The wage worker is one who works not for himself but for another at wage paid him by that other. Whether you call it a wage or a salary, whether the wage be large or small, the essence of wage-working is that the worker does not retain the product of the work done by him. That product belongs to another, his paymaster. And the motive of that paymaster is to enjoy the difference between the product of the work and the amount he has given to the worker for doing it. This difference is called “Profit.”
William owns a number of trees. John cuts and stacks that timber for a hundred dollars paid him by William. The wood, cut, stacked and ready for use, is worth a hundred and twenty dollars, and belongs to William. William has a profit of twenty dollars made, not by his labor, but by John’s. Were there not, on the average and in the long run, a profit thus made by William out of John’s labor, William would not continue to hire John.
In the beginning of such an arrangement there is no injustice. Both citizens are free men. Each enters into a free contract with the other to their mutual advantage. William owns the trees and a store of money. John wants money and engages to cut down William’s trees, saw the logs and pile them up for some of William’s money. The whole affair is a contract, and where citizens are free, the state enforces contracts because if it did not do so society could not go on. Only Communist or despotic states can do without contract. The state, through its courts of law and its armed forces and police, enforces contracts made and, as the parties to the contract are free men who voluntarily bound themselves, neither of them can complain or has any grievance against the other.
Yet when we look around on the modern world we see millions of wage-earners in a white heat of anger against the owners of capital who provide their wages and the instruments wherewith their work. The anger is so great that it continually leads to physical conflict inspired by a burning sense of injustice. This anger has led, over and over again to rioting, and to massacre. The strain gets worse everywhere, the disturbances increase with it, and it is beginning to look as though, unless we can settle the quarrel, society will go to pieces.
Why did wage-working, which began as a just and reasonable arrangement, become intolerable?
The reason is that things change their character when they change their scale. Fifty or so pedestrians walking up and down the street, each engaged on his own affairs, are something utterly different from six thousand men roaring down the street together, all engaged on the same object. The first is a peace-able, everyday, happening; the second is a dangerous mob breaking into riot.
So it has been with the wage-worker. So long as most citizens owned land and instruments and house-room, and the rest, then it was a natural contract for one man to take wages from another. The wage worker might himself be an owner, adding to his income for the moment by a particular bit of work; or if he saved on his wages he could become an owner. The number of wage-workers working for one particular man was small. The relations between the citizen who paid the wage and the citizen who earned it was personal and human. But when, under the action of competition and the use of expensive and centralized machines, and rapid communication, you had thousands and thousands of men working at a wage under one paymaster or corporation, things were utterly changed—and that is where we stand today. Our industrial society has become divided into a very large body which lives wholly, or almost wholly, on wages, that is on food, clothing, and housing doled out to it at short intervals by a much smaller number of paymasters, who control capital: that is, stores and reserves of land, housing, clothing and food.
The human relation has disappeared, you have the naked contrast between an employing class exploiting a vastly larger employed class for profit. The interests of the two are directly hostile. The wage-worker is the enemy of the paymaster. It is the business of the paymaster to give the wage earner as little as possible, and to make him work as hard as possible for that little. It is the business of the wage-worker to work, and therefore to produce, as little as possible for as much as he can get out of the paymaster. The whole scheme of wealth production becomes irrational and topsy-turvy. The paymasters, who direct, do not aim at wealth production—which serves us all—but at their own profit. The wage-worker does not aim at wealth production by his work, but on the contrary, at working as little as possible for the largest pay.
Meanwhile, every sort of social abomination arises from this evil root. There is the spiritual abomination of what is called “Class Hatred.” The oppressed hating the oppressor. There is the corresponding spiritual abomination of contempt, injustice, and falsehood. The secure oppressor despises the wage-earner, does him the injustice of using his labor without thought f the wage-earner’s advantage or of the community, and he tells a falsehood that was a truth at the beginning of the affair but is now a lie: he says that all this is based on free contract and is therefore rightly enforced by the courts of law and the armed services of the community.
There you have the plain statement of the monstrous evil we are out to remedy. In order to remove it we must look closely at each bad fruit growing on that bad tree.
There is the bad fruit of insufficiency for the mass of men living on a wage, which it is the interest of the paymaster to make as small as possible: insufficiency for masses of those who get work and desperate conditions for those who do not.
There is insecurity for millions of men uncertain how long the food and housing and clothing of their families will be provided.
I will take these two evils in my next two articles, one after the other.