Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Obstacle of Industrialism

by A.J. Penty

Not the least of the obstacles that stand in the way of a return of Christendom is the monstrous disproportion that exists between the material and spiritual sides of life. For centuries, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, a larger and larger proportion of our energies have been devoted to the increase and development of our material resources, with the result that the balance between the material and spiritual sides of life which is indispensable to any healthy and normal civilization has been entirely destroyed, and the spiritual life almost crushed out of existence by the dead weight of material preoccupations.

The fact that undue concentration on material things tends to choke the spiritual life was over and over again insisted upon by Jesus Christ. "Take ye no thought, saying. What shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or where-withal shall we be clothed (for after all these things do the Gentiles seek)? for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." This is the true political economy; it is the political economy of Christendom, and it is because in some measure the Medievalists pursued this ideal that they were not perplexed by the problem of riches and poverty as it perplexes us to-day. Industrialism is the organization of society on the opposite assumption, "Seek ye first," it says, "material prosperity, and all other things shall be added unto you." But somehow or other it does not work out. These other things are not added, and in the long run the pursuit of riches does not even bring material prosperity. For the concentration of all effort and mental energy upon material achievement upsets the spiritual equilibrium of society. It produces contrasts of wealth and poverty, and out of these come envy, jealousy, class hatreds, economic and military warfare, and finally the destruction of the wealth that has been so laboriously created. For no society built on a lie can endure.

Our industrial society exhibits a spirit that shows itself irreconcilably hostile to all the higher interests of mankind, and all men who care for spiritual things are conscious of this antagonism. Yet as a nation we lack the , courage to face the fact that Industrialism is incompatible with the spiritual life. In the Middle Ages, when the material development of civilization was in its infancy, there were not wanting men to protest with all their might against the corrupting influence of wealth and luxury. St. Francis, in the thirteenth century even, sought to counter the evil by preaching the Gospel of Poverty, and at a later date sumptuary laws were enacted to put a boundary to the growth of personal extravagance, for many people saw the social dangers attendant upon an increase of luxury. In Germany, which in the Middle Ages was the most prosperous country in Europe, extravagance and luxury grew at an alarming pace towards the end of the fifteenth century. Many of the merchants had become richer than kings and emperors, and vanity had prompted them to give visible evidence of their great riches in the adoption of a higher and higher standard of living.

Feasting and gambling increased, while extravagance in dress became the order of the day. Commenting on this, Wimpheling, who was one of the most widely read authors of the period, said that "wealth and prosperity are attended with great dangers, as we see exemplified: they induce extravagance in dress, in banqueting, and what is still worse, they engender a desire for still more. This desire debases the mind of man and degenerates into contempt of God, His Church, and His Commandments." And experience was to prove it led to social catastrophe. The peril arises from the fact that, as extravagance increases, a kind of social compulsion is brought to bear upon others to live up to it whether they can afford to do so or not, and as only the rich can afford to keep up with the standard thus set, a point is soon reached when the need of money is very widely felt. When that point was reached in Germany the same thing happened that has happened with us to-day. Nobody wanted to do any really productive work, but everybody wanted to go into trade where money was to be made. Mercantile houses, shops, and taverns multiplied inordinately, and complaints were made that there was no money but only debts, and that whole districts were drained by usury. The growth of this state of things was followed by the attempt which each class made to save itself from bankruptcy by transferring its burdens on to the shoulders of the class beneath it, which led to the progressive impoverishment of the working class, who had to bear the brunt because the burden could be shifted no farther. Then there arose a bitter enmity between the propertied and the unpropertied classes, and class hatred increased in intensity until finally it led in 1524 to the Peasants' War, which convulsed almost every corner of the Empire from the Alps to the Baltic.

