Problems of Anarchism


1.—The Meaning of the Labor Question.

This is a living question; its interest lies not in the past, nor in other lands among unknown peoples, or even in the dim and distant future, but is of the age, the hour, here and now. Neither is it a question of abstract rights, of metaphysical ideas, of academic teaching or belief, for it supremely concerns living, thinking, toiling men and women, the generation of today. The life of the people is bound up in it; their morals, happiness, social progress, are all interwoven with the conditions of the labor problem. Hence it matters not that books have been written, thinkers have thought and studied, agitations and movements have arisen to reconcile the conflicting interests and adjust economic forces to better conditions, only to demonstrate the multitudinous variety of opinion, dogma, and conjecture in which the issues are enwrapped; the matter is still fresh, still needing more light, still inviting closer study, intelligent exposition, and a clear solution. Only to the thoughtless, the unsympathetic, and the unsocial person can its discussion seem useless and unattractive. In our day great achievements have become quite common, rapid progress the rule, and it is easy to point to the wonders of science, industry, and commerce, the mighty strides, the incalculable advantages that mark the age, the growing power of man over natural forces, the increase of wealth and facilities for its unlimited production; to deny the benefit that all classes derive from these signs of change or to attempt to belittle it were stupidity and folly. The growth and concentration of wealth, we often hear, are evils indicating a diseased society, an approaching and overwhelming crash. Yet in this very increase of wealth we can see the evidence of greater stability, easier and more certain life for society. And here as in other instances we see that what may tend to the security and welfare of society is not necessarily identical with the immediate welfare of the individual. Many indeed are crushed and suppressed that the aggregate may live and advance. While admitting so much, it must also be said that such facts in no wise justify the result, they but point to an undeveloped, conflicting, and transitional stage, the sooner over and out of the better. Let us look a little closer. Among the working classes today could be paralleled some of the worst phases of human suffering and degradation that the past can furnish. Even chattel slavery would appear to be an improvement on some features of modern wage slavery. The assured life of society as a whole is hardly compensation for the uncertain, precarious, and unsuccessful lives which many individuals must inevitably lead. Increased productive power, machinery, mechanical and scientific improvements, are in many ways beneficial and essential to the progress of the race. Labor-saving inventions cannot increase too fast. Wealthy capitalist and great corporate enterprises seeking their own interests are impelled to improve facilities for the production and distribution of wealth. The ever-increasing power of labor, partly through its more intelligent use and largely through increasing application of capital, results in more uniformity in the supply and price with a continual tendency to reduce the cost of all the means of life.

But the application of inventive skill is unceasingly adding to the unemployed; machinery in every industry seems to replace men; the aggregation of productive wealth and the combination of capitalists set the wage-workers more and more at the mercy of their masters. While competition and improved methods lower the cost, labor not unfrequently loses more under the strain than is gained thereby on the part of society. And while the well-to-do classes in modern society tend to increase in proportion to the whole, there is no reason to believe that the poorer classes are decreasing; indeed, the uncertainty and aimlessness of life on the part of the weaker victims become more intense. Modern society can do so well without its weaker members. Small wonder that, seeing the power for evil possessed by the ruling authorities, though not discerning its effects, so many people who feel the importance of the labor problem clamor continually to the law-makers for relief. Vaguely it is seen that the use or abuse of power is responsible for much of the injustice that is endured, that political authority should shoulder the responsibility for the crying economic evils that confront us. Not knowing how to abolish political and legal coercion, or clearly recognizing the need to do so, it is surmised that such powers are intimately related to the trouble, and as a consequence we have the continual cry for government help, for labor legislation that will save the worker from the consequences of the system, for relief from the burdens of a one-sided capitalism and individualism, from the injustices of monopoly, and all other real or imaginary grievances. The discontent spreads, but the demand for relief indicates the helplessness and dependence of the wage-workers; their sense of self-reliance is not strong enough to make them throw their faith in authoritative institutions to the winds and boldly face the question themselves without the direction of their political rulers.

To speak of classes in society today, especially in America, may appear arbitrary and unscientific. No sharply defined lines can be drawn socially or economically, as the gradations are imperceptible and the transitions from one grade to another continuous and with no fixed barriers between. But it is agreed on all sides that distinct classes exist, and that economic conditions account for the division. One need not go to the political economists to learn the classification, for it is exemplified in the experience of practical life. And what is worthy of note, the class divisions of capitalism arise without the aid of feudal and aristocratic institutions, as we see in the present state of American society. Nor is it necessary in observing the effects of economic classes to go to Europe, for here also we know that the capitalist and professional classes are as a rule better off and more secure, both in income and accumulated wealth, as they grow older, and so pass on their possessions to their children; while the wage-workers, though none the less industrious and essential in the social machinery, from the start receive less recompense, are seldom able to accumulate wealth, and in the declining years of life suffer loss of income as wage-workers, and, if they reach old age at all, are without property, dependent on their children or on society for support, and of course to their offspring leave no legacy but the poverty and necessity to sell their labor which was their own birthright. And mark that this result is not due to the greater usefulness or ability of the one class over the other; it is not the virtue, industry, or abstinence of the one, the vice, indolence, or improvidence of the other, which produce such opposite effects, but these results are the inevitable and unavoidable outcome of the existing economic system. If the laboring classes would live on half their earnings, work three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and save the surplus, they would not attain the circumstances of the classes above, who enjoy life, deny themselves nothing, and yet, when they die, leave a patrimony to their children. No change affecting only the habits and personal conduct of the workers can remove economic evils. The tendency of the time is to intensify the class distinctions just pointed out. Generally it is true that the offspring of the well-to-do retain their status in society, and wealth remains practically in the hands of a class passing on from generation to generation. And, except in a few instances, where great talent or special opportunity makes a workingman wealthy,—instances greatly overestimated,—the children of the wage-workers simply replace their parents in the labor market. While this is approximately correct of present conditions in America, it is bound to be more apparent as wealth and population increase.

