the feudal aristocracy. Normandy for example, which is the classical feudal society, gets its name from the Norse Men who conquered and settled it. What these societies reintroduced was the ownership of the means of production by the majority of society, whether individually owned or collectively owned, for example, the clan ownership of land that persisted in Scotland and Ireland until a couple of hundred years ago or so, or the village commune in France.

In Volume I and III of Capital Marx sets out both the emergence of Capital and its concomitant the emergence of wage labour. He details the way in which labour is brought under the dominance of capital, a dominance e take for granted today, and yet was in no means natural or easy for capital to achieve. For example, back in the 15th century when capital first starts to appear it finds it almost impossible to exploit labour. The vast majority of people still own their own means of production – land on which to grow food, to keep cattle, sheep, pigs, foul etc.; a cotton spinner or later spinning wheel to spin wool or cotton, a loom or stocking frame to produce their own cloth etc. There is no reason why such people should work for someone else when they can quite easily with the help of all members of the family produce more than enough for their needs, and recent research has indicated that the lives of such peasants was in fact far more pleasant than was previously thought to have been the case. Even those that were landless had access to the common land on which to graze their livestock, and because their were few people who needed to find work wages were high – demand exceeded supply.

After the Plague the number of workers fell even more, and wages soared. In an attempt to ensure that wages were kept down, and workers could be found both for the Court, and for those growing number of artisans and traders that formed the nascent capitalist class the King introduced laws to limit the level of wages, and to set a minimum working day of 10 (though this included 2 hours for dinner). In practice the laws could not be enforced. Such Labour Statutes continued to be introduced right up to the 19th century as a means of trying to force people to become workers such was the resistance to the idea. According to Marx even as late as the last third of the 18th century i.e. after the Industrial Revolution as already got well under way, employers were complaining that it was impossible for them to make a profit because they could not get workers to do more than 3 or 4 days work as workers were able to earn enough during that time to but their food, clothing and shelter and saw no need to work to earn more than that, especially as they often retained their own livestock etc.

Clearly, if capital was going to develop it needed to be able to employ workers at a profit (according to Marx the early capitalists during this period often lived worse than the workers as they tried to accumulate capital), but more importantly it needed a much larger supply of them. The problem was solved for the capitalists by Parliament. For centuries the old landed aristocracy had been thieving land from the peasants. With an increasing demand for wool the landlords found it profitable to clear their lands and introduce sheep. The developments in agricultural technology meant that the old strip farming was no longer efficient, and large fields were needed. There was a confluence of interests between the old landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. The former wanted the peasants of the land in order to thieve it for themselves, the latter wanted a large available cheap workfoprce. In addition to the continued outright thievery of peasants land and property Parliament now introduced the Enclosure Acts which demanded that all land be enclosed by hedges or fencing (the reason much of he English countryside is made up of fields broken up by hawthorn hedges). Peasants were also required to produce evidence of their ownership of the land. As often the land had been passed down over generations such title deeds rarely existed, and often when they did they were torn up and destroyed when they were produced. In Scotland where much of the land was owned communally by the clans, the heads of the clans who had been transformed into feudal aristocrats simply took ownership of the land and threw the inhabitants off. Marx gives a detailed account of the actions of the Duchess of Sutherland whose family had their residence here in Stoke at Trentham and whose family vault is being restored by Stoke City Council.

The amazing thing as Marx relates is that for centuries the Crown had been attempting to introduce a minimum 10 hour work day without success, but with the peasants being thrown off the land, dispossessed of their own means of production and thereby forced into the town to work in factories as wage workers the average workday without the need for any law became 18 hours even for children. In many ways though when you consider what New Labour want to do in relation to making people work till they are 68, nothing has changed.

In France, the same thing was effected by stealth. It was more akin to Joseph and his advice to Pharaoh. After the Great Revolution the peasants benefited from land reform. But their gains were fairly quickly reigned back. Improvements in agricultural techniques along with the peasants natural desire to improve their output following the gains they had made from the land reform, increased agricultural output. The increase in supply began to reduce the prices of agricultural products. At the same time the peasants had been encouraged to borrow fairly substantial sums of money at low interest rates to invest in their land, again increasing output and reducing prices. But then just as the fall in prices began to bite, the government both raised taxes and interest rates rose (partly because falling prices meant a greater need to borrow). The peasants began to be ruined, and had to sell their land, becoming like their English counterparts though in smaller numbers wage workers.

