Since the I.L.P. have adopted family allowances as one of the items in their programme of reforms, it would not be out of place to enquire into it and see whether this particular reform has any lasting benefits to confer upon the working class. Can the scheme be brought into being, and if so with what effects?
For those unacquainted with the scheme, I will state the broad outlines, and must refer them to Eleanor Rathbone's book, "The Disinherited Family," for fuller details.
The scheme was talked of before the War, but nothing definite came of it until the years 1916-18. A Committee then sat, including Mr. H. N. Brailsford, a prominent member of the I.L.P., and enquired into the cost and the method of application. They were inspired by the Government war-time separation allowance scheme, noting the good effects resulting from the working-class mother having a regular, if small, allowance paid to her at stated times.
The Committee still exists to propagate the idea, and the I.L.P. now stands pledged to support and make it law when they possess the power to do so.
The scheme has a "high moral tone." It aims at giving to every family even the lowest on the industrial ladder (just fancy, even the lowest) the material means for healthy living and of placing the service of motherhood in the position of honour and security which it merits. (Miss Rathbone's words in page 11 of the introduction to her book, "The Disinherited Family.")
The material means are to be financial assistance by means of allowances paid to the parent (preferably the mother) for every dependent child she has. This can be arranged in two ways. The Labour supporters prefer a State-controlled scheme; the money coming from taxation of the wealthy and paid through the Post Office. The more cautious supporters believe in a "horizontal distribution" among the wage-earners, the employers thus paying for the scheme.
Perhaps this term needs a little explanation. The idea is that the single worker shall receive wages based upon a mere subsistence level, the amount to be increased according to the measure of his responsibilities. Thus, the employer actually saves on his wages bill until his male workers marry and have children.
Although this would seem to cause the employer to favour the labour of single workers as against married, there are many clauses that could be introduced to remedy this fact. A law compelling employers to employ a certain percentage of married workers might be passed, but I must refer my readers to the previously mentioned book for details upon this item.
The scheme has been introduced in several ways in a few Continental countries, but so far there have been no startling reports of the increased wealth, happiness and contentment of the workers in those countries.
France introduced the scheme at a time when it was needed to offer every inducement to the workers to work harder and to re-populate the country owing to the ravages of the War. The workers were not in a position in which they could afford to disregard the masters' threat to stop their families' allowances if they went on strike. One firm's workers struck in sympathy with their fellows who were killed in an industrial dispute elsewhere. The result was that they lost their allowance for two months.
One seems to have lost touch with the high moral tone.
In Germany there was need for frantic production to pay the war debts. Again came the family allowance to light the way. It is a light that soon fades.
From Switzerland comes the report that the family allowances resulted in more production and less industrial unrest. What a wonderful weapon for the master it is. What a glorious recognition of parentage !
Let us now examine the scheme for its application to this country.
Miss Rathbone, in her book, says, when talking of the poverty and destitution in the coal-mining areas, that the discontent is not unjustified, even if the remedies asked for are. We are left to infer that the remedy advocated by her, i.e., Family Endowment, will satisfy the needs of these people and avert industrial disputes. Indeed, at a lecture to the Annual Conference of the Faculty of Insurance, April 2nd, 1927, reprinted in the "Insurance Magazine," July, 1927, she said quite definitely that the scheme would prove very anti-revolutionary and prevent Labour from dislocating industry. The methods call for discussion now, and the I.L.P.'s favourite method I will discuss first.
To levy taxes on incomes over a certain amount means hitting the Capitalists in their most vital spot, i.e., their pockets. Is it likely that they can be persuaded to consent to this taxation? Most certainly not. Then the only course left open is to enforce the taxes upon them. If the I.L.P. has a majority in the House and a Socialist backing outside, which alone will enable them to enforce their commands, there would be no need for the family allowance. Socialism would then be practicable and the reform useless.
The other, and most workable to the Capitalist eye, is the "horizontal distribution" stunt. No extra money is here needed. Wages will be graded. The single people will be paid on the basis of the cost of living of an unmarried person. Married men with no children will receive the amount necessary to keep a wife. The total wages bill of the Capitalist remains unchanged. As the children appear they will be allowed for and the money paid, not as wages but as a child's allowance to the selected parent.
Miss Rathbone justifies her scheme on the ground that the present method of providing for many non-existent children and leaving those already here unprovided, is unscientific, but if it is unscientific for a single worker to get as much as a married worker why is Miss Rathbone indifferent to the enormous wealth of nonworkers, i.e., the Capitalist class? If it is unfair that a single man should receive that amount which his married comrade with children gets, the remedy lies not in decreasing the single man's already insufficient share, but in organising society so that every person gets the wherewithal to live decently and with the greatest amount of comfort that the community can afford. Far from desiring this, Miss Rathbone opposes it. Her scheme is intended not for everyone, but only for the workers. Its object is to stave off Socialism.
For the advocates of family allowances the workers are so many cattle in a market, and their fodder is to be rationed according as they reproduce their kind or not.
It is to this kind of calculating hypocrisy that the I.L.P. lend their support.
To Miss Rathbone I would say that her time would have been better spent had she written two pages telling working women how to free themselves and their children from the economic slavery by which they are enthralled, instead of three or four hundred pages showing how to bring more working-class children into the world at less expense to the Capitalist class; but then of course, she would not receive the support of Capitalist Governments and the I.L.P. and Labour supporters.
May Otway, Socialist Standard February 1929
See also the 1943 pamphlet Family Allowances. A socialist analysis (.pdf)
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