Society and Morals. Part VII. The Morals of Capitalism

The industrial system which prevails to-day, and which has moulded social institutions along lines rapidly becoming world-wide, is known as “capitalism” because, under this system, the wealth used in production takes the character of “capital.” By “capital” is to be understood wealth which is neither used directly for consumption, nor yet, primarily, for the production of articles for their own sake, but wealth which is specifically employed for the purpose of yielding a profit or interest upon which the owner of the capital can live without necessarily consuming or diminishing the sum of capital itself.

Apart from the undeveloped forms—usurer’s or merchant’s capital which preceeded the dominating “industrial capital” of to-day, this process of profit yielding is made possible because, in contrast to the possessors of capital (the capitalists) there exists a far larger class who possess no wealth upon which they can live. These propertyless persons must, therefore, undertake to work with the means of production owned by the capitalists on condition that in return they receive the means to enable them to feed, clothe, and shelter—in a word, maintain themselves.

This transaction between capitalist and worker takes the form of a purchase and sale of the worker’s labouring energy, for upon yielding this power to the capitalist for a stipulated time the worker receives a sum of money or a wage—the price of this energy. This price, whilst varying like that of any other commodity according to the relations of supply and demand, is determined by the cost of producing the commodity—in this case the maintenance of the labourer’s energy, of his life and that of his family at the customary standard of comfort and fitness.

Under capitalism practically everything that is produced is for sale in the markets. The capitalist does not desire to use the goods his employees produce for him ; it matters not to him even what they are, whether they be battle­ships or bootlaces, so long as he can obtain their equivalent in money by selling them. It is in their sale that he realises the profit he is all along out for. He obtains it from the value given to the goods by the labour of his employees, during their production, in excess of that which merely balances the wages he pays out. Obviously then, under these conditions practically all the benefis of increasing powers of production are reaped by the capitalists, who as a consequence become more wealthy, while the great mass of producers remain in a permanent condition of poverty.

The wage-worker under capitalism, therefore, is in a similar position to chattel-slave and to the serf, whom we have previously dealt with. He is a compulsory worker and he is exploited of the wealth produced by what we have hitherto referred to as surplus energy—that energy resident in man after labouring sufficiently to secure self maintenance.

Such, then, omiting details, are the primary features of the capitalist mode of production, a system which has profoundly modified all human institutions, ideas, and moral relations. To trace these changes it is essential to briefly outline its historical development.

The Coming of Capitalism
In feudal Society there was no class of labourers who worked permanently for wages. Individuals may have done so, but there was no such class in the sociological sense. As we have seen, the serf, providing he abided by the customs of the age, was, by these customs, guarranteed normally, a secure livelihood. He was not a landowner in the modern sense, but he did possess certain rights in the land. The craftsman too, easily acquired the tools and materials used in his work. Neither, therefore, was under any economic necessity to sell his labour power to an employer for wages. Before such could become a social phenomenon the link which united the producer with the means of production had to be severed. This severance, the historic premise of capitalism, was accomplished in several stages, the details of which can be read in Gibbins’ “Industrial History ofEngland,” or Marx’s “Capital.” Here we need only say in brief that as the old village community was gradually undermined by economic changes, such as the substitution of money rents for feudal services or payment in goods, the landed nobility were enabled by their control of the State to enclose the land of their estates, thus depriving large numbers of the peasantry of their only means of existence by ejecting them from their allotments. Many became petty craftsmen independent of the guilds, others flocked to the towns to form the germs of the urban proletariat.

Capitalist production began when wealthy merchants, instead of buying commodities from independent craftsmen, found it more profitable in order to meet the growing demands of the
expanding international markets to gather numbers of these dispossessed workers into factories of their own, providing them with materials and supervising their work. In England many such factories existed in the 16th Century in “industrial villages” outside the Guild towns.

Soon division of labour introduced into the workshops made the workers more and more dependent upon their capitalist employer, a dependence which was made complete towards the end of the 18th Century by the revolution brought about by the advent of steam-driven machinery.

This dependence of the workers upon those who own the gigantic and above all, expensive machine plants, which while increasing their productiveness lessen the skill required of the producer, soon became general because, in the last century and a half, the machine process has been taken up in every branch of production.

In their evolution the capitalist class or boureoisie (so called because its first elements were , townsmen, inhabitants of the “bourg”) found it necessary to attack with a view to their abolition, all the institutions reminiscent of feudalism, which were a hindrance to the full satisfaction of their interests.

