The Donkey and the Common: A Fable
A donkey once had the freedom of a delightful common. There was plenty of sweet grass to be had for the cropping, and though the fare varied with the course of the seasons, there was never a lack of thistles to give piquancy to the diet. Gorse bushes gave both perfume and shelter from the storms, and a cheap and easy roll could always be had in the sand pits, while common ponds served for drinking.
There were other donkeys who shared this rough and ready paradise, but as there was plenty of kicking room and no scarcity of pasture no serious differences arose, and I never heard of class distinctions being established between them and certain other commoners in the shape of geese, who were equally contented with the communal system. As our donkey was standing at ease one day, with pensive head and pendant ears of wisdom twitching with profound thought, there approached to him one of those beings called men whom he has been accustomed to despise on account of their only possessing two legs. This man, however, possessed, in addition to two legs, something of distinct interest to the donkey, namely, a bundle of hay. Friendly relations were soon established. There seemed no suspicion of overreaching commerce either in the transaction of handing over the hay–as in some cases where merchant venturers offer glass beads and hatchets for the native gold and ivory of simple tribes. The hay was simply handed by the one and eaten by the other. The two legs, however, began to move, supporting the bundle of hay at a convenient distance, and was followed unsuspectingly by the four legs, stimulated by an occasional mouthful. Thus the highway was reached, and then, without any warning, the two legs snatched the hay away, and, clapping a halter over the donkey’s head, jumped upon his hind quarters, and, digging in its heels vigorously, with the accompaniment of a stick, forced the four legs to carry it along, with the bundle of hay.
The donkey resented; plunges and kickings and backing were the political measures resorted to, alternating with total abstention from movement.
Finally the legs were displaced from the seat of government and deposited by the wayside.
The donkey, free again, made his way back to the common; but other bipeds were busy putting a fence about it–they called it “enclosing”–and the donkey was beaten off. The owner of the hay coming up again took advantage of the situation, and a friend of his producing a bit and bridle, they were, under protest, fitted over the nose of the donkey. The two pairs of legs then mounted upon his back, and four legs, being for the time dumbfounded by these superior tactics, trotted humbly along, comforting themselves with prospective hay at the end of the journey.
Well, that journey’s end did come at last; but it was in the murky streets of a squalid and smoky town, in a back yard and a tumble-down, draughty shed, with mouldy hay and water, and sore bones to boot. No springy turf, no gorse perfume, not even a thistle to bless oneself with. Thus mused the poor donkey, till heavy sleep, after the momentous fatigues of the day, overpowered him. He had not slept long, however, before his new masters roused him, and, hauling him out into the yard, put on the bridle, a heavy saddle, and two large pannikins to keep his balance true, filled with an abundance of tempting vegetables and fruit that he could not reach. The pair mounted again and rode him to the market place; but this only meant for the donkey the change of one load for another, without distinct improvement in his own fare, so that he was frequently in the position of one whose back is loaded with good things he cannot touch, glad to pick up garbage from the street to satisfy his hunger. ” What a donkey I must have been to have left that common ! ” said he to himself.
This life of hard labour, rough usage, and scanty and poor fare went on for some time, and our donkey’s fortunes showed but little sign of brightening.
Now and then he heard of donkeys revolting, but the only result seemed to be a tighter band and heavier burdens.
One day, however (it was the first of May, too), came a change for him. His masters had driven him–for he was now promoted to the proud position of drawing a pair of wheels, which enabled his masters to make him draw much more weight than he formerly could carry upon his back–themselves included. Well, his masters had driven him to a common; that was something; but the common had a great cluster of tents and vans, with strange pictures on them. Wheels went round, with rows of wooden horses, to music; whistles blew and guns were shot off and there were crowds of people. It was very exciting altogether.
Our donkey was released from his cart, decked with ribbons, and his two masters, jumping on his back, drew him up in line with other donkeys with their riders.
