A Great Curse

Capital has taken away their right to labor; and even those who are permitted to labor do not receive a compensation which is sufficient to support life. The same causes which have brought the laboring classes of Europe where we now see them, are operating here and will as sure as effects follow causes produce the same result.

These causes are capital and machinery. The latter if applied as it should be to save labor would be a great blessing. But as now applied is a great curse, from the fact that we are compelled to compete with steam and consequently to labor harder and more hours to produce the same result. There is now machinery enough in New England to do the work of five times its present population performed in the old way, and the consequence is we are nearer starvation.

From “The Importance of Radical Reform”


Monopolized Machinery

The Question of Social Reform

December 5th, 1845

To Wm. Lloyd Garrison.

Monopolized Machinery has done more in England to impoverish the Working Classes engaged in manufactures, than the national debt and the draining of aristocracy united. – Its influence can be exercised in a republic as in a monarchy, and what a prognostication for the future condition and welfare of the working classes in our own country, where the rapacity of gain is perhaps greater than the England, and the cunning of money-making more inventive!

Machinery began to be introduced upon an extensive scale in England about 1798. The inventions of Watt and Arkwright gave the decided impetus. At that period, the was machinery equal to the labor of twelve millions of men; at the present time, it is estimated that the machinery of Great Britain can do the work of six hundred millions of men.

With such gigantically increased means of production, would it not be supposed that the Laboring Classes would be rendered more comfortable, as a great deal more is produced? Certainly, but directly the reverse is the case; these classes are reduced to the most grievous poverty, to the most hopeless dependence and servitude. Wages, or the prices of labor, and, as a consequence the means of subsistence and comfort, are reduced at least one-third what they were in 1798, and the most brutalizing toil and semi-starvation are the lot of the poor ‘sons of industry.’

Let us explain the operation of monopolized machinery by a simple practical illustration which will easily be understood, and which makes it clear that in the operation of this principle lies in the secret of the increasing misery of the Working Classes in modern times.

We will suppose that a hundred weavers, working, with hand looms, can weave a hundred yards of cloth in a day. Perfected machinery has not been invented, and the master manufacturer, in order to conduct his business must employ these one hundred men, with whose labor he cannot dispense, and pay them fair wages – that is, enough to place them and their families above want. It is not easy to obtain laborers in sufficient numbers when there is no labor-saving machinery, and this produces some slight competition among the masters manufacturers, which keeps up the price labor.

But soon machinery is perfected, power-looms are invented. With these new looms, the laborers that can produce five times as much, say 500 yards of cloth per day. The laborers have not the means of buying the machinery; the manufacturer alone can purchase it, and he does so, and introduces it into his establishment. The product of the operatives is now five times as great as it was: will they receive five times as much wages as they did? Or supposing that the market value of the 500 yards manufactured by hand looms, will the 100 men receive an increase in the value of the product? no.

Will they get any higher wages than they did when their product was only one hundred yards per day? no. The manufacturer will say to the laborers – These 500 yards of cloth are my property; the machinery which produced it is my machinery, and the profits of it are mine. ‘I hire you to work for me, and I give you a fair wages, or as much as you can get anywhere else, and I give you no more.’

This is the decision of the master manufacturer; from which there is no appeal. If the laborers could have bought the machinery and owned the profits of their labor, and they would have divided among themselves the increased product of the additional 500 yards. In this case, the machinery would have worked for them, but being owned by the capitalist who was able to purchase it, it works works for him alone.

Let us suppose again, that in addition to the five-fold income of productive power, new improvements are made, which the master-manufacturer introduces, so that the means of production are increased another five-fold – enabling the 100 men to produce 25 times as much as they did at first with band looms, or 2500 yards of cloth. Now, with this immensely increased product, will there be a corresponding increase in the price of wages, or the pay for labor? Not at all. The machinery is owned as before by the capitalist, and not by those who work it: he hires the laborers as before, and pays them ‘fair wages,’ that is, the lowest price to which a free competition cuts down the price of work.

But now comes the crisis for the working classes; for at this point – that is, of an overstocked market – commence the uncertainties of finding employment the decrease of wages and the appalling competition of iron and steam with human nerves and sinews.

