Sunday, 26 October 2014

It's Labour Day …...

It's Labour Day and a large number of my fellow Kiwis see it as nothing more than an oddly named public holiday. Useful idiots declare that the battle between employer and employee is over, unions are obsolete and we should keep the public holiday but rename it.  Debtors' Day perhaps.

Clearly capitalism and its agents are not as convinced the battle is over hence the on-going demonisation of Trade Unions and the Left in general and the constant rewriting of history.  I was pleased to read Rodney Hide's piece of mean-spirited, ahistorical claptrap because I collect examples of right-wing dogma that confirm the theory that conservatives tend to be 'low effort' thinkers who, when they run out of facts and logical arguments, simply make stuff up. 

Hide is right in one respect - Parnell's historic victory was labour market forces at work.  There was a shortage of skilled labour in the colony and a lot of the possessors of that labour had voyaged to the ends of the earth to escape the grossly unbalanced and class-riven labour market in Britain.  Parnell and others like him had both the desire and the means to dictate how and when they would work.

And it was not just skilled labour that had an edge. The bleats of outrage from those whose privileged lives rested on the backs of agricultural and domestic labourers waft down through history. They convey outrage over the fact that the shortage of labourers, or their ability to acquire the means of their own means of subsistence, meant workers could demand higher wages and - horror of horrors - walk out on bad employers. 

Had there been a surfeit of carpenters in 1840, Parnell could never have set his own limits to his working day and it would never have become the custom and practice for the colony. Nor would that customary 8 hour day have passed into law if organised labour had not fought hard for it. 

There is NO example of capitalism proffering or even freely yielding progressive concessions to workers.  Concessions have always had to be wrested from its miserly grasp by organised labour and its allies. Any concessions that have been easily won have had some longer-term pragmatic or strategic advantage for the capitalist class.

Britain's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is a case in point. The abolition, which is often touted as one of the few 'perfectly virtuous acts in the history of nations', was actually more the result of technological advances and the loss of Britain's American colonies and the desire to deprive the Americans of a supply of new slaves.  

That was why Britain initially abolished only the slave trade and why it deployed the Atlantic Squadron to stop slave traders from other countries.  It's why many of the prominent British abolitionists were against the trade in African slaves but for the retention of the institution of slavery in the colonies.  It's why it took another 24 years for slavery in Britain's colonies to be abolished, and why 'freed' slaves had to work a further 4 years for nothing, and why slave owners were massively compensated by the State.   It's also why the British State was later happy to support and supply the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

The political and economic advantages of abolishing the slave trade coalesced with the fear of popular insurrection - both of slaves in the colonies and, importantly, of workers at home. There was a rising revulsion amongst the affluent and educated middle class against slavery, and working class people saw a parallel between slavery and the reality of their own oppressed lives.  When the anti-slavery movement began to coalesce with the emerging working class movement it became too great threat.  At the same time as he was opposing the slave trade, history's poster boy for abolition, William Wilberforce, actively supported legislation that outlawed radical and trade union organisations.

The simple fact is that, when and where it suits, capital will exploit whoever and whatever yields most profit - without compunction or thought of consequences. That is the business of business and it invariably results in various forms of counter pressure from those who are being exploited and those who want to protect the exploited.  

That struggle between capital and labour was and remains the primary market force. It changes its clothes, it relocates and remodels itself but strip it of its ideological accoutrements, and it's still there, essentially unaltered.

207 years after the trade in African slaves was abolished in Britain, slavery still exists in direct and indirect forms. We live in a world in which the obscenity of the trafficking of human beings, including tiny children, as slaves and sex objects, is facilitated by the same extraordinary technological advances that have enabled the resurgence of an utterly rapacious and aggressive corporate capitalism.

It is those same forces that are busy turning the social clock back in NZ.  Employers want and, courtesy of a compliant state, get maximum 'flexibility' of working hours to minimise 'down time' in production or provision of services,  and longer working days on basic pay rates to maximise the return on the 'investment' of employee related overheads and on-costs. 

The NZ state - acting as the obedient servant of corporate interests - sold off the telecommunications wing of the NZ Post Office for peanuts. Politicians and civil servants, aided by the media, sold that economic absurdity to the populace with the lie that it would yield better value for consumers and the wealth from the increased profits and dividends paid out to investors in a free market would 'trickle down' to the base.  

Thirty years later - we have seen that product of social capital divided further and new tranches of shareholders and technocrats seek to maximise profits by divesting themselves  of the costs of directly employed staff. They achieve this via the use of independent contractors based overseas in lower pay economies, and domestically via the creation of self-employed contractors who have to absorb their own employment costs.  The savings to the corporation are not passed on to the consumer in the form of reduced bills but continue to flow up to the already grossly overpaid technocrats and shareholders.  

Those domestic workers - once directly employed, unionised and on collective pay and conditions - are left isolated, responsible for their own insurance, health and safety, taxes etc. Nominally 'free' they are actually between an employment rock and a hard place - tied by a one-sided, individually negotiated contract to sell their labour to a single buyer. They have only the appearance of the economic freedom and self-mastery we all crave.  In essence they're little different from Welsh slate miners who leased a patch of a quarry and were paid piece rates by the quarry owner. 