It was a handicap donkey race. Off they started. It was a delight to feel the springy turf beneath the hoof again. The donkey needed no urging, for from animal spirits and old associations he went well. He went so well, indeed, and set the pace so fast that first one of his masters fell off, and then, after a futile struggle to keep his seat, and many blows, which only sent the donkey on faster, the other fell off, too, amid roars of laughter from the crowd of onlookers. The donkey, feeling his back free from any burden, won easily, and showed so much spirit and struck so stubbornly against returning to his life of toil that no one has ventured to ride or to coerce him since, and I have heard that he has got back to his common again and the enjoyment of his simple life.
Comment or moral is, perhaps, superfluous; but if one should read “natural man” or “worker” for “donkey,” “land monopoly” for the first master, “capitalism ” for the second, we can easily find details to fit “commercial competition,” ” the industrial system,” and “the relation of labour to the employer,” &c., in this homely fable.
Pieces of paper
A Short Story from the Winter 1984 issue of the World Socialist
George did odd jobs for us every Saturday. He was a tall man . . . sixty odd . . . ascetically lean of frame and face and his clothes showed, at least, secondary ownership in their shortness and looseness.
He always washed and valeted my car and, in the season, helped Mary in the garden. His manner always seemed slightly obsequious but there was something in the way he called me “sir”, or “Mister” Stevens, that I always found slightly disconcerting.
He had been with us—on Saturdays only, of course—since the time when his reward was a £1 note. Now it was a fiver. Mary said she was ashamed to give him a fiver for five or six hours work but there was no way we could afford more. Indeed, when I finally succumbed to Mary’s persistent pressure and bought our second car—a five-year old Renault 4 that looked its age—we agreed that she would use it sparingly and George’s fiver would pay for the petrol.
When he arrived the following Saturday morning, Mary was upstairs. The previous evening I had argued that, since it was her car that had created the need for us to dispose of George, she should tell him. There’d been a good deal of banter at first but, as always happens when we talk about things related to our domestic budget, Mary becomes defensive and angry. We both knew she would not carry out her threat to get rid of the car but the scene did become unpleasant and Mary slept with our baby daughter, Carol, that night.
As I said, next morning when George arrived Mary stayed upstairs. All morning I’d been thinking about George. He rarely mentioned anything about his personal life to me but, over the years, Mary had learnt a lot. She always made him a cup of tea and they would talk during the short period he would spend with her in the kitchen.
The accumulated tit-bits of George’s revelations added up to a fairly full biography of poverty and misery. His father had died in the First World War, six months before George was born, and his early years had be’en a grim apprenticeship in privation before “the real luxury” (his actual words, often quoted by Mary when she talked about him) of army life during the Second World War. He had not been wounded—not hit with a bullet or shrapnel or anything like that—but he had spent six days in a farm outhouse in France, pinned down by crossfire between a stubborn rearguard of panzers and a section of the advancing allied forces. The experience had been pretty grim— one could almost say, harrowing—and had undoubtedly left a mark on George.
One of his two comrades was killed the first day when the outhouse was swept with machine gun fire from one side or the other. His body had lain “laughing”—again, a direct quote—in the corner, frightening George and his companion more than the hellish cacophony outside. After two days, without food and with the water gone, George and his comrade decided to make their escape during a lull in the fighting.
His companion was in front as, bending low, they prepared to move through the door of the outhouse. When he was shot he fell back onto George. He lived for three more days, across in the corner opposite the laughing corpse, and, all the time, he maintained a delirious soliloquy in a sad, low voice.
The man was obviously one of those characters who had read a great deal; a sort of autodidact, full of unconnected knowledge. Unquestionably deranged, he punctuated his monologue every now and then with a question and then proceeded to answer his own question. These questions and answers were, apparently, quite fierce assaults on the values and standards that underpin our whole way-of-life. Not the sort of talk that a reasonable, civilised human being would normally indulge in but, in the thick of it, so to speak, dying and all that . . . I suppose, really, some men die less bravely than others. George was not too sure about the answers the dying man had given himself but he did, unfortunately, remember the questions and he did remember the other saying, a short time before he fell silent forever, “How can patriotism be a good thing? It’s a fucking killing disease!”
