The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81
Chapter I. — Unlimited Competition a Social Failure
Unlimited Competition a Social Failure.
"Intelligence without liberty is oppression; liberty without intelligence is anarchy," is a saying attributed to Jules Simon, the French aristocrat and socialist. Whatever degree of intelligence belongs to social beginnings is naturally the property of a privileged few, who employ it to place and hold the mass of the people under conditions of dependence and servitude. In their primal ignorance and simplicity' the people accept the situation, generation after generation, without a rebellious thought or idea of protest, as their part in the natural order of things. From this arose false conceptions of social rights and duties, under the hereditary influences of which spiritual and secular authorities have taught and enforced such perverted doctrines of morality and justice as to have construed popular contentions in favour of civil and political rights into misdemeanours and crimes to be visited with the severest penalties, in the names of law, order, and religion. Even now there is much more truth than exaggeration in the saying of Tolstoy:—"Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organised violence, for non-compliance with which the non-complier is subject to blows, to loss of liberty, or even to being murdered." So long as the people lived upon the land in a state of rude physical contentment, under a system of feudalism which had in it something of the clan sentiment of loyalty to their social superiors, their lot was tolerable, but when feudal services came to be converted into "cash payments" of rents and taxes, the masses had to toil and struggle, and pinch and starve, and endure all sorts of privations and miseries, that the heartless extravagances of courts and courtiers, of temporal and spiritual potentates, and privileged classes generally, might be gratified.page 9
From the sweat of their brows the desert blooms,
And the forest before them falls;
Their labour has builded humble homes
And cities with lofty halls,
And One owns cities and houses and lands,
And ninety and nine have empty hands.
There are ninety and nine that work and die
In want and hunger and cold,
That One may live in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold!
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And One in a palace of riches rare.
The sense of deprivation and suffering creates a spirit of discontentment and revolt, and a disposition to question the rightness and wrongness of things. In vain Governments, with all the forces at their disposal, have attempted to quell this rebellious spirit. It is a force in nature which must find vent, and oppressive laws and "Peterloo massacres," and Russian "red Sundays," instead of quenching it, are met by the counter-horrors of as many "French Revolutions" and other revolutions "as may be needed," until conservatism has to make concessions to fear that would have been promptly denied on principles of humanity and justice. What threaten to bring about social upheavals and popular insurrections are not the demands for social and political liberty, but the denial of them. The submerged masses have had the situation made for them, not by them, and their struggles for freedom from social servitude and political disabilities come from a natural born and irrepressible impulse, which, notwithstanding the blind, tactless, ill-regulated modes in which they frequently manifest themselves, social evolutionists and philosophic historians recognise as forces which 'make for righteousness" in spite of all the obstacles which the "classes in possession," and the monopolisers of the means of subsistence, place in the way. This is the meaning of the aphorism Vox Populi Vox Dei.
Who lead the blind old giant by the hand
From out the pathless desert whence he gropes,
And set him onward on his darksome way.
But democracy is never so led; it has to "grope" its way unaided, on rude and erratic empizical lines, from darkness to more light, but even "the light that leads astray is light from heaven," as well as that fuller and clearer light by which democratic efforts ultimately come to be systematically directed towards well-defined ends and issues.
Although demands for popular rights must pre-suppose more or less intelligence on the part of those who unite in making them, yet liberty has to be won, step by step, in advance of the greater and clearer knowledge which accrues from the struggle. This, of course, is very inconvenient to society generally, aggravated as the situation always is by the contemptuous and frequently insulting abuse which the defenders of conservative interests make of the superior intelligence and culture to which they never fail to lay claim, in contrast to the rude and unlettered condition of the "vulgar crowd." This the "crowd" feel and resent as gratuitous insult added to injury, and elements of anarchy must enter into conflicts carried on under irritating circumstances of this character. In the words of the late Prof. Thorold Rogers:—"It is not at all remarkable that when, after 1824, the old laws against combination were abrogated, some of those who were freed from restraint on a sudden fell into regrettable excesses. But one of the worst consequences of a tyrannical and oppressive Government is that it disables those who have been its victims from an orderly use of their newly-acquired liberty. Foolish people think that effects cease with causes, and that it is in vain to study social problems till you have traced effects to causes which have long ceased to operate and have been long forgotten." According to the same eminent authority, "the working classes had been hopelessly, as it seemed, enslaved and degraded" by tyrannical laws, from the effects of which it must take a long period of struggle to emancipate themselves. Notwithstanding the extension of the franchise—which goes to make other acquisitions more easily obtainable—democracy is as yet more a name than an organised force. So far social evolu- page 11 tion seems to have only advanced from that state of oppression, defined by Jules Simon as "Intelligence without liberty," to that of anarchy, defined as "Liberty without intelligence." But humanity cannot accept as permanent a state of society tortured by sufferings and wrongs, and individual and class antagonisms. If sociologists be correct in their monistic conception of society as an organic whole, and not "a collection of warring atoms," surely the final goal of human strivings must be towards a state from which discordant and anarchical elements are to be eliminated, and in which citizens in every relation of life will find the fullest freedom, and greatest individual and collective happiness in intelligently co-operating for the common good.
