October 1912 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is often said that the civilised man cannot understand the savage. If this is true (and of its truth there can be little doubt) it is at all events not altogether surprising. The more surprising, and not less correct, statement is that the civilised man does not understand— himself.
It may be as correct to say that the savage does not understand the civilised man; but the ironical element of the situation is that the “superior” being (to remove any doubt I had better say that by this I mean the civilised man) not only has to see the savage through the savage’s eyes in order to understand him, but he has to see himself through the savage’s eyes in order to understand himself.
The outlook of the savage upon life, and his “inlook” upon himself, can only be understood by the civilised man through the reconstruction of the social system in which the savage lives. Only after doing this; only after building up anew the social system based upon the free and common access to all the sources of wealth and the free and common enjoyment of the social wealth, is it possible to realise the self-abnegation, the sinking of the individual in the community, which is characteristic of the mentality of the savage and the barbarian.
On the other hand, so accustomed has the civilised man become to the life he is living, so perfectly do his conceptions of things as they ought to be fit in with things as they are, that all the unfitness and inconsistencies and incongruities of his environment are hidden from his sight.
If he could only realise that things as they are make his conceptions of thing as they ought to be! If he could only understand that, in order to perceive things as they are he must view them from the place where they are not! If he could only grasp the fact that before he can conceive things as they ought to be,” he must release his mind from the rusty fetters of things as they are!
An ethnologist of sufficient standing to get his bread buttered on both sides and round the crust by the approved capitalist method of “skating on the surface” of his science, has told us concerning the North American Indians, that they could not be induced to work steadily for wages; they laboured for a time, but would suddenly become tired of it, and would rather sacrifice what they had earned than continue to work a day or two longer and complete their contract. This was a mystery to the “scientist,” but it should be illuminating for the civilised man who is willing to stand in the savage’s shoes in order to understand himself.
In the savage mind the selling of one’s energies to another is prostitution of the vilest kind, and a thing not to be contemplated without disgust—and who can say that he is not right? ,
The savage may have his hardships, but he is a free man. However hardly the seasons may press him, or the elements contest his right to exist, while he does exist he lives. All that is good in nature is his in abundance, with the single exception of food. He has room to live in, and he has time to live. For him the sweet breezes blow fresh and untainted, and the scented dawn ushers the day of joyous life. His work is performed in the sun and air of open day, and no stingy balance is struck between what he has consumed and the power he has gained from it. Only when the seasons have been unpropitious and niggard does he know want, and anxiety as to his livelihood is foreign to him, for all his hard poverty and his slender resources.
The savage views his strength, his skill, his courage, as sacred to the purpose of making the most of life; as social assets contributory to the social welfare, and one holding that view can hardly do other than regard the man who gives over his strength and skill to another for a price as a prostituted person and scorn him as such.
This view is the correct one. notwithstanding that our “high civilisation” does not permit us to perceive it save through the fresh, dear vision of primitive man. Think! The strength of human muscles, the intelligence of the human brain, have been wrought out of untold ages of strife with the external world, the human struggle for a living. They have been perfected through an appalling space of evolution in order to make a bed of roses for the chemical compound which controls them. But from this high purpose they have been diverted. They have been sacrificed to Mammon—the historic mactation before which all others pale.
Yes, so low have the strength of human muscles and the intelligence of the human brain fallen in the hey-day of our “high civilisation,” that they are devoted to the base end of increasing existing values, of producing profit for a class of absorbant, but nevertheless inactive, chemical compounds, who would soon resolve into their simple elements if they were left to their own resources.
O! foul prostitution!
* * *
What this prostitution means to the victims of it strangely enough they are the last to perceive. They give up every joy of life in order to gain bare half rations. While they pour out their heart’s blood in a torrent of wealth for others to riot and exult in, they sink to the floor of their threshing dens overwhelmed with the grain they produce but may not eat, and perish for want of the wealth in which they are buried.
