Shop Slavery

“Shop Slavery and Emancipation.” William Paine. Introduction by H. G. Wells. P. S. King & Sons. Paper, 1s. Net.

The above is described as “a revolutionary appeal to the educated young man of the middle class,” and deals in an emotional and sentimental fashion with the miserable existence of the shop-assistant. The value of the book may be estimated by the accuracy or otherwise of the following definition of the shop-assistant with, whom it is supposed to deal :

“By the shop-assistant I mean that large, disaffected class of educated men, other than employers, that provide brains for the carrying on of trade, as distinct from the class that provide money and the class that provide muscle.” (p. 123.)

Through the whole there runs the idea that the shop-assistant, clerk, and general ”brain” worker are a superior class of people, who have, perforce, to seek the assistance of the “unskilled” labourers in order to effect their emancipation from the wretched “living-in system.”

That assistance is not to be obtained from the point of view of class interests, but because they need the courage and determination of those “from a lower social level,” who have been “up against the brutal forces of life as long as they can remember.”

Speaking of the “brain” workers the author says (p. 54): “We are all living at second hand. We are, by our upbringing, pampered, spoilt creatures who have snatched a confused idea of gentility from the class above our heads.” And it would seem that in return for “courage and experience” they will give to the common herd “the best brains, the nimblest intellects, the shrewdest and most far-seeing organisers” in the personnel of—the shop-assistant !

Mr. Paine appears to have seen that the interests of the “brain” merchant and of the boss do not exactly coincide, and in this respect can be said to have obtained a better grasp of the situation than his introducer, who says (p. IX-X):

“. . . While I am convinced that the only ‘way out,’ not only for the poor shop-assistant, but for all humanity, is just that desperate love for which he (the author) cries. I do not at the present moment see any prospect of its immediate and special application to the employees of the distributing trades. Nor am I so hopeless as he of the possible goodness of rich people and powerful people and employing people. And, indeed, it is to them particularly I must commend this book. I must say to them ‘Your leisure and your opportunity is very largely a trust that you should help your still helpless and inarticulate brothers out of the darkness. No way is known. You have to find the way.’ ”

It is the “goodness” of those “employing people,” coupled with the “gentility” of the assistant, that is responsible for the vile and revolting “living-in” system, and to appeal to them to “find the way” is characteristic of Wells and his “intellectual” confreres.

The Labour Party man is disposed of thus :

“He (the Labour M.P.) lacks the first essential : he distrusts the people. . . He sees the people stripped to the last shred of their possessions, existing only from week to week, and at the mercy of the forces which have grown out of hand, and all he dares to say to them is : ‘Take up the weapon with which your masters beat you and beat yourselves, but do nothing unconstitutionally. It is true your masters have robbed you, but do not rob them in return. Give them a bill for all their possessions, however wrongfully they came by them, and start afresh, in a national compound on your own” (p. 97).

The description of the Labour Party (p. 102) is worth repeating :

“Looked at as a small party in the composition of the country, such a class is admirable for marking time with, but when out of an excess of mediocre qualities it would have the bulk of the people made after a model of itself, it presents itself in a dangerous light, as its idea of government would necessarily be . . what ameliorative measures are best calculated to give to the people, not freedom, but something that shall superficially resemble freedom.”

The body of the book is poor in the main, but the “remedy” is ludicrous in the extreme. “The individual must first be made happy in himself before any externals whatsoever can add to his advancement.” And the method by which it is proposed to bring about this ideal state of bliss from the brutalising demoralisation of which he complains is, to say the least of it, amusing.

You must attract the “young man of the middle class” “by example.” You must “teach him to live dangerously” (on 7s. a week). “You must make him feel that he is in touch with some mysterious force he cannot account for” (it would be too dangerous to impart any knowledge that would enable him to account for much). He need never be bothered with thinking, for : “It is the elevation you yourself live on that will convince him.”

And that elevation ? Well—”If you would set about it in a public manner there are the Scouts and the Territorials.

No, it will not do. Capitalism, the cause of the trouble, is not to be overthrown by the brainiest of errand boys armed with broom-handles; nor will capitalist development be stayed by joining the Territorials.

Such, “elevation” may do for the “young men of the middle class” with. “revolutionary” inclinations, but for the young men of the working class, shop-assistants included, such advice is dangerous. The shop-assistant and clerk have to be shown that they are but cogs in the wheel of capitalist production; that they are articles of merchandise of no more importance to the capitalist than the goods they hand over the counter or record in musty tomes. They have to discard the absurd notion that the pen-pusher and the pill purveyor have a monopoly of brain. They have to realise that, with the carpenter and the carman, they are wage-slaves, and. that the “only way out” of their degrading position is to organise with their fellows for the overthrow of the system that is based upon their sale.


Leave a Reply