Would You Credit It

Before WWII few people owned their own homes, but from the 1950’s on a growing number of people began to do so as real wages increased. Today the number of homeowners in Britain is reported to be around 70%, though this is not true as many of these merely rent their homes from the Building Society that owns the mortgage on the house. Even so a fairly large number of people do own their own home. Despite the fact that this is portrayed by capitalist apologists as in some way comparable to the ownership of shares in factories and other means of production it isn’t for the simple reason that owning your own home is not a source of profit, whereas owning means of production is.

However, this home ownership is not without benefits for the working class. Having somewhere to live is one of the most important things human beings have to provide for, and consequently it is one of the biggest sources of expenditure. If you really do own your home – as opposed to having to pay out on a mortgage for it – then a large cost and therefore a heavy requirement to earn money to cover that cost is removed. Indeed, if the house has a reasonable size garden it is possible as many people did during the 1930’s to grow a reasonable portion of your own fruit and vegetables thereby reducing your dependence on waged work further. This is not to suggest that everyone could become replicas of Tom and Barbara on the Good Life, but that this ownership does provide a degree of independence that did not exist when people every week had to find rent. Together with the introduction of Welfare Benefits it has put a limited bottom under the level of wages people have to accept in return for selling their labour power. At a time when capitalism was expanding following the War this was perfectly acceptable for capital, it helped to reduce social tension, and make the system more secure. But the current attacks on living standards, the movement to increasingly temporary work contracts, and the attempts to reduce pensions and increase the length of the working life (which goes hand in hand with already increased intensity of work) shows this period is coming to an end as western capital is massively uncompetitive compared to capital in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Within that context there are striking parallels with some of the above instances of workers or peasants being dispossessed. Consumer capitalism has always relied on people wanting more consumer goods, and planned obsolescence was part of that. From the inception of the mass production of consumer goods at the beginning of the last century consumer credit went hand in hand with fuelling that demand. It was what fuelled the massive boom of the 1920’s, which made the bust of the 1930’s that much the greater. But until recently their were limits on the amount of consumer credit that people could take on. Until a decade or so ago if you wanted to buy a house the Building Society would only lend twice your annual income, and you had to provide at least 10% deposit. Now, Building Societies will lend anything up to six times income, and often with no deposit. Not surprisingly, this has increased demand for houses pushing prices up enormously and making them unaffordable for many first time buyers. Now, to get round this parents are being encouraged to go into debt, and thereby give up the security they had in their own home, in order to provide financing to their children to buy overpriced housing. In addition people both in the UK and US (its not so true in Europe) are being encouraged to give up the security of owning their own home, in order to borrow money to buy the latest consumer goods (which if they waited a year would be available at a quarter of the price anyway). Every other advert on the telly is to encourage people (whether you have CCJ’s, are a previous bankrupt, own your own business etc. etc. in other words all the people who should not be borrowing money at ridiculously usurious rates of interest) to solve their current debt problems by going into even more debt for the rest of their lives – either that or they are adverts promising you money for nothing from a law suit if you slip on a wet floor.

It has all the hallmarks of the way Pharaoh disposed the Egyptians and Hebrews, and the way the French peasants lost their lands. People are being encouraged to go into more and more debt to buy more and more things they really don’t need, and which would be available at a fraction of the cost if they waited a few months to buy them, and in the process they are being dispossessed of the small amount of wealth and security that workers had won since the second world war. Once again they are being fooled into giving up what they had gained, and of course that is exactly what capital requires when it wants to screw people to work even harder for less money, and to work until they drop to pay up the lifetime of debt they have accumulated.

But capitalism digs its own grave. When the crunch comes that dispossession will be all the more keenly felt, and all the more reason to dispossess, the dispossessors.

We Was Robbed

The modern British working class came into existence as the result of a piece of common thievery, and violence. From the 15th century on Landlords had been stealing land from the peasants, but that theft took on a qualitatively different aspect with the general Enclosure Act of 1801. In fact what was enclosed was not just Common Land, but the land actually owned individually by the peasants, the open strip farms. What took place through the Enclosure Acts was just a legalised version of the theft of peasants’ land that had been going on piecemeal for nearly three hundred years. It was the biggest act of robbery ever perpetrated, and without it capitalism would not have been possible.

