Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 12.

Gabriel’s Utopia

“But what would you do, my good Gabriel,” said Maximilian, smiling, “if the reformation of the world were placed in your hands? Every man has an Utopia in his head. Give me some idea of yours.”

“First,” I said, “I should do away with all interest on money. Interest on money is the root and ground of the world’s troubles. It puts one man in a position of safety, while another is in a condition of insecurity, and thereby it at once creates a radical distinction in human society.”

“How do you make that out?” he asked.

“The lender takes a mortgage on the borrower’s land or house, or goods, for, we will say, one-half or one-third their value; the borrower then assumes all the chances of life in his efforts to repay the loan. If he is a farmer, he has to run the risk of the fickle elements. Rains may drown, droughts may burn up his crops. If a merchant, he encounters all the hazards of trade; the bankruptcy of other tradesmen; the hostility of the elements sweeping away agriculture, and so affecting commerce; the tempests that smite his ships, etc. If a mechanic, he is still more dependent upon the success of all above him, and the mutations of commercial prosperity. He may lose employment; he may sicken; he may die. But behind all these risks stands the money-lender, in perfect security. The failure of his customer only enriches him; for he takes for his loan property worth twice or thrice the sum he has advanced upon it. Given a million of men and a hundred years of time, and the slightest advantage possessed by any one class among the million must result, in the long run, in the most startling discrepancies of condition. A little evil grows like a ferment — it never ceases to operate; it is always at work. Suppose I bring before you a handsome, rosy-cheeked young man, full of life and hope and health. I touch his lip with a single bacillus of phthisis pulmonalis— consumption. It is invisible to the eye; it is too small to be weighed. judged by all the tests of the senses, it is too insignificant to be thought of; but it has the capacity to multiply itself indefinitely. The youth goes off singing. Months, perhaps years, pass before the deadly disorder begins to manifest itself; but in time the step loses its elasticity; the eyes become dull; the roses fade from the cheeks; the strength departs, and eventually the joyous youth is but a shell — a cadaverous, shrunken form, inclosing a shocking mass of putridity; and death ends the dreadful scene. Give one set of men in a community a financial advantage over the rest, however slight — it may be almost invisible — and at the end of centuries that class so favored will own everything and wreck the country. A penny, they say, put out at interest the day Columbus sailed from Spain, and compounded ever since, would amount now to more than all the assessed value of all the property, real, personal and mixed, on the two continents of North and South America.”

“But,” said Maximilian, “how would the men get along who wanted to borrow?”

“The necessity to borrow is one of the results of borrowing. The disease produces the symptoms. The men who are enriched by borrowing are infinitely less in number than those who are ruined by it; and every disaster to the middle class swells the number and decreases the opportunities of the helplessly poor. Money in itself is valueless. It becomes valuable only by use — by exchange for things needful for life or comfort. If money could not be loaned, it would have to be put out by the owner of it in business enterprises, which would employ labor; and as the enterprise would not then have to support a double burden — to wit, the man engaged in it and the usurer who sits securely upon his back — but would have to maintain only the former usurer — that is, the present employer — its success would be more certain; the general prosperity of the community would be increased thereby, and there would be therefore more enterprises, more demand for labor, and consequently higher wages. Usury kills off the enterprising members of a community by bankrupting them, and leaves only the very rich and the very poor; for every dollar the employers of labor pay to the lenders of money has to come eventually out of the pockets of the laborers. Usury is therefore the cause of the first aristocracy, and out of this grow all the other aristocracies. Inquire where the money came from that now oppresses mankind, in the shape of great corporations, combinations, etc., and in nine cases out of ten you will trace it back to the fountain of interest on money loaned. The coral island is built out of the bodies of dead coral insects; large fortunes are usually the accumulations of wreckage, and every dollar represents disaster.”

“Well,” said Maximilian, “having abolished usury, in your Utopia, what would you do next?”

“I would set to work to make a list of all the laws, or parts of laws, or customs, or conditions which, either by commission or omission, gave any man an advantage over any other man; or which tended to concentrate the wealth of the community in the hands of a few. And having found out just what these wrongs or advantages were, I would abolish them instanter.”

“Well, let us suppose,” said Maximilian, “that you were not immediately murdered by the men whose privileges you had destroyed — even as the Gracchi were of old — what would you do next? Men differ in every detail. Some have more industry, or more strength, or more cunning, or more foresight, or more acquisitiveness than others. How are you to prevent these men from becoming richer than the rest?”