The experience had left a grim shadow on George’s mind. He was obviously a wee bit . . . well, not quite . . . right. Not crazy, you understand; just a bit . . . peculiar.
He always talked about the less seemly things. I’m in insurance and one day I was foolish enough to comment on some aspect of my work. George said, “Humanity should be its own insurance”. I was slightly non-plussed. “What do you mean, George?” I asked, indulgently. He looked at me, his mind probably back in that hellhole in France, then he seemed to draw back, “Just seems to me, Mr Stevens, that people can make enough of the things they need to ensure them against every contingency. It’s the paper, sir, the pieces of paper, that cause all the problems.” I didn’t say anything in reply; George was . . . innocent, so naive, and, as I have said, a little . . . peculiar.
It was his peculiarities I was thinking about as I asked him to sit down at the table in the kitchen that Saturday morning. I had decided to give him the fiver first, and, then, the bad news—and I wouldn’t ask him to clean the car or attend the garden. Christ! Mary had left me in a bloody spot and now she was huffing in the bedroom. All because of a miserable, second-hand banger. What the hell—I couldn’t afford a fiver! Irrelevantly, I thought about being forty next birthday.
When George had sat down I gave him the tin of beer I normally held over for myself—for Sunday. He listened to my explanation; I was completely frank— though I maybe did overstate Mary’s need for the Renault. When I was finished, he was silent and I felt the need to go on. The proffered fiver lay on the table between us—stark, embarrassing. “Of course, George, you realise, with the mortgage, the rates, the payments on the car . . . well, really, everything, and the recession . . . Less demand for insurance now. Ironically, more need, but less demand. Business is in a hell of a way. Well, you know it yourself, there’s acres of unsold cars down there at the car plant—I’m told they are going to lay off another eight hundred next week—probably another load of lapsed policies! But what can they do? No point making more cars to rust in the fields beside the others. Jesus, George, if Mary could have done without the car—say car easy; it’s really an old banger—probably another headache! But, with Carol starting school and all . . . “
I looked at him; his eyes were half-closed and his face was set in such a curious way that the thought occurred to me that his . . . his mental state might not be quite as congenial as I had imagined. Desperately I searched for words that might assuage his anger and I found them in the most disarming honesty of self-analysis I had ever subjected myself to. It was my moment before death; a brutal revelation of my hidden anger. Anger at my life, my job, anger, even, at Mary—my God! even at the child! How easy it would be if it was only me—if I were alone! George’s voice stopped me and, fleetingly, I reflected that he was alone.
“Mister Stevens”. It was as though he had shouted “stop!”. Then, quietly, “Mr Stevens, it’s all mad, isn’t it, sir? All the pretence. Disguising ourselves even from ourselves. You know, Mr Stevens, there’s the world out there . . . a veritable fairyland of everything. Everything. And there’s more besides; oh, aye, far more for everybody that needs or wants more, if we were allowed to grow it or make it. And, y’know, few would really want more if everybody had enough. But it’s the pieces of paper, Mr Stevens . . . The pieces of paper. The bloody title deeds, the certificates, the banknotes—the whole, bloody, wasteful documentation of human servitude. It’s the pieces of paper that restricts and demeans us. If we could only use the technology, the machines, the computers and all the rest, use them in the same way as our primitive forefathers used their clubs and spears, we’d maybe be civilised. Jesus, sir, even the language of it all is . . . obscene . . . humiliating!”
I had never heard George swear before and I was, frankly, a little afraid. Hoping to terminate the interview, I stood up, lifted the five pound note from the table and forced it into George’s hands, clasped on the table. “It is a funny old world, George”, I said, with more lightness than I felt. Then, really feeling the moment, “I really do wish I could help you, George—you know . . . help in an ongoing way. Something sort of . . . permanent. But what can I . . .”
