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Thursday, December 21, 2006

"How Inequality of Wealth Destroys Liberty"

Economic inequality has been the topic of much discussion lately. Today while doing some Christmas shopping and thinking about some of the issues, I remembered (vaguely) the book Equality written in 1897 by Utopian Socialist Edward Bellamy. Wikipedia describes Bellamy as:

...an American author, most famous for his utopian novel set in the year 2000, Looking Backward ... He was the cousin of Francis Bellamy, most famous for creating the Pledge of Allegiance to promote the sale of American flags.

His books include Dr. Heidenhoff's Process (1880), Miss Ludington's Sister (1884), Equality (1897) and The Duke of Stockbridge (1900). His feeling of injustice in the economic system lead him to write Looking Backward: 2000–1887 and its sequel, Equality.

According to Erich Fromm, Looking Backward is "one of the most remarkable books ever published in America." It was the third largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many of the major Marxist writings of the day. "It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement." (Fromm, p vi). ... This political movement came to be known as Nationalism.

A short story "The Parable of the Water-Tank" from the book Equality, published in 1897, was popular with a number of early American socialists. Less successful than its prequel, Looking Backward, Equality continues the story of Julian West as he adjusts to life in the future. ...

Here's Chapter 12, "How Inequality of Wealth Destroys Liberty," from the book Equality. As noted, the book continues the story in Looking Backward with Julian West, who fell into a deep hypnotic sleep in 1887 and did not wake up until the year 2000, learning about and adjusting to life in the year 2000. He is talking to Dr. Leete, a retired physician in Boston who revived him after his 113 year-long slumber. The doctor is explaining the utopian public capitalism of the year 2000 and comparing it to life in the late 1800s. If you have forgotten what life was like for the poor living in the tenements in New York city and other places at this time, it was pretty bad. See, for example, How the Other Half Lives. Here's the chapter. If you like these historical pieces, Chapter 23, "The Parable of the Water-Tank," is interesting as well:

CHAPTER XII. How Inequality Of Wealth Destroys Liberty: "Nevertheless," said the doctor, "...There is another great and equal right of all men which, though strictly included under the right of life, is by generous minds set even above it: I mean the right of liberty--that is to say, the right not only to live, but to live in personal independence of one's fellows, owning only those common social obligations resting on all alike.

"Now, the duty of the state to safeguard the liberty of citizens was recognized in your day just as was its duty to safeguard their lives, but with the same limitation, namely, that the safeguard should apply only to protect from attacks by violence. If it were attempted to kidnap a citizen and reduce him by force to slavery, the state would interfere, but not otherwise. Nevertheless, it was true in your day of liberty and personal independence, as of life, that the perils to which they were chiefly exposed were not from force or violence, but resulted from economic causes, the necessary consequences of inequalities of wealth. Because the state absolutely ignored this side, which was incomparably the largest side of the liberty question, its pretense of defending the liberties of citizens was as gross a mockery as that of guaranteeing their lives. Nay, it was a yet more absolute mockery and on a far vaster scale.

"For, although I have spoken of the monopolization of wealth and of the productive machinery by a portion of the people as being first of all a threat to the lives of the rest of the community and to be resisted as such, nevertheless the main practical effect of the system was not to deprive the masses of mankind of life outright, but to force them, through want, to buy their lives by the surrender of their liberties. That is to say, they accepted servitude to the possessing class and became their serfs on condition of receiving the means of subsistence. Although multitudes were always perishing from lack of subsistence, yet it was not the deliberate policy of the possessing class that they should do so. The rich had no use for dead men; on the other hand, they had endless use for human beings as servants, not only to produce more wealth, but as the instruments of their pleasure and luxury.

"As I need not remind you who were familiar with it, the industrial system of the world before the great Revolution was wholly based upon the compulsory servitude of the mass of mankind to the possessing class, enforced by the coercion of economic need."

"Undoubtedly," I said, "the poor as a class were in the economic service of the rich, or, as we used to say, labor was dependent on capital for employment, but this service and employment had become in the nineteenth century an entirely voluntary relation on the part of the servant or employee. The rich had no power to compel the poor to be their servants. They only took such as came voluntarily to ask to be taken into service, and even begged to be, with tears. Surely a service so sought after could scarcely be called compulsory."

"Tell us, Julian," said the doctor, "did the rich go to one another and ask the privilege of being one another's servants or employees?"

"Of course not."

"But why not?"

"Because, naturally, no one could wish to be another's servant or subject to his orders who could get along without it."

"I should suppose so, but why, then, did the poor so eagerly seek to serve the rich when the rich refused with scorn to serve one another? Was it because the poor so loved the rich?"