In an article on "The Struggle for Existence," contributed to the "Nineteenth Century" for February, 1888, the late Prof. Huxley said:—"I conceive it to be demonstrable that the higher and more complete the organisation of the social body the more closely is the life of each member bound up with that of the whole, and the larger becomes the category of acts which cease to become self-regarding, and which interfere with the freedom of others more or less seriously."
Yet many eminent thinkers do not favour a theory of society based upon non-competitive principles. In the principle of competition evolutionists find an explanation of the mode in which all that is strongest and best in individual and racial character has been evolved, and many argue that its active presence in social and national life, however modified under the influence of an advancing civilisation, is permanently necessary to preserve human character from lapsing into degeneracy. And it seems evident enough that the antagonisms between man and his surroundings, between individuals, between tribes and between nations, have been instrumental in developing and strengthening physical and mental powers which no other conceivable process could have accomplished, and that the races who have had to contend with the more adverse circumstances—so long as they were not such as to have made progress impossible, as in the Arctic page 12 regions—have advanced in character and aptitudes beyond those attained by races existing under more bountiful but less stimulating and invigorating natural conditions. Emerson puts this in its tersest and most trenchant form. "Nature," says Emerson, "held council with herself and said: 'My Romans are gone. To build my new empire I will choose a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength. I will not grudge a competition of the roughest males. Let buffalo gore buffalo, and the pasture to the strongest! For I have work that requires the best will and sinew. Sharp and temperate northern breezes shall blow to keep that will alive and alert.'" Long before the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest" came to be formulated by scientists, the owners of industrial machinery and the economists invoked similar principles in favour of unlimited trade competition to an extent that would not make the slightest concession to as much State interference as would "give laws to the game" similar to the rules which are adopted to regulate contests in the athletic arena. In a report by a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1811—a year of great distress—the doctrine of what has come to be known as laissez faire was distinctly set out. It was stated that "No interference of the Legislature with freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time or his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interests, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or even without aggravating after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and opposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed."
A Merchants' Petition in 1820 gave unqualified expression to identical sentiments, and as late as 1847 a Ten Hours Bill, the object of which was to limit the working hours of children in factories, was ultimately passed, after having been defeated year after year for ten years, and made the subject page 13 of some stormy Parliamentary debates, "John Bright," says Lloyd Jones, in a biography of Robert Owen, "being especially bitter in his opposition."
Notwithstanding all that can be urged, and truly enough urged, by strictarian evolutionists and orthodox economists in favour of the part which the principle of "the struggle for existence" has played in the progress of man from savagery to a comparatively high degree of civilisation, it is clear that, at some stage of human progress, another and a much more powerful element must come into play, which the stoutest arguments and most trenchant logic of economists and evolutionists cannot repress or conquer. Progress, to justify the term or to be of any value, must, sooner or later, touch and unfold the emotional side of human nature, and create a sentiment of humanity irresistibly hostile to a system of society, based upon competitive struggles and laissez faire, so replete with human degradation and sufferings as only the soulless, unemotional intellect of a demon could contemplate with indifference.
