|Work and Wealth|
CHAPTER V: THE HUMAN COSTS OF
§1. The classical Political Economy of this country gave to
Labour a role of supreme importance in the production of wealth. From Adam
Smith, Ricardo, and other authoritative exponents of the new 'science' many
passages can be cited to support the thesis that labourers are the only
producers. Nor does it appear that in these utterances Labour was usually
intended to include the services of organisation and management or other
intellectual activities. Wealth is baldly attributed to Labour in the sense that
the manual labour, which extracts raw materials from the earth, shapes and
composes them, and carries them from one place to another, alone counts as a
cost of production. It is natural enough that the scientific socialism of Europe
should have accepted and enforced this doctrine. Though the more intelligent
socialists and 'labour men' admit the necessary work of superintendence and
other mental work as useful and productive, the materialism prevalent in the
business world tends to relegate to a quite secondary place all the higher forms
of intellectual and moral activity.
It was upon the whole, indeed, a sound instinct which thus led the early theorists to use language which attributed to manual labour the real burden of the 'costs' of production. For closer investigation attests the force of the distinction between the productive energy given out by the intellectual, the directing, and administrative classes on the one hand, and by the labouring-classes on the other. Moreover, the social as well as the economic cleavage is so distinctive a feature of our life that it would be inconvenient to ignore it. The cleavage will be found to correspond pretty accurately to the distinction between the creative and the imitative functions which we provisionally adopted for a starting point in our analysis.
For most of the productive energy given out by the artistic, inventive, professional, official, and managerial classes, which have passed under our survey, is seen to be in large measure creative, varied, interesting, and pleasurable.
Now in the labour of the wage-earning classes these qualities are generally lacking. Alike in motives and in methods, the contrast is clearly marked. The mind of the artist or the inventor, even of the professional man or the administrator, is occupied with the work in hand, as an object of interest and of desirable achievement. The nature of the work and the conditions of remuneration conduce to fix his immediate thoughts and feelings on the performance of his work. With the labourer it is different. The conditions of most labour are such that the labourer finds little scope for thought and emotional interest in the work itself. Its due performance is hardly an end to him, but only a means to a livelihood consisting in the consumable commodities got in payment for his labour.
But the vital distinction is in the nature and method of the work done. Whereas the artistic or inventive, or even the professional man, is constantly doing something new, the labourer continually repeats the same act or set of acts, in order to produce a number of similar products. The success of most labour consists in the exactitude and pace with which this repetition can be carried on. The machine-tender is the typical instance. To feed the same machinery with the same quantity of the same material at the same pace, so as to turn out an endless number of precisely similar articles, is the absolute antithesis of art. It is often said that the man who feeds such a machine tends to become as automatic as the machine itself. This, however, is but a half-truth. If the tender could become as automatic as the machine he tended, if he could completely mechanise a little section of his faculties, it might go easier with him. But the main trend of life in the man fights against the mechanising tendency of his work, and this struggle entails a heavy cost. For his machine imposes a repetition of the same muscular and nervous action upon a being whose muscles and nervous resources are continually changing. The machine, fed constantly with the same supply of fuel, geared up to a single constant pace of movement, forced by unchanging structure to the performance of the same operation, friction and error reduced to an almost negligible minimum, works through the longest day with a uniform expenditure of power. The machine-tender is an organism, fed at somewhat irregular intervals with different amounts and sorts of food, the assimilation of which is also discontinuous, and incapable of maintaining intact and constant in its quantity the muscular and nervous tissue and the accompanying contractions which constitute the physical supply of 'work'. This organism has also many other structures and functions, physical and mental, whose activities and needs get in the way of the automatic activity of machine-tending. Thus the worker cannot succeed in becoming altogether a machine-tending automaton. He will not always exactly repeat himself, and his attempt to do so involves two sets of organic costs or wastes, due to the fact that, though his labour tries to make him a specialised mechanism, he remains a generalised organism.
So far as labour consists in specialised routine, absorbing the main current of productive energy, it is the enemy of organic health. It is hostile in two ways, first, in denying to man opportunity for the exercise of his other productive faculties, secondly, in overtaxing and degrading by servile repetition the single faculty that is employed.
As the artist presents the supreme example of creative work, with a minimum of human costs and a maximum of human utility, so the machine-tender presents the supreme example of imitative work, with a maximum of human costs and a minimum of human utility.
§2. Some particular consideration of these costs of machine-tending will be the best approach to a more general survey of the human costs of labour.
