Analysis of Society. I. Interests

The analysis of society is the logical continuation of the analysis of wealth. The problems which the nature of modern wealth presents ramify into all social relations and are reflected in all phases of social thought. Economic science is valuable in that it illuminates the conditions on which society rests, and thus provides the key to an understanding of its history, but it is by no means complete in itself. Thought must be translated into action, and it is when we come to the practical as distinct from the theoretical solution of the problems in question that we become impressed with the conservatism of existing institutions and find it necessary to discover some instrument for their overthrow. Prior to this, however, we must examine the exact nature of these institutions and their relation to their economic basis.

To commence with the last first, in considering the nature of the units of wealth, i.e., commodities, we arrived at the conclusion that the relations between them resulted from their mutual relations to an outside element, the human race. Only in so far as they were, all alike, products of human labour, was any meaning discovered in their exchangeability and the process of their existence generally. So in examining the relations between the units of society, let us pursue a similar method. We see already that they mutually enter into relations with outside elements, the various forms of matter which they convert (or have converted) into articles of use.

This is no mere whim on their part, but a matter of necessity. Human life is a material process demanding the continual absorption of matter and the use of the objects of the material world on an ever-expanding and more varied scale. From the simple process of digestion to the complex operations of the brain all human functions are material and presuppose objects either for the supply of energy or as a means for its exercise. The most idealistic of philosophers have never yet shown us how to live without eating, and living includes thinking, as a matter of course.

Human beings, then, have this in common—they are part of the process of organic evolution and, as such, have definite interests in the world around them. In pursuing these interests they enter into relations with one another, and according to the nature of these interests and the circumstances of their satisfaction so the social relations between them take their form.

Simple association in pre-historic times was a heritage from pre-human ancestors, and appears to be a feature common to the existence of all the higher mammals. Its basis was the quest for food and the necessity for mutual protection and assistance, and so long as the hunting and fishing (or, as an alternative, arboreal) mode of living continued this primitive tribal harmony was preserved. By degrees, however, it was destroyed by the domestication of animals and the discovery and development of agriculture, which claimed more intense application of effort and paved the way to slavery and conquest. Class rule was established, and as the mode of production has developed so has one class given way to another whose methods of exploitation were more up-to-date.

To-day antagonism is the most obvious characteristic of material interests. One and all must purchase their wants, “be they of the stomach or of the fancy,” and must therefore be first possessed of money. This implies, again, that they have made a sale of some commodity or other. Thus all persons come to be owners of commodities and appear now at one pole, now at the other, of the commercial magnet. They are continually opposed to one another as buyers and sellers.

Our economic investigation showed these opponents to be divided into two classes—the sellers of labour-power and the venders of all other commodities. These latter are also the buyers of labour-power since the commodities in which they deal are only produced by the action of labour-power on raw materials. We also saw that their object in purchasing labour-power is to obtain the surplus over and above its own maintenance which it is capable of producing, and further that this process is only possible because the owners of labour-power are destitute of any other commodity or means of production and subsistence.

Now if, as we have seen, wealth in its various forms constitutes the basis of social relations, then the ownership of wealth determines the nature of these relations. Capital is the ownership of the social means of production and subsistence by a small class. It forms the pivot on which modern society turns, and consequently all social relations to-day take the form of an antagonism between two classes, of opposite interests, i.e , capitalists and wage-earners, In place of the primitive free association for the satisfaction of common interests we have the compulsory subjection of one set of human beings and their interests to another set.

This division of interests in society is reflected in the constitution of the individual. Thus the average wage-slave, in order to secure the satisfaction of his stomach, enters a factory, office, or other stronghold of robbery, to perform tasks against which, more often than not, his brain and senses revolt, albeit somewhat blindly.

The greater portion of his energy is spent in producing value for which he receives no return. So far as he is concerned it is wasted and his life curtailed by just so much. With his wages he purchases the necessities of his commodity-existence, which are on the average no more than will enable him to perform his task to the satisfaction of his purchaser. If the nature of his employment demands that he shall wear “respectable” clothes, then his screw is adapted to this condition ; if not, well, he considers himself lucky to get any clothes at all. If extreme muscular energy is required of him, then he can afford to indulge in quantities of food which would make the dyspeptic clerk green with other things than envy ; but his expenditure must be limited in other directions. Everywhere we see that the standard of “living” of the various sections of the working class is restricted to the level which will enable them to subsist “economically,” that is, as producers of value for the expansion and development of capital. They are not credited with possessing “higher interests,” with the exception of those termed “spiritual.” For reasons which will be explained later it pays the capitalist class to encourage these. Even his meagre economic wants are at the best inadequately satisfied. His food is adulterated, his clothes consist of shoddy, and his house is jerry-built.

