The Tyranny of Shams/Chapter V
THE DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
In the last sentence of the last chapter I spoke of education, pacification, and industrial organisation as the three monumental tasks of a reformed political system. If the supreme object of a central administration—the sooner we cease to talk of “government” the better—is to make a people healthy, prosperous, and happy, these are surely the three reforms to which it will most resolutely apply itself. I have spoken of the very grave and pressing nature of one of these reforms: the need to abolish militarism and war. Later chapters will deal with education, in the very broad and rich meaning which I assign to the word. Here I would sketch the problem which seems to me to weigh heavily on us in connection with the distribution of wealth and the present disorganisation of industry.
It is useful sometimes to imagine ourselves in the year 3000 or so looking back with critical eye on the twentieth century. One pictures the future historian—some narrowly specialised expert on the social life of the second decade of the twentieth century—discoursing on us. A strange and interesting people, he will say. They boasted of their intelligence, and they really did display a creditable measure of intelligence in their research and their applied science. They regarded themselves as far superior in humane sentiment to the Middle Ages, to which they properly belong, and they put forward many excellent vague proposals of social improvement. Yet it is not easy to understand their slavery to ancient prejudices, sometimes of a quite barbaric character. A superficial observer would say that the contradiction was due to their unhappy practice of leaving the majority of the community at a low level of culture, so that the intelligent minority were checked by a slower-minded majority. But it is a singular fact that some of the most intelligent men among the minority, such as Mr. A. Balfour and Mr. F. E. Smith, held much the same views as the agricultural workers, and made a kind of religion, which they called Conservatism, of this obstinate retention of old traditions. They seem, with all their pride in their culture, to have mistaken their place in the evolution of the race. No people is entitled to be called civilised which complacently tolerates war, squalid and widespread poverty, dense areas of ignorance, political corruption, and the many other remnants of barbarism which they tolerated. The twentieth century was the last hour of barbarism, lit by a few rays of the civilisation which dawned in the twenty-first century.
If the infliction of pain and misery is, as I believe, the worst form of crime, this retention of war and poverty is the gravest of our social transgressions. But the guilt of our generation in regard to these two crimes is very unequal. The way to abolish war is clear, but the remedy of this other open sore of our social organism, a poverty which stunts and embitters the lives of millions in every large civilisation, is not at all clear. The plain man who, oppressed by the spectacle of this desolating, unchanging poverty, seeks a remedy in social literature, is at once beset by a dozen rival theorists. The Socialist, the Anarchist, the Eugenist, the Malthusian, the Single-Taxer, and other austere thinkers press on him their contradictory formulae and their mutual abuse; these in turn are assailed contemptuously by men who are not less acquainted with economic matters; and the older political parties observe, with a sigh, that poverty seems to be an inherent evil of every industrial order, and we can do no more than mitigate its hardships. To this last position the plain man usually comes.
Let us grant at once that the older political parties have done much toward the alleviation of poverty. No one who is acquainted with the condition of the workers a hundred years ago can hesitate to admit this. Impatience is too rare a virtue, it is true, but this does not dispense us from cultivating wisdom. A great deal has been won, and generally won by the middle class, for the oppressed workers. Between 1830 and 1880, at least, thousands of middle-class men were working in Europe for the advance and enlightenment of the workers. The old doctrine of laissez-faire has been forced to compromise with decency. We have entirely abolished the horrible exploitation of cheap child-labour which was common early in the nineteenth century. Our Francis Places and Robert Owens have won for the worker the right to form Trade Unions, and others the free education of his children. We no longer permit the employer to fix the conditions and hours of labour as he wills. The cotton-worker of Manchester, labouring twelve or fourteen hours a day, and living in a squalid cellar, one hundred years ago, would be amazed if he could visit the factories and homes and places of amusement of his grandchildren. Even the poorer workers are no longer left to God and the clergy; while the bulk of the workers have numbers of cheap luxuries which would have seemed an apocalyptic dream to the worker of Napoleon’s day.
But let us not imagine that we have got our axe into the roots of poverty and are in a fair way to abolish it. This is one of the most dangerous fallacies of our age; and against that comfortable assurance I, knowing well all that has been done, plead that not one of our reforms makes for the abolition or the material restriction of poverty. We pension the very aged worker and the still more aged widow: on the pauper scale. We build substantial, if rather cheerless, homes for the destitute, and we put warm, if ignominious, clothing on the back of the orphan. We appoint minimum wages, and permit maximum prices. We have labour bureaux, and district visitors, and a Salvation Army, and a Church Army. All of which means that we give a drink to the crucified; it might be well to study if we can cease to crucify.
The plain man or woman who earnestly wishes to help in the improvement of life will inquire first, and most resolutely, what the actual range and depth of poverty are; will study, secondly, how far our measures of reform afford us any hope of curtailing it; and will, in the third place, ask whether there is any other way of action which does offer some hope of restricting, if not removing, the evil.
In the mind of many people poverty means that somewhere in the darker depths of our cities, happily remote from the shopping centres, there are a number of people who, from lack of skill or excess of drink, cannot find regular employment, and must live. . . . One does not know exactly how they live, but certainly on unpleasantly short and dry rations. In earlier times one dropped a half-sovereign into the poor-box at church for these creatures, if they would come to church and learn resignation. Today one subscribes to the Charity Organisation Society or the Salvation Army, or joins one of the many enterprising associations which are going to make the poor richer without making the rich poorer. We have a social conscience. We believe in laissez-faire, but, being humane, we will not push it to extremes. At the same time, being sensible men, we are not going to push humanitarianism to extremes. The phrase-maker is the great benefactor.
