|Work and Wealth|
CHAPTER VII: THE DISTRIBUTION OF
§1. In endeavouring to estimate the human costs of labour in
terms of physical wear and tear and the conscious pains and penalties entailed
by the conditions under which many industrial processes are carried on, we have
hitherto considered these costs as borne by workers, irrespective of age, sex,
or other discriminations. But it is self-evident that a given strain upon
muscles or nerves over a period of time will vary greatly, both in the organic
cost and in the conscious pain which it entails, according to the strength and
endurance, nervous structure, physical and moral sensitiveness, of the different
sorts of workers. Indeed, a given output of productive energy will evidently
entail a different human cost in every person called upon to give it out: for
every difference of strength, skill, capacity and character must to some extent
affect the organic burden of the task.
In endeavouring, therefore, to relate the human to the economic costs of production of any quantity of material wealth or services, it would be necessary to consider how far the conditions of employment tend to economise human costs by distributing the burden proportionately to the power to bear it. The human wastes or excessive costs, entailed by conditions of employment which impose unequal burdens upon workers with equal capacity to bear them, or which distribute the burden unequally in time over the same set of workers, alternating slack periods with periods of excessive over-time, are obvious. Unfortunately the operation of our industrial system has not hitherto taken these into sufficient account. Though the physical, moral and social injuries, due to alternating periods of over and under work, are generally admitted, the full costs of such irregularity, human and even economic, are far from being adequately realised. While some attempts at 'decasualisation' are being made, the larger and more wasteful irregularities of seasonal and cyclical fluctuations are still regarded as irremediable. By the workers themselves and even by social reformers, the injury inflicted upon wages and the standard of living by irregularity of employment is appreciated far more adequately than the related injury inflicted on the physique and morale of the worker by sandwiching periods of over-exertion between intervals of idleness.
This brief survey, however, is no place for a discussion of the causes and remedies of irregular employment. It must suffice to note that over a large number of the fields of industry the excesses and defects of such irregularity prevail to an extent which adds greatly to the total human cost of the products. So far as our nation is concerned, there is no reason to hold that this waste is increasing. Evidence of hours of labour and of unemployment, indeed, appear to indicate that it is somewhat diminishing. But the unequal time-distribution of human costs must continue to rank as a great enhancement of the aggregate of such costs.
§2. But not less injurious than the unequal treatment of equals, is the equal treatment of unequals. The bad human economy of working immature children is a lesson which even the most 'civilised' nations have been exceedingly slow to learn. The bad human economy of working old persons of declining vigour, when able-bodied adult labour is available, is so far from being generally recognised that employers are actually commended on the ground of humanity for keeping at labour their aged employees, when younger and stronger workers are available. Fortunately, the larger provision for retiring pensions attests the growing recognition of this aggravation of the human costs of industry. In both cases alike, the employment of the young and of the old, the error arises from a short-sighted view of the interests of the single person or his single family, instead of a far-sighted view of the welfare of the community. It is often a source of immediate gain to a working-class family to put the children out to wage-earning as early as possible, and to keep old people working as long as they can get work to do. It does not pay the nation, even in the economic sense, that either of these things should be done. The case of child-labour is, of course, the more serious, in that it evidently entails not merely a wasteful strain upon feeble organisms, but an even heavier future cost in stunted growth and impaired efficiency throughout an entire life.
When the play of current economic forces places upon women work which men could perform more easily, or creates women's industries with conditions of labour involving excessive strains upon the organism, the double human costs are even heavier. For if excessive fatigue or nervous strain affects a woman as worker, the injurious costs are likely to be continued and enhanced through her capacity for motherhood. To use up or damage its women by setting them to hard wage labour in mill and workshop is probably the greatest human waste a nation could practise or permit. For some of the prevailing tendencies of modern industrialism appear to be more 'costly' in their bearing upon women than on men. In regard to factory work, and all other industrial work involving a long continuous muscular or nervous strain, or, as in shop labour with its long hours of standing, medical authorities are unanimous in holding that women suffer more than men.1 'If a like amount of physical toil and effort be imposed on women, they suffer to a larger degree,' states Sir W. MacCormac.2 Statistics of employment from various countries agree in showing that the amount of morbidity, as measured by the number of days lost by illness, is greater among working-women than among working-men, and that the mortality of working-women is greater than that of workingmen, notwithstanding the fact that the average life of a female is longer than that of a male. Long hours and speeding-up of machinery thus evidently inflict graver organic costs on women than on men. Where piecework is in vogue, it furnishes a stronger stimulus to over-strain in women, because the general lowness of their wage gives a larger importance to each addition.
