From the Western Clarion, Dec. 1917
One of the most amazing paradoxes to be found in modern civilization is the workers belief that they are free. Every experience points to the fact that they are quite the reverse. Their whole life, from childhood to the grave, is composed of actions most of which are either unpleasant, irksome, or revolting.
As soon as he leaves school (that institution for turning the growing crop of wage slaves’ children into serviceable material for industry) the actions of the young worker are determined , not by desire, but by stern necessity. The larder of his parents too often needs immediate replenishing - the clothes of his younger brothers and sisters - aye, and of his parents too, require replacing. He must go to work. He has arrived at a stage of development when his energy is of sufficient strength to be of use in industry. He owns a commodity now - labor-power. He must sell it. From that moment the labor-market has his destiny within its grasp.
If industry is brisk perhaps a little latitude will be his, as to what kind of work he is able to get. The wages may be a little better than “last year,” and the boss may not be quite so tyrannical, but work he must. He sets the alarm at 7:00, not because he particularly relishes the biting air of a winters’ morning, but because circumstances over which he has no control have ordered that the hum of industry shall begin at 8:30 am. At first the youthful vendor of human energy may look upon the search for work as a kind of adventure. The factories, or other places of industry he visits in quest of a buyer are so big - do busy - so bewildering. But as the days roll by and he still finds himself jobless, the glamor of his new experience begins to wane. Egged on by his parents, who need what little support his meagre wages will afford, he continues on his daily round, together with other lads like himself on a similar mission. At last the memorable day arrives. He gets a job! ‘Tis true the wages are insignificant and the hours long, compared with the drudgery of school, but he thinks, he will soon “rise.” Alas! for youthful hopes! Once a wage-slave, and industry embraces him, not with the fond embrace of a mother but with the embrace of an angry bear which which crushes life itself from out its victim - he has become the appendage of a machine. His speed must be its speed. Other boys have done it - other boys, capable, willing, and anxious to do it, are outside - he must - and does. But at what cost? His youthful frame is strained to its utmost. His mind, dulled by the daily toil amidst the noise and dust of his surroundings becomes the mind of a wage-slave, capable of thinking only of work or of the crudest recreations. Freedom? Sure. Free to quit his job - and starve. He must keep on - and toil, till the machine, through its owner, casts him off, and this it does at frequent intervals.
The products of the facory in which he works belong to the owner of that factory, as a matter of course. Has that owner not put out his good money in raw materials, machinery and wages? And, as capitalist must he not be recompensed for his investment? To profit by the ownership of his factory he must sell the product of his workers’ toil and he does - provided there are buyers for it. This capitalist, too, considers himself free, but economic forces prove otherwise, for, will what he may there comes a time when the market will not absorb his goods - the orders dwindle - competition with his fellow capitalists brings prices tumbling - he faces actual loss - he closes his works and thereby separates the workers from the means of production - and incidentally from their meal tickets. This dearth of buyers upon which follows stagnation of business, unemployment and misery, spring from causes that lie at the roots of capitalist society itself, and is clearly undesired by both capitalist and worker. The former suffering at least a loss of profit , perhaps ruin; the latter poverty, perhaps starvation.
Under capitalism all products, and labor-power as well, take the form of commodities. They only change hands through the medium of an exchange - through buying and selling. But in order to buy there must first have been a sale of something at least as valuable as the commodity to be bought. The purchasing power of the vast majority of the people is limited strictly to their wages, which are reduced by competition to a level determined by the bare necessities of life, whilst the development of machinery has so increased labor’s productivity that only a small portion of industry’s is necessary to feed, clothe, and shelter the working class. The balance cannot be consumed by the owners of the means of production - capitalists cannot personally consume millions of tons of flour, steel rails and tobacco, neither can they wear millions of pairs of boots nor ride in countless autos. They can consume unlimited values in the form of luxuries, and they do, but in order to buy these, the commoner commodities, the production of which supplies them with their income, must first be sold. The wages of the working class only buys a part, consequently a surplus gluts the market and causes stagnation, relieved only by re-investment in undeveloped countries, a dangerous though necessary expedient, since the development of “new” countries creates competitors hitherto non-existent for a shrinking market.
As the young wage-worker grows it becomes more and more apparent that the commodities he is able to withdraw from the market as a result of spending his wages merely suffice to enable him to re-appear on the morrow as a worker; that the raw material upon which he works functions only as an absorbant of his energy, and that the whole process constantly reproduces him as a worker and his boss a capitalist.
The years roll by. With manhood comes manhood’s necessities. He gets a “home.” His job becomes from that time on, all the more precious. The freedom to wander, in search of work, has lost its old significance and charm. An anchor is upon his life. The spectre of dismissal constantly haunts him and raises thoughts not only of poverty and starvation for himself, but also the maddening site of a hungry wife and children. Toil he must! Work becomes his one obsession - overtime, or rather the few extra nickels it brings in - almost a necessity. Free? Of course he is! Free to work - when his masters need him. There can be no doubt, however, that he is free from many things. No wrinkles sear his brow as a result of the heavy responsibilities which the burden of industrial stewardship entail. No sleepless nights result from his activities “in society.” No legal problems dig his death. Freedom, from comfort, from leisure, from art and, above all, from property, is his inalienable right as a wage slave.
The workers’ belief in their so-called freedom, is however, not so strange after all, if the money factors which go to form his ideas are taken into consideration. Thoroughly imbued at school with a method of thought which seeks to explain human events by attributing them to genius and which endows mankind with a free will upon the nature of which depends the individual’s success or failure, the worker started life ill-equipped to withstand the hollow plattitudes of press and pulpit, patriot and politician. He starts, in fact, a mental slave. In the commercial struggle he sees capitalists crushed and reduced to the ranks of the proletariat, whilst some of the members of his class may be seen to rise. The intervention of the contrast , as between equals, obscures the true relation between himself and his boss. Past history, what little he knows of it seems to repeat “The poor ye have always with ye.” It is pleasant for him to consider himself free and the condition of his brain, made sluggish by long hours, toil, adulterated and ill-cooked food, and lack of proper recreation, make apathy inevitable.
Change, however, is the one certain law of nature. The quickly succeeding events, which characterize this age of machinery as the age of “progress,” are having an effect. “Freedom” has been played up too much. “Democracy” has been stuffed down the workers’ throats til its stink forces them to take notice and think about it. The time has come for a change in thought.
The sooner the better.