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The Problem of the Unemployed (S486a: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A commentary printed on page seven of the 26 December 1893 number of The Daily Chronicle (London). To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S486A.htm

    In all recent discussion of this momentous question, whether by members of the Government receiving deputations or replying to questions in the House of Commons, by local officials when called upon to find work, or at meetings of the would-be workers and their friends, we meet with the same declarations of ignorance and hopelessness or the proposal of mere local and temporary panaceas which cannot have any permanent effect, and may even aggravate the disease. But while neither officials, nor economists, nor legislators have any remedy to propose they all profess a desire to consider seriously any practical and well-thought-out scheme that may be brought to their notice. As an example of the ignorance and hopelessness above referred to, we find that the Duke of Argyll--a typical landlord and legislator--in answer recently to a correspondent asking for advice on this question, replied that he "cannot conceive any permanent source of employment other than freedom and confidence of individual enterprise everywhere." But it is this very freedom of individual enterprise which has brought us to our present condition, so that in the richest country in the world thousands in every great city ask in vain for work to avoid starvation. It has been pointed out for many years past that the direct cause of the trouble is that landlords, in the exercise of their "freedom of individual enterprise," have cleared millions of acres of land of their human inhabitants to make sheep and cattle farms or deer forests, and are still year by year turning land from arable to grass, and thus driving thousands of labourers into the towns to swell the throngs of the unemployed.

    Our rulers, however, now profess to want some practical, well-considered proposal, offering some chance of saving willing workers from starvation, and it is for the purpose of calling attention to such a proposal that I write this article. Four or five years ago such a scheme was made public. It is a thoroughly practical scheme, inasmuch as it is founded on successful results in other countries, though on a necessarily limited scale. It is a well-thought-out scheme, inasmuch as the author has been a guardian of the poor in a populous union, has visited the beggar colonies in the Netherlands, has studied the results of co-operative farming, and has obtained from experts detailed information as to the various kinds of production needed for the success of his proposal. I refer, of course, to Mr. Herbert V. Mills's book entitled, "Poverty and the State," which owing probably to there not being quite so much distress then as there is now, perhaps, also, to a Tory Government being in power, and partly to the appearance shortly afterwards of General Booth's "Darkest England," received at the time far less attention than it deserved, and now seems to be entirely forgotten. Yet it contains the very plan that is required for the present emergency--a plan which will not only provide productive work for the greater portion of the unemployed, but will withdraw them permanently from the overcrowded Labour market, render them self-supporting, and thus improve the condition of all other workers.

    Those who wish to know how thoroughly the proposal has been thought out, and on what a wide basis of fact and observation it rests, must study the book itself. Here, only a brief outline of the plan can be given. And first, it may be well to adduce an example showing the possibility, or rather the certainty, of success. At the pauper agricultural colony of Frederiksborg, in the Netherlands, where a population of nearly 2,000 is entirely self-supporting, including the payment of rent for the land, Mr. Mills observed the almost complete absence of agricultural and manufacturing machinery which would be calculated to save much labour; and on asking the reason of the director, was told that it would render it impossible to find work for all the people, and this would introduce difficulties in the setting up of fresh industries and in other ways. Here surely is a remarkable proof not only that with proper arrangements the unemployed can support themselves in comfort, but that they can do more than this, and produce a considerable surplus if only the best mechanical labour-saving appliances are used.

    Following the general lines of these successful beggar and industrial colonies, Mr. Mills proposes that each large union, or two or three smaller unions in combination, shall acquire suitable land to the amount of about 2,000 acres on which to establish about 800 families of the unemployed, being a population of about 4,000. The colonisers must be chosen so as to give a proper proportion of all the industries that are essential to self-support. There must be not only agricultural labourers but artisans of every kind, together with the necessary shops, tools, and machinery for their work. They will not only grow their own wheat, grind it, and make it into bread, and produce all the meat, butter, cheese, poultry, and eggs that they consume, but from the skins of the cattle make their own leather and shoes, from the wool of the sheep made their own clothing, supplemented by coarse and fine linen from their own flax. Thus, with suitable land, everything necessary for a comfortable existence would be produced and consumed at home; while to provide for the few comforts and luxuries which have now become almost necessaries--sugar, tea, coffee, raisins, tobacco, and coals--surplus produce that could be produced most economically would be sold, but in every case it would be produce that is largely imported, and the selling of which would not therefore injuriously affect other home-workers. Such kinds of produce are eggs, poultry, cheese, butter, pork, and similar articles.

