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War-Time Financial Problems - XIV


2. I

3. II

4. III

5. IV

6. V

7. VI

8. VII


10. IX

11. X

12. XI

13. XII

14. XIII

15. XIV

16. XV

17. XVI

18. XVII


20. XIX

21. XX



_October_, 1918

The Present Economic Structure--Its Weaknesses and Injustices--Were
things ever better?--The Aim of State Socialism--A Rival
Theory--The New Movement of Guild Socialism--Its Doctrines and
Assumptions--Payment "as Human Beings"--The "Degradation" of earning
Wages--Production irrespective of Demand--Is that the Real Meaning
of Freedom?--The Old Evils under a New Name--A Conceivably Practical
Scheme for some other World.

Most people will admit that there are many glaring faults in the
present economic structure of society. Wealth has been increased at an
exhilarating pace during the last century, and yet the war has shown
us that we had not nearly realised how great is the productive power
of a nation when it is in earnest, and that the pace at which wealth
has been multiplied may, if we make the right use of our plant and
experience, be very greatly quickened in the next. The great increase
in wealth that has taken place has been certainly accompanied by some
improvement in its distribution; but it must be admitted that in this
respect we are very far from satisfactory results, and that a system
which produces bloated luxury plus extreme boredom at one end of the
scale and destitution and despair at the other, can hardly be called
the last word, or even the first, in civilisation. The career has been
opened, more or less, to talent. But the handicap is so uneven and
capricious that only exceptional talent or exceptional luck can fight
its way from the bottom to the top, the process by which it does so
is not always altogether edifying, and the result, when the thing
has been done, is not always entirely satisfactory either to the
victorious individual or to the community at whose expense he has won
his spoils. The prize of victory is wealth and buying power, and the
means to victory is, in the main, providing an ignorant and gullible
public with some article or service that it wants or can be persuaded
to believe that it wants. The kind of person that is most successful
in winning this kind of victory is not always one who is likely to
make the best possible use of the enormous power that wealth now puts
into the hands of its owner.

Those who are fond of amusing themselves by looking back, through
rose-coloured spectacles, at more or less imaginary pictures of the good
old mediaeval times, can make out a fair case for the argument that in
those days the spoils were won by a better kind of conqueror, who was
likely to make a better use of his victory. In times when man was
chiefly a predatory animal and the way to success in life was by
military prowess, readiness in attack and a downright stroke in defence,
it is easy to fancy that the folk who came to the top of the world, or
maintained a position there, were necessarily possessed of courage and
bodily vigour and of all the rough virtues associated with the ideal of
chivalry. Perhaps it was so in some cases, and there is certainly
something more romantic about the career of a man who fought his way to
success than about that of the fortunate speculator in production or
trade, to say nothing of the lucky gambler who can in these times found
a fortune on market tips in the Kaffir circus or the industrial "penny
bazaar," Nevertheless, it is likely enough that even in the best of the
mediaeval days success was not only to the strong and brave, but also
went often to the cunning, fawning schemer who pulled the brawny leg of
the burly fighting-man. However that may be, there can be no doubt that
now the prizes of fortune often go to those who cannot be trusted to
make good use of them or even to enjoy them, that Mr Wells's great
satire on our financial upstarts--"Tono-Bungay"--has plenty of truth in
it, and that our present system, by its shocking waste of millions of
good brains that never get a chance of development, is an economic
blunder as well as an injustice that calls for remedy.

This being so, it is the business of all who want to see things made
better to examine with most respectful attention any schemes that are
put forward for the reconstruction of society, however strongly we may
feel that real improvement is only to be got, not by reconstructing
society but by improving the bodily and mental health and efficiency
of its members. The advocates of Socialism have had a patient and
interested hearing for many decades, except among those to whom
anything new is necessarily anathema. There was something attractive
in the notion that if all men worked for the good of the community and
not for their own individual profit, the work of the world might
be done much better, because all the waste of competition and
advertisement would be cut out, machinery would be given its full
chance because it would be making work easier instead of causing
unemployment, and a greater output, more evenly distributed, would
enable the nation to breed a race, each generation of which would
come nearer to perfection. So splendid if true; but one always felt
misgivings as to whether the general standard of work might not
deteriorate instead of improve if the stimulus of individual gain were
withdrawn; and that the net result might probably be a diminished
output consumed by a discontented people, less happy under a possibly
stupid and short-sighted bureaucracy, than it is now when the chances
of life at least give it the glorious uncertainty of cricket. Since
the war our experiences of official control, even when working on
a nation trained in individual initiative, have increased those
misgivings manifold; and hundreds of people who were Socialistically
inclined in 1914 will now say that any system which handed over the
regulation of production and distribution to the State could end only
in disaster, unless we could first build up a new machinery of State
and a new people for it to work on.

