Can the World Go Back to Old Simple Ways of Life?
Or should it go forward to still greater simplicity and Harmony?
The long interrogative letter by Mr George Hope, printed on pages 21-3 of this issue, raises many questions of a magnitude forbidden adequate answer in an entire number of The Gateway, even if we could devote that amount of space to them. I welcome the questioning spirit, as being the exact and healthy opposite of the deadly mental inertia that takes all the big things of life for granted the-as-it-was-in-the-beginning-so-it-is-now-and-ever-shall-be attitude.
At the outset I would suggest that Mr Hope should not assume that I do not understand his points merely because I do not accept or agree with them. Tastes, opinions, desires differ, not only between individuals, but in the same individual at different stages of a long life.
While favouring public ownership of large-scale businesses, such as railways, our correspondent nevertheless thinks that the house and garden, the farm or printer, the bakery and carpenter’s shop should belong to the person who occupies them and works them. Mr Hope must either be thinking of one-man business or industrial partnerships since a business of any size is operated by the men rather than the master. This applies to all the callings he specifies.
What is property?
The meaning of property is that which is proper to the individual. I am not sure that even a house with a garden is proper to the individual. If it belongs to the municipality the tenant has practically life ownership as long as he pays the rent and obeys the law, and his family, if any, may succeed to it as a matter of course with all the improvements and amenities that he and his have provided -the fruit trees, bushes, and trellis in the garden, the stair he has made to the loft, the floor he has laid down in the loft itself, and so on.
To own a house may be a clog and a burden. Municipalities can acquire at bargain prices rows of houses whose owners have migrated or emigrated. A man ought to be free to walk out of one home and into another with the minimum of loss, trouble, or expense. The snail is, I think, the only creature in nature to which a house is ‘proper.’ He carries it about with him. And surely it is no advantage. He is the slowest, most hopeless thing in animated Nature. Thoreau points out that the musk rat, caught in a trap, will gnaw off a leg and leave it behind rather than lose freedom and life.
We say a man belongs to his belongings. Yes that is the drawback of belongings. I have changed my town five times since 1893 and each time have had to move truck loads of dunnage, mostly books, though each time there has been a shedding of possessions too, even of books. I have none of my school prizes, though I have kept many of the actual lesson books. Books are, of course, part of my stock-in-trade, and in a modern small country town there is more stock than trade – of that sort. The better your stock – the more books you have of the kind that will make the eyes of a connoisseur shine – the less will be the demand.
As regards ‘the means of production’, there will probably always be small plants with which the individual craftsman can follow his calling or hobby. There are such in Soviet Russia, and then number is steadily increasing. Dealers and middlemen are suppressed; but the artels, groups of these small craftsmen, with their own shops and stands for the sale of their products, multiplied threefold in a few years.
Why not, so long as there is no exploitation or profiteering? There are public supplies of water, gas, electricity, transport, education, roads, and libraries; but there are nevertheless private wells, schools, roads, libraries, station and market police, privately-owned buses, cars, and wagons, and privately-generated electricity and gas.
I am so little in love with bigness that I live by preference in a small town after forty years of city life, and my home and my office, at opposite ends of the own, are neighboured by fields and trees, with a prospect of hills, woodlands, and a reach of the river Deveron. I could do a bigger business in my native city; but I prefer the Little Red Town which is only a seventieth part of the size of Aberdeen city.
Advantages of Bigness.
But bigness in industry has its immense advantages too. The happiest place I have ever worked in was also the biggest; but that is a longer story, which I hope to tell another day.
A big cylinder machine will print sixteen pages as easily as a platen machine will print two or four pages, and the running off is mechanical in either case. And you can use stiffer and more durable ink on a cylinder machine than on a platen, the take-off being more gradual and easy on the big machine. To get an ideally permanent black ink William Morris used the handpress, with which the sheet can be slowly lifted off the stiffly-inked types. He even had ink specially made for him. But limited editions are for the millionaire rather than the million. His Kelmscott Chaucer, of which only 400 copies were printed, was bought up by Bernard Quaritch at £20 a copy before the book was half-finished. They now change hands at over £100 a being the finest example of letterpress printing extant. But Morris reckoned that he lost £1000 on the work. I am content to possess the first highly ornate sheet, one of the few printed on vellum. As a specimen four pages it stand for all the others. When I want to READ Chaucer, I turn to my copy in the Chandos Classics (Tyrwhitt’s text) sold in the long ago at somewhere about half-a-crown.
And now, from the workman-producer point of view, Morris was not the printer. He designed the type and borders, but other people cast them. He decided the format and the type to be used; but others set the type, printed the sheets, folded them, sewed them, and cased them into a bound book. Labour is social, and the reward ought to be social also. Morris so far recognised this. He paid a woman compositor a man’s wage.