"Why then?"

"It was, of course, for the reason that it was the only way the poor could get a living."

"You mean that it was only the pressure of want or the fear of it that drove the poor to the point of becoming the servants of the rich?"

"That is about it."

"And would you call that voluntary service? The distinction between forced service and such service as that would seem quite imperceptible to us. If a man may be said to do voluntarily that which only the pressure of bitter necessity compels him to elect to do, there has never been any such thing as slavery, for all the acts of a slave are at the last the acceptance of a less evil for fear of a worse. Suppose, Julian, you or a few of you owned the main water supply, or food supply, clothing supply, land supply, or main industrial opportunities in a community and could maintain your ownership, that fact alone would make the rest of the people your slaves, would it not, and that, too, without any direct compulsion on your part whatever?"

"No doubt."

"Suppose somebody should charge you with holding the people under compulsory servitude, and you should answer that you laid no hand on them but that they willingly resorted to you and kissed your hands for the privilege of being allowed to serve you in exchange for water, food, or clothing, would not that be a very transparent evasion on your part of the charge of slaveholding?"

"No doubt it would be."

"Well, and was not that precisely the relation the capitalists or employers as a class held toward the rest of the community through their monopolization of wealth and the machinery of production?"

"I must say that it was."

"There was a great deal said by the economists of your day," the doctor went on, "about the freedom of contract--the voluntary, unconstrained agreement of the laborer with the employer as to the terms of his employment. What hypocrisy could have been so brazen as that pretense when, as a matter of fact, every contract made between the capitalist who had bread and could keep it and the laborer who must have it or die would have been declared void, if fairly judged, even under your laws as a contract made under duress of hunger, cold, and nakedness, nothing less than the threat of death! If you own the things men must have, you own the men who must have them."

"But the compulsion of want," said I, "meaning hunger and cold, is a compulsion of Nature. In that sense we are all under compulsory servitude to Nature."

"Yes, but not to one another. That is the whole difference between slavery and freedom. To-day no man serves another, but all the common good in which we equally share. Under your system the compulsion of Nature through the appropriation by the rich of the means of supplying Nature's demands was turned into a club by which the rich made the poor pay Nature's debt of labor not only for themselves but for the rich also, with a vast overcharge besides for the needless waste of the system."

"You make out our system to have been little better than slavery. That is a hard word."

"It is a very hard word, and we want above all things to be fair. Let us look at the question. Slavery exists where there is a compulsory using of men by other men for the benefit of the users. I think we are quite agreed that the poor man in your day worked for the rich only because his necessities compelled him to. That compulsion varied in force according to the degree of want the worker was in. Those who had a little economic means would only render the lighter kinds of service on more or less easy and honorable conditions, while those who had less means or no means at all would do anything on any terms however painful or degrading. With the mass of the workers the compulsion of necessity was of the sharpest kind. The chattel slave had the choice between working for his master and the lash. The wage-earner chose between laboring for an employer or starving. In the older, cruder forms of slavery the masters had to be watching constantly to prevent the escape of their slaves, and were troubled with the charge of providing for them. Your system was more convenient, in that it made Nature your taskmaster, and depended on her to keep your servants to the task. It was a difference between the direct exercise of coercion, in which the slave was always on the point of rebellion, and an indirect coercion by which the same industrial result was obtained, while the slave, instead of rebelling against his master's authority, was grateful for the opportunity of serving him."

"But," said I, "the wage-earner received wages and the slave received nothing."

"I beg your pardon. The slave received subsistence--clothing and shelter--and the wage-earner who could get more than these out of his wages was rarely fortunate. The rate of wages, except in new countries and under special conditions and for skilled workers, kept at about the subsistence point, quite as often dropping below as rising above. The main difference was that the master expended the subsistence wage of the chattel slave for him while the earner expended it for himself. This was better for the worker in some ways; in others less desirable, for the master out of self-interest usually saw that the chattel, children had enough; while the employer, having no stake in the life or health of the wage-earner, did not concern himself as to whether he lived or died. There were never any slave quarters so vile as the tenement houses of the city slums where the wage-earners were housed."

"But at least," said I, "there was this radical difference between the wage-earner of my day and the chattel slave: the former could leave his employer at will, the latter could not."

"Yes, that is a difference, but one surely that told not so much in favor of as against the wage-earner. In all save temporarily fortunate countries with sparse population the laborer would have been glad indeed to exchange the right to leave his employer for a guarantee that he would not be discharged by him. Fear of losing his opportunity to work--his job, as you called it--was the nightmare of the laborer's life as it was reflected in the literature of your period. Was it not so?"