    Let us consider for a moment the enormous economies that would be effected in such a self-supporting community. No example can be better than that of wheat. Many people will say, "It will not pay to grow wheat; much better buy the flour." But such objectors never consider the enormous difference between growing to sell and growing to consume. How many middlemen are there between the farmer who grows wheat in this country, and the family which consumes the bread, perhaps hundreds of miles away? Probably three or four--certainly three--the corndealer, the miller, and the baker. Then there are three or four separate costs of transit and distribution. The farmer carts it to market. It then probably goes by rail to some great flour mill; thence by rail again to the local baker. He has to cart it up from the station, and, when the bread is made he delivers it round to his customers. Thus three or four middlemen get each their profit, and three of four separate freights have to be paid, all added to the cost of the consumer's loaf above what it would be if the wheat were ground and the flour made into bread by the wheat grower himself. And it is the same with every other single product on a farm, so that what would have to be sold at a loss may be consumed at home at a profit. Milk, for example, has to be sold by the farmer at 6d. to 8d. a gallon, but the consumer has to pay 16d. a gallon. Again, consider the number of middlemen's profits and journeyings of a bullock's hide before it returns to the consumer as a pair of boots, and we shall see that here, too, the saving will be probably as great as in the case of milk, since 4,000 people will need at least 4,000 pairs of boots and shoes a year, a quantity that would make it worth while to have a small tannery and shoe factory with all the necessary machinery. Then, again, on such a colony every particle of manure and refuse of all kinds, both animal and human, would be at once returned to the soil, whose fertility would thus be sustained in the cheapest, most natural and most healthful way.

    A still more important economy in such a community would arise from the large supply of labour immediately available for any important work. Millions worth of property are often lost from the inability of farmers to get their hay and corn cut and housed at the proper moment, leading to the deterioration of quality, to partial loss, or to complete destruction. But in the case supposed every man, woman and child on the estate would be available to assist in securing the hay or corn at the critical moment, and one great source of agricultural failure would thus be entirely obviated. Again, that terrible loss of energy, of health, and of life itself arising from the too great division of labour and the consequent enforced idleness of thousands of willing workers, would be altogether abolished, since every inmate of the colony would be taught the simpler parts of several alternative occupations, and thus every hour of the usual working day might be usefully employed during all weathers and at every season.

    But perhaps the most valuable feature of the scheme is, that it is a permanent one. It need have no taint of pauperism, but be considered from the very first as a co-operative, self-supporting colony. Family life may be kept up by separate cottage homes, with the principal meals taken in common but with the option of taking rations for the evening meal at home if preferred. Though at first there must be strict discipline and skilled superintendence, arrangements might be made for the gradual establishment of a committee or council to consult with and assist the superintendent, with the view of ultimately creating a perfectly self-governing community. With this end in view education of the children and evening instruction of adults, always made attractive and duly interspersed with pure recreation, would be a feature of these communities; and there would thus gradually be trained up a body of men and women fit to carry out successfully a truly co-operative life. This perfect freedom might not be reached till a fresh generation had grown up under the new conditions, and each community had been weeded by the voluntary departure of all whose too independent and aggressive natures preferred the excitement and the risks of individual struggle with the world. But this complete freedom would always be the end aimed at, and from the first care should be taken to have no unnecessarily rigid and harrassing rules, but to concede always whatever freedom did not interfere with the efficiency of the self-supporting work, and to render life as varied in interests, and as enjoyable as possible.

