In the Mind of the Worker
IN a great industrial age it is only natural that the desires and tendencies and moods of men should be interpreted in terms of the business leaders. We tend always to admire and emulate the activities which furnish the drama, the push and sting of life, and it is emphatically in big business that we find these to-day. For business combines in a subtle way the satisfaction of the desire for power, for order, for achievement, and for display. It satisfies the impulse to action, the æsthetic desire for efficiency and organization, the talent for invention and enterprise, and crowns all with the golden touch of profit, which makes for social honor and opportunity, the visible sign of an invisible grace.
If the original psychic life of men in primeval times focused on the hunt, which fused eager physical appetite, exciting and dangerous activity, complete and gloating satisfactions, all in one tension, we can hardly doubt that our modern business man is heir to this pattern of the most vivid and zestful of all experiences, which has persisted down through the evolution of culture and furnished the spring to all artistic, missionary, and scientific effort, and economic enterprise. In the complex life of a modern society, surrounded by all the sophistications of convenience, it is the business man who is most completely living the life and experiencing the emotions which first made life worth living, which first made it the thrilling and desirable thing that it is.
It is a mistake, however, to take our business man as the type of all our modern life, and attempt to translate the minds of all workers into the terms of desire, activity, and elation which we see so plainly to be his. We tend constantly to assume, I think, that the small business man who is struggling to make ends meet, the clerk going through a monotonous routine of other people’s correspondence, the factory worker spending ten hours every day over a still more monotonous machine, the small professional man or woman moving like a cog in a gigantic system, — that all these people pursue their vocation with the same zest, and enterprise as does the big business man. Our successful men, our moulders of public opinion, seem to imply, in any discussion of economic reform, that all life is being lived in terms of their own psychic background, and that discontent is not only illogical but a symptom of personal deficiency rather than a reaction against a system which, by separating, by the widest possible gap, desire, activity, and the elation of success, takes the color and zest out of work and out of life. They themselves are sure, of course, that they would not find the interest in monotonous factory work that they do in their business or professional activity, but they feel that the worker must be experiencing satisfaction or else he would not be doing the work. There is no compulsion upon him, they say. The fact that any person is engaged in a particular line of work is evidence to them that he has a bent toward, or interest in, that work. The doors are always open for advancement; the ambitious man can always find opportunity ahead. The fact that men do not advance is the best possible evidence that they are contented where they are. Successful men find it impossible to conceive of a boy as entering a business or factory without a firm resolve to be at the head of it in ten or fifteen years.
My thesis here is that if we look into the mind of the worker we shall find that this amiable optimism is little more than an attempt to salve our social conscience as a relief for the industrial evils which have come through the domination of a ruling class of owners and directors, imposing a strict regimen of mechanical labor and a minute division of labor, and so devitalizing and distorting the normal satisfactions of activity for great masses of men. The psychology of the wage-earners and t he psychology of their employers must be read in terms of quite different import.
Ambition, interest, enterprise, elation, must be erased at once from the mental background of the wage-earner, and this not because of any moral deficiency or difference of human nature, but simply because of a status which has been imposed upon him and before which he is almost helpless. Ambition follows opportunity as relentlessly as Nemesis followed the guilty in the Greek tragedy. Where real opportunity is denied, ambition automatically dwindles; where it exists, ambition flourishes. The reason for the wageearner’s feeble ambition must be sought in conditions which make real advancement, except for a few favored individuals, impossible. Ostensibly, the doors stand open in America, but really, subtle factors of prejudice and convention combine with the conditions of labor to squeeze the zest out of activity and limit the horizon of imagination and foresight.