“I should not try to,” I said. “These differences in men are fundamental, and not to be abolished by legislation; neither are the instincts you speak of in themselves injurious. Civilization, in fact, rests upon them. It is only in their excess that they become destructive. It is right and wise and proper for men to accumulate sufficient wealth to maintain their age in peace, dignity and plenty, and to be able to start their children into the arena of life sufficiently equipped. A thousand men in a community worth $10,000 or $50,000, or even $100,000 each, may be a benefit, perhaps a blessing; but one man worth fifty or one hundred millions, or, as we have them now-a-days, one thousand millions, is a threat against the safety and happiness of every man in the world. I should establish a maximum beyond which no man could own property. I should not stop his accumulations when he had reached that point, for with many men accumulation is an instinct; but I should require him to invest the surplus, under the direction of a governmental board of management, in great works for the benefit of the laboring classes. He should establish schools, colleges, orphan asylums, hospitals, model residences, gardens, parks, libraries, baths, places of amusement, music-halls, sea-side excursions in hot weather, fuel societies in cold weather, etc., etc. I should permit him to secure immortality by affixing his name to his benevolent works; and I should honor him still further by placing his statue in a great national gallery set apart to perpetuate forever the memory of the benefactors of the race.”

“But,” said Maximilian, with a smile, “it would not take long for your rich men, with their surplus wealth, to establish all those works you speak of. What would you do with the accumulations of the rest?”

“Well,” said I, “we should find plenty to do. We would put their money, for instance, into a great fund and build national railroads, that would bring the productions of the farmers to the workmen, and those of the workmen to the farmers, at the least cost of transportation, and free from the exactions of speculators and middlemen. Thus both farmers and workmen would live better, at less expense and with less toil.”

“All very pretty,” said he; “but your middlemen would starve.

“Not at all,” I replied; “the cunning never starve. There would be such a splendid era of universal prosperity that they would simply turn their skill and shrewdness into some new channels, in which, however, they would have to give something of benefit, as an equivalent for the benefits they received. Now they take the cream, and butter, and beef, while some one else has to raise, feed and milk the cow.”

“But,” said he, “all this would not help our farmers in their present condition — they are blotted off the land.”

“True,” I replied; “but just as I limited a man’s possible wealth, so should I limit the amount of land he could own. I would fix a maximum of, say, 100 or 500 acres, or whatever amount might be deemed just and reasonable. I should abolish all corporations, or turn them back into individual partnerships. Abraham Lincoln, in the great civil war of the last century, gave the Southern insurgents so many days in which to lay down their arms or lose their slaves. In the same way I should grant one or two years’ time, in which the great owners of land should sell their estates, in small tracts, to actual occupants, to be paid for in installments, on long time, without interest. And if they did not do so, then, at the end of the period prescribed, I should confiscate the lands and sell them, as the government in the old time sold the public lands, for so much per acre, to actual settlers, and turn the proceeds over to the former owners.”

“But, as you had abolished interest on money, there could be no mortgages, and the poor men would starve to death before they could raise a crop.”

“Then,” I replied, “I should invoke the power of the nation, as was done in that great civil war of 1861, and issue paper money, receivable for all taxes, and secured by the guarantee of the faith and power of five hundred million people; and make advances to carry these ruined peasants beyond the first years of distress — that money to be a loan to them, without interest, and to be repaid as a tax on their land. Government is only a machine to insure justice and help the people, and we have not yet developed half its powers. And we are under no more necessity to limit ourselves to the governmental precedents of our ancestors than we are to confine ourselves to the narrow boundaries of their knowledge, or their inventive skill, or their theological beliefs. The trouble is that so many seem to regard government as a divine something which has fallen down upon us out of heaven, and therefore not to be improved upon or even criticised; while the truth is, it is simply a human device to secure human happiness, and in itself has no more sacredness than a wheelbarrow or a cooking-pot. The end of everything earthly is the good of man; and there is nothing sacred on earth but man, because he alone shares the Divine conscience.”

“But,” said he, “would not your paper money have to be redeemed in gold or silver?”

“Not necessarily,” I replied. “The adoration of gold and silver is a superstition of which the bankers are the high priests and mankind the victims. Those metals are of themselves of little value. What should make them so?”

“Are they not the rarest and most valuable productions of the world?” said Maximilian.

