Moving the Mountain, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 6

OUT of the mass of information offered by my new family and the pleasant friends we met, together with the books and publications profusely piling around me, I felt it necessary to make a species of digest for my own consideration. This I submitted to Nellie, Owen, and one or two others, adding suggestions and corrections; and thus established in my own mind a coherent view of what had happened.

In the first place, as Owen repeatedly assured me, nothing was done — finished — brought to static perfection.

“Thirty years isn’t much, you see,” he said cheerfully. “I dare say if you’d been here all along you wouldn’t think it was such a great advance. We have removed some obvious and utterly unnecessary evils, and cleared the ground for new beginnings; but what we are going to do is the exciting thing!

“Now you think it is so wonderful that we have no poverty. We think it is still more wonderful that a world of even partially sane people could have borne poverty so long.”

We naturally discussed this point a good deal, and they brought up a little party of the new economists to enlighten me — Dr. Harkness, sociologist; Mr. Alfred Brown, Department of Production; Mrs. Allerton of the Local Transportation Bureau; and a young fellow named Pike, who had written a little book on “Distinctive Changes of Three Decades,” which I found very useful.

“It was such a simple matter, after all, you see,” the sociologist explained to me, in an amiable class-room manner.

“Suppose now you were considering the poverty of one family, an isolated family, sir. Now, if this family was poor, it would be due to the limitations of the individual or of the environment. Limitations of the individual would cover inefficiency, false theory of industry, ill-judged division of labor, poor system of production, or misuse of product. Limitation of environment would, of course, apply to climate, soil, natural products, etc. No amount of health, intelligence or virtue could make Iceland rich — if it was completely isolated; nor England, for that matter, owing to the inexorable limitations of that environment.

“Here in this country we have no complaint to make of our natural resources. The soil is capable of sustaining an enormous population. So we have merely to consider the limitations of individuals, transferring our problem from the isolated family to the general public.

“What do we find? All the limitations I enumerated! Inefficiency — nearly every one below par in working power in the generation before last, as well as miserably educated; false theories of industry everywhere — idiotic notions as to what work was ‘respectable’ and what wasn’t, more idiotic notions of payment; worst of all, most idiotic ideas that work was a curse . . . Might as well call digestion a curse! Dear! Dear! How benighted we were!

“Then there was ill-judged division of labor — almost universal; that evil. For instance, look at this one point; half the workers of the world, nearly, were restricted to one class of labor, and that in the lowest industrial grade.”

“He means women, in housework, John,” Nellie interpolated. “We never used to think of that as part of our economic problem.”

“It was a very serious part,” the professor continued, hastily forestalling the evident intention of Mr. Brown to strike in, “but there were many others. The obvious utility of natural specialization in labor seemed scarcely to occur to us. Our system of production was archaic in the extreme; practically no system was followed.”

“You must give credit to the work of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Harkness,” urged Mr. Brown, “the introduction of new fruits, the improvement of stocks ”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Dr. Harkness, “the rudiments were there, of course; but no real grasp of organized productivity. And as to misuse of product — why, my dear Mr. Robertson, it is a wonder anybody had enough to live on in those days, in view of our criminal waste.

“The real turning point, Mr. Robertson, if we can put our finger on one, is where the majority of the people recognized the folly and evil of poverty — and saw it to be a thing of our own making. We saw that our worst poverty was poverty in the stock — that we raised a terrible percentage of poor people. Then we established a temporary Commission on Human Efficiency, away back in 1913 or 14 ”

“Thirteen,” put in Mr. Pike, who sat back listening to Dr. Harkness with an air of repressed superiority.

“Thank you,” said the eminent sociologist courteously. “These young fellows have it all at their fingers’ ends, Mr. Robertson. Better methods in education nowadays, far better! As I was saying, we established a Commission on Human Effi — ciency.”

“You will remember the dawning notions of ‘scientific management’ we began to have in the first decade of the new century,” Mrs. Allerton quietly suggested. “It occurred to us later to apply it to ourselves — and we did.”

“The Commission found that the majority of human beings were not properly reared,” Dr. Harkness resumed, “with a resultant low standard of efficiency — shockingly low; and that the loss was not merely to the individual but to the community. Then Society stretched out a long arm and took charge of the work of humaniculture — began to lift the human standard.