For a first acquaintance with poverty I would recommend a man to spend a few hours, some Saturday evening, among those markets of the poor which still line many of our more dingy thoroughfares. As the night draws on, and the oil-lamps begin to flare and splutter over the stalls, the grim courts and narrow streets of the district discharge their grey streams of life upon the market. There is plenty of laughter, you observe; there are plenty of round-faced matrons, with clean, honest eyes and comfortable dress. “We ain’t got much money, but we do live,” I heard one of them remark, in an interval between bursts of raillery. The wives of regularly employed, and often not ill-paid, workers are there, as well as poorer folk. But study some of the quieter figures which move slowly among the throng or linger enviously before the cheap shops. Notice the puny, shrivelled infants, with quaint staring eyes, which, at the door of the public-house, lie lightly in the arms of women whose faces are bloated with drink and coarse food: the lean and ragged boys and girls, with hollow and prematurely sharpened eyes, who hang about the fruit-stalls, ready to dart upon the rotten castaways, or foster, in darker spots, the premature sex-development which will drain their scanty strength: the woman who, with drawn face, waits near the Red Lion to see how many shillings her sodden brute of a husband will at length hand her for a week’s shopping: the weary old couple who have seen better days, and now pass in silence through the babel of vulgarity: the haggard-faced widow in mouldy black who hides her paltry Sunday dinner in a worn bag: the eager eyes of the poorer hawkers, which light up pathetically when a penny comes their way: the men whose faces change at a drunken jibe into such faces as we have seen behind the bars of a cage in a zoological garden, and the crowd of men, women, and children rushing to enjoy the gratuitous spectacle of a fight: the cheap, middle-aged prostitute, whose features are a caricature of the features of woman.
You may see these things in all parts of London—north, south, east, and west—every Saturday evening, and many other evenings, all the year round. You may see them in all the other large towns and cities of Britain, and the cities of France and Germany and the United States and all other “great civilisations.” I have studied them on Saturday nights in half the cities of Britain: in Amsterdam and Brussels and Cologne, in Paris and Nice, in Venice and Rome and Naples, in New York and Chicago: and in the light of our historical research one sees their ancestors in all the great cities of all the great civilisations that ever were. As it was in the beginning . . . But that refers to the glory of God.
Follow to their homes these more pathetic figures of a London crowd. You need not do so literally, for more observant and sympathetic visitors have been there before you, and they told London long ago, as far as London was willing to hear, how the majority of its citizens live. Mr. Booth’s book, Life and Labour in London, had better be suppressed when its work is done, lest the men and women of a more humane age learn too much about us; also Mr. Rowntree’s book, which shows this same fetid poverty lying at the feet of a superb minster, the symbol of ages of ecclesiastical wealth and power; and many other books. Let me summarise the relevant record of the natural history of London.
We may begin with the lowest depth, with life as it is lived in some of the streets which still linger about Covent Garden, and in east and west and south. We are beginning to see the grim humour of tolerating the existence of these hotbeds of corruption under the very shadow of our marble palaces of justice and our marble hotels for millionaires, and we are destroying them; but the life remains still in sufficient quantity to fill a large town. In tenements of this order fifteen rooms out of twenty are indescribably filthy. Legions of bugs lurk by day behind the faded rags of ancient wallpaper or in the crevices of the unwashed floor, or even venture forth as securely as if they were conscious of free citizenship in these places. The “windows” are a rough mosaic of dirty glass and roughly plastered paper. The ceiling is pale black, the floor filthy. A table, one or two dilapidated chairs, a kind of bed—the “landlord” would, in most cases, not raise two shillings on the lot—and an entire family of ragged, vermin-eaten human beings fill this foul box, which is often only eight or ten feet square.
These people are thieves, cheap prostitutes, hawkers, porters, charwomen, flower-sellers, ragmen—the most pitiful of the irregulars which we suffer, age after age, to live and breed and die beyond the extreme fringe of our industrial army. Sometimes they have nearly as much food to eat as a workhouse-idler: generally not. Drink—the vile mixtures of the cheaper public-house—they have more constantly; and their children are not in their teens before they are familiar with all the vice and crime and brutality which seven out of ten of these rooms breed as naturally as they breed lice or bugs. In winter the doors and windows are sealed, and men, women, and children huddle together or, at times, crouch over a few lighted sticks. And year by year, century by century, babies are ushered into this underworld in edifying abundance, to live its ghastly life until the yellow frame and dull brain are worn out.
Shocking, you will say, but happily rare. Do you know that, according to the best authorities, 50,000 men, women, and children in London alone live in this atmosphere of squalor and brutality and chronic hunger?
Let us pass to the next higher circle of the modern Inferno—the category of casual or very badly paid labour and chronic poverty, the makers of your cheap furniture and clothes and brushes, your match-boxes and chocolate-boxes, the hawkers and costers and regular porters and dockers. Now there are generally two rooms to each family, but the vermin still thrive in more than half of them, and the rooms are filthy, and the children breathe an air that is foul with drink and cursing and the most open and gross sexuality: not now in fifteen cases out of twenty, it is true, but in ten cases out of twenty. Food is habitually insufficient, for labour is uncertain, and profit is infinitesimal; and, as a man must drink, there are constant disturbances to break the monotony and help one to forget the customary hunger. You may have at times noticed the dejected hawker returning, on a wet summer’s day, with his tomatoes unsold: or the children eager to collect fragments of the lids of orange-boxes in the winter. Countess Russell told me that she once visited, unexpectedly, a group of homes of this class, within a few minutes’ walk of Gordon Square, in the depth of winter. Hardly any had the material for a fire, and few had food in the house. So they live, year in, year out; and all that we propose to do is to give them five shillings a week each if they will sustain the burden honestly for six decades, or house and feed them in jail if they do not succeed in curbing their criminal impulses.
