William Morris

Monopoly; or, How Labour is Robbed

I want you to consider the position of the working-classes generally at the present day: not to dwell on the progress that they may (or may not) have made within the last five hundred or the last fifty years; but to consider what their position is, relatively to the other classes of which our society is composed: and in doing so I wish to guard against any exaggeration as to the advantages of the position of the upper and middle-classes on the one side, and the disadvantages of the working-classes on the other; for in truth there is no need for exaggeration; the contrast between the two positions is sufficiently startling when all admissions have been made that can be made. After all, one need not go further than the simple statement of these few words: The workers are in an inferior position to that of the non-workers.

When we come to consider that everyone admits nowadays that labour is the source of wealth - or, to put it in another way, that it is a law of nature for man generally, that he must labour in order to live - we must all of us come to the conclusion that this fact, that the workers' standard of livelihood is lower than that of the non-workers, is a startling fact. But startling as it is, it may perhaps help out the imaginations of some of us - at all events of the well-to-do, if I dwell a little on the details of this disgrace, and say plainly what it means.

To begin, then, with the foundation; the workers eat inferior food and are clad in inferior clothes to those of the non-workers. This is true of the whole class: but a great portion of it are so ill-fed that they not only live on coarser or nastier victuals than the non-producers, but have not enough, even of these, to duly keep up their vitality; so that they suffer from the diseases and the early death which come of semi-starvation: or why say semi-starvation? let us say plainly that most of the workers are starved to death. As to their clothing, they are so ill-clad that the dirt and foulness of their clothes forms an integral part of their substance, and is useful in making them a defence against the weather; according to the ancient proverb, "Dirt and grease are the poor man's apparel."

Again, the housing of the workers is proportionately much worse, so far as the better-off of them go, than their food or clothing. The best of their houses or apartments are not fit for human beings to live in, so crowded as they are, They would not be, even if one could step out of their doors into gardens or pleasant country, or handsome squares; but when one thinks of the wretched sordidness and closeness of the streets and alleys that they actually do form, one is almost forced to try to blunt one's sense of fitness and propriety, so miserable are they. As to the lodgings of the worse-off of our town workers, I must confess that I only know of them by rumour, and that I dare not face them personally; though I think my imagination will carry me a good way in picturing them to me. One thing, again, has always struck me much in passing through poor quarters of the town, and that is the noise and unrest of them, so confusing to all one's ideas and thoughts, and such a contrast to the dignified calm of the quarters of those who can afford such blessings.

Well! food, clothes, and housing - those are the three important items in the material conditions of men, and I say flatly that the contrast between those of the non-producers and those of the producers is horrible, and that the word is no exaggeration. But is there a contrast in nothing else - education, now? Some of us are in the habit of boasting about our elementary education: perhaps it is good so far as it goes (and perhaps it isn't), but why doesn't it go further? Why is it elementary? In ordinary parlance, elementary is contrasted with liberal education. You know that in the class to which I belong, the professional or parasitical class, if a man cannot make some pretence to read a Latin book, and doesn't know a little French or German, he is very apt to keep it dark as something to be ashamed of, unless he has some real turn towards mathematics of the physical sciences to cover his historical or classical ignorance; whereas if a working-man were to know a little Latin and a little French, he would be looked on as a very superior person, a kind of genius - which, considering the difficulties that surround him, he would be: inferiority again, you see, clear and plain.

But after all, it is not such scraps of ill-digested knowledge as this that give us the real test of the contrast; this lies rather in the taste for reading and the habit of it, and the capacity for the enjoyment of refined thought and the expression of it, which the more expensive class really has (in spite of the disgraceful sloppiness of its education), and which unhappily the working or un-expensive class lacks. The immediate reason for that lack, I know well enough, and that forms another item of contrast: it is the combined leisure and elbow-room which the expensive class considers its birthright, and without which, education, as I have often had to say, is a mere mockery; and which leisure and elbow-room the working class lacks, and even "social reformers" expect them to be contented with that lack. Of course, you understand that in speaking of this item I am thinking of the well-to-do artisan, and not the squalid, hustled-about, misery-blinded and hopeless wretch of the fringe of labour - i.e., the greater part of labour.

