There happened on the afternoon of Friday, June 18, a little incident of high historical importance: not of high historical importance in the sense that it will have any great historical effect, but of high historical importance in the sense that future historians may well turn to it as an illustration of our time. Neither the place where it happened nor the fashion of its happening was of importance, but it exhibited the character of the economic turning-point round which we are passing to servile conditions and to the attempted firm establishment of plutocratic control over the mass of the population.
This incident was a Westminster debate upon, and the voting over an Amendment to, the Bill for compelling all shops to pull with the great capitalist organisations for retail trade and confine their trade within certain legal hours, and for punishing any citizen who attempted either to sell or to buy freely after those hours.
The Bill was called “The Early Closing Bill.” It proposes to forbid any free man to buy or sell in retail trade after 7 o’clock in the evening, and the Amendment touched upon a test point, the essential character of which will be seen in a moment.
At present, as we all know, shops, with a few necessary exceptions (as for newsvending), must be shut at 8. The order was an arbitrary decision rendered during the war, and had, like all the capitalist encroachments of that time, a good excuse to hide its true motive. Just as the control of drink put eight millions in the pockets of two firms alone—and Heaven knows how many millions in the pockets of other shareholders in breweries and distilleries—and yet could excuse itself as a war measure, so the arbitrary application of an early hour for shutting up all shops to the advantage of the chief capitalist stores and their armies of employees could be brought forward as necessary during war in order to prevent waste.
It is proposed in this case, as in the case of the liquor control, to continue indefinitely what was put forward as an arbitrary war order and to give it legal form. Or, to put it more simply, the capitalist forces have decided that the great steps permitted by the war towards the consolidation of their power shall be confirmed now that peace has arrived. Thus liquor control, as it is called, is to be preserved with its threefold effect of restricting free competition, creating monopoly, and cutting down the wage bill of those employed by the great capitalist organisations for the retailing of drink, and in increasing, through an unnatural restriction of hours, the total amount of drink consumed—or, to be more accurate, the total amount of profit to be made out of the drink consumed.
I think one may add, by way of digression, that the natural end of the process will be the buying out of the brewing and distilling capitalists at the new prices fixed by the inflated artificial profits; for you must remember that the object of these capitalists is not to sell beer and spirits, but to make money. If they can make more money by preventing the English from getting their ordinary food and drink they will do so: but to return to the “Early Closing” dodge.
This new step towards establishing servile conditions in retail trade is obviously to the interest of great capitalists. It helps them to extinguish the small, independent shops by multiplying restrictions to cut down their own hours to just that point where you have maximum profit in a large concern, to save on their bill for lighting and for every other detail of upkeep; it is their obvious policy to enforce what suits them in every aspect of their interest. Therefore—since it is the great capitalists who govern our plutocracy, and not the puppet politicians—it is inevitable that in the near future we should have further legislation restricting the hours of retail trade. I should not wonder if we were to have, for most retail trades, the hours of 10 to 1, the compulsory shutting up of the shop between 1 and 2, and then the hours of 2 to 7, or even 2 to 6: all this with due provision for special trades, which would be compelled to other hours. But the restricted hours I have just mentioned are the sort of scheme to which the great capitalists who are the authors of this policy are looking.
At the same time, like all legislation of servile tendency these innovations are popular with, and supported by, the mass of the proletariat concerned. That, as I pointed out in my book, “The Servile State,” is the second great motive-power of servile legislation. The first is its advantage to the capitalists—but for which, of course, it would never have been heard of; the second is its advantage to the proletariat half of the capitalist machine. The disadvantage—the unmitigated disadvantage—of servile conditions are felt only by the dwindling numbers of free, small owners whom it is the obvious policy of great capitalists to crush and for whom the proletariat, having long-given up all hope of property and freedom, care nothing. Citizens who have been long deprived of their property and who have ceased to feel the instinct for it with the accompanying acceptance of responsibility, tend to lose their citizenship. They are used to living on a wage or dole, they have been brought up all their lives under the discipline of capitalist masters, and their idea of well-being is not freedom, but security and sufficiency, including leisure. And what could be better for them than laws compelling the stupider capitalists, who do not yet see their advantage in the new methods, to restrict the hours during which their servants shall work?
You have, therefore, I say, behind this particular piece of legislation two overwhelming forces which are bound to win, and to win quickly: first, the interest of the great capitalists who pay our professional politicians and run our legislation; second, the interest of the employed (as they are called), that is, of the mass of the people, who are now without property and dependent upon a wage. The present Bill is only a try-on; but the full forces behind the policy will very shortly be set to work and it will become part of positive law.
Now for the little point which I said at the beginning of this was of such high historical interest.
An Amendment was moved to the effect that shops where a man and his wife worked on their own and where no assistant was employed should be allowed to remain free. The Amendment was carried! . . . .
A highly comic ephemeral incident worthy of careful preservation in a scrap-book: for of course no such exception will be allowed to stand for a moment when the real legislation begins: it would be fatal to the paymasters.