    It must be remembered that each community of this kind would not only solve the problem of finding self-supporting work for the unemployed, but even if the individuals composing it were carefully selected, including some who had present employment but who preferred the rural life, the benefit would be instantly felt by all workers, since, so many thousands being withdrawn from the host of competitors for work, wages would at once rise and work become more plentiful. Of course, most of those with whom the experiment was first tried would be the actually unemployed, but what is usually forgotten is that even if all who went to the new colony were those now at work in towns, the benefit to the unemployed would be just the same, since an equal number of the latter would be at once required to fill the places of those who had left their work.

    It is to be hoped that the new District Councils will have power to take land for the purpose of carrying out Mr. Mills's scheme. So many farms are now unlet, and are offered at very low rents, that there could not be much difficulty in obtaining suitable land, and the councils should be empowered to take the land required at the current letting-value, with the option of continued tenancy or purchase by instalments. This would obviate all difficulty as to raising money to purchase land, and as the rents would be absolutely secure, they should be considerably lower than what would be paid by a farmer. The capital needed for starting should be advanced by the Treasury, to be repaid out of the rates in the same manner and on the same terms as were granted to Irish farmers to buy their farms. Even more favourable terms might properly be granted, since the repayment would be better secured and the object aimed at far more important.

    Of course there will be prophets of failure, and even some who will wish the scheme to fail; but I venture to say that no valid reason for failure can be adduced. The colony of Ralahine, started and managed by Mr. Craig under the greatest difficulties and the most disadvantageous conditions, did not fail, and might have been flourishing now had it not been ejected by a new landlord. On the manufacturing side, Robert Owen at New Lanark did not fail, though he had none of the advantages and economies of a wholly self-supporting, food-producing colony. And the beggar colonies of the Netherlands do not fail; but the difficulty from their official point of view seems to be rather a too great success, which has to be sternly repressed by the rejection of much labour-saving machinery. And even should there be a partial failure at first, that is, the failure for a year or two, to render the establishment wholly self-supporting, what will that be in comparison with our existing total failure--a failure which year by year seems to become more hopeless and more extensive, and in face of which no single legislator or politician or political economist has anything to propose but to continue on in the very same road which has led to this disastrous result?

    For be it remembered that this is a failure of civilisation and of civilised government itself, which is forced, in every civilised country alike, to confess its inability so to arrange society that all who wish to work in order to live can either obtain work themselves or have it provided for them. The result--the natural and inevitable result--is Anarchism, dynamite, or some less violent form of revolution everywhere surging up among the starving and helpless millions. We have now, perhaps, a more truly Liberal Government than we have ever had before in this country; a Government composed of younger and more energetic men--men of more original and independent thought, men who, some of them, do feel that the presence in all our cities of hopeless, workless, hungry millions is at once a danger and a disgrace to our so-called civilisation. Yet even these advanced and thoughtful men ask for a scheme, a practical, carefully-thought-out scheme. Well, here is the scheme they ask for, and unless they want an absolutely immaculate heaven-sent scheme, with heaven-sent officials to carry it into operation, I fail to see how they can have a better. It is a scheme easy to set in motion, it is adapted to the immediate necessities of the case, yet it is not a mere palliative for the moment, but has in it the elements of a permanent remedy, while it works on the lines of schemes which have been and are successful. There will be difficulties of course--there must be difficulties in all new departures--but it is for good and energetic rulers to overcome the difficulties, and if they do so great will be their reward. I myself feel absolutely confident that, if honestly and thoroughly carried out, the scheme will be successful, and probably successful beyond our most sanguine anticipations; but there must be no half-measures. I am an impartial advocate, since what I recommend is not my own scheme but that of a man I have never had the honour and pleasure of meeting. It is, however, I honestly believe, the very best means yet suggested both for the immediate relief of our starving millions who ask for work not charity, and as leading the way to a permanent remedy for the terrible social disease of which the presence of these starving millions in the midst of ever-increasing wealth and luxury is the most distressing and dangerous symptom.

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