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Back to Front - People are such a burden


OH DEAR! Disaster – or so the newspapers would have it. The reason: there are now more pensioners in Britain than under-16s, according to official figures (about which, as ever, there needs to be some caution).

What, though, is the problem? Surely it’s a good thing that adults are living longer, and not being wiped out by disease or war. It’s a tribute to the progress in medicine and healthcare that workers in Britain have made, despite governments.

Capitalists are appalled, seeing older people as a burden. (Except themselves, of course: life expectancy is 7 years longer for the rich than the poor. But then, capitalists have never seen themselves or their system as a burden.) The CBI promptly called for more people to work past the current retirement age of 60 for women and 65 for men.

The problem for capitalists is the prospect of shrinking numbers of the available army of the working class. Now, there is no shortage of workers in Britain, as confirmed by the rising numbers of those officially out of work, up to 1.67 million in July following the biggest monthly rise in 16 years. Millions more are of working age but not working. Capitalists, though, want something different: they need even more people actively seeking work, what Karl Marx 150 years ago called the “reserve army” of the working class – the unemployed and partially employed.

What Marx observed then can be seen now: increase the numbers seeking work, and you can lower the wages of those in work. And, as he also observed, not just lower the wages but get people working longer and longer hours.

That is precisely what has been happening in Britain since the attack on trade unions, initiated by Thatcher, continued by Labour and characterised by the most restrictive laws in industrialised nations. Come in early, work through your lunchtime, stay late, check your email at home. Go part time, but still put in a full week’s work.

For decades now, the birth rate in Britain has been below 2 children per woman – implying a declining population. It now stands at 1.91 per woman. Hence the wholesale importation of labour from Eastern Europe.

The crucial thing here is that there are plenty of British workers available for work – just not enough to create a large enough reserve army of unemployed and create the downward pressure on wages, and upward pressure on working time that makes capitalists even richer.

That’s the odd thing about a capitalist economy. It creates impoverishment for workers even as it creates piles of profit for the capitalists.

The figures on population released in August indicated that “the immigration tide was turning”, according to one pundit quoted in THE GUARDIAN, although the figures count only those from Eastern Europe actually registering for work in Britain and so miss thousands. For THE INDEPENDENT, in an editorial, the figures show us “why we should be sceptical about scare stories concerning migration trends. Economies tend to find their equilibrium unless interfered with by politicians.”

Equilibrium? For the employers, that equilibrium is achieved by having millions out of work so that those in work can be suitably exploited. And as workers in all sorts of industries have discovered over generations (though some seem to have forgotten the lesson), making profits for your employer does not make your wages automatically higher, nor does it make your job any safer.

The truth, as Marx pointed out, is that the only automatic consequence of making more profit for your employer is that it makes the employer more powerful.