|Work and Wealth|
CHAPTER VI: THE REIGN OF THE MACHINE
§1. If it were true that all the labour of the wage-earning
classes which went to produce the real national income were, or tended to
become, monotonous and highly specialised machine tending, the workers
constantly engaged in close repetition of some single narrow automatic process,
contributing to some final composite product whose form and utility had no real
meaning for them, the tale of human costs would be appalling.
Fortunately this is not the whole truth about labour. Even the charge against machinery of mechanising the worker is frequently overstated. The only productive work that is entirely automatic is done by machines. For the main trend of the development of industrial machinery has been to set non-human tools and power to undertake work which man could not execute with the required regularity, exactitude, or pace, by reason of certain organic deficiencies. While, then, the sub-divided labour in most staple industries is mostly of a narrowly prescribed and routine character, it is hardly ever so completely uniform and repetitive as that done by a machine. Purely routine work, demanding no human skill or judgment is nearly always undertaken by machinery, except where human labour can be bought so cheap that it does not pay to invent and apply machinery so as to secure some slightly increased regularity or pace of output. Where, then, as in most modern factories, human labour cooperates with, tends and feeds machinery, this human labour is of a less purely repetitive character than the work done by the machines. Some portions of the labour, at any rate, contain elements of skill or judgment, and are not entirely uniform.
We can in fact distinguish many kinds and grades of human cooperation with machinery. In some of them man is the habitual servant, in others the habitual master of the machine; in others, again, the relation is more indirect or incidental. Though an increasing number of the processes in the making and moving of most forms of material goods involves the use of machinery and power, they do not involve, as is sometimes supposed, the employment of a growing proportion of the workers in the merely routine labour of tending the machines. Such a supposition, indeed, is inconsistent with the primary economy of machinery, the so-called labour-saving property. It might, indeed, be the case that the machine economy was accompanied by so vast an increase of demand for machine-made goods, that the quantity of labour required for tending the machines was greater than that formerly required for making by hand the smaller quantity. In some trades this is no doubt so, as for instance in the printing trade, and in some branches of textile industry where the home market is largely supplemented by export trade. But the displacement of machine-tenders by automatic machines is advancing in many of the highly-developed machine industries. The modern flour or paper mill, for instance, performs nearly all its feeding processes by mechanical means while in the textile trade automatic spindles and looms have reduced the number and changed the character of the work of minders. More and more of this work means bringing human elements of skill and judgment and responsibility to bear in adjusting or correcting the irregularities or errors in the operations of machinery. Machines are liable to run down, become clogged, break, or otherwise 'go wrong'. These errors they can often be made to announce by automatic signals, but human care is needed for their correction. This work, however monotonous and fatiguing to muscles or nerves, is not and cannot be entirely repetitive.
In many other processes where the machine is said to do the work, human skill and practice are required to set and to regulate the operations of the machine. The use of automatic lathes is an instance of cooperation in which some scope for human judgment remains. The metal and engineering trades are full of such instances. Though machinery is an exceedingly important and in many processes a governing factor, it cannot be said to reduce the labour that works with it to its own automatic level. On the contrary, it may be taken as generally true that, in the processes where machinery has reached its most complex development, an increased share of the labour employed in close connection with the machinery is that of the skilled engineer or fitter rather than of the mere tender. The heaviest and the most costly labour in these trades is usually found in the processes where it has not been found practicable or economical to apply machinery. Indeed, the general tendency, especially noticed in America, in the metal trades, has been to substitute for a large employment of skilled hand labour of a narrowly specialised order, a small employment of more skilled and responsible supervisors of machinery and a large employment of low-skilled manual labour in the less mechanical departments, such as furnace work and other operations preparatory to the machine processes.
§2. Though accurate statistics are not available, it appears that in this country the proportion of the working population employed in manufactures is not increasing, and it is more than probable that an exact analysis of the nature of the work of our factories and workshops would show that the proportion engaged in direct attendance on machinery was steadily falling.
For even in manufacture, the department of industry where machine processes have made most advance, there are many processes where hand labour is still required, in sorting and preparing materials for machinery, in performing minor processes of trimming or decoration, in putting together parts or in packing, etc. Where female labour is employed, a very large proportion of it will be found to be engaged in such processes outside the direct dominion of machinery. Though most of the distinctively human 'costs' of machine processes, the long hours, high pace, monotony of muscles and nerve strain, are usually present in such work, it is not absolutely mechanical, some slight elements of skill and volitional direction being present.
There are other restrictions upon the purely repetitive or routine character of manufacture. There is much work which no machine can be invented to do because of certain inherent elements of irregularity. Most of these are related to the organic nature of some of the materials used. Where expensive animal or vegetable products require treatment, their natural inequalities often render a purely mechanical operation impossible or wasteful. The killing, cutting, and canning processes in the meat trade, the picking, preparation and packing of fruit, many processes in the tanning and leather trade. the finer sorts of cabinetmaking, are examples of this unadaptability of organic materials to purely mechanical treatment. Where very valuable inorganic materials are used in making high-grade products, similar limitations in the machine economy exist. The finest jewellery and watch-making still require the skill and judgment of the practised human hand and eye. Some of the irregularities in such processes are, indeed, so small and so uninteresting as to afford little, if any, abatement of human costs; but they remove the labour from the direct control of a machine.
A more important irregularity which restricts machinery in manufacture exists where the personal needs or taste of the consumer help to determine the nature of the process and the product. Here again we are confronted by the antagonism of mechanism and organism. For the true demand of consumers is the highest expression of the uniqueness which distinguishes the organic. As no two consumers are exactly identical in size, shape, physical or mental capacities, tastes and needs, the goods required for their consumption should exhibit similar differences. Machine economy cannot properly meet this requirement. It can only deal with consumers so far as their human nature is common: it cannot supply the needs of their individuality. So far as they are willing to sink their differences, consenting to consume large quantities of goods of identical shapes, sizes and qualities, the machine can supply them. But since no two consumers are really identical in needs and tastes, or remain quite constant in their needs and tastes, the fundamental assumption of routine-economy is opposed to the human facts.