Certainly if we take a genetic account of the making of a wage-earner, we find little enough to fortify the large and optimistic view of our leaders that opportunity is free to every man, and that each finds automatically the place fitted to his abilities, In our industrial centres we find provided for boys and girls only the most casual and haphazard preparation for the serious tasks of life. The vast majority of young people are without money, position, or influence. Most of them grow weary of their mediæval schooling before they nave finished the grades, and leave to ‘go to work.’ Their school has given them no idea of the social constitution and composition of the world they are to enter, and has made no attempt to train them so that they may have adaptable resources for taking advantage of such opportunities as are before them. For many of them the simple matter of lack of good clothes and of a certain presentableness of manner prevents them from competing for clerical positions. In this way, this least touch of social convention may fix permanently their status in life. Barred from these occupations, which might lead on to the zest of administrative and business life, they drift into the first factory opening that comes along. Parents may plan, but they are usually as destitute of influenceand adaptive poweras thechildren themselves. The more presentable youths are almost as circumscribed as the others; for social convention teaches them to consider the prosperous trades and machine-labor as socially inferior, and they are thus forced into the already over-crowded clerical field.
But in neither class of wage-earners has there been any but the vaguest imagination of a future. There has not been any real opportunity of choice, and thus there is cultivated no real ambition. I am not denying, of course, that an aristocracy of wage-earners finds higher positions, as salesmen, foremen, more highly paid skilled workers; but I do say that the vast majority step into a rigid system in which their status is almost as rigidly fixed as if it had been settled by imperial decree.
For the tendency of the work itself is to fix the status. The young factory-worker has all his brusquerie intensified, so that he is permanently preven ted from rising to the clerkly class; the young clerk tends to fall into a deadly routine which fetters his imagination and makes him look on his working hours as an empty waste in his life. To neither is given the zest of pursuit and victory, which we have seen is the reward of business and professional life. There is the desire for money, of course, but only for immediate spending. The only conceived end is the week’s wages; the product itself is perpetually unfinished. There is the never-ending stream of small processes passing through the hands, but no creation, no finished product to which‘one can look back and say, ‘I did it!’
But I do not need to dwell upon the evils of specialization and division of labor into tiny fragments and monotonous routine, against which the maddened prophets of the nineteenth century, such as Carlyle and Ruskin, hurled their scorn, except to point out that, in spite of all that has been said, the system flourishes still with unabated vigor. And it is accompanied by an insidious process of ‘speeding-up’ which saps the vitality of the worker; a process calculated by the adjustment of hours, wages, rate of work, vitality of the individual worker, to the scale that will extract the maximum of mechanical efficiency, measured always in terms of cheapness of product and not of the conservation of human life. It seems to be a deliberate attempt to strain almost, but not quite, to the breaking-point the stamina of the workers and their ability to furnish constantly fresh recruits to take the place of their dwindling powers. It is an attempt to extract monopoly profits out of that most sacred of all things, human life and feeling.
Is it difficult to imagine the effect of these processes, so well known to all of us, on the mind of the wage-earner? Certainly it is not to produce a zestful and colorful life, with the sharp quick fusion of impulse, desire, activity, satisfaction, elation, which the primitive savage lives, and his psychic heir, the modern business and professional man. There is produced rather a smouldering apathy toward work, the mental attitude of a serf rather than a freeman. Soon trained to take orders, without a glimpse of the end and reason of the process, the young wageearner falls into a passive susceptibility, and an acceptance of the rôle and status which the industrial system and its masters have prepared for him.
There is little temptation for him to work faster and more industriously, for although he is constantly told that this will automatically increase his wages, he soon finds that what actually happens, when any material increase in production in his industry plant takes place, is that the increase instead of going to him for wages is used to furnish the grounds for a new capitalization and is thus drawn off in dividends instead of wages. He finds that he is as subject to the law of diminishing returns as any piece of farming land.
There is little temptation for him to save, for his puny savings —the average earnings for skilled wage-earners in this country per year are less than $600 — will hardly serve materially to increase his income, and he is likely to find that his ability to live on less than he earns has a subtle influence in slowly lessening those earnings. He comes to the conclusion that it is not his function in society to save and invest; that is the business of the capitalist, who has made himself the steward of society’s capital and devotes his energies to directing his own accumulations and those of others who entrust theirs to him, into channels of production. This is a rôle to which the capitalist has appointed himself, says the worker; let him play it without any help. The need of thrift and foresight which are constantly pointed out to him by society’s moral teachers he vaguely feels as simply an appeal to him to increase the funds which the capitalists have at their disposal to exploit further him and his class.
