Society and Morals. Part II. Economics and Social Organisation

One of the most important differences between human societies and the organisations of the “lower” animals is the greater development within the former of the principle of division of labour or specialisation in function. Not that this is unknown in non-human societies. On the contrary it is often well developed. But in them it almost invariably rests upon the specialisation of physical structure. In the beehive for example, the queens, workers and drones ; among the ants the “soldiers” and the “slaves,” are in each case provided with a bodily structure specially constructed and adapted to the work they have to perform in the community. Moreover, each separate class has its own special instincts. It must perform its own function and it can perform no others.

But in human society, as everyone knows, all manner of functions, different kinds of work, can be undertaken by individuals who are in all essential respects identically equipped—physically and mentally. Of course the two sexes are by nature fitted for and usually perform different kinds of work, but this is of small significance as it leaves unexplained that great variety of functions usually performed by one sex alone—the male. For example, we have some people engaged in the raising of agricultural products for food and clothing, etc.; others building habitations, others transporting goods to wherever required ; some are making machinery and tools to be used, by others, and many delve into the bowels of the earth to procure the metals for the use of the machine makers ; and so on indefinitely.

Man is able to perform a special function without a special instinct for it because his higher reasoning powers enable him to mentally visualise the work to be done, and by utilising the memorised previous experiences (either his own or those of other men), think out the method of accomplishing it. He requires no special modification of structure by reason of the artificial implements (such as tools) and processes which he creates and uses like so many limbs, powers and senses supplementing his natural ones. These have not been acquired “all at once.” Commencing at zero—with nothing—a slow evolution occupying thousands of centuries has resulted in modern man’s colossal artificial equipment and control over mature.

With every change in these self-made auxiliaries to his physical powers a corresponding modification takes place in man’s method and condition of living. One of the earliest discoveries ; one which makes an impassable breach between man and all other animals is that of making fire. The first weapon is the wooden club—a shaped tree-branch. Stone, horn, bone and shell, when sharpened, serve as scrapers, knives and fish hooks, tip another primitive weapon, the spear, and turn the club into a tomahawk or hatchet. A tree trunk, hollowed with fire and axe forms a canoe—the-far-back ancestor of the liner and ironclad. The wolf is tamed into the dog and, with the invention of the bow and arrow, completes an equipment which gradually transformed man from a tree-dweller subsisting on raw roots and fruits, indects and grubs, into a fisherman and a hunter.

As a direct outcome of hunting comes the taming and breeding of sheep, goats, oxen and horses. Their milk and meat serve for food ; their hides, wool and hair for clothing and dwellings ; their strength for transport. Following his flocks and herds from pasture to pasture man exists as a nomad on the grassy plains. The cultivation of plants, which now arises and progresses, is greatly aided by the acquisition of metal implements—axes, ploughs, spades and sickles, first as a rule of copper and bronze, but later of iron. This makes necessary a more settled mode of life. Village settlements spring up and these, in many cases (as the spinning and weaving of textiles and the working of metals) become specialised industries and trade arises, forming the germs of that later pheno­menon—town life.

The Productivity of Labour
The most important result of the development we have just outlined, that result which above everything else has had a profound influence upon the form of social organisation, is the increase which it brings in the productivness of human labour. The total supply of products yielded by a given expenditure of labouring energy becomes larger as the technical implements by which they are acquired evolve.

The life of the primitive hunting savage, such as the Australian natives or the African bushmen, is an almost continuous and severe struggle to obtain even the barest necessities of life. With the rude methods at his command his success in the chase is so uncertain that often many days pass before the pangs of hunger can be appeased. To this may be traced many practices of his, looked upon by us with horror, which to him were perfectly moral and “natural.” Cannibalism is, at this stage, a normal means of supplementing the irregular and scanty food supply. To keep down the number of useless consumers the slaying of newly born infants forms an effective and legitimate means ; as also does the killing of the aged and enfeebled who, indeed, often voluntarily sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the community. Such customs are usually abandoned or greatly minimised when, with the domestication of animals, a more plentiful and regular source of food ia available.

