E. Belfort Bax

Conscience and Commerce

(November 1885)

Conscience and Commerce, Commonweal, Nov. 1885, pp.93 & 94. [1*]
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Religion of Socialism, pp.83-91.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WE often come across a species of virtuous indignation which is apt to be aroused by some tale of the woes of a railway company whom the wicked passenger “defrauds” by travelling, without having, previously paid his fare. “Strange,” it is said (and we find the sentiment commonly repeated whenever the subject comes up in the Press), “that a man who would scorn to rob his neighbour in his individual capacity, yet will not hesitate to ‘defraud’ a company;” for it is acknowledged to be by such persons that the bulk of these “frauds” (so-called) are perpetrated. The inconsistency of such a proceeding is then enlarged upon with all due emphasis.

This in itself, comparatively unimportant incident of modern life, opens up a curious ethico-economical problem. Two things are quite clear. One is that a considerable section of persons instinctively feel a difference between their moral relations to individual men and women and their relations to a joint-stock company. The other is that the ordinary middle-class intellect cannot see any reason for this distinction, and having possibly a sense of the instability to commercial relations which would ensue from its recognition, adopts the high moral tone. Yet it is doubtful if even the most hardened bourgeois does not really feel that there is a difference between stealing a neighbour’s coat and “defrauding” a joint-stock company, unwilling as he may be to acknowledge it.

Now the question is on what is this feeling of distinction based. It must have some explanation. We may as well state at once our conviction that it is based on the fact that in the one case there is a real moral relation involved, while in the other there is only a fictitious one – a fact which inherited moral instinct recognises, but, the reason sophisticated by the economic forms of modern society and the artificial morality necessary to them, refuses to admit.

We do not intend entering upon any elaborate discussion on the basis of ethics. But we suppose that every one will concede that the essence of moral relation is that it is between concretes – between one concrete individual and another, or else between that individual and the concrete social organism of which he forms a part. It is plain we cannot owe a duty either to an inanimate object or to an abstraction, as such. We speak, it is true, of “duty to the cause,” but this is only a metaphor; we really mean duty to the oppressed humanity of to-day, and to the free society of the future, of which we are the pioneers. and which the “cause” represents. Furthermore, all ethical relations between individuals involve reciprocity – they imply a mutual obligation, a personal responsibility on either side. In the Middle Ages all relations in life were directly or indirectly personal in their character. The feudal relation was eminently a personal one. The mercantile relation, in so far as it existed, was a personal one. Now the sense of honour, honesty, etc., both logically and historically, has meaning alone in connection with a personal relation. Peter as an individual has certain definite moral relations to Paul, amongst others that of respecting his belongings, in so far as appropriation for personal use is concerned. [1] This is a relation as between man and man. He owes the obligation to Paul as a concrete individual, not to Paul’s coat, or his money. Paul, on the other hand, has identical obligations towards Peter. There is personal responsibility on either side. Again, the individual has plain duties towards the community, in so far as property designed for its use is concerned. (Of course, I am all along dealing with our present society.) He as an individual is bound to respect the belongings of the public; for instance, not to appropriate prints or books from the British Museum, not to destroy pictures in the National Gallery, not to steal commons or to “restore” ancient monuments (in which last, two particulars, since they do not threaten the stability of Capitalism, the bourgeois conscience is more elastic than in the matter of “defrauding” companies). Here, also, the relation is between concretes – between a definite personality and a definite community. The picture, books, commons, monuments are (or are supposed to be) there for the use and enjoyment of the community, and the community suffers a wrong in their destruction or alienation.