We see then that in attacking extravagance and luxury the Church has been led by a true social instinct. But it becomes daily more evident that to attack extravagance and luxury is not enough. It is necessary to attack those general principles and assumptions of our social and industrial system which of their own nature tend to promote such vices. This fact has of late received some recognition by the Church. The Report of the Archbishop's Committee on "Christianity and Industrial Problems" marks an advance in thought to the extent that it has broken away from that purely personal explanation of social phenomena which satisfied most Churchmen until yesterday, and has recognized that "charity'' with the Church has not been interpreted (as it should be) as "a sort of glorified justice" that "looks at least as much to the prevention of evil as to its cure. On the contrary, it has meant far too exclusively what may be called ambulance work for mankind—the picking up of the wounded and the curing of their wounds." "We have," says the Report, "neglected to attack the forces of wrong. We have been content with the ambulance work when we ought to have been assaulting the strongholds of evil."

In laying down the broad principles which should govern the conduct of Christians in their relation to social questions nothing could be more admirable than this Report. But as it proceeds, the clear vision that marks the early part of the Report gets bedimmed and the writers get entangled in the economic defences of the existing system. Their protests are silenced by those pleas of economic necessity behind which the upholders of the existing order take cover. Thus while on the one hand luxury is attacked, on the other the Report hesitates to carry its attack to its logical conclusion by condemning root and branch those quantitative conceptions upon which our industrial system is based. For it is undoubtedly true that the progressive growth of luxury is a necessary condition of the continued existence of a system that is based upon conceptions of indefinite industrial expansion. It is not too much to say that people nowadays are goaded by advertisers into becoming luxurious. Indeed, unless a man is poor, his difficulty nowadays is how to avoid becoming luxurious, for circumstances combine to force, the individual along the path of luxury whether he likes it or not, and people succumb to luxurious tendencies because they are afraid to appear mean. It may be admitted that expenditure need not be luxurious though it pass the bounds of necessity. Expenditure on the arts, for instance, is of this nature. But this is not the kind of expenditure that is encouraged by latter-day conceptions of industrial expansion. On the contrary, what is encouraged in every sort of vain and useless expenditure on all kinds of things that people would be better without; while the dilemma in which we are placed is that such useless expenditure is necessary to keep the wheels of industry running. There is plenty of unemployment to-day, yet under our existing system if the rich could be induced to abandon luxury unemployment would be actually increased. Hence it is that until we have the courage to attack the principles upon which the industrial system is built there can be no escape from this fundamental dilemma.

This kind of inconsistency must come to an end. We must frankly recognize that the purely quantitative standard is antipathetic to everything that Christianity stands for, for not until we do shall we be able to translate our ideals into the terms of actuality. We must oppose the conception of "maximum production" with that of a "sufficient production." Quantity up to a certain point of course we must have, but we must break with the theory that exalts a standard of quantity as the final test of industrial righteousness, since so long as we accept such a standard, the time will never come when we can say we have produced enough. Appearances will always be against a return to sanity, because when production proceeds beyond a certain point it upsets distribution; and by upsetting distribution, competition is increased and unemployment and poverty is created. The widespread existence of such poverty in turn lends a colour to the demand for still more production, and so we go on from bad to worse, driven from one desperate expedient to another in a vain effort to escape from the consequences of exalting the quantitative standard. The remedy is for us to refuse any longer to sacrifice Christian principles to economic expediency. We can be perfectly assured that what is wrong morally is bad economics; and that professors of economics who maintain the contrary suffer from a constitutional inability to distinguish between appearance and reality.

When we search for an explanation of current fallacies of economics we find that they rest finally on a false philosophy of life—on the belief that work at the best is a disagreeable necessity that it is desirable to reduce to a minimum. In former times it was the normal thing for men to find pleasure and satisfaction in their work. But this is no longer the case. The vast majority of people to-day do not look for any such pleasure or satisfaction. They work in order to get money to live. Their hearts are not in their work, their real interests are outside, either in the pursuit of pleasure, or in some hobby or occupation extraneous to their daily work. Not only do they do as little as they can, but what they do is done in a coeval and slovenly way. The grudging and resentful temper engendered by their daily work infects the whole of life. Character deteriorates: men become restless and dissatisfied. It would matter little if the hours of work were reduced to four or even two hours a day. They would still be restless and dissatisfied. For they would still be in a fundamentally wrong relation to life, and that fact would vitiate the extra leisure they had gained. Men are not men until they have found their true vocation and ministry. When Carlyle said, "Blessed is the man who has found his work : let him ask no other blessedness," he was expressing one of the primary truths of Christian ethics.