“By no means,” I replied; “there are many metals that exceed them in rarity and value. While a kilogram of gold is worth about $730 and one of silver about $43.50, the same weight of iridium (the heaviest body known) costs $2,400; one of palladium, $3,075; one of calcium nearly $10,000; one of stibidium, $20,000; while vanadium, the true ‘king of metals,’ is worth $25,000 per kilogram, as against $730 for gold or $43.50 for silver.”

“Why, then, are they used as money?” he asked.

“Who can tell? The practice dates back to prehistoric ages. Man always accepts as right anything that is in existence when he is born.”

“But are they not more beautiful than other metals? And are they not used as money because acids will not corrode them?”

“No,” I replied; “some of the other metals exceed them in beauty. The diamond far surpasses them in both beauty and value, and glass resists the action of acids better than either of them.”

“What do you propose?” he asked.

“Gold and silver,” I said, “are the bases of the world’s currency. If they are abundant, all forms of paper money are abundant. If they are scarce, the paper money must shrink in proportion to the shrinkage of its foundation; if not, there come panics and convulsions, in the effort to make one dollar of gold pay three, six or ten of paper. For one hundred and fifty years the production of gold and silver has been steadily shrinking, while the population and business of the world have been rapidly increasing.

“Take a child a few years old; let a blacksmith weld around his waist an iron band. At first it causes him little inconvenience. He plays. As he grows older it becomes tighter; it causes him pain; he scarcely knows what ails him. He still grows. All his internal organs are cramped and displaced. He grows still larger; he has the head, shoulders and limbs of a man and the waist of a child. He is a monstrosity. He dies. This is a picture of the world of to-day, bound in the silly superstition of some prehistoric nation. But this is not all. Every decrease in the quantity, actual or relative, of gold and silver increases the purchasing power of the dollars made out of them; and the dollar becomes the equivalent for a larger amount of the labor of man and his productions. This makes the rich man richer and the poor man poorer. The iron band is displacing the organs of life. As the dollar rises in value, man sinks. Hence the decrease in wages; the increase in the power of wealth; the luxury of the few; the misery of the many.”

“How would you help it?” he asked.

“I would call the civilized nations together in council, and devise an international paper money, to be issued by the different nations, but to be receivable as legal tender for all debts in all countries. It should hold a fixed ratio to population, never to be exceeded; and it should be secured on all the property of the civilized world, and acceptable in payment of all taxes, national, state and municipal, everywhere. I should declare gold and silver legal tenders only for debts of five dollars or less. An international greenback that was good in New York, London, Berlin, Melbourne, Paris and Amsterdam, would be good anywhere. The world, released from its iron band, would leap forward to marvelous prosperity; there would be no financial panics, for there could be no contraction; there would be no more torpid ‘middle ages,’ dead for lack of currency, for the money of a nation would expand, pari passu, side by side with the growth of its population. There would be no limit to the development of mankind, save the capacities of the planet; and even these, through the skill of man, could be increased a thousand-fold beyond what our ancestors dreamed of. The very seas and lakes, judiciously farmed, would support more people than the earth now maintains. A million fish ova now go to waste where one grows to maturity.

“The time may come when the slow processes of agriculture will be largely discarded, and the food of man be created out of the chemical elements of which it is composed, transfused by electricity and magnetism. We have already done something in that direction in the way of synthetic chemistry. Our mountain ranges may, in after ages, be leveled down and turned into bread for the support of the most enlightened, cultured, and, in its highest sense, religious people that ever dwelt on the globe. All this is possible if civilization is preserved from the destructive power of the ignorant and brutal plutocracy, who now threaten the safety of mankind. They are like the slave-owners of 1860; they blindly and imperiously insist on their own destruction; they strike at the very hands that would save them.”

“But,” said Maximilian, “is it not right and necessary that the intellect of the world should rule the world?”