Once, in the Westminster Court, I saw a young and humane judge hand certain tickets to the jury, when they had established the guilt of two petty criminals of this class. “These, gentlemen,” he said, “are permits to inspect the jail; go some day and see the place to which you send criminals.” A very wise and benevolent innovation, but we still await the judge who will send the jury to inspect the homes in which these men conceive crime.
About 400,000 citizens of the greatest city in the world belong to this class. If 400,000 do not constitute a sufficiently important problem, let us see the homes of the next category. These are the irregularly employed and badly paid, though not the worst paid, workers: costers, labourers, dockers, etc. There are about a million of them in London alone. They know quite well what hunger is: for weeks together, sometimes, the wage does not suffice to buy that minimum quantity of nitrogen and carbon which men of science have declared to be necessary, and the money is ill expended. They know what cold is, for many a hard spell of winter finds them in want. They have two or three rooms to each family, but, as a rule, not much of that “Christian reticence” on which our clergy congratulate us.
To the great majority of these million and a half of London’s poor, sexual pleasure is the one cheap luxury; and we encourage them to breed industriously. My wife, with other ladies and gentlemen, addresses them on the subject from the tail of a cart in South London, and teaches the heavy-burdened mothers how to avoid having so many children; and the leader of this little group was sourly and menacingly (and quite falsely) told by a distinguished Churchman, sitting in a Royal Commission, that they were breaking the law of the land. A friend of mine has been hounded out of the United States by the police for attempting to give similar information to the poorer mothers of New York.
Even in this third and very large category of London homes there is much filth; and the windows, across which is drawn an odd cloth or a ragged and dirty curtain, abound in broken panes. They have periods of comparative plenty, when the children get boots and socks, and their elders soak in beer and may even venture to a cinematograph show, if the crude pictures on its garish façade promise a sufficiently silly or sufficiently bloody programme. All that the police and the clergy care about is that not more than an inch or two of underclothing are exhibited in these places. They have also periods of want, when the clothes go to the pawnshop, and life runs on the exasperating, brutalising lines of the lower class. The daily round of life is itself stupefying. At five or six they are dragged out of an insufficient sleep, and they dully take their tea (of a kind) and bread and margarine on a dirty table. After ten or twelve hours of anxious quest of minute profits they return home for a slightly better meal—a kipper, perhaps, or a few bits of cheap meat—too tired in mind and body to do more than smoke and drink. They have plenty of fun, of a sort, and take their tragedies lightly; but the angels, if there are any, must fold their wings over their faces at the aspect of these fellow-immortals. Even a politician might be expected to blush for this self-governing democracy. It is a squalid, degrading, stupefying life, below the level of civilisation.
Nearly one-third of the citizens of London do not rise above this level. The three classes that I have described, or the mass of people who spread continuously over these classes, were found by Mr. Booth to number 1,300,000 of the four and a half million inhabitants of the city. The figure for the Greater London of to-day is, of course, immensely higher. “The submerged tenth” is a most unfortunate phrase. It leads many, who know little of these matters, to suppose that only a tenth of the inhabitants of London are very poor. The truth is that a tenth live in a condition of misery, filth, and degradation of which the ordinary decent citizen can form no conception. They are the shirkers, the abnormal, and the worst casual workers. But the life of this further million—or nearly one-fourth of the total inhabitants of the Metropolis—the irregular or badly-paid workers, is a grave and accusing problem to every man of decent sentiment. Their condition is not consistent with civilisation. Certainly large numbers of them live clean and cheerful lives, but even in these cases it is scandalous that sober and willing toil should receive wage enough only to secure cleanliness and the necessaries of life; while a far larger number sink under the burden, and are dirty, intemperate, gross, and improvident.
Conceive the extension of this class all over Britain: the further vast contingents of this army of poverty in the slums of Glasgow and Liverpool and Manchester, in all our great manufacturing and shipping towns, even in the heart of pretty rural England, where the wretched wage and low standard and large family stunt and degrade our agricultural worker. It is a very serious error to imagine that this is merely an unhappy issue of the crowding in our great cities. In picturesque and highly respectable York Mr. Rowntree found that thirty per cent, of the citizens lived in very real poverty: that ten per cent, did not earn money enough to buy a normal and sufficient quantity of plain food, to say nothing of luxuries.
This is the problem of poverty. If you want it in figures, a fourth of the inhabitants of London, where rents are appalling, live on from eighteen to twenty-one shillings weekly per family, and some hundreds of thousands live on less than this. One might with some profit and pertinence go on to inquire into the life of the half of the population of London who are described as “comfortable workers.” Whether the little luxuries they have are a fit reward for the hard work they usually do, whether there can be any development of distinctively human powers among them, whether we may cherish a feeling of entire security in basing our political system on that foundation, are questions worth putting; and some day they will put them to us. But it is better for the moment to confine ourselves to that pitiful fourth of the community which lives in degrading poverty because it has only irregular or wretchedly paid employment. Is it an exaggeration to suspect that this vast acreage of poverty will make the future historian hesitate to class us as civilised?