But to return to our Peter and Paul. We have said that the moral relation of Peter and Paul rests on a basis of reciprocal personal responsibility and on this alone. It was on such a basis that the feeling of honour in the dealings of life had its rise and in this alone it has any meaning. There was a relation of mutual personal obligation between the feudal lord and the vassal or serf. That the lord often neglected his obligation does not alter the fact of its existence. There was a personal relation between buyer and seller, master and workman, and indeed in every sphere of life in the old time and in simpler conditions of society. But with the rise of Capitalism the personal relation has fallen into the background, personal responsibility has been allowed to lapse to an ever-increasing extent before the exigencies of modern competitive conditions of industry. The responsible proprietor of a business detaches himself more and more as a personality from his business. The name over the door may or may not be his own name, but anyway he obliterates his personality as far as may be by the addition of the words “& Co.” You plead with such a man for some act of grace to a creditor or employé; “business is business,” will be his reply, a reply which surely enough indicates the impersonal, anti-social methods of Commercialism. In pursuit of its object, individual gain, Commercialism abstracts the individual from his personality. The modern capitalist lives a dual life; as capitalist he ceases more and more to be man. Private relations and business relations tend to become more and more abstracted from one another. Yet our capitalist forgets that it is only as man, as a concrete personality, that he can justly claim moral obligations from his fellow-men. If as the “head of a firm” he stands in any moral relation to other personalities, it is only by virtue of the fact that the divorce between his manhood and his “headship of the firm” is incomplete, that the personal relation is not altogether abolished. His belongings as “head of the firm” are to be respected, because even under this disguise he is recognised as a thing of flesh and blood.

But there is one form under which modern capitalism functions – its most advanced form – in which the last shred of personal responsibility is torn from its operations. We refer to what the French aptly call the societé anonyme – that thing without a name, the joint-stock company. Here at last is naked capital, the last shred of its human covering gone – capital without a capitalist – the thing of which the proverb says, it has “neither soul to save, nor heart to feel, nor body to kick.” The abstraction is now complete, but at the same moment transformed into a hyperphysical, hyperethical entity. With the “head of the firm” there is always the chance (though possibly a faint one) that the man may get the better of the capitalist human feelings may even hold back the demon “business” – the possibility of conscience is there to which to make your appeal. But here there is nothing but surplus-value. Fancy has imagined beings composed of water or of fire merely – Undines and Salamanders. Here is a being composed of the “circulating process of capital.” By dint of the power of money the widow and orphan are ruined by litigation, are driven from court to court in search of their just and obvious claims. Employés of long-standing service are turned off at a week’s notice when not wanted. You appeal to the conscience of the secretary, the manager, the director, against these enormities. The reply is simple: “We are here merely to look after the interests of the shareholders”; which, being interpreted, means, having duly appropriated the customary “pickings,” to see that as much profit as possible is wrung out, of “servants” and “public” regardless of all other considerations. But how about these shareholders? Peter, let us say, is a shareholder. He is one of those who has deliberately merged a certain amount of his property (his belongings) in an impersonal abstraction, over the working of which he has practically no control. He has severed this portion of his belongings from his concrete individuality. It is a quantum of circulating capital abstracted from the man. The “company” consists entirely in a sum-total of such quanta of capital. The holder is merely an accident, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The sum-total of these quanta of capital may be “held” indifferently by twenty men or twenty thousand. They may be clever or stupid, humane or criminal. As personalities they are utterly indifferent. Peter, though a shareholder, is in his relation to the working of the “company” but as one of the “ordinary public.” The member of a trade-firm is personally responsible (more or less) for the working of that firm. Not so here. The man – the capitalist, if you will – has altogether abstracted his “belongings” from that to which they belong – from himself. It matters not what action may be taken in the name of the “company,” he, the private shareholder, is powerless to prevent it. Once in it, the ghastly Frankenstein may dance on his Conscience, and beyond an impotent protest he can do nothing. “But he can sell out,” you will say. Of what avails it? The action goes on: he has only shifted the nominal responsibility from his own shoulders to his neighbours. The “company” remains. Holders come and holders go, but shares flow on for ever. The company is constituted essentially of the shares, and only accidentally of the men that hold them.

