Developing Social Elements

The mere differences in thickness of population and facility of movement that have been discussed thus far, will involve consequences remarkable enough, upon the facies of the social body; but there are certain still broader features of the social order of the coming time, less intimately related to transit, that it will be convenient to discuss at this stage. They are essentially outcomes of the enormous development of mechanism which has been the cardinal feature of the nineteenth century; for this development, by altering the method and proportions of almost all human undertakings,[20] has altered absolutely the grouping and character of the groups of human beings engaged upon them.

Throughout the world for forty centuries the more highly developed societies have always presented under a considerable variety of superficial differences certain features in common. Always at the base of the edifice, supporting all, subordinate to all, and the most necessary of all, there has been the working cultivator, peasant, serf, or slave. Save for a little water-power, a little use of windmills, the traction of a horse or mule, this class has been the source of all the work upon which the community depends. And, moreover, whatever labour town developments have demanded has been supplied by the muscle of its fecund ranks. It has been, in fact—and to some extent still is—the multitudinous living machinery of the old social order; it carried, cropped, tilled, built, and made. And, directing and sometimes owning this human machinery, there has always been a superior class, bound usually by a point of honour not to toil, often warlike, often equestrian, and sometimes cultivated. In England this is the gentility, in most European countries it is organized as a nobility; it is represented in the history of India by the "twice born" castes, and in China—the most philosophically conceived and the most stably organized social system the old order ever developed—it finds its equivalent in the members of a variously buttoned mandarinate, who ride, not on horses, but on a once adequate and still respectable erudition. These two primary classes may and do become in many cases complicated by subdivisions; the peasant class may split into farmers and labourers, the gentlemen admit a series of grades and orders, kings, dukes, earls, and the like, but the broad distinction remains intact, as though it was a distinction residing in the nature of things.[21]

From the very dawn of history until the first beginnings of mechanism in the eighteenth century, this simple scheme of orders was the universal organization of all but savage humanity, and the chief substance of history until these later years has been in essence the perpetual endeavour of specific social systems of this type to attain in every region the locally suitable permanent form, in face of those two inveterate enemies of human stability, innovation, and that secular increase in population that security permits. The imperfection of the means of communication rendered political unions of a greater area than that swept by a hundred-mile radius highly unstable. It was a world of small states. Lax empires came and went, at the utmost they were the linking of practically autonomous states under a common Pax. Wars were usually wars between kingdoms, conflicts of this local experiment in social organization with that. Through all the historical period these two well-defined classes of gentle and simple acted and reacted upon each other, every individual in each class driven by that same will to live and do, that imperative of self-establishment and aggression that is the spirit of this world. Until the coming of gunpowder, the man on horseback—commonly with some sort of armour—was invincible in battle in the open. Wherever the land lay wide and unbroken, and the great lines of trade did not fall, there the horseman was master—or the clerkly man behind the horseman. Such a land was aristocratic and tended to form castes. The craftsman sheltered under a patron, and in guilds in a walled town, and the labourer was a serf. He was ruled over by his knight or by his creditor—in the end it matters little how the gentleman began. But where the land became difficult by reason of mountain or forest, or where water greatly intersected it, the pikeman or closer-fighting swordsman or the bowman could hold his own, and a democratic flavour, a touch of repudiation, was in the air. In such countries as Italy, Greece, the Alps, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, the two forces of the old order, the aristocrat and the common man, were in a state of unstable equilibrium through the whole period of history. A slight change[22] in the details of the conflict for existence could tilt the balance. A weapon a little better adapted to one class than the other, or a slight widening of the educational gap, worked out into historically imposing results, to dynastic changes, class revolutions and the passing of empires.

Throughout it was essentially one phase of human organization. When one comes to examine the final result, it is astonishing to remark the small amount of essential change, of positively final and irreparable alteration, in the conditions of the common life. Consider, for example, how entirely in sympathy was the close of the eighteenth century with the epoch of Horace, and how closely equivalent were the various social aspects of the two periods. The literature of Rome was living reading in a sense that has suddenly passed away, it fitted all occasions, it conflicted with no essential facts in life. It was a commonplace of the thought of that time that all things recurred, all things circled back to their former seasons; there was nothing new under the sun. But now almost suddenly the circling has ceased, and we find ourselves breaking away. Correlated with the sudden development of mechanical forces that first began to be socially perceptible in the middle eighteenth century, has been the appearance of great masses of population, having quite novel functions and relations in the social body, and together with this appearance such a suppression, curtailment, and modification of the older classes, as to point to an entire disintegration of that system. The facies of the social fabric has changed, and—as I hope to make clear—is still changing in a direction from which, without a total destruction and rebirth of that fabric, there can never be any return.