Partly, perhaps, owing to this discredit into which the doctrines of
State Socialism have lately fallen, increasing attention has been
given to a body of theory that was already active before the war and
advocates a system of what it calls Guild Socialism, under which
industry is to be worked by National Guilds, embracing all the
workers, both by brain and by hand, in the various kinds of
production. Its advocates are, as far as I have been able to study
their pronouncements, decidedly hostile to State Socialism and
needlessly rode to some of its most prominent preachers, such as Mr
and Mrs Webb, who at least merit the respect due to those who have
given lives of work to supporting a cause which they believe to be
sound and in the best interests of mankind. But in spite of their
chronic and sometimes ill-mannered facetiousness at the expense of
State Socialism and its advocates, the Guild Socialists, as we shall
see, have to rely on State control for very important wheels in
their machinery and leave gaps in it which, as far as disinterested
observers can see, can only be filled by still further help from the
discredited State. It is no disparagement of the efforts of these
writers and thinkers to say that their sketch of the system that they
hope to see built up is somewhat hazy. That is inevitable. They are
groping towards a new social and economic order which, in their hope
and belief, would be an improvement. To expect them to work it out in
every detail would be to ask them to commit an absurdity. The thing
would have to grow as it developed, and we can only ask them to show
us a main outline. This has been done in many publications, among
which I have studied, with as much care as these distracting times
allow, "Self-Government in Industry," by G.D.H. Cole, "National
Guilds," by A.R. Orage (so described on the back of the book, but the
title-page says that it is by S.G. Hobson, edited by A.R. Orage), and
"The Meaning of National Guilds," by C.E. Bechhofer and M.B. Reckitt.

These authorities seem to agree in thinking (1) that the capitalist is
a thief, (2) that the manual worker is a wage slave, (3) that freedom
(in the sense of being able to work as he likes) is every man's
rightful birthright, and (4) that this freedom is to be achieved
through the establishment of National Guilds. As to (1) Messrs
Bechhofer and Reckitt speak on page 99 of their book of the "felony of
Capitalism" as a matter that need not be argued about. Mr Cole makes
the same assumption by observing on page 235 of the work already
mentioned that "to do good work for a capitalist employer is merely,
if we view the situation rationally, to help a thief to steal more
successfully." Well, this view of capital and the capitalist may be
true. Mr Cole is a highly educated and gifted gentleman, and a Fellow
of Magdalen. He may have expounded and proved this point in some work
that I have not been fortunate enough to read. But as the abolition of
the capitalist is one of the chief aims put forward by these writers
it seems a pity that they should thus first assert that he is a thief
to be stamped out, instead of explaining the matter to old-fashioned
folk who believe that capitalists are, in the main, the people (or
representatives of the people) who have equipped industry, and
enormously multiplied its efficiency and output, and so have enabled
the greater part of the existing population of this country (and most
others) to come into being. But to the Guild Socialists the identity
of robbery with capitalism seems to be so self-evident that it needs
no proof. Next, as to the wage system. They seem to think that to earn
a wage is slavery and degradation, but to receive pay is freedom. With
the best will in the world I have tried to see where this immense
difference between the use of two words, which seem to me to mean much
the same thing, comes in in their view, but I have not succeeded.
Perhaps you will be able to if I give you Mr Cole's own words.

On page 154 of the book cited, he says that the wage system is "the
root of the whole tyranny of capitalism," and then continues:

"There are four distinguishing marks of the wage system upon which
National Guildsmen are accustomed to fix their attention. Let me set
them out clearly in the simplest terms,

"1. The wage system abstracts 'labour' from the labourer, so that the
one can be bought and sold apart from the other.