The reality of the class division is well illustrated in the attitude of political authority when labor troubles arise. Why is it that the power of the State, police, militia, soldiery, is always used in one way and for a single person when the conflicting interests of the wage-workers and their masters take an acute form? In spite of democracy and manhood suffrage, the economically superior class, the part of society having permanent economic advantage through its monopoly of wealth and privilege, never fails to control the coercive machinery of government in its own interest. Strikers are rebels against existing economic arrangements, which the capitalists believe to be for their benefit and are therefore determined to maintain. And as government in its merely political capacity suppresses every attempt at rebellion against its authority so in its capacity as upholder of economic authority, the power of the capitalists, it is ever ready to mete out the same penalty upon the industrial rebel, the wage-worker on strike. The analogy between the British government suppressing a rebellion in India or Ireland and the American State or Federal government putting down an industrial revolt at Homestead or Buffalo is no fanciful similitude, but has a significant meaning. Remembering also what the Kaiser said to the Westphalian miners who were on strike, and how the French republican government acted, not only with the Communards, but in recent days with the workingmen at Decazeville, Fourmies, and other places, to say nothing of the fate of the Chicago martyrs, we may conclude that political power will show more virulence and less mercy in dealing with economic rebels than with those who revolt against its political authority.

These considerations should prove to the labor reformer that something more than a change of power is required to make the workers free. It is true that governmental coercion maintains existing conditions by forcibly preventing any radical attempt at change, but the evil exists in the economic arrangements, which themselves must be reformed to effect an improvement. If the Carnegies had not an advantage over the wage-workers by means of their monopoly of capital and opportunities for producing wealth,—a superiority inherent in the conditions making the laborers dependent on the monopolists,—then the working classes would have nothing to fear from a refusal to accede to the terms of their masters; but, being so dependent, they are doubly enslaved both by monopoly of the means of labor and by governmental power which the capitalists have at their command to enforce submission. It is not control of the militia that the workers need; it is control of their own labor and the opportunities to employ it. The latter will not be obtained by securing the former. Hence democracy, or the popular control of political power, being a purely negative aim, is no remedy for wage slavery; it does not even lead to the remedy, and is not an indispensable weapon.

We have seen that the workman’s right to vote does not prevent the capitalist from wielding the machinery of authority in his own interest, and we should also keep in mind that legislative and judicial power are equally beyond the grasp of the laborer. Laws are made directly or indirectly in the interest of the capitalist class, and they are always administered and interpreted by judges and lawyers in the same spirit.[*] If a striker escapes the policeman’s club and the militiaman’s bullet, he has still to run the gauntlet of the judge and the jailer, who sometimes hand him on to the hangman. Those inductions are entirely within the data furnished by current history in this great republic.

In seeking to understand the labor problem it is evident from the foregoing that we should know the cause of the economic power which the possession of capital gives, and learn how our social system produces classes that are not due to differences of character, virtues, or industry, among whom, as Mill fifty years ago wrote, the produce of labor is apportioned almost in an inverse ratio to the labor, the largest portions to those who have never worked at all, the next largest to those whose work is almost nominal, and so in a descending scale, the remuneration dwindling as the work grows harder and more disagreeable, until the most fatiguing and exhausting bodily labor cannot count with certainty on being able to earn even the necessaries of life.

Our investigation will necessarily be occupied as much in sifting out the chaff and rejecting the untrustworthy conceptions among established teaching as in the discovery of reliable and useful principles. To narrow the scope of the inquiry by exhausting false views and to show that the remedy does not lie this way or that is a method essentially scientific. When, for example, it is demonstrated that perpetual motion is unattainable by mechanical device, that gold cannot be synthetically manufactured in a laboratory, and that the philosopher’s stone is an impossible dream, much otherwise valuable effort is saved and true science is advanced. A like gain is made when human intelligence ceases to concern itself with the soul’s hereafter, but turns its attention to realizing a better life in the present world. In social and economic reform the same process has to be gone through, will-o’-the-wisps are pursued on all sides, and every door that is closed by logic and science with the sign fallacy or error writ over it is a step nearer the attainable and the true.

Wm. Bailie.

[*] Since this was written we have had examples in the Ann Arbor, New Orleans, and other cases of the true function of the bench in administering the law between labor and capital. Even the laws enacted with much flourish of trumpets and flapping of labor reformers’ wings against capital in the interest of the people are with their usual impartiality interpreted by the legal parasites to the utter damnation of the workingman.

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.