Edward Carpenter in To-day October 1886

Does it Pay?

Source: To-day October 1886, pp. 141-145;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Having lately embarked in an agricultural enterprise on a small scale, I confess I was somewhat disconcerted, if not actually annoyed, by the persistency with which – from the very outset, and when I had been only two or three months at work – I was met by the question at the head of this paper. Not only sisters, cousins, and aunts, but relations much more remote, and mere acquaintances, at the very first suggestion that I was engaged in trade, always plumped out with the query, Does it pay? And this struck me the more because in the innocence of my heart I fear I had not sufficiently realised the importance of this point. At any rate it had seemed to me that there might be other considerations of comparable weight. But I soon found out my mistake; for none of my well-to-do friends asked whether the work I was doing was wanted, or whether it would be useful to the community, or a means of healthy life to those engaged in it, or whether it was honest and of a kind that could be carried on without interior defilement; or even (except one or two) whether I liked it, but always: does it pay? I say my well-to-do friends, because I couldn’t help remarking that while the workers generally ask me such questions, as whether the soil was good, or adapted to the purpose, the crops fine, the water abundant, & c., it was always the rich who asked the distinctively commercial question – a professional question as it appeared to me, and which marked them as a class, and their modes of thought. Not that I have any quarrel with them for asking it, because the question is undoubtedly, in some sense, a very important one, and one which has to be asked; rather I ought to feel grateful and indebted, because it forced me to think about a matter that I had not properly considered before.

What then did it mean? What was the exact sense of the expression, does it pay? as here used? On enquiring I found it came to this: “When you have subtracted from your gross receipts all expenses for wages of labour, materials, & c., is there a balance equivalent to four or five per cent. on your outlay of capital? If yes, it pays; if no, it doesn’t.” Clearly if the thing came up to this standard or surpassed it, it was worthy of attention; if it didn’t it would be dismissed as unimportant and soon be dropped and abandoned. This was clear and definite, and at first I felt greatly relieved to have arrived at so solid a conclusion. But after a time, and carrying on the enterprise farther, I am sorry to say that my ideas (for they have a great tendency that way) again began to get misty, and I could not feel sure that I had arrived at any certain principle of action.

My difficulty was that I began to feel that even supposing the concern only brought me in one per cent., it was quite as likely as not that I should still stick to it. For I thought that if I was happy in the life, and those working with me were well-content too, and if there were children growing up on the place under tolerably decent and healthy conditions, and if we were cultivating genuine and useful products, cabbages land apples or what not – that it might really pay me better to get one per cent. for that result, even if it involved living quite simply and inexpensively, than ten per cent. with jangling and wrangling, over-worked and sad faces round me, and dirty and deceptive stuff produced; and that if I could afford it I might even think it worth while to pay to keep the first state going, rather than be paid for the second.

I knew it was very foolish of me to think so, and bad Political Economy, and I was heartily ashamed of myself, but still I couldn’t help it. I knew the P.E.’s would say that if I disregarded the interest on my capital I should only be disturbing natural adjustments, that my five per cent. was an index of what was wanted, a kind of providential arrangement harmonising my interest (literally) with that of the mass of mankind, and that if I was getting only one per cent. while others were sending in the same stuff from France and getting ten per cent., it was clear that I was wasting labour by trying to do here what could be done so much more profitably somewhere else, and that I ought to give way. This was what I knew they would say; but then from my own little experience I readily saw that the ten per cent. profit might mean no superior advantage of labour in that part, but merely superior grinding and oppression of the labourer by the employer, superior disadvantage of the labourer in fact; and that if I gave way in its favour, I should only be encouraging the extortion system. I should be playing into the hands of some nefarious taskmaster in another part of the industrial world, and by increasing his profits should perhaps encourage others, still more unscrupulous, to undersell him, which of course they would do by further exactions from the worker; and so on and on. I saw too that if I abandoned my enterprise, I should have to discharge my workpeople, with great chance of their getting no fresh employment, and to them I had foolishly become quite attached; which was another serious trouble, but I could not help it.