Just consider the contrast in the mere matter of holidays. Leisure again! If a professional man (like myself, for instance) does a little more than his due daily grind - dear me, the fuss his friends make of him! how they are always urging him not to overdo it, and to consider his precious health, and the necessity of rest and so forth! and you know the very same persons, if they found some artisan in their employment looking towards a holiday, how sourly they would treat his longings for rest, how they would call him (perhaps not to his face) sot and sluggard and the like; and if he has it, he has got to take it against both his purse and his conscience; whereas in the professional class the yearly holiday is part of the payment for services. Once more, look at the different standard for the worker and the non-worker!

What can I say about popular amusements that would not so offend you that you would refuse to listen to me? Well, I must say something at any cost - viz., that few things sadden me so much as the amusements which are thought good enough for the workers; such a miserable killing - yea, murder - of the little scraps of their scanty leisure time as they are. Though, indeed, if you say that there is not so much contrast here between the workers' public amusements and those provided for the middle classes, I must admit it, with this explanation, that owing to the nature of the case, the necessarily social or co-operative method of the getting up and acceptation of such amusements, the lower standard has pulled down the whole of our public amusements; has made, for instance, our theatrical entertainments the very lowest expression of the art of acting which the world has yet seen.

Or again, a cognate subject, the condition of the English language at present. How often I have it said to me, You must not write in a literary style if you wish the working classes to understand you. Now at first sight that seems as if the worker were in rather the better position in this matter; because the English of our drawing-rooms and leading articles is a wretched mongrel jargon that can scarcely be called English, or indeed language; and one would have expected, a priori, that what the workers needed from a man speaking to them was plain English: but alas! 'tis just the contrary. I am told on all hands that my language is too simple to be understood by working-men; that if I wish them to understand by working-men; that if I wish them to understand me I must use as inferior quality of the newspaper jargon, the language (so called) of critics and "superior persons"; and I am almost driven to believe this when I notice the kind of English used by candidates at election time, and by political men generally - though of course this is complicated by the fact that these gentlemen by no means want to make the meaning of their words too clear.

Well, I want to keep as sternly as possible to the point that I started from - viz., that there is a contrast between the position of the working-classes and that of the easily-living classes, and that the former are in an inferior position in all ways. And here, at least, we find the so-called friends of the working-classes telling us that the producers are in such a miserable condition that, if they are to understand our agitation, we must talk down to their slavish condition, not straightforwardly to them as friends and neighbours - as men, in short. Such advice I neither can nor will take; but that this should be thought necessary shows that, in spite of all hypocrisy, the master-class know well enough that those whom they "employ" are their slaves.

To be short, then, the working-classes are, relatively to the upper and middle-classes, in a degraded condition, and if their condition could be much raised from what it is now, even if their wages were doubled and their work-time halved, they would still be in a degraded condition, so long as they were in a position of inferiority to another class - so long as they were dependent on them - unless it turned out to be a law of nature that the making of useful things necessarily brought with it such inferiority!

Now, once again, I ask you very seriously to consider what that means, and you will, after consideration, see clearly that it must have to do with the way in which industry is organized amongst us, and the brute force which supports that organization. It is clearly no matter of race; the highest noble in the land is of the same blood, for all he can tell, as the clerk in his estate office, or his gardener's boy. The grandson or even the son of the "self-made man" may be just as refined - and also quite as unenergetic and stupid - as the man with twenty generations of titled fools at his back. Neither will it do to say, as some do, that it is a matter of individual talent or energy. He who says this, practically asserts that the whole of the working-classes are composed of men who individually do not rise above a lowish average, and that all of the middle-class men rise above it; and I don't think any one will be found who will support such a proposition, who is himself not manifestly below even that lowish average. No! you will, when you think of this contrast between the position of the producing and the non-producing classes, be forced to admit first that it is an evil, and secondly that it is caused by artificial regulations; by customs that can be turned into more reasonable paths; by laws of man that can be abolished, leaving us free to work and live as the laws of nature would have us. And when you have come to those two conclusions, you will then have either to accept Socialism as the basis for a new order of things, or to find some better basis than that; but you will not be able to accept the present basis of society unless you are prepared to say that you will not seek a remedy for an evil which you know can be remedied. Let me put the position once more as clearly as I can, and then let us see what the remedy is.

