The Roots of Social Change
Why We Are Wage Slaves
The causationist, seeing everywhere in nature a concatenation of cause and effect, as the links of a chain running through endless time and through endless space, sees everywhere also that this infinite variety of happenings occurs in accordance with immutable laws, too impassive to be weak, too dispassionate to be stern. Law, and order, he knows to be universal, and chaos is a term which has no meaning to him save as the description of his own limited view and knowledge of phenomena.
The science of political economy enquires into the movements of man in the quest for the material means of subsistence, and shows that these movements also, no less than the rolling of celestial orbs, are governed by laws, and conform to the purposeless dictates of causal sequence.
Thus, there is a law of capitalist production which ordains that human labour-power shall be in constant competition with machinery, and shall as constantly be displaced and defeated by its formidable rival. And there is a law that, notwithstanding that the result is bitter as blood to the great working class of the world, yet must working-class intelligence and working-class strength go on improving and developing this machinery of production, to their own undoing, as long as the capitalist system of profit production shall prevail. There is a further law—a law of wages—under governance of which wages are determined by the cost of subsistence under certain prevailing conditions. There are many other stated laws controlling the economic movements of man, and many more, doubtless enough, awaiting human recognition and enunciation.
The knowledge of these laws is of vital importance to the workers. Such knowledge alone can explain to them how, and in what circumstances, the wealth of the world is produced— and who can it more closely concern than those who produce it all and who enjoy so little of it ? Such knowledge is the only sure foundation of Socialist faith—our pillar of fire by night, our pillar of cloud by day—the one unerring index where all else is confusion.
The reformer is a reformer only because he is ignorant of the existence of the laws governing social growth, or because he fails to realise their universal applicancy, and the unbending potency with which they reduce all human wishes, as far as they are in opposition to them, to merest empty vanity.
The science of political economy, then, so long the peculiar study of our masters and pastors— those who rule, is an essentially necessary study to the workers—those who are ruled. For if the knowledge to be gained from it is something less than “the wing wherewith we fly to heaven” this alone can serve us as hands and knees whereon to crawl from hell.
To start at the beginning, or, shall we say—to start at a beginning—since it is a beginning only for our purpose, and to reduce our lesson to the utmost simplicity, it can easily be understood that given as a condition the private ownership of all the means of producing those things which are necessary to support human life, a certain other concomitant must co-exist, as the inevitable effect of the given cause : private ownership of the means of life — namely, all those who are excluded from ownership are dependent upon those who possess the means of living.
This is a fact that cannot be controverted. The owners of the means of subsistence might be all that the noblest pagan and Christian philosophers exhort them to be, might be the very embodiment of all the graces, but still the dependency is there, unaffected, as dependency, by any magnanimity of the possessors.
Given then this private ownership of the land (in political economy the term includes the seas and lakes and rivers), from which all material wealth flows, and the machinery of production—the channel by which it flows; and given also this dependence of those who, not being possessors, have no free access to the means of producing the necessaries of life; and given further, human nature, not us it was before it fell if it has fallen, or as it will be when it rises again if it ever does rise again, but as it is presented to us at this time of day, the unfinished work of history: given all these conditions then nothing is more certain than that this ownership by a class of the means whereby all men must live, will be used, not, perhaps, consciously and wilfully to the detriment of the non-possessors, but, over the general field of operations, first and last for the benefit of the possessors. What is there else in ownership, but that it confers on the possessor some advantage or advantages which are conditional upon possession, and which therefore are denied to the non-possessor?
All these conditions then we have in present-day society—the ownership of the means of life by a class, the dependence of the non-possessors upon that class, and the exclusion of these propertyless ones from access to the means of subsistence except upon condition of advantage to the class which possesses all productive wealth.
Here is a certain set of conditions which, in the very nature of things, stand as causes from which effects must follow. If the whole of the propertyless resolved to sit themselves down and die rather than exist in dependence, that would be an effect of the causes, and a perfectly possible effect—if the resolution were there. But history shows that the propertyless did not do so, but that some other condition prevailed, which made them surrender.
Since, then, submission to dependence was inevitable, and this dependence demanded certain advantages to be yielded to the possessing class, what form did this submission take and why? and what form did these advantages take, and also why?
With the means of life in the hands of a class there are several forms of subjection which might conceivably follow. But what shall it be in the case we are supposing? Shall it be chattel slavery? Shall it be serfage ? Shall it be wage slavery? That must be decided by the degree of development of the instruments of production primarily, and by the social conditions which have arisen out of this historic development. Thus, because the means of producing wealth had not advanced to that stage in which they enabled human energy to produce more than sufficient for its own reproduction, (and are therefore profitless to any but the user)—such means of production are common property, and form the base of a communal society ; but growing out of such a communal form of society, and keeping more or less even pace with that development of the means of production which does enable human energy to produce a surplus of wealth beyond that necessary for its own reproduction, we find a form of subject labour. Why does this subjugation take the shape of chattel slavery and not of wage slavery?
Because, in the first place, developing imperceptibly out of a system based upon communal ownership, the propertyless ones are mainly drawn from outside the community, prisoners of war, who are no longer eaten now that there exist means of making them produce tlieir own living and something over. And being captives they must be the property of their captors, and kept in subjection by the sword. In the second place a wage is essentially a price, a money equivalent of the thing which it is the price of. It is one side of an equation which is possible only through the operation of the laws of supply and demand in a competitive market; and being an equivalent only because it has freedom of motion to find its own level and equal through the ceaseless fluctuation of supply and demand, it can only be the equivalent of something of like fluidity. Wages, then, presupposes free labourers— labourers, that is, who are owners of their labour-power, and can within certain limits withhold it, though under certain pressure they must exchange it in the end; presupposes also a world of commodities (goods produced for sale and which are still “in the market”) since it can only exist as the counterpart of innumerable other commodities, for which it is readily exchangeable at current rates; presupposes also a competitive market, where goods produced for sale find their quantitative likeness in their qualitative opposites; presupposes also, and therefore, and finally, a certain development of the means of production, and of the method of production, and of accumulated wealth, none of which conditions can exist until long after the means of producing wealth have reached the stage suggested above. That is why the form of subjugation at this period is chattel slavery, and not wage-slavery.
In what has been said may be found also the answer to the previous question, why did the subjection of the propertyless take the form that characterises it to-day ? But in order that a proper understanding of this vitally important matter may be attained, it will be advisable to analyse yet a little more minutely the causes which give birth to the effect. This will form a fitting subject for a second article.
A. E. Jacomb