Is It Work We Want?
"It is work we want, not charity," said a spokesman of the unemployed at a street corner meeting. This sums up the outlook of the average worker of to-day. He can see no other method of life than toiling or existing on charity. The fear of having to beg for bread, or go into the workhouse, spurs him on to find a job, though the conditions of work become ever more degrading.
How strange that such a view should find general acceptance among people already worn out with work; and at a time when wealth can be produced with such ease and abundance! It is stranger still that some must work hard and spend niggardly, whilst others work not and yet spend lavishly. If the former cease work for a brief while they come suddenly to the end of their resources; the latter buy palaces and furnish them brilliantly, live in magnificence, and yet at the end of their days they are more wealthy than at the commencement.
Who brings the rare jewels from far lands? Who sows and reaps that we all may live? Who drives the flying locomotive, the liners, the great cranes, the electric plant, and the plough? Who toils in sorrow and wretchedness that others may enjoy the best fruits of this wonderful old earth? Who is this strange being that makes possible for others an almost unlimited pleasure, beauty, and luxury, and takes for himself what is miserable, ugly, and poor? Who else but they who are born with the curse of slavery upon their brows?
Day after day, week after week, and year after year, thousands upon thousands of human beings do little more than eat, drink, sleep, and work. To the mass of the people the solitude of the mountain pass is unknown. Each day they—the "lucky" ones—must be at work to perform their allotted tasks.
Is it a pleasure to toil until limbs refuse to perform their accustomed tasks? Is it healthy to eschew fresh air and sunshine and pass the greater part of one's life in poisonous atmosphere? Is it intelligent to stagger with work-worn limbs and work-dimmed eyes along the thorny path of toil in order that parasites may prosper?
Through thousands of years a large part of the earth's inhabitants have fretted out their lives in slavery. Yet slavery, though hoary, had a beginning at a definite stage in the evolution of mankind. There was a period far back in the past when slavery was unknown. Just as certain definite social conditions in a past age brought slavery into existence, so other definite social conditions will bring it to an end.
It is leisure and idleness the worker needs (leisure to enjoy and idleness to recuperate), and yet he pursues work like a hound on the trail. How high above him, in one respect, is the "ignorant" savage of Herman Melville's "Typee," who worked little and laughed and sang long? And yet the worker does not pursue work because he loves the burden of toil; he does so because, as a rule, unless he works he cannot obtain the wherewithal to live. It is not a fault of his, but a misfortune – he is born into slavery.
So powerful is the influence of a part of his environment upon the worker, and so heavy is the weight of more recent tradition, that he believes slavery to be an eternal institution. A mighty thinker of the past, one Aristotle, shared this belief; but he made a profound qualification—there would be slavery, he said, until tools and machines were self-operating. We are now at the period when this is possible. With a touch of the hand mighty masses of machinery are set in motion which perform astonishing evolutions and accomplish wonderful results. With proper organisation little work on the part of man is required to turn out vast quantities of the necessaries of life.
Through succeeding ages, a privileged class has thrived upon the produce of an oppressed class, and it is the same to-day. In the past conditions were such that could not promise ease and comfort for the many, except where nature was particularly liberal and the population comparatively small. The needful things were produced by simple tools with much labour. Now all is changed. The needful things are produced by complicated tools with little labour. The conditions are such that they promise ease and comfort, leisure and luxury, to the many. But this promise can only be fulfilled when the many own the product of their energy.