Society to-day is divided into classes, those who render services to the public and those who do not. Those who render services to the community are in an inferior position to those who do not, though there are various degrees of inferiority amongst them, from a position worse than that of a savage in a good climate to one not much below that of the lower degree of the unserviceable class; but the general rule is, that the more undeniably useful a man's services are, the worse his position is; as, for example, the agricultural labourers who raise our most absolute necessaries are the most poverty-stricken of all our slaves.

The individuals of this inferior or serviceable class, however, are not deprived of a hope. That hope is, that if they are successful they may become unserviceable; in which case they will be rewarded by a position of ease, comfort, and respect, and may leave this position as an inheritance to their children. The preachers of the unserviceable class (which rules all society) are very eloquent in urging the realization of this hope, as a pious duty, on the members of the serviceable class. They say, amidst various degrees of rigmarole: "My friends, thrift and industry are the greatest of the virtues; exercise them to the uttermost, and you will be rewarded by a position which will enable you to throw thrift and industry to the winds."

However, it is clear that this doctrine would not be preached by the unserviceable if it could be widely practised, because the result would then be that the serviceable class would tend to grow less and less and the world be undone; there would be nobody to make things. In short, I must say of this hope, "What is that among so many?" Still it is a phantom which has its uses - to the unserviceable.

Now this arrangement of society appears to me to be a mistake (since I don't want to use strong language) - so much a mistake, that even if it could be shown to be irremediable, I should still say that every honest man must needs be a rebel against it; that those only could be contented with it who were, on the one hand, dishonest tyrants interested in its continuance; or, on the other hand, the cowardly and helpless slaves of tyrants - and both contemptible. Such a world, if it cannot be mended, needs no hell to supplement it.

But, you see, all people really admit that it can be remedied; only some don't want it to be, because they live easily and thoughtlessly in it and by means of it; and others are so hard-worked and miserable that they have no time to think and no heart to hope, and yet I tell you that if there were nothing between these two sets of people it would be remedied: even then should we have a new world. But judge you with what wreck and ruin, what fire and blood, its birth would be accompanied!

Argument, and appeals to think about these matters, and consciously help to bring a better world to birth, must be addressed to those who lie between these two dreadful products of our system, the blind tyrant and his blind slave. I appeal, therefore, to those of the unserviceable class who are ashamed of their position, who are learning to understand the crime of living without producing, and would be serviceable if they could; and, on the other hand, to those of the serviceable class who by luck maybe, or rather maybe by determination, by sacrifice of what small leisure or pleasure our system has left them, are able to think about their position and are intelligently discontented with it.

To all these I say: You well know that there must be a remedy to the present state of things. For Nature bids all men to work in order to live, and that command can only be evaded by a man or a class forcing others to work for it in its stead; and, as a matter of fact, it is the few that compel and the many that are compelled; as indeed the most must work, or the work of the world couldn't go on. Here, then, is your remedy within sight surely; for why should the many allow the few to compel them to do what Nature does herself compel them to do? It is only by means of superstition and ignorance that they can do so; for observe that the existence of a superior class living on an inferior implies that there is a constant struggle going on between them; whatever the inferior class can do to better itself at the expense of the superior it both can and must do, just as a plant must needs grow towards the light; but its aim must be proportionate to its freedom from prejudice and its knowledge. If it is ignorant and prejudiced it will aim at some mere amelioration of its slavery; when it ceases to be ignorant, it will strive to throw off its slavery once for all.

Now, I may assume that the divine appointment of misery and degradation as accompaniments of labour is an exploded superstition among the workers; and, furthermore, that the recognition of the duty of the working-man to raise his class, apart from his own individual advancement, is spreading wider and wider amongst the workers. I assume that most workmen are conscious of the inferior position of their class, although they are not and cannot be fully conscious of the extent of the loss which they and the whole world suffer as a consequence, since they cannot see and feel the better life they have not lived. But before they set out to seek a remedy they must add to this knowledge of their position and discontent with it, a knowledge of the means whereby they are kept in that position in their own despite; and that knowledge it is for us Socialists to give them, and when they have learned it then the change will come.