With a rapidity which varies greatly according to the particular circumstances obtaining, the fertility of labour continues to advance, securing to man, for a time at any rate, increasing comfort and leisure, with ever sounder protection against famine, drought and the vicissitudes of climate. The men living at each stage, not experiencing the hard, bitter struggles of their forerunners, regard their own comparatively favourable condition as normal and “natural.” Each stage is the building ground for a fresh ascent ; the luxuries of one age are the “necessities” and commonplaces of the next. So man evolves.

Side by side with, and flowing from, this process is to be observed a change in the social division of labour and organisation of society, which is somewhat different from the already-mentioned distribution and sub-division of industry. In the earliest savage stages when subsistence was rarely anything but the fruit of continuous and intensely active (though not necessarily laborious) expenditure of time and energy, every fit person would have to engage in the process. But, as productivity is developed, it becomes possible for certain individuals, ever greater in numbers, to be relieved from directly productive employment, their necessities being provided by the rest of the community.

At a very early period we find this to be the case with the tribal or clan chiefs and the “medicine men” or priests. The village commune, which has been and still is the typical social organism of primitive agricultural peoples the world over (in its prime the most perfect organisation man ever evolved from the point of view of the material prosperity and social unity of its entire membership), had numerous officials which performed unproductive functions for the common good. These early cases of exemption from production, however, in no way violate that equality and freedom pervading primitive society which is the outcome of a common economic status among the members and their primordial bond of blood kinship. Thus the original character of the social group, as an organism existing (although unconsciously developed) to secure the welfare of all those living within it is maintained.

The Basis of Slavery.
A stage is eventually reached, however, when increasing productivity has results which ultimately bring about a complete revolution in the organisation of society.

Let us look at the increasing yield of labour from a somewhat different point of view. Given, a certain average standard of subsistence, it means that this will be secured by a diminishing expenditure of labour-power and therefore also implies the existence of an increasing reserve of time and energy to be otherwise than productively employed. This surplus energy and leisure time is utilised in those fete-days and ritual practices which are so common among fairly advanced barbarians.

But soon, a far different use is found for this overflowing energy, this one-time “play” time of man. A man who has a considerable reserve of energy after providing for his own needs is obviously a valuable person to have control over. He can then be compelled to yield up his energy in the form of labour to provide for the needs of those having this control over him, thus increasing their comfort and lightening or eliminating their toil. That this power over others was developed and utilised for purposes of exploitation, there is the clearest historical evidence.

The appropriation of the surplus time, and therefore surplus labour and its products, of one group of men forming a working class by another group composing an exploiting and ruling clas may be accomplished in various ways. The character of the force used, its distribution and the precise method of its application are varying factors.

Forms of Slavery
In savage days captives taken in war were sacrificed either to appease the desires of the stomachs of their captors or the lusts of their gods. These were the most profitable ways of disposing of them, though, when of nearly-related tribes, they were sometimes adopted into the community. But when pastoral habits are adopted and the reserve of labour-power after self maintenance grows, it becomes practicable and desirable to retain the captives alive to labour for their captors. Still more does this apply in the agricultural stage. The captives become “chattel slaves”—are owned by their masters in the same way as cattle and are treated as such. As exchange develops they become articles of merchandise and slave raids and the slave trade, established institutions.

Found feebly developed in barbarian societies, chattel slavery may, under favourable circumstances, develop into the extensive and complex systems exhibited in the Greek and Roman civilisations, where the slaves vastly outnumbered the free population.

There is another method of subjecting the producer, wherein he is not violently wrenched away from his own land, society, his accustomed habits and occupations, being brought to work as a stranger and a chattel slave for an alien people ; on the contrary, under this second system the producers retain, fairly intact, for a time, their traditional institutions and customs, remaining in their “home-land” and at their customary employment. Here, the workers gradually change from free into exploited and oppressed producers through a military caste utilising the force they possess to exhort a tribute either in labour-time, goods or money from the mass of the community and to gradually centralise the control of society into its own hands.