"2. Consequently, wages are paid to the wage worker only when it is
profitable to the capitalist to employ his labour.

"3. The wage worker, in return for his wage, surrenders all control
over the organisation of production.

"4. The wage worker, in return for his wage, surrenders all claim upon
the product of his labour.

"If the wage system is to be abolished, all these four marks of
degraded status must be removed. National Guilds, then, must assure to
the worker, at least, the following things:--

"1. Recognition and payment as a human being, and not merely as a
mortal tenement of so much labour power for which an efficient demand

"2. Consequently, payment in employment and in unemployment, in
sickness and in health alike.

"3. Control of the organisation of production in co-operation with his

"4. A claim upon the product of his work, also exercised in
co-operation with his fellows."

Now, looking with a most dispassionate eye and an eager desire to find
out what it is that Labour and its spokesmen are grouping after, can
one find in these "marks of degraded status" any serious evil, or
anything that is capable of remedy under any conceivable economic
system? In all of them the wage-earner is on exactly the same footing
as the salary-earner or the professional piece-worker. The labour of
the manager of the works can also be abstracted from the manager, and
can be bought and sold apart from him. One would have thought
that this fact is rather in favour of the manager and of the
wage-earner--or would Mr. Cole prefer that the latter should be bought
and sold himself? The salary-earner and the professional are only
employed when somebody wants them. The manager's term of employment is
longer, but the professional pieceworker, such as I am when I write
this article, has usually no contracted term, and is only paid for
actual work done. I also have no control over the organisation of the
production of _Sperling's Journal_ or any other paper for which I do
piecework. I am very glad that it is so, for organising production is
a very difficult and complicated and risky business, and from all
the risks of it the wage-earner is saved. The salary-earner or the
professional, when once his product is turned out and paid for, also
surrenders all claim upon the product. What else could any reasonable
wage-earner or professional expect or desire? The brickmaker or the
doctor cannot, after being paid for making bricks or mending a broken
leg, expect still to have the bricks or the leg for his very own. And
how much use would they be to him if he could? Unless he were to be
allowed to sell them again to somebody else, which, after being once
paid for them, would merely be absurd.

But when we come to the remedies that Mr. Cole suggests for these
"marks of degraded status," we find in the forefront of them that the
worker must be secured "payment as a human being, and not merely as a
mortal tenement of so much labour power for which an efficient demand
exists." This, especially to an incurably lazy person like myself, is
an extremely attractive programme. To be paid, and paid well, merely
in return for having "taken the trouble to be born," is an ideal
towards which my happiest dreams have ever struggled in vain. But
would it work as a practical scheme? Speaking for myself, I can
guarantee that under such circumstances I should potter about with
many activities that would amuse my delicious leisure, but I doubt
whether any of them would be regarded by society as a fit return for
the pleasant livelihood that it gave me. And human society can only be
supplied with the things that it needs if its members turn out, not
what it amuses them to make or produce, but what other people want.
And It is here that the National Guildsmen's idea of freedom seems, in
my humble judgment, to be entirely unsocial As things are, nobody can
make money unless he produces what somebody wants and will pay for.
Even the capitalist, if he puts his capital into producing an article
for which there is no demand, will get no return on it. In other
words, we can only earn economic freedom by doing something that our
fellows want us to do, and so co-operating in the work of supplying
man's need. (That many of man's needs are stupid and vulgar is most
true, but the only way to cure that is to teach him to want something
better.) The Guildsmen seem to think that this necessity to make or do
something that is wanted implies slavery, and ought to be abolished.
They are fond of quoting Rousseau's remark that "man is born free and
is everywhere in chains." But is man born free to work as and on what
he likes? In a state of Nature man is born--in most climates--under
the sternest necessity to work hard to catch or grow his food, to make
himself clothes and build himself shelter. And If he ignores this
necessity the penalty is death. The notion that man is born with a
"right to live" is totally belied by the facts of natural existence.
It is encouraged by humanitarian sentiment which, rightly makes
society responsible for the subsistence of all those born under its
wing; but it is not part of the scheme of the universe.

