Feb 10

Irrepressible Economic Conflict

By E.W. Kenyon — July, 1902

E.W. KenyonChicago, IL: If the signs of the times ripen into what they purport, there can be little question that the storm center of human advancement will be in the economic and industrial questions that are pressing with accelerated motion toward an equitable solution. That there is a profound and widespread dissatisfaction and discontent among the masses of all “so-called” civilized countries is patent to all observers. And anarchism, strikes, and socialism are some of the remonstrating symptoms of popular recognition of unjust economic prevailing conditions, voicing despair of the few, heroic struggle of the many, and the constructive effort of an increasing number in all Christian countries. A widespread theory in this country is perhaps well expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution of Massachusetts:

“The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.”

There are, then, such things recognized as the natural rights of individual men, and if natural they are “inalienable and indefeasible.” The individual has no right to alienate his natural rights and society or government has no right to make laws or regulations that will deprive him of them.

What, then, are some of the most essential rights of the individual given by nature? Manifestly, first, is the right to life; for Mother Nature gave us life without asking, our heart-beats are involuntary; and, evidently, if we have a natural right to live, we necessarily and equally have a natural right to access to the only natural means of life support—land and its products.

Deprive a man of his right to a share of the earth’s surface and you make him a slave to those who monopolize and deprive him of his right, the only right whereby he can be absolutely independent and self-sustaining. These two rights are primary, essentially inseparable, and incontestable, and this great truth has been recognized by great thinkers from the earliest ages. Among the Greeks and Romans it was illustrated by the fable story of Antaeus a giant, or renowned athlete, who was said to be the son of Neptune and Terra (sea and earth, or land and water). He inhabited the Libyan desert (where land was free) and successfully wrestled against all comers, for whenever thrown to the ground he received fresh accessions of strength from mother earth, rising stronger than ever from his contact with the soil. Hercules, however, the crafty god of strength, detecting the source of his strength, held him up in his arms and strangled him in the air.” Deprive men of their right to the soil and they become as weak and easily vanquished as the fabled athlete; they become an easy prey to the “Captains of industry.” John Ruskin said regarding this question:

“But since we live in an epoch of change, and, too, probably of revolution, and thoughts which are not to be put aside are in the minds of all men capable of thinking, I am obliged to affirm that the one principle which can and will close—all epochs of revolution—that each man shall possess the ground he can use, and no more.”

Spain is suffering many evils economic and religious, and her protesting rioters inscribe on their banners “Justice for all, and give us bread and work.” But like all other countries, the injustice which most profoundly and fundamentally affects the welfare of the masses, inheres in the question of land tenure.

During the present month Senor Conelejas, Minister of Agriculture, declared in a notable speech in Parliament, “That there could be no internal progress in Spain until the existing conditions under which land was held had been modified;” that “in large sections of the kingdom a few noblemen owned all the lands;” that “Spain’s land evil was worse than Ireland’s;” and knowing the true cause of their grievance, the peasantry are constantly clamoring for small land holdings.

Of course in complicated civilization all men would not wish to occupy and cultivate land, but their only sure defense against injustice and imposition is the right and privilege to do so if they wish. It being a natural right, the privilege could not be alienated and would always be held as a last resort and effectual defense against industrial tyranny. I do not think there is any logic that can dislodge the assertion “That every man, woman and child that is born into this world has an equal right to the earth’s surface.” The great table of nature is bountifully spread with an abundance of every conceivable human need, mines of gold, silver, iron, copper, zinc, tin, coal, and land enough for all.

Around this vast table are seated fifteen hundred millions of human beings, each and all possessing equal rights to the generous spread. An expectant multitude, as yet contented and happy in the Eden of plenty. We look again, and what do we see, a few of the strong, crafty and greedy have gobbled up all the mines of gold, silver, coal, etc., and are in possession of the best, and nearly all the land, and the multitude, unconscious of how they lost their birthright, proceed to march away to the slums and waste places and eat in sorrow the crumbs that fall from their vanquishers’ tables.

How the people lost their natural birthrights is not now the vital question; but how to restore them is the grand problem of the twentieth century, by a profound, unprejudiced and scientific study of the real causes of poverty of the many, and extreme wealth of the few. Among the proposed remedies for poverty are “Free soil and free exchange, or exchange at cost for the products of labor:” that is, the right to earn a living without paying tribute to others. For it is the tribute that the rich are able to levy on the poor that measures the difference of their wealth.