Disadvantages of the Small Craft.
The manual processes of the small craft are not all necessarily pleasant. Folding a pile of sheets of a book is a monotonous job and has no physical- exercise value such as one gets from digging, holding a plough, or mowing with a scythe. Yet many bookbinders have no folding-machine and have to charge more for their work, although machine folding is more accurate. Tugging a handpress and inking with a handroller are pure fag. The rollers on a platen or cylinder machine – four of them – ink the type more uniformly and completely than a single hand-roller will do, and the impression and the rolling are done automatically.
As regards the craft of the baker, the best bread I have tasted was that baked by Lancashire housewives of forty-odd years ago. They were accustomed to speak disparagingly of shop bread and the women who bought it. In the English provinces baking is not much of a craft even now. If one sees a baker’s shop in Lancashire or Yorkshire it will probably be known as ‘the Scotch bakery.’ And when Scotland is referred to as the ‘Land o’ Cakes,’ it does not necessarily mean oatcakes but a whole trayful of ‘small bread’ in which the English housewife takes comparatively little stock. But in an Aberdeen bakery long ago I have seen batches of biscuits and cakes being rolled and stamped in a clean machine probably more hygienically than they could have been done by hand, for dermatitis is a special baker’s complaint. Baking is a natural domestic industry; but so are dressmaking and laundering. That is not to say that the steam laundry and the large-scale dressmaking establishments do not meet a need. It is the ownership by profit-seeking shareholders that is wrong.
Nor does it mean that the handpress has not got its uses for proofs, very small numbers, and as a hobby. But if use of the tools and enjoyment of the work be the tests of ownership then only the one-man business or the industrial partnership meets the test. Most farmers do not plough, or sow or reap or mow. There is ownership with, and there is ownership against, the rest of the community. The Paisley weaver, on a seaside holiday, was gazing out at the Channel Fleet as the admirable was about to put off from the landing-stairs. ‘Would you like to visit the ships?’ he asked. The weaver stepped on board the barge with alacrity, and after a round of some of the more representative units, he was taken back to the flagship. ‘And now,’ said the good-natured admirable, ‘from whom have I had the honour of this visit?’ ‘From one of the owners!’ replied the weaver. That attitude will apply to all big and not strictly personal things such as clothes, boots, or a toothbrush.
If use and enjoyment gave the title to property, the farmer, master baker, master printer, and master engineer are much less the owners of the business than the operatives. The gamekeeper would own the shooting, but would go shares, willy nilly, with the poacher. The castle gardens would belong, not to my lord, but to his gardeners.
A Question Answered.
It is undesirable to lay down any hard-and-fast rule as to what small businesses should or should not be socialised. Many small businesses might with advantage be amalgamated and then socialised. As I have been asked, the Deveron Press is one of these. I have 100 founts of type, four machines and a gas engine, the engine standing idle. Hand composition and distribution occupy most of the time. That is not economical production. But we rub along. The Gateway has increased without advertisements, subsidy, or increase of price since 1912, while party organs produced by larger plants have come and gone in rapid succession. If we sometimes miss our day, it is due to pressure of jobwork, without which we could not survive. In a larger establishment The Gateway could be spread over many pairs of hands and got out on the day in spite of seasonal rushes and the vagaries of the British public, which leaves its orders till the last moment, and then hurries the printer.
Mr Hope prefers to use the word State for the public authority. I prefer the word Municipality, because decentralisation gives closer supervision and more immediate power of initiative. I could not expect the municipality to issue The Gateway as its enterprise exercising the freedom of utterance is does; but there is no reason why a municipal printer should not print it as a job for me. There is much to be said for a municipal journal, non-partisan, but giving the news and allowing correspondents to air their views with much the same freedom as they do orally in public halls, squares, and parks. Sheffield owns a municipal printing office which is a great success from the public point of view.
To say that a public service belongs to the officials who run it is obviously untrue. They do not fix prices or wages, they do not have to earn dividends, and they may be dismissed. The employee in a private concern has no defined rights as against the management; but a public servant has. A postman, badgered by a postmaster, can complain to a higher authority, and if his complaint is just he will be upheld. Officials have no motive, such as an interest in the dividends, to drive their subordinates beyond reasonable efficiency. They are not slaves to the contract price.
