The question of the price of foodstuffs, we are informed, was dealt with by the Council of the Charity Organisation Society in a discussion raised by the reading of a paper by the Rev. J. C. Pringle. It turned upon the effect on prices of a large supply of fish and the necessity of keeping prices up by destroying part of the catch.
When a Socialist agitator makes it a count in the indictment of capitalism that a portion of the wealth produced must be destroyed to keep up the price of what is left, he is accused of exaggeration—or worse. Yet the reverend gentleman takes the acceptance of his statement for granted.
“At present, part of any great catch was thrown into the sea to prevent a fall in prices. It was too great a risk to sell it as manure. Yet it was admitted that each fall in price brought out an army of customers, who could not, or would not, pay a high price. Social workers ought surely not to rest until they had satisfied themselves that everything had been tried which might obviate the necessity of throwing fine food into the sea within sight of hungry people.”
And there is no plainer or more direct condemnation of this ridiculous system called capitalism than this plain fact. Fish is most frequently the commodity dealt with in this way, but it is by no means the only one. Fruit and agricultural produce is similarly treated—fruit being allowed to drop and rot upon the ground when the market price is not high enough to pay for picking, packing, and marketing. And while the products of the land are so treated, we have alleged democratic agitations to get back to the land, and prominent statesmen drawing lurid word-pictures of the town-dwellers scrambling after smallholdings, and bits of dirt generally.
But while fruit is very nice in season, and dropped fruit may be tolerated sometimes, it cannot be accepted as a staple article of diet all the year round. The effect produced on the market by the multiplication of fruit growers, what time fruit won’t pay for marketing, may be imagined but cannot be described.
To return to our muttons—or our fish—the effect of this on the fish market would be similar.
“Applied science was coming to the aid of the fisheries, and some plaice recently transferred to the Dogger Bank multiplied several times as fast as they did in the place they came from. When it came to marketing it was difficult to believe that human ingenuity could not devise a means of giving the public the benefit of great catches without injury to the business people to whom the public owes it that it had fish at all.”
The difficulty is not that there is a shortage of fish, but that there is too much fish. Why, then, take the plaice from one place and place it in another place to make it grow quicker? It is only for manure or to be thrown into the sea at the finish. Human ingenuity within the limits of capitalism cannot devise a means of selling fish or anything else at a profit at a price that eliminates profit. And we are grateful to learn that it is to the business people we owe our supply of fish. The business people are, presumably, the manipulators of the market, the owners of the fleets, and the shopkeepers—the people who decide how much to market, how much to use for manure, and how much to put back in the sea. We should have thought in our simplicity, not belonging to the C.O.S., that we were indebted to the men who caught it—the men who, at great risk of life and limb, issue from every nook and cranny along the coast-line to catch fish—fish being a food, and men having been fishermen ever since they shed the simian tail and came down out of tree-tops.
The report of the discussion at the Council of the O.O.S. in the “Daily Telegraph” does not tell the conclusion that body came to on what it calls “a vexed question.” The disputants took two sides, one claiming that articles were sold cheaper to poor people, the other claiming that there was no selling at lower prices except to get rid of surplus stocks. It would seem in the face of it the latter must be more correct or there would be no necessity to destroy the surplus. There is no doubt plenty of demand—hungry stomach demand—for fish, fruit, and other foods ; but there is no “effective” demand—no £ s. d. demand beyond a certain limit. That limit is fixed by wages.
There is an argument that wages are rather to be measured by the use that is made of them than by their actual quantity. This argument reaches its zenith with the teetotaler who would say that if you spent nothing on beer you would be able to eat all the fish and none would have to be thrown away, Of course, that overlooks those who merely eat fish—well salted—as a necessary preparation for preventing any beer being thrown into the sea ! But the argument of the teetotaler shifts the question without solving it.
The argument has another phase, one shown during the discussion of the recent budget. The extract belongs to Mr. Masterman, presumably, but it has been cut out without the introduction being preserved. As it was received with great gusto and Ministerial cheers, it will not be repudiated :
“COMMUNITY’S EXTRAVAGANCE.” “He agreed that the evidence of the Budget provided facts for seriousness as well as satisfaction. There was evidence of amazing extravagance in all classes of the community. There was little evidence of laying up or even of anticipation of bad times that might succeed good times.”
All we can say about it is that, if the argument is taken too seriously, we shall have the C.O.S. discussing “vexed questions” affecting a great number of industries, and the working class will be in the position of the unfortunate donkey who, by a process of elimination, was to be reduced to one oat a day, and who, having been successfully got down within sight of the desired end, disappointed everyone concerned by inadvertently deceasing.
Obviously, when fish is produced for the feeding of the community, the contradiction of having hungry stomachs clamouring for food on the one side, and the business people to whom we are alleged to owe the fish we get throwing it away on the other, will be impossible. If production for a capitalist market necessitates such a state of affairs, so much the worse for capitalism. It is, perhaps, too much to expect the C.O.S. and its “social workers” to view “throwing fine food into the sea within sight of hungry people” as a necessary and inevitable result of capitalist production, to be remedied only by changing the entire method and producing fish—as everything else—for the enjoyment and the use of the community organised into the Cooperative Commonwealth.