“Certainly,” I replied; “but what is intellect? It is breadth of comprehension; and this implies gentleness and love. The man whose scope of thought takes in the created world, and apprehends man’s place in nature, cannot be cruel to his fellows. Intellect, if it is selfish, is wisely selfish. It perceives clearly that such a shocking abomination as our present condition cannot endure. It knows that a few men cannot safely batten down the hatches over the starving crew and passengers, and then riot in drunken debauchery on the deck. When the imprisoned wretches in the hold become desperate enough — and it is simply a question of time — they will fire the ship or scuttle it, and the fools and their victims will all perish together. True intellect is broad, fore-sighted, wide-ranging, merciful, just. Some one said of old that ‘the gods showed what they thought of riches by the kind of people they gave them to.’ It is not the poets, the philosophers, the philanthropists, the historians, the sages, the scholars, the really intellectual of any generation who own the great fortunes. No; but there is a subsection of the brain called cunning; it has nothing to do with elevation of mind, or purity of soul, or knowledge, or breadth of view; it is the lowest, basest part of the intellect. It is the trait of foxes, monkeys, crows, rats and other vermin. It delights in holes and subterranean shelters; it will not disdain filth; it is capable of lying, stealing, trickery, knavery. Let me give you an example:

“It is recorded that when the great war broke out in this country against slavery, in 1861, there was a rich merchant in this city, named A. T. Stewart. Hundreds of thousands of men saw in the war only the great questions of the Union and the abolition of human bondage — the freeing of four millions of human beings, and the preservation of the honor of the flag; and they rushed forward eager for the fray. They were ready to die that the Nation and Liberty might live. But while their souls were thus inflamed with great and splendid emotions, and they forgot home, family, wealth, life, everything, Stewart, the rich merchant, saw simply the fact that the war would cut off communication between the North and the cotton-producing States, and that this would result in a rise in the price of cotton goods; and so, amid the wild agitations of patriotism, the beating of drums and the blaring of trumpets, he sent out his agents and bought up all the cotton goods he could lay his hands on. He made a million dollars, it is said, by this little piece of cunning. But if all men had thought and acted as Stewart did, we should have had no Union, no country, and there would be left to-day neither honor nor manhood in all the world. The nation was saved by those poor fellows who did not consider the price of cotton goods in the hour of America’s crucial agony. Their dust now billows the earth of a hundred battlefields; but their memory will be kept sweet in the hearts of men forever! On the other hand, the fortune of the great merchant, as it did no good during his life, so, after his death, it descended upon an alien to his blood; while even his wretched carcass was denied, by the irony of fate, rest under his splendid mausoleum, and may have found its final sepulchre in the stomachs of dogs!

“This little incident illustrates the whole matter. It is not Intellect that rules the world of wealth, it is Cunning. Muscle once dominated mankind — the muscle of the baron’s right arm; and Intellect had to fly to the priesthood, the monastery, the friar’s gown, for safety. Now Muscle is the world’s slave, and Cunning is the baron — the world’s master.

“Let me give you another illustration: Ten thousand men are working at a trade. One of them conceives the scheme of an invention, whereby their productive power is increased tenfold. Each of them, we will say, had been producing, by his toil, property worth four dollars and a half per day, and his wages were, we will say, one dollar and a half per day. Now, he is able with the new invention to produce property worth forty-five dollars per day. Are his wages increased in due proportion, to fifteen dollars per day, or even to five dollars per day? Not at all. Cunning has stepped in and examined the poor workman’s invention; it has bought it from him for a pittance; it secures a patent — a monopoly under the shelter of unwise laws. The workmen still get their $1.50 per day, and Cunning pockets the remainder. But this is not all: If one man can now do the work of ten, then there are nine men thrown out of employment. But the nine men must live; they want the one man’s place; they are hungry; they will work for less; and down go wages, until they reach the lowest limit at which the workmen can possibly live. Society has produced one millionaire and thousands of paupers. The millionaire cannot eat any more or wear any more than one prosperous yeoman, and therefore is of no more value to trade and commerce; but the thousands of paupers have to be supported by the tax-payers, and they have no money to spend, and they cannot buy the goods of the merchants, or the manufacturers, and all business languishes. In short, the most utterly useless, destructive and damnable crop a country can grow is — millionaires. If a community were to send. to India and import a lot of man-eating tigers, and turn them loose on the streets, to prey on men, women and children, they would not inflict a tithe of the misery that is caused by a like number of millionaires. And there would be this further disadvantage: the inhabitants of the city could turn out and kill the tigers, but the human destroyers are protected by the benevolent laws of the very people they are immolating on the altars of wretchedness and vice.”

“But what is your remedy?” asked Max.

“Government,” I replied; “government — national, state and municipal — is the key to the future of the human race.

