G. A. Cohen

Before I first went to university I had a belief, which I still have, and which is probably shared by the great majority of you. I mean the belief that the way to decide whether a given economic period is good or bad economically is by considering the welfare of people in general at the relevant time. If people are on the whole well off, then on the whole the times are good, and if they are not, then the times are bad. Because I had this belief before I got to university, I was surprised by something I heard in one of the first lectures I attended, which was given by the late Frank Cyril James, who, as it happens, obtained his Bachelor of Commerce degree here at the London School of Economics in 1923. When I heard him he was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, where, in addition to occupying the Principalship, he gave lectures every year on the economic history of the world, from its semiscrutable beginnings up to whatever year he was lecturing in. In my case the year was 1958, and in the lecture I want to tell you about James was describing a segment of modern history, some particular quarter-century or so: I am sorry to say I cannot remember which one. But I do remember something of what he said about it. ‘These’, he said, referring to the years in question, ‘were excellent times economically. Prices were high, wages were low . . .’ And he went on, but I did not hear the rest of his sentence.

I did not hear it because I was busy wondering whether he had meant what he said, or, perhaps, had put the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ in the wrong places. For though I had not studied economics, I was convinced that high prices and low wages made for hard times, not good ones. In due course I came to the conclusion that James was too careful to have transposed the two words. It followed that he meant what he said. And it also followed that what he meant when he said that times were good was that they were good for the employing classes, for the folk he was revealing himself to be a spokesman of, since when wages are low and prices are high you can make a lot of money out of wage workers. Such candour about the properly purely instrumental position of the mass of humankind was common in nineteenth century economic writing, and James was a throwback to, or a holdover from, that age. For reasons to be stated in a moment, frank discourse of the Cyril James sort is now pretty rare, at any rate in public. It is discourse which, rather shockingly, treats human labour the way the capitalist system treats it in reality: as a resource for the enhancement of the wealth and power of those who do not have to labour, because they have so much wealth and power.

G. A. Cohen, ‘Freedom, Justice and Capitalism’, New Left Review, no. 126 (March/April, 1981), pp. 3-4