Edward Carpenter January 1887


Source: To-day January 1887, pp.19-24;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I suppose the peculiar character of our commercial age – its excellencies and its defects – can be as well studied in the market as anywhere. The first time I stood behind my own goods, and spread out peas and potatoes, roses and raspberries, of my own growing, to the eye of the customer, I felt that I was passing behind a veil, many things were becoming clear! I had often been in the market as a buyer, and had, I am sorry to say, been accustomed to look upon the tradesman as a personification of artful wickedness – one who combined with his fellows to defraud the public and to take advantage of its innocence. But now I had passed myself into that inner circle, and with what a different eye did I regard the situation! It seemed to me now that it was the public which was at fault. I seemed to see at a glance the original sinfulness of its disposition. How out of its naughty old heart it suspected you always and always of putting the bad stuff at the bottom of the basket; how it would beat you down shamelessly, if it could, to prices below the zero of any possible remuneration to the grower; how it would handle fruit and flowers till all the delicate bloom was gone, and then pass by with a scoff – (things, all of which I had once done myself); and how, instead of desiring to do as it would be done by, its one guiding fear, overruling all lesser sentiments of honesty and humanity, was lest it should be done as it would desire to do. Hitherto I had looked upon cheap goods as a blessing, but now I saw, or seemed to see, that they meant general ruin. For cheap goods mean low wages, scarcity of money; meant hungry faces going by, and hands fingering half-pence, long and anxiously, before parting with them; meant slow sales and poor returns to the trader. While scarcity and high prices seemed no longer the unmixed evil I had supposed, for likely as not they were the indication of a brisk demand, full pockets, and general prosperity.

Thus my change of position, from the front to the back of a stall, wrought at once a considerable alteration in my views of some social matters. I took a new view of the world. My axiom was changed, and consequently a lot of theorems which I had thought were well established fell to pieces, and became sadly invalid. I found the inner circle of the market a vantage ground, too, for the study of human nature. Here the buyers are the performers. They occupy the arena, and are exposed to a considerable criticism from behind the stalls. The seller, on the other hand, is comparatively unobserved. The buyer eyes the strawberries, old bird though he be he cannot entirely hide the gleam of his satisfaction at their appearance.

“How much?” he asks carelessly. “Five shillings a peck” is your equally careless reply. You know the fruit is first rate. You know also that he knows it; and he probably knows that you know that he knows it. “Eh, what are you talking about?” is his answer, and in assumed disgust he goes off down the market. Presently you see him coming back again; he has been all round; but as he goes by, crafty he scarce glances at the coveted stuff. Not till he has got to a safe distance, and to a spot where he thinks he may stand unobserved does he turn again and measure it over with his eye. Now, then, you are satisfied; you know that you are safe about those strawberries, and you may give your attention to the sale of other things. You know also (what is very important) that there is no better fruit of the same kind, and at the same price in the market. Great is your triumph when, after some delay, your customer returns (as he infallibly will do) and you are able to tell him that the produce in question is all sold, or that the price has risen.

On the whole though the maxims of business are not too lofty, the thorough business people are the most satisfactory to deal with. They waste no time in whatever higgling is necessary, they know a little of both sides of the question, and are inclined to treat you as a reasonable creature, and are prompt and methodical. This carefully-dressed somewhat stout matron with curls, looks a little old-fashioned, but she has a shrewd eye and a kindly heart; she keeps a shop and knows pretty well how prices stand both for buyer and seller; is pleasant to deal with, and not disinclined to put her custom on a friendly and permanent footing. Here comes a man who considers himself quite the boss of the market – brisk and business-like, with extensive watch-chain, and elegant flower in his button-hole; he is a large dealer and acts as if he were doing you the honour to be your customer. Nevertheless, one can get on with him; but this abominable Irishwoman who always turns up, talking nineteen to the dozen, and wanting to beg everything at shameless prices, and then when the bargain is concluded, asking for this to be thrown in and that to be thrown in, is really more than I can bear. Then there is an unpleasant-looking ferret-eyed man who always suspects me of having put the best potatoes at the top; I do not like him, and feel no satisfaction in selling anything to him. But this little man in carefully-brushed great-coat and tall hat, is really a pleasure to deal with. He is a retail customer, and is quite a Pickwickian study, has an immense red nose, which must occupy nearly all his field of view, yet of drinking I am sure he is blameless, so affable and scrupulous is he; and when he buys a peck of peas I feel certain he will take them home and shell them sitting by his wife’s side. There is the working wife too, who wants a nice cauliflower for the Sunday dinner, but ultimately decides on a cabbage on account of the price; and the young man who wants a button-hole for his girl. He chooses the most lovely of the rose-buds, but pauses when he hears what he has to pay (for the season is advanced) – he retires for a moment, and then comes forward like a man and secures his prize.

