Anthony M. Ludovici
The Hibbert Journal 55, 195657, pp. 3034
- p. 30 -
This is not true of a sensitive and gifted creature like Charles Dickens, whom no wage, however generous, would have reconciled to his job in the blacking factory. But he was exceptional.
Nevertheless, what Dr. Charles Hall says of the kind of work industry offers, and of the reaction of the workers to it, was psychologically true enough, although for a long time it failed to create more resentment in their breasts than could be assuaged by increased pay. But, as the quoted passage shows, what Hall saw 150 years ago had sinister implications for our modern world. He recognized that the industrial activities of the West, and particularly of England, which have determined the principal features of "Civilization" ever since 1760, had created a traditional attitude towards bread-winning work in the labouring classes which was one of pronounced distaste, not to say loathing. In short, "Work" for the vast majority of Westerners meant doing, not only what they do not like to do, but also what, whilst often impairing their human endowments, was an affront to human dignity and a menace to health.
Narrowly scrutinized, moreover, although this modern attitude to work may have become more generalized and intensified since the dawn of the Industrial Era, the kind of occupations to which a high proportion of propertyless people have always been committed in our Civilization, even at the best of times, has rarely been what they would themselves of their own free will have chosen. Long before the Machine Age there were always in civilized countries a multitude of fatigues and corvées, more or less unpleasant, which none but needy people would, owing to their need, have agreed to do. Thus, for at least 30 centuries, European Civilization may fairly be described as an order of society in which most of the poor and propertyless have always been forced by their circumstances to do work which even at its best, they would not have chosen to do, and, at its worst, only their dire need could ever have compelled them to do.
For a considerable portion of the 30 centuries, the difficulty was overcome for the possessing classes by slavery. But when under the influence of Christianity this was gradually abolished, there still remained for the use of the possessing classes the goad of hunger and distress; and whenever and wherever it was necessary to recruit men, women and even children to perform distasteful work, or work that was an affront to human dignity and a menace to health, this goad could always be used, and for centuries never failed.
So that, from its earliest beginnings until yesterday, our Civilization has acted on the presupposition that no matter how many disagreeable new or old fatigues its many complications might require to be done, the necessary personnel to do them could always be found. Some kind of "Forced Labour" first, chattel slavery and, ultimately, "wage-slavery" could be relied upon to supply the "hands."
Indeed, one might go so far as to say that, had such a presupposition not been a tacitly understood condition of all the manifold developments of our Civilization ever since its inception, this Civilization as we know it would never have been possible. No member of our Western world, from long before the days of the ancient Greeks to the day before yesterday, ever once consciously thought of this
To give but a few examples from recent times which show how relatively late in our era this supposition was confidently acted upon, take first of all the Underground Railway.
Had Sir John Fowler, its designer, not been certain in the early fifties of last century of being able to find the navvies to excavate the tunnels and the men who would ultimately work the railway when completed, he would never have thought his designs worth executing. But we may rest assured that never for a moment did any doubts on these matters cross his mind. He was no fool. He knew quite well how disagreeable a daily shift whether as an engine driver, a stoker, a stationmaster or a porter would inevitably be on such a railway, especially as proper ventilation was known to be a difficulty. And those old enough to remember the Underground before it was electrified do not need to be told how extremely unpleasant even the shortest journey in one of its trains could be.
And yet not once did he or his financial backers ever doubt that the necessary personnel for realising his project could be found and induced to work in these intolerable conditions. And the presupposition on which he acted proved so wholly justified that, in 1863, the railway was opened as a going concern.
These remarks also apply to some extent to the first "Tube" railway The City and South London. In the whole course of its construction, from the earliest plans to the day of its completion nobody ever thought of asking whether the "hands" could be found to build and work it.
And if we turn to another period of English history and another form of civilized production, does anyone for a single instant doubt that those responsible for designing and building the stately mansions that dot the rural landscape of England never once asked themselves whether it would be possible to procure the domestic staffs ready to run these small palaces, climb their endless staircases repeatedly every day, carry up the fuel in winter, keep the rooms clean and polished, and perform the kitchen labours for the elaborate daily meals, let alone the occasional banquets, such homes made necessary?