“I won’t burden you with details on that line at present; it touched but one cause of poverty after all. The false theory of industry was next to be changed. A few far-seeing persons were already writing and talking about work as an organic social function, but the sudden spread of it came through the new religion.”

“And the new voters, Dr. Harkness,” my sister added.

He smiled at her benevolently. A large, comfortable, full-bearded, rosy old gentleman was Dr. Harkness, and evidently in full enjoyment of his present task.

“Let us never forget the new voters, of course. They have ceased to be thought of as new, Mr. Robertson — so easily does the human mind accept established conditions. The new religion urged work — normal, well-adapted work — as the duty of life — as life itself; and the new voters accepted this idea as one woman.

“They were, as a class, used to doing their duty in patient industry, generally distasteful to them; and the opportunity of doing work they liked — with a sense of higher duty added — was universally welcomed.”

“I certainly remember a large class of women who practiced no industry at all — no duty, either, unless what they called ‘social duties.” I rather sourly remarked. Mrs. Allerton took me up with sudden heat:

“Yes, there were such, in large numbers, in our great cities particularly; but public opinion was rising against them even as far back as 1910. The more progressive women turned the light on them first, and then men took it up and began to see that this domestic pet was not only expensive and useless but injurious and absurd. I don’t suppose we can realize,” she continued meditatively,

“how complete the change in public opinion is — and how supremely important. In visible material progress we have only followed simple lines, quite natural and obvious, and accomplished what was perfectly possible at any time — if we had only thought so.”

“That’s the point!” Mr. Pike was unable to preserve his air of restraint any longer, and burst forth volubly.

“That was the greatest, the most sudden, the most vital of our changes, sir — the: change in the world’s thought! Ideas are the real things, sir! Brick and mortar? Bah! We can put brick and mortar in any shape we choose — but we have to choose first! What held the old world back was not facts — not conditions — not any material limitations, or psychic limitations either. We had every constituent of human happiness, sir — except the sense to use them. The channel of progress was obstructed with a deposit of prehistoric ideas. We choked up our children’s minds with this mental refuse as we choked our rivers and harbors with material refuse, sir.”

Dr. Harkness still smiled. “Mr. Pike was in my class ten years ago,” he observed amiably. “I always said he was the brightest young man I had. We are all very proud of Mr. Pike.”

Mr. Pike seemed not over pleased with this communication, and the old gentleman went on:

“He is entirely right. Our idiotic ideas and theories were the main causes of poverty after all. The new views on economics — true social economics, not the “dismal science’; with the blaze of the new religion to show what was right and wrong, and the sudden uprising of half the adult world — the new voters — to carry out the new ideas; these were what changed things! There you have it, Mr. Robertson, in a nutshell — rather a large nutshell, a pericarp, as it were — but I think that covers it.”

“We students used always to admire Dr. Harkness’ power of easy generalization,” said Mr. Pike, in a mild, subacid tone, “but if any ground of inquiry is left to you, Mr. Robertson, I could, perhaps, illuminate some special points.”

Dr. Harkness laughed in high good humor, and clapped his whilom pupil on the back.

“You have the floor, Mr. Pike — I shall listen to you with edification.”

The young man looked a little ashamed of his small irony, and continued more genially:

“Our first step — or one of our first steps, for we advanced like a strenuous centipede — was to check the birth of defectives and degenerates. Certain classes of criminals and perverts were rendered incapable of reproducing their kind. In the matter of those diseases most injurious to the young, very stringent measures were taken. It was made a felony to infect wife or child knowingly, and a misdemeanor if it were done unknowingly. Physicians were obliged to report all cases of infectious disease, and young girls were clearly taught the consequence of marriage with infected persons. The immediate result was, of course, a great decrease in marriage; but the increase in population was scarce checked at all because of the lowered death rate among children. It was checked a little; but for twenty years now, it has been recovering itself. We increase a little too fast now, but see every hope of a balanced population long before the resources of the world are exhausted.”

Mr. Brown seized upon a second moment’s pause to suggest that the world’s resources were vastly increased also — and still increasing.