Those who know something about the labour of production – either in the trade in question or in some other trade – are often most reasonable to deal with. They can sympathise to some extent with you. I find that the “lady” or “gentleman “ is often inclined to beat one down, or refuse a rational price out of mere ignorance – not knowing what they ought to give, they assume that whatever you ask must be an imposition. And of course, on the other hand, they often are imposed upon by the unscrupulous. I confess that I have been inclined to take this latter part myself. There is a widespread impression among the “people” that the wealthy class are lawful prey. Perhaps they are – it might be difficult to decide one way or the other – but anyhow the gap, or the want of sympathetic relation, between the two parties, makes their dealings with one another unsatisfactory.

With regard to the higgling of the prices, and the law of supply and demand, it is interesting to see how rapidly you feel from your own particular stand the general state of the market, how organically you seem to form a part of it. You drive over the hills by sunrise, plunging down through the clear light and by the dewy hedgerows into the still quiet streets of the great city; you find yourself in a bustling, noisy market, you open out your goods, take a cursory glance at the quantity of stuff in of various kinds, and mentally fix on the probable prices. The stream of customers flows by. “How much?? “how much?? how much?? Different as are the characters of the individuals comprising the crowd, various as are their little dodges and artifices, the total effect is soon averaged. As you reply to each, expressions of disgust or satisfaction involuntarily pass over their faces, and in a few minutes you know quite certainly how you stand – your little gland which is washed by the general circulation soon gets congested with traffic or left high and dry – and your relation to the rest of the market is established.

I should be inclined to think that, unless it be the petroleum market, there is no market which fluctuates so rapidly as the vegetable and fruit market. Frosts spoil tons of cauliflowers, rain nine acres of strawberries; a few fine days in spring will cause parsley to fall from three shillings a pound to as many pence. From week to week in some articles it is impossible to tell what the price will be. You bring in a load of fine celery roots and the market is glutted with celery, there are tons and tons in, and it is as good as given away to the street-hawkers; another day it is just as scarce – everyone has held back – and poor stuff fetches a good price. Even from hour to hour the variations are remarkable, some things will run out and run up, other things will remain abundant to the very close of the market, and have to be sold at last for a mere song Quite a class of small traders and hawkers lie in wait for last casualty, and make their living by buying what else would be shot up on the manure heap. Still, though competition thus holds sway, and can, so to speak, be felt in operation, yet it is difficult to reduce the law of supply and demand to anything like an absolute generalisation, or to make it practically applicable except in the roughest way. Custom which is a force antagonistic to competition, and which has at one time undoubtedly been the main determinate of prices, which is certainly one of the strongest forces of human nature, and which will have to be reckoned with in any forecast of the future adjustments of commerce, custom acts strongly to-day in the markets, even in the very teeth of the fierce competition that exists. Customary prices model competition prices; for very shame large numbers of people will not buy and will not sell at rates which they consider abnormal; a latent sense of honour withholds them; the tendency of buyers and sellers to establish permanent and friendly dealings with each other, a tendency which I an inclined to think lies at the base of all exchange, and which has created, I suppose, the word “customer” is still quite strongly traceable, the effort of the human to assert itself as against the merely mechanical being yet not quite extinct. Then there are nameless preferences – as of individuals for particular varieties of goods – or of classes of buyers for particular classes of sellers; nameless habits, traditions, predilections or prejudices, and this in every trade, anomalies which competition ought to level down but somehow it does not. Undoubtedly the tendency to a mechanical level may be said to exist, but that level or anything like a level is ever over reached is quite a different thing. It is like a basin of water being carried about in the hand, the water should go horizontal, but the disturbances arising from the human side effectually prevent this being realised. Thus competition when one becomes practically acquainted with it, when one comes to feel its operation, appears somewhat as a force acting on the human – acting I would almost say to degrade or warp the human within one. It does not appear as an isolated and self-sufficient law of exchange, but just as one factor in the problem, a factor which, if it had everything its own way, would speedily reduce commerce to a mere mechanical function devoid of all humanity. This, however, is a result which is impossible, because no function of human nature can be separated from humanity and made purely mechanical without ipso facto withering away and dying. And thus we have the alternative that commerce must either go on in its present direction and perish, or live by retiring to human relationship as its basis.

