A short article on the wages system and the life of factory workers in 1965 by Tom Brown of the Syndicalist Workers Federation.
"You were saying, sir", returned the Secretary, "that you considered the time had come for fixing my salary."
"Don't be above calling it wages, man", said Mr. Boffin testily, "What the deuce! I never talked of my salary when I was in service".
"My wages", said the Secretary.
- Our Mutual Friend, Dickens.
What, more than all else, distinguishes capitalism from previous social systems? Not just exploitation of labour or class society; feudalism and slave society had such characteristics. Production for sale, instead of production for use, as the primary intent applied to all goods and ser-vices, is the special trait of capitalism. Primitive society was entirely for direct use; in slave and feudal society most goods were produced for use, only the surplus being exchanged. In capitalist society all goods (with the exception of a few vegetables grown in back gardens, or model ships in bottles made in back kitchens) are made to sell.
I recall a boyhood experience. I was sitting in a work-men's cafe, when a man near me ordered a pot of tea and a meat pie. He accepted the tea, but looked doubtfully at the pie. "Do you make these pies to eat?" he asked the man behind the bar. "No", came the prompt reply. "We make them to sell. We don't care what you do with. it. You've paid".
This incident first set me thinking about the nature of the market society. Everyone is trying to sell something, selling to live. But while some have land, oil, shares or machines to sell in shopping streets or stock markets, millions, the great majority, are launched into life without patrimony. Without gold or land, what do they sell? They can sell only their power to labour, they can but look for a buyer of labour power and to him offer their commodity for sale at so much a piece or, more often, by the hour, day or week.
That time which they have sold belongs to another, part of their life has been exchanged for the means to live. The day's work done, life begins again. At the dinner table, in the pub, before the telly, in bed, the wage worker lives for a while his own life.
Of course, having sold his time along with his labour power, the worker will try by craftiness to pinch back a little of what he was forced to sell. So, any factory or office may shelter secret eaters, underground gamblers and disguised readers. What appears to be a hive of industry may be in a condition of being gnawed from within, as a log cabin is gnawed by termites. All sorts of pleasures, from crosswords to making love, are attempted.
In case anyone may think this sounds like the exploitation of capital by labour, I most quickly add that the underground have a very limited success, in some cases none at all. But when all else fails, men's thoughts tend to wander from their tasks to more personal interests. Some will think of holidays, some, like the exile, forever think of home, but one cannot tell what thoughts, sacred or profane, are passing behind the mask. I asked a Communist docker I worked beside what he thought of. “Leninism", he answered. That was all. A machinist said, "Women". "You always say that", remarked his mate, "Don't you think of anything else?" "Is there something else to think about?" replied the first man, relapsing into thought.
The social situation in which the worker sells his labour power has been named the Labour Market, I can recall even when the cobbled yards at shipyard and dock were called "The Market". In a market, what is the final deciding factor in determining the price of a commodity? Supply and de-mand, of course. Few goods, many buyers, up go prices. This social arrangement makes man kin, not to the angels, but to beer and books, caps and carrots, pots and pullovers.
Often sections of workers try to restrict new entries to their work, so that wages may be kept up. Artisans limit apprentices, dockers and market porters control new entries, journalists, doctors and lawyers do the same. Manufacturers practise "price maintenance". Whoever seeks to abolish "restrictive practices" under capitalism is going to be very busy.
From all this it follows that any social system which is not capitalist cannot have production for sale and a wages sys-tern as its major principles. What of Communism, what of Socialism? It is true that Russian economy is based on these same principles. Because of this and other capitalist attributes, we speak of the Bolshevik economy as being neither Communism nor Socialism. but State Capitalism. - As to the Labour Party and the varieties of Socialists and Communists who support it, far from abolishing capitalism and the wages system, they are pledged to support them, doing so with vague election promises of higher wages. Yet once what was called the "Movement", Socialist to Syndicalist, was against these things. Marx in his pamphlet Value, Price and Profit, said:
"Instead of the Conservative motto 'A fair day's pay for a fair day's work', the unions ought to inscribe upon their banners the revolutionary watch-word, 'Abolition of the Wages System'”
Now it seems the Syndicalists are alone and what the Marxists want is Marxism without Karl.