Consumers who refuse to sink their individuality and are 'particular' in the sort of clothes they wear, the sort of houses and furniture and other goods they will consent to buy, exercise a power antagonistic to routine labour. They demand that producers shall put out the technical skill, the care, taste and judgment required to satisfy their feelings as consumers. That is to say, they demand the labour not of the routine-worker but of the craftsman, work which, though not creative in the full free artistic sense, contains distinct elements of human interest and initiative.
§3. The presence and the possibilities of this individuality of labour, flowing from the educated individuality of consumers, are a most important influence in the lightening of the human costs of labour. At present no doubt a very small proportion of the material goods turned out by the industrial system contains any appreciable element of this individuality of workmanship. It may, indeed, well appear that our recent course during the development of the machine economy has been a retrograde one. In the beginnings of industry it appeared as if there were more scope for the producer's self-expression, more joy of work, more interest in the product, even though destined for the commonest uses. The guilds in the Middle Ages preserved not a little of this happier spirit of craftsmanship. To those who brood upon these visions of the past, our modern industrial development has often seemed a crude substitution of quantity of goods for quality, the character of labour deteriorating in the process. With the element of truth in such a judgment is mingled much falsehood. There has never been an age or a country where the great bulk of labour was not toilsome, painful, monotonous, and uninteresting, often degrading in its conditions. Bad as things are, when regarded from the standpoint of a human ideal, they are better for the majority of the workers in this and in other advanced industrial countries than ever in the past, so far as we can reconstruct and understand that past. Machinery has rendered a great human service by taking over large masses of heavy, dull, and degrading work. When fully developed and harnessed to the social service of man, it should prove to be the great liberator of his free productive tastes and faculties, performing for him the routine processes of industry so that he may have time and energy to devote himself to activities more interesting and varied.
The uniqueness of the individual consumer has only begun to make its impression upon industry. For it needs liberty and education for a man to recognise this property of organic uniqueness and to insist on realising it. The first movements of conscious tastes in a nation or a class are largely imitative, taking shape in fashions sufficiently wide-spread and uniform to lend themselves to routine mechanical production. The self-assertion of the individual is a slower fruit of culture. But, as it grows, it will offer a continually stronger opposition to the dominion of mechanical production. It will do this in two ways. In the first place, it will cause a larger proportion of demand to be directed to the classes of products, such as intellectual, aesthetic, and personal services, which are by their nature less susceptible of mechanical production. In the second place, weakening the traditional and the imitative factors in taste and demand, it will cause consumption, even of the higher forms of material commodities, to be a more accurate expression of the changing needs and tastes of the individual, stamping upon the processes of production the same impress of individuality.
But though the direct control of machinery over human labour is obstructed in the earlier extractive processes by the refractory uneven nature of materials, and in the final processes by the nature and particular requirements of consumers, its influence extends far beyond the middle processes of manufacture where its prominence is greatest. Power-driven machinery plays a larger part in agriculture every year: mining is the first of machine industries in the sense that it employs the largest amount of horsepower per man; the transport trade by sea and land is mechanised even in its minor local branches; the great public services, supplying light, water, and other common wants, are among the largest users of power-driven machinery; the greatest of our material industries which still depends mainly upon hand labour, the building and road-making group, is constantly increasing its dependence on machinery for its heavier carrying work and for the preparation of the metal, stone and woodwork it employs. When we add the growth of new large manufactures, such as chemicals and electrical apparatus, the enormous expansion of the paper and printing trades under the new mechanical conditions, the recent transference of the processes of the preparation of foods and drinks and laundry work from the private house to the factory, we shall recognise that the net influence of machinery, as determining the character of human labour, is still advancing with considerable rapidity.
§4. It is not easy to answer the two related questions, 'How far is machinery the master, how far the servant, of the workers who cooperate with it?' 'How far does machinery aggravate, how far lighten the human costs of labour?' Even when we compare the work of the classes most subservient to machinery, the feeders and tenders in our factories, with the domestic or earlier factory processes under hand labour, it is by no means self-evident that the net burden of the human costs has been enhanced. For, though the spinning and weaving work before the industrial revolution had certain slight elements of freedom and variety now absent, many of the hygienic conditions were far worse, the hours of labour were usually longer, and the large employment of old folk and tender children, in work nearly as unvaried as that enjoined by modern machinery, enslaved the entire life of the home and family to the narrow and precarious conditions of a small local trade. The real liberty of the worker, as regards his work, or its disposal in the market, was hardly greater than in the modern factory.
In most of the great branches of production, machinery is rather an adjunct to labour than a director. The labourer in charge of the machine tends more to the type of the engineer than to that of the feeder or mere minder. Though the mining, metal, chemical, paper, food and drink manufactures contain large quantities of machinery, a large proportion of those who have to deal with the machines are skilled manual labourers. So in the transport trade, though the displacement of the old-time sailor by the engineer and stoker, of the horse-driver by the engine-driver and the motor-man, sometimes appears to involve a degradation of labour, the issue is a doubtful one, if all the pros and cons are taken into due account. As regards the employment of machinery in the building and contracting trades, as in the mining, its first and obvious effect has been to relieve human labour from much of the heaviest muscular toil. Though most of such labour involves too slight elements of interest or skill greatly to alleviate the physical fatigue, it cannot be said that machinery has increased the burden.