“I have tried trade,” says Thoreau, “but I found it would take ten years to get under-way in that, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil.” And again he says, “Trade curses everything it handles.” I myself have never met any one who seriously maintained that success in trade was in the long run compatible with honesty. These charges however may not be so damnatory as they appear, for after all perhaps it does not matter so much whether trade can be carried on honestly or not, as whether you try to carry it on honestly. The use of trade, as perhaps of every other pursuit, is mainly to test your probity and I should say that for that purpose it is excellently adapted. The strains it puts upon you are severe. Quite decisively you cannot worship both God and Mammon in it. If however folks generally tried to carry on trade honestly, very probably a new form of exchange would soon develop itself which would allow of honesty being realised.

I do not think that the difficulty about trade lies chiefly in the market, but rather in its influence, indirectly, on production. The market, on the whole, with all its chicanery, its worship of cuteness, its besting and bluffing, is an intensely human institution, the very fact that you are forced into contact with such a number of your fellow-creatures has a redeeming influence. And some useful qualities, such as alertness, forethought, patience and judgment, have undoubtedly been developed by it. But its influence on production is to my mind deadly and numbing. To feel that you are working for the market kills all interest in your work.

I feel this quite decisively myself. When I am working for use, when I am hoeing potatoes and thinking of them only as food – thinking how somebody will eat them at any rate – and studying how to grow them best for that purpose, then I am assured good before me, which no one can take away. Whatever their price, these potatoes will feed the same number of human beings. I feel calm and contentful, and can take pleasure in my work. But when I am working for the market, when the profit and the gain which I am to derive from sale of my potatoes is the main object before me – when I am considering all along whether each thrust of the hoe will pay, whether I had not better scamp this or hurry over that in view of the falling prices, when I see that the whole end and purpose of my labour is involved in doubt owing to trade fluctuations which I cannot possibly foresee – then – (how can it be otherwise?) I am miserable and feverish, grudging every stroke of the tool in my hand, each effort of the muscles, tossed about by uncertainty, wavering in my plans, and devoid of that good heart which alone is the basis of all good work. Certainly I may be, shall be, longer over my work in the first case than in the second; but I shall produce better stuff – and if I enjoy my work I shall not mind an hour additional at it, but if I hate it, all the time spent on it is lost. Business conducted on the latter principal may be tolerable, while the prospect of winning draws one on, and before the gambling pleasure has palled, but after that, no! The whole of production to-day is vitiated by the fact that it is production for gain, for profit. There is no assured good in it, no certain advantage or enjoyment in the work – success depends on conditions which are beyond the control of the worker or employer. But it is not wise for any one to let success depend on things which are beyond his control. The evil principle searches down and affects the lowermost grades of industry, and there is hardly a man now-a-days to be found who is said to be happy in his work. Yet if production were for use, success would be within the reach of everybody. No man, if he only worked for five minutes, need fear that his work will be lost by a fluctuation of the market. No fluctuation the market will spoil the knife-edge that I have been grinding nor any change in the price of turnips make these that I am singling less useful for food. My work is secure when have done it well, and its result is secure – I can whistle and sing at my ease.

Trade is against nature, it is in the long run against human nature, as long as “What can I get?” is its motto. The true nature of man is to give, like the sun; his getting must be subordinate to that. When giving, his thoughts are on others and he is “free;” when getting, his thoughts are on himself, he is anxious, therefore, and miserable. As long as Trade takes “What can I get?” for its axiom, anxiety and misery will characterise all its work as they do to-day.

Edward Carpenter