He stood up, uncrumbling the note in his hands, then he bent across and, almost ceremoniously, left the fiver in the middle of the table. I was startled when he put a hand on my shoulder, but his eyes were soft and, strangely sad and, when he spoke, his voice was laden with . . . with pity!
“No, Mr Stevens. I don’t want to hurt you, sir, nor would I want to. But you really need the money, Mr Stevens. Oh, you do, sir! Funny how a miserable little piece of printed paper can come between people . . . cause hurt. And it can cause hurt, sir, hurt and hunger—even death. I wish I could help you, Mr Stevens; you and the millions of others. But it’s hard to see beyond the bits of paper.”
I bought two new car mats for Mary’s Renault with the fiver and it was the difference between love and war in our house that weekend! She didn’t sleep in Carol’s room on Saturday night and, for a long time, we both lay in bed talking about George. Mary listened while I told her all about the morning’s conversation. She was quite distressed; she really liked old George. Afterwards, when we had changed the subject, she said, quietly and irrelevantly, “Isn’t it funny the way the war affected some people”.
Fairy Tales of the Future
A Short Story from the May 1943 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Story of Exploitation
Once upon a time there lived in the society of men in the land of Britain a gentleman named Lord Dodo, who was well known and renowned for his prodigal generosity, and in consequence men paid heed to his words and deeds and courted his presence. Fairy Inquisitive asked, “How is it, when there are so many men so poor in society, you are able to be so munificently generous?” The Noble Plutocrat replied, amiably: “What I have done, other men can do; it only needs the talents—Industry, Initiative, Ability and Patience, and to believe in tile Great Institution of Private Property/’ A little proly, who heard, wondered and pondered on this and thought, “What a good thing it would be if I could be as he.” And as he mused, along came Fairy Understanding. Fairy Understanding, who was an honest little chap, said to proly, “I can’t understand without facts, and so you won’t understand without them.” Proly eagerly cried, “What can I do to get facts?” Understanding answered, “You must search and inquire in the books of men.” He and Understanding began the search. After much toil and effort, they came to “Das Kapital,” and as proly read with understanding, he murmured, “I have the Key and Facts and Understanding. It is so simple. The workers present themselves to the Noble Lord’s Agents, who estimate their skill and potential capacity to do work, and who tell the workers when, where, and as to the conditions they may work under. They have sold their labour-power. In due course they present themselves in the work compound. All times of beginning and, stopping work are carefully recorded. They proceed to spend their mental and physical energy on the materials supplied by the noble Lord, who does not pay for the time spent in feeding, or the food absorbed, in an interval allowed for the purpose, although it is needed to sustain their energy. They cease work, go home, indulge in meals, sleep and recreation to keep them fit. Next morning they are ready for another day of toil. At the end of the week they are paid, not the value of what they have produced, but what it costs to keep themselves and their families for a week—that is the value of their labour- power. This value is less than the value it produces during a week of work. The Noble Lord sells the product of a week’s labour at its value, and deducts from the cash he receives. The remainder he keeps as unpaid labour or profits.” Proly stopped, then he cried, “There’ is a word for it—exploitation—and it is very ugly.” But Understanding said, “You forget Facts and the facts are these; he and others have Right, Privilege, Precedence and Legality, and he is an honest, upright and generous individual.” “What can I do to alter these things?” said Proly, and Understanding replied, “To change society you must gather the prolys together. When they understand the need for change and when there is a majority of prolys united for the common purpose of overthrowing the Private Property Institution and securing the Common Ownership, they will capture the Wizard of Might (political power) and build society so that the insidiousness of exploitation wilt be no more.”
And in time Fairies Fact and Understanding and the prolys came together, abolished the Private Property Institution, secured the Common Ownership, and so we today are free from exploitation and we work only to supply our needs.