The immensely increased product exceeds the demand, the market is glutted, and the cloth cannot be sold as fast as it is manufactured. What does the master- manufacturer, or rather, under the circumstances, what is he forced to do? The 100 men he employs make more cloth than can be sold; as a consequence, he must either destroy or put aside his machinery, or he must turn off his laborers. Iron and steam work cheaper than human bones and muscle, and Interest, which is the only guide in all business affairs, decides of course that the machinery shall be kept, and the laborer turned away. If but one half of the cloth can be sold then one half to he laborers are discharged, and so in proportion to a greater or lesser demand in the market. The half to he laborers who remain are glad to work for their former wages, though they produce 25 times as much as before; - but this boon is not granted to them, and the monstrous anomaly is presented, that just in proportion as the labor of the working classes is rendered productive, just in proportion is the uncertainty of regular employment increased, and are wages cut down. Let us see how these opposites are produced.

The laborers, who are thrown out of employment from over production, are reduced with their families to utter destitution. Then begins the war of free competition – the dreadful strife among men forced by starvation to obtain work. The discharged laborers return to the matter manufacturer, and offer to work for less wages than those retained, whose places they endeavor to fill, or they go to some other manufactory, and strive to drive their fellow-workmen there from their posts, by underbidding them in the labor market.

Self interest and the opposition of rival manufacturers in business, induce or force them to accept the lowest offer of the laborers, and either to employ those who seek work or reduce those in their employ to the rate that others are willing to take. Every additional improvement in labor saving machinery render fewer hands necessary to the capitalists, and increase the competition among the laborers for employment, until finally they sink into the lowest depths of poverty and helpless servitude.

Thus begins and is prosecuted, in the field of Industry, a War, whose weapons are want and starvation, and whose fruits are the subjection of Labor to Capital, and the building up of a few fortunes upon the misery and degradation of the multitude. And this war is taking the place of the older war of the bayonet and the cannon on the bloody battle-field, and is destined to end in a grand system of industrial tyranny and Feudalism, as the latter has always ended in a military tyranny and Feudalism.

This brief sketch shows us the operation of monopolized machinery, or machinery in the hands of the few, which works against instead of for the Mass.

In Association, a different order prevails.

—A. Brisbane.

From the Liberator


Warehouses Full of Shirts

What is the reason that calicoes, satins and other articles are now so abundant and cheap? It is because the cost of production, namely labor, has been cheapened to almost nothing.

It may be very well to bring down shirts and coats to almost nothing; but if this can be done solely by first brining down the laborer to quite nothing, it would have been better for shirts, calicoes, and cloths to have remained scarcer and dearer.

Carlyle says, the warehouses are full of shirts, and there are plenty of naked backs, too, to wear them; but the naked backs cannot get the shirts. And why not? Because the laboring men have created too much wealth for others. Therefore they are bid to go starve! Not because they have been idle, but because they have overworked. They have over-produced and filled every warehouse with wealth, and therefore they can get nothing themselves, not even the right to work, which, by being interpreted, means the right to live.

That fancy about the heavens, through machinery, raining down wealth, beeves, mutton garments ready made, and all good things which a person may have only for the picking up, deserves a consideration. May all pick up, as in a state of nature? The farthest possible from it! In proportion as you are a landholder or a factory owner, or a capitalist, you may pick up what Providence rains down. But if any poor wretch who has no property, but the hands which nature has given him, stoops down to pickup what has fallen upon your land, or your neighbor’s machine, straitway a call is made for the constable. “Here, officer, is a fellow who is guilty of the crime of poverty, and he has detected in the felony of taking what fell from heaven, although he has neither land, nor machine, nor capital! The penitentiary and the gallows were made for the like of him!” So that if things fall down from heaven, at no cost at all, you see it would be far worse for the men who have no property but their hands to labor with.

When machinery rains down abundance everywhere at almost no cost, it can be done only by making the rich richer, and the poor poorer; and it would be far better for the latter, if the rich could gather their wealth solely on the condition of paying a large price to their destitute brethren. But machinery reverses this operation entirely. It feeds the rich, almost at no price at all, with the life-blood of the laboring man.

—H.H. Van Amringe on Association and Christianity


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