One can surely imagine the workman saying to himself, "Here am I, a useful person in the community, a carpenter, a smith, a compositor, a weaver, a miner, a ploughman, or what not, and yet, as long as I work thus and am useful, I belong to the lower class, and am not respected like yonder squire or lord's son who does nothing, yonder gentleman who receives his quarterly dividends, yonder lawyer or soldier who does worse than nothing, or yonder manufacturer, as he calls himself, who pays his managers and foremen to do the work he pretends to do; and in all ways I live worse than he does, and yet I do and he lives on my doings. And furthermore, I know that not only do I know my share of my work, but I know that if I were to combine with my fellow-workmen, we between us could carry on our business and earn a good livelihood by it without the help (?) of the squire's partridge-shooting, the gentleman's dividend-drawing, the lawyer's chicanery, the soldier's stupidity, or the manufacturer's quarrel with his brother manufacturer. Why, then, am I in an inferior position to the man who does nothing useful, and whom, therefore, it is clear that I keep? He says he is useful to me, but I know I am useful to him or he would not `employ' me, and I don't perceive his utility. How would it be if I were to leave him severely alone to try the experiment of living on his usefulness, while I lived on mine and worked with those that are useful for those that are useful? Why can't I do this?"

My friend, because since you live by your labour, you are not free. And if you ask, Who is my master? who owns me? I answer Monopoly. Get rid of Monopoly, and you will have overthrown your present tyrant, and will be able to live as you please, within the limits which Nature prescribed to you while she was your master, but which limits you, as man, have enlarged so enormously by almost making her your servant.

And now, what are we to understand by the word Monopoly. I have seen it defined as the selling of wares at an enhanced price without the seller having added any additional value to them; which may be put again in this way, the habit of receiving reward for services never performed or intended to be performed - for imaginary services, in short.

This definition would come to this, that Monopolist is cheat writ large; but there is an element lacking in this definition which we must presently supply. We can defend ourselves against this cheat by using our wits to find out that his services are imaginary, and then refusing to deal with him; his instrument is fraud only. I should extend the definition of the Monopolist by saying that he was one who was privileged to compel us to pay for imaginary services. He is, therefore, a more injurious person than a mere cheat, against whom we can take precautions, because his instrument for depriving us of what we have earned is no longer mere fraud, but fraud with violence to fall back on. So long as his privilege lasts we have no defence against him; if we want to do business in his line of things, we must pay him the toll which his privilege allows him to claim of us, or else abstain from the article we want to buy. If, for example, there were a Monopoly of champagne, silk velvet, kid gloves, or dolls' eyes, when you wanted any of those articles you would have to pay the toll of the Monopolist, which would certainly be as much as he could get, besides their cost of production and distribution; and I imagine that if any such Monopoly were to come to light in these days, there would be a tremendous to-do about it, both in and out of Parliament. Nevertheless, there is little to-do about the fact that all society to-day is in the grasp of Monopoly. Monopoly is our master, and we do not know it.

For the privilege of our Monopolists does not enable them merely to lay a toll on a few matters of luxury or curiosity which people can do without. I have stated, and you must admit, that everyone must labour who would live, unless he is able to get somebody to do his share of labour for him - to be somebody's pensioner in fact. But most people cannot be the pensioners of others; therefore, they have to labour to supply their wants; but in order to labour usefully two matters are required: 1st, The bodily and mental powers of a human being, developed by training, habit and tradition; and 2nd, Raw material on which to exercise those powers, and tools wherewith to aid them. The second matters are absolutely necessary to the first; unless the two come together, no commodity can be produced. Those, therefore, that must labour in order to live, and who have to ask leave of others for the use of the instruments of labour, are not free men but the dependents of others, i.e., their slaves; for, the commodity which they have to buy of the monopolists is no less than life itself.

Now, I ask you to conceive of a society in which all sound and sane persons can produce by their labour on raw materials, aided by fitting tools, a due and comfortable livelihood, and which possesses a sufficiency of raw material and tools. Would you think it unreasonable or unjust, that such [a] community should insist on every sane and sound person working to produce wealth, in order that he might not burden the community; or, on the other hand, that it should insure a comfortable livelihood to every person who worked honestly for that livelihood, a livelihood in which nothing was lacking that was necessary to his development as a healthy human animal, with all its strange complexity of intellectual and moral habits and aspirations?