Over the last couple of years, I have been engaged in debates with US Libertarians whose economics and politics are derived from the likes of Von Mises and Hayek. A central theme is, “You socialists simply want to steal other people’s property.” Of course, in a sense, that is true. We want to expropriate the property in the form of means of production, which workers need in order to work and to create a better society, and which a tiny minority of the population have monopolised for themselves, in order that they can live lavishly off the backs of the work of others. As far as I am aware, few socialists have much interest in the other forms of wealth, of the rich, such as works of art. As far as I am concerned, they can keep them. But, this act of expropriation of the means of production, currently in the hands of the capitalist class is, of course,, not an act of theft such as that committed by a bank robber or burglar. It is the act of the householder who seeing the goods that were previously stolen from him/her shortcuts the legal process, by taking them back. It is the expropriation of the expropriators. We normally, think of that in terms of the labour-power capitalists steal from workers on a daily basis, and indeed that now over two hundred years of capitalism proper amounts to an immense sum, but that daily theft of workers’ labour would not have been possible without the huge almost single act of robbery committed against the peasants.

I think the story of that theft should be told.

The ideologists of Capital paint a picture of a world in which Labour and Capital contract on equal terms, where there is no difference between the individual worker and the individual capitalist engaged in this transaction, both are equal owners of commodities that they bring to market. In this supposed world all individuals are the same. They paint a picture in which workers gladly gave up their own means of production and “rushed” to the towns so that they could be exploited by capitalists. The historical record proves otherwise. A few historical facts will demonstrate.

It is useful to note the actual progress of the relationship between labour and capital in Britain, and to note the consequences of this for the Liberty of the individual worker.

Capital first begins to make its appearance in Britain during the 14th century though on a small scale, primarily in relation to agricultural labour. During this time the majority of the population were peasants. In other words, they were people who owned their own plot of land, which they farmed with their family and were self-sufficient. Typically, the peasant household would also produce its own clothes by spinning and weaving. The extent to which it needed to trade any of what it produced for other goods was very minimal. The existence of common land meant that even the landless labourer had some means of subsistence other than relying on working for someone else. This had already placed a minimum level under which the labourers were not prepared to sell their labour-power. The Great Plague decimated the population causing an even greater shortage of labour. Marx in Capital quotes a Tory writer detailing the times who writes in his “Sophisms of Free Trade” 1850 “The difficulty of getting men to work on reasonable terms (i.e. at a price that enabled their employer to extract surplus value AB) grew to such a height as to be quite intolerable” (p253).

What was the response to this intolerable shortage that resulted in workers being prepared only to work 4 days a week, during which time they could earn enough to live? The response was the “Statute of Labourers” brought in by Edward III in 1349 on behalf of the employers. Not only did it fix wages at a “reasonable” level i.e. reduced them, but it also introduced limits to the working day. Not maximum limits, but MINIMUM limits that the worker had to work. This latter minimum number of hours that workers had to endure was repeated in the Statute of 1496 brought in by Henry VII. Indeed as the previous Tory writes “Acts of Parliament regulating wages, but against the labourer and in favour of the master, lasted for the long period of 464 years.” Why were they abandoned, consideration for the welfare of the worker, maybe? Not a bit of it. “Population grew. These laws were then found, and really became, unnecessary and burdensome.” (ibid p206).

It is interesting to note though the minimum duration set in 1496 compared with the more enlightened time of the 19th century, the period of Libertarian free market capitalism most admired by our capitalist apologists. In 1496 the statute set the working day to be from 5 in the morning until 7 in the evening during summer and until dark in the winter. However, out of this 14 hour day the worker was entitled to breaks, 1 hour for breakfast, 1 ½ hours for dinner, and ½ hour for “noon-meate”. These break times amounted to twice the break times that had to be introduced by law with the Factory Acts of the 19th century to try to improve the condition of workers by setting minimum standards. I will come back to the comparison of the actual length of the working day later. In fact the MINIMUM working day could not be enforced, and the actual condition of the workers was much better than would appear from the Statute. The father of Political Economy William Petty relates that, “Labouring-men (he means field labourers) work 10 hours per diem, and make 20 meals per week, viz., 3 a day for working days and 2 on Sundays.” (W. Petty. “Political Anatomy of Ireland, Verbum Sapienti,” 1672 p10) As Marx points out, Petty was describing the situation here as late as the last third of the 17th century.

Even during the greater part of the 18th century, when the majority of the population were still peasants, those few who had to sell their labour-power still were in a privileged position compared to those that came after them once capitalism proper began. Apart from the agricultural labourers, capital was unable to capture a full week’s work from the worker in return for his wage. The fact that they could live for a whole week on the wage of four days, did not appear to the labourers a sufficient reason that they should work the other two days for the capitalist.

What was the reaction of the capitalists and their apologists to this situation? The anonymous author of “An Essay on Trade and Commerce, containing Observations on Taxes etc.” 1770, comments, ”That mankind in general are naturally inclined to ease and indolence, we fatally experience to be true, from the conduct of our manufacturing populace, who do not labour, upon an average, above four days in a week, unless provisions happen to be very dear.”