For a scientific appreciation of nature the wage-worker has neither the energy, time, nor means to spare. For artistic enthusiasm in his labour and its products he has no inclination. The essential conditions of genuine science and art are freedom and the power to express oneself, which implies possession of the means for doing it. In the capitalist process of production the individual worker is a passive factor. It is not he who uses the instruments of labour but rather these instruments which use him on behalf of their owners. Incidentally he keeps his body moving after the style of an automaton, but only at the expense of his emotional and intellectual nature.

It is not, however, only the workers whose natures are rent asunder and who suffer loss of individuality. The capitalist himself, for all the luxury of his existence, is at the mercy of the system which creates him. His emancipation from the necessity to labour reduces him to an economically meaningless position. The means of production which he controls are social in character and do not provide him, their owner, with any outlet for his energies. His only function is to accumulate. To spend his wealth is beyond him, and if he ever tries, a la Carnegie, soon gives it up as a bad job. The best he can do is to indulge in insensate extravagance. His most exact science is a knowledge of his accounts. His highest art is the multifarious one of cheating and gambling in the commercial and financial sphere. Any other “science and art” he buys, as he buys labour-power, to augment or display his wealth. Showy advertisements of his goods, mechanical contrivances for reducing wages and increasing profits, pompous mansions with a retinue of flunkeys, public libraries crammed with unintelligent technicalities and the dull prejudices of the bourgeois mind—these are the fruits of his patronage. He calls himself a self-made man, but his words and actions proclaim him the creature of his money.

This is well shown by his never-ceasing fear of revolution. So much is the capitalist the embodiment of capital that he cannot conceive himself existing under any other social order than the present one. Change for him can only mean extinction, so he clings in morbid frenzy to every institution or idea which supports things as they are.

If the wage-earner has yet to learn to live and be a man the capitalist, on the other hand, has got beyond that stage. His day is passing. Rotten product of a rotten system, he has lost the possibility of manhood, and dissolution alone awaits him and his class.

To the Socialist worker revolution is the breath of hope which inspires him to learn and endure until his class is ready for the task ; and his spare time and energy are readily given to assist his fellows to learn likewise. In order to satisfy their mutual interests they must dispossess the capitalist class of the ownership of the social means of subsistence and must convert these into the common property of society.

Present-day society is not the first to be characterised by division into classes with opposing interests any more than capital is the first form of private property. Other social systems based on other property relations have preceded it.

Primitive society was, as already hinted, communistic on a narrow scale. The unit of tribal organisation was the gens or clan, a group of kinsfolk which controlled economic affairs in the mutual interests of its members. Slavery and conquest, which were the outcome of agricultural development, put an end to this relation of equality. Slaves were prisoners of war or tribesmen who had fallen under economic obligations to their fellows. As private property increased in magnitude and importance, so the originally equal tribesmen became divided into rich and poor. There were, therefore, in the first civilised society at least three distinct classes, viz., slave-owners, slaves, and freemen who did not possess slaves.

The process of conquest, with its motive of territorial acquisition, broke up the independence of the local tribal communities and laid the foundations of Feudalism. The essential feature of this system was the military tenure of land. Freemen became divided into lords and vassals ; slaves were converted into agricultural serfs or chartered freemen privileged to carry on handicrafts. Here we have a regular hierarchy of classes whose rival interests made the history of the Middle Ages.

The collapse of Feudalism and its supersession by the existing order have been briefly described in a previous article. Sufficient has been said to enable us to contrast Capitalism with previous social orders. In the societies just described class divisions were numerous and complex, whereas to-day we are faced with one simple line of demarcation, i.e., the possession of capital. To-day there are but two really distinct classes.

When the feudal aristocrats supplanted the local patricians, when again, later on, the capitalists overthrew them in turn, they simply substituted one form of class rule for another. Beneath the revolutionary class in each instance there existed the workers whose exploitation has formed the basis of all civilised societies.

When the workers overthrow their present masters they will end the last of the ruling, exploiting classes. By abolishing private property in the means of life they will eliminate the cause of hostile interests and class rule. In emancipating themselves they will free and unite humanity.

Their task, however, demands knowledge. At present their minds still hold the numbing superstitions with which their masters feed them. To criticise the mentality of capitalism is, therefore, our next concern.

E. B.

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