The indictment of the dominion of machinery by Ruskin, Morris, and other humanist reformers, was primarily based upon the degradation of the worker's manhood by denying him the conditions of good work. 'It is a sad account,' said Ruskin, 'for a man to give of himself that he has spent his life in opening a valve, and never made anything but the eighteenth part of a pin.' But, important as is this charge of degraded and joyless work, we must begin our analysis of the costs of mechanical or factory labour at a lower level.
From the great body of the factory labour which goes to the provision of our national income, the first great human cost that emerges is the burden of injurious fatigue which results from muscular or nervous overstrain, and from the other physical and moral injuries which are the natural accompaniments of this overstrain.
Modern physiology and pathology have done much to give plain meanings to these costs. Physical fatigue is not of necessity an injury to the body, nor is all feeling of fatigue a pain. The ideally correct conduct of the organism may, indeed, appear to preserve an exact and a continuous balance between the anabolic and the catabolic, the nutrition of cell life and the expenditure in function. Sir Michael Foster gives the following classical description of this process.1
'Did we possess some optic aid which should overcome the grossness of our vision, so that we might watch the dance of atoms in this double process of making and unmaking in the human body, we should see the commonplace living things which are brought by the blood, and which we call the food, caught up into and made part of the molecular whorls of the living muscle, linked together for awhile in the intricate figures of the dance of life; and then we should see how, loosing hands, they slipped back into the blood, as dead, inert, used-up matter. In every tiny block of muscle there is a part which is really alive, there are parts which are becoming alive, there are parts which have been alive but are now dying or dead; there is an upward rush from the lifeless to the living, a downward rush from the living to the dead. This is always going on, whether the muscle be quiet and at rest, or whether it be active and moving. Some of the capital of living material is always being spent, changed into dead waste, some of the new food is always being raised into living capital.
'Thus nutritive materials are carried by the blood to the tissues, and the dead materials of used-up and broken-up tissues are carried away for destruction or ejection. Under normal conditions of healthy activity this metabolic balance is preserved by the alternation of work and repose, the tissue and energy built up out of food during periods of rest forming a fund for expenditure during periods of work, while the same periods of rest enable the destructive and evacuative processes to get rid of any accumulation of dead tissue due to the previous period of work. Abnormally intense or unduly prolonged activity of any portion of the body uses up tissue so fast that its dead material cannot be got rid of at the proper pace. It accumulates in the blood or in the kidneys, liver or lungs, and operates as a poison throughout the whole system. Over-fatigue thus means poisoning the organism.
'The poisons are more and more heaped-up, poisoning the muscles, poisoning the brain, poisoning the heart, poisoning at last the blood itself, starting in the intricate machinery of the body new poisons in addition to themselves. The hunted hare, run to death, dies not because he is choked for want of breath, nor because his heart stands still, its store of energy having given out, but because a poisoned blood poisons his brain, poisons his whole body.'2
The Italian biologist Mosso has demonstrated that the depressing effect of fatigue is not confined to the local centre where it is produced, but is carried to all parts of the body. When the blood of a dog fatigued by continued running is injected into the vessels of a sound dog, the latter exhibits all the signs of fatigue. The inability of the system to dispose of the used-up tissue, which thus accumulates and poisons the system, is one injurious factor in fatigue. Another is the undue depletion of the stores of glycogen and oxygen, which the organism provides for the output of muscular activity. Glycogen is a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen made by muscle tissue out of the sugar or dextrine supplied to it by the blood. 'The stored glycogen of the muscles keeps uniting chemically with the oxygen of the blood. The glycogen is broken down into a simpler chemical form, giving off the gas carbon dioxide and other acid wastes, and releasing heat and mechanical energy in the process. With the released energy contraction of the muscles takes place and hence ultimately the industrial labour which is our special theme.'3
'Glycogen is, as it were, stored for use. It is always being replenished, always being depleted.... But when the muscle is active and contracts energetically, there is a run upon our glycogen. It is used up faster than it is built in muscle. The glycogen is spent so rapidly that there is not time for the blood-stream to bring back to the tissue the potential material for its repair.'4 Though the liver furnishes an extra store of glycogen, this too may be depleted by undue muscular activity.