I had to admit that it was even so.

"The privilege of leaving one employer for another," pursued the doctor, "even if it had not been more than balanced by the liability to discharge, was of very little worth to the worker, in view of the fact that the rate of wages was at about the same point wherever he might go, and the change would be merely a choice between the personal dispositions of different masters, and that difference was slight enough, for business rules controlled the relations of masters and men."

I rallied once more.

"One point of real superiority at least you must admit the wage-earner had over the chattel slave. He could by merit rise out of his condition and become himself an employer, a rich man."

"Surely, Julian, you forget that there has rarely been a slave system under which the more energetic, intelligent, and thrifty slaves could and did not buy their freedom or have it given them by their masters. The freedmen in ancient Rome rose to places of importance and power quite as frequently as did the born proletarian of Europe or America get out of his condition."

I did not think of anything to reply at the moment, and the doctor, having compassion on me, pursued: "It is an old illustration of the different view points of the centuries that precisely this point which you make of the possibility of the wage-earner rising, although it was getting to be a vanishing point in your day, seems to us the most truly diabolical feature of the whole system. The prospect of rising as a motive to reconcile the wage-earner or the poor man in general to his subjection, what did it amount to? It was but saying to him, 'Be a good slave, and you, too, shall have slaves of your own.' By this wedge did you separate the cleverer of the wage-workers from the mass of them and dignify treason to humanity by the name of ambition. No true man should wish to rise save to raise others with him."

"One point of difference, however, you must at least admit," I said. "In chattel slavery the master had a power over the persons of his slaves which the employer did not have over even the poorest of his employees: he could not lay his hand upon them in violence."

"Again, Julian," said the doctor, "you have mentioned a point of difference that tells in favor of chattel slavery as a more humane industrial method than the wage system. If here and there the anger of the chattel slave owner made him forget his self-restraint so far as to cripple or maim his slaves, yet such cases were on the whole rare, and such masters were held to an account by public opinion if not by law; but under the wage system the employer had no motive of self-restraint to spare life or limb of his employees, and he escaped responsibility by the fact of the consent and even eagerness of the needy people to undertake the most perilous and painful tasks for the sake of bread. We read that in the United States every year at least two hundred thousand men, women, and children were done to death or maimed in the performance of their industrial duties, nearly forty thousand alone in the single branch of the steam railroad service. No estimate seems to have ever been attempted of the many times greater number who perished more indirectly through the injurious effects of bad industrial conditions. What chattel-slave system ever made a record of such wastefulness of human life, as that?

"Nay, more, the chattel-slave owner, if he smote his slave, did it in anger and, as likely as not, with some provocation; but these wholesale slaughters of wage-earners that made your land red were done in sheer cold-bloodedness, without any other motive on the part of the capitalists, who were responsible, save gain.

"Still again, one of the more revolting features of chattel slavery has always been considered the subjection of the slave women to the lust of their masters. How was it in this respect under the rule of the rich? We read in our histories that great armies of women in your day were forced by poverty to make a business of submitting their bodies to those who had the means of furnishing them a little bread. The books say that these armies amounted in your great cities to bodies of thirty or forty thousand women. Tales come down to us of the magnitude of the maiden tribute levied upon the poorer classes for the gratification of the lusts of those who could pay, which the annals of antiquity could scarcely match for horror. Am I saying too much, Julian?"

"You have mentioned nothing but facts which stared me in the face all my life," I replied, "and yet it appears I have had to wait for a man of another century to tell me what they meant."

"It was precisely because they stared you and your contemporaries so constantly in the face, and always had done so, that you lost the faculty of judging their meaning. They were, as we might say, too near the eyes to be seen aright. You are far enough away from the facts now to begin to see them clearly and to realize their significance. As you shall continue to occupy this modern view point, you will more and more completely come to see with us that the most revolting aspect of the human condition before the great Revolution was not the suffering from physical privation or even the outright starvation of multitudes which directly resulted from the unequal distribution of wealth, but the indirect effect of that inequality to reduce almost the total human race to a state of degrading bondage to their fellows. As it seems to us, the offense of the old order against liberty was even greater than the offense to life; and even if it were conceivable that it could have satisfied the right of life by guaranteeing abundance to all, it must just the same have been destroyed, for, although the collective administration of the economic system had been unnecessary to guarantee life, there could be no such thing as liberty so long as by the effect of inequalities of wealth and the private control of the means of production the opportunity of men to obtain the means of subsistence depended on the will of other men."

    Posted by on Thursday, December 21, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (43)


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