Such are a few of the weaknesses involved by the theoretical basis
on which Guild Socialism is built. When we come to its practical
application we find the creed still more unsatisfactory. Even if
we grant--an enormous and quite unjustified assumption--that the
Guildsman, if he is to be paid merely for being alive, will work hard
enough to pay the community for paying him, we have then to ask how
and whether he will achieve greater freedom under the Guilds than
he has now. Now, freedom is only to be got by work of a kind that
somebody wants, and wants enough to pay for it. And so the consumer
ultimately decides what work shall be done. The Guildsman says that
the producer ought to decide what he shall produce and what is to be
done with it when he has produced it. "Under Guild Socialism," says
Mr Cole,[1] "as under Syndicalism, the State stands apart from
production, and the worker is placed in control." Very well, but what
one wants to know is what will happen if the Guilds choose to produce
things that nobody wants. Will they and their members be paid all the
same? Presumably, since they are to be paid "as human beings" and not
because there is a demand for their work. But if so, what will happen
to the Guildsman as consumer? There will be no freedom about his
choice of things that he would like to enjoy. And what about admission
to membership of a Guild, the price at which the Guilds will exchange
products one with another, and the provision of capital? The nearest
approach to an answer to these questions is given by Messrs Bechhofer
and Reckitt in Chapter VIII, of the "Meaning of National Guilds." This
chapter describes "National Guilds in Being." It tells us that "each
man will be free to choose his Guild," which sounds very pleasant,
but is completely spoilt by the end of the sentence, which says "and
actual entrance will depend on the demand for labour." It sounds just
like a capitalistic factory. And then--"Labour in dirty industries,
sewaging, etc.--will probably be in the main of a temporary character,
and will be undertaken by those who are for the time unable to obtain
an entry elsewhere." Most sensible, but where is the freedom? The
Guildsman will not be able to do the work that he wants to do unless
there is a demand for that kind of labour, and in the meantime,
just like the unemployed in the days of darkness, he will be set to
cleaning the streets and flushing the drains. Messrs. Bechhofer and
Reckitt are, in fact, so sensible and practical that they abandon
altogether the freedom of the producer to produce what he likes.
"Indeed," they write, "a query often brought to confound National
Guildsmen is this: What would happen to a National Guild that began to
work wholly according to its own pleasure without regard to the other
Guilds and the rest of the community? We may reply, first, that
this spirit would be as unnatural among the Guilds as it is natural
nowadays with the present anti-communal, capitalist system of
industry" (but under the present system any one who worked without
regard to the rest of the community would very soon be in the hands of
a Receiver); "secondly, if it did arise in any Guild, this contempt
for the rest of the community would be met by the concerted action
of the other Guilds. The dependence of any individual Guild upon the
others would be necessarily so great that a recalcitrant Guild would
find itself at once in a most difficult position, and a Guild that
pressed forward demands that were generally felt by the rest of the
community to be impossible or unreasonable would soon be brought back
into line again."

[Footnote 1: "The Meaning of Industrial Freedom," page 39.]

Of course; but if so, where is the Guildsman's alleged freedom? Every
Guild and every Guildsman would have to adapt himself to the wants of
the community, just as all of us who work for our living have to do
now. He would be no more free than I am, and I am no more free than
the person who is sometimes described as a "wage slave." The Guildsman
might be happier in the feeling that he worked for a Guild rather than
a capitalist employer, but this is by no means certain. The writers
just quoted show with much frankness and good sense that there would
be plenty of opening for friction, suspicion, discontent and strikes.
"A Guild," they say, "that thought itself ill-used by its fellows
would be able to signify its displeasure by the threat of a strike."
The officials of the Guild are to be chosen by the "men best qualified
to judge" of their ability, whoever they may be, and every such choice
would be ratified by the workers who are to be affected by it. "The
Guild would build up in this way a pyramid of officers, each chosen by
the grade immediately below that which he is to occupy," Did not the
Bolsheviks try something like this system, with results that were not
conducive to efficient production? And to meet the danger that the
officials as a whole might combine "in a huge conspiracy against
the rank and file," Messrs Bechhofer and Reckitt can only suggest
vigilance committees within the Guilds. In a word, Guild Socialism
seems to be a system that might possibly be worked by a set of ideally
perfect beings; but as folk are in this workaday world one can only
doubt whether it would be conducive either to freedom, efficiency or a
pleasant life for those who lived under it.

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