He goes on demonstrating the link between this ability of the worker to work only that time he finds necessary to his Liberty.

“But our populace have adopted a notion, that as Englishmen they enjoy a birthright privilege of being more free and independent than in any country in Europe. (Such notions he can never support amongst the workers in practice) …The labouring people should never think themselves independent of their superiors… It is extremely dangerous to encourage mobs in a commercial state like ours, where perhaps seven parts out of 8 of the whole, are people of little or no property. The cure will not be perfect, till our manufacturing poor are contented to labour six days for the same sum which they now earn in four days.”

His solution was to increase the price of workers necessaries so that they had to work longer in order to live. The actual solution for the capitalists was to expropriate the peasants through the Enclosure Acts depriving them of their means of existence and thereby creating a large surplus population, which now had to sell its labour power in order to live.

From the 15th century the landed aristocracy had been thieving land from the peasants piecemeal. There was nothing subtle about it, they just used their power, prestige and brute force to steal the land. Various governmental decrees and laws were passed against the practice, but it was never likely that a state dominated by the landed aristocracy was going to ever take serious action against members of its own class. From the middle of the 15th century when the price of wool increased the process speeded up even more, as people were thrown off their land in order to make way for sheep. But even this was small beer compared to the wholesale theft of peasant lands that was to take place later.

Both in England and most of Europe even up to the end of the 18th century the vast majority of the population were employed on the land. Most were peasants. Life was based around the village, which acted in many ways like a commune. Peasant land was divided into strips of arable land (hence the term strip farming). In order that each peasant could access his particular strip, pieces of land separated each strip. In addition to the strips, large areas of common land were the collective property of the village, and could be used by all the villagers, including those with no individual land of their own, on which to keep their horses, cattle, sheep etc., and from which they also collected wood, which formed the main source of fuel. It was a pretty inefficient means of farming. When the revolution in farming methods got underway, this method of farming was no longer sustainable. The rotation of crops, the use of agricultural equipment, the introduction of improved methods of drainage, and the need to keep cattle and other animals off this land meant that what was needed was large enclosed fields.

Now this could have been accomplished in the way socialists put forward to peasants in similar situations today, through them giving up their own individual ownership and pooling their resources into a collective farm. But another change was taking place just as in industry the individual craftsman was being replaced by small scale capitalists who put work out to workers, so capitalist farmers were entering agriculture, and employing wage labour there. As early as 1724, Daniel Defoe had noted that, on estates near London, families of local gentry were being displaced by families enriched in business; and Cobbett, thee writer who admired Squire Coke of Holkham, felt very differently about the people from London whome he termed “the Squires of Change Alley”. Parliament passed a series of so called Enclosure Acts. A few such Acts had been obtained under Queen Anne and George I, and over two hundred during George II’s reign, but even at the accession of George III in 1760, the open field system still existed in half the counties of England mostly in the Eastern counties bounded by the east Riding in Yorkshire, Norfolk, and Wiltshire. During George II’s reign some 3,200 Enclosure Acts were obtained including in 1801 a General Enclosure Act, which simplified the procedure.

On the face of it these Acts seemed fair. Land in a village was supposed to be the subject of Enclosure only if the owners of four-fifths of the area of property to be enclosed were in favour. But there was an in built problem here for the small peasant. The landed aristocracy were the biggest owners of landed property and, depending upon how the boundaries of the land to be enclosed were drawn, their individual land ownership could of itself ensure that the figure of four-fifths was achieved. In addition the increase in he number of capitalist farmers previously mentioned, meant that these new elements whose capitalistic methods of farming were only possible on large enclosed fields were bound to vote for Enclosure, and they themselves had larger areas of land ownership than the average peasant because it had been bought from the former squirearchy whose economic fortunes had been in decline. As many of the landlords were themselves suffering financially it was in their interest to have the land enclosed, in order to rent it out to capitalist farmers who would pay more rent. Secondly, in order to have a vote, it was necessary to prove that you were, in fact, a land owner. Most of the small peasant farms had passed down through generations of the peasant’s family, and no written documentation existed to prove such ownership. This was not just a problem at this stage, but at a later stage when, after Enclosure and the replacement of the old strip of land, a new enclosed field was to be allotted. If you could not prove ownership, you got no new allocation. Moreover, in many cases even where peasants did produce title deeds to their land, they were simply torn up, so that no proof existed, and the landlord then appropriated the land.