Our social structure is of the nature of a pyramid. At its apex, glittering in the sun, calling forth our pride and praise, are culture and wealth and power, and all the fine things they bring into existence. At its base are the supporting stones, crushed into the soil by the towering mass: the millions of stunted or brutalised lives. I know both extremes of this social order, and I have felt, hundreds of times, that if it is permanently to retain this pyramidal form, the refined lives and great achievements of the few resting on this broad base of squalid and undeveloped lives, civilisation is an impossible dream. I have felt that, if men and women realised the full meaning and range of poverty, they would suspend the progress of art and science, of commerce and industry, for a hundred years, if need were, in order to concentrate the best intelligence of the race upon the search for the remedy of this vast disorder. And, if it be true, as I think, that these people, once dead, are dead for ever, and that the tradition of a hundredfold reward in heaven for their privations on earth is an illusion with which pastors and masters have reconciled them to their burdens, I would, if I could, send that assurance like a trumpet-blast through the slums of the world and make this vast army of the stricken summon us, the intelligent minority, to a tardy judgment.
I do not, as will appear later, advocate the equal distribution of wealth. I do assuredly not plead that one who has wealth should give it to the poor: to see it gather again, perhaps, in less worthy hands. I add the contrast of wealth at this point only in order to make quite sensible the darkness of the life of millions. One’s first task is to establish, with what faint power the pen has, the appalling magnitude of the evil. If any very large number of us did really grasp the human significance of these facts and figures, the industrial problem would not long be resigned, as it is, to bloodless economists and obscure propagandist bodies.
And the second aim of those who would see the world bettered is, as I said, to inquire into the effect of the remedies we actually trust and apply. Here we enter the mistier region of controversy, and I can but set out the grounds of my sincere convictions.
Of labour bureaux, in the first place, it will not be doubted that they are an advantage to employed and employers. They are an advance toward organisation. They bring the worker more promptly to the work that awaits him. But they, obviously, do not add one iota to the insufficient work, for which myriads are struggling: they do not add one penny to the wage that is earned: and they are of little or no service to the poorest workers, who chiefly concern us.
Old age pensions and insurance and free education are, similarly, great advantages to the workers, in which we may justly take some pride, but they do not promise to abolish or greatly diminish poverty. The pension, or the insurance benefit, is necessarily granted on the poverty scale, and is in some sense a recognition of it as one of the permanent institutions of life; and the elementary instruction which we give has raised the qualifications for work, as well as the equipment, so that the proportion of unemployed, or ill-employed, is little changed. Nor would it be entirely wrong to say that, in relieving the poor man of the direct charge of education and insurance, we have put the difference on his rent.
Of our poor-law system, that lamentable compromise with a stupid old tradition, it is difficult to speak with patience. The able-bodied idlers of our workhouses and our countryside are a mockery of the workers. The tramp, the professional idler in search of idleness, maintained in his repulsive ways by an undiscriminating system of poor-housing and by a large body of “charitable” women, is one of the quaintest survivals of an older order. His father idled through life before him, and he in turn drags along the road a mate and children who will sustain the ignoble tradition. He ought to be washed, clothed, and put on an industrial estate; and, if his disease prove incurable, he ought to be anaesthetised out of existence, or at least prevented from reproducing his like.
Then there are the emigration societies. One fears that in large part they transport to the colonies either the men whom the colonies do not want, the men who will enlarge the slum-area of colonial cities, or the men whom we ought not to spare. At the best, emigration is a means of leaving the problem of poverty to our grandchildren, who will find no more open spaces for the dumping of our human surplus. In point of fact, however, apart from the dispatch of a small proportion of specially prepared boys, emigration is not affecting our problem of poverty. The half-million very poor of London, with the corresponding hundreds of thousands in our other cities, do not make emigrants at all; and very few of the next and far larger class are, or could be, fit for agricultural deportation.
Lastly of these devices which the less thoughtful are apt to regard as relieving poverty, we have the Salvation Army, which is quite the most preposterous social sham of our age. But its religious-social burlesque, its pretentious concealment of bad results and loud proclamation of good results, its refusal to print a plain balance-sheet from which a social student can measure the definite good done and the cost of it, its undercutting of existing work, and so on, have been sufficiently exposed to excuse us from dwelling on it. It contains some earnest men and women, and has had undoubted successes, but the system is too nebulous, garrulous, and wasteful to merit serious attention.
Let us turn to graver matters. The mass of the workers, apart from the more advanced bodies of Socialists and Syndicalists, believe that the solution of the problem of poverty will be found in the development of Trade Unions and of the political power of Labour. By political power, with the aid of sympathetic members of the middle-class, they have won the right of combination and a whole code of labour-laws; by an increased political power, ultimately a political all-power, they will secure all the legislation they deem expedient.
