Union-Bashing Economics [1975]

This is a sort of do-it-yourself Fleet Street editorial: ‘The powerful unions must not be allowed to defy the Government … the issue is simply who is to govern, the unions or the elected representatives of the people in Parliament…’ Some such words are left unwritten by journalists when they walked out in defence of their pay claims; they resume when they come back, talking of ‘unreasonable blackmail, extortionate demands … inflation’. 

None of this is the language either of socialism or of capitalism. It has nothing to do with achieving socialist collectivisation in which unions must play an important part. It has even less to do with capitalist economics which depend upon the free market and in which the worker is entitled to sell or withdraw his labour, take it from or to the highest bidder, or combine to increase its value by competition. It is the language of a Statism which takes over from socialism and capitalism and combines the worst features of both. 

The State is seen as supreme: hence later in the saga will come the words ‘law and order’, ‘a stable society’ and other hints at the big stick of the State. Hints are given that this ‘industrial blackmail’ is designed to lead to State socialism but it is likely as not directed against State industries. The employer who talks in terms of free enterprise is oddly enough the first to denounce such free enterprise as a strike, and calls for the very State intervention that he spends his time deploring otherwise. He wants the State but only in its repressive role, against others. The saga that has grown up around State control in Britain and is the stuff of the politics of the media is a hybrid of languages of socialism and capitalism: it calls for equal sacrifices but recognises the essential point of capitalism that the main thing in life is individual achievement. The aim in life is money, but one should not pursue it! – It is a sort of ossification of the class structure. Those with money, should keep it; those without, should stay without, ‘until the crisis is over’. But the ‘crisis’ goes on year after year without abating and is no crisis but the norm. The occasional flight of fancy by journalists – ‘the party’s over’ … ‘the kissing has to stop’ … – obscures the fact that for one reason or another we have been told the crisis was on for nearly half a century … post-war depression, unemployment (as if it were a natural disaster like floods or pestilence), war preparations, war, post-war crisis and so on. What is behind the manufacture of the saga is a sort of ‘deep freeze capitalism’ in which all the competitiveness is to be taken out of the system, with those in staying in, except for bad luck, and no one else climbing on the wagon. It does not work, of course, but ‘freeze’ is the essential word in the saga. 

It is odd that even today people believe in the saga and not only seriously discuss ‘inflation’ as if it were something like a monsoon but equally worry about ‘deflation’ (journalists have even invented ‘reflation’!). It is the language of myth called in to justify power – an economic myth to replace the patriotic myth, but in this case using the same ‘national necessity’ ploy as in war. 

None of the economic ‘laws’ are natural. They are only observations of how people will behave when they have economic power. The persistently repeated story that if wages rise prices will rise is merely a method by which some people wish to alter the rules of ‘free competition’ once they find they aren’t winning. 

[Albert Meltzer]

From: Black Flag, v4, n3 (Aug. 1975).