Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/July 1914/The Struggle for Equality in the United States VIII
|THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES|
The Current Trend of Affairs. III
No feature of the present era is more full of promise than the growing strength of the working classes. The gain in self-respect, political influence, ability to cooperate and capacity for self-help during the nineteenth century is almost beyond belief. This is notably true where the working classes occupy a strategic position in bargaining with their employers, as in the building trades and in connection with railways. Quite the reverse of the progressive deterioration of the masses predicted by some prophets of disaster is taking place. The rank and file of society is the recruiting ground of so much that is best among our political and industrial leaders that it is obviously the mainstay of our civilization. If any one thing has been clearly demonstrated it is the capacity of the man of humble origin to make good in a surprising number of instances if he is only given a chance. It is a mistake to associate the working-class movement with turbulence and disorder to the exclusion of the fortitude and self-sacrifice displayed in attaining its ends. The acts of lawlessness are, after all, sporadic, and are so generally recognized as anti-social that society can usually be depended upon to suppress them with a firm hand. Unfortunately, there is less certainty that the community possesses the foresight, patience and resolution necessary to deal intelligently with the straitened circumstances and conditions out of which lawlessness springs. Among the factors that are welding together the diverse linguistic, racial and religious elements that come to us from other lands, few are as influential as the labor movement. The independence and self-reliance of working people, and the quickness with which they resent an insult, are common subjects of remark among employers of domestic and of other help. The point of view of the employer is easy enough to understand, but it calls attention to a situation that is socially hopeful. Even from the standpoint of employers, a working class that knows its rights and dares maintain them is to be preferred to one that is servilely submissive. It puts employers on their mettle and under bonds of good behavior. Much as socialism, when it goes to certain extremes, is to be feared, it renders wealth less arrogant in its demands, makes powerfully for the correction of many of the manifest evils of the times, and is, on the whole, a good rather than a bad omen for society.
I am, of course, aware that the working classes have no monopoly of virtue. Their ranks have their full share of those whom Horace Greeley described as "the conceited, the crotchety, the selfish, the headstrong, the pugnacious, the unappreciated, the played-out, the idle and the good-for-nothing generally." The position of the employer, consequently, is not in a bed of roses. His best efforts are ofttimes misconstrued and rewarded with ingratitude. Harassed by walking delegates, it is not strange that he sometimes concludes that his employees ought to starve till they come to their senses. "Lay a silver dollar on the shelf," an employer of railway labor once remarked, "and it will be there when you come back. Lay a working man on the shelf and he will starve. This is the solution of the labor problem." These words well express the inability of labor to hold out in any contest with capital. None the less, the majority of employers in their calmer moments do not court a contest with their employees. In the first place, the contest may be a protracted one and employers are not unmindful of their own losses. In this age of organized sympathy, those on a strike are often supported for weeks by contributions from those at work. In the second place, there is a better solution of the labor problem. The more enlightened employers find it good business to manifest a disposition to do the square thing, and to talk over the facts with their men fully and frankly. Because a man is getting a living wage, or one well above what he once got, is no reason for smothering his ambition for one still higher. The suppression of ambition would be fatal to progress. There can be no enduring peace between capital and labor save on the basis of fair dealing by both parties.
Attention is sometimes called to the fact that the working class, by playing upon the fears of rival politicians, can extort legislation unduly favorable to itself. Instances of such legislation undoubtedly occur and they are a source of danger to the state. It is doubtful, however, whether they are as common as the control of the state in the interests of other classes, especially in the United States where social legislation lays so far behind many European countries. It is true that social legislation is piling heavy burdens upon the state. But it is a worthy object and it is far less expensive than modern military establishments which it helps to keep within bounds. Viewed simply as an investment, the cost of social legislation may more than justify itself. It is said that social insurance in Germany has made the working classes more contented and efficient and has contributed to the rapid industrial advance of the empire. The world has never been unfamiliar with class rule. But the spectacle of the working class using the state for the advancement of its own interests is so modern that it strikes many minds as especially dangerous. There is a feeling that the working class will use its power with less moderation than the capitalist class. It is doubtful whether this feeling is well founded. There is no force in mere numbers unless they act together, and there is little reason to suppose that the working class is any more nearly united than the capitalists in our politics. The demands of working people sometimes appear more brazen than those of capitalists, but this is an element of weakness rather than strength. So long as the political activities of any faction are not insidious, society has little to fear.