Even if these hurdles were overcome, the small peasant farmer was at a massive disadvantage. The compact piece of land he received after Enclosure had to compensate him not just for his arable strip, but also for his former use of the common land, which was now appropriated by the landlord. Not only did he lose the use of this land (which he like the other villagers had previously owned collectively) on which to graze his cattle, etc., but he also lost his source of fuel. Once an Enclosure Act had been passed, the Government sent in Commissioners to undertake the process. Of course, who were these Commissioners, ordinary peasants? Not on your life. There were normally three of them, and they were peers, gentlemen, clergymen, or farmers. And of course their fees and travelling expenses (which, with repeated trips back to London, were considerable given the cost of transport at the time) had to be paid, and this cost fell far more heavily in proportion on the pockets of the peasant than it did on the large landowner. Nor did the cost end there. The hedges or fences were also inordinately expensive for the peasant, as was the cost of the award, which had to be paid by each person who benefited.
Even Arthur Young, who had for years advocated enclosure, was forced to acknowledge the “knavery of commissioners and attorneys” acting under the Enclosure Acts, and stated that “by nineteen out of twenty Enclosure Acts the poor are injured, and most grossly.” Oliver Goldsmith in his poem, The Deserted Village, lamented,

A bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.

Those that managed to hang on soon found that their other means of livelihood was soon removed. Factory-produced goods soon replaced hand spinning and other crafts. In addition, new Game Laws were introduced that were extremely harsh. Where once the common land was a free source of food, in the form of game, these new laws meant that the penalty, for example, of being found, on open land, with nets for rabbiting, was seven years transportation. But, the greatest crime was the actual theft of the peasants’ land, which the Enclosure Acts themselves constituted.

Some small freeholders, who had been the most independent type of yeoman because being owners of their land they need obey no squire, kept their farms as long as prices were high, but at the end of the French Wars at the beginning of the 19th century many of these too had to sell up and move to the towns as agricultural prices fell.

A similar process occurred in France, Belgium, and western Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Marx gives the following account of the process in Scotland. In Scotland, the people were organised in clans. All property belonged collectively to the clan. This particular example relates to the Duchess of Sutherland, but is typical. In the 18th century the hunted out Gaels were forbidden from emigrating in order to drive them by force into Glasgow and other manufacturing towns. As a result of earlier clearances, i.e. forcible removal of families from their Highland properties, the population of the Duchesses land had been reduced to 15,000, and most of the land turned over to sheep. From 1814 to 1820, these remaining inhabitants, about 3,000 families were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned to pasture. British soldiers enforced the eviction and fighting broke out with the inhabitants. One old woman was burned alive in her house, which she refused to leave. All in all, the Duchess expropriated clan land, that had belonged since time immemorial to the members of the clan, to the extent of 794,000 acres. True, she did assign a measly 6,000 acres of sea shore to those expelled, but only after she had fixed a rent of 2s. 6d. per acre on it. Even then, when the industrious highlanders managed to begin making money from this seashore, through fishing, they found even this taken from them, and the land was let to London fishmongers.

The following comment is made by James Connolly in respect of Ireland.

“The Catholic gentlemen and nobles who had the leadership of the people of Ireland at the time were, one and all, men who possessed considerable property in the country, property to which they had, notwithstanding their Catholicity, no more right to title than the merest Cromwellian or Williamite adventurer. The lands they held were lands, which in former times belonged to the Irish people – in other words, they were tribe-lands. As such, the peasantry – then reduced to the position of mere tenants at will – were the rightful owners of the soil, while the Jacobite chivalry of King James were either the descendants of men who had taken sides with the oppressor against their own countrymen and were allowed to retain their property as the fruits of treason; or finally, of men who had consented to seek from the English Government for a grant giving them a personal title to the lands of their clansmen.” (James Connolly “Labour in Irish History” p7) In other words In Ireland as in Scotland the basic organisation of society had been the clan, and land was owned collectively by the clan. This clan ownership continued until around 300 years ago in many cases, but its dissolution was not an act of collective agreement by the members of the clan. As in Scotland individuals that associated themselves with the British Crown and Government stole this land, and laid individual private claim to it, backed up by the might and power of the British state.

In “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx sets out how under the first Bonaparte the peasants were transformed “from semi-villeins into freeholders.” However, during the 19th century the peasants were pauperised, thrown off their land and turned into wageworkers.

“But in the course of the nineteenth century the feudal lords were replaced by urban usurers; the feudal obligation that went with the land was replaced by the mortgage; aristocratic landed property was replaced by bourgeois capital. The small holding of the peasant is now only the pretext that allows the capitalist to draw profits, interest and rent from the soil, whilst leaving the tiller of the soil himself to see how he can extract his wages.”