All Christians must deplore this demoralization that has overtaken the modern world, and many Christian moralists, recognizing the evil, have attempted to combat it. But they have all failed. They have failed to establish points of contact with the modern mind, and this for the simple reason that they have chosen to ignore the vital facts of the situation. With men to-day as in the past it would be the normal and natural thing for them to find pleasure in their work were it not that they are prevented from doing so by circumstances. Their work fails to inspire them for two reasons. Firstly because as it is done at the dictation and in the interests of profiteers, they cannot feel the call of service; and secondly, because under our industrial system work has become so monotonous that everyone is bored by it.

Recognizing these facts, any analysis of the problem of work and industry that would grapple with the realities of the situation must reassert the claims of the producer. It may be true that the needs of the consumer are the primary basis of any economic system. Yet the producer has equal claims for consideration, since an analysis based entirely upon the needs of the consumer will, if carried to its logical conclusion, lead inevitably to the enslavement and degradation of the producer, for instead of being regarded as a human being he will come to be regarded merely as an instrument for the increase of wealth. To such an extent has development proceeded in this direction that the only way to restore a condition of normality in industry is to assert the claims of the producer, affirming self-expression through work to be a spiritual necessity. The moment we assert this we come into collision with Industrialism as a machine producing wealth, no matter how equitably its products could under some future system be distributed, because it denies all opportunities whatsoever for self-expression.

Industrialism destroys interest in work because it tends towards an ever increasing specialization. This is the key to the problem. We are accustomed to associate the evil with the spread of machine production, but strictly speaking the evil does not reside in machinery, but in the subdivision of labour which preceded the introduction of machinery and which is responsible for its misapplication. And here it is necessary to distinguish between the division of labour which is legitimate and the subdivision of labour which is illegitimate. The former is a necessity in every civilized community, for it is obvious that a man cannot supply all his own needs, since to some extent he is inevitably dependent upon others. No sooner did civilization begin to develop than this necessity brought about the specialization of men into different trades. One man became a weaver, another a carpenter, and so forth. Up to this point the division of labour is justified, not merely because it is a necessity of civilization, but because it enlarges the opportunities of expression of the individual. What, however, we understand by the subdivision of labour is measures taken to increase the output in the interests of profiteering by splitting up a trade into a great number of separate processes. This we must condemn, because by reducing men to automation it undermines their moral and spiritual life and disintegrates personality, while it leads inevitably to sweating and economic insecurity. This system came into existence in the early part of the seventeenth century, the classical example being that eulogized by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, namely pin-making, in which industry, he explained, it takes twenty men to make a pin, each man being specialized on a single process for a lifetime. In our day this method has reached its logical conclusion in the system known as "scientific management." The subdivision of labour attacks the craft; scientific (management attacks the man. Its acknowledged object is further to increase output by the elimination of all the motions of the arms and fingers and body that do not directly contribute to the fashioning of the article under process of manufacture. As such it completes the dehumanization and despiritualization of labour begun by the subdivision of labour.

Now it is apparent that the value to be placed upon such a method of work will depend upon our philosophy of life. If we are materialists and are convinced that the great end of life is to increase wealth—profit and commodities—regardless of the use to which the commodities are put or the degradation of the workers through the methods employed in their production, then we shall regard even such a system as scientific management as evidence of progress. But if we believe as Christians in the aboriginal and imperishable worth of the individual, we shall condemn the system as essentially anti-Christian. We shall maintain that any increase of wealth obtained by such means carries with it a curse, inasmuch as it ignores the sacredness of human personality and degrades man to the level of a machine.

