Work, Europe and Utopia – part five by Henri Brugmans


5. Products and Methods of Production

A united Europe would be able to show the world that it was not compelled to choose between a bureaucratic and totalitarian system of State Socialism on the one hand, and a brutal liberalism on the other. But, of course, it would be necessary to show positive economic and social results. We must ask ourselves what this means and where in the historical process it places us.

The massive unemployment of the ’30s had at least one salutary effect: it gave rise to a greater social awareness of the problems. It gave birth to a new theme of economic activity: that of “full employment”. An accepted aim of policy became to give work to the greatest possible number of people. In the eyes of the public it was no longer enough that the owner alone made a profit. Henceforth the one objective to be achieved at any cost was to give work to everyone.
Today it is no longer so. Of course, full employment remains an essential objective, but the situation has been complicated by two recently discovered social problems.

The first we should point out is the hitherto (until now) unknown concern with ecology. I still remember clearly a campaign poster produced almost half a century ago, depicting factory chimneys belching out great clouds of black smoke: “This – thanks to us!”, declared the party, canvassing votes…. This would be unthinkable at the present time.

Secondly, during the ’30s, almost no one thought to ask what purpose industrial production served. It seemed enough that it provided work. Even today some trade unionists tend to get impatient with non-wage-related demands and shrug their shoulders when young people protest against the production of arms for Third World countries. “Intellectual scruples”, they grumble, “They don’t know what it’s like to work. The main thing is to fight unemployment. What does it matter what gets made, even if it does result in violence and death?” It is an attitude which one can fully understand, but it is shortsighted all the same. Moreover, an increasing number of trade unionists are no longer ignoring those whose concern extends beyond immediate interests.

Let us examine thee two aspects of work in more detail. To my knowledge, Balzac was the first author to describe an instance of seriouse industrial pollution in LA FEMME DE TRENTE ANS. But since then the evil has spread particularly alarmingly. Public opinion has good reason to be worried, torn between the alarming reports it receives on the one hand and the reassuring statistics that are given on the other. The prolonged economic crisis with which we are struggling – the French VIII Plan predicts that “the years to come will be worse than those that went before” – has not stifled the protests. We have been told in particular that the poisoning of water and air will pose more and more grave problems, not just for our well-being, but also for our very survival. Reputable scientists now arn against the danger of destroying the ozone layer of the atmosphere and of the climatic changes which could be catastrophic. In our present condition we do not know exactly where we are heading, but that, precisely, does nothing but increase people’s anxiety and feeling of insecurity.

However, these ecological problems can perfectly well be solved on a technological level. A radical pollution control might possibly work and after all, who can believe that a human race capable of landing on the moon is incapable of solving these particular problems? But (always the same problem…): the implementation of every solution costs money, increases the cost price of products and thus damages international competitiveness. There is a likelihood that, as a consequence, the nations and companies which are most conscious of their social role and most aware of the ecological dangers that threaten us, risk being crushed by competition from countries and firms who are less tkaen with rational progress, and let things slide. Generalising to an extreme degree, we can say that the South is, in this respect, more “liberal” and scrupulous than Northern Europe.
But the North cannot indefineitely, single-handedly, play a noble but over-costly role in this respect.
The only realistic solution, therefore, involves the introduction of a communal, transnational law, fixing limits beyond which carelessness cannot go, a law establishing minimum ecological standards. One of the chief tasks of the directly-elected European Parliament must be to set this procedure in motion. This is one of the concerns of the European Institute of Environment, set up in Bonn by the European Cultural Foundation.

The second question is what products to produce. There again independent research work ought to be carried out to distinguish priorities. But here, we come up against capitalism’s search for profit, on the one hand, and on the other, blind technological automatism. We shall explain.

Under the capitalist regime, whatever can be sold is useful by definition. Profitability is the norm. This is not bad, but insuffiecient. Of course, no one is arguing in favour of non-profitability; even countries with directed economies have been unable to avoid reintroducing the notion of profit as an economic indicator. however, the problem is to discover if it is always true that the products which sell best constitute for that reason the best form of human progress. Of course, the notion of “human progress” is obscure and requires clarification. It is none the less true that anyone looking at, for example, the list of commodities we export to the poor regions will be inclined to ask himslef whether they are the things these people really need most.

Nor is that all. Some large capitalist companies establish themselves in the Southern hemisphere, where they set up plantations producing for export, but doing this, often without their realising it – destroying the base of indigenous food production. Of course, this helps the trading balance of “developing” countries, but at what price? Once again, it is necessary to consider what our priorities in human terms are.

For a number of classical socialists the solution to such problems is still nationalisation. However, our postwar experience in particular has made us very much less confident that public authorities have, by definition, any greater concern for the welfare of the community than private capitalist. The disgraceful sale of arms to poor countries proceeds at just the same pace when the “blood money” goes to private enterprise as when it goes to national states. The latter make no exceptions to those they canvas as potential clients, this being done in the interest of full employment of course.

What about technological automatism? We are living at a time when it seems to be universally acknowledged that everything which can be produced ought to be produced. No one denies in this respect the splendid result achieved by the builders of the supersonic aeroplane “Concorde”. But more and more people question whether, at a time when tens of thousands of children die of starvation each day, it was entirely necessary to invest such vast sums of money in a project that allows a tiny minority of busy people to cross the Atlantic in just a few hours less.

The question of priorities keeps coming up, always raising the agonising (causing great physical or mental pain) problem of the purpose work should have in our century. It is certainly easy to laugh at “sentimentality” and the “moral guardians”, but is it wrong of the Churches and other cultural organisations to raise this problem and question the too readily accepted process of automatism?

One apparently more down-to-earth question remains. We have followed Marx in arguing that capitalism has been a source of economic and technological progress. Growth is its governing law. No one can deny this. But what will happen when one sees more clearly that expansion creates endemic unemployment in precisely those countries where capitalist development originated? Again, what if we were to find ourselves faced with the saturation of our markets?

Up until now, it was maintained that although all technological progress did create short-term unemployment, the machines which threw people out of work had themselves to be manufactured, thereby creating new jobs.

Hence, the critical attitude towards the English workers, “the Luddites“, who, at the beginning of the last century, “sabotaged” technological progress (from the French word “sabot” (a clog): literally, they threw their clogs into the machines). They were reactionary and were attacking the wrong problem. A contemporary authority such as Alfred Sauvy still argues this. He may be right. But what if the automatic compensationary mechanism did not function? We shall run into this problem later on; it needs to be discussed.

There remains to be discussed in this context the possible saturation of certain markets. Here, it is necessary to consider in partcular the car industry. First of all, doesn’t this lead to an irrational depletion (exhaustion) of our raw materials, which, as we have already seen, are not available in unlimited quantities? Furthermore, can one be certain of being able to sell them indefinitely? It is of course possible to compel the public to buy a second or a third car. But is this in the general interest, given the pollution thereby produced? And finally, even the most effective publicity campaigns reach saturation point. One can buy four cars if needed to be, but not ten…

In conclusion, a Centre which plans to study problems of work – evidently doing so in a comparative way – ought at least to consider the problems outlined here.

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