Before the application of steam power to industrial machinery factories were built in the country where water power was available. The labour of very young persons was necessary in many branches of the textile industry, but, owing to the sparseness of rural populations, the supply was difficult to obtain. In "The Life, Times and Labours of Robert Owen" Lloyd Jones informs us:—" The obstacle, however, had to be overcome, and the plan resorted to was to obtain, as apprentices, from the various workhouses in the United Kingdom, as large a number of the pauper children as were required, and bind them under indenture to the foreman, or manager, under whose superintendence they worked. They were bargained for and sent to their destination in droves; the workhouse authorities, glad to get rid of them, prudently stipulating that those who contracted for them should take a fair proportion of the ailing and idiotic." These wretched children were lodged in sheds close to the factories, the beds vacated by the day shift were immediately occupied by the children returning from the page 14 night shift, and vice versa. "Starved to the bone," says Lloyd Jones, "flogged to their work, enduring miseries perfectly incredible at the hands of those who regarded them solely as implements of labour," their sufferings did not attract public attention until an epidemic broke out amongst them that alarmed residents in the neighbourhood for their own safety. Then commenced an agitation for factory and labour legislation, which came down to the present time, favoured by many because their sympathetic natures were shocked by the revelation of so much infantile misery, by others out of selfish regard for their own safety in presence of insanitary conditions at the factories, but always meeting with the bitter opposition of the manufacturers and economists. It is no wonder that, in the face of such facts as these—the atrocities of which were subdued only by means of long-delayed legislative interferences—the late Professor Cairns, although with apparent reluctance, had to admit that laissez faire "falls to the ground as a scientific doctrine," and that the late Herbert Spencer, with all his magnificent powers of analytical and synthetical reasoning, and unswerving loyalty to his conceptions of first principles, in vain placed himself in uncompromising opposition to any interference with the "régime of contract."
When thou hast talked a vein to temper,
Aud with an argument new set a pulse,
Then think, my lord, of reasoning unto love.
And so it is with human nature in everything, and human conduct must ever be actuated by circumstances which more directly appeal to human sympathies, rather than by remote considerations based upon utilitarian theories devoid of soul and feeling. The want of sympathy between employers and employed works much injury to both, by which the more dependent class suffer the most. Robert Owen, the recognised "father of modern co-operation," by his remarkable industrial experiment at New Lanark, on the Clyde, in Scotland, proved that this condition could be ameliorated and made tolerable, provided that employers could be induced to page 15 pursue a less narrowly selfish policy, and adopt the principle of profit-sharing with their workers. It was a situation which depended upon the initiative of the employers. They being willing, circumstances could be created that would modify the character of the workers in the desired direction. This Owen practically and amply proved, but he also proved how despairingly hopeless it was to work out equitable issues under conditions which depended upon the initiative and personal character of private capitalists.
When but still a lad Owen proved himself to be one of the most successful mill managers of his time; so much so, that, before completing his nineteenth year, he was made a partner on exceptionally liberal terms, without solicitation or even expectation on his part, by an employer who took this step to attach to his own interests a young man of such rare character and abilities. Owen was also possessed of keen and easily-excited sympathies—an apparent incongruity in the mental constitution of a successful textile manufacturer, especially of that period—and his whole soul revolted against the barbarous and inhuman practices of his class, and the depraved and immoral condition and physical deterioration into which millworkers were sunk and sinking under the unchecked exactions of cruel and rapacious employers. He did not believe that all this misery was an economic necessity; on the contrary, his contention was that the extension of just and humane treatment to the workers could be turned to economic advantage. Possessed of these ideas, and looked up to with confidence and respect by capitalists owing to the staidness of his character, and the good fortune which invariably attended his business operations, he was successful in securing partners to join him in purchasing the New Lanark Cotton Mills on the Clyde, in Scotland, for £60,000, where he, as sole manager, had liberty to put his humanitarian principles into practice. He assumed control of the works on 1st January, 1800.
"He built healthy dwellings for the people under his employ, with garden plots, at cost price; he opened stores where commodities could be purchased at wholesale prices; he provided a common dining-hall, to save the waste incurred in separate cooking establishments for each household; he founded creches for the reception of infants, and opened infants' schools, the first of their kind, we believe, and prohibited children under ten years from working in the factory; he made the training of the young, moral and physical, his chief care, encouraging at the same time amongst the adults habits of sobriety and saving. His scheme was crowned with success. Emperors and kings came to see with their own eyes this new Utopia in the valley of the Clyde, and to be told by the owner that 'the foundations of prosperous virtue and moral happiness are to be found in the wise appreciation of natural laws and their application to the social body by the rulers of mankind.'"