“Let Pike rest a moment and get his breath,” he said, warming to the subject, “I want to tell Mr. Robertson that the productivity of the earth is gaining every year. Here’s this old earth feeding us all — laying golden eggs as it were; and we used to get those eggs by the Caesarian operation! We uniformly exhausted the soil — uniformly! Now a man would no more think of injuring the soil, the soil that feeds him, than he would of hurting his mother. We steadily improve the soil; we improve the seed; we improve methods of culture; we improve everything.”

Mrs. Allerton struck in here, “Not forgetting the methods of transportation, Mr. Robertson. There was one kind of old world folly which made great waste of labor and time; that was our constant desire to eat things out of season. There is now a truer sense of what is really good eating; no one wants to eat asparagus that is not of the best, and asparagus cut five or ten days cannot be really good. We do not carry things about unnecessarily; and the carrying we do is swift, easy and economical. For slow freight we use waterways wherever possible — you will be pleased to see the “all-water routes’ that thread the country now. And our roads — you haven’t seen our roads yet! We lead the world.”

“We used to be at the foot of the class as to roads, did we not?” I asked; and Mr. Pike swiftly answered:

“We did, indeed, sir. But that very need of good roads made easy to us the second step in abolishing poverty. Here was a great social need calling for labor; here were thousands of men calling for employment; and here were we keeping the supply from the demand by main strength — merely from those archaic ideas of ours.

“We had a mass of valuable data already collected, and now that the whole country teemed with new ideals of citizenship and statesmanship, it did not take very long to get the two together.”

“We furnished employment for all the women, too,” my sister added. “A Social Service Union was formed the country over; it was part of the new religion. Every town has one — men and women. The same spirit that used to give us crusaders and missionaries now gave plenty of enthusiastic workers.”

“I don’t see yet how you got up any enthusiasm about work,” said I.

“It was not work for oneself,” Nellie explained. “That is what used to make it so sordid; we used really to believe that we were working each for himself. This new idea was overwhelming in its simplicity — and truth; work is social service — social service is religion — that’s about it.”

“Not only so,” Dr. Harkness added, “it made a three-fold appeal; to the old, deep-seated religious sense; to the new, vivid in tellectual acceptance; and to the very wide-spread, wholesome appreciation of a clear advantage.

“When a thing was offered to the world that agreed with every social instinct, that appealed to common sense, that was established by the highest scientific authority, and that had the overwhelming sanction of religion — why the world took to it.”

“But it is surely not natural to people to work — much less to like to work!” I protested.

“There’s where the change comes in,” Mr. Pike eagerly explained. “We used to think that people hated work — nothing of the sort! What people hated was too much I work, which is death; work they were personally unfit for and therefore disliked, which is torture; work under improper conditions, which is disease; work held con temptible, looked down upoh by other people, which is a grievous social distress; and work so ill-paid that no human beings could really live by it.”

“Why Mr. Robertson, if you can throw any light on the now inconceivable folly of that time so utterly behind us, we shall be genuinely indebted to you. It was quite understood in your day that the whole world’s life, comfort, prosperity and progress depended upon the work done, was it not?”

“Why, of course; that was an economic platitude,” I answered.

“Then why were the workers punished for doing it?”

“Punished? What do you mean?”

“I mean just what I say. They were punished, just as we punish criminals — with confinement at hard labor. The great mass of the people were forced to labor for cruelly long hours at dull, distasteful occupations; is not that punishment?”

“Not at all,” I said hotly. “They were free at any time to leave an occupation they did not like.”

Leave it for what alternative?” To take up another,” said I, perceiving that this, after all, was not much of an escape.

“Yes, to take up another under the same heavy conditions, if there was any opening; or to starve — that was their freedom.”

“Well, what would you have?” I asked. “A man must work for his living surely.”

“Remember your economic platitude, Mr.

Robertson,” Dr. Harkness suggested. “The whole world’s life, comfort, prosperity and progress depends upon the work done, you know. It was not their living they were working for; it was the world’s.”

“That is very pretty as a sentiment,” I was beginning; but his twinkling eye reminded that an economic platitude is not precisely sentimental.

“That’s where the change came,” Mr. Pike eagerly repeated. “The idea that each man had to do it for himself kept us blinded to the fact that it was all social service; that they worked for the world, and the world treated them shamefully — so shamefully that their product was deteriorated, markedly deteriorated.”

