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Plutocracy

I DESIRE to preface this chapter by some statements regarding the legitimacy and rights of private wealth. Both have sure standing ground in Christian ethics. Nothing can be more irrational, nothing less justified, than an indiscriminate outcry against the owners of wealth. The man who by honest skill, industry, and thrift, amasses for himself a fortune must, in the very process, practice and develop certain qualities which in themselves are essential traits of Christian character. I find a list of these qualities nowhere better suggested than by Dr. W. M. Clow. "Industry, fidelity, foresight, careful attention to details, self-denial, and a wise regard to a man's spending and pleasuring. No man can achieve riches without a constant self-control, a careful providence, and a costly observance of the virtues which all men find difficult."

No interpretation of Christ's utterances concerning wealth and some of these are very severe can be justly construed as a condemnation of wealth per se. That Christ did most vividly portray the responsibilities of wealth is beyond question. He uniformly preached its possession as a grave moral trust. For its use its holder in every instance is held strictly responsible as a steward who must give account of his stewardship.

The rich must be rich in alms for the needy. It is their privilege to create and contribute to appliances for the development and education of artistic, technical, and special gifts, gifts which may finally serve the common good. As elsewhere indicated, it is difficult to conceive how the finer cultural interests of society can either be best or well served without a liberal consecration of privately directed wealth. Even Mr. Hillquit acknowledges that for most of its special and valuable endowments society is indebted to the gifts of private wealth. He says, "To this capitalist system of wealth distribution we are largely indebted for our libraries, our hospitals, rescue missions, and charitable institutions of all descriptions."

Its investment in the development of industrial and commercial interests is an entirely legitimate use of wealth. None is to be more respected than he who uses his trained experience and talent in the development of legitimate and useful business. Such a man is a benefactor.

A fact worthy of special emphasis is that in periods of industrial depression many privately owned enter-prises are conducted principally with reference to the good of labor. Many such enterprises, while paying their labor the highest wages of the market, are producing only the narrowest margins of profit, if not even suffering financial loss. In some cases the demand for the commodity dealt with is so limited, or, as in most cases, the competition of business is so keen and close, as to make impossible any special division of earnings as above actual wages paid to labor employed.

This benevolent course on the part of ownership so largely characterizes the average business world as to make it little less than an atrocity for the socialistic writer, or organized labor, to indiscriminately charge the business proprietor as being a robber of the poor.

The man who assumes the capitalistic risk of con-ducting a business, paying his labor the highest wage of the market, thereby leaving for himself only a legitimate income and a narrow margin for capital invested, merits commendation as a benefactor in his community.

Christ did not condemn the possession of wealth per se. His pictures, however, of the perils of wealth are so appalling as almost to make one feel that it is better and safer to be poor than to be rich. The rich man who trusteth in his riches cannot hope to enter into the kingdom of heaven. It were easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. An insidious deceit-fulness attends the lust of wealth which chokes the very word of life out of the human soul. The rich man who trusted to the abundance of his treasure, and, therefore, proposed for himself a life of banqueting and pleasure is characterized by Christ as a fool. And he adds, "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God." A young man, so outwardly attractive in character as especially to challenge the interest of Jesus, came to him asking what he should do to gain eternal life. Christ said unto him, "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven : and come, follow me." And when he heard this he was very sorrowful, for he was very rich. Saint Paul says, "They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." Saint James pronounces the most caustic woes against the rich who oppress the poor and defraud the laborer.

The trend of New Testament teaching unmistakably makes the possession of wealth a great responsibility. Its spirit demands of the rich that they treat their wealth as a moral trust. No rich proprietor has a right to revel in a surplus of wealth while those who have reaped down his fields or toiled for wage at his machines are forced to do with the barest necessities of life. The capitalist who employs an army of labor at a barely living wage and who inordinately swells his private fortune makes no atonement for such a wrong by ostentatiously founding and endowing institutions for the public.

Selfishness is a great foe of social and moral progress. Between the enlightened Christian conscience and worldly selfishness there is, and must be, irrepressible conflict. Selfishness detrimental to both individual and social welfare is not confined to any one class or condition of men. It is as positively a characteristic of the poor as of the rich, of those socially most helpless as of those in privileged life. Selfishness is a great detraction from character. However environed, no one can come to his best save as, by the transforming power of higher motives, the spirit of selfishness the kind of selfishness which seeks its own end regardless of the interest of others has been dethroned from the life.