The merchants, who were the fore-runners of the industrial capitalists, had been materially aided by the favour extended to them by the Crown, to which they were a rich source of revenue and a powerful counterpoise against the baronage, who, with their petty armies and traditional prestige, were always a menace to the supremacy of the king. But after the military power of the nobility had been broken and their descendants had become mere land-owners and courtiers of the king, the growing bourgeoisie were oppressed by all manner of tolls and duties hindering the freedom of trade—Crown monopolies, a heavy taxation, and a political system which excluded them from any share in the government.

Against such conditions the capitalists rebelled. They became revolutionary, that is, they desired the abolition of the social institutions which had been adapted to feudal conditions of production, but which, now that feudalism was a thing of the past, were obsolete and a fetter to industrial progress ; and in their place they determined to establish new institutions suitable to capitalist production and thus to their own interests.

Their intellectual leaders developed new social theories, in which the conditions of the past were condemned as unjust, tyrannical and unreasonable. By contrast, the aspirations of the new class appeared as the very embodiment of Justice, Liberty, and Reason. Their great watchword was “Freedom” : freedom of commercial competition ; a working class “free” to sell its labour-power to any purchaser and to move from place to place with the shifting centres of employment. Previous forms of exploitation, now obsolete and a bar to the free operation of capitalist methods, were condemned. Chattel-slavery became a “crime against humanity.” Serfdom was declared a violation of the “Rights of Man.”

New religious conceptions arose in antagonism to the reactionary Roman Catholicism—the ghost of feudalism, the mental despot. “Freedom of conscience” and of faith were demanded. The “divine right” of kingship was stoutly denied. Puritanism, an extreme reaction against all things “Roman,” became dominant in England. It supplanted the authority of the Church with that of the Bible ; condemned the extravagant, sensual, and gay lives of the aristocracy ; raised to an ideal the miserly, money-seeking habits of the bourgeoisie, and substituted for the many boisterous feasts and holy-days of the past, possible with the agrarian economy of feudalism, the more regular, but meaner and dull, Sabbath.

In France the intellectual movement took the form of a crude but highly critical materialism under Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Encyclopedists. Natural science, discouraged in the feudal period as likely to lead to heretical opinion, was looked on with favour by the bourgeoisie. It aided them both in navigation and in industry.

Many new conceptions of law and morality were formulated. For instance, ancient law says practically nothing in relation to “contract,” which, as everyone knows, plays a great part in modern jurisprudence. In communistic and early feudal times the organisations of production—in agriculture the village commune, in industry the guild—persisted from generation to generation, and the relations of the members of them were fixed by customs often of immemorable antiquity. But with the rise of capitalist production, industry becomes a matter of the private enterprise of individuals. The capitalist set up his factory, purchased hia materials and labour-power, and thus founded a productive organisation which was the result of a perfectly well known agreement between men. Contracts thus became of importance in the basic relations of men, and they were made binding by the “law of contract.” The early bourgeois sociologists, such as Rousseau, regarded “contract” as of such fundamental importance that they accounted for the origin of human society by their theory of the primaeval “social contract.”

Enlisting the support of the discontented peasantry and proletariat by their “democratic” slogans, the bourgeosie at length broke the power of the Crown and the nobility ; capitalist production triumphed ; capitalist ideas and morality became supreme and their tenets were embodied in the law of the State.

In particular was the right of private property elevated to an inviolable position. Whilst, under tribal society, personal ownership of wealth, had been almost negligible and even under feudalism extremely restricted, with the first flush of the bourgeois triumph it became almost absolute. The doctrine was formulated that private property was a “natural attribute” of man and his “eternal right.” Accordingly, infringements of the laws of property, now dominant in the legal code, were severely punished. In England a century ago the death penalty was enforced in cases even of petty theft.

All legal restrictions on trade and production were now abolished—the reign of free competition and free exploitation opened.

Competition and Psychology
The industrial competition which made capitalistic production and exchange so distinctly different from all previous forms has had a profound influence upon the mental life of Society. It became so intense that Engels likened it to the “struggle for existence” in the biological world. This unremittant war of “each for himself and the devil take the hindmost” fostered to the utmost the natural egoism or selfishness in men, and necessarily hampered the expression of their artistic feelings and social impulses.

The business man who loved “his neighbour as himself,” who cared at all for the welfare of his competitors, would be ruined financially and cast into the proletariat. Even the wage-worker, whose existence depends upon his getting a “job” cannot but fight his competing fellow-worker in the labour market, especially when, as is usually the case, the job-hunters out-number the jobs.