“You will be continually surprised, Mr. Robertson, at the improvements of our output,” remarked Mr. Brown. “We have standards in every form of manuf acture, required standards; and to label an article in correctly is a misdemeanor.”

“That was just starting in the pure-food agitation, you remember,” my sister put in — (‘with apple juice containing one-tenth of one per cent, of benzoate of soda’).” “And now,” Mr. Brown continued, “ ‘all wool’ is all wool; if it isn’t, you can have the dealer arrested. Silk is silk, nowadays, and cream is cream.”

“And ‘caveat emptor’ is a dead letter?” “Yes, it is ‘caveat vendor’ now. You see, selling goods is public service.”

“You apply that term quite differently from what it stood for in my memory,” said I.

“It used to mean some sort of beneficent statesmanship, at first,” Nellie agreed. “Then it spread to various philanthropic efforts and wider grades of government activities. Now it means any kind of world work.”

She saw that this description did not carry much weight with me, and added, “Any kind of human work, John; that is, work a man gives his whole time to and does not himself consume, is world work — is social service.”

“If a man raises, by his own labor, just enough to feed himself — that is working for himself,” Mr. Brown explained, “but if he raises more corn than he consumes, he is serving humanity.”

“But he does not give it away,” I urged; “he is paid for it.”

“Well, you paid the doctor who saved your child’s life, but the doctor’s work was social service none the less — and the teacher’s — anybody’s.”

“But that kind of work benefits humanity — ”

“Yes, and does it not benefit humanity to eat — to have shoes and clothes and houses? John, John, wake up!” Nellie for the first time showed impatience with me. But my brother-in-law extended a protecting arm.

Now, Nellie, don’t hurry him. This thing will burst upon him all at once. Of course, it’s glaringly plain, but there was a time when you and I did not see it either.”

I was a little sulky. “Well, as far as I gather,” and I took out my note book, “people all of a sudden changed all their ideas about everything — and your demi-millennium followed.”

“I wish we could say that,” said Mrs. Allerton. “We axe not telling you of our present day problems and difficulties, you see. No, Mr. Robertson, we have merely removed our most obvious and patently unnecessary difficulties, of which poverty was at least the largest.

“What we did, as we have rather confusedly suggested, I’m afraid, was to establish such measures as to insure better births, and vastly better environment and education for every child. That raised the standard of the people, you see, and increased their efficiency. Then we provided employment for everyone, under good conditions, and improved the world in two ways at once.”

“And who paid for this universal employment?” I asked.

“Who paid for it before?” she returned promptly.

“The employer, of course.”

“Did he? Out of his own private pocket? At a loss to himself.”

“Why, of course not,” I replied, a little nettled. “Out of the profits of the business.”

“And ‘the business’ was the work done by the employees?”

“Not at all! He did it himself; they only furnished the labor.”

“Could he do it alone — without ‘labor?’ Did he furnish employment as a piece of beneficence, outside of his business — Ah, Mr. Robertson, surely it is clear that unless a man’s labor furnished a profit to his employer, he would not be employed. It was on that profit that ‘labor’ was paid — they paid themselves. They do now, but at a higher rate.”

I was annoyed by this clever juggling with the hard facts of business.

“That is very convincing, Mrs. Allerton,” I said with some warmth, “but it unfortunately omits certain factors. A lot of laborers could make a given article, of course; but they could not sell it — and that is where the profit comes in. What good would it do the laborer to pile up goods if he could not sell them?”

“And what good would be the ability to sell goods if there were none, Mr. Robertson. Of course, I recognize the importance of transportation; that is my own line of work, but there must be something to transport. As long ago as St. Paul’s day it was known that the hand could not say to the foot, ‘I have no need of thee.’”

“To cover that ground more easily, Mr. Robertson,” Dr. Harkness explained, “just put down in your digest there that Bureaus of Employment were formed all over the country; some at first were of individual initiative, but in a few years’ time all were in government management. There was a swift and general improvement in the whole country. The roads became models to the world, the harbors were cleared, canals dug, cities rebuilt, bare hills reforested, the value of our national property doubled and trebled — all owing to the employment of hitherto neglected labor. Out of the general increase of wealth they got their share, of course. And where there is work for everyone, at good wages, there is no poverty; that’s clearly seen.”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17