Thursday, May 16, 2013

Capitalism and the Wage System

The world is full of preventable evils which most men would be glad to see prevented. Nevertheless, these evils persist, and nothing effective is done toward abolishing them.

This paradox produces astonishment in inexperienced reformers, and too often produces disillusionment in those who have come to know the difficulty of changing human institutions.

War is recognized as an evil by an immense majority in every civilized country; but this recognition does not prevent war.

The unjust distribution of wealth must be obviously an evil to those who are not prosperous, and they are nine tenths of the population. Nevertheless, it continues unabated.

The tyranny of the holders of power is a source of needless suffering and misfortune to very large sections of humanity; but power remains in few hands, and tends, if anything, to grow more concentrated.

I wish first to study the evils of our present institutions, and the causes of the very limited success of reformers in the past, and then to suggest reasons for the hope of a more lasting and permanent success in the near future.

The war has come as a challenge to all who desire a better world. The system, which cannot save humanity from such an appalling disaster, is at fault somewhere, and cannot be amended in any lasting way unless the danger of great wars in the future can be made very small.

But war is only the final flower of an evil tree. Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to drudgery, which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses.

From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to humankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in check men's predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live.  A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

We may distinguish four purposes at which an economic system may aim: first, it may aim at the greatest possible production of goods and at facilitating technical progress; second, it may aim at securing distributive justice; third, it may aim at giving security against destitution; and, fourth, it may aim at liberating creative impulses and diminishing possessive impulses.

Of these four purposes, the last is the most important. Security is chiefly important as a means to it. State socialism, though it might give material security and more justice than we have at present, would probably fail to liberate creative impulses or produce a progressive society.

Our present system fails in all four purposes. It is chiefly defended on the ground that it achieves the first of the four purposes, namely, the greatest possible production of material goods, but it only does this in a very shortsighted way, by methods which are wasteful in the long run both of human material and of natural resources.

Capitalistic enterprise involves a ruthless belief in the importance of increasing material production to the utmost possible extent now and in the immediate future. In obedience to this belief, new portions of the earth's surface are continually brought under the sway of industrialism. Vast tracts of Africa become recruiting grounds for the labor required in the gold and diamond mines of the Rand, Rhodesia, and Kimberley; for this purpose, the population is demoralized, taxed, driven into revolt, and exposed to the contamination of European vice and disease. Healthy and vigorous races from Southern Europe are tempted to America, where sweating and slum life reduce their vitality if they do not actually cause their death.

What damage is done to our own urban populations by the conditions under which they live, we all know. And what is true of the human riches of the world is no less true of the physical resources. The mines, forests, and wheat-fields of the world are all being exploited at a rate, which must practically exhaust them at no distant date. On the side of material production, the world is living too fast; in a kind of delirium, almost all the energy of the world has rushed into the immediate production of something, no matter what, and no matter at what cost. Yet our present system is defended on the ground that it safeguards progress!

It cannot be said that our present economic system is any more successful in regard to the other three objects which ought to be aimed at. Among the many obvious evils of capitalism and the wage system, none are more glaring than that they encourage predatory instincts, that they allow economic injustice, and that they give great scope to the tyranny of the employer.

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