Monday, March 5, 2018

Capitalism's Admirable Crichtons (1920)

From the August 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of J. M. Barrie’s immortal plays portrays the butler who by sheer force of superior mentality and ability assumed leadership over his aristocratic employers when shipwrecked on a desert island. The position is intended to be a more or less fanciful one, but in reality present day society teems with examples of the repression of great minds by the mediocre-minded few. Many of us in even our small circles can point to one or two acquaintances who can find no outlet for really brilliant intelligences, and who are forced by stress of economic circumstance to spend their lives in uncongenial work and uninspiring environment. History has many cases to show of genius which has been discovered too late, of great minds that have been starved of opportunity. Men and women who, even under adverse conditions, managed to leave something behind that humanity is the better for, have in countless cases died of want and hopeless despair. The painting that might fetch a small fortune at Christie’s to-day perhaps was sold by the artist for the price of a loaf of bread. The machine that may make a modern Croesus was invented by one whose life was one long struggle against penury and who died, as he had lived, in obscurity.

Many more must there be who have no opportunity of bringing into the light ideas that would stamp them as being more than ordinary men. Who could expect a man to come back, after a long day’s toil, to a miserable hovel, surrounded by those scenes and noises which are so great a part of the worker’s environment, and to sit down and compose beautiful music, or paint a masterpiece, or write a treatise that should make history ?

All that matters to-day is the ability to make a profit—if that be ability. Very few employers are more intelligent than some of their own machine-minders, but the fact that the machines belong to them and not to the minders is sufficient to obtain for them the comfort and luxury that the latter and their families are not even able to dream of. Even their vaunted “directive ability” is vested in managers and foremen. We had the case recently of an American millionaire who made a fortune while in the madhouse! He, like the rest of his class, could not help it. It requires practically no effort on their part. That is the irony of it all. If ability counted they would not be in the position they are in. The working class invent machinery, they work machinery, they pay their own meagre wages, and hand the surplus to the employers. There is not an operation from the loading of a trolley to the cashing of a cheque that is not performed by a member of the working class.

The position, however, never seems to strike the workers themselves. If a man is a good workman and boasts about it he will compare himself with his neighbour, but never with his employer. In the same way he is familiar with and deferential to names like Rothschild and Rockefeller, but of Faraday and Pasteur, who have benefited society almost as much as the first-named have harmed it, he has not the faintest notion.

It is true of capitalism more than of any other system of society that the good in men does not pay so much as the bad. It is more to the advantage of doctors to pander to the fanciful notions of old dowagers with well-lined purses than it is for them to devote their lives to endeavouring to cure some dread disease. It is useless for a man to invent something that would make workmen in a particularly dangerous occupation safer if it would mean adding to the employer’s establishment expenses.

Only under Socialism will every man find it to his advantage to give of his best, since it will be the community that will benefit and not the the pockets of the few. The machine that will run will not throw men out of work as at present, but will, as it should, reduce the hours of labour. Scientists will not experiment with poison gases and explosives, but will use their knowledge in protecting the human race and bringing health and strength to those that lack it. And what is more, the man in the street, the common worker, instead of being any longer the slave of toil, with only “a soul to be damned, a body to be kicked,” will become a responsible member of society with a right to all that the world has to offer and with no man to say him nay.
Stanley H. Steele



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