William Morris. Commonweal 1888

A Modern Midas

Source: “A Modern Midas” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 141, 22 September 1888, p.300;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In one respect at least, we Socialists have an advantage over other people. The very simplest and rudest ideal that a Socialist can conceive of would bear realization well; a Socialist could only be discontented with such realization by ceasing to be a Socialist; and there are few creeds or causes of which this could be said. Some have discounted the usual ideals, so to say, and rejected them beforehand, like the old Scotch lady who declined to sacrifice her pleasure on earth for the chance of sitting on a damp cloud and singing psalms all day for ever in another world; others, like Swedenborg, have gravely (though in his case with much humour also) tried to reason devotees out of the more foolish parts of their ideal, and put heaven before them as little more than the realization of Socialism in a future state. Modern creeds, on the other hand, with characteristic cowardice, have generally evaded the difficulties that beset the realization of ideals by taking care to make them so vague that at no stage of the change could it be said whether they were realized or not.

One religion there is, however, whose ideal as a religion is simple and straightforward enough, and quite capable of realization, and indeed is often realized; that religion is the religion of money-making. To put yourself in such a position that no one could for a moment suppose that you need do or were doing anything useful, is, as we all know, the one thing to be striven after according to the Money-God; although the pursuit of this ideal is made easier by the pretence of having others, of the damp-cloud and psalm-singing nature. But the realization of this ideal does not always (it is said) bring satisfaction: ‘to live the life of a gentleman’ has been found irksome to many who have had in earlier days more exciting ways of life than that. Nay, one anecdote I know, which was told me as a fact by business man of great respectability, which seems to show that a ‘gentleman’s’ life has unexpected dangers. A man in business in a large Midland town, said my acquaintance (who knew the man), after a long struggle as an agent and broker and what not, carried on with that untiring energy and strength of mind which so distinguishes the English bourgeois (only, by the way, the man was a German) — this man at last grew rich, and ‘lived like a gentleman'; and then very rich, and lived, I suppose, more like a gentleman. But here came the hitch: either he was so bored by the results of his triumph, his realized ideal, or his mind was so strong before that now it became weak, and he found that the only fun to be got our of his ideal was the pursuit of it. In short, this German representative of English industry went mad, and his madness took the form of his thinking that his ideal was still unrealized, and that he was poor and struggling still. He now grew so little like ‘a gentleman’ that he begrudged his own belly, his own back (and not other peoples’) victuals and clothes. His friends (or hangers-on) would come to him and say, ‘So and so, the doctor has ordered you a mutton chop'; and he would answer, ‘Well, the doctor had better send it me then, I can’t afford it’. The case being urgent, and the man daily growing weaker, the ‘friends’ would say, ‘Well, that’s true; but look here, if you will have a mutton chop we will pay you for eating it’.

Then Midas, believing, as he naturally would, that the money which he had ‘made’ came from nowhere in particular, and that there was no reason why this miracle should not be again, and even continuously exhibited, would say with caution, ‘Well, what will you give me?’ and they, having command of an unlimited bogus cheque-book, would say, also with caution, ‘Well, let us say 100'; but Midas would turn away with a snort of indignation, and the bidding would rise to 500. ‘Come’, Midas would say, ‘make it 750! Eating chops is such expensive work'; and they after some demur would agree, the cheque would be solemnly drawn and signed, and Mr Midas would fulfil his part of the contract with all the probity of a British merchant. But of course the game had to be repeated at every fresh meal. The same comedy had to be played with the clothing of this pattern of industry. When he became visibly lousy, or perhaps a little before, there was the job to get him to change his shirt! He would manoeuvre and dodge about to screw another 100 out of his bribers, as though he had got a treasure to sell them, which they could not bear to lose, and would chuckle over his bogus cheque with complete enjoyment.

I don’t know how long this industrious apprentice lived in this condition; I unamiably hope a long time, for he must have been a great nuisance to his hangers on, or keepers, or what not, and they deserved it for not being Socialists. It must be observed that the man was admittedly mad, and not an ordinary miser, and had kept a plenteous house and great state before he reverted to his original thrift and industry.

The moral is obvious enough not to need repeating: only perhaps some of our Fabian friends will not so much see Midas in the story, as a judgement called down on the man for neglecting to learn the true theory of rent in its various forms.

Indeed, I must unsay what I have just said, and end by asking our readers to look upon this true story, which does not stand by itself, as a type of our sham society, which inflicts so many miseries on others in order to be itself unhappy.