“There was a time when the town simply represented cowering peasants, clustered under the shadow of the baron’s castle for protection. It advanced slowly and reluctantly along the road of civic development, scourged forward by the whip of necessity. We have but to expand the powers of government to solve the enigma of the world. Man separated is man savage; man gregarious is man civilized. A higher development in society requires that this instrumentality of co-operation shall be heightened in its powers. There was a time when every man provided, at great cost, for the carriage of his own letters. Now the government, for an infinitely small charge, takes the business off his hands. There was a time when each house had to provide itself with water. Now the municipality furnishes water to all. The same is true of light. At one time each family had to educate its own children; now the state educates them. Once every man went armed to protect himself. Now the city protects him by its armed police. These hints must be followed out. The city of the future must furnish doctors for all; lawyers for all; entertainments for all; business guidance for all. It will see to it that no man is plundered, and no man starved, who is willing to work.”

“But,” said Max, “if you do away with interest on money and thus scatter coagulated capital into innumerable small enterprises, how are you going to get along without the keen-brained masters of business, who labor gigantically for gigantic personal profits; but who, by their toll and their capital, bring the great body of producers into relation with the great body of consumers? Are these men not necessary to society? Do they not create occasion and opportunity for labor? Are not their active and powerful brains at the back of all progress? There may be a thousand men idling, and poorly fed and clothed, in a neighborhood: along comes one of these shrewd adventurers; he sees an opportunity to utilize the bark of the trees and the ox-hides of the farmers’ cattle, and he starts a tannery. He may accumulate more money than the thousand men he sets to work; but has he not done more? Is not his intellect immeasurably more valuable than all those unthinking muscles?”

“There is much force in your argument,” I replied, “and I do not think that society should discourage such adventurers. But the muscles of the many are as necessary to the man you describe as his intellect is to the muscles; and as they are all men together there should be some equity in the distribution of the profits. And remember, we have gotten into a way of thinking as if numbers and wealth were everything. It is better for a nation to contain thirty million people, prosperous, happy and patriotic, than one hundred millions, ignorant, wretched and longing for an opportunity to overthrow all government. The over-population of the globe will come soon enough. We have no interest in hurrying it. The silly ancestors of the Americans called it ‘national development’ when they imported millions of foreigners to take up the public lands, and left nothing for their own children.

“And here is another point: Men work at first for a competence — for enough to lift them above the reach of want in those days which they know to be rapidly approaching, when they can no longer toil. But, having reached that point, they go on laboring for vanity — one of the shallowest of the human passions. The man who is worth $ 100,000 says to himself, ‘There is Jones; he is worth $500,000; he lives with a display and extravagance I cannot equal. I must increase my fortune to half a million.’ Jones, on the other hand, is measuring himself against Brown, who has a million. He knows that men cringe lower to Brown than they do to him. He must have a million — half a million is nothing. And Brown feels that he is overshadowed by Smith, with his ten millions; and so the childish emulation continues. Men are valued, not for themselves, but for their bank account. In the meantime these vast concentrations of capital are made at the expense of mankind. If, in a community of a thousand persons, there are one hundred millions of wealth, and it is equally divided between them, all are comfortable and happy. If, now, ten men, by cunning devices, grasp three-fourths of all this wealth, and put it in their pockets, there is but one-fourth left to divide among the nine hundred and ninety, and they are therefore poor and miserable. Within certain limits accumulation in one place represents denudation elsewhere.

“And thus, under the stimulus of shallow vanity,” I continued, “a rivalry of barouches and bonnets — an emulation of waste and extravagance — all the powers of the minds of men are turned — not to lift up the world, but to degrade it. A crowd of little creatures — men and women — are displayed upon a high platform, in the face of mankind, parading and strutting about, with their noses in the air, as tickled as a monkey with a string of beads, and covered with a glory which is not their own, but which they have been able to purchase; crying aloud: ‘Behold what I have got!’ not, ‘Behold what I am!

“And then the inexpressible servility of those below them! The fools would not recognize Socrates if they fell over him in the street; but they can perceive Crœsus a mile off; they can smell him a block away; and they will dislocate their vertebræ abasing themselves before him. It reminds one of the time of Louis XIV. in France, when millions of people were in the extremest misery — even unto starvation; while great grandees thought it the acme of earthly bliss and honor to help put the king to bed, or take off his dirty socks. And if a common man, by any chance, caught a glimpse of royalty changing its shirt, he felt as if he had looked into heaven and beheld Divinity creating worlds. Oh, it is enough to make a man loathe his species.”

“Come, come,” said Maximilian, “you grow bitter. Let us go to dinner before you abolish all the evils of the world, or I shall be disposed to quit New York and buy a corner lot in Utopia.”

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37