The most striking of the new classes to emerge is certainly the shareholding class, the owners of a sort of property new in the world's history.

Before the eighteenth century the only property of serious importance consisted of land and buildings. These were "real" estate. Beyond these things were live-stock, serfs, and the furnishings of real estate, the surface aspect of real estate, so to speak, personal property, ships, weapons, and the Semitic invention of money. All such property had to be actually "held" and administered by the owner, he was immediately in connection with it and responsible for it. He could leave it only precariously to a steward and manager, and to convey the revenue of it to him at a distance was a difficult and costly proceeding. To prevent a constant social disturbance by lapsing and dividing property, and in the absence of any organized agency to receive lapsed property, inheritance and preferably primogeniture were of such manifest advantage that the old social organization always tended in the direction of these institutions. Such usury as was practised relied entirely on the land and the anticipated agricultural produce of the land.

But the usury and the sleeping partnerships of the Joint Stock Company system which took shape in the eighteenth and the earlier half of the nineteenth century opened quite unprecedented uses for money, and created a practically new sort of property and a new proprietor class. The peculiar novelty of this property is easily defined. Given a sufficient sentiment of public honesty, share property is property that can be owned at any distance and that yields its revenue without thought or care on the part of its proprietor; it is, indeed, absolutely irresponsible property, a thing that no old world property ever was. But, in spite of its widely different nature, the laws of inheritance that the social necessities of the old order of things established have been applied to this new species of possession without remark. It is indestructible, imperishable wealth, subject only to the mutations of value that economic changes bring about. Related in its character of absolute irresponsibility to this shareholding class is a kindred class that has grown with the growth of the great towns, the people who live upon ground rents. There is every indication that this element of irresponsible, independent, and wealthy people in the social body, people who feel the urgency of no exertion, the pressure of no specific positive duties, is still on the increase, and may still for a long time increasingly preponderate. It overshadows the responsible owner of real property or of real businesses altogether. And most of the old aristocrats, the old knightly and landholding people, have, so to speak, converted themselves into members of this new class.

It is a class with scarcely any specific characteristics beyond its defining one, of the possession of property and all the potentialities property entails, with a total lack of function with regard to that property. It is not even collected into a distinct mass. It graduates insensibly into every other class, it permeates society as threads and veins of gold permeate quartz. It includes the millionaire snob, the political-minded plutocrat, the wealthy sensualist, open-handed religious fanatics, the "Charitable," the smart, the magnificently dull, the great army of timid creatures who tremble through life on a safe bare sufficiency,[23] travellers, hunters, minor poets, sporting enthusiasts, many of the officers in the British Army, and all sorts and conditions of amateurs. In a sense it includes several modern royalties, for the crown in several modern constitutional states is a corporation sole, and the monarch the unique, unlimited, and so far as necessity goes, quite functionless shareholder. He may be a heavy-eyed sensualist, a small-minded leader of fashion, a rival to his servants in the gay science of etiquette, a frequenter of race-courses and music-halls, a literary or scientific quack, a devotee, an amateur anything—the point is that his income and sustenance have no relation whatever to his activities. If he fancies it, or is urged to it by those who have influence over him, he may even "be a king!" But that is not compulsory, not essential, and there are practically no conditional restrictions whatever laid upon him.

Those who belong to this shareholding class only partially, who partially depend upon dividends and partially upon activities, occur in every rank and order of the whole social body. The waiter one tips probably has a hundred or so in some remote company, the will of the eminent labour reformer reveals an admirably distributed series of investments, the bishop sells tea and digs coal, or at any rate gets a profit from some unknown persons tea-selling or coal-digging, to eke out the direct recompense of his own modest corn-treading. Indeed, above the labouring class, the number of individuals in the social body whose gross income is entirely the result of their social activities is very small. Previously in the world's history, saving a few quite exceptional aspects, the possession and retention of property was conditional upon activities of some sort, honest or dishonest, work, force, or fraud. But the shareholding ingredient of our new society, so far as its shareholding goes, has no need of strength or wisdom; the countless untraceable Owner of the modern world presents in a multitudinous form the image of a Merovingian king. The shareholder owns the world de jure, by the common recognition of the rights of property; and the incumbency of knowledge, management, and toil fall entirely to others. He toils not, neither does he spin; he is mechanically released from the penalty of the Fall, he reaps in a still sinful world all the practical benefits of a millennium—without any of its moral limitations.