There is a good deal of dissension in the ranks of labor. Dissimilarity rather than similarity of interest between trades is the basis of trade-unionism. The downfall of the Knights of Labor is commonly attributed to disregarding this basis. By admitting workmen of different trades into its local organizations, the seed of dissolution was sown. Many workingmen, such as those in the building trades and the railway trainmen, have more in common with their employers than they have with the great mass of unskilled labor. The railway trainmen are not affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, and the latter is on unfriendly terms with the Industrial Workers of the World. The political or parliamentary socialists in turn differ with the I. W. W. on the important matter of tactics. Moreover, socialism as a political movement is divided into the orthodox followers of Marx and the reformists or possibilists, a line of cleavage destined to become much more marked the moment socialism captures the reins of power.
It is only fair to say, however, that certain aspects of the labor movement can not but excite the apprehension of the disinterested observer. For one thing, there is serious ground for regret that the different classes of labor are advancing at such unequal rates. On the one hand, there is an aristocracy of organized labor that revels in prosperity. On the other hand, there is much unskilled labor that gets less than a living wage. There are labor monopolies which by threatening to strike can bring such pressure to bear as to secure demands far beyond their just deserts, and part of what they are able to extort is at the expense of their less fortunate brethren. To those who have more is given, while from those who have not is taken away part of even the little that they have. The rules governing apprenticeship sometimes aim at monopoly. The stay-at-home vote is as fatal to competent leadership in the labor world as in politics. The sympathy of the public with labor is sometimes so strong that it condones acts of violence. On occasion the demands of labor are so immoderate as to threaten the goose that lays the golden egg. It is possible that this condition has about been reached in the case of railway labor. The professed object of the militant branch of the Industrial Workers of the World is to take over the capital of the country by destroying the business of the employer. To this end, costly strikes are precipitated, materials and machinery wantonly damaged, the good will of the business wilfully injured, and inefficiency on the part of the workers openly encouraged and practised. The fact that organized labor, in general, is seemingly so indifferent to increasing the efficiency of the workers and so largely contents itself with strengthening their bargaining power is to be regretted. It unwarrantedly interferes at times with proper discipline by the employer. The shallow view that the way to make work and raise the general level of wages is for every man to confine himself to a minimum stint is unfortunately too frequently a fundamental article of faith in labor circles. Organized labor less frequently aims at increasing the efficiency of production than organized capital.
There are some indications that private property, far from being on its last legs, is taking on new life. At any rate, it is showing symptoms of great vitality. Man has an incurable desire for property. This is nowhere more conspicuous than among a large portion of the foreign born. The industry and thrift of the German immigrants are proverbial, and much the same thing is true of the Norwegian, Swedish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. The Poles in the Connecticut Valley work from early dawn till dusk at weeding onions and practise the strictest economy. They are buying farm after farm and are noted for meeting their obligations on the dot. The yearning for one's own is so deep and strong that in many Polish boarding houses each man's meat, potatoes, etc., is purchased for his individual account and cooked in separate vessels for his personal use. If some portions of the population are given to extravagance, other portions carry the practise of thrift to an excess, in many instances going without things necessary to health which they are abundantly able to buy.
The drift of current opinion is not hostile to property per se. Its animus is rather against special privilege of all kinds. It is also bent on subjecting property that has outgrown the restraints of competition to political control. Where political control proves inadequate, however, there is a disposition to resort to collective ownership and operation. It is undeniable, also, that the right of private property in such gifts of nature as forest and mineral wealth, and in the future "unearned increment" of land in large cities, is being more and more called in question. But, on the other hand, practically every one recognizes the indefeasible right of a man to property in any value that his labor creates, and the great majority of minds approve the right to property in the product which capital creates under competitive conditions that are normal and fair. The preponderance of opinion still strongly favors private ownership and initiative, and relies upon self-interest as the fountain source of the additional capital required for the further development of our resources. It is noteworthy that socialism limits its attack on property to things instrumental in exploiting the working classes. A member of the Socialist party in such good and regular standing as Spargo contemplates the retention of private property in a portion of producer's as well as of consumer's goods. In appealing to farmers and small dealers, socialism is under the necessity of moderating its attacks on property, thereby losing something of its purely proletarian character. It is significant, also, that the national constitution of the Socialist party, approved by referendum in 1912, declares that any member of the party
There is little prospect of a contest in which all the property owners will be found in one camp and all those without property in another. The normal craving in every man of ambition to accumulate something of his own works strongly against such an alignment. In most contests, those who ride are not pitted singly against those who walk, but various combinations of these two classes constitute the contending parties. Moreover, the combinations are rarely the same in two successive contests.
