What Does Life Mean To You?
To the present writer, about the most remarkable feature in modern life is the lack of interest displayed by the working class in their economic condition. They seem to accept their status of beasts of burden as a matter of course, a state of affairs to be put up with without grousing. A job of work seems to be the highest aspiration they have. Round that revolve their hopes and fears. A job of work brings them all the joy of life they ever know—food, clothing, shelter, a turn at the “pictures,” a new gramophone record, fags, and a bob for “seed” for the “bird.” For these things they start like horses on Monday morning, and finish like cows, complacently chewing the cud of future milking, on Saturday afternoon.
That cow-like satisfaction is, indeed, considered to be the hall-mark of the “respectable” working man who has “something to be thankful for,” i.e., a job. Inasmuch as it is the sign of a contented mind, it is the highest of the virtues now that it is not fashionable to treat discontented minds to bullets and bayonets except as a last resource. And as the vast majority of the workers have jobs, contented minds are a vast majority also.
The miseries of the workless workers are patent. The worker out of work is conscious of his unhappy position. The writer has no desire to spend ink on that side of the case. But all the workless worker wants, as a rule, is work. Given that, and relieved of the immediate fear of losing it, he becomes as complacent as his fellows who know not what unemployment is.
Yet what is that “life” which they embrace with such equanimity? No farmer works his horses as long hours as he works his men. The workers live to work. They are instruments for the production of profit. The bread they eat, the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, are not so much necessaries of life as necessaries for the production of that labour-power, that energy, which is to be expended in the creation of profit. And, saddest thought of all, those who live only to labour and to exude profit, are so used to this aspect of life that they have become dead to the real meaning of the word.
To the savage mind, the wage worker is a “slave of a slave.” What would the peasant proprietor of mediaeval times have thought of the idea of bartering his whole life for the meagre means of maintaining it? And, before him, the serf, by no means a free man—how would he have received the bestial proposal? In no epoch have men succeeded in fastening on their fellows fetters so galling; never have they succeeded in so completely robbing vast populations of their lives, as under the wages system. In days of chattel slavery, though the slave’s position as such was noon-day clear, no means existed of bringing him under such intense exploitation as in the case of the wage slave. As the farmer to-day does not work his horses so long as his men, because they are property and subject to deterioration, so the slave-owner could not proceed to extremities with his human cattle, for the reason that they also were property, subject to deterioration. Cases of brutality do not alter the general truth of this. No means of discipline capable of wide application existed under chattel slavery so effective as the fear of getting the sack is now to a wage earner.
So, in spite of all the superficial trappings of ”civilisation,” the “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” those who do the weaving and the spinning which the lilies of the field do not do, are in some respects in worse case than the bondmen of any previous age. The mediaeval worker, whether serf or peasant, truly worked in order to live. The products of his labour had a different meaning to him from that of the wealth produced by the modern worker. They were, for the most part, the means of his sustenance, created to enable him to live his day and enjoy it. A few weeks in the year—some 14 or 15—and he had wrested from nature his material requirements for the year.
To-day, existence for the workers has become, indeed, as the poet says: “ Life’s fitful fever.” Because he is free (though afraid) to refuse to work for any particular master, the whole tragic truth of his slave condition is hidden from him. He sees himself as a free unit in a free system, less fortunate than some, but never so badly off but that he can find some poor devil in sorer straits. He gets a few hours off every week, but cannot see that they are merely respites from toil necessary for recuperation in the interests of his employer. He gets so little leisure that his “pleasures” must be speeded up, like his work, in order that he may enjoy a bit of “life.” But all his days are tainted with the fear of unemployment, and his very holidays, if he is lucky enough to get any, are poisoned by the thought that it is “ back to work next week.”
Oh, my fellow-workers, can you not see the tragedy of it all? You are being robbed of life. If it was merely your purse, you would kick hard enough. Why will you not challenge this insolent verdict of your masters that you are merely beasts of burden, existing only to produce profits for them, sacrificing your whole lives in order to make the world luxurious and glorious for them! The Carthaginian slave, chained to his master’s portal, has engaged the pity of centuries; but the time will come when men, seeing with clearer vision, will revolt with even greater abhorrence from the spectacle of the modern worker chained to his machine. And how many thousands of to-day’s hopeless toilers there are who would gladly accept the chains of the ancient bondman, with his security of food and shelter, and surcease of worry !
It is hardly to be expected that men and women who have not realised their grievances will take even the first step towards abolishing them. It is for this reason the fervent hope of the writer that these lines may turn the thoughts of those whom circumstances have not driven to desperation, to what life really is for them, and what it might be under a social system whose every activity was actuated by the motive of the greatest good and happiness of the members of the community. Those who have become desperate are not always the best material to work out the remedy for their ills. Those whose plight is not so bad may be in worse straits to-morrow. Let them, therefore, study the Socialist proposition, for that alone offers them the full and joyous life that should be theirs.
A. E. Jacomb