It will be well to glance at certain considerations which point to the by no means self-evident proposition, that this factor of irresponsible property is certain to be present in the social body a hundred years ahead. It has, no doubt, occurred to the reader that all the conditions of the shareholder's being unfit him for co-operative action in defence of the interests of his class. Since shareholders do nothing in common, except receive and hope for dividends, since they may be of any class, any culture, any disposition, or any level of capacity, since there is nothing to make them read the same papers, gather in the same places, or feel any sort of sympathy with each other beyond the universal sympathy of man for man, they will, one may anticipate, be incapable of any concerted action to defend the income they draw from society against any resolute attack. Such crude and obvious denials of the essential principles of their existence as the various Socialistic bodies have proclaimed have, no doubt, encountered a vast, unorganized, negative opposition from them, but the subtle and varied attack of natural forces they have neither the collective intelligence to recognize, nor the natural organization to resist. The shareholding body is altogether too chaotic and diffused for positive defence. And the question of the prolonged existence of this comparatively new social phenomenon, either in its present or some modified form, turns, therefore, entirely on the quasi-natural laws of the social body. If they favour it, it will survive; when they do not, it will vanish as the mists of the morning before the sun.

Neglecting a few exceptional older corporations which, indeed, in their essence are not usurious, but of unlimited liability, the shareholding body appeared first, in its present character, in the seventeenth century, and came to its full development in the mid-nineteenth. Was its appearance then due only to the attainment of a certain necessary degree of public credit, or was it correlated with any other force? It seems in accordance with facts to relate it to another force, the development of mechanism, so far as certain representative aspects go. Hitherto the only borrower had been the farmer, then the exploring trader had found a world too wide for purely individual effort, and then suddenly the craftsmen of all sorts and the carriers discovered the need of the new, great, wholesale, initially expensive appliances that invention was offering them. It was the development of mechanism that created the great bulk of modern shareholding, it took its present shape distinctively only with the appearance of the railways. The hitherto necessary but subordinate craftsman and merchant classes were to have new weapons, new powers, they were to develop to a new importance, to a preponderance even in the social body. But before they could attain these weapons, before this new and novel wealth could be set up, it had to pay its footing in an apportioned world, it had to buy its right to disturb the established social order. The dividend of the shareholder was the tribute the new enterprise had to pay the old wealth. The share was the manumission money of machinery. And essentially the shareholder represents and will continue to represent the responsible managing owner of a former state of affairs in process of supersession.

If the great material developments of the nineteenth century had been final, if they had, indeed, constituted merely a revolution and not an absolute release from the fixed conditions about which human affairs circled, we might even now be settling accounts with our Merovingians as the socialists desire. But these developments were not final, and one sees no hint as yet of any coming finality. Invention runs free and our state is under its dominion. The novel is continually struggling to establish itself at the relative or absolute expense of the old. The statesman's conception of social organization is no longer stability but growth. And so long as material progress continues, this tribute must continue to be paid; so long as the stream of development flows, this necessary back eddy will endure. Even if we "municipalize" all sorts of undertakings we shall not alter the essential facts, we shall only substitute for the shareholder the corporation stockholder. The figure of an eddy is particularly appropriate. Enterprises will come and go, the relative values of kinds of wealth will alter, old appliances, old companies, will serve their time and fall in value, individuals will waste their substance, individual families and groups will die out, certain portions of the share property of the world may be gathered, by elaborate manipulation, into a more or less limited number of hands, conceivably even families and groups will be taxed out by graduated legacy duties and specially apportioned income taxes, but, for all such possible changes and modifications, the shareholding element will still endure, so long as our present progressive and experimental state of society obtains. And the very diversity, laxity, and weakness of the general shareholding element, which will work to prevent its organizing itself in the interests of its property, or of evolving any distinctive traditions or positive characters, will obviously prevent its obstructing the continual appearance of new enterprises, of new shareholders to replace the loss of its older constituents....

At the opposite pole of the social scale to that about which shareholding is most apparent, is a second necessary and quite inevitable consequence of the sudden transition that has occurred from a very nearly static social organization to a violently progressive one. This second consequence of progress is the appearance of a great number of people without either property or any evident function in the social organism. This new ingredient is most apparent in the towns, it is frequently spoken of as the Urban Poor, but its characteristic traits are to be found also in the rural districts. For the most part its individuals are either criminal, immoral, parasitic in more or less irregular ways upon the more successful classes, or labouring, at something less than a regular bare subsistence wage, in a finally hopeless competition against machinery that is as yet not so cheap as their toil. It is, to borrow a popular phrase, the "submerged" portion of the social body, a leaderless, aimless multitude, a multitude of people drifting down towards the abyss. Essentially it consists of people who have failed to "catch on" to the altered necessities the development of mechanism has brought about, they are people thrown out of employment by machinery, thrown out of employment by the escape of industries along some newly opened line of communication to some remote part of the world, or born under circumstances that give them no opportunity of entering the world of active work. Into this welter of machine-superseded toil there topples the non-adaptable residue of every changing trade; its members marry and are given in marriage, and it is recruited by the spendthrifts, weaklings, and failures of every superior class.