“Sixteen million peasants (including women and children dwell in hovels.”

“Besides the mortgage which capital imposes on it, the small holding is burdened with taxes.”

The peasant then that had initially benefited from the distribution of the land as a result of the Great Revolution found that having been encouraged to borrow heavily at low interest rates, was crippled as these rates increased. At the same time he was forced to sell his products rather than feed himself, in order to raise the money to pay the heavy increased tax burden placed upon him. Worse still, increased agricultural production resulted in lower prices. Even where the peasant was not turned into a landless labourer as most had been in Britain, he found himself no more than a worker on his own farm working to meet the payments of interest, rent and taxes to the capitalists and their government.

To illustrate just how the emergence of capitalism required it to force free men to become wageworkers in its service let me give just a few examples. Consequent upon the beginning of the expropriation of land from the peasants, and those, for example, of the permanent tenants of monastic land disbanded under the Reformation a number of laws were introduced to ensure those set free were forced into work as well as the Labour Statutes before mentioned which set maximum wages and minimum hours of work.

Marx details them in Capital. A Statute of 1530 permitted beggars to be whipped until they bled, on the second occasion to have half their ear cut off too, and for a third offence death. These were people who had been made beggars by having their land taken from them. The idea was to force them to work. A Statute of 1547 ordained that anyone refusing to work be made a slave of the person who denounced them. If they run away they are branded a slave for life literally by having an S branded on their forehead or back. Every master has the right to put an iron ring around the neck of the slave. The latter part of this Statute remained in place until well into the 19th century, the slaves kept within it were known as “roundsmen”.

Such was capitalism’s contribution to Liberty. Such were the methods it required to force people to work for it in order to produce the profits which in turn were turned into capital the better to enslave the future generations of workers even if the chains that bind them have the glister of gold, and have been slackened somewhat.

Given the problems outlined previously of capitalists being able to secure enough workers to work at wages that guaranteed them a profit this theft of the peasants land and property was just what they needed. As long as the peasants had their own means of production, and could furnish their own livelihood, there was no reason to work for someone else. Indeed, from more recent studies of peasant life we know that life, for the average peasant, was not that bad. They worked far fewer hours than factory workers, their diet was far and away superior, they were in fact better educated in most cases than we previously believed, and all of this was reflected in the fact that there average life expectancy was much better, approximately double, that of the average industrial worker of the 19th century. This was even true of the landless labourers.

The degree to which the workers were better off even in the 15th century compared to the 19th century is given by J. Wade in his “History of the Middle and Working Classes he remarks “From the statement above (i.e. in relation to the Statute) it appears that in 1496 the diet was considered equivalent to one third of the income of an artificer and one half the income of a labourer, which indicates a greater degree of independence among the working classes than prevails at present; for the board both of labourers and artificers, would now be reckoned at a much higher proportion of their wages.” (Pp 24,25, and 577)

So despite the vast increase in productive capacity brought about in the intervening 450 years the condition of the workers was worse in 1850 than it had been in 1496. This does not even take into consideration the disadvantaged position that these workers were in, during the whole of that period, compared to the peasants who owned their own means of production and were able to choose their own hours of work, whose minimum was only that which they required to meet their needs. Even as late as the middle of the 18th century, the average working day for an average adult artisan such as a blacksmith was no more than 10 hours, almost half that for workers during the 19th century.

But even with the huge flood of workers now sent to the towns after having their land stolen from them the new capitalist firms still could not get enough labour. As the peasants were expropriated and a growing number of landless labourers and paupers were created, Britain created its own version of the slave trade that was being carried on within the borders of the US at the time. People forced into the Poor Houses were gathered together and put on canal boats having been sold by the Poor Houses to the textile manufacturers in Manchester who could not recruit enough workers. This speech by a Member of Parliament gives a flavour of the time.

“This system had grown up unto a regular trade. This House will hardly believe it, but I tell them, that this traffic in human flesh was as well kept up, they were in effect as regularly sold to the (Manchester) manufacturers as slaves are sold to the cotton grower in the United States…. In 1860, the cotton trade was at its zenith…. The manufacturers again found that they were short of hands…. They applied to the ‘flesh agents’ as they are called. Those agents sent to the Southern downs of England, to the pastures of Dorsetshire, to the glades of Devonshire, to the people tending kine in Wiltshire, but they sought in vain. The surplus population was ‘absorbed’.” (Ferrand’s speech in the House of Commons 27th April 1863.)