In spite of the distraction of many of the workers by Anarchists and Syndicalists, who despise political action, and in spite of the restrictions of the franchise which are maintained by the older political parties, it seems plain that at some not very remote date the workers will control the world. Ever since the door of the political world was opened to Demos, eighty years ago, he was certain eventually to reach the throne, no matter how long he might be seduced to tarry by the way. Those who think otherwise must put their trust in the permanent unintelligence of the workers. The interests of the mass of workers are so far identical that they must finally combine to promote them. We are plainly moving, all over the world, in this direction. In Australasia, where the virgin soil permitted an exceptionally rapid growth, we see the farthest point yet reached, and within a decade or so Labour will have unshakable power all over Australia, at least. “Conservatism” has already disappeared, or changed its name to “Liberalism.” In Germany and France and Belgium we see the same disposition of the rival parties to unite in face of advancing Demos. In England there are signs that we shall at no distant date see a similar redistribution of political forces, and it is anticipated in the United States. In all countries the political energies are slowly gathering about two poles: Liberal (including the old Conservatives) and Labour. Even in such countries as Spain, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and China the initial stages of the development may be detected. When the workers at last unite and secure an absolute majority-power, they will legislate on familiar lines. Wages will rise, hours of labour will be shortened, and place will be found for larger numbers of workers.
It is little use moralising on this change. It is coming on like the tide. There will, no doubt, be temporary abuses of power, as there have always been, but the workers will learn the vital needs of an industrial order, and they will not starve the roots of their new prosperity. Let us assume that a state of equilibrium has been reached: that the workers have paramount political power, and wages are considerably increased. Does this promise a solution of the problem of poverty?
I am purposely leaving out of account the contemporary growth of rings and trusts. Paradoxical as it may seem to say so, they are not an essential element of the problem. The employers will (as is happening) form unions in face of the men’s unions, and the strain laid on individual employers and small companies will favour the growth of trusts. In so far as these make for economy, they are clearly useful; but no doubt they will be tempted to use their monopoly to dictate arbitrary prices. When, however, the workers have a majority-power, they can either slay the trusts or draw their teeth. On the other hand, a beneficent or labour-saving trust will not afford any advantage to the less skilful workers, who make up the great army of the poor, and it will reduce prices only by an unimportant fraction. The chief significance of trusts is that they tend to annihilate the individualist employer, who was once considered an indispensable institution, and they may thus dispose obstinate admirers of the older industrial order to welcome a radical change. They are more deadly to the middle-class than to the working-class.
The really vital question is whether the raising of wages and reduction of hours, accompanied by a large amount of secondary legislation to the advantage of the worker, will solve the social problem: which is not the problem of the existence of a few thousand prostitutes, but the problem of the existence of, in every country, several million people who live in privation and squalor, and cannot develop human personalities. On this I offer two or three observations.
Does the price of commodities rise in proportion to the rise of wages? If it does, the securing of a nominally higher wage is clearly a delusion. This seems, however, to be our experience. In England, during sixty or seventy years of trade-combination, wages have risen, and hours and conditions of labour have been improved, to a remarkable extent, in spite of open competition in an overcrowded market. But prices and rents also have risen, and it is not clear that there has been a net advantage to the worker. It is very difficult to answer the question precisely, because other factors (such as the application of science) have increased the productiveness of labour and have cheapened certain commodities (books, clothes, pictures, tea, etc.). The workers have shared these advantages, and are in a position of far greater comfort than they were formerly. But in seriously testing the claim and promise of the Trade Unionist and the Labour politician we have to endeavour to subtract the improvement in the workers’ condition which is due to the application of science, and of better methods, to production and distribution. When we make allowance for this, it is certainly not clear that the rise of wages shows a margin over the increased price of commodities: that, in other words, the higher wage is a real advantage.
It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. When wages are raised, who pays the increment in the cost of production? The employer or the consumer? It is a familiar experience, and an inherent necessity of our industrial order, that the consumer does; and the consumer is the worker—the middle-class or wealthy consumer generally gets the difference in other ways. It would be bold to say that our employers have paid even a fraction of the increased wage out of their own pockets. More usually they put a fifth of a penny on commodities when the worker has secured a sixth. Competition alone restrains them, and this is largely superseded by agreements. We have had innumerable instances of this during the war. Class after class of workers claimed a higher wage, and prices rose higher and higher “on account of the increased cost of production.” If a Labour Government were to prevent employers from increasing the cost of commodities and raising rents in exact proportion to the demand for higher wages—were, in other words, to direct the employers to pay the increase of wage out of their own profits—we should soon see the end of this industrial order. The State would be compelled to become the employer.
This seems to be true of practically all the legislation which a political power of Labour could secure. Compensation, pensions, and insurance are typical instances. The new demand on the employer’s profits is met in one of two ways: he withdraws voluntary contributions to these or similar purposes, or he raises the price of his goods. The larger consumer meets the burden by raising his rents or fees. The unreflecting worker imagines that “the country” pays for these things; he forms, in this respect, a larger proportion of the country than he thinks.
The second and more important consideration is that this power to dictate wages and pass measures in favour of the workers does not hold out a prospect of absorbing that surplusage of labour which is our real problem. I am assuming that even the poorer and unskilled workers will have their unions and their share of the political power. Their wage will rise, and the price of their food and clothing and rooms will rise; but it is of greater consequence to reflect that the less competent workers on the fringe of the industrial army will receive little advantage. Some benefit they will certainly have, since the curtailment of hours and the slowing of the pace of production will make room for more workers in each industry; though we must remember that the pay of these new workers will either be taken from the older workers, whose hours are shortened, or—which comes to the same thing—will be put on the commodities. The total production will not be increased, and the employer will not relinquish his profit. In any case, even this method of finding room for more workers will affect relatively few.
