Tuesday, 2 August 2022

The Generosity of the Working Classes

Whenever workers are accused of being greedy for wanting their wages to keep up with inflation – as RMT members, BT workers and train drivers are now, in common with workers generally in the late ’70s – it always puts me in mind of two Austrian economists.

One is the über free-marketeer, and also Margaret Thatcher’s favourite practitioner of the ‘dismal science’, Friedrich Hayek. He was adamant that society would benefit, and become immeasurably wealthier, if everyone was motivated solely by profit. “In fact, by pursuing profit we are as altruistic as we can possibly be,” he said, “because we extend our concern beyond to people beyond our range of personal conception.”

Another Austrian, Karl Polanyi (technically Hungarian but he was born in Vienna and lived there for many years), noted that this admonition to behave as selfishly as possible in economic matters pointedly didn’t apply to workers. In fact if wage earners didn’t act in precisely the opposite way – with admirable restraint and concern for the common good – the whole profit maximising system would rapidly fall apart.

If, Polanyi noted in his most famous book The Great Transformation, what workers are selling – their labour – is just the same as any other commodity produced for sale, like sugar or bottles of vodka, they should seek the highest possible price for it. If, that is, they are motivated solely by maximising profit, which Hayek and his predecessor Ludwig Von Mises thought everyone should be. Polanyi elaborated:

Consistently followed up, this means the chief obligation of labor is to be almost continually on strike … The source of the incongruity and practice is, of course, that labor is not really a commodity and that if labor was withheld in order to ascertain its exact price (just as an increase in supply of all other commodities in similar circumstances) society would very soon dissolve for lack of sustenance.

Naturally workers would not be allowed to continually renegotiate the sale of their labour in this manner. This is where the neoliberal solicitude for freedom crumples like leaves on a bonfire. Margaret Thatcher famously used the power of the state to destroy the influence of organised labour the moment it ceased to be a compliant partner of employers and tried to protect the living standards of its members. And in response to the actions of the RMT and others, Liz Truss, the favourite to be next British Prime Minister, wants a legal requirement to maintain “minimum service levels” even when public sector workers have balloted for a strike. If enacted Truss’s promise would return Britain to the salad days of the liberal utopia (coincidentally the original title of The Great Transformation) before disputes between employers and employees were made civil matters and when workers could be – and were – jailed for breaking their employment contract.

Liberal Fascism

And this, shall we say, fickle relationship with freedom is by no means a new impulse on the part of conservative-liberals. In the 1920s, one of the original economic liberals, Ludwig Von Mises, thought the merit of Italian Fascism would “live on eternally in history” for having “saved European civilisation” by smashing, quite literally, the workers’ movement in Italy.

It is illuminating that wage earners – flesh and blood people with bills to pay and other people to look after – are the only element of the economy expected to exercise restraint in economic matters out of concern for the common welfare. Nobody in power really thinks for one moment profit should not be maximised by corporations. And despite the propaganda that in these enlightened times, corporations ‘do well by doing good’, it certainly is being unashamedly maximised. Both Shell and Centrica (British Gas) recently posted record profits notwithstanding predictions that energy bills will soon triple. According to research by the union Unite, profit margins for the UK’s FTSE 350 companies (big business in other words) were 73% higher in 2021 than they were before the pandemic.  Despite Sir Keir Starmer telling us that “When business profits, we all do”, the bedtime story that high profits produce economic growth and rising wages like parched earth blossoms after a cloudburst just won’t wash anymore. Are we supposed to ignore the experience of last three decades?

Not selfish enough

The conclusion that economic selfishness is in fact a virtue when practised by those legal entities called corporations is defended despite the fact that excessive profits are a more likely inflationary culprit than high wages (which in fact have been stagnating or falling for years). In the words of the father of market economics, Adam Smith, “Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”

One could argue that workers in Britain and elsewhere – far from being too selfish, aren’t being selfish enough. The RMT is demanding a pay rise of 7% which when inflation is at 9.1% is obviously a real terms pay cut. And here lies the crucial difference between wage earners and other elements of the economy, or ‘factors’ in production. When employers seek sky high profits or when landlords raise the rent by way above the rate of inflation, they do so because they can and because the practice is socially validated. When workers submit to whatever wage they can negotiate (usually whatever they are offered, even to get a trade union recognised is an immense struggle) they do so because they have to. Because, lacking independent means, they have to procure the means to survive for themselves and their families.

Historically, this unequal ‘deal’ been accepted, partly out of brute power, and partly because it promised benefits – to consumers, to workers receiving rising wages – that seemed to accrue from submission to the demands of capital. But what if, as in happening now in the West, the bounty stops flowing. How long are we going to continue to oppress ourselves?













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