This last reference to “absorbed” relates to comments made by the cotton manufacturers in 1834. Ferrand in his speech gives details of the way in which the intolerable conditions of the workers was affecting their life expectancy. He commented,

“The cotton trade has existed for ninety years…It has existed for three generations of the English race, and I believe I may safely say that during that period it has destroyed nine generations of factory operatives.” (ibid.)

Faced with this shortage of labour the manufacturers had applied to the Poor Law Commissioners that they should send the “surplus population” to them with the explanation that they would “absorb and use it up” to use their own words. Hence Ferrand’s reference.

It should be remembered that this was in the mid 19th century, the height of the age of Free Trade and Libertarianism, the golden era that the capitalist apologists of free markets hark back to. MP’s like Ferrand were certainly no socialists. But, the devastation that capitalism was wreaking on the population, in a period of just 90 years, was so great that even enlightened capitalists and their representatives were appalled at what happens when you let free market forces and laissez-faire run riot as the free marketeers would have us do.

This fact is shown by the actions of capitalists like Josiah Wedgwood, and his analysis alongside those of his fellow manufacturers is illustrative. The condition of the Staffordshire potters was appalling. The life expectancy had been slashed, and disease was rampant amongst them. Had it not been for the intermarrying of the potters in North Staffordshire with members of the surrounding rural population the population of North Staffordshire would have died out. Faced with these circumstances, as much out of self-interest as anything else, (though Wedgwood having himself been originally a working man had some social conscience) they resolved to act. In 1863 26 firms owning extensive potbanks in Staffordshire, including Wedgwood, petitioned the government for legislative action to limit working time. Not now to set a minimum working day, but to set a maximum working day. And why did they need such legislation rather than voluntary agreement.

“Much as we deplore the evils before mentioned, (i.e. the length of the working day and poor conditions) it would not be possible to prevent them by any scheme of agreement between the manufacturers…Taking all these points into consideration, we have come to the conviction that some legislative enactment is wanted.” (Children’s Employment Commission Report 1. 1863 p 322)

The reason no voluntary agreement could be reached was precisely because free market competition would force each to cheat in order to gain an advantage. An example of this was given amongst manufacturers in Blackburn shortly afterwards. Faced with a high price of cotton the manufacturers introduced by mutual consent a shorter working week. But the wealthier manufacturers cheated on the agreement in order to make more profits at the expense of the smaller capitalists. The response was that the small capitalists urged their workers to demonstrate and agitate for the 9 hours system and promised money to them to assist in this effort.

It was with this backdrop that the Factory Acts and the Ten Hours Bill were eventually introduced, though in many cases employers simply ignored them. Exactly, how much of an improvement did these Acts offer the working class.

The Tory referred to earlier who wanted to force the workers to work longer by increasing the cost of their subsistence also had another solution. He proposed that those that become dependent on the public should be shut up in an “ideal workhouse”. This workhouse was to be a “House of Terror” where “the poor shall work 14 hours in a day, allowing proper time for meals, in such a manner that there shall remain 12 hours of neat labour.”

This was written in 1770, and yet, this “House of Terror”, reserved only for the poor who had become dependent, would just a few short years thereafter have seemed a paradise compared to the conditions of the ordinary factory worker, whose normal working day, even for children, was 18 hours, and where the capitalist regularly shortened the time allotted for meal breaks, insisted that workers ate while they worked at their machines, and demanded that workers set up the machines in their own time before the start of the work day, and cleaned them off after the end of the work day i.e. in what was supposed to be their own time. And read any of the Factory Inspectors or Health Commissioners Reports of the time, and you will see where children (who were employed as early as 7 years old) regularly worked in heavy industries like iron works for 30 hours in one go, with just a few hours rest before they began another “working day.”

But it was not just in England that this situation prevailed. Even as late as the middle of the 18th century the average working day for an average adult artisan such as a blacksmith was no more than 10 hours. Yet we see for children in the US legislation to limit their hours.

“No child under 12 years of age shall be employed in any manufacturing establishment more than 10 hours in one day.” General Statutes of Massachusetts, 63 ch 12. (The various statutes were passed between 1836 and 1858.)

A similar restriction to a 10 hour day 60 hour week for children under 10 was also introduced in New Jersey in 1851, and in Rhode Island children between 12 and 15 were restricted to an 11 hour day in 1857.

