Short Story: A Leisured Class
Open Letter to Mike, ESQ.
Dear Fellow-traveller Mike,
You do not know me, and I only know you are Mike because your mate called you by name. You sat at the other end of the ’bus and discoursed of a leisured class; and the mate agreed with all you said. I am sure you are a nice man. Your turns of speech showed that you read; and I think you would be found in the gallery at the Old Vic. on Shakespeare and opera nights. I should have liked a word with you, and as I did not get it I write you a letter. If you do not see it, perhaps others may who think like you.
“In spite of all these socialists say,” you observed, “there’s a good deal to be said for a leisured class. Think of the special benefits it can give to society, having so much time and opportunity.”
Mike, we have had a leisured class for centuries. Has it bestowed benefits on mankind in excess of those contributed by men productively occupied? Has it furnished a preponderant share of the exceptional services? Not from its ranks came our Arkwrights and Stevensons, our Shakespeares and Burns’s, our Mozarts and Beethovens. Many of the greatest benefactors of their race did their work in despite of lack of leisure, in despite of the discouragement and persecution of their masters. You and I can dimly guess by how much we should be the gainers if they had enjoyed their master’s freedom. By all means let our artists, investigators and philosophers have every opportunity for their special work. But so long as Nature is so ill-advised as not to observe our class distinctions, they will be found not chiefly in any class favoured by economic conditions, but scattered throughout the community. Your plea for an idle class, therefore, becomes one for the utmost possible leisure for everyone, an end not to be attained by having the many workers serve the few idlers all day long.
But you said, “What right have we workers to interfere, anyhow? Even suppose they waste their time—ar’nt they enjoying the results of their exertions, or their fathers?” No. Mike, to know what it is they are really enjoying you must understand this. Human labour power is capable of producing more than is necessary to maintain itself. It is precisely this quality which makes it useful to the Capitalist, and you as the repository of labour power a man to be employed. The surplus he appropriates. Realised in sale it constitutes his profit: and the fortune which, if successful, he amasses, is but the embodied labour of his employees. If he himself takes part in his business, then some proportion of his fortune is the fruit of his own labour. But as you know, no producer of commodities grows rich by his own work alone. Even so-called self-made men, who at first are workmen, employ others as soon as they profitably can: and many a member of the idle class, so far from taking a share in the making of his money, hardly knows where it is invested. Thus their wealth, whether they spend it on themselves or bequeath it to their heirs, is by no means the harvest of their own industry, but the product of the hands and brains of men like you and your mate, who cannot take your ease but when you have leisure thrust upon you. Then, your employer conceives, you will be so busy contriving new blessings for humanity that you will have no time to eat—and omits to provide accordingly.
Your trouble is that you are too disinterested. When you discover the part which the leisured ones actually play in Capitalist economy, you will be less solicitous for their welfare and more for your own. You can learn quite a lot about it from this number of the Socialist Standard. But take it next month and every month, Mike ! It gives the knowledge you want!