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THE DEGRADATION OF LABOR.
I Use the term, degradation of labor, here in the sense of the reduction of the laborer from a higher to a lower industrial grade.
The constant imminence of this change, the smallness of the causes, often accidental in origin and temporary in duration, which may produce it, and the almost irreparable consequences of such a catastrophe, are not sufficiently attended to in discussions of wages. To the contrary, it is the self-protecting power of labor which is dwelt upon. It is shown how, if by any insidious cause, or from any sudden disaster in trade or production, be the same local or general, industry is impaired and employment diminished, labor immediately sets itself, by natural laws, to right itself, by withholding increase of population, or by migrating to more fortunate localities.
The same, if labor be crowded down by the power of capital, or by unjust laws: through economical harmonies which have excited the admiring gratitude of many writers, the vindication of the laboring class is effected automatically and peacefully, without revolution and without machinery. The excessive profits which the employing class are thus enabled for a time to make, increase the capital of the community, and thus give enhanced employment to laborers, so that, in the end, it is quite as well as if the money had gone in wages instead of profits. Thus Prof. Perry says: "If capital gets a relatively too large reward, nothing can interrupt the tendency that labor shall get, in consequence of that, a larger reward the next time. ... If capital takes an undue advantage of labor at any point, as unfortunately it sometimes does, somebody at some other point has, in consequence of that, a stronger desire to employ laborers, and so the wrong tends to right itself. This is the great conservative force in the relations of capital to labor."1
Now, of the degrees of celerity and certainty with which population does, in fact, adapt itself to changes in the seats o*r in the forms of industry, or assert itself against the encroachments of the employing class or the outrages of legislation, I shall have occasion to speak with some fulness hereafter (Chapter XL). But I desire at the present time, in close connection with our discussion of the causes which contribute to the efficiency of labor, to point out the consequences of any failure or undue delay on the part of population in thus resenting the loss of employment or the reduction of wages.
The trouble is, these changes wThich are to set labor right always require time, and often a very long time. There is danger, great danger, that meanwliile men will simply drop down in the industrial and social scale, accept their lot, and adapt themselves to the newly-imposed conditions of life and labor.2 If this most melancholy result takes place, then, it should be observed, the restorative changes which have been spoken of need not be effected at all. All things settle to the new level; industrial society goes on as before, except that there is a lower class of citizens and a lower class of laborers, There is thereafter no virtue at all, no tendency even, in strictly industrial forces or relations to make good that great loss. In a word, much of the reasoning of the schools and the books on this subject assumes that the laboring class will resent an industrial injury, and will either actively seek to right themselves, or will at least abide in their place without surrender until the economical harmonies have time to bring about their retribution. But the human fact (so often to be distinguished from the economical assumption) is, there is a fatal facility in submitting to industrial injuries which too often does not allow time for the operation of these beneficent principles of relief and restoration. The industrial opportunity comes around again, it may be, but it does not find the same man it left: he is no longer capable of rendering the same service; the w^ages lie now receives are perhaps quite as much as he earns.
1 The Financier, August 1, 1874.
2 " There is considerable evidence that the circumstances of the agricultural laborers in England have more than once In our history sustained great permanent deterioration from causes which operated by diminishing the demand for labor, and which, if population had exercised its power of self-adjustment in obedience to the previous standard of comfort, could only have had a temporary effect; but, unhappily, the poverty in which the class was plunged during a long series of years brought that previous standard into disuse, and the next generation, growing up without having possessed those pristine comforts, multiplied in turn without any attempt to retrieve them."—J. S. Mill, Pol. Econ., i. 41.
Mr. Mill here explains the whole permanent effect upon the grounds
Let us'take successively the cases of a reduction of wages and of a failure of employment. Let it be supposed that a combination of employers seeking their own immediate interests, that is, to get labor as cheaply as possible, perhaps under some pressure brought on them by the state of the market, succeeds in effecting a reduction of the wages of common labor, in a given community, from $1 to 75 cents per day. If the $1 previously received has allowed comforts and luxuries and left a margin for saving, and especially if intelligence and social ambition prevail in the community, this reduction will probably be resented in the sense that population will be reduced by migration or by abstinence from propagation until the former wages are, if possible, restored. But if the previous wages have been barely enough to furnish the necessaries of life, with no margin for saving, and especially if the body of laborers are ignorant and unambitious, the probabilities are quite the other wray. The falling off in the quantity or quality of food and clothing, and in the convenience and healthfulness of the shelter enjoyed, will at once affect the efficiency of the laborer. With less food, which is the fuel of the human machine, less force will be generated; with less clothing, more force will be wasted by cold; with* scantier and meaner quarters, a fouler air and diminished access to the light will prevent the food from being duly digested in the stomach, and the blood from being duly oxydized in the lungs; will lower the tone of the system, and expose the subject increasingly to the ravages of disease. Now, in all these ways the laborer becomes less efficient simply through, the reduction of his wages. The current economy asserts that whatever is taken off from wages is added to profits, and that hence a reduction of wages will increase capital and hence quicken employment, and hence, in turn, heighten w^ages. But we have seen it to be quite possible that what is taken from wages no man shall gain. It is lost to the laborer and to the world. Now, so far as strictly economic forces are concerned, where enters the restorative principle? The employer is not getting excessive profits, to be expended subsequently in wages. The laborer is not underpaid: he earns what he gets now no better than he formerly did his larger wages.
of Mai thus, overlooking the equally important consideration that, without respect to the numbers of the laboring class, the efficiency of labor must have been seriously impaired by inadequate food and clothing, unhealthy dwellings, and, more than all, by the loss of hopefulness, cheerfulness, and self-respect.
This image of the degraded laborer is not a fanciful one. There are in England great bodies of population, communities counting scores of thousands, which have come, in just this way, to be pauperized and brutalized ; the inhabitants weakened and diseased by underfeeding and foul air until, in the second generation, blindness, lameness, and scrofula become abnormally prevalent; hopeless and lost to all self-respect so that they can scarcely be said to desire a better condition, for they know no better; and still bringing children into the world to fill their miserable places in garrets and cellars, and, in time, in the wards of the workhouse.
Such a region is Spitalfields, where a large population, once reasonably prosperous and self-respectful, was ruined by a great change in the conditions of the silk manufacture. The severity of the industrial blows dealt them in quick succession was so great that the restorative principles never began to operate at all. Spitalfields succumbed to its fate. Instead of it being true that the misery of the weavers was a reason to them to emigrate, it constituted the very reason why they could not emigrate, or would not. Instead of it being true that their misery was a reason to them not to propagate, the more miserable they became, the more reckless, also, and the heavier grew their burdens. As a consequence, in a single human generation the inhabitants of Spitalfields took on a type suited to their condition. Short-lived at best, weakness, decrepitude, and deformity made their labor, while they lasted, ineffective and wasteful. So long ago as 1842 the Poor-Law Commissioners reported that it was almost a thing unknown that a candidate from this district for appointment in the police was found to possess the requisite physical qualifications for the force,1 "You could not," says another witness, "raise a grenadier company among them all." Yet it is recorded that the Spitalfields volunteers during the French wars were "good-looking bodies of men."
But if this loss may be suffered in respect to the physical powers of the laborer through a reduction of wages, quite as certainly and quite as quickly may his usefulness be impaired through the moral effects of such a calamity. And just as the greatest possibilities of industrial efficiency lie
1 Report, p. 202.