Not content with having stolen their land and means of production in order to turn them into workers forced to work in the most appalling conditions, the capitalists ensured that the law enabled them to squeeze the maximum out of the workers once they had been forced to sell their labour-power. Take, for example, the difference between the law on breach of contract in its application to employers and to employees. If an employer broke a contract of employment, it was a civil matter, and the worker had to sue the employer, which was hardly likely to happen given the cost. If, however, a worker broke the contract of employment it was a criminal matter and the worker was liable to imprisonment having been prosecuted by the state on the employer’s behalf. So, in 1866, a Sheffield worker was prosecuted in the High Court, in London, for breach of contract from his employment in a Sheffield steelworks. He was sentenced to 2 months in gaol. At the end of his sentence his former employer demanded he fulfil his contract. The worker rightly claimed he had served 2 months in gaol and had, therefore already been punished and had no further responsibility to the employer. He was hauled before the court again and sentenced to another gaol term.

The following is taken from the government Blue Books on the Mines, quoted by Marx in Capital. It is the “Report from the Select Committee on Mines, together with etc. Evidence, 23rd July 1866.”

To give an idea of the times the first part of the evidence concerned the employment of children in the mines. Despite some improvements due to the Factory Acts, still in 1866 children as young as 10 were employed in the mines for an average 14 to 15 hour day. However, the following testimony is interesting. Miners were paid fortnightly in arrears, and were paid by the cubic capacity of the tubs of coal mined. The employers always falsified the capacity of the tubs so that the miners were always robbed of their wages. Consequently, the miners were demanding weekly payment, and payment by weight rather than cubic capacity. This point being put by the Committee asked.

“If the tubs were fraudulently increased, a man could discontinue by giving 14 days notice?”

The witness replied.

But if he goes to another place, there is the same thing going on there.

The Committee asked

“But he can leave that place where the wrong has been committed?”

The witness replies again.

“It is general; wherever he goes, he has to submit to it.”

Having been thrown off their land, the peasants and their sons and grandsons were trapped, forced to work in order to live. But even when they tried to escape and find some way of returning to their former lives the capitalists used the power of their state to stop them. As a result of the repeated regular and serious crises of overproduction which capitalism, particularly in Britain as the most advanced capitalist country of the time faced during the 19th century, which were so bad that workers regularly starved to death, particularly in the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, workers began through their Trade Unions and other organisations to form Emigration Societies. Each worker would put in a small sum of money and periodically a draw would be held and the lucky few gained a passage to the US.

The following shows how free the exchange of labour for wages was in this situation at a time when Libertarian ideas ran free, a time much admired by Hayek and the other advocates of Libertarianism. Faced with the possibility that their labour supply was going to be reduced, the employers put forward Edmund Potter, former President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to advance their views.

Here they are,

“He (the man out of work) may be told the supply of cotton-workers is too large…. and …. must….in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps and then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds….Public opinion…urges emigration The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed…. Encourage or allow the working power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist? (What indeed AB)…Take away the cream of the workers and the fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not be subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior.”

Potter’s letter was referred to as the “Manifesto of the Manufacturers” in the House of Commons. Even the Times which had printed Potter’s letter on 24th March 1863 was prompted to respond.

Potter had called the workers “human machinery” and asked was it worth keeping up this human machinery i.e. should the unemployed workers be kept in some state of destitution by poor relief rather than allowed to emigrate in order that they would be available as a cheap reserve of labour-power when the employers required them again.

The Times responded rather out of character given its class allegiance,

“We must confess that we do not think it ‘worthwhile’, or even possible, to keep the human machinery in order – that is to shut it up and keep it oiled till it is wanted. Human machinery will rust under inaction, oil and rub at it as you may. Moreover, the human machinery will, as we have just seen, get the steam up of its own accord, and burst and run amok in our great towns…..He says that it is very natural the workers should want to emigrate; but he thinks that in spite of their desire, the nation ought to keep this half million of workers with their 700,000 dependents, shut up in the cotton districts; and as a necessary consequence, he must of course, think that the nation ought to keep down their discontent by force, and sustain them by alms – and upon the chance that the cotton masters may some day want them…The time is come when the great public opinion of these islands must operate to save this ‘working power’ from those who would deal with it as they would deal with iron, and coal, and cotton.”

The Times was referring to the fact that, faced with starvation and repeated mass unemployment, as capitalism went through its periodic cycles of overproduction, the workers had begun to fight back, marching in tens and hundreds of thousands on the great cities which for most of the period had to be put under military protection. But, the Times plea was in vain, at the time the only Public Opinion that mattered was that of the capitalists themselves, because it was only property owners that had the vote.

In his Channel 4 programme “The Empire Pays Back” , Robert Beckford assessed the compensation that would be owed to the descendants of the British slaves sent to the Caribbean. The figure came to around £7trillion. The robbery of the land and means of production of the peasantry, were it to be likewise compensated to British workers, as the descendants of those peasants would make this figure look insignificant.

We was robbed. We want it back.