Another defect from which our time suffers is lack of definition. Words are used in all manner of different senses, and to hardly any one of those senses is the exact meaning adapted. In such an atmosphere it is impossible to reason or to analyse without clearly defining the terms one is using.
Let me repeat therefore that definition without which all discussion is meaningless: “We mean by capitalism a system under which wealth is produced by a mass of citizens, politically free but dispossessed, and these working for the profit of a far smaller number of effective owners and controllers of the means of production.”
It is no objection to this definition that a great number of dispossessed who are occupied in the production of wealth own something; they nearly own the clothes they wear, and most of them own a few sticks of furniture. Great numbers own small units of capital, a few certificates, or a few shares, or a policy; but the governing condition of their lives is that they are working for the profit of other men and, further, or under the inhuman control of those other men.
Now, that word “inhuman” is of first importance. Human servile relations, domestic control, are tolerable things. Mere mechanical control exercised by anonymous wealth impersonally is not tolerable. It will kill itself and the society which it governs. Meanwhile it is an increasing plague.
The typical unit of production under modern capitalism is a factory or a transport system in which citizens of the disposed kind (commonly call proletariat) work at a wage, on the reception of which at comparatively small intervals depends their existence. This wage must be less than the total amount they produce by their labour; that is, there must be a margin of profit (normally) between the wage paid by the capitalist to the proletarian worker and the value of what the latter makes: for if there were no such profit, actual or prospective, there would be no reason for the capitalist to set the machinery of production in motion. For instance, if a capitalist body hires ten thousand men to dig out of the earth a million tons of coal in a given unit of time, the mine cannot be carried on unless the values received in that unit of time, as wages by the miners, is worth a good deal less than the million tons of coal which they have extracted by their labour from the earth.
Under these conditions of work undertaken for the advantage of another, it is necessary and self-evident that the less the wage of the worker the greater the profit to his employer. It is further necessary and self-evident, that the advantage of the worker is to do as little work as possible for as much money as possible, and the advantage of his capitalist master is to give the worker as little money as possible for the wage he receives. Whatever form the question takes, that is the truth which it expresses. The proletarian worker may be aiming at shorter hours or less pressure during those hours or for an equal number of hours at a larger wage, but it is all a form of producing as little as possible.
In whatever way you put it, it always comes out to the same thing. The man who is producing the wealth tends to produce as little wealth as possible per unit of time. It is of no advantage to him to produce as much as possible, it is of every advantage to him to produce as little as possible, short of losing the wage upon which he lives. The worker is necessarily out to kill profit, and yet is the motive whereby the whole system is kept going!
It is no answer to this clear truth to say that organization and scientific work and all the rest of it bear their part in production quite as much as manual labour or the tending of machines. Of course they do. But vastly the greater part of the organization and scientific work and the rest is done at a wage just as much as manual labour or the tending of machines is done at a wage. The man who looks after his own individual business in which he exploits a number of proletarians and successfully directs their labour himself is an exception to-day; and even he, as a rule, in proportion to his success, takes less and less direct action as his life proceeds. The mass of all work, intellectual as well as manual, even in a successful individual business, proletarian; in company business it is all proletarian.
The direct consequence of this paradoxical state of affairs, in which he who produces wealth is, by every economic motive, driven not to produce wealth, is the necessary breakdown of the whole system. There comes a point after which it cannot carry on, but must, in order that society shall survive, be transformed into one of the two alternative types, the one fully servile, the other based on property. Either the mass of the proletarian workers must be compelled to work by force for the profit of others and under the control of wills not their own, or the motive of property must be restored whereby the man who works can profit from his own labour.
The intermediate or preliminary stage which may be called “the formative period” of capitalism is a lure. Men who have lived under it, and especially those who have prospered under it were vaguely of a mood that it could last indefinitely. It could not so last, for plain arithmetic forbade its endurance. So long as there was an indefinite supply of unorganized proletarian labour or so long as the proletarian worker inherited the traditions of a better time when his ancestry were possessed of small property, capitalism could expand and flourish. But those conditions were of their nature ephemeral, and they are now passing away so rapidly that the effects of their departure are already threatening the whole body of our civilization.
Attempts to reconcile capitalism and contented industrial labour have in them self-contradiction. They are often called “palliatives,” but they are worse than that. They are the attempt, or the pretence, at reconciling contradictories.
We have a very fine example of such folly in the French “Social Laws” as they are called. The hours of labour are shortened by compulsion. The scale of wages is raised by compulsion. What follows? What obviously and necessarily follows under a capitalist system of production is an increase in the cost of production, and therefore in the price the worker himself has to pay for the things he consumes. Finding that the price of these things has risen the worker again organizes to demand a further rise of wages which, if, the profit is to be maintained, means a further cost added to the produce—and so on indefinitely.
It is a good thing that this particular “experiment” (as its author called it) has broken down so quickly and so thoroughly, for it has exposed the radical error which vitiates all such policies. You cannot be and not be at the same time. Not even the most muddle-headed fool, enamoured of what he calls “compromise” or “gradualness,” can be such an ass as to conceive that being and not being are simultaneously possible. Hard and strenuous work cannot be—cannot exist—at the same time as slack work and little of it. High production of wealth cannot be coincident with low production of wealth.
There are no issues from the situation (whether you call it a vicious cycle or a blind alley or whatever metaphor you choose) save servitude or the restoration of property. You may restore property collectively through the guild, the corporation, or individually or by families, where the method of production makes that possible. But if you don’t restore property, you restore slavery.
You may compel men to work, and the servile compulsion is of the same character and effect whether it is exercised by an individual, or the State itself; or you may leave a man free from such compulsion and give him citizenship. You cannot do both at the same time. The whole of our civilization has now to make up its mind, and that quickly, whether it will take the road to civic freedom or the road to servitude.
From One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays, chosen by Patrick Cahill. First published 1955.