What Social Classes Owe to Each Other/IV

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The Arabs have a story of a man who desired to test which of his three sons loved him most. He sent them out to see which of the three would bring him the most valuable present. The three sons met in a distant city, and compared the gifts they had found. The first had a carpet on which he could transport himself and others whithersoever he would. The second had a medicine which would cure any disease. The third had a glass in which he could see what was going on at any place he might name. The third used his glass to see what was going on at home: he saw his father ill in bed. The first transported all three to their home on his carpet. The second administered the medicine and saved the father's life. The perplexity of the father when he had to decide which son's gift had been of the most value to him illustrates very fairly the difficulty of saying whether land, labor, or capital is most essential to production. No production is possible without the co-operation of all three.

We know that men once lived on the spontaneous fruits of the earth, just as other animals do. In that stage of existence a man was just like the brutes. His existence was at the sport of Nature. He got what he could by way of food, and ate what he could get, but he depended on finding what Nature gave. He could wrest nothing from Nature; he could make her produce nothing; and he had only his limbs with which to appropriate what she offered. His existence was almost entirely controlled by accident; he possessed no capital; he lived out of his product, and production had only the two elements of land and labor of appropriation. At the present time man is an intelligent animal. He knows something of the laws of Nature; he can avail himself of what is favorable, and avert what is unfavorable, in nature, to a certain extent; he has narrowed the sphere of accident, and in some respects reduced it to computations which lessen its importance; he can bring the productive forces of Nature into service, and make them produce food, clothing, and shelter. How has the change been brought about? The answer is, By capital. If we can come to an understanding of what capital is, and what a place it occupies in civilization, it will clear up our ideas about a great many of these schemes and philosophies which are put forward to criticise social arrangements, or as a basis of proposed reforms.

The first beginnings of capital are lost in the obscurity which covers all the germs of civilization. The more one comes to understand the case of the primitive man, the more wonderful it seems that man ever started on the road to civilization. Among the lower animals we find some inchoate forms of capital, but from them to the lowest forms of real capital there is a great stride. It does not seem possible that man could have taken that stride without intelligent reflection, and everything we know about the primitive man shows us that he did not reflect. No doubt accident controlled the first steps. They may have been won and lost again many times. There was one natural element which man learned to use so early that we cannot find any trace of him when he had it not—fire. There was one tool-weapon in nature—the flint. Beyond the man who was so far superior to the brutes that he knew how to use fire and had the use of flints we cannot go. A man of lower civilization than that was so like the brutes that, like them, he could leave no sign of his presence on the earth save his bones.

The man who had a flint no longer need be a prey to a wild animal, but could make a prey of it. He could get meat food. He who had meat food could provide his food in such time as to get leisure to improve his flint tools. He could get skins for clothing, bones for needles, tendons for thread. He next devised traps and snares by which to take animals alive. He domesticated them, and lived on their increase. He made them beasts of draught and burden, and so got the use of a natural force. He who had beasts of draught and burden could make a road and trade, and so get the advantage of all soils and all climates. He could make a boat, and use the winds as force. He now had such tools, science, and skill that he could till the ground, and make it give him more food. So from the first step that man made above the brute the thing which made his civilization possible was capital. Every step of capital won made the next step possible, up to the present hour. Not a step has been or can be made without capital. It is labor accumulated, multiplied into itself—raised to a higher power, as the mathematicians say. The locomotive is only possible today because, from the flint-knife up, one achievement has been multiplied into another through thousands of generations. We cannot now stir a step in our life without capital. We cannot build a school, a hospital, a church, or employ a missionary society, without capital, any more than we could build a palace or a factory without capital. We have ourselves, and we have the earth; the thing which limits what we can do is the third requisite—capital. Capital is force, human energy stored or accumulated, and very few people ever come to appreciate its importance to civilized life. We get so used to it that we do not see its use.

The industrial organization of society has undergone a development with the development of capital. Nothing has ever made men spread over the earth and develop the arts but necessity—that is, the need of getting a living, and the hardships endured in trying to meet that need. The human race has had to pay with its blood at every step. It has had to buy its experience. The thing which has kept up the necessity of more migration or more power over Nature has been increase of population. Where population has become chronically excessive, and where the population has succumbed and sunk, instead of developing energy enough for a new advance, there races have degenerated and settled into permanent barbarism. They have lost the power to rise again, and have made no inventions. Where life has been so easy and ample that it cost no effort, few improvements have been made. It is in the middle range, with enough social pressure to make energy needful, and not enough social pressure to produce despair, that the most progress has been made.

At first all labor was forced. Men forced it on women, who were drudges and slaves. Men reserved for themselves only the work of hunting or war. Strange and often horrible shadows of all the old primitive barbarism are now to be found in the slums of great cities, and in the lowest groups of men, in the midst of civilized nations. Men impose labor on women in some such groups to-day. Through various grades of slavery, serfdom, villainage, and through various organizations of castes and guilds, the industrial organization has been modified and developed up to the modern system. Some men have been found to denounce and deride the modern system—what they call the capitalist system. The modern system is based on liberty, on contract, and on private property. It has been reached through a gradual emancipation of the mass of mankind from old bonds both to Nature and to their fellow-men. Village communities, which excite the romantic admiration of some writers, were fit only for a most elementary and unorganized society. They were fit neither to cope with the natural difficulties of winning much food from little land, nor to cope with the malice of men. Hence they perished. In the modern society the organization of labor is high. Some are land-owners and agriculturists, some are transporters, bankers, merchants, teachers; some advance the product by manufacture. It is a system of division of functions, which is being refined all the time by subdivision of trade and occupation, and by the differentiation of new trades.

