ESSAY ONE: Page 2 of 9
At around 5 o’clock each morning, when the fruit bats cease their ringing, and all creatures that scuttle about in the night making a din, become quiet on this coastline, a new intensive *screeching starts. It cuts the dawn’s lull to shreds. It is the voice of the lourie, the Gwala-Gwala Bird. Its name, I am told, originates from these shrieks, of horror. From the Nkandla forests to Durban’s coastline, from Khosi Bay to Port Edward, the din starts.
THE TWO INVISIBLE HANDS
Capitalism, it is argued, operates on the principle of two ‘invisible hands’: the first, discovered by Adam Smith, governed the regulation and stability of only a seemingly anarchic system of individual interests. Under the mechanism of the free market, the pursuit of profit leads each participant to act to the material advantage of society as a whole, promoting “ … an end which was not part of his intention …”. (2) The other ‘hand’, discovered by his socialist opponents in working men’s pockets, unashamedly stealing, guarantees that however much wages seem to increase, the working class survives ‘hand to mouth’, barely on subsistence levels. This “hand’s” operations, called by Lasalle ‘the iron law of wages’, denoted a process whereby wages were kept down to the “minimum” required for the subsistence of the wage labourer.
Following this formulation, and criticizing Malthus and Ricardo, (3) Marx argued that this minimum subsistence wage was further guaranteed by a ‘reserve army of labour’, a pool of unemployed and semi-employed people who functioned as a lever and a condition for capital accumulation. (4) Capitalism, in short, created a necessary relative overpopulation which kept the wages of those in employment under strict discipline.
The ‘iron law of wages’, together with pressures of the ‘reserve army of labour’ defined much of the discourse of the classical socialist tradition and was enunciated by both leaders of the embryonic labour movement of the 19th century and intellectuals like Marx, Engels, Lasalle, Jones, etc. (5) They contributed much to the accepted imagery and meaning of wage labour: the worker’s life under capitalism was one of chronic poverty, succumbing to or resisting strong tendencies towards ‘immiseration’, ‘pauperisation’, ‘hardship’ and ‘thankless toil’.
The two ‘hands’ are seen to be dissociated though through the advent of the ‘welfare state’ and ‘mass consumption’ in the advanced capitalist formations. As capitalism ‘matured’ in the 20th century it was seen to achieve higher standards of living for all.
Increasing State intervention in the economy, the provision of welfare facilities, the rise of ‘monopoly capital’, the change in the mode of consumption of the working people through ‘Fordism’ and the five-dollar-day (6) generated arguments about the birth of the ‘affluent worker’ from the womb of advanced capitalist formations. (7) Workers were seen to be receiving a wage more than sufficient to meet their own (and their families’) needs and consequently more than that which was necessary for the reproduction of their labour power.
Furthermore, as their trade unions ‘matured’ through the institutionalisation of industrial conflict and productivity deals, (8) workers were seen to be partakers of the ever expanding slices of an ever-expanding cake. This has prompted even socialists like Jurgen Habermas to note that “in advanced capitalist countries the standard of living has … risen to such an extent … that the interest in the emancipation of society cannot be articulated in economic terms. ‘Alienation’ has been deprived of its palpable economic forms as misery …’. The “scurvy and rickets” lot of the 19th century worker is metaphorically preserved in the ‘satisfaction of superfluous needs … Under these conditions, the designated executor of a future socialist revolution, the proletariat as proletariat has been dissolved …”. (9) Over and above the assessment’s correctness, is the fact that there is an increasing tendency in much of the literature that deals with the rise in the standards of living of the population to view the alleviation of poverty as a natural outcome and a stage of development in the logic of capital accumulation. (10) This view extends from the modernization theory in sociology to ‘stages’ approaches in liberal and neo-Marxist economic literature. (11)
Such a mechanistic logic of capital accumulation is rejected in his essay: it is argued instead that high standards of living are also an outcome of initiatives from below, and derive also from the self-activity of working people. An overview of the advanced formations’ industrial history would show that ordinary people through their trade unions and other class organizations managed to protect their standards of living; that through political pressure, industrial militancy and collective bargaining they managed to preserve them and improve them. (12) The alleviation of poverty is not an outcome of a necessary stage in economic development, but the outcome of class conflict and its accommodation. Wage structures and living standards are always sustained by a fragile balance between social forces, reflecting political and social dimensions beyond strict calculation. Behind wage-rates looms the shadow of social power.
The advent of capitalism in South Africa did not rely on the operation of ‘invisible hands’. Rather, the State in its racially exclusive policies ranging from segregation to apartheid, facilitated the advent of capitalism through a system of migrancy, influx controls and an ‘interference’ in the labour market, in order to provide for a rightless and minimally paid black labour force. Attempts from ‘below’ were consistently repressed or disorganized. Furthermore, the State, from 1924 onwards, was to play a leading role in the actual industrialization of the country through the creation of gigantic public corporations for the processing and production of basic raw materials.
It furthermore stimulated much of the manufacturing activity in the Union and later the Republic of South Africa. Poverty and minimum subsistence incomes had not been dysfunctional to capital accumulation. (13) They became so only in the 1970s due to the changing structure of modern industry but also to political and social imperatives, and a new balance of power arising from pressures from ‘below’. The impact of trade unionism amongst black workers was one such pressure which we shall be exploring in this essay. It is imperative then to show how the regional dynamics of industrialization have created what sugar magnate *crisis. Saunders called a ‘bitter legacy of exploration’ amongst black workers in Natal.