Our contemporary, the Independent newspaper, has lately introduced to its printing department some new machinery, which, it has loudly informed the Irish public, is second to none in Ireland, perhaps in Europe. We do not wish, in the smallest degree, to disparage the enterprise or the management of the Independent, but we think it right at this moment to offer to its literary staff some free instruction in the elementary principles of capitalist development; which free instruction, when thoroughly assimilated, will, we think, somewhat cool their enthusiasm over this achievement.
No one denies the right of a capitalist to introduce in his business whatever new methods or new machinery may best servehis purposes in competition with his rivals. Indeed in the competitive field there is recognised no other law than the survival of the fittest; ethics or religion are at all times deliberately laid aside in the work-a-day world, and are only taken up when the stern business of profit-making is interrupted by the weekly Sunday holiday. Even then no preacher dare apply ethical considerations to economic questions; or treat of the former in any other fashion than as mere abstractions having little, if any, bearing upon the problems of civilization.
Socialists recognise these facts while denouncing them; our enemies deny the facts while shaping their lives in accordance therewith. This much being made clear to the reader it will at once be perceived that our criticism is not likely to take the form of merely railing against this new venture should it happen to displace labour; but will be directed towards another point a point probably even less understood than the one alluded to.
Whosoever embarks in the competitive world must keep pace with his rivals; should his industrial equipment fall beneath the standard of his competitors he will go down in the maelstrom of competition; his business will be drawn away from him by the rival who better succeeds in satisfying the public desires. If, therefore, one firm introduces into its business a machine capable of better work than its rivals, each of those rivals must also procure a similar machine or else see their business pass into the hands of their more enterprising competitor. They have absolutely no alternative. The public will go to the firm which suits them best and charges them least. Under pressure of this knowledge each firm so menaced hastens to procure machinery which will place it upon an equality with its rival; when this is accomplished and each firm stands similarly equipped and equal in productive capacity, they find that, as a result of all their anxiety and expenditure, they are exactly at the same point as they were before any such machinery was introduced. To use a homely simile: Competition is like a crowd of people in the street striving to see some spectacle. One man gets a stool, and, standing upon it, sees better than his fellows; but should all the rest get stools and stand upon them, they would be at the same position for sight-seeing as if they all stood upon the ground.
In time, however, some one of the business firms we have spoken of as typical of society in general or some new competitor in the business, introduces some new machinery even better than the last; and if he is a wealthy competitor, his new machine cancels the value of all the old ones, and reduces them to the position of mere lumber. If their owners would save themselves from ruin they must equip themselves with machinery as good as this new product of the inventoršs brain. Once again the weary circle must be retraced, until every firm is again equipped with the new invention, and, as a result, finds itself precisely at its starting point.
Each new machine invented renders nugatory the competitive value of all former machines; compels all the rivals of its owner to become owners of a like machine; and is generally in its turn replaced by an improvement making again a similar demand upon the owners of industry.
The Independent introduces, with a flourish of trumpets, an improved printing press. Shareholders smile in expectation of the long deferred dividend. But should it be found that this improvement accomplishes what it is intended to, viz, to draw advertisers away from the rivals of the Independent (the Freemanšs Journal or Irish Times), the managerial departments of these journals will hasten also to introduce a similar machine; and so after the expenditure of much cash and energy, the competing daily papers of Dublin will find themselves again on equal terms, and not a whit better off than if such machinery had never crossed the sea.
Thus is the iron law of capitalism exemplified. Onward, ever onward, we are hurried by the pressure of economic forces; the greed of the capitalist, the competition of the market, the revolt of humane souls aghast at the atrocities of civilization, all working together toward the one end; and even when apparently in the fiercest antagonism contributing equally to produce a hatred of present conditions and so pave the way for the Socialist Republic.
Republished in James Connolly: Lost Writings, (ed. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh), Pluto Press 1997.