Many of the great reforms that have been adopted have not destroyed property, but have changed conditions in such a way as to increase the incentives in life, and to enlarge the sum total of things capable of ownership. The abolition of slavery simply transferred slave property from the master to him who had been the slave to the mutual good of both parties. Railway control and effective regulation of trusts do not make the community poorer, but give increased zest to life by interfering with the few plundering the many. If it were practicable to restore the unlawful pickings of industrial combinations to those whose pockets have been filched, there would be no destruction of property, but merely a return of value to those to whom it rightfully belongs. The control which the community is asserting over children, in so far as it makes the child stronger mentally and physically, increases the value of the property right which the child at maturity has in himself. The greater freedom accorded women, married or single, including the recognition of their individuality in the ownership of property, has merely lodged a control in them which was formerly exercised by their husbands or fathers.
Furthermore, an increase of collective property may enlarge rather than contract the sphere of private property by giving the individual more playroom in life. This is the normal consequence of public expenditures for education. The municipalization of public works, such as water, lighting and surface transportation, has contributed to the prosperity of private industry in many European cities. If the state were completely freed from the control of special interests, if all forms of exploitation were abolished, including the various kinds of corporate rascality, it may well be that private property in numberless directions would be given a new lease of life. The lack of sympathy between capital and labor is an ominous fact. But every successful attempt to bridge the chasm, every reform that makes the working class feel that it has something more than a stipulated wage at stake in industry or that makes the relation between wages and efficiency more obvious, will make for the continuance of the existing order. It is no longer prudent for the state to take a negative attitude toward the social problem. Positive action is imperative or it will fall into the hands of the more venturesome portion of society. The Liberal party in Great Britain has pointed the way. By keeping abreast of the times it has helped to prevent a radical brand of socialism from sweeping the country. As Lowell puts it:
It is possible that our institutions may be wrecked by innovation, but our danger lies rather in not responding rapidly enough to the reasonable demands of the times. Our different states are so many political experiment stations for the trying out of new ideas, and a dangerous fad is apt to be found out and discarded before it makes its way over many states. If any features of the Oregon plan of government prove unwise, it is only a matter of time when they will be abandoned by the people of the state themselves.
The best way to conserve what is good is sedulously to remove what is bad. The nation that is genuinely progressive is in the best sense conservative. The man who gains recognition and promotion is inclined to take due credit to himself and to think that, after all, the world is not fundamentally wrong. Hence, there is no better way to maintain the social order than to remove every species of favoritism that prevents men of ability from advancing in life. The effect is at once to strengthen the powers that be and to deprive the forces of discontent of able leadership. The stability of the social order in England lies in the fact that the nation has not stood still, but has from time to time adapted its institutions to changing conditions. This is probably the most distinctive fact in English history. Every one is aware that revolutionary outbursts frequently miscarry by creating a reaction. But the reverse is also true. Where the dominant class places freedom of discussion under the ban and will permit no change, as has been true much of the time in Russia, the forces that make for progress have no alternative but revolution. The French Revolution itself was largely due to the obstructionists who held out blindly against reform. The reactionaries of our time are assuming a heavy responsibility.
American democracy is commonly associated with an open mind. We have avoided the extreme conservatism to which Sir Henry Maine thought a broad suffrage inclined. Our material civilization has been one of progressive improvement. Our inventive ingenuity has a worldwide reputation. We have become par excellence the land of large-scale production. The prevalence of the reading habit has familiarized the public with the more important achievements of science. The doctrine of the ascent of man has displaced that of the fall of man in secular affairs and to some extent in theology. We have been in a measure free from many of the old-world traditions. "The American people, as a rule, approach a new object, a new theory, or a new practise; with a degree of hope and confidence which no other people exhibit." Such facts as these indicate a state of mind favorable to progress, but they do not warrant the belief that we are prone to revolutionary suggestion.
