The small owner of old days—farmer, craftsman, boat-owner, storekeeper—was a truly free man. He possessed the instruments of his livelihood, no one could take them away and so take away his livelihood with them. He thought as a free man. He estimated his well-being in terms of property. He did not think of property as the privileges of a few, or as an unfair advantage: he thought of it as a natural condition of life, enjoyed by most citizens. He inherited property—especially his house and land. He left it to his children. When he made a contract freely with another free man, he felt bound to observe that contract and felt it no grievance that the other party should require him to do so. He took his share of the public burden, paying, out of his own money, certain sums for public purposes; in those days sums small compared with his total earnings. It was natural that he should help to decide with his fellows how public funds thus formed should be spent. So the whole democratic system could work easily and well.
His labor enriched him. It paid him to be a hard worker. If he was slack in his work he was blameworthy, not only in the eyes of his neighbors, but in his own eyes. Such men forming the most part of the commonwealth gave society its tone and spirit. Those who were not owners could become so by saving and, after serving other men, could become independent in their turn.
Society was inspired politically by the Free Mind, which is in harmony with man’s nature: for all men have Free Will.
But when this free man sank to be a proletarian, deprived of property, wholly dependent upon a wage, his mind gradually changed. At last he became a man with a proletarian mind. To the proletarian mind work is an evil, a burden wrongfully imposed by another.
The proletarian knows that his work enriches not himself but somebody else. He cannot, by saving, in a proletarian society, acquire independence as a small owner: for in a proletarian society the small owner is ruined. An exceptional man can rise out of the proletariat into the privileged owning class, but he does so at the expense of his fellows. The mass of him can never be other than proletarian, or at least the proletarian mind gets into that mood and is fixed in it.
The proletarian mind feels every incentive to spending what it earns and no incentive to saving, just as it has no direct incentive to work save for the necessity of keeping alive; and livelihood which is, in social justice, no more than his due, is not the product of his own choice and effort, but is doled out to him by another.
His ideal can only be to get as much as possible for as little effort as possible. In pursuing that ideal his capitalist master sets him the example; for the owners who in a capitalist state (that is, a proletarian society) are a privileged minority. They live by profit and by obtaining as much as possible for as little effort as possible—often with no effort beyond the gambler’s effort.
The proletarian mind is not conscious of duties to the commonwealth, save, still, in one particular, that of patriotism; and even this is growing weaker with the proletariat as proletarian conditions grow more hopelessly permanent.
Far worse spiritual consequences follow. The proletarian mind loses the sense of home for a proletariat has no roots. It drifts from place to place. Its habitation is “the labor market.” It inherits nothing and has no hope of handing on anything to posterity. To tell the plain truth, the proletarian mind despairs. So do the minds of its masters, for the evil we do to others bears fruit in ourselves.
The proletarian mind cannot but fall into hatred of its oppressor and that hatred is enhanced by the contempt of which it feels itself to be unjustly the victim.
In such a mood how it is possible for men to enjoy leisure, to keep their sense of beauty and to exercise the Arts? The whole thing is inhuman.
Meanwhile, the privileged owner live in dread of falling into the proletarian condition. That catastrophe lies before them on every occasion and this dread affects especially those who think wrongfully to benefit by the sufferings of their fellow men.
The proletarian mind easily adheres to the profession of democracy. It will acclaim leaders who talk of democracy. But it is incapable of democratic action. It has forgotten what it was to be free. That is why modern industrial capitalism, as it is called (but we know that its true name is “proletarianism”) more and more in one country after another accepts a despot and under whatever name the despotism is labeled looks to it for its salvation from its misery.
There as never been such a mood before in the history of the world and of its nature it cannot endure, but in passing it may breed something worse still. Never before has there been a social system based upon destitution combined with political freedom: upon free citizens, lacking economic freedom.
Note particularly that the worst feature in the whole affair is the lack of human bonds. To a man who has not experience of anything but the modern social injustice and who is filled with its bitterness, the strength and value of a human bond, of loyalty, affection, neighborly custom between the poorer and the wealthier man can mean nothing. But to those who have experience of such human bonds, they mean everything.
It is not too late now to attempt a restoration of the old loyalties and personal contracts and long domestic familiarity which humanized and modified and made tolerable the older inequalities among men. When we come to speak of restoring better things we shall not begin by taking the proletarian mind for granted, we shall rather begin by aiming at destroying that mind and substituting for it conditions of economic freedom and the free mind of the free man.