Wednesday, November 30, 2016

This Century-Old Article Recalls the Connection between Fair Wages and Freedom

by Nomad

Over a hundred years, this progressive essayist from asked a vital question: Can there be any meaning of the word "freedom" without economic independence?

A Voice from the Past

In many ways, the following essay about the vital importance of a living wage- as the first step to all progress for a nation- could have been written last month. In fact, it's well over a hundred years old. 
Journalist and novelist, David Graham Phillips published this article in The Arena in 1909, two years before his shocking murder in the streets of downtown Manhattan.
His phrase "the politicians of privilege" is an eerie reminder that progressives have fought  this battle before.

Economic Independence, the Basis of Freedom

It is true that we are a free people in name only. It is true that, in fact, we are no freer than if we had a king over us and a powerful nobility. But it is also true that our possession of the power of freedom, of the political machinery of freedom, makes us better off than if we still had that first step to take. If we were on our way down, this would not be so, but we are on our way up.

Freedom does not come from without, but from within. It is, first of all, a state of mind, an attitude of thought. We used to have more actual freedom than we have now, but it was a freedom insecurely based and it was swept away. 

It was insecurely based because it was merely a sentiment. We did not understand what freedom meant; we did not understand how to keep it; we did not understand that it had a practical value of the highest kind and was not a beautiful ideal only.

We did not understand that freedom meant a better house to live in, better clothes for our families, better food on the table, more leisure for amusement and improvement, more money in our pockets, better education and better prospects for our children. 

We did not understand that when we neglect public affairs, did not take the trouble to inform ourselves upon public questions, turned our government over to the politicians, voted by sentiment and passion instead of by the hardest kind of hard common sense, we were cutting down our incomes, adding to our expenses, cheating ourselves out of profits, out of leisure, out of fun.
And we do not understand it yet.

It's hard to find a better description of the mindset that led to the catastrophic 2016 election result. Phillips also described the game conservative politicians have successfully played in his and own lifetimes.

But a vague sort of an idea that there is  really some connection between politics and the distribution of the results of toil is beginning to permeate our skulls- not by any means a clear idea, but simply a vague glimmer. More and more every election, the politicians who are the agents of the plutocracy, rub it into the people that "If you don't vote for us business will be bad, factories will close, wages will be cut down, and the ranks of the unemployed will be swelled." And more and more the masses of the people believe. And that is well. 

Those of us who wish to see things get better are calling upon the people to "take high moral ground regardless of self-interest" - and are steadily losing elections to politicians who appeal directly and brutally to selfish self-interest. How admirable is the universal scheme of things, whereby all, especially the bad, works out for the good. 

The idealists, floating among the clouds and forgetting that the family has to be sheltered, fed and clothed and that those are ever the prime considerations with the human animal, neglect their duty of practically educating the people. 

And, lo and behold, the politicians of privilege, the enemies of freedom and progress, do the idealists' neglected work for them.

And slowly, in spite of the idealists, in spite of all the well-meaning worthies who are constantly trying to divorce morals and practical wisdom, as if the two were not ultimately and indissolubly one- in spite of all efforts to prevent people from learning that when they vote for what they fancy is their immediate self-interest, they vote for immediate robbery and oppression- slowly, in spite of all these adverse forces, the politicians of privilege are teaching the people to connect politics and prosperity. 

Next thing, the people will be really thinking; and then- yes, then, they will begin to demand of their politicians specific, clear, definite performances for making them better off, for giving them a larger share of the fruits of their toil.

That was a rather idealistic view, a bit too hopeful that the human mind could ever think beyond its selfishness. The American workers still apparently haven't understood the need for benchmarks for their politicians. They are still voting on self-interest and getting the same results as Phillips describes.

The basis of all tyranny is the dependence of the masses. So long as the masses of a nation are economically dependent, just so long is freedom a delusion or a dream. 

The man who is dependent upon the will of another for a living is not and cannot be free. You can give him an education, you can give him the suffrage, you can give him initiative and referendum and all the other good things. But he will remain dependent, a subject, an industrial serf. And it does not matter much whether the living he gets from some master is a dollar a day or a thousand dollars a day. 

And it does not matter must whether he has to be dependent on some one master or has a choice of a score of masters. His servitude  is simply better or worse disguised, his pretense of self-respect less or more plausible.