§3. Thus in comparing the human costs of producing a given quantity of goods, due account must be taken of the distribution of the output of productive energy among workers of different sexes, and ages. The earlier tendency of the factory system in this country, the existing tendency in some countries, has been to impose a growing of monotonous and fatiguing labour upon women and children. At certain stages in the development of industrial machinery, this has been held to be a 'profitable' economy, and in many processes of hand labour subsidiary to the factory system it still survives. Though legislation and other influences have done much to check the worst injuries of child employment in factories and workshops in more civilised communities, a great amount of human cost is still incurred under this head. Child half-timers are still used in considerable numbers in textile factories, while the vast expansion of distributive work has sucked into premature wage-earning immense numbers of boys who ought to be at school. It is probable that the net tendency of British industry in recent years has been towards a slow reduction of the more injurious and 'costly' forms of female employment. Though an enormous number of females are engaged in work the hours and hygienic conditions of which escape legal regulation, probably a growing proportion of employed women come under an economy of shorter hours. The drudgery of domestic service engages a less number of women, while the opening of a larger variety of employments both in manufacture and in commerce has somewhat improved their power to resist the excessive pressure of machine-conditions. The recent organised attack upon the 'sweated industries', however, reveals the fact that at the lower level of many trades a great mass of oppressive and injurious labour is extorted from working-women. Certain forms of new mechanical labour, not involving heavy muscular fatigue, but taxing severely the nervous system, are occupying a large number of women. The type-writer and the telephone have not yet been brought into conformity with the demands of health. Though machinery is generally bringing in its wake restrictions on hours of labour, the normal work-day of factory, office and shop still imposes a gravely excessive strain upon women employees. No small proportion of this excessive cost of women's work, however, is attributable to legal, professional, or conventional restrictions, which, precluding women from entering many skilled and lucrative employments, compel them to compete in low-skilled and overstocked labour-markets. The social waste of such sex discrimination is two-fold. Even in trades and professions for which men have usually a greater aptitude than women, some women can perform the work better and more easily than some men, and, if they are denied equal opportunity of access, the work is done worse or at a greater human cost. The refusal to admit women into the learned professions upon equal terms with men undoubtedly involves a loss to society of some of the finest service of the human intellect, while it entrusts some of the skilled and responsible work, thus denied to women, to relatively ignorant and incompetent men. The other human cost is perhaps even heavier. For the excessive competition, to which women are thus exposed in the occupations left to them, depresses the remuneration in most instances below the true level of physical efficiency, induces or compels excessive hours of labour, breaks down the health of women-workers and injures their life.
§4. This general survey shows that the human 'costs' of labour are closely associated in most cases with that subdivision and specialisation of activities which takes its extreme form in machine tending and which conforms most closely to mere 'repetition' as distinguished from the creative branches of production. But this identification of 'repetition' and human costs cannot be pressed into a general law. For reflection shows that repetition or routine does not always carry cost, and that on the other hand some labour which has considerable variety is very costly. Healthy organic life permits, indeed requires, a certain admixture of routine or repetition with its more creative functions. A certain amount of regular rhythmic exercise of the same muscles and nerve-centres yields vital utility and satisfaction. In some sports this exercise may be carried so far as to involve considerable elements of fatigue and endurance which are offset during their occurrence by the sense of personal prowess and the interest of achievement, This sentimental zest of endurance may notoriously be carried to extremes, injurious to the physical organism. Moreover, a certain amount of narrow physical routine often furnishes a relief element for the tired nerves or brain. Digging or knitting, though intolerable as a constant employment, may furnish by their very physical routine an organic benefit when applied as a recreation. The same, indeed, is true of most other not too taxing forms of manual or mental routine labour, especially if they contain some obvious utility. Some slight element of skill seems needed for certain natures, but a bare uninteresting repetition commonly suffices.