A great deal is said about the efficacy of brains in the accumulation of wealth, “wages of superintendence,” “directive skill,” etc., but they are prodigiously over-estimated; for if labor is the sole creator of wealth, anyone can readily see how long it would be ere our millionaires would have to work or starve, should all laborers migrate and leave them to rely on ‘”directive skill” for their bread. “Directive Skill” requires something to direct, and the use of brains in the accumulation of wealth, in our unjust economic system, is the skill with which the directed victims and the public generally are taxed without knowing it.

The present conditions in the anthracite coal regions well illustrate the methods of inhumanity and extortion possible for the “Captains of Industry” to practice under our iniquitous industrial system. Here the railroad magnates and operators own the mines and transportation, and through their special privileges are immensely rich and getting richer every day, until the present strike; became rich by their power to levy unwilling tribute on their employees and all users of their coal. For the privilege of working like slaves underground, at risk of life and health, the operators last year paid 157,000 miners the magnificent sum of 70 cents a day, on which to pay rent and support a family, and arrogantly refused these poor miners a 5 per cent raise of wages, and to-day (being Sunday) no doubt these men of “directive skill” are attending church and thanking God they are not as other men; not even as the poor miners.

All the railroads that carry the coal dug out of the earth by the 157,000 miners have been paying large dividends and raising the salaries of the officials who bitterly oppose the paltry advance in wages asked by the almost starving miners. And President Truesdale, of the Lackawanna, who has been one of the most obstinate and persistent of the opponents of better pay for the miners, recently “got an increase of $10,000 per year upon his salary.”

Ye gods! What a spectacle!

“The most notable thing in the universe,” said Newman, “is the apparent absence of the Creator from his creation.” And what reason have the Pennsylvania miners to believe there is any just God at all. In the June, 18¢, Arena C. J. Bell, in an article, “Monopoly and the mines of Minnesota, as a specimen of the operation of many other mines, gives an account of exploitation of the Biwabie mine: “The title to the land on which this mine is located is owned by John M. Williams, of Chicago. He bought it some years ago for the fine timber, and paid $125 per acre. Someone else found the iron; someone else dug it; all Williams does is to graciously permit other people to take ore out of the earth. For this he receives 25 cents a ton from the Rockefeller combination. Does Mr. Rockefeller dig ore? Oh, bless you, no! He can make money easier than that. He and his company allow the Biwabie Bessemer Co. to dig ore on condition that they pay him so cents a ton, and bind themselves with an iron-clad contract to pay this royalty on a definite number of tons per annum, whether they dig any ore or not.”

The Bessemer Co. sold and delivered at Cleveland as low as $2.65 a ton. Who got the money, and what did each do for the share? Williams got 25 cents per ton for doing nothing but signing a lease to the Rockefeller Co. Pays no taxes for road, school, town, state, or nation, the Minnesota law exempting mining lands from taxation, so the poor mine owners could live on Easy street. The Rockefeller Co. gets 25 cents a ton royalty and 55 cents stealage or rebate on freight. Actual transportation, $1.10, and the Bessemer Co. get so cents for stripping the mines, hiring and paying labor for mining the ore, putting in cars, making up trains, interest on investment, insurance, and one cent per ton State tax; $1.60 going to labor and capital for all the work of placing the ore in Cleveland, and $1.05 a ton into the pockets of Williams and Rockefeller for permission to use the earth and for stealage on transportation.”

“Not everybody knows what his neighbor has for breakfast,” said the man when eating a stolen turkey. And so a comparatively few know exactly how our economic system works, and just how some of the great fortunes are built up.

The pious young John D. Rockefeller, prospective heir to a billion, in commenting to his Fifth Avenue Sunday school class on the scriptural passage, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” explained that “salvation depends on whether the man possesses the gold or the gold possesses the man.” That it was not wealth, but its improper use, that would bar the possessor from heaven. But the rich young man very discreetly said nothing about the manner of getting wealth, which constitutes its only sensible relation to any sort of salvation.