'Thus we have reached the other fundamental factor in fatigue -- the consumption of the energy-yielding substance itself. Not only does tissue manufacture poison for itself in the very act of living, casting off chemical wastes into the circling bloodstream; not only are these wastes poured into the blood faster with increased exertion, clogging the muscle more and more with its own noxious products; but, finally, there is a depletion of the very material from which energy is obtained. The catabolic process is in excess of the anabolic. In exhaustion, the organism is forced literally to "use itself up."'5
§3. So much for the physiological meaning of muscular fatigue. Closely associated with muscular fatigue is nervous fatigue. For every voluntary muscular action receives its stimulus from a nervous centre. Though the nature of this nervous energy, accumulated in the central nervous system and distributed in stimuli, is not well understood, its economy is gravely disturbed by conduct involving heavy muscular fatigue, as well as by work of a mental kind involving heavy drains on its resources. A process of building up, storage, and dissipation of nerve tissue and energy-yielding material, corresponding to that which we have traced for muscle tissue, must be accepted as taking place. Fatigue of the nervous system will thus be attended by a similar accumulation of poisonous waste products, and an excessive consumption of substances needed for the maintenance of nervous activity.
Though physiologists are not agreed as to how and when fatigue acts on the nervous cells, there is no question of the reality and of the importance of this injury of excessive work to 'the administrative instrument of the individual' which 'directs' controls and harmonises the work of the parts of the organic machine and gives unity to the whole.'
Still confining our attention to purely physical conditions, we learn that work done in a state of muscular fatigue involves an increase of nervous effort.
'Mosso showed that a much stronger electric stimulus is required to make a wearied muscle contract than one which is rested. He devised an apparatus, the ponometer, which records the curve of nervous effort required to accomplish muscular action as fatigue increases. He showed that the nerve centres are compelled to supply an ever stronger stimulus to fatigued muscles.'6
Professor Treves at Turin throws further light upon the relations between the muscular and the nervous economy. It is well known that in muscular activity there is an opening period during which efficiency, or practical response to nervous stimulus, increases. Before fatigue begins to set in, the muscle appears to gain strength, its working power being actually augmented. This period of maximum efficiency continues for an appreciable time, then fatigue advances more and more until muscular contraction refuses any longer to respond to even a heightened nervous stimulus. This, of course, is also an epitome of the course of organic life itself, its rise towards maturity, its level of maximum power and its decline.
Now training or practice can notoriously affect this natural economy. The muscular system, or some part of it, can by practice accommodate itself to increasing quantities of fatigue-poisons, and can draw from the general organic fund a larger quantity of material for repair of local muscular tissue and energy. But it has long been recognised that some real dangers attach to this excessive specialisation of muscular activities. The pathological nature of over-training in athletics has its plain counterpart in industry. This, according to Professor Treves, lies in the failure of the supply of nervous energy to rise in proportion to the requirements for this higher pressure upon the muscular tissues.
'According to my experience, it has not been found that training has as favourable an effect upon [nervous] energy as upon muscular strength.... This fact explains why muscular training cannot go beyond certain limits and why athletes are often broken down by the consequences of over-exertion. And this fact teaches also the practical necessity of preventing women, children, and even adult men from becoming subjected to labour, which, indeed, a gradual muscular training may make possible, but at the price of an excessive loss of nervous energy which is not betrayed by any obvious or immediate symptoms, either objective or subjective.'7
A series of experiments has been directed to the more detailed study of the relations between activity and repose. Their general result is to prove that muscular work, done after fatigue has set in, not only costs more nervous effort but accomplishes less work. The ergograph, an instrument for measuring work, yields ample testimony to the recuperative effect of rest taken before exhaustion is reached, on the one hand, and the rapid rate of decline in achievement when activity is continued after the fatigue point has been reached.
§4. To this account of the physical costs of excessive work in muscular and nervous waste must be added the greater liability to accidents and the greater susceptibility to industrial and non-industrial diseases which fatigue entails.
The statistics of industry in various countries prove that fatigue is a very important factor in industrial accidents. Though fatigue is not always proportionate to duration of work, the number of hours worked without intermission is usually a valid index of fatigue. After a long stunt of work the attention of the worker and his muscular control are both weakened. We find, therefore, a marked similarity in the curves relating accidents to hours of labour, accidents increasing progressively up to the end of the morning's work, and again in the late afternoon as the day's work draws to its close. Recent German statistics show that the highest rate of accidents is during the fourth and fifth hours of morning work.