The worker’s wages represent to him not t he longed-for and striven-for goal of an interesting activity, but a sort of bounty provided at the end of dull work, to be clutched at and spent as soon as possible. It is that divorce between ‘product’ and ‘climax’ which makes the psychology of the wageearner so different from that of the business man. The gulf is between activity in which the worker has no personal interest and the thoroughly depersonalized ‘climax’ of wages. The result is that where the hunter and the business or professional man get their elation in the completion of a line of activity directed straight toward an anticipated end, the worker gets only the most tenuous connection between the activity and the end. He must look for his climax outside his work: the clerk dulled and depressed by the long day, and the factory-worker — his brain a-whirl with the roar of the machines — must seek elation and the climax which the work should have given them, in the crude and exciting pleasures of the street and the dance and t he show. It is a rather grim irony to ask them to spend their leisure studying or ‘improving themselves.’
This is almost, enough to account for lack of ambition on the part of the wage-earner, but employers are quite unable to understand it. When there are responsible positions of superintendence or in the sales department to be filled, why must the employer always look outside for men, instead of advancing some of his more intelligent employees? Why will they not fit themselves for advancement, and pursue their work with that single-minded devotion which will show him their value and qualifications? But there is thus betrayed a complete ignorance of what the mechanically regulated system of industry has done to the mind of the worker. The worker has been made a mere cog in a big machine, and yet he is constantly reproached for being without initiative. The careful specialization of labor has cut the majority of wage-earners off from any chance of having their ambitions realized. Industry has been deliberately graded in a great hierarchy, and then the lowest level, upon which the whole superstructure rests, is reproached by well-meaning people for not raising itself by its boot-straps.
Employers do not realize the psychic reflection on the minds of the workers of this gradation of labor, the social stigma and prejudice which it creates and which serve to strengthen the other walls. For these feelings of social stigma, which are always the reflection of true class-differences rather than their cause, will in many cases operate effectually to prevent an otherwise ambitious man from leaving the ranks of his fellow workers and accepting a higher position in the factory. He would thus de-class himself, and become isolated from his group without being accepted into the group with which he was now working. But the majority of workers scarcely conceive the possibility of rising, for such a situation is rarely presented dramatically before them. The difference of function between worker and manager is made, as it seems, so deliberately evident, there are so many subtle ways by which society impresses the differences upon the workers’ minds, that we can hardly blame them if their imagination refuses to bridge so wide a gulf.
Among the younger generation of wage-earners this apathy takes a more positive direction, and one that suggests far-reaching consequences. Manufacturers are continually complaining of their inability to secure reliable and trustworthy employees. Young people no longer seem to fit so docilely into the system, or to become trained to a routine with such neatness and dispatch as in earlier days. They are hired, but after months of rigorous pressure, the manufacturers complain, they do not begin to show even that rudimentary interest in the work which will make for permanency of position. They prove themselves inefficient, undependable, unintelligent, utterly ‘worthless’; they do not even seem to recognize their own interests, for in spite of the fact that, they are constantly told that they have only to show themselves industrious and ambitious toobtain advancement and to assure themselves of permanent positions, they are quite insensitive to appeals of this nature. The most tempting rewards fail to move them. They will not work overtime or on holidays, even though they and their families really need the extra money. They seem to prefer their good times to any chance of economic independence. They are the despair of the manufacturer’s life. So, after a more or less protracted struggle, they are discharged to swell that vast itinerant army of young, unmarried, semiskilled wage-earners which is such a significant feature of American economic life, and the process begins over again. To be sure, young workers have always been more or less headstrong and unmanageable, but manufacturers seem to think that in the past it was easier to find ultimately some appeal which would catch their interest and hold them fast to their work. But that appeal is becoming more and more difficult to find, they say. Neither honor nor self-interest seems any longer to weigh against the heady desires of the moment.