Contrary to the common supposition, there is a large streak of conservatism in the American people. Bagehot claimed for the people of Great Britain the proud distinction of excelling every other people in "the virtue of stupidity," "nature's favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion." In this respect, the American people are not so far behind those of Great Britain as many suppose. Not until 1912 was a federal bureau established to gather information about children. We were one of the last among the leading nations of the world to take steps to abolish the wholly unnecessary disease known as "phossy jaw." The visionary and impracticable enthusiast is probably accorded as scant a hearing in the United States as in any other country. Our toleration of all sorts of fads and isms should not be mistaken for approval. In many industries, such as steel, agricultural implements, the textile trades and dressed meats, the individual has become a cog in a huge industrial machine. Nevertheless, a return to the scheme of production formerly in vogue is not seriously considered. Probably the Socialists are as much opposed to sacrificing the efficiency of large-scale production as any one else. We pride ourselves on our freedom from tradition, all the time oblivious to the fact that we have been rapidly gathering a set of traditions all our own. We have clung tenaciously to competition as a regulator of the railway industry long after it has broken down, and we are seeking to restore competitive conditions by dissolving the trusts. We have a strong aversion to a third term for the presidency. We still retain the form of the electoral college, and the custom of Congress not meeting in regular session till thirteen months after its members have been chosen. A population that is instinctively radical would hardly have tolerated our judicial system for more than one hundred years. Our system of checks and balances is of the very essence of conservatism. We content ourselves with a written constitution so rigid that, like a religious creed, the only well-recognized mode of amendment is by interpretation and the slow process of accretion. Interstate commerce has increased by leaps and bounds, and many of our industries have become nation-wide in character, and yet we retain a distribution of powers between the states and the nation intended for a time when comparatively little commerce crossed state lines, when industry was largely a neighborhood affair, and when the sense of nationality was weak. Our constitution antedates "the railroad, the steamboat, and the French Revolution, and was contemporary with George the Third, Marie Antoinette, and flintlock muskets."
An appreciative foreign observer remarks:
Our most distinctive and persistent tradition is our self-reliant individualism. This is at once our strength and our weakness. It has hastened the industrial conquest of a continent, but it has wasted our natural resources, needlessly sacrificed human life, and it has been indifferent to the general welfare. So long as private profit is consistent with public ends, it is a source of strength, but the moment it becomes inconsistent it is a source of weakness. The flagrant evils of American life are largely due to applying to present-day conditions a philosophy suited to the frontier. We can not regulate the railways and the trusts, reform the tariff, or abolish the slums without encountering an overweening individualism. The disregard of speed ordinances by automobilists, the prostitution of public office to private ends, the corrupting influence of business on our political life, and the all too prevalent spirit of lawnessness are traceable to this characteristic. We have been optimistic to a fault. We have cherished the delusion that our manifest evils if left alone will eradicate themselves. We have assumed that we are in a special sense the chosen people of God. No matter which way we turn, the "psychological twist" which originated in pioneer days interferes with our becoming a socialized democracy.
The opponents of the demand for a larger measure of popular government forget the growing intelligence of the people. Schools and colleges, books, newspapers and magazines, modern transportation and communication, business intercourse, the trade union, political discussion, the numerous clubs and Chautauqua circles, and the growing density of population which brings mind more frequently in contact with mind, are so many agencies for promoting the general enlightenment. Rural free delivery, the telephone, the interurban trolley, and the influence of the city are widening the mental horizon of the farmer.
More fundamental is the influence of the scientific spirit to which Darwin's works gave such a decided impetus. Laboratory methods of research are pushing forward the frontier of knowledge. Many of our universities and technical schools are devoting themselves to pure science as well as to vocational training. Electrical machinery, the aeroplane, the automobile and wireless telegraphy arouse the scientific curiosity of the young. They also engender respect for the profession of the engineer who delves into the mysteries of nature. Besides, the ideals of democracy are permeating all classes of society.
John Stuart Mill aptly said more than sixty years ago:
The common man is not only more intelligent, but he has a keener sense of self-respect. This is partly because he is better off materially. Penury and want have a brutalizing effect because they prevent man from leading a wholesome, normal life. The material comforts of life not only affect our physical welfare, but they influence our mental and moral outlook. Give a man something more than the bare necessities of life and you make it possible for his better nature, his desire for books, travel and education, to compete with his lower or sensual self. Doubtless something more than an increase of this world's goods is necessary to the reformation and upbuilding of character. The springs that issue from the hidden recesses of the heart are no less important. An increase of wealth unaccompanied by a wholesome expansion of desires is a curse rather than a blessing. Great wealth is often enervating. Habits of luxurious ease are degrading. There can be no doubt, however, that the comforts and decencies which the nineteenth century brought within the reach of the masses have done much to civilize mankind. Besides, the process of acquiring wealth has been helpful. It has forced men to contrive and has saved them from idle and aimless lives. Commercial intercourse has done much to widen the mental horizon, to undermine prejudice and to banish provincialism.
The problems of the day which give character to the present age are not due to the growing ignorance and degradation of the electorate. We are not witnessing "the revolt of the unfit," but the demands of the "fit" for simple justice. The spread of intelligence and a stronger spirit of fair play are liberating new wants, pointing the way to new ambitions, and are rendering men more self-assertive, more insistent upon justice. "Wider knowledge," says Lloyd George, "is a creating in the mind of the workman growing dissatisfaction with the conditions under which he is forced to live." Besides, the improvement in economic conditions that has occurred within a life time whets the appetite for something more, and the shortening of the working day gives men time to realize how inferior their state is in comparison with their fondest hopes. The hope of better things in our present social system has to some extent taken the place of religious belief. The failure of incomes among a large portion of the population to keep step with rising prices always makes men chafe. But when the expectations of men for something better are once aroused, such a rise of prices as the last fifteen years have witnessed is doubly trying. When a nation like China, in which ancestor worship and reverence for the past have been time-honored points of view, is shaken to its very foundation by a political and social revolution, we in America who profess democracy as our ideal can hardly hope to escape the sweep of a movement that aims at uplifting the common lot and according the masses a larger voice in the management of affairs. The movement for the betterment of mankind seems destined to go on whatever befalls the fortunes of particular individuals. The forces of democracy are so strong that it matters little whether a Roosevelt, a Taft or a Wilson is president.
Six facts justify a hopeful view of the future. The first is "toleration in religion, the best fruit of the last four centuries." This is fundamental to liberty and promises to save us from frittering away our energies in needless bickerings. The second is our system of public schools, which provides us with a certain minimum of enlightenment. The third is the keen ethical sense of the people. The questions of the day that arouse most interest involve matters of right and wrong. Our most successful politicians are great preachers. The fourth is the spirit of unity that pervades the land. Sectional feeling is at a low ebb. The east and the west, the north and the south, are more nearly one than ever before. The entire country acquiesces in the influence which the states that tried to secede in 1861 now exercise at Washington. Exhibitions of class feeling are, after all, exceptional. Commercial intercourse between different portions of the country makes strongly for community of interest. When one considers how frequently the bonds of affection within the family are strained to the point of breaking, the spirit of concord in the business world is little less than marvelous. The fifth is the success with which large corporations sift out competent leaders. Big business occasionally acquires an element of monopoly and menaces the state itself, but the management of its own affairs is commonly marked by a high degree of efficiency. Rivalry for promotion among capable men is especially keen in the large concern.
Nepotism and other forms of favoritism now and then determine preferment, but large enterprises have usually been free from these influences. The sixth is the wholesome effect which comes from doing things in the open. The tendency to insist upon publicity in corporate and public management is strong.
I am not unmindful of the perils which attend the period upon which we have entered. Some of them have been alluded to in the course of these pages. In addition I will mention the following. First, is the prevalence of a superficial habit of reading and thinking. Few college graduates, even, are capable of sustained thought. Many voters read nothing but a party newspaper. Second, is the difficulty which many voters experience in foreseeing the distant consequences of some kinds of political action. Third, is the vice of indifference and irresponsibility to which some voters are subject. In a large population, the amount of sovereignty that resides in the individual is so small that he is tempted to wonder if it makes any difference whether he votes or not. Fourth, is the temptation to assume that the majority is invariably right, or, at any rate, that it is irresistible and that it is not worth while to try to reverse it. Fifth, the press is interested in selling news and has a certain bias in favor of war. It is therefore tempted to pander to prejudice against foreigners and to foment international ill-feeling. The manufacturers of armor plate and other military supplies are subject to the same temptation. These and other perils, however, seem to me for the most part as inevitable as the dangers which attend the young man who leaves home to go to college, or is set adrift in the world to shift for himself. Moreover, they are largely offset by the critical spirit which has taken the place of a blind obedience to authority and precedent among a large number of the population. As responsibility is the making of the man that is in the boy, so political institutions that depend upon the self-control, public spirit and wisdom of the masses tend to bring out the better side of human nature. One can not learn to swim without the perils which attend going into the water. Neither can humanity acquire a larger measure of self-discipline with the aid of democratic institutions without the risk of not making the best use of its opportunities. When the suffrage was enlarged in Great Britain in 1867, Robert Lowe is said to have remarked: "We must now at least educate our new masters." No words are more appropriate at the present juncture in human affairs.
- O. D. Skelton, "Socialism, a Critical Analysis," pp. 112-113.
- National Constitution of the Socialist Party, Section 6, Article II.
- Op. cit., pp. 16-17.
- "Popular Government," pp. 35, 36, 41 and 98.
- Charles W. Eliot, op. cit., p. 63.
- Thomas Nixon Carver, "Sociology and Social Progress," pp. 501-502.
- Walter E. Weyl, op. cit., p. 15.
- A. Maurice Low, "The American People, A Study in National Psychology, The Harvesting of a Nation," Vol. 2, p. 300.
- Op. cit., p. 756.
- Robert Donald, "The Square Deal in England," an authorized interview with David Lloyd George, The Outlook, Vol. 101, June 22, 1912, p. 398.
- Charles W. Eliot, op. cit., p. 55.