The ideological icing on the corporate cake is the rebranding of these self-employed workers as part of a new affluent and aspirational 'middle NZ' to which both major political parties have to appeal.  We are told that this new middle New Zealand doesn't have the same concerns as the old working class. They actually do. They may not realise it but they will  when the pressure to extract profit drives their jobs offshore. 

What capital has done - stripped of all its ideological puffery - is turn the clock back to the time when industry could hyper-exploit by paying workers as little as possible, stretching the working day to as long as possible, ignoring or bypassing health and safety and environmental controls as much as possible, and make workers responsible for as much of the costs of their own employment as possible.

What is wanted from the major political parties is a seamless service to corporate capitalism.  The tribal colours and anthems of the parties may differ, indeed that's necessary to maintain the fiction of social democracy, but what matters is that business gets to do what it wants, maximise profits for the increasingly select few. 

Only a fool or a rightwing ideologue (synonymous in many instances)  can fail to understand why the first items on the monetarists' agenda in the 1980s were the undermining of organised labour and the freeing up of capital to shift it to places where profits could be maximised through lower pay and conditions etc.  Only a callous idiot denies the ugly reality that the extremes of capitalist exploitation - child labour, convict labour, indentured and even enslaved labour - still exist in the 21st century, just not here, yet. 

The first industrial workers in Britain were pauper women and children who worked extreme hours in extreme conditions mass producing cloth which, in comparison to the finely woven, delicate materials  used to produce the clothes and furnishings of the rich, was low quality. It was intended for the domestic masses and for export to the colonies.

Capital was happy to exploit small children and women in mines and mills until it was more expedient to employ the increasing numbers of men being 'liberated' from agricultural and small scale artisanal production.  Changes in agricultural and industrial production methods met a rising tide of middle class revulsion with the ugly realities of the hyper-exploitation of very young children, and the notions of human rights and civil liberties which made unemployed, disenfranchised men a potentially subversive force.

Some industrialists and especially the mine owners fought against the Factory and Mines Acts which restricted the age and hours of employment of children - and wailed about the threats to their profits - but the market forces of the time tilted in favour of large scale mass production employing skilled and semi-skilled men. The costs of the plant and the intensive use of labour were offset by economies of scale and continual suppression of pay and conditions. 

Large scale industrial production today is rare in the first world and where it exists it's increasingly mechanised and digitised, less and less reliant on direct labour. Mass produced commodities - consumed mostly by the masses - are made in a mix of large scale, highly mechanised factories and small scale, labour intensive factories.  Both, for the most part, are physically located where labour is cheapest  and health and safety and environmental controls are weakest.  (1)

Most of the commodities aimed at and consumed by the very rich are - as they have always been - produced by highly skilled artisans and technicians in relatively small scale production units. 

The fashion industry - the rag trade - is a classic example. Most of the clothes and accoutrements of the very rich are as they have always been, hand produced by highly skilled and well remunerated artisans and technicians using the finest of materials.  In contrast, the clothes of the masses are made from the cheapest of materials and mass-produced by semi or unskilled workers paid piece rates or barely subsistence wages in very poor working conditions. 

 The poor of the First World borrow money at usurious interest rates to purchase clothing produced by the even poorer workers of the Third World. The shoddiness and poor value of the product is masked by an obsolescence created by seasonal cycles in fashion that are actively promoted by popular media. It is a form of madness.

The breaking of the back of organised labour and the con of self-employment in the domestic market has facilitated the gradual break down of many of the wider social advances that had been won by organised labour and its allies.  The padding of the pay packets of the middle class, and the legitimation of living with perpetual debt has ensured increased consumption of commodities and services produced/provided by overseas based companies.  

The varying degrees of isolation in the working lives of many people is matched by the increasing isolation and alienation of their social lives.  Bill Gates' vision of nuclear families living increasingly individualised and separated existences inside their computerised domestic units is an asocial nightmare.  We are, above ALL ELSE, social animals - profoundly, inescapably social. Outside broad-based family structures and wider associations within viable communities we are weakened - often to the point of being rendered helpless. 

And all the while that industrial and finance capital was tightening its throttle hold on the neck of organised labour - it allowed certain domestic human rights and civil liberties. 

But more of that in a later post.

  1. Ever ready to grab new sources of profit, industry has linked up with the coercive wing of the state to utilise convict labour. At its most nakedly exploitative in the USA, the state funded prison provides the facilities for production as well as the labour which it sells to the company for less than the cost of its subsistence - which is covered by the state. The state enacts a variety of local and federal laws to imprison a tranche of abled bodied young men for whom  there are no jobs because the state has allowed capital to relocate offshore to maximise private profits; the state then hires out the publicly funded facilities  and convict labour at below subsistence which enables the corporation to extract even greater levels of profit. Voila!

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