The ties by which all are held together are those of free co-operation and contract. If we look back for comparison to anything of which human history gives us a type or experiment, we see that the modern free system of industry offers to every living human being chances of happiness indescribably in excess of what former generations have possessed. It offers no such guarantees as were once possessed by some, that they should in no case suffer. We have an instance right at hand. The negroes, once slaves in the United States, used to be assured care, medicine, and support; but they spent their efforts, and other men took the products. They have been set free. That means only just this: they now work and hold their own products, and are assured of nothing but what they earn. In escaping from subjection they have lost claims. Care, medicine, and support they get, if they earn it. Will any one say that the black men have not gained? Will any one deny that individual black men may seem worse off? Will any one allow such observations to blind him to the true significance of the change? If any one thinks that there are or ought to be somewhere in society guarantees that no man shall suffer hardship, let him understand that there can be no such guarantees, unless other men give them—that is, unless we go back to slavery, and make one man's effort conduce to another man's welfare. Of course, if a speculator breaks loose from science and history, and plans out an ideal society in which all the conditions are to be different, he is a law-giver or prophet, and those may listen to him who have leisure.

The modern industrial system is a great social co-operation. It is automatic and instinctive in its operation. The adjustments of the organs take place naturally. The parties are held together by impersonal force—supply and demand. They may never see each other; they may be separated by half the circumference of the globe. Their co-operation in the social effort is combined and distributed again by financial machinery, and the rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all. All this goes on so smoothly and naturally that we forget to notice it. We think that it costs nothing—does itself, as it were. The truth is, that this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements, because here, more than anywhere else, intelligence comes in, but intelligence so clear and correct that it does not need expression.

Now, by the great social organization the whole civilized body (and soon we shall say the whole human race) keeps up a combined assault on Nature for the means of subsistence. Civilized society may be said to be maintained in an unnatural position, at an elevation above the earth, or above the natural state of human society. It can be maintained there only by an efficient organization of the social effort and by capital. At its elevation it supports far greater numbers than it could support on any lower stage. Members of society who come into it as it is to-day can live only by entering into the organization. If numbers increase, the organization must be perfected, and capital must increase—i. e., power over Nature. If the society does not keep up its power, if it lowers its organization or wastes its capital, it falls back toward the natural state of barbarism from which it rose, and in so doing it must sacrifice thousands of its weakest members. Hence human society lives at a constant strain forward and upward, and those who have most interest that this strain be successfully kept up, that the social organization be perfected, and that capital be increased, are those at the bottom.

The notion of property which prevails among us to-day is, that a man has a right to the thing which he has made by his labor. This is a very modern and highly civilized conception. Singularly enough, it has been brought forward dogmatically to prove that property in land is not reasonable, because man did not make land. A man cannot "make" a chattel or product of any kind whatever without first appropriating land, so as to get the ore, wood, wool, cotton, fur, or other raw material. All that men ever appropriate land for is to get out of it the natural materials on which they exercise their industry. Appropriation, therefore, precedes labor-production, both historically and logically. Primitive races regarded, and often now regard, appropriation as the best title to property. As usual, they are logical. It is the simplest and most natural mode of thinking to regard a thing as belonging to that man who has, by carrying, wearing, or handling it, associated it for a certain time with his person. I once heard a little boy of four years say to his mother, "Why is not this pencil mine now? It used to be my brother's, but I have been using it all day." He was reasoning with the logic of his barbarian ancestors. The reason for allowing private property in land is, that two men cannot eat the same loaf of bread. If A has taken a piece of land, and is at work getting his loaf out of it, B cannot use the same land at the same time for the same purpose. Priority of appropriation is the only title of right which can supersede the title of greater force. The reason why man is not altogether a brute is, because he has learned to accumulate capital, to use capital, to advance to a higher organization of society, to develop a completer co-operation, and so to win greater and greater control over Nature.

It is a great delusion to look about us and select those men who occupy the most advanced position in respect to worldly circumstances as the standard to which we think that all might be and ought to be brought. All the complaints and criticisms about the inequality of men apply to inequalities in property, luxury, and creature comforts, not to knowledge, virtue, or even physical beauty and strength. But it is plainly impossible that we should all attain to equality on the level of the best of us. The history of civilization shows us that the human race has by no means marched on in a solid and even phalanx. It has had its advance-guard, its rear-guard, and its stragglers. It presents us the same picture to-day; for it embraces every grade, from the most civilized nations down to the lowest surviving types of barbarians. Furthermore, if we analyze the society of the most civilized State, especially in one of the great cities where the highest triumphs of culture are presented, we find survivals of every form of barbarism and lower civilization. Hence, those who to-day enjoy the most complete emancipation from the hardships of human life, and the greatest command over the conditions of existence, simply show us the best that man has yet been able to do. Can we all reach that standard by wishing for it? Can we all vote it to each other? If we pull down those who are most fortunate and successful, shall we not by that very act defeat our own object? Those who are trying to reason out any issue from this tangle of false notions of society and of history are only involving themselves in hopeless absurdities and contradictions. If any man is not in the first rank who might get there, let him put forth new energy and take his place. If any man is not in the front rank, although he has done his best, how can he be advanced at all? Certainly in no way save by pushing down any one else who is forced to contribute to his advancement.

It is often said that the mass of mankind are yet buried in poverty, ignorance, and brutishness. It would be a correct statement of the facts intended, from an historical and sociological point of view, to say, Only a small fraction of the human race have as yet, by thousands of years of struggle, been partially emancipated from poverty, ignorance, and brutishness. When once this simple correction is made in the general point of view, we gain most important corollaries for all the subordinate questions about the relations of races, nations, and classes.