In what relation, then, does the individual – concrete man or woman – the thing of flesh and blood, stand to this abstraction? We have taken for granted as indisputable that we cannot stand in a moral relation to an abstraction or an inanimate object or indeed to anything but a concrete sentient being. We cannot owe a duty to Peter’s coat or his money but only to Peter. We cannot, therefore, stand in any real moral relation to the Joint-stock company. But the interests of Commercialism require that the wholly impersonal jointstock company like the semi-personal business “firm,” should be treated to all practical intents and purposes as though it were a full living human personality. In law of course he has the full rights of personality. In morality it has stolen them, or tried to steal them. It claims (tacitly if not explicitly) in the name not only of law but of honour forsooth, a claim to make the gods laugh, respect for its “property” and the fulfilment of a bargain which it tacitly assumes the individual to be bound by when he takes advantage of the social function it casually performs (more or less badly) in pursuit of its sole end, the extraction of the greatest possible amount of profit from producer and consumer. The sacred name of “honour” and “honesty” originating in far other conditions of society, and implying reciprocal obligations, is prostituted by the modern bourgeois mind to facilitate the “trickstering” and “profit-grinding” of modern competitive commerce for which on its own side moral obligations do not exist or exist at best on sufferance. But a suspicion of the instability of the title of the joint-stock company to be treated as a moral personality pierces the legal and conventional fiction. A waft of healthy moral instinct whispers to a man that it is not the same thing to “defraud” a “company” as to rob his neighbour. But he does not know how to justify his instinctive impression. Hence when brought to book he cries a mea culpa. It is only the student of social evolution to whom the bogus nature of the title by which the “Joint-stock” company, and to a lesser extent of that by which other forms of “commercial” individuality, impudently lay claim to recognition as object of moral obligation, is revealed in all its clearness.

The “Slocum-Mudford railway company;” let us suppose, appeals to the honour of the individual passenger not to prejudice its interests by “fraud” or otherwise. “But,” says the individual, “who are you? I as a moral man recognise my duty to all other persons individually as well as to the community as a whole. But you are neither an individual nor the community, and I decline to admit that I have any duties in your case at all. ‘Peter I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?’ My conscience does not respond to your appeal. It strikes me, on the contrary, that you and your congeners are fitting subjects for the free exercise of those free individualist tendencies about which the salaried defenders of the state of society which gives you birth wax so eloquent. ‘Business is business;’ let us have no sentimentality. We are on a footing of competition, only that, it is not ‘free,’ seeing that you have the law on your side. However, let that bide. Your ‘business’ is to get as much money-value as possible out of me the passenger on your line (‘conveyance’ being the specific form of social utility your capital works in, in order to realise itself as surplus value) and to give as little as possible in return, only in fact so much as will make your line pay. My ‘business,’ as an individual passenger, on the contrary, is to get as much use-value, to derive as much advantage from the social function which you casually perform in pursuance of your profit, as I possibly can, and to give you as little as possible in return. You seek under the protection of the law to guard yourself from ‘fraud,’ as you term it. Good. If I can evade the law passed in your interest and elude your vigilance, I have a perfect right to do so, and my success in doing so will be the reward of my ingenuity. If I fail I am only an unfortunate man. The talk of ‘dishonesty’ or ‘dishonour’ where no moral obligation or ‘duty’ can possibly exist is absurd. You choose to make certain arbitrary rules to regulate the commercial game. I decline to pledge myself to be bound by them, and in so doing I am clearly within my moral right. We each try to get as much out of the other as we can, you in your way, I in mine. Only, I repeat, you are backed by the law, I am not. That is all the difference.”

The question with which we set out has now been answered. We took an extreme instance to start with, but our explanation covers the whole range of similar phenomena; for instance, the distinction felt between a “debt of honour” and a tradesman’s bill. In the commercial relation as such the moral relation is abolished. In proportion as the personality, with its human responsibility, retreats into the background, leaving us confronted with the lifeless, bloodless vampire. Trade, by so much do the words “duty,” “honour”, “morality,” lose meaning. “Conscience,” which has its ground in social union, can have no part, nor lot with “Commerce,” which has its ground in anti-social greed. But the transition from the personal or conscientious to the purely commercial relation is so gradual and is complicated by so many other factors, that it is quite easy for the bourgeois mind to keep up the fiction that honour or dishonour can be involved even in dealing with that commercial abstraction, the “joint-stock company.” A general recognition of the sham claim of commercial abstractions to moral consideration, could not but prove embarrassing to the modern commercial system, which would then have to rely on its legal defences alone.




1. It is necessary to make this last caveat, as of course every Socialist will admit the justifiability of the community’s confiscating individual wealth to public purposes, and of course any one individual might be the agent of this confiscation in any particular case.


Transcriber’s Note

1*. Republished in the Religion of Socialism, Dec 1886, 1890, 1891, 1896, 1901, 1902, 1908, reprinted by Freeport, New York, 1972.


Last updated on 14.1.2006