Again I may quote the experience of Australia, where the workers have very great power. In Melbourne, alone, in 1913, I found 30,000 men unemployed; and there and in other cities the tainted area of poverty and distress was increasing. All the elaborate organisation and political power of the workers could not add to the sum of available work and thus absorb the surplus of labour. I am contending that until we do this we do not solve the poverty-problem. The chief cause of this appalling social disease is the inequality of natural endowment—either of muscle or nerve—in face of an unorganised system of production. There is not work, with regular and decent wage, for all. The weaker, the lazier, the more drunken, and the slower of intellect, are crowded out of the ranks and driven to casual employment. This is the tap-root of poverty, and the benefits secured for those who are in regular employment will not affect it.
Thirdly, this labour-legislation will not touch the second chief root of poverty, the extreme inequality of the distribution of wealth. Since wealth is, in this regard, a fixed quantity,—we are not concerned here with the effect of fresh applications of science to production,—an accumulation of commodities at one point leads to thinness at another. I am not pleading for equality of income. Many workers have an exaggerated idea of the gain they might have by an equal distribution of wealth. The total annual income of the population of the United Kingdom is now believed to be about £2,400,000,000. If this were distributed equally amongst the heads of our ten million families and our large army of unmarried workers, the result would be barely £200 a year; and the equalisation of taxation, the granting of substantial pensions, etc., would further reduce it. There is, however, no serious need to discuss this idea. I see no moral principle which forbids that we should reward a man according to his productiveness or inventiveness or other value to the community, although his fellows are not responsible for their lesser capacity; and it is idle to speculate on some imaginary phase of human development in which the more gifted and more useful will refuse to be more richly rewarded than the less useful.
But it does not follow that the community has no right to control the distribution of wealth. At one time such a proposal would have been branded “robbery.” To-day even Conservatives do not threaten to remove the death-duties and graduated income-tax by which we confiscate some of the wealth of the more fortunate. The only question is, to what extent we may or ought to prevent the excessive accumulation of wealth, or to disperse it after accumulation.
There occur at once two methods of enrichment which invite careful attention. One is the power to transmit wealth to one’s descendants in perpetuity, or until they choose to dissipate it. Most of us will admit that in a social order at all resembling our own—and I do not care to speculate about Utopian or imaginable orders—the power to win advantages for one’s children as well as for oneself is a sound incentive to work. But the wish to relieve one’s descendants of the need to work, to make them for ever a burden on the community, is a perverse ideal. It is one of those unsound primitive traditions which we detect in the actual stream of our ideas and sentiments, and instances are not unknown in our time of such holders of hereditary wealth revolting against the tradition. When we realise that this inherited wealth means, in plain terms, the right to have a hundred or a thousand fellow-men working for us or our descendants in perpetuity, for no merit or service on our part, and when we consider the folly and waste which so commonly follow large inherited fortunes, we must regard this tradition as evil and indefensible. One wonders how long the working community is going to sustain this burden, and how long refined men and women will imagine that they have a right to live like Oriental potentates because they had a shrewd or a gifted ancestor.
It is sometimes said in their favour that they employ labour with their wealth. I have heard bishops give them this foolish consolation. As if the wealth would cease to exist, and to employ labour, if it were in the pockets of a thousand men, instead of the pockets of one Duke of Norfolk or Duke of Westminster! The only difference would be that this wealth, instead of paying a thousand servants and trades-people to work for the comfort of one family, would pay a thousand men, who would lose nothing by the change of employment, to produce comfort for a thousand families. Meantime, the Duke is embarrassed by his wealth, or spends it on superfluous things, and the thousand families live in vicious misery. Their babies die for lack of good milk in the hot summer, and the rich youth or maiden—I have known this done—carelessly takes a bath of milk. Let us understand clearly this economic truth: great wealth is the accumulation in one man’s hands of the right or power of a thousand families to employ labour.
The second source of wealth which invites consideration is the unearned increment on ground-values, or any other unearned and accidental increase of value. It is now very commonly admitted that this belongs to the community, and I need not enlarge on it.
We have, as I said, admitted the community’s right to interfere with this scandalous clotting of wealth, and no doubt a Labour-majority would increase death-duties until money could not be transmitted beyond, at most, the third generation, and not in quantities sufficient to make men and women a lifelong burden on the working community. Possibly some day there will be a general scrutiny of titles to wealth: not merely as far back as the enclosure of the commons a hundred years ago, but back to the landing in this country of William of Normandy. Possibly a day will come when men and women will conceal the fact that their ancestors “came over with the Conqueror,” since it generally implies that the descendants of those lucky adventurers have not done an honest day’s work since that time. Possibly the sons of some of our “captains of industry” of a century ago will burn the family records, lest some prying historian should learn by what horrible exploitation of child-labour the fortune was made. Prescriptive right is a purely artificial right created by the community, and it may be withdrawn by the community.
Such measures as these a Labour Government will, no doubt, eventually take, and they will do much to relieve poverty and increase the production of commodities of general use. But they will add rather to the comfort of workers who are already above the poverty-line, and they will not prevent an excessive accumulation of wealth, though they may finally disperse it. This means the continuance of deep poverty. As long as a gifted man may amass a fortune in a comparatively short time, without adding to the wealth of the community, there will be squalid poverty somewhere.