Competitive capitalism weakened social bonds and made men’s actions as anti-social as they well could be and retain their social organisation at all. But so much is the horizon of man’s thought limited by the conditions under which he lives, that competition appeared to the bourgeoisie as the basis of all progress, as the only “natural” condition of production. Any interference with its constant sway was regarded as a calamity. “Individualism,” having the “rights and liberty of the individual” as its dogma and Herbert Spencer as its greatest exponent, became the “philosophy bourgeois” par excellence. That the proletariat never completely assimilated this teaching is due to the fact that, very early, the workers learned the great law that combination, where possible, is more effective than strife—a lesson which the capitalists were not to learn until much later, as we shall see.

The prominence which the capitalist era has given to individual egoism is, no doubt, largely responsible for the general acceptance of the view that selfishness is the natural inclination of man, altruism being super-human, i.e., of supernatural origin—a view which has led to the ethical argument for the existence of God. As we have seen, however, concern for the welfare of others, equally with selfishness, is a product of the animal evolution of man.

The bourgeoisie’s steadfast belief in the gospel of competition was based upon the theory that out of the seeming strife and anarchy of the struggle came order and harmony through the inexorable workings of the economic laws of supply and demand. These laws were supposed to regulate production and distribution with the utmost possible exactness and to apportion the wealth produced with the greatest justice attainable. Consequently the bourgeoisie were bewildered by the periodic crises in history which were due to the over-production largely a result of the industrial anarchy prevailing. Their leaders sought the cause of crises everywhere but in the right place, even in the spots on the sun.

That the owners of capital should receive the largest share of the wealth produced was only “right and natural,” for, reasoned the economists, did they not “risk their capital” ; and was not this, in the first place, the outcome of their thrift and diligent industry ; and further, was not their organising and business ability at the root of the efficiency and success of their productive concerns ?

True, the mere landlords were wealthy also, and these surely enough were social parasites, the useless remnants of a bye-gone age. If the workers were poor, declared their theorists, what was to blame but their own thriftlessness and lack of intelligent effort ; the very laws of the “survival of the fittest” and of the ratio of population to food supply were against any other result.

Such was the tenor of the social theories prevailing during the classical period of capitalism. Translated into the political practice of the “Manchester School,” they meant the non-interference of the State in private industry. The individual capitalist could exercise his boundless averice unfettered even by the wider interests of his own class. Men, women, and children toiled wearily day and night in the feverish hum of unhealthy factories, workshops, and mines. In Green’s “Short History ” we read : “Women toiled in coal-mines, chained like beasts of burden to carts which they dragged on all fours through the long galleries, traversing from seventeen to thirty miles a day. Children from five years old were sent into the darkress of the mines. In the model mill of David Dale children from five to eight worked from. 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., after which they went to school, . . . . Children might be seen lying on the factory floors at night to be ready for work in the morning.” (Page 840.) Such conditions were justified by the morality of capitalism. Verily, in those days, as Marx has put it, “capital celebrated its orgies.”

When laws were passed to ameliorate such frightful conditions of exploitation it was due principally to the political opponents of the manufacturers—the land-owners—who were, of course, uninjured by the restrictions. To these “Factory Acts” the industrial capitalists were doggedly opposed. John Bright, their spokesman, denounced the Ten Hours Bill as “one of the worst measures ever passed in the shape of an Act of Legislature.” (Gibbins’ “Industrial History.”)

Nor were these the only “benefits” which flowed from the reign of free profit competition. As goods were produced, not that they should be used by their producers, but only to be sold at a profit, the quality of the articles was of little concern to the manufacturer so long as the purchaser could be deceived. The sale of adulterated food-stuffs, for instance, spread to proportions which would have seemed incredible in the “simple age” when people prepared food to eat. Bright declared adulteration a “legitimate form of competition.” Rubbish, in our civilised age, is sold as food, poison as drink, and the all-producing proletariat are clad in shoddy clothing and in paper boots. Fortunes are built up by the sale of quack “patent medicines” and “cures” for every imaginable ailment. The advertising of goods has become an art in itself, an art of lying and deceit. Every article is pronounced from a hundred glaring posters to be better than all its competitors. Under capitalism it has become impossible to separate lying from the most every-day economic relations. The worker lies to his boss about his qualifications ; the manufacturer and salesman lies to his customers from the hoarding and the Press, by his agent, or over the counter. The “business lie” has become “not a real lie at all,” a mere convention which everybody expects and everybody sees through.

Such are some of the glorious results of free competition and the “rights of the individual.”

(To be Continued.)


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