That over-fatigue connected with industry is responsible for
large numbers of nervous disorders is, of course, generally admitted. The
growing prevalence of cardiac neurosis and of neurasthenia in general among
working-people is attested by many medical authorities, especially in
occupations where long strains of attention are involved. But the general
enfeeblement and loss of resistance power to disease germs of all kinds are even
more injurious consequences of over-exertion. Many experiments attest the fact
that fatigue reduces the power of the blood to resist bacteria and their toxic
§5. So far I have dwelt exclusively upon the physiological nature and effects of fatigue as costs of labour. But due account must also be taken of the psychical or conscious costs. Much work in its initial stage contains elements of pleasurable exercise of some human organ or faculty, and even when this pleasure has worn off a considerable period of indifference may ensue. Though boredom may set in before any strain of fatigue, the earlier period of ennui may not entail a heavy cost. But, when fatigue advances, the irksomeness brings a growing feeling of painful effort, and a long bout of fatigue produces as its concomitant a period of grave conscious irritation of nerves with a subsequent period of painful collapse. Where the conditions of work are such as to involve a daily repetition of this pain, its accumulative effect constitutes one of the heaviest of human costs, a lowering of mentality and of moral resistance closely corresponding to the decline of physical resistance. Drink and other sensational excesses are the normal reactions of this lowered morale. Thus fatigue ranks as a main determinant of the 'character' of the working-classes and has a social significance in its bearing upon order and progress not less important than its influence upon the individual organism.
§6. I have dwelt in some detail upon these phenomena of fatigue, because they exhibit most clearly the defects of the working life which carry heaviest human costs. These defects are excessive duration of labour, excessive specialisation, excessive repetition, excessive strain and excessive speed. Though separate for purposes of analysis, these factors closely interact. Mere duration of labour does not necessarily involve fatigue, provided it carries the elements of interest, variety, and achievement. The degree of specialisation or subdivision of labour counts on the whole more heavily. But even a high degree of specialisation is alleviated, where it contains many little changes of action or position, and affords scope for the satisfaction attending expert skill. It is the constant repetition of an identical action at a prescribed pace that brings the heaviest burden of monotony.
It is upon this combination of conditions that the first count against the dominion of machinery is based. The brief physiological consideration we have brought to bear upon the problem of fatigue gives clearer significance to monotony as a 'cost'. It implies, not merely a dull and distasteful occupation, but one which, taxing continually the same muscles and the same nerve-centres, increases the poison of fatigue. Hand labour of a narrow order, or machine-tending however light, entails this heavy cost, if maintained over a long period of time.
But where monotonous repetition is closely directed by the action of a machine, as regards its manner and its pace, there is a special nervous cost. For a hand-worker, however dull or heavy is the work, retains some slight power of varying the pace and perhaps of changing his position or mode of work. A worker who either feeds a machine or adjusts his movements in obedience to those of a machine, as for instance a cutter in the clothing trade or in shoemaking, has no such liberty. The special cost here entailed is that of trying to make an organism conform in its movements to a mechanism. Now a human being, or any other organism, has certain natural rhythms of movement for work, related to the rhythms of heart and lungs and other organic processes, and there are natural limits also to the pace at which he Can efficiently, or even possibly, continue working. A machine also has rhythms and a maximum efficiency pace. But the rhythms of a machine are determined by its mechanical construction and the apparatus which furnishes its power: they are continuously uniform, and are capable of being speeded up beyond the capacity of the human tender.
A human rhythm is really labour-saving, in as much as it eases the strain to work in accordance with a natural swing. To set a man to follow the rhythm of a machine not only loses this economy, but entails an extra effort of conformity. The tendency to speed up a machine, so as to get the most out of it, is liable to take out of the machine-tender even more than he is capable of recognising in the way of nervous strain. Where considerable muscular activity is also required in following a high pace set by a machine, an appalling burden of human costs may be accumulated in a factory day.
When to such direct human costs of labour are added the risks of industrial accident or of industrial diseases, the physical injuries involved in bad atmosphere, heat, noise and other incidental pains and inconveniences which beset many branches of industry, we begin to realise with more distinctness the meaning of 'costs of labour' in the human as distinguished from the economic sense.
Later on we shall turn to consider how far the economic or monetary 'costs' correspond with these human costs.
Our present task, however, is to conduct a brief survey of general industry in order to form some idea of the magnitude of these human costs in the leading branches of production, and to consider how far they are offset or qualified by factors of human interest or utility, such as we found widely prevalent in the work of the artistic, official, and administrative classes.
1. Weariness, the Rede Lecture, Cambridge, 1893.
2. Foster. Op. cit.
3. Goldmarck, Fatigue and Efficiency, p. 22.
4. Goldmarck, p. 22.
5. Ibid, p. 23.
6. Goldmarck, p. 33.
7. Goldmarck, p. 37.