In sum, if the political ideal of Labour were fully realised, it would not put an end to, and might not very materially lessen, our widespread poverty. It would not enlarge the amount of available productive employment, and so the weak in body or mind or character would still form a pitiable army of slum-dwellers. It would, having no more control of industry than the present Parliament has, be unable to meet any grave disturbance of the industrial world, such as the release of hundreds of thousands of workers by disarmament. It would have no power to secure for the workers their full share of the advantage of any new application of science, and it would be unable to guide into new positions the men displaced by this application. We should continue to suffer the disadvantage of an imperfectly organised industrial system; each new enlistment of the great forces of nature or of the cunning of science in the service of man would enrich a few and impoverish many. In order to meet all these grave difficulties—in order to do more than secure certain advantages for the better equipped workers—a Labour Power would be forced radically to alter its principle and undertake the organisation of employment.
This organisation of industry seems to be the only device which will gradually restrict, and finally abolish, poverty. The opposition to it of middle-class workers and of so many artisans is unintelligible. It is time that we ceased to confine the term “workers” to the poorer and less cultivated caste among those who work: time that the lawyer and actor and housewife claimed that honourable title no less than the carpenter or navvy. In restricting the term to manual and badly paid workers we have concealed from ourselves the real community of interest of all who work. All of us, except those who live on the labour of others, have an interest in the proper organisation of the work of the world and the removal from our shoulders of this intolerable burden of the irregular workers and the idlers. The middle-class has an even greater interest than what is narrowly called the working-class, because the tendency of Labour legislation is, and will increasingly be, to put the heavier charge, not on large employers, who easily evade it, but on the middle-class generally. Here again the war has luminously illustrated our position. Both employers and employed (in the current industrial sense) have made great profit by it: the middle-class generally has suffered severely. A proper organisation of work would have prevented this.
It can easily be shown that this national organisation of employment, with graded incomes according to service rendered, is the only remedy of poverty. The chief root of poverty is, as I said, the insufficiency of properly paid work, and this is entirely due to the haphazard and unsystematic nature of our industrial order. The private employer looks only to the actual demand of commodities, or to the actual funds for buying commodities. He has no interest in the moneyless unemployed; indeed, he finds it a convenience to have a large number from which he may select his workers. As a result, a large proportion of our people are unable to demand their normal share of commodities because they are not employed, or because they have no wage; and they are not employed because they do not demand commodities. Plainly, the community alone can alter this paradoxical state of things; and, since the community is now compelled by its more humane sentiments to carry the poor on its shoulders, it may at length be induced to see that it would be better to set them on their own feet. In a properly organised industrial system a worker will be paid by the commodities which he or she actually produces, or their exchange-value. There can be no such thing as a superfluous worker. It is only a lamentable issue of our perverse pre-scientific system that millions must lack the food and clothing and luxuries which they themselves could and would, under a more orderly system, produce.
This implies, of course, the transfer to the community, at a just payment, of the land, the mines, and the means of transit, and the gradual extension of municipal enterprise to productive and distributive industries. I am contending only for principles, and would refer the closer inquirer to such detailed constructive works as those of Mr. H. G. Wells. It would be futile to construct a rigid scheme of collectivist organisation. Such industries as the press, literature, art, etc., present difficulties which it would be foolish to override. But these affect comparatively few workers, and it is pedantry of an unintelligent kind to wrangle over them while we have a clear case in regard to other industries which involve many millions of workers. We would do well, however, to remember that the middle-class industries themselves are overcrowded and chaotic, and that most members of that class would gain by organisation, wherever it is possible. Instead of shrinking from it and inventing difficulties, we ought to be eager to discover its possibilities.
I ignore also certain more or less academic objections which have been made against this proposal to organise employment. Mill’s essay On Liberty is a monument of the futility of this kind of reasoning. Mill was a civil servant, and, except in the case of the idle and criminal, no restriction of individual liberty is proposed other than that which Mill cheerfully endured. Middle-class men are apt to take fright at the word “Socialism.” It ought to be by this time generally known that half a dozen very different theories pass under that name, and it is particularly unintelligent to confuse the extreme and the moderate proposals. Nearly the whole of the employment in any civilisation could be organised without laying on any who are willing to work a greater restraint than is laid on officials of the postal service. As to “confiscation,” it will be gathered from an earlier page that I favour generous compensation to actual holders of land or mines, but no perpetual pensions.
I do not anticipate from this change all the advantages which some Socialist writers expect. Their schemes of high universal prosperity seem to me to have an absurdly slender basis of actual work. Mr. William Morris conjectured that if all of us were to work for four hours a day there would be enough produced for all of us to live in luxury; whereas Mr. Sidney Webb calculates that it would need six hours’ work a day, on the part of all, to produce the necessaries of life. It is true that a very large body of middlemen, commercial travellers, footmen and other servants, and duplicate workers in rival industries would be set free for sound productive or distributive or professional work; but the easing of the hours of our actual workers, the removal the young from the market, and other collateral improvements, must be taken into account. If we take one hour a day from the actual workers in our heavier industries, we absorb at once more than a million new men without increasing production. In any case, it is lamentable to dangle before the eyes of men the ideal of working only four hours a day. We want more of Browning’s gospel of work with cheerfulness. No doubt the idea is that, if the hours of labour are reduced, the leisure will be employed in reading Bergson and mastering Brahms. This optimistic theory seems to be at variance with our experience. Improvement of financial position more usually means the substitution of Bass or Dewar for cheap ale, and of stalls for the gallery at the variety theatre. A later chapter will, however, discuss our interests in this connection.
