When the system of wage working began to be fully developed under what is called “Industrial Capitalism,” it became more and more evident that the increasing mass of wage workers would suffer from insufficiency, because the driving force of the system was the making of profit and, therefore, the paying as little as possible for labor. When the wage-worker had no other resources, he had to take what was given him and his paymaster gave him as little as possible. The masses suffered insufficiency of food, bad housing conditions, poor clothing and the rest of it. This was first apparent in England, where the new wage working system was born. Wherever industrial Capitalism arose elsewhere in Europe the same conditions of insufficiency followed it.
The evil did not spread to America till much later, because in America there was a vast reserve of underdeveloped land natural resources. Also in America, for a long lime, a large proportion of wage workers had the chance of changing their condition by moving to new undeveloped places and, even if they remained at a wage, selling their labor at a good price, because it was in high demand. But even the United States at last began to feel the growth of the evil. Insufficiency, a natural fruit of production for profit, pressed everywhere upon the masses of society.
To meet this the workers organized themselves. They struck collective bargains with their paymasters, using the weapon of the strike to enforce their demands. The consequence was a state of continuous social warfare throughout industrial society. Moreover, as the interests of the worker at a wage and the controller of capital were directly opposed, this warfare not only embittered relations throughout the whole community, but lowered the economic value of the community. One hostile body, the employers, did all they could to lower the wage and therefore the purchasing power of the other hostile body opposed to it, the wage-workers. That other hostile body did all it could to diminish the profit, that is, to weaken the motive force of production.
Meanwhile, there was always a large margin of workers who could not find employment. In times of economic stress this margin became enormous. It was always a vile thing that many should be without resources; when their number passes a certain level it became a mortally perilous thing. America, which had long offered special advantages to the wage-workers, and had maintained a large proportion of free citizens not dependent on a wage, was flooded with immigrant workers from overseas, the wage-earners began to be the larger part of the citizens and, in the towns, the mass of their population.
When this state of things had established itself in America as in Europe, the whole of our civilization where it was industrialized had fallen into a hopeless tangle. The organization of wage-earners at high wages choked production and at the same time there went along with it, to one side of it, the growth of vast bodies of men unemployed, or employed at a grossly insufficient wage.
On the top of this there was the insecurity of all wage-earners, even the best paid. Every man dependent on a wage knew it might at any moment fail him.
The unemployed were not even a permanent body. Nearly the whole of the wage-earners had either experience of unemployment at some time of their lives or the threat of it hanging over them. Insufficiency and insecurity had become the marks of all those who labored in the industrial world. But the two things necessary to the human family on the material side are sufficiency of livelihood and security therein. Lacking these, through some machinery of social justice, men cannot bear the conditions under which they live.
Attempts were made in some countries, where the deadlock had become impossible to apply temporary remedies, especially to the evil of insecurity. Industrial Germany led the way in this almost a lifetime ago. England, where the need was more desperate, was compelled to follow suit. Sums were raised by compulsion: partly from the general taxpayer, partly out of wages, partly by a special levy on employers, to insure the workers against unemployment and to maintain them where the sums they received were insufficient to meet the lowest standards of life. The wage-earners were relieved of one burden after another; they were given small pensions in old age, their expenses were paid during sickness, the teaching of their children was met out of public funds. Temporary laws were even passed to reduce their rents, that is, to take away part of the house-owners property, for the advantage of the poor tenant.
But all these were evidently no more than what are called “palliatives”. So long as a great number of citizens in some countries, the great bulk of the citizens, were at once free and deprived of property, the root of the evil remained untouched. The evil tree was not cut down, it would continue to bear its evil fruits.
Since the two conditions which combined to create such calamities were freedom and destitution, many began to propose that freedom should be sacrificed. It was the line of least resistance. But of that I shall treat later when I come to talk of Communism. The obvious immediate remedy was worse than the disease.
While the worker at a wage thus suffered, what was left of small ownership was suffering also. The free man who still owned was more and more threatened with loss of ownership.