Now, further, as to the raw material and tools of the community, which, mind you, are necessary to its existence: would you think it unreasonable, if the community should insist that these precious necessaries, things without which it could not live, should be used and not abused? Now, raw material and tools can only be used for the production of useful things; a piece of tillage, for instance, is not used by sowing it with thistles and dock and dodder, nor a bale of wool by burning it under your neighbour's window to annoy him; this is abuse, not use, of all these things, and I say that our community will be right in forbidding such abuse.

Again, would it be unreasonable for the community to say that these means of production, if they are to be used and not abused, must be used by those who can use them, that is, by all the sane and sound persons engaged in earning their livelihood in concert; that they are to be so used according to fair and natural regulations agreed upon by the whole community in its sane mind; and that, furthermore, since they are to be used by all, they must not be exclusively possessed, i.e., owned by any; because, if any private persons, or groups of such, held the exclusive possession or ownership of them, they could withhold the use of them from those who could use them, except on terms which would place the useful persons in a position of inferiority to the useless; in other words they would be their masters, and would impose such a life on them as they chose. Therefore, I say, those raw materials and tools would be the property of the whole community, and would be used by every one in it, on the terms that they should repair the waste in them and not engross undue shares of them.

Here, then, is our reasonable community, in which all can produce, all do produce, no one has to pay poll-tax to be allowed to work, that is to live; in which no man need be badly off, unless by his own will; a society whose aim it is to make the most of its natural conditions and surroundings for the benefit of each and all of its members. These people I call reasonable men; but they have been called by other names, as breakers of the eighth commandment (or of all the commandments in the lump), brigands, assassins, greedy pillagers, enemies of society - in a word Socialists.

Look at another society, and see if we like it better. In it, as in our first one, all sane and sound persons can produce wealth by their labour on raw material aided by tools; nor is there any lack of raw materials and tools in this society; yet there the resemblance ceases; for, one part of those who could do useful work will not, and consequently another part cannot; some of this second part can get no work to do, and are starved outright; others can get nothing but useless work to do, and thereby help to starve their brethren; and all those who produce anything, as we have seen before, are in an inferior position to those who do not.

The law of nature, that livelihood follows labour, is thus reversed, since those who work hardest get least, and those who work least fare best. Is this reasonable? Yet it is the direct and necessary result of those rights of property which the whole of our army, navy, police, judges, lawyers, parsons, etc., are banded together to sustain, by whatever amount of fraud and violence may be necessary for its safeguarding. It is the result of monopoly; for now the field is no longer used only for its primary use, the growing of corn, the feeding of beasts, the building of a house upon it; it is also abused by being employed as a rent-squeezing machine for the supposed benefit of an individual; and the like is the case with the tools of labour; the stored up labour of past generations, the machinery, the means of transit, all these things are no longer used merely as means of production; that has now become their secondary use, which the law does not trouble itself with at all, since it has all its attention turned to its enforcing their abuse (now become their primary use) for the benefit of the owners; their abuse as instruments for squeezing rent, interest, and profit out of the producers.

Those that thus, according to the (middle-class) ten commandments, are so anxious to prevent what they call theft, and thus the masters - nay, the owners - of all society under our present system; outside them there is nothing whatever but machinery - metal, brutal, and human - for enabling them to produce, not the greatest amount of wealth, but the greatest amount of profit; and when the masters fall short in getting what they consider the due amount of profit produced by this said machinery, they say times are bad; even though the warehouses and granaries are full, and the power of producing wealth with decreasing labour is every day growing. High prices to them and also, unluckily, to their human machines, mean prosperity, because these latter are not in the least in the world rewarded for producing wealth for themselves, but for producing profits for their masters. The destruction of wealth by war and other calamities is good for their profit-grinding, therefore we have war. The waste of labour in all kinds of stupidities and fatuities is good for trade, therefore we have sham literature, sham art, sham enjoyment, newspapers, advertisements, jubilees, and all kinds of disgraces, to help our failing system to totter on a little longer, so that our sons instead of ourselves may have to face the inevitable ruin which, on these terms, must bring about the peace to come.