I hope the reader will allow me to digress and to laugh at the spectacle of the House of Commons—of all bodies—suddenly and unexpectedly supporting sound morals on a tiny little occasion, the circumstances of which will not be repeated. It reminds one of boys playing the fool in the temporary absence of their master. But to return.
The Amendment touched upon what is, philosophically, the core of the whole matter.
When the Roman Emperors under the growing influence of the Catholic Church ameliorated the lot of the slave, they could not, in such a society as theirs, pretend to catch the free men in the same net, or to use humane legislation hypocritically for an inhuman end. They said, for instance: “You must not take away the money which a slave has in certain circumstances accumulated for himself.” But they did not say that a free man might not dispose of his own accumulation. They did not divide free men into two artificial substances: one, himself regarded as a slave-owner; two, himself regarded as a slave owned by himself. The free man was allowed to do what he liked with his own accumulation; only, if he owned a slave, he was not allowed to take away the slave’s peculium.
But in our more chaotic society this monstrosity has appeared. A man is his own employer? Then he is two men, an employer and a poor employee, and behold, the employee part of him must be protected! My friend Mr Jones, the butcher, who kills his own meat and sells it, is divided, in the eye of our great reformers, into two people. He is Mr Jones, the capitalist employer of Mr Jones the wage-slave; and Mr Jones the capitalist will be severely forbidden to employ Mr Jones the wage-slave after 7 o’clock.
What hypocrites! As though the whole of their pretended solicitude for the wage-earner would not be met by simply enacting that all employed men and women, being no longer really free, should be protected by a legal restriction of their hours!
Sometimes argument is attempted by the humbugs and by the men who write to their orders in their great papers. I have seen it attempted in this form: “If the small man were allowed to remain open as long as he liked he would have an undue privilege in competition against the big man, or rather against the big company with the very big man in its background.” It is a horrible thought, is it not, this giving of privilege in competition to the weak against the strong, to the unfortunate against the fortunate? Still, these injustices must occur, you know, in the application of a higher principle. You cannot have freedom without certain inconveniences—and that is one of them: that the little chandler’s shop and the little draper shall wickedly compete with Harrods.
“If the small man is allowed to remain open, competition between him and other small men will produce the most terribly long hours and the unfortunate fellow will, in spite of his better self, have to work himself to death”—an argument which applies, of course, to all free action whatsoever. If you allow a lawyer to work late at night, then the most active lawyers will work late at night and the other poor devils will be compelled also to work late at night, mugging up their briefs, or go under in the struggle. If you allow a writer like myself to sit up till two in the morning (as I often do earning money or, alternatively, writing fanaticism for nothing) then you are setting the pace for other writers—and it is a damn shame.
But I think we are agreed that these arguments are the lies of advocacy. The real motive in applying this new policy to the small shopkeeper is to eliminate him.
Meanwhile, we have had on this day, June 18, 1920, a pretty little example, and the day is something of an historic date. The House of Commons did actually vote to retain a small department of freedom!
Take the converse case, and consider how interesting it would be to come across in some chronicle of the twelfth century a converse point with regard to the treatment of the serf on the land, in the time when serfage was turning into freedom, the converse of our progress from freedom to serfage.
Suppose we were to discover in an old record of a council the King and his wise men, particularly the Bishops, deciding that a lord of the manor might not in future compel his serfs to work off their tenant land during particular hours and on his domain land. Let us suppose that we found in that council one bishop suggesting an amendment, to wit, that where the serf had no land the lord of the manor should have the right to use him during those hours, after the old fashion. Would not we regard such a debate as an extremely interesting example of an historical turning-point? Would we not say: “We have here a strong light thrown upon the transition from servile to free labour. We find an attempt in the King’s Council to maintain the old servile conditions, and it is of great interest to note that the conservative feeling was still so strong that an amendment could still be carried in favour of the old and stricter slavery”?
That would be an exact converse parallel to what went on in the House of Commons upon the Friday afternoon, June 18, 1920. The attempt to keep the serf to his old servile labour was bound to be defeated because things were moving forward. But the exceptional point made in the debate would throw light upon the stage which the transition had reached. It was the moment when the memory of slavery still lingered and when the serf was not yet a peasant. So does this little debate (in the House of Commons of all places!) throw light upon the stage which we have reached in our transition from free labour to servile labour. There is still a memory of full freedom and free exceptions struggling to survive in our industrial society as it slowly builds up the slave-conquered.
For, we must make no error, the whole story of our time in industrial civilisation is the story of a reversion. The gradual achievement of freedom, the work of the Catholic Church for centuries, is now, where its influence has declined, in process of reaction, and we are returning to the establishment of the Servile State.
I shall be interested, by the way, to see the comments of the chief capitalist interests on this comic interlude. I have already noted the howl of indignation in Cadbury’s Press: the Amendment is denounced as “reactionary.” A fierce indignation inspires the writers employed upon this brief. They feel it intolerable that a free man should buy and sell at his own hours. They are already calling out for the Government to intervene—which it will.
I have not yet seen the other official papers of capitalism. They will undoubtedly join the chorus, but I look forward with some pleasure to reading their comments.
Originally published in The New Age, July 1, 1920.