Unfortunately this unique success had not been achieved without producing strained relations between Owen and some of his partners. Although the business paid handsomely, they noticed such unexpectedly large sums expended upon buildings, teachers, literature, &c., as would materially add to the net profits of the business, and their cupidity was excited. The part which a well-paid and well-cared-for body of sober and loyal workers took in making the profits so exceptionally good was not recognised. It thus happened that in eight years' time from the commencement of the experiment, and in the full tide of its industrial success, Owen had to find new partners to buy out the discontented ones. The new co-partnery purchased the concern for £84,000, being £24,000 above the original cost.
In another four years' time Owen had again to confront an exactly similar trouble. He had no labour troubles to contend with; they all came from capitalistic greed. On this occasion the discontented partners schemed to force on the sale of the business by auction, hoping to be able to page 17 secure it at a low price before Owen could have time to find sufficient capital to protect his own and others' interests. In this they were disappointed.
A new co-partnery was formed, including the celebrated Jeremy Bentham, and a "sanctimonious" quaker of the name of William Allen, for whom Owen purchased the business at auction for £114,000—£30,000 more than it was purchased for four years previously—and he was prepared to give £120,000 for it had the necessity arisen. To show how needless and selfish were the complaints of the retiring partners against Owen's just and equitable treatment of the workers, an examination of the books disclosed that the net profits of the business during the four years the partnership lasted (after paying 5 per cent, on the capital) amounted to £160,000, returning them their capital of £84,000 twice over all but £8000.
Unfortunately for Owen, and more so, eventually, for his workers, the most serious troubles yet experienced commenced with the advent of Mr. William Allen, who soon placed himself in uncompromising hostility to the system of education in vogue at New Lanark as far too secular and irreligious to satisfy his extremely sanctimonious views. After fourteen to fifteen years of nothing less than religious persecution, Owen, who had successfully contended against other forms of opposition, had to succumb to this. Under the strain he was "driven out" of a phenomenally prosperous business, which he had built up by the intelligent devotion of nearly thirty years of his valuable life. It may be imagined with what an aching heart he had to abandon a model industry and a thriving and contented community of sober and intelligent workers, with their wives and children, a prey to capitalistic greed, and that "complacent religiosity of the prosperous," of which John Morley said "it was hard to imagine a more execrable emotion."
After all, this was only anticipating what, sooner or later, must happen to an organisation so completely dependent upon the controlling influence of one exceptionally page 18 constituted individual as the New Lanark experiment was upon the personality of Robert Owen. Whilst the capital employed in a business is supplied by owners whose views of the compensation due to the workers are, according to "the iron law of wages" laid down by Adam Smith, that:—"The wages paid to journeymen and servants of any kind must be such as may enable them, one with another, to continue the race of journeymen and servants, according as the increasing, diminishing or stationary demand of society may require"—an experiment like that conducted by Robert Owen at New Lanark cannot hope to find imitators, although, perhaps, many admirers. In dealing with the workers Owen's success was complete. Their self-interest and the justice with which they were treated produced their natural effects. Their confidence was secured, and they submitted themselves to a discipline, and that a strict and exacting one, that developed in them characters of sobriety, ability and loyalty befitting faithful and intelligent workers in a concern that yielded such profitable and beneficent results to employers and employed alike. With the owners of the capital the drift was in an entirely contrary direction. It became a cause of grievance with them that the benefits were so mutual, and not more one-sided. The profits were good, exceptionally good; according to Bentham the only investment that gave him a profitable return, but they might have been very much better had Owen not expended so much money upon objects of what seemed to be sheer philanthropy and, according to Mr. William Allen, upon irreligious education, with all of which business proprietors, as such, were not supposed to concern themselves. It was now manifest to Owen that the reforms which he contemplated could not be carried out under a competitive system which placed the owners of industrial capital, and the workers who supplied the labour, in attitudes of antagonism towards each other as to what ought to be the equitable share of each of the fruits of their common industry. The solution of the social problem, evidently, called for an entirely new order of things.