When some novelist paints with vivid touch the wretched Roman slaves toiling in the wheel, and muzzled in order that they shall not eat the flour they are grinding, the modem toiler feels cold-footed spiders running over his face. Yet his own position is very much the same. The muzzle is exchanged for blinkers, but he still painfully grinds the corn which he may not eat; he still wears his life out in unrequited labour, i and drains the cup of misery to the very last I bitter dregs.
* * *
Fellow workers, you can only live once. Ask yourselves how you are spending that one life which you may spend. Ask yourselves how much of that life you spend upon yourselves, and how much upon those who hold you in their grip in order to batten upon you, as the ant battens upon the aphis which it “cultivates.”
What do you know of the sun and fresh air? There are 168 hours in a week, and lucky you if you have for six or eight of those hours “a place in the sun.” The rest of the time you are either slaving or recuperating. One hour in twenty, one day in twenty, one year in twenty: —that is your lot and portion in your own life. You exist for thirty years, on the average, and you “live" for eighteen months!
O! those eighteen months of crowded delirium. overshadowed as they are by the pinching poverty which requites toil, and the anxiety of caring for the morrow; purchased as they are with so many years of weary effort and hopeless drudgery; drenched as they are with the blood of murdered hopes and wet with tears: are they worth it? are they worth it? are they worth it?
When I hear an old man of the working class, whose life has been cast in the common groove of those about him. whose back has bent to the common burden, and whose hair has whitened in the common woe—when I hear such a man declare that he has not had enough of it and more than enough, and wish himself young again, then I will say, yes, perhaps they may be worth it.
* * *
Where is the need for all this grinding, wearing. anxious poverty? The savage never knew it. He starved only in the rare and exceptional season of dearth. The barbarian who came after him, and the early husbandman who ploughed with slow oxen, and sowed broadcast, and threshed out the summer’s grain with a flail in the dull days of the winter; who spun each thread of yarn for his clothes through his fingers, and shot the shuttle for every strand for his wearing—these never knew the anxious care and stint in which the modern worker fashions his strength into wealth for others' keeping.
The average wheat crop in medieval England was four bushels an acre, and it was garnered with great labour—the average crop at the present day is thirty two bushels, prepared for with the steam plough, the Darby Digger, and (latest word in such matters) the motor plough; sown with the seed-drill, hoed with the horse hoe and cultivator; cut and tied with the reaper and self-binder; threshed out and winnowed and cleaned and sacked by the threshing machine. Yet the sickle and the flail gave the workers plenty to eat and abundant leisure, while all these aids to easy production have brought them only unceasing drudgery and starvation.
Why is it ?
* * *
The cause is very simple: the means of living have fallen into the possession of a few. As a result the others are compelled to prostitute themselves by selling their labour-power. For this they receive as much as it costs to produce. But this amount is almost constant, hence all the benefit of the improved machinery and methods goes to the employing class. And the growing surplus which the workers produce, which they are unable to buy back and consume because it it surplus—because it is product exceeding what they are paid—this surplus heaps up in the warehouses and gluts the markets, and then workers are thrown out of work because they have produced too much.
The evil does not stop here. As a constant succession of workers are thrown in the streets to starve, they, clamouring at the factory gates for employment, compel those in work to work longer and harder and for less money than ever. So in the end the machinery has only fixed toil more surely upon the worker, and confirmed him in his poverty.
* * *
There is only one escape for the workers. They must take possession of the means of producing wealth and use them to satisfy their needs and to lighten their labour. They must decline to be the beasts of burden of an idle class, and must demand that all able-bodied adults within such limits of age as may be found necessary, shall contribute their share to the necessary work of satisfying the social needs.
Why should any able person escape the labour of supporting himself or herself? Why should any class be permitted to throw on another class the burden of supporting them? The colossal impudence of it is overwhelming.
The way lies through the capture of political power, by means of which the master class retain their hold upon the means of production. It is through Parliament that the Army, Navy, and Police are controlled, hence Parliament must be captured by the working class. Having secured control of the armed forces production and distribution must be organised on a new basis—a basis of common ownership of both the means and the product. Then production will continue as long as goods are needed, instead of only so long as they can be sold.
That system of society is Socialism. Study Socialism and work for it.
A. E. Jacomb