THE RIGHT TO WORK
Israel Mattuck, 28 November 1920
One of the most touching things that I have seen in recent years was the march of the unemployed along Oxford Street. Here, surrounded by all the signs of a pleasurable activity, of an eager and happy pursuit of the things needed for living, the small group of men walked on in sombre, almost stern, silence. No roll of drums or sound of trumpets to announce their coming, but only the monotonous tramp, tramp of their feet, which only heightened the serious effect. Now one inscription stood out prominently, and that was an improvised one which bore the words, "we demand the right to work." The use of the word "right" at once strikes the mind with queries. Right assumes some moral principle. Is there any? With the steadily increasing number of unemployed, the question must recur again and again with constantly increasing force, and even perhaps with almost threatening association. The other day one of the leaders in the Labour world announced that the number of unemployed was about 600,000 and it is still rising; but 600,000 out of work means roughly, I should judge, close on three million .lives without ordinary means of support. The fact that many are men who have fought in the war tends to emphasize the moral obligation that is involved. We feel more keenly the shame which attaches to our social life .when those who are denied the opportunity to work for their living are men that have risked their all to defend the country and its honour.
They have a tremendous call on our gratitude; and yet all they ask is the right to work, and many of them are denied it. But though in their case, the problem carries in it an element of reproach, yet the elements are the same with the problem presented by the general prevalence of unemployment. The war, because of the demand made on the productive energies of the country, left no one without work who wanted to work, and indeed even those who at ordinary times were classed among the unemployable, whether through patriotism or through the presence of an opportunity, seem to drop almost with ease from their normal attitude of aversion to labour into some place where they could do work. But with the end of the war came a change. The number of those out of work has been steadily increasing until today, with the depressed condition of trade and the doubtful outlook for the near future, not only the present is very serious but the outlook even more threatening.
Unemployment constitutes much of our social problems. It is a symptom, it is a sore spot, into which much of the poison of the whole social system seems to be gathered up. We are inclined to forget that all is not well with our industrial organisation, and periods of unemployment remind us of the existence of some malady or maladies. If circumstances or prejudices or dissatisfaction based upon personal comfort may tend to blind us to the existence of the social problem, then the quiet march of the unemployed will serve as a sharp and stirring reminder. What is our social problem? Just this. How to put decent living permanently within the reach of all the members of our society down.to the very humblest. How to deal every man, woman and child a home where the joys and affection have a chance to live, as flowers in fresh air, and their influence to have a chance to work for the satisfaction and ennoblement of their lives. To give every man the power to supply a good education for his children so that they may, when grown up, take in the life of the community a place suited to their natures and to their abilities. To free them from such restrictions and disabilities on their growth and work which are due not to themselves but to circumstances. That is what we mean by decent living and I think we should all admit that it is not only an ideal to be admired by contemplation, but to be acknowledged in practical efforts for its realisation.
Unemployment in itself interferes with such an achievement and sharpens the difficulty normally in its way for many. The working man temporarily thrown out of work, though temporarily, must lose hold on whatever standard of life he has been able to maintain by his labours. And if he is thrown out of work with any degree of frequency, his standard of life must be permanently degraded. It must also affect his character; for a period of enforced idleness inevitably cripples the fitness for sustained work. A reduction in the standard of living is a serious matter, not only for the individual affected but for the whole social group. The way to better society is improvement in the lives of its humblest members. This requires among other things, desire, ambition, in those who are now satisfied with little; when they see for themselves the possibility of a better life, they will find in it a stimulus to greater exertion and the very prospect will serve as an inspiration to greater efforts to lead to an increase in social value and in worthy self-consciousness of the personality. The better the life that a man wants for himself, the more he can give to society and the better indeed will that society be.
In yet another way unemployment interferes with social well-being. It is constantly present in the fears of those whom it is liable to attack. It affects disastrously the psychology of the working man. Let us put ourselves in his place. Day after day he cannot help noticing that outside the factory or shop where he works there are many waiting for his job. He has only a precarious hold on it and out of the future there may at any moment come something to destroy that hold. Even in the best of times there is keen competition for a place of work, and the stakes in this competition are no less than life. Thus fear turns itself into suspicion and even enmity; not against the other competitors, for he recognises in them his fellows, but against the employer whom somehow or other he makes responsible for this state of affairs. Perhaps unreasonably he identifies the interest of the man for whom he works with the presence of the man outside who is eager to take his own place. The amount of unemployment in any community marks a degree of [..] in the power of the employer over his employee. It must be a terrible torture to feel that the man for whom one is working can at any time say "I do not need you because there is many another who can take your place" and where the work is unskilled, as much of the work in our machine-run industrial organisation is, there are many who are in this condition, that they must realise their work hangs upon another's caprice rather than on any outstanding capacity in themselves.
Thus fear must corrode the best qualities in a person like rust on iron. And the danger must drive more and more to selfishness as controlling force, through the provocation of the exaggerated workings of the instinct of self-preservation. To this must be traced many of the things characteristic of the present labour world against which we complain. In the policy of "Ca-canny" with the result of it and the exclusiveness of the trades unions, too, because of the constant fear of unemployment, there is a desire to accomplish less than the most in order to avoid killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. The same fear is responsible for the desire to keep the number of men in any line of work so small as to nearly assure them permanent employment. Here, too, hostility between classes is generated. The feeling of class consciousness becomes the shield which the sense of weakness forges for itself as a protection in the commercial struggle for material existence. Because if each man feels the weakness of his own position he combines with others placed like himself in order that through their joint strength they may come to balance their weakness.
