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Jack Weber

Bundles of Old Clothes for Britain

(June 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 24, 14 June 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The historic significance of the scene in the second-hand clothing district of London, when the English learned that clothing was to be rationed, probably escaped most people. It was the textile industry that started the British on the road to becoming the workshop of the world. The application of machinery to spinning and weaving enabled the English to drive the hundreds of millions of hand-workers of India and the East out of business.

And now the English cannot supply even their own needs, let alone the needs of the entire world. Even the last war did not see so profound an erosion of English economy and forces of production as to necessitate the cuts in consumption now demanded of the masses. The devastating economic effects of totalitarian war are, in a sense, summed up in the sudden boom in the second-hand clothing market of all the towns of England.

The undermining of the forces of production by modern war is accomplished not alone by the bombing of whole towns and the resulting destruction of machinery and factories. In addition there is literally destruction as a result of the demands on production made by the carrying on of war. The immense flow of materials and wealth into the war machine is possible only at the expense of everyday production, the production of consumers’ goods for civilian needs.

What A Long War Does

The boom in industry that occurs when war starts, the boom in American production that produced a shortage of certain types of labor and that sent several millions of the unemployed back into the factories, tends at first to mask the paradox of war economy, The greater the production for war use, the greater the destruction of the forces of production! That is particularly the case in a long war which this war threatens to become. First of all the government’s demands use up raw materials and decrease the amount of such materials available for ordinary production. Foods, clothing, furniture, paper, leather begin to get scarce. The country starts with great stocks of materials of all kinds. Gradually these stocks in households, in retail stores, in warehouses and in factories, are used up.

They are used up because the raw materials to reproduce them, as would be the case normally, cannot be provided to the factories. Also because production of consumers’ goods is curtailed in order to produce munitions and the sinews of war. The money used by the government to pay for all its needs comes from the savings and capital accumulation made annually by the entire population. Even this not enough, and the government has to eat into the capital structure itself. With the savings used up, there is no money for the normal replacement of the wear and tear of machinery, buildings, etc. Thus the longer a war lasts, the more the machinery of production runs down or erodes.

The English have just been forced to the slaughter of 300,000 cattle because of lack of fodder. Bombed homes cannot be replaced. Not only industrial plants, but the railways and all means of transportation deteriorate. All the capital and wealth previously accumulated in times of peace are devoured in the voracious hopper of war.

Inflation Is Part of The Process

The lack of sufficient consumers’ goods, when there is the purchasing power to buy such goods, tends to bring on inflation. In England the cost of living has gone up more than fifty per cent. In Germany too there has been a price inflation whose extent it is difficult to discover, since there are no reliable statistics since 1939. The partial control of prices, or rather the control of the rate of their rise, give some persons the idea that Hitler has managed to get around the laws of capitalist economy. They fail to realize that restriction of prices is not a cure for inflation, but merely lays over or postpones the problem.

What restriction of prices does, when there is a shortage of goods to go round, is to create a hidden form of inflation ready to break out violently at a turn in events, particularly at the end of the war when the government’s purchases stop and when the emergency nature of war economy ceases. Those people, who have purchasing power which they cannot use for the kind of goods they need (clothing, shoes, food) because there is not enough of such goods to go round, will sooner or later use this purchasing power for something else. The pressure of this unused purchasing power to raise prices, if not legally then illegally, becomes enormous. At the end of the emergency, when it can no longer be dammed up, it will be released in a flood. But it will be released, (Keynes or no Keynes) at a time when production has run down to its lowest point and when the least amount of consumers’ goods exist.

Thus behind the scene in the second-hand, clothing mart lurks the terrible menace of inflation. Those who think that the restrictions and controls of war-time can be extended after the war to “manage” inflation, forget one thing. The government can now intervene in many ways because it has mobilized enormous sums of money and with this purchasing power it can exert a considerable degree of control. But once this money is used up, once all the savings of people and the capital accummulations go up in smoke on the battlefield – where will the government turn for new sources of wealth? A bankrupt has little say and little control over the market! We repeat what we have said so many times: a profound economic crisis after the war (if not in the very course of the wr) is absolutely inevitable.

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