All these destitute creatures are trying to better their condition. One day they see on the road at the confines of our baron's estate a notice-board indicating by certain signs adapted to their comprehension that the laborer who is willing to settle on this estate will receive the tools and materials to build his cottage and sow his fields, and a portion of land rent free for a certain number of years. The number of years is represented by so many crosses on the sign-board, and the peasant understands the meaning of these crosses.
So the poor wretches swarm over the baron's lands, making roads, draining marshes, building villages. In nine years he begins to tax them. Five years later he levies rent. Then he doubles it. The peasant accepts these new conditions because he cannot find better ones elsewhere; and little by little, by the aid of laws made by the oppressors, the poverty of the peasant becomes the source of the landlord's wealth. And it is not only the Lord of the Manor who preys upon him. A whole host of usurers swoop down upon the villages, increasing as the wretchedness of the peasants increases. That is how things went in the Middle Ages; and today is it not still the same thing? If there were free lands which the peasant could cultivate if he pleased, would he pay £50 to some "Shabble of a Duke" for condescending to sell him a scrap? Would he burden himself with a lease which absorbed a third of the produce? Would he—on the métayer system—consent to give the half of his harvest to the landowner?
But he has nothing. So he will accept any conditions, if only he can keep body and soul together, while he tills the soil and enriches the landlord.
So in the Nineteenth Century, just as in the Middle Ages, the poverty of the peasant is a source of wealth to the landed proprietor.
The landlord owes his riches to the poverty of the peasants, and the wealth of the capitalist comes from the same source.
Take the case of a citizen of the middle class who, somehow or other, finds himself in possession of £20,000. He could, of course, spend his money at the rate of o£ £2,000 a year, a mere bagatelle in these days of fantastic, senseless luxury. But then he would have nothing left at the end of ten years. So, being a "practical person," he prefers to
- "Shabble of a Duke" is an expression coined by Carlyle; it is a somewhat free rendering of Kropotkine's "Monsieur le Vicomte," but I think it expresses his meaning.—Trans.