After all, it the economic system that is to blame and not the man. I once heard a man, applying for a clerkship, offer testimonials as to character, but the employer said he did not need any endorsement of character, did not care if the applicant was a thief. I knew thereby that he had a system whereby it was impossible to steal, and it will be on this principle that the economic question must be settled. And it will never be settled until settled right. So long as the prevailing system allows some men special privileges you can hardly blame them for benefiting thereby. So long as men can legally levy a tax on others or appropriate a share of their earnings, they will do so. So long as individuals can legally (not justly) gobble all the mines and lands, they will do so, no matter if the rest of humanity starve. And the only remedy is to develop a system that will make it impossible for anyone to take and hold an unjust advantage over his neighbor. The system must be made responsible for results, and not men.

The reason why the post office results are so satisfactory is that the system necessarily makes it so. There is no greedy trust to assess tribute on the patron, for all the profit they would hear, and there is no better paid or better treated class of men and women than post office clerks and carriers, and the man who would vote to have our post office transferred to the management of an individual trust would be considered a lunatic. There are no strikes in the post office and there never will be, because the system is efficient to prevent them. The post office is a co-operative system of public distribution operated solely in the interest of all the people, while all other branches of distribution are managed for individual profit and the tribute levied on the public goes to build up private fortunes, and manufacture millionaires whose wealth is the product of the laborer’s sweat.

Why do all private transportation companies water their stock to plunder the people? Because the system makes it possible. Why is there no watered stock in the post office? Because the system makes it impossible. Why does a large amount of church property in Chicago and elsewhere, used exclusively for profit, go free of taxation? Because the system makes it possible and profitable. Why was it that all the moneyed institutions of the great and wealthy city of Chicago in one year returned less taxable property than was assessed on the agricultural tools of Cook County? Because the system made is possible and profitable. Why is it that everybody having much wealth, in church and out of church, violate their oaths in giving in property for taxation? Because the system makes it possible and profitable.

If we ever get a just taxation we shall have to put the justice and morality into the system, and not rely on honor of the voluntary tax list. Hence, evidently, there is a profound moral aspect inherent in this question. There is in our system “crime incubating social conditions,” and empty stomachs and poverty have a direct relation to ethics. The moral plant cannot thrive without a proper soil. Given a soil of economic injustice and you will reap a harvest of crime, and until we have a better system of economic, industrial and social environment, there can be no moral advancement, for these environments dominate the moral status of the people, and not church precepts.

There is a Russian proverb which says “Even a bishop will steal if he is very hungry.” Poverty of food has made cannibals of civilized men. Poverty contributes more to drunkenness than drunkenness to poverty. To banish drunkenness we must banish poverty. To banish theft we must destroy those self-respect-destroying-conditions that produce it. The reformatory power of public opinion is a wonderful agent in elevating morals, when the opinion is founded on the eternal ethics of justice. The well to do are influenced more by public opinion than law, while the poverty stricken are apt to care little for either. The more you think of it the more you will be convinced we are creatures of circumstance.

The world has just attained the knowledge of how to produce wealth. But the problem of its equitable distribution is the great task that will to the uttermost tax the best brain and heart of the future. The brotherhood of man is a sham and delusion until it is made fundamental in a new system of economics. The Golden Rule is a precept that has never been put in practice, either in the church or our social system. The Golden Rule, equal justice to all, and special privileges to none, must be the fundamental principle of the new social system that shall raise the masses of mankind to a higher financial, intellectual and moral level.

While I am writing these lines we are having labor riots in the streets of Chicago. There is something wrong in our economic system. The laborers who earn all the wealth feel they are not justly dealt with. The “Captains of Industry” have all the wealth, but the laborers have the numbers. Until recently “directive skill” was all on the side of wealth and the unorganized and unled multitude was an easy victim. Their very numbers, while unorganized, constituted their weakness. But now competent leadership is rapidly growing, so that henceforth the “Captains of Industry” will be forced to match their own against the “directive skill” of the leaders of the masses. The anthracite coal barons will now have to deal, not with poor and powerless individual miners, but with John Mitchell, backed by a powerful  organization and a still more powerful public opinion, and let us Freethinkers do all we can to develop an all-powerful opinion of justice and fraternity along the line of economic reform, which it seems to me is the keynote to universal happiness and all moral advancement.