In all the range of human motives there is probably no single factor in connection with which selfishness shows its moral obliquity, or its heartless despotism, more supremely than in the acquisition and uses of money. The tyrannies of selfishness have marked the pathway of history with tragedies. It is the foundation upon which all despotisms have been planted. It has been the breeder of slaveries, of castes, of spurious aristocracies, and of all kinds of invidious distinctions which all through the ages have disfranchised the multitudes from participation in the higher attainments of manhood. It has been the fruitful corrupter of morals, the betrayer of the innocent, and, clad in priestly robes, it has audaciously performed its functions at the very altar dedicated to the high purposes of religion.

Selfishness is the one power which through the ages has sent right to the scaffold, and has kept wrong upon the throne, yet it has been reserved for this most en-lightened and privileged age of civilization to erect on the basis of money one of the most widespread, arrogant, and heartless of despotisms. There never was a despotism that held under its dominion a larger census of defenseless subjects than the money power of this Christian age.

It is not the purpose of this discussion to deny the legitimacy of money, nor yet to inveigh against large capitalistic combinations in promotion of world-serving enterprises. I do, however, distinctly challenge the moral legitimacy of capitalistic monopolies which more and more include within the control of huge and close corporations the industries of a nation; corporations directed by a privileged few, and from whose counsels and revenues the masses are excluded, and whose combined power and policies make it practically impossible for men of smaller capital successfully to enter the field in competitive enterprise.

I know something of what is said in justification of monopolies. They profess to serve the greater community with the best product and at prices as reason-able as is consistent with the most economical creation and distribution of the product itself. They claim to be able to regulate the quantities of production, the prices of sale, and thus to give stability to industry and to the market. And if it be true that the great combinations exclude a multitude of lesser capitalists from entering successfully into businesses directed by them-selves, it is claimed as a compensating offset that the really capable, those who might otherwise become proprietors, are sought to fill responsible and remunerative, though subordinate, positions in the combinations. Thus the trusts appear ostensibly in the role of philanthropic guarantors against financial want in behalf of those whom they select as having valuable business and executive ability for their service. So a multitude of salaried men, who are notified by a decree as inexorable as fate that they will never be permitted to enter business for themselves, may have reason for devout gratitude that through the sovereign power, wisdom, and beneficence of the gigantic machine, they will be permitted to live in physical comfort throughout their days.

Who with his soul thoroughly imbued with Christ's conception of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man does not feel, even if he is unable to define, the great moral wrong inhering in the situation ? The very basic assumptions of capitalistic and selfish monopoly are an affront against all the better ideals of civilization. As institutions these monopolies are a menace to democratic government. Their practical tendency is to install over the very life of the nation a soulless, arrogant, and irresistible oligarchy.

No less able and eminent an authority than President Wilson in his recent articles on "The New Freedom" has vigorously voiced the dangers inhering in the situation. He says :

The life of the nation has grown infinitely variant. It does not center now upon questions of governmental structure or of the distribution of governmental powers. It centers upon questions of the very structure and operation of society itself, of which government is only the instrument. . . . A new nation seems to have been created which the old formulas do not fit or afford a vital interpretation of.... There is a sense in which in our day the individual has been submerged. . .. While most men are thus submerged in the corporation, a few, a very few, are exalted to power which as individuals they could never have wielded. To-day the every-day relationships of men are largely with great impersonal concerns, with organizations, not with other individual men. ... Our laws still deal with us on the basis of the old system. . . . What this country needs above everything else is a body of laws which will look after the men who are on the make rather than the men who are already made. . . . No country can afford to have its prosperity originated by a small controlling class. . . . In the new order government and business must be associated closely.... But it is an intolerable thing that the government of the republic should have got so far out of the hands of the people, should have been captured by interests which are special and not general. In the train of this capture follow the troops of scandals, wrongs, indecencies, with which our politics swarm. . . . Why are we in the presence, why are we on the threshold, of a revolution? . . . Don't you know that this country from one end to the other believes that something is wrong? .. . We are in a temper to reconstruct economic society, as we were once in a temper to reconstruct political society, and political society itself may undergo a radical modification in the process. . . . We are upon the eve of a great reconstruction. It calls for creative statesmanship.'

The single fact which I wish to emphasize in this casual discussion of the selfishly monopolistic corporations is that in so far as they dominate the character and policies of our economic civilization they stand directly opposed to the progress of vital Christianity and of true church life in the community. Their spirit and policies are in direct antagonism to the real brother-hood of man in Christ Jesus. These statements may seem like a hard arraignment; but, if so, the arraignment is intended against the tendency and effect of a certain type of institutions rather than against the personal character or motives of individuals who may be interested in promoting these institutions. I am quite aware of all that may be said in commendation of great benevolences which have been initiated by men grown rich through the monopolistic corporation.

I know something of the vast endowments which from the same general sources have been conferred upon universities, libraries, hospitals, and other benevolent public institutions. I have no doubt of the great intrinsic values inhering in such endowments as reenforcing needed agencies