Now, a part of this weakening of responsibility on the part of the wageearner may be due to the decay of religious sanctions. I have a feeling that the wage-earner of the past generation was held to his duty by a strong conscientiousness which was cultivated by religious teaching. Feelings of contentment and gratitude were carefully cultivated in him by church and school, and devotion to his economic duties seemed to have the sanction of the Almighty himself. Even now, elderly wage-earners revolt with a kind of horror against all Socialistic suggestions as a species of disloyalty to the employers who have given them the opportunity to make a living, and as treason to that gospel of individualism in which their souls were trained. But with the weakening of religious interest has come an increasing carelessness. The worker has lost respect for authority as such; he feels the pressure of the industrial system upon him and yields grudgingly, but he no longer feels that gratitude toward his employer and that modest pride in his own humble status which he used to feel. Coupled with this pride there was also an ambition to rise, and in the more loosely organized and rapidly growing industry of the last generation there was real opportunity to rise. But as industry becomes more specialized and stratified, that opportunity dwindles; and the dwindling is reflected automatically in the growing lack of ambition, enterprise, and purpose among the younger generation of wage-earners.
A bumptious and headstrong young labor-force whose aggressiveness is not transmuted into ambition is indeed an appalling portent for the manufacturer and employer of labor. For it suggests that a sort of silent ‘sabotage’ is to creep slowly through the industries. An organic inefficiency, a lack of susceptibility to training, would act like a slow’ palsy in keeping down production. That this is recognized, at least by the small manufacturers, is shown by their constant wail that they cannot get reliable people to do their work. This situation therefore throws some significant light on some recent industrial developments. ‘Scientific management,’ ‘vocational training,’ pensions and profit-sharing, may be looked at, not in the light of disinterested attempts to improve the lot of the working-classes, but as a welldefined endeavor to grapple with the problem of declining efficiency. It is a general rule in life that we never do t kings until we have to, and we may be sure that these new methods would never have been thought of if they had not been needed in the solution of a problem which was threatening the prosperity of the masters of industry.
‘Scientific management,’ of course, aims, by appealing to the worker’s æsthetic sense of efficient economy, and at the same time organizing the work in more mechanical fashion, to produce more in the same length of time. ‘Vocational training’ aims to catch the child while he is still young and plastic, and prevent his headstrong individuality by making him into a machine before he is aware. And the bonuses and pensions aim to produce a forced interest in the work, and at the same time insure the wageearners’ permanence at the job.
But from the point of view of healing the gap between ‘product’ and ‘climax,’ of changing the mind of the worker and giving it some of the colorful zest of life which, we have seen, characterizes business and professional activity, how tragic a failure are these methods! They serve only to accentuate the tendencies which have produced the present mind of the worker; they do not in any way restore the lost vitality to that mind. They make the worker more of a machine, not more of a human being, and tend thus to further the specialization and stratification of work, and to fix the wage-earner in a more permanent status. From the worker’s point of view, it is hardly less than a first step in the direction of a true industrial feudalism. He is little enough free at present, he knows, but he has at least this freedom of movement and a certain choice of occupation. But these methods would rivet him to an occupation before he had time to choose, and then, when he was once in, would repenalize a change. The restless and discontented, those in other words who were more alive than their fellows, would be severely handicapped. For if they left their position, they would lose their bonus or their pension; for the sake of that they would have to submit also to the conditions imposed.
Now, there is little doubt that the mind of the young worker to-day feels this gigantic silent struggle that is in progress, a struggle far more momentous than the open dramatic features of the class struggle. It is a struggle, he feels, in the last analysis, for the vestiges of industrial freedom. I do not mean that their efforts are conscious on the part of the employers of labor. The latter are simply trying to grapple with an immediate concrete problem of declining efficiency. But to the worker it seems as if the effect were to rivet him in his status of a sort of industrial semi-serfdom, from which he could never of his own accord escape. The employers, if they possess that diabolical wisdom which fortunately has never been the attribute of any ruling class, will recognize the power of these methods, and will fortify them by an attempt forever to shortcircuit Socialism by setting to work to assure for every worker a position just prosperous enough to allay discontent, yet not enough to give him economic power. By pensions, welfare-work, and a nice calculation of hours, wages, and living conditions, this perfect balance might be struck, and a true industrial feudalism appear instead of the industrial democracy toward which the minds of all enlightened wage-earners look with enthusiasm and hope.