These are among the normal evil effects which the presence and the danger of unemployment work upon our social system. But in a time of social ferment the danger of evil is enhanced. It has even been said revolution feeds on hunger. And an unsatisfied instinct of self-preservation is the most dangerous enemy to social stability. Just now, even the least pessimistic of us must perceive the mental and moral ferment working below the social unrest. The war has thrown us forward in the development of some aspects of our life. It has hastened the ascent to a larger outlook upon life in the men who entered the ranks of the army from the shops and the factories. It gave them a sense, shall we call it of self-importance which they did not have before? Frankly we must welcome that change; but we have to first let it be associated with the commensurate sense of responsibility. By itself it may work harm, especially because the opportunities are missing for its self-realization or expression. It may be that deprivation would break, crush that spirit, but do we want it? Do we want the life of men who have done what they did on the battle fields scattered over the world to miss one fragment of the human dignity into which they have entered through their sacrifices and through their dangers? It is service of their country's cause that made them what they now are and they who have worked are even like those who went to fight. On the other hand it must be evident that such a spirit, taunted, thwarted, by deprivation, may seek dangers unfelt. It is well to face this fact in order all the more to realise the grave social problem which it infers.
These men ask for the right to work; for that right is indissolutely bound up with the right to live, and if there is not enough work, then that deficiency represents denial of the right to life to a number of us; for in this association of work and life we have followed the instruction of nature. It is meet living should be dependent on labour, in order that man may put forth the best that is in him through his best efforts to live [...] from the divine life which is his human dignity and his human [...]. Now are we morally prepared to deny to any man the right to live? No, and why not? Because every man has in himself the stamp of the divine in him. As a human being comes into the world he comes daily into the possession of the right to live, conditional upon his righteousness to use his life in the service of humanity. But you may ask, what about his capacity? Suppose a man can do something that the world does not think worthwhile paying for, suppose he cannot do adequately well in the things which have commercial value, what then? Yet our present consideration is not of such as these but of men who have the capacity and the desire to work in the way society needs, but only in less degree than they can give. Here is our practical problem. The man who says "I am ready to work and I can work; just now my work is not needed. And in the freedom to do anything else, I am limited by our social organization." He cannot say, "very well, I cannot make a pair of boots to exchange for a loaf of bread because nobody wants my boots then he will sow my own wheat and grow my own bread." There is no land for him to cultivate, even if he could. There is no land, because rightly or wrongly, we believe that it is best for our social organism and for the maintenance of our social life that land be of private possession. The problem of the unemployed, therefore, is a problem of social morality. The way of its solution must lie through an estimate of economic conditions and a use of economic processes; but this does not destroy its inherent character as a problem of morality. Its burden, therefore, must lie on the state which is the guardian of the social consciousness, and whose activity must be concentrated and gathered up in the moral judgment and social ideals of all its members.
The state has tried to meet this problem long ago to some trades, but recently to more trades by provision of insurance, but that though very useful is at best only a palliative. Such doles, however obtained, cannot take the place of work, nor of its means. The evils in unemployment may in this way be mitigated but not removed. The problem remains the same. The Commission that sat on the Poor Law some years ago recognised the great importance of this question and in its recommendations expressed the view that the causes lying largely in the faulty industrial organization can only be removed by changes here.
Let us, however, pursue the problem to its very last source. What does it mean? Does it mean that we produce more than we need, that the combination of human energy, human thought and machine power in the world can bring into existence more than the sum total of human needs? Else we should require all the labour obtainable. On the other hand, there must also be less than enough to satisfy all human requirements, else plenty would be the lot of all. It would seem, therefore, to mean that we produce too much of some things, and too little of others. Which? Of life's absolute necessities, like food and clothing, there must be an inadequate supply if some have to do without their share at one time or another or at all times. And yet the sources exploited for these purposes have not been exhausted; there is plenty of land in the world to produce food for the whole human race and in adequate measure for all. It must then be that some of the labour that should be used for these things is being diverted to the production of others, which, because they are not necessary need no permanent response. In other words, we are producing too many luxuries, and too little of the necessities of life. The same conclusion is forced upon us by another line of reasoning. The amount of labour which goes into the production of things we need is greater than that which goes into the production of some of the things we do not need. The diamond worth a thousand pounds represents less in human industry than a quantity of bread representing the same amount of money. If this is to be so, then it becomes out task to divert labour more and more from luxuries to necessities. And one way of doing that is to increase the purchasing power in the hands of those in whom that power is used to obtain chiefly what is necessary for life's sustenance and a little comfort. By as much as this readjustment is accomplished, by so much shall we bring healing to the very roots of our social life. If what we call our working classes can buy more shoes, more clothing and more food, even though that would mean that the others would have to reduce expenditure on the finer things, by so much should we increase the constant demand for labour. And would we not all be ready to make the sacrifice that may thus be required of some of us for the sake of the [..] that there may be obtained through it better, more certain, living for all men? For are we not all brothers?
It must be pointed out at the present time there are special conditions which serve as causes for unemployment. There is in reality a net production of the things most needed like food and raw material. The chaotic, impoverished conditions of the world, the breach in the ordinary changes of intercourse between nations and the general destruction which the war has brought, all these tend to produce the gravest situation. The first remedy would have to be for those that we define to be as evils. The re-establishment of the world's economic life would help greatly in the overcoming of the present difficulties and the future dangers. But even after that, that there will be a residuum of unemployment is a permanent problem arising out of the laws of our social and industrial organisation. And the ultimate solution will lie in such a readjustment as need not ridicule the form and constitution of our society, but will yet demand from some great sacrifices for the sake of others. And yet it will not be only for the sake of the whole, for the sake of society, for the sake of humanity.