The basis of freedom- the only foundation that is not shaky or rotten- is economic independence. If we are to have freedom in the modern world, we must recreate the conditions won which the freedom of every people that has been free rested. We must establish conditions which will enable any and every American citizen to get work without dependence upon any master whatsoever, to get work as his right.

To be free is the prime aim of every people worthy of the name of man. For that purpose are governments established- to maintain the freedom of a free people, or to aid an aspiring people to achieve freedom. Since the economic independence of the citizen is the prime requisite of freedom, as we of the modern world understand that word, it is the prime mission of the government, which the people have established, to see to it that every citizen can be economically independent.

When it comes to the purpose of government, Phillips writes with a surety that we no longer possess. Today we are told that it is not government's business to ensure, even in times of economic hardship, that its citizens do not starve.
The present attitude is that government assistance to keep from starving only makes the poor more dependent. The government must cut assistance to the poor, to the under-employed in order to do them a favor.  

In times of great stress, no one disputes that the state ought to see to it that the people do not starve. For a Galveston flood, Congress appropriates relief funds, and so on and so on. But to an enlightened mind, it is obvious that in the struggle to keep and to get freedom, the dearest, the most valuable possession a man can have, there is always a time of stress.

We have long since recognized that public education is a necessity, is, therefore, a duty of the state.

Why? Because it is one of the requisites of freedom that the electorate be enlightened, and free public education is the best the state can do toward achieving that end. But education is not the first, but the second requisite to gaining and keeping freedom. The prime requisite is, as has been said, economic independence. Second, public education.
We have got the second requisite - not in full measure but in large measure that is ever larger. Now for the prime requisite.

So what is Phillips' plan to guarantee a form of economic independence? His solution is obvious and practical, but totally, unacceptable for most conservatives who think the all of the answers lie in trusting capitalist enterprise to resolve every problem.

That is, now for an elastic program of necessary public works upon which any citizen can obtain employment for the asking and can keep the employment so long as he is willing to do eight hour's work a day. Not one month in a year, or six; not one or two or four days a week; but six days in every week of the year- and at a decent living wage. Not at the kind of work that suits him or her best- at least, not at first. 

But at whatever there is to do that that is within his or her strength. If he or she can find a better hob with a private employer, well and good. But make it so that no free-born American citizen has to beg for employment, has to humiliate himself to get it, has, perhaps, to go without employment.

There are many objections to this proposal- many grave objections. So are there objection to everything that ought to be done in this world where nothing is  exactly as it should be. But all these objections are overruled by the stern law of necessity.

You answer them all when you face the unanswerable question. How can people be free, how can a man be free, if it or he is economically dependent?

So clearly is economic dependence vital to freedom, the very blood, and air of freedom, that it is quite safe to predict that the proposal here made will in some form be adopted- sooner or later. The sooner it is adopted, the soon will conditions begin rapidly to improve. And until it is adopted, progress will be slow and fitful.

We hear a great deal of loose talk about the dignity of labor. Most of it is sheer tommy-rot. But until labor is dignified- all honest labor- we shall not go very far. Let us bestir ourselves then, and make it so.

Man-Made Tragedies

Now let's fast forward to two years after Phillips wrote those words.

Phillips was to meet an unconventional end. On the afternoon of 24 January 1911, the young muckraking journalist was murdered by a stalking lunatic (and a concert violinist) outside the Princeton Club at Gramercy Park in New York City.
His killer, Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough was under the impression that the heroine in one of Phillips' novel was based on Goldsborough's sister. 

Not very far from where Phillips was shot, only two months later, on Saturday, 25 March, another event occurred which would shock the American public's complacency about the exploited working class: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

This entirely preventable disaster killed 146 workers- 123 women. Most of these women belonged to an easily-exploited working class: recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23.
These victims were the very epitome of what Phillips called the economically dependent citizen. 

We can close with the lines of a speech in memory of the victims. It was given by the prominent socialist, and feminist and union activist, Rose Schneiderman on 2 April 1911. She told an audience of the members of the Women's Trade Union League. 
You have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

..I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
Schneiderman understood too well what Phillips was referring to when he wrote that there could be no freedom without economic self-determination. She would later help to pass the New York state referendum of 1917 which gave women the right to vote.

Both the names and ideas of both Schneiderman and Phillips have largely been forgotten and perhaps that, more than anything else, explains why so American workers find themselves in the same position they were over a hundred years ago.