In the light of this possible feudal catastrophe, how different, appears the irresponsibility and lack of ambition of the young worker! For the only defense we have against the tightening of the feudal bonds is the mental attitude of the workers themselves. Upon their unwillingness to be bound, under the guise of ‘increased efficiency,’ — an efficiency, it must always be remembered, measured in terms of cheapness of product, and not in terms of the conservation of human life, —will depend the future of our society. The success of the movement for making permanent the divorce between desire, activity, achievement, and elation, — in other words of devitalizing manual labor, — will depend on the workers themselves. If the zest for life has so far failed them as a class that they consent to be drilled and turned into the patterns already made for them, they will deserve their fate. But if they refuse resolutely, or if they partially refuse, as they seem to be doing now, there is the great hope that out of this immoral situation a new social morality may be born, and that they may become fired with ent husiasm for a new and regenerated society which they alone can bring, and in which they shall be true personalities and full-grown citizens, instead of the partially handicapped persons that society makes them now.
It is worth while for us to wonder if, while the young worker is all unconsciously resisting the pressure, thinking only of the unpleasant work he is shirking, he may not be really fighting for a truer social freedom and a new regime where class and industrial stratifications will be abolished. His shirking may be the best hope that we have to-day, and the most comfortable assurance that the zest of men and women for life, and that more abundantly, will incorrigibly reassert itself against overwhelming odds, and force recognition of the fact that life cannot be made permanently mechanical.
Should this ‘silent sabotage’ continue to spread, and industry become seriously hampered by growing inefficiency, that alone would soon force a radical adjustment. If that disinclination to spend one’s life doing depressing and unpleasant work and monotonous drudgery ever formidably spread, we should be obliged to set seriously to work either to devise means to eliminate that kind of work, or to arrange it, as Professor James has suggested in his Moral Equivalent of War, to spread it thin over the population so that no one class would be compelled to give all its time to it. The glorious Greeks of antiquity simply refused to do disgusting and menial labor, and the work went undone. But we have become so devitalized that it seems there is no labor so deadly and stultifying but some one can be found to do it. The Greeks doubtless would have howled with mirth at the spectacle of a man spending all his daylight hours bobbing up and down in a little dark cage from the basement to the top-story of a building. And if it were not such a tragedy we might well stop occasionally and jeer at the elevator-boy ourselves. If it were not that this dreary labor is performed for the benefit of our comfortable classes by a member of what we call, with such unconscious self-satirization, the working-class, our sense of humor would not desert us so completely when we contemplate his activity.
Distasteful, then, as it must be to our sense of propriety, we are forced to conclude that it is to this apathy of the mind of the wage-earner, to his distaste for killing routine, to his insensitiveness to appeals of gain when the opportunity is given to live more vividly and zestfully, that we must look in part for the emancipation of our society.
Instead of seeing in this ‘worthlessness ’ of the worker a cause for despair, we should rather hail it as a sign that the incorrigible zest for activity and satisfaction, the ‘hunting instinct,’ which the most favored professions of our modern society enjoy, is being revived in the mind of the longstolid worker. Our social guardians and directors have done their best to make a trained animal of the worker, but human nature will not be downed, and will not rest content until we have a social life where all work is done with joy and interest, where the goal and the road are permeated by the same glow, where climax crowns a product into which the best of a human being has been spontaneously and eagerly put. The apathy and restlessness of the mind of the worker are the tragic evidences of our utter failure, with all the resources of civilization at our hand, to create such a life.