What help is there out of it all? I have spoken of the workers as the helpless machinery of commerce; and helpless they are so long as they are apathetically accepting their position as mere machinery in the hands of the masters of society; and yet it is they who have to bring about the change, and sweep away monopoly. The capitalists for any radical change are far more helpless than they are; because, as capitalists, as a class, they cannot even conceive of any other means of living except as pensioners on others, and it is their accepted duty, nay, their religion, to resist all change in this direction; nor as individuals have they any means of earning their livelihood, if you take away their pensions before you have begun to reconstruct a new world in which they would find a place like other people; it is, therefore, impossible that the change can be made from above to below. No, it is the classes which are necessary to what of real society still hangs together behind the monstrous machinery of monopoly, it is the workers themselves that must bring about the change. And it is at least an incidental purpose of Socialist propaganda that the change should be, if possible, brought about or at least guided by the conscious intelligence of the workers, that it may not be left altogether to the blind forces of hunger, misery, and despair, which the capitalist system is so steadily piling up for its own overthrow. Apart from all the conscious politics, all the pushing this way and that, of semi-extinct Toryism and vague crude democracy, which is undoubtedly paving the way for revolution, the time is coming when the monopoly of the means of production will lose its value, when the employers will begin to cease to employ. Cut-throat competition, ever cheapening means of production, and exhausting markets on one hand; on the other, the unceasing struggle of the workers to improve their condition at the expense of the capitalists, will make employment for profit more difficult both to get and to give; will, in fact, bring about deadlock and ruin in spite of occasional improvements in trade. But if the workers have learned to understand their position, which means if they have become determined to make the best of the nature which they have so far conquered, in despite of artificial restrictions on labour for the benefit of a class, they need not fear the coming crisis. That very increase in the productivity of labour, which will ruin capitalism, will make Socialism possible, and it cannot be doubted that the progress of the cheapening of production will be quickened prodigiously in the very first days of the new social order, and we shall all find it easy enough to live a very few years after the time when we found it so difficult to make profits.

Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous if I seemed to try to create the impression that the abolition of monopoly - of the artificial restrictions on production - would be plain sailing, that it would come quite peacefully and without strenuous effort of various kinds. Things now going on do not encourage one to think that; hypocrisy where the movement seems weak in power or limited in aim, unscrupulous and relentless repression where it seems threatening and well instructed; no real sign of privilege yielding a jot without compulsion. And you must remember that all our law and government, from Parliament to a County Court, has now got to be just an elaborate defence of that very monopoly which it is our business to clear way, though they by no means began with that. True it is, that if the whole class of workers could be convinced on one day or in one year of the necessity of abolishing monopoly, it would pass away like the clouds of night. But the necessities of the miserable, and the aspirations of the intelligent, will outrun the slower process of gradual conversion, and the anti-monopolists will find themselves in a position in which they will be forced to try to get hold of the executive, in order to destroy it and thus metamorphose society, not in order to govern by it and as they are now governed; in other words, they will have to sweep away all the artificial restrictions that stand in the way of free labour, and they will have to compel this step by some means or other. Those who set before them this necessity will doubtless differ at present as to the means whereby this will be done; but they should at least agree, and will agree when the time comes for action, that any means that are means, and are not unhuman, are good to use.

I have, then, tried to point out to you that the producing or useful class are in an inferior position to the non-producing or useless class; that this is a reversal of the law of nature which bids all to labour in order to live: that this monstrosity is the necessary result of private persons being allowed to treat the matters that are necessary to the fructification of labour as their property, and to abuse them by employing them as mere means of compulsion on the worker to pay tribute for leave to live. I have asked you to learn to agree with us Socialists in thinking it necessary to abolish this monopoly, and to combine together for its abolition and the reconstruction of society on the basis of the freedom of labour and the abolition of all privilege. I must add further, that no programme is worthy the acceptance of the working-classes that stops short of the abolition of private property in the means of production. Any other programme is misleading and dishonest; it has two faces to it, one of which says to the working-man, "This is Socialism or the beginning of it" (which it is not), and the other says to the capitalist, "This is sham Socialism; if you can get the workers, or part of them, to accept this, it will create a new lower middle class, a buffer, to push in between Privilege and Socialism, and save you, if only for a while."

But this true programme, which means the abolition of privilege, is enough, for its must and will lead directly to full Socialism. It will draw the teeth of the dragon of capitalism, and make a society of equality possible; a society in which, instead of living among enemies in a state of things where there is nothing but a kind of armed truce between all men, we shall live among friends and neighbours, with whom indeed our passions or folly may sometimes make us quarrel, but whose interests cannot really be dissociated from our own.