George Walford: What Are Wages?

Michael Frayn, who used to write a satirical column in the Guardian, reprinted in The Book of Fub (1961) a piece in which a public-relations consultant explains, on behalf of the responsible Ministry, why the various professions get paid at different rates. He starts with the principle that the more devotion a job requires the lower the wages of those doing it, nurses being the obvious example. But since it can hardly be denied that surgeons also display great devotion to their work yet are highly paid this has to be qualified. Bishops, schoolteachers, public-relations men and others make further qualifications necessary until eventually the principle, with all its qualifications added, takes up twelve pages. Since this is useless for any practical purpose it throws us back on saying that wages are what wages are.

Frayn need not have gone to the trouble of inventing his imaginary speaker since Marxism has been saying the same thing for generations. The working class, this theory holds, receives just enough to enable it to maintain and reproduce itself. This does not mean mere biological reproduction; if the workers in a technological society are to continue to perform their function they must be provided with much that is unnecessary for peasants, giving the formula that the working class receives enough to enable it to maintain and reproduce itself at the historically necessary standard.

How can it be known what is historically necessary? Only by observing what the workers in any society do in fact receive. Wages are what wages are.

Joan Campbell has recently published Joy in Work, German Work; The national debate, 1800-1945 (Princeton UP 1989). IC expects to have more to say about the book later; here just one point. Speaking of German attempts to dissolve the proletariat and reintegrate manual workers into the national community, Campbell notes the absence of consensus among “bourgeois” (her quotation marks) thinkers and adds a footnote:

By this I mean non-working-class, antisocialist thinkers who proudly proclaimed what they felt were middle-class values. I do not use ‘bourgeois’ to denote class status. It should be recalled that most socialist intellectuals, including Marx and Engels, were of middle-class origin.

It won’t be long now before the Marxist belief in the fundamental determination of political affiliation by class position will have been relegated to the dustbin of history along with silk knee-breeches, buggy-whips and the worship of Zeus.

The current series of names for the major ideologies runs from expedience to repudiation, but it includes no title for that finding expression through systematic ideology itself. Beyond Politics, for example, refers to this only in descriptive phrases, such as “the ideology underlying this book” (p. 138), and “the ideology which has for its particular function the study of ideology” (ibid). This was not a deliberate choice, it arose from failure to find a suitable name for this ideology, and Thelma J. Shin of the State University of Arizona, in commenting on Beyond Politics, has come up with what looks very much like the answer. Noting that this ideology serves the function of developing and disseminating understanding of ideology, she christens it the ideology of ideology.

Whether or not the struggle for existence takes place in the natural world it certainly operates in the realm of ideas; many an inspiration turns out to be nonviable and has to be abandoned. Perhaps that will happen with this one, but at present it seems unlikely. Incorporating the concept of the series turning back on itself at this point in its evolution, it has the ring of endurance.

Technology has advanced faster than expected, the atomic bomb, television and the moon landing all coming sooner than even most science-fiction writers had foreseen. Yet somehow the effects remain minor. To a very great extent the new methods get absorbed into the old ways of living and the new possibilities remain held down by the old limitations; Alexander’s troops in the African deserts suffered from heat and the all-pervading sand, so did Napoleon’s, so did Montgomery’s, and now American hi-tech is running into trouble. Pilots with the “Look of Death” – a computerised targeting system – built into their helmets are having it put out of action by the heat. Radio and sophisticated electronic devices are also affected, having to be covered, if you please, with wet blankets to keep them down to temperatures at which they can function, and even reliable old standbys like the M-16 rifle and the M-60 machine gun are getting jammed by the sand. (Sunday Times 9 Sept 90).

The outcome of any developmental system is not just its final term but the total system, and the upper, later, levels continue to be dependent on, and limited by, the lower and earlier. This applies not only in biological, ideological and social evolution but also in the development of raw matter into sophisticated weapons.

Some more support for the observation that in economic affairs liberals advocate stricter controls than the Tories:
1. Describing the government’s White Paper on the environment as a damp squib, long on rhetoric but short on action, Geoffrey Lean notes that the alternative proposals of the Liberal Democrats would impose much tougher measures, including a Pollution Added Tax, on any product or process which harmed the environment and an undertaking that within 50 years all Britain’s energy would come from renewable resources. (Observer 9 Sept 90)
2. “Under conservative administrations the emphasis is on removing constraints, alleviating tax burdens, encouraging private savings, and constraining public spending; liberals look more favourably on subsidizing and protecting the nation’s firms.” (Robert B. Reich in TLS 31 Aug).

from Ideological Commentary 48, November 1990.