Since this class was not apparent in masses in the relatively static, relatively less eliminatory, society of former times, its appearance has given rise to a belief that the least desirable section of the community has become unprecedentedly prolific, that there is now going on a "Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit." But sooner or later, as every East End doctor knows, the ways of the social abyss lead to death, the premature death of the individual, or death through the death or infertility of the individual's stunted offspring, or death through that extinction which moral perversion involves. It is a recruited class, not a breeding multitude. Whatever expedients may be resorted to, to mitigate or conceal the essential nature of this social element, it remains in its essence wherever social progress is being made, the contingent of death. Humanity has set out in the direction of a more complex and exacting organization, and until, by a foresight to me at least inconceivable, it can prevent the birth of just all the inadaptable, useless, or merely unnecessary creatures in each generation, there must needs continue to be, in greater or less amount, this individually futile struggle beneath the feet of the race; somewhere and in some form there must still persist those essentials that now take shape as the slum, the prison, and the asylum. All over the world, as the railway network has spread, in Chicago and New York as vividly as in London or Paris, the commencement of the new movement has been marked at once by the appearance of this bulky irremovable excretion, the appearance of these gall stones of vicious, helpless, and pauper masses. There seems every reason to suppose that this phenomenon of unemployed citizens, who are, in fact, unemployable, will remain present as a class, perishing individually and individually renewed, so long as civilization remains progressive and experimental upon its present lines. Their drowning existences may be utilized, the crude hardship of their lot may be concealed or mitigated,[24] they may react upon the social fabric that is attempting to eliminate them, in very astounding ways, but their presence and their individual doom, it seems to me, will be unavoidable—at any rate, for many generations of men. They are an integral part of this physiological process of mechanical progress, as inevitable in the social body as are waste matters and disintegrating cells in the body of an active and healthy man.

The appearance of these two strange functionless elements, although the most striking symptom of the new phase of progressive mechanical civilization now beginning, is by no means the most essential change in progress. These appearances involve also certain disappearances. I have already indicated pretty clearly that the vast irregular development of irresponsible wealthy people is swallowing up and assimilating more and more the old class of administrative land-owning gentlemen in all their grades and degrees. The old upper class, as a functional member of the State, is being effaced. And I have also suggested that the old lower class, the broad necessary base of the social pyramid, the uneducated inadaptable peasants and labourers, is, with the development of toil-saving machinery, dwindling and crumbling down bit by bit towards the abyss. But side by side with these two processes is a third process of still profounder significance, and that is the reconstruction and the vast proliferation of what constituted the middle class of the old order. It is now, indeed, no longer a middle class at all. Rather all the definite classes in the old scheme of functional precedence have melted and mingled,[25] and in the molten mass there has appeared a vast intricate confusion of different sorts of people, some sailing about upon floating masses of irresponsible property, some buoyed by smaller fragments, some clinging desperately enough to insignificant atoms, a great and varied multitude swimming successfully without aid, or with an amount of aid that is negligible in relation to their own efforts, and an equally varied multitude of less capable ones clinging to the swimmers, clinging to the floating rich, or clutching empty-handed and thrust and sinking down. This is the typical aspect of the modern community. It will serve as a general description of either the United States or any western European State, and the day is not far distant when the extension of means of communication, and of the shareholding method of conducting affairs, will make it applicable to the whole world. Save, possibly, in a few islands and inaccessible places and regardless of colour or creed, this process of deliquescence seems destined to spread. In a great diversity of tongues, in the phases of a number of conflicting moral and theological traditions, in the varying tones of contrasting racial temperaments, the grandchildren of black and white, and red and brown, will be seeking more or less consciously to express themselves in relation to these new and unusual social conditions. But the change itself is no longer amenable to their interpretations, the world-wide spreading of swift communication, the obliteration of town and country, the deliquescence of the local social order, have an air of being processes as uncontrollable by such collective intelligence as men can at present command, and as indifferent to his local peculiarities and prejudices as the movements of winds and tides....

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