This military caste may be one developed from the community itself by a normal process of division of labour or may be a band of warriors who have installed themselves as conquerors over a social group ; or again, more rarely, as in ancient Mexico and Sparta, an entire warlike community have achieved domination through conquest.

This system was a basic institution of the ancient Oriental States—Hindustan, Persia, Egypt and China. In a somewhat specialised form (wherein the rulers declared themselves owners of the land and levied a forced “rent” in labour and kind but later in money) it was dominant and known as “feudalism” during the “Middle Ages” of Europe. Although it has often existed side by side with chattel-slavery in the same community one or the other has usually predominated according to which of them circumstances were most favourable.

As these forms of slavery evolved, often placing the products of vast supplies of labour-power in the hands of a few individuals, inequalities of wealth became increasingly manifest in the ranks of the free class itself. In addition to ”freemen” and “slaves” there soon developed categories of “rich” and “poor.” Through the exchange of commodities luxuries of every kind were made accessible to the wealthy, awakening desires, which were a further stimulant to commerce. Money—the means of exchange—became a new social power, possession of which gave control over every product of man. In some cases usury and the mortgage widened the breach between the rich and the poor, for the impoverished debtors were often deprived of their last remaining possessions which were seized by the money-lenders. This occurred in Greece and Rome where the debtors were even sold into slavery.

But, above all, it was the merchants, those who lived solely by trade—skinning both producer and purchaser, who possessed this new power—gold, that glittering talisman of commodities. As they became more and more indispensable to the successful carrying on of the expanding trade, they gained an ever more complete control over industry, which thus tended increasingly to become the production of goods for sale alone, as distinct from the older method of producing for direct consumption. But production for the market involves a production varying in intensity, in the quantity of its products, according to the changes in the market, to the fluctuations in the demand for commodities.

Chattel-slavery, however, is not well adapted to the production of commodities. An owner of slaves will usually see that his slaves receive their maintenance whether they work “full time” or no time at all, for they are his property, they are wealth. We therefore find that, after a brilliant period of commercial progress up to a point, those ancient societies which depended on chattel-slavery at length reached the limits of their mode of production and industrial stagnation and decay set in. In the Southern United States we had a modern example of the same phenomenon.

With mediaeval feudalism, however, it was different. The growth of commerce and the use of money tended to relieve the serf of all dues in direct labour by the substitution of a money rent. From the oppressed serfs of a feudal baron they became free peasants exploited by a land-lord. But for most of them this was only a temporary respite, for, under one pretence and another, the peasants were ejected from their holdings by the land owners and thus deprived of their means of livelihood.

This was exactly what the merchant manufacturers, just then springing up, required to gain the advantage over the old, guild-bound, handicraft system. They were able to employ these propertyless workers as wage workers when “business was brisk,” discharging them when the demands of the market slackened, and, in this way, the production of commodities for sale in the rapidly expanding world-wide markets was made profitable.

Along these lines developed modern industrial capitalism with the labour system of wage slavery which thus constitutes the third great, historical method of exploitation.

As under chattel slavery and serfdom, the wage workers of to-day are compelled to render the fruits of their surplus energy to an idle class. The pressure used is less direct, but is, for that very reason, as we shall see, all the more effective. The system presupposes the monopoly of the wealth needed for production (land, raw material, machinery, etc.) by a small section of society. Those who have no means upon which to live must either starve or produce wealth for the property owners by using their means of production. This they do by selling their labour-power to the capitalists ; and the price or wage they receive is determined by competition, rising and falling according to the supply of and demand for labour-power, but always hovering around the cost needed for self-maintenance and perpetuation. All they produce above this goes to the capitalist class who thus correspond to the slave-holders and oppressors of the older systems.

In this brief survey we have seen how society in its primordial form becomes broken into classes, exploited and oppressed, exploiters and oppressors. Our next section will attempt to show the effect of this upon the character of moral ideas.

(To be Continued.)


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