The principle of the subdivision of labour has penetrated into every department of human activity. Overspecialization is the bane of the modern world. It affects the intellectual world, not perhaps to the same degree, but with results that are as potent for evil as those which we deplore in the world of labour. For just as the machine-tender becomes atrophied in certain directions, so the intellectual specialist develops one side of his mind at the expense of other sides, and thereby loses that balance and judgment which are essential to work of permanent value. It is said that in Germany before the War specialization among intellectual workers had reached such a degree of development that men tended to become monomaniacs on one subject, or even one small part of a subject, to the detriment of general culture. This was the Culture that gave to the Germans their sense of superiority over other peoples and was a contributory cause of the War. Specialization up to a certain point we must have if civilization is to exist at all. But a limit must be placed somewhere if men are not to disintegrate morally, intellectually, and spiritually, and to imperil the stability of civilization. An intimate connection exists between the convulsions which have overtaken society and this over-specialization; since when specialization is complete it breaks up society, because the co-ordinating idea which binds men together no longer operates. It is the corollary of that isolation of the soul which Mr. Belloc rightly sees as the fruit of the Reformation.

I said that to the development of specialization a limit must be placed somewhere. That limit, I submit, should be placed at the point craft development had reached before the division of labour degenerated into the subdivision of labour. To suffer specialization to proceed farther is, to use an engineering term "to trespass on the margin of safety." In calculating the strengths of the material he uses, the engineer keeps well within the margin of safety, for he knows that all structures suffer from wear and tear and may at some time or other be subjected to an exceptional strain, and therefore in common prudence he makes allowances for such contingencies in his calculations, distinguishing clearly between a "safe load" and a "breaking load." A sane sociology would make a corresponding destruction. It would recognize that there was a limit beyond which productivity could not be increased without imperilling the stability of the social structure. It would condemn the subdivision of labour because it trespassed on the margin of psychological safety and indefinite industrial expansion because it trespassed on the margin of economic safety. Failure to recognize the truth of this principle is responsible for the disintegration of society to-day. Though it is only since the War that our peril has received any public recognition, the process of disintegration has nevertheless been at work since the seventeenth century, when the subdivision of labour was instituted. If, then, society is to be reconstructed on a stable basis, productivity must not be allowed to trespass on the margin of safety; in other words, we must repudiate the subdivision of labour and return to the handicrafts as the basis of production, using machinery only in an accessory way.

It is now some seventy years since Ruskin wrote his impassioned protests against the human degradation involved in the subdivision of labour. Yet it is only of late that any signs have been forthcoming that his protests have not been entirely in vain. Thus in the Report of the American Committee on "The Church and Industrial Reconstruction" we read: "The tendency to regard labour simply as a means of production has been greatly intensified by modem machinery which has often had the effect of reducing the man almost to the level of a machine. He is left to do what inventive genius is unable to design a machine to do. The process of manufacture is carried to a higher and higher degree of specialization, until the worker's task tends to become a deadening routine and he himself hardly more than a semi-mechanical part of the factory. These conditions almost inevitably result in the loss of the sense of personal creation and fine craftsmanship. In the simpler days before the advent of large-scale production the worker helped to plan the work and with his own strength and skill to carry it into execution. In such a task a man could really find self-expression. But now he does not plan the work or any part of it, and everything except the monotonous details is accomplished by an automatic machine. The work no longer seems really his. The factory, therefore, means barren monotony for millions of men, deadens their imagination, and robs them of any sense of creative joy, and in these results we have had an altogether too complacent acquiescence. If we are seriously concerned about the development of personality we ought to be earnestly seeking ways of affording to modern workers opportunity for self-expression in their tasks by giving tihem industrial education and making it possible for them to share in directing the industry as a whole. At the very least we ought to guarantee them sufficient leisure for self -development in other activities outside the factory. We have shown an inexcusable apathy towards this destruction of human values in the process of producing things. We have been concerned with impersonal goods, with profits and dividends, forgetting that the factor we indifferently spoke of as 'labour' is nothing less than immortal souls for whom the Lord Christ died."

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