The fact remains that collectivism is the only remedy of poverty. The redistribution of wealth, or the prevention of excessive wealth, would, in my view, add comparatively little to the wages of the millions; and we must not put to the credit of an economic scheme the profit of such changes as disarmament. It is not this, but the note of efficiency, organisation, and economy which appeals to me in the Socialist ideal. It would abolish a vast amount of duplicate and unnecessary work, and it would conduct to their proper place in the industrial order the large army of casual workers. London or New York is a colossal monument of industrial inefficiency. Our chaotic mass of duplicate and triplicate rival grocers, bakers, butchers, etc., our rival railways and other purveyors and producers, with their separate staffs and their appalling waste in advertisement, are a reproach to our intelligence. We want an orderly and economical system both of production and distribution, and only the municipality (or else a vast and tyrannical trust) can conduct it. Most of all we want a power that will sweep the myriads of costers, hawkers, newspaper-youths, flower-girls, casual porters, loafers, musicians, etc., off our streets, and put them to productive work. We want a great curtailment of certain luxury-industries and fictitious industries. This would give us an immensely increased volume of productive work, and a great saving in distribution. The middle-class has not less to gain than the workers by such a scheme of organising our resources, and it offers us the only confident prospect of abolishing poverty and crime and gradually uplifting the mass of the people.
Naturally, we should for a long time have to deal with a great deal of refractory material. Idleness and crime are diseases, and they ought to be treated by the methods of modern medicine: scientific, humane, sometimes surgical. Certainly we would exercise “tyranny” in dealing with these. Probably in a properly ordered society all citizens would be enrolled in an industrial register. The hypersensitive would have the same guarantee of privacy as under our income-tax system, and the police would have a most effective means of locating the criminal. Any who were permanently refractory, or showed an incurable disposition to revert to crime or to the vagrant industries which disgrace our cities to-day, would have no moral right to burden us with their existence. The community would offer work and sufficient wage to all. The rest might disappear into segregated “homes of idleness,” or, if we are as wise as we ought to be, into lethal chambers.
This incurably refractory group would, however, probably prove smaller than many believe. We are at present a little too much inclined to consult scientific theorists about heredity (which is still very obscure in science) and too little inclined to make social experiments. I am assuming that a dozen other reforms would proceed simultaneously with the reform of industry. Education would no longer confine itself to giving an elementary literacy to children, without any further care what use they make of their literacy; it would, as I will suggest later, seriously concern itself with the adult population. A bolder treatment of the housing question would stimulate those who have evil traditions; we should not confine ourselves to building clean rooms for them, which they might make filthy if they wished. Prudential restriction of the birth-rate would be impressed on the poorer class, with great benefit to themselves and their children and the State. Eugenic proposals might be practically formulated and encouraged. We should not expect industrial betterment to have some mystic or magical effect of itself in uplifting the mass of the people; but, until this betterment occurs, other efforts to help them will be seriously hampered or entirely futile. The very magnitude of the task would prove a magnificent tonic and stimulation to the jaded mind of the community.
An increasing number of middle-class men and women now recognise that this is, not merely the only solution of the problem of poverty, but the most profitable scheme of national life for all who are willing to work. So detached an observer as Mr. Carveth Read, professor of Philosophy at London University, observes that “probably the future lies either with Co-operation or with Socialism” (Natural and Social Morals, p. 211). On the Continent, especially in Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Russia, there is a high proportion of cultivated and professional men in the Socialist movement. No one need fear its advance except the idler and the man whose work does not add to the wealth of the community or facilitate its distribution. It is the application of sound and tried business-principles to national life; and, when those principles have first been applied to the governmental machine, and made it an effective and disinterested administration, we shall move more quickly toward the Collectivist ideal.
Some may wonder that a student of science should come to this conclusion. There is a vague idea abroad that an individualist struggle for existence and survival of the fittest is the supreme and unalterable law of life. This idea, though encouraged by men like Mr. Kidd, is due to a merely superficial acquaintance with biology. In past ages nature has certainly evolved higher types mainly by a bloody struggle of individuals or a very calamitous pressure of environment. In the past: there is the limit of the teaching of biology. A new thing—human intelligence—has now entered the life of the earth, and it has in countless ways superseded the laws (that is to say, practices) of unconscious nature. The human mind is now a part of nature, and therefore “natural selection” is a wholly different matter from what it once was. Maurice Maeterlinck has suggested this with his usual felicity. He imagines himself on a hill, from which he sees two watercourses stretching toward the sea. One meanders over the plains, wasting time and space, blindly finding its way over the uneven ground: that is the old, unintelligent method of nature. The other waterway stretches straight across the landscape, a canal cut by man in the course of a few years, with no waste of ground: it is the new, intelligent method of nature. By this method we now create new species of plants in a thousandfold less time than natural selection (in the usual sense) could do; and we do it precisely by dispensing with the individualist struggle, by intelligent arrangement and control.
Early science set up unintelligent nature as a grand model for man. It is time we outgrew this phase of infancy. Intelligence must increasingly count in the life of the earth. We first organise a nation, and presently we shall organise international life. We organise particular businesses, and presently we shall organise the whole industrial life of the planet. There is no part of human life which calls more urgently for the application of intelligence than this disordered, wasteful, pitiless, poverty-saturated industrial world of ours. Let us treat human beings at least as intelligently as we treat our flowers, and as humanely as we treat our horses. We do not entrust those to the tragedy of struggle and survival. We need not fear that there will be any restriction of the development of personality. Under such a Collectivist system as I have in mind, personality will be developed until every man and woman is conscious of his or her share in the control of the destinies of this planet, and the sheep-like respect for ancient traditions and abuses, which impedes our progress to-day, will be for ever abolished.