Direct Labour, as employed on corporation housing and water engineering schemes, has repeatedly demonstrated that it gives better and cheaper workmanship, can finish a job in less than scheduled time, and repairs will not begin immediately afterwards. The Ministry of Health insists that on housing contracts the lowest offer must be accepted, and this normally means more or less defective work, as we know to our cost. In Turriff we maintain a small works department, partly to make good the shortcomings of Jeremiah on our municipal houses and shops, and we recently municipalised, to great public advantage, the actual killing in our own slaughter house. This we did on the suggestions of a councillor who refers to himself as ‘Tory Joe.’ Nothing can stop the steady trend towards public ownership. Previously the shambles had been let off in sections to the various butches.
Private enterprise is a muddle. Dozens of milk carts and foot messengers, from grocer, baker and butcher, make overlapping calls for small orders and then with small deliveries. That there is only one postman on a given round shows the perfectly preventable waste involved in a quarter of an hour being spent in delivering one pint of milk.
The present muddle of rationing, with firms adding 33 per cent to the cost price as ‘legitimate profit,’ and supplies denied in one direction and lavished in another, was inevitable in a planless, private-enterprise community. Public stores, with no motive to profiteer, offer the only remedy.
The author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, says, ‘As a nail between the joinings of the stones, so sticketh fraud between buying and selling.’
Public enterprise, by standardising prices, eliminating the profit motive, and closing unnecessary shops, would have the same effect as the box-office queue, alphabetic order, and police regulation of the traffic, without reference to any improvement in human nature. That would follow as a result.
John Ruskin and the Comtists placed their hopes on the moralisation of Capitalism, associated, in Ruskin’s advocacy, with the setting up of the Companies of St George, with farms and colonies of craftsmen. A State within the State can do much to improve conditions for those who join up, and the Soviet Government has preserved and used co-operative associations of consumers. Moralisation was good even in the days of American slavery. There were kindly planters whose benevolence ameliorated the fundamental inequity of a system which showed itself outwardly in the bad roads, neglected fences and buildings, and poorly cultivated fields of the Slave States, labour being the despised portion of the black man and poor whites. The only form that moralisation could take, with slavery then as with capitalism now, was and is abolition. So far as the Comtists are concerned, their clear-sighted English leader, Frederic Harrison, in his old age declared in favour of the social system depicted by Edward Bellamy in ‘Looking Backward.’
Mr Wells exhorts Homo Sapiens to ‘unite or perish,’ and has drawn up a vague code of the Rights of Man, but apparently without any very lively hope of its realisation, for he has in another book prefigured man as going back to bows and arrows, agriculture and the arts of life having been lost in the chaos and destruction caused by the long-continued war. The one thing a manufacturer of hair-raising best-sellers cannot afford to do is to fall in with current helpful movements and tendencies, such as the actual development of agriculture and the return of three and a three-quarter million acres to the plough in Britain in two years as a beneficent result of the war.
The Benign Necessity.
What does seem probably is that the evacuation from the cities will beget a generation which will enjoy country life and pursuits as rational beings have always done; that the bombed factories and workshops will not be rebuilt on the same sites, but on cheaper land out in the country, and that they will take their workpeople with them to new garden villages where quiet will not seem oppressive, but welcome, where rents and rates will be lower, and it will be daylight every day, and the birds will come at a call, or without being called if you have provided a bath and an occasional scattering of crumbs.
Regional planning will then be, not a Fascist trick to get rid of self-government in favour of an irresponsible Gauleteer appointed from above and irremoveable from below, but a rational attempt to redistribute population and industry for the greatest good of both in an age when distance has been largely cancelled out by telephone and speedy transport. In origin the burg was the walled, fortified, presumably safe space. Now the bigger the burg, the bigger the target.
China, long bombed from the air, has greatly decentralised and improved her industries, and with them her population. Russia has built cities such as Magnetogorsk and Dneiprotrov, but she also cultivates what were barren steppes, and the peasants are naturally attracted to the big collective way of working and living, with the shorter working day and the cultural possibilities opened up to a nation which has at last been taught and encouraged to read.
All this and much more comes from the setting of man free from drudgery without artisty and from the poverty of primitive life in inhospitable regions. Man will not divest himself of acquired knowledge and mechanical power in order to live an aesthetic life. He will go forward to a life simpler in the sense of being free of the contradictions, complexities and exploitation of private ownership, with endless foreseeable beneficial contingent results.
What I have written here is not utopian prophecy or abstract constitution-mongering, but matter of fact deduction from current facts and tendencies. The Golden Age is not behind. It lies before. And the keywords are co-operation and harmony as against competition and strife.
A Commonwealth is not a mere collection of individuals, any more than a great cathedral is a mere collection of stones and timber and glass. It is a corporate entity, and its management as a living, growing, changing organism requires constant vigilance, co-operation, or opposition from those who are to be regarded as citizens at all. This means endless politics.
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