Nature of Society   by   Leon Maclaren

Chapter VIII

In  Retrospect

Before taking the next step forward in this enquiry, it is appropriate to review the conclusions reached, and discuss some of the principal implications which flow from them. Where land is free and men do not hold more of it than they can use, the amounts of wealth taken respectively in rent, wages and interest are wholly different from the amounts taken where land is enclosed.

Labour is one of the primary factors in production. It is dependent on land and human desires, and on these alone. All else is dependent on labour. These are simple elementary facts of universal application. It follows necessarily that where natural resources are available for use without charge, then there is no limit to employment. All healthy men can work, but if they cannot have access to natural resources they must for the greater part be reduced to a condition of dependence. Some few who have acquired a high degree of skill in some fashionable employment may rise above this condition, but even they will be subject to the ferocious competition begot of unemployment. Throughout society wages will tend to the amount which will be accepted by the lowest bidder of equal skill. Where, however, anyone who so wishes may easily acquire land for himself, he immediately obtains a bargaining power which puts him on a level with others. Obviously, he need not work for less than he could obtain for himself on the best natural opportunities open to use. His bargaining power will not be limited to what he could obtain by scratching the earth with his hands. Man is naturally a gregarious animal; he works in teams, and his bargaining power will be determined by what he could obtain working in association with his fellows, using the best equipment available on the best free land. Those who rise in some highly esteemed calling will still enjoy substantial rewards. But they need not, as at present, be threatened with a tragic downfall pursuant upon the eclipse of their fame.

Capital is produced by labour, so that where labour has free access to land it must control capital. People nowadays are too easily overawed by the giant factories with their intricate and elaborate machinery, which looks like the work of ages. It is no such thing. Three statistical bureaux operating independently in London, New York and Paris, estimated that the average life of capital under the wear and tear of modern industry is eighteen months; such is the speed of replacement. Capital is very much a wasting asset. In any case, all those industries which live by making machinery are always anxious to sell their products, and it is very rarely indeed that men who wish to start a business with a reasonable prospect of success cannot obtain at once those things they require to set it in motion.

Whatever difficulties might arise in changing from a condition such as exists today to a condition where land is freely available, the change once made would result in wages rising so that those in industry obtained for themselves all that could be produced from the best land open to use.

As has been seen, where land is free, improvement in government, the sciences and the arts would all increase the productive power of labour on all land, including the best open to use. All these improvements, therefore, would increase wages. At the same time, improvement in production will always be most felt in those places where the fruits of the co-operative effort are most enjoyed, that is in the centres of population. In the result, rent will increase faster than wages and take a greater proportion of the fruits of expanding industry. In short, rent will increase as a proportion of the whole wealth produced, and wages will decrease as a proportion. None the less, wages and interest will increase as an amount. This does not necessarily mean that money wages will increase, but that the quantity of goods and services which a man obtains through his work will rise.

On the other hand, where land is all enclosed, the resulting distribution of wealth is very bad. Wages are held in a trough by competition for work. However greatly the power of producing wealth may expand, wages always tend to the least which men will accept. Labourers have no bargaining power, fear of unemployment causes men to undercut each other and the minimum for which they will work is very low indeed.

Even under these ferocious conditions, there is a limit below which wages cannot be driven, which will be the least for which men will consent to work. What this least will be, will depend entirely on the habits and traditions of the people. Education may well increase the minimum standard which they demand, so that they would rather not live at all than live below a certain level and would break out in revolt if this level were not maintained. Under conditions such as prevail now, this is the only means of upholding wages.

Of course, wages will fluctuate above this lowest limit. When the struggle for work becomes less severe the labourer's demands will stiffen. When unemployment increases they will drop, but below this lowest limit they cannot fall without bringing industry to a standstill.

Viewed in the light of these undoubted facts, many of the means advocated to better the conditions of labourers are seen to be hollow. Economy in government, increase in skill, thrift amongst the poorer classes, will not of themselves increase wages, though they will all increase rent. The same applies to combinations of men in unions and co-operative undertakings. Such combinations can only increase wages generally in so far as they succeed in raising the minimum demand made by labourers. Discussion of industrial and economic topics which is carried on by these associations and the feeling of strength which is derived from the knowledge that all members will pull together may help to stiffen these minimum demands, but to this extent and to this extent only can they succeed in their avowed purpose. This is the reason why, when the productive power of labour is going up in leaps and bounds, the unions talk of an increase of a penny or twopence per hour, or an extra allowance for a meal, or some such other pettifogging trifle that does not really affect the issue. Strikes of themselves can secure nothing. Only too often the men beggared and hungry are driven back to work by sheer necessity, on the employer's terms. Blacklegs, a handful of men who are willing to work for less than their fellows, can break a strike.

In short, no human devices can overcome natural forces. They can only succeed in so far as they operate in harmony with them. So long as the natural resources are allowed to remain in the absolute control of a handful of men, so long will these men be able to extract from industry all but the minimum requirements of labour and capital.

Such is the nature of the tremendous forces which have been discussed so far. Now it is time to move forward and discuss forces of even deeper import. It is not sufficient to understand the mechanism of rent and wages; it is necessary to know what other forces govern the relations between men in society. Here we come to the crux of this study.

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