And so in all this confusion of mind, and feeling quite certain that I could not understand all the complexities of the science of Political Economy myself, and having a lurking suspicion that even the most able professors were in the dark about some points, I began to wonder if the most sensible and obvious thing to do were not just to try and keep at least one little spot of earth clean: actually to try and produce clean and unadulterated food, to encourage honest work, to cultivate decent and healthful conditions for the workers, arid useful products for the public and to maintain this state of affairs as long as I was able, taking my chance of the pecuniary result to myself. It would not be much, but it would be something, just a little glimmer as it were in the darkness; but if others did the same, the illumination would increase, and after a time perhaps we should all be able to see our way better.

I knew that this method of procedure would not be “scientific” – that it would be beginning at the wrong end for that – but then as I have said I felt in despair about my ever being clever enough really to understand the science – and as, to half-knowledge, that might be more misleading than none. It was like the advice in the Bible: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you,” obviously irrational and absurd, and any argument would expose the fallacy of it, and yet I felt inclined to adopt it.

For when on the other hand I tried to make a start along the ordinary lines, I found myself from the outset in a hopeless bog! I could not, for the life of me, tell how much I ought to take as interest, and how much I ought to give in wages – the increase of the former evidently depending on the smallness of the latter. If I adopted just the current rate of wages, there was nothing in that, for I knew that they represented a mere balance of extortion on the one hand, and despair on the other, and how could I take that as my principle of action? If I gave more than the current rate I should very likely get no interest at all, and so be consigned to perdition by all my well-to-do friends, including the Professors of Political Economy; while if I gave less, I should certainly go to hell in my own eyes. And though I pondered over this dilemma, or rather trilemma, till I was sick of it, I never could see my way out of it.

And then I reflected that even if I was lucky enough to pitch on some principle of wage-payment which would leave a nice little balance of Interest – it was quite doubtful, whether I should feel any right to appropriate such balance to my own use. That also was a great trouble. For I could not help seeing that after taking my proportional payment for my labours in the concern, and some small remuneration for my care of superintendencies, if I then appropriated a considerable interest on the Capital laid out, I should without any extra work be much better off than my coadjutors. And though the P.E.’s assured me this was all right, and kind of providential, I had serious qualms, which, do what I would, I could not shake off. 1 felt keenly that what I should then be taking, would only be so much subtracted from the wages of these others, and that the knowledge of this would disturb the straightforward relation between us, and I should no longer be able to look them in the face.

I could not help seeing too that it was by means of this general system of the appropriation of balances that a very curious phenomenon was kept up – an enormous class, to wit, living in idleness and luxury, they and their children and their children’s children, till they became quite incapable of doing anything for themselves or even of thinking rightly about most things – tormented with incurable ennui, and general imbecility and futility; all art and literature, which were the appendage of this class, being affected by a kind of St. Vitus’ dance; and the whole thing breaking out finally for want of any other occupation into a cuff and collar cult, called respectability.

And then I began to see more clearly the meaning of the question (asked by this class) – does it pay? – i.e., Can we continue drawing from the people nourishment enough to keep our St. Vitus’ dance going? I thought I saw a vision of poor convulsed creatures, decked out in strange finery, in continual antic dance peering in each other’s faces, with eager questioning as to whether the state of profits would allow the same doleful occupation to go on for ever. And all the more eager I saw them on account of the dim wandering consciousness they had that the whole thing was not natural and right, and the presentiment that it could not last very long. And then I saw a vision of the new society in which the appropriation of balances was not the whole object of life; but things were produced primarily for the use and benefit of those who should consume them. It was actually thought that it paid better to work on that principle; and strangely enough, the kingdom of heaven was at the centre of that society – and the “other things” were added unto it. But there was no respectability there, for the balances that could be privately appropriated were not large enough even to buy starch with, and a great many people actually went without collars.

And so I saw that the eager question (in the particular sense on which it had been asked me) was in fact a symptom of the decay of the old Society – a kind of dying grin and death-rattle of respectability – and that a new order, a new life, was already preparing beneath the old, in which there would be no need for it to be asked; or if asked, then in which it should be asked in a new sense.