Such considerations dispose of the assumption that all repetition or routine in productive work is necessarily indicative of human cost and carries no organic utility or satisfaction. It is only when repetition is extended so as to engage too large a share of the time and energy of a human being that it involves a cost.
So, on the other hand, it is not the case that all labour containing variety and opportunity for skill is costless and organically good. Take for a notable example agricultural labour. Irregularity of soil and weather, the changes and chances of animal and vegetable life, the performance of many different processes, remove such work from the category of exact routine. Yet most of the labour connected with agriculture is, under the actual conditions of its performance, heavy, dull and joyless. In each process there is usually enough repetition and monotony to inflict fatigue, and the accumulation of separate fatigues in a long day's work, unalleviated by adequate personal interest in the process or its product, makes a heavy burden of cost.
The same holds of other departments of industry where some inherent elements of skill and interest are found. The total burden of effort given out in a long day's work, continued week after week, year after year, under the conditions of wagedom, greatly outweighs these technical advantages. Duration and compulsion cancel most, though not all, of the superiority of such work over machine tending, or clerking. A little labour in any of the handicrafts, in machine-running, the management of motor-cars or boats, in gardening and other modes of agriculture, serves as a pleasant pastime when undertaken as a voluntary and occasional employment. Make it regular, continuous, compulsory, and the enjoyment soon vanishes. The very elements of interest for the casual amateur often constitute the heaviest cost for the worker who lives by doing this and nothing else. Take motor driving for an example. The quick exercise of nerve and muscle, the keenness of eye, wrist and attention, required to drive easily, quickly and safely, amid traffic or in a tangle of roads, gives nerve and interest to driving as a recreation. But this multiplication of little strains and risks, accumulating in a long day's work, and undertaken day after day, in all conditions of health, disposition and weather, soon passes from an agreeable and stimulating exercise into a toilsome drudgery.
Consideration of the work in the distributive trades, wholesale and retail, which absorb an ever-growing proportion of our wage-earners, is most instructive for understanding the respective parts played by specialisation, duration, and compulsion in the human costs. Machinery has little direct control over the work of these clerks, warehousemen, shop-assistants, typists, etc.: their work contains constant little elements of variety in detail, and a moderate amount of it imposes no fatigue. But the scope afforded for personal skill or achievement is insufficient; most of it is unmeaning and uninteresting so far as useful results are concerned; it involves constant obedience to the orders of another; and it is unduly prolonged.
§5. We are now in a position to sum up the results of our general analysis of the human costs of labour, in which Tarde's distinction between creation and imitation or repetition was our starting point. So far as the merely or mainly physical costs are concerned, the muscular and nervous strain and fatigue, excessive repetition is a true description of the chief cause. Machine tending at a high pace for a long working-day is in itself the most 'costly' type of labour, and, in so far as a machine controls the sort and pace of work done by a human being, these 'costs' accumulate. But most work is not so directly controlled by machinery, and yet is so highly specialised that the routine constantly over-taxes with fatigue the muscles, nerves and attention. The duration and pace of such labour are usually such as to heap up heavy costs of physical wear and tear and of physical discomforts.
But the antithesis of creation and imitation or repetition has a different significance for the interpretation of physical costs. There it is not so much the absence of novelty involved in repetition, as the absence of personal liberty and spontaneity that counts most heavily. There are, in fact, few sorts of necessary productive labour which a man is not prepared to do for himself, with some measure of personal satisfaction, if he has within his own control the performance of this task and the result. But when another's will and purpose supersede his own, prescribing actions to be done under conditions of time, place and manner, determined by that other, this servitude to another's will is always irksome and may be degrading. The human cost of most domestic service lies largely here. The work itself has more detailed variety and interest than most, and where the housewife herself does it, it often furnishes a net fund of human satisfaction. But the moral and intellectual costs of a hired servant, compelled to obey the arbitrary and capricious orders of a mistress, and to suppress her own will, tastes and inclinations in the execution of her task, are often very heavy. In a smaller degree this applies to all wage-earners engaged in any work where scope for their free volition is technically feasible. To substitute another's will for one's own, in matters where one has a will, is always a human cost. That cost, however, need not be great. When a worker is a unit of labour in some great business, his actions conforming to rules which, however troublesome, belong to the system, the consciousness of loss of liberty is far less than when the changing will of a personal employer operating amid the details of his work is the instrument of discipline. A shop-girl in a large business has a feeling of greater independence than a domestic servant, a factory-hand than a shop-girl, while the low wage of homeworkers is in part attributable to the removal of the worker from the mediate domination of the employer's will.