We know now, ten years after our second victory over Germany, that, had the architects who designed these residences and the rich who paid for their construction, been as uncertain as we are to-day of being able to find the domestic staffs to run them, they would never have been built. The fact that these people assumed that wage-slaves
The same remarks apply to our mines, our sewerage, our forges, our tanneries, cutlery factories, etc. in fact to every feature of our intricate Civilization that involves unpleasant, dirty or actually unwholesome work, or heart-breaking drudgery. The whole vast system of paid services on which our very existence, especially our urban existence, now depends has grown up and proliferated under the presiding presupposition that the labour they required would always be available and, what is more, susceptible of being induced to perform the necessary work.
Certainly no one, even as recently as late-Edwardian days, ever foresaw that the time must come when this presupposition would prove groundless, and that we should be faced with the prospect of having either to simplify our Civilization very drastically, or else to see it crumble away of its own accord.
Nor is it without significance in this respect that perhaps the oldest of its features domestic service is already obsolescent and for large numbers of the well-to-do merely a memory. To this extent the process of simplification may be said to have started. The comfort, ease and leisure provided by the large houses referred to above are already vanishing features of our Age, and the most sanguine prophets can hardly help wondering in trepidation when and where these changes will end. For, as Dr. Tom Hare (British Medical Journal, 8.8.53) has observed, even hospitals are not now as clean as they used to be in his student days, and if this is so of places where cleanliness is a first pre-requisite, what may we expect in our own homes and in institutions where cleanliness is less important?
The dilemma is indeed more formidable than most people seem at present to appreciate. For, with the abolition first of the whip and secondly of the goad of want and starvation (both of which "incentives" to unpleasant labours were most inhuman), the uncongenial, heart-breaking and often unhealthy drudgeries inseparable from our Civilization are in peril of being dropped one by one. And what then?
Are we candidly to acknowledge that our Civilization was from the first built on callousness and oppression and should, therefore, now be scrapped before the Atom Bomb destroys it? For yet some time ahead, the people expected to perform its unpleasant and sometimes heart-breaking labours may still be lured to them by ever higher rewards and living standards. It is indeed impossible, even at this early stage of our Civilization's devolution, not to recognize that an element of Compensation for disagreeable work is already creeping into our notion of a just wage. But obviously this policy must have a term. For if in its fulfilment every miner will be able to insist on possessing a Rolls-Royce, then mining will cease in a generation.
Thus, when Dr. Toynbee sums up the situation as a conflict
How modern rulers are preparing to meet these rapidly approaching changes, due to the evanescence of the old means of "forcing" labour, and the majority's increasing awareness of their power to refuse unpleasant fatigues, is at present obscure. No well-defined policy has been thought out. Even the considerable extension of the system of profit-sharing, which is only another form of higher remuneration, will not make the kinds of work which are disliked more likeable or conceal from the worker their unpleasant features. Confronted by what is known as the "Spiral of Wages," all the Authorities have so far done is to yield under pressure to every fresh demand and betray their helplessness by merely preluding every fresh concession with ineffective protests and objections.
But this cannot continue indefinitely. The fact that it has now endured for several generations, with very marked acceleration since World War II, does not mean that it can go on if the West still hopes to preserve its Civilization in anything like its present form. Sooner or later we shall have to acknowledge that our Civilization was born of Forced Labour and reared upon it, and try to devise a Way of Life from which all the features depending on forced labour will have been eliminated. The alternative is a Police State, in which the Dictator or Dictators wield the power to drive people to uncongenial labours by means of severe sanctions and their attendant cruelties. But, unless the West ultimately becomes subjugated by a Power ready to employ this extreme form of coercion, there is little likelihood of the Authorities ever being able to adopt this solution of the present disquieting dilemma.