§6. In assessing the psychical elements of cost, it is well to distinguish those related to a loss of liberty, or an encroachment upon personality, from those which are the conscious results or counterparts of the physical strains. For the enlargement of certain of these psychical costs is an exceedingly important factor in what is called 'industrial unrest'. This irksomeness of narrowly specialised labour and of the 'enslaving' conditions of the ordinary working life grows with the growth of intelligence and sensibility among the working-classes. Under the older order, of accepted class distinctions and economic status, implicit obedience to the employer's will carried no conscious moral cost. A new sense of personal dignity and value has now arisen in the better educated grades of workers which interferes with arbitrary modes of discipline. When they are called upon to do work in a way which appears to them foolish, injurious, or inequitable, a sense of resentment is aroused which smoulders through the working week as a moral cost. With every widening of education there comes, moreover, a discontent not merely with the particular conditions of the labour, but with the whole system, or set of conditions, which addicts so large a proportion of their working hours and energies to the dull heavy task by which they earn their living. So too the narrow limitation in the choice of work which the local specialisation of industry involves, becomes a growing grievance. The 'conditions of labour' for themselves and others, taken as a whole, are realised as an invasion and a degradation of their humanity, offering neither stimulus nor opportunity for a man to throw 'himself' into his work. For the work only calls for a fragment of that 'self' and always the same fragment. So it is true that not only is labour divided but the labourer. And it is manifest that, so far as his organic human nature is concerned, its unused portions are destined to idleness, atrophy, and decay.
This analysis of the conditions may seldom be fully realised in the consciousness of the worker. But education has gone far enough to make them real factors of working-class discontent. They constitute a large motive in the working-class movement which we may call the revolt of the producer against the excessive human costs of his production.
This is the great and serious indictment against the economy of division of labour. Associated with it is the charge that the worker in one of these routine subdivided processes has no appreciation of the utility or social meaning of his labour. He does not himself make anything that is an object of interest to him. His contribution to the long series of productive processes that go to turn out a commodity may be very valuable. But, as he cannot from his little angle perceive the cooperative unity of the productive series, it means nothing to his intelligence or heart.
So not only does the performance of his task afford him no satisfaction, but its end or object is a matter of indifference to him. There is this vital difference between the carpenter who makes a cupboard or a door, fits it into its place and sees that it is good, and the bricklayer's labourer who merely mixes mortar and carries bricks upon a hod. A man who is not interested in his work, and does not recognise in it either beauty or utility, is degraded by that work, whether he knows it or not. When he comes to a clear consciousness of that degradation, the spiritual cost is greatly enhanced. It is true that specialisation in labour is socially useful, and that, if that specialisation does not encroach too largely upon the energy and personality of the individual worker, he is not injured but helped by the contribution to social wealth which his special work enables him to make. Larger enlightenment as to the real meaning and value of his work, and the sense of social service which should follow, may indeed be expected to reduce considerably the irksomeness of its present incidence. But it can do so only upon two conditions. In the first place, the duration and strain upon his physical and moral nature must be diminished. Secondly, the general conditions both of labour and of its remuneration must be such as to lead him to recognise that the discipline which it enjoins is conducive to a larger liberty, viz., that of willing cooperation with his fellows in the production of social welfare. As yet the attainment of these conditions has not kept pace with the new desires and aspirations which have grown so rapidly among the rank and file of workers in the advanced industrial countries. Hence a new burden of spiritual costs, expressing an increased divergence between conscious aspirations and the normal conditions of the worker's lot. The education of the town worker, the association with his fellows in large workshops, the life of the streets, the education of the school, the newspaper, the library, the club, have made him increasingly sensitive to the narrowness and degradation of excessive routine in joyless labour.
1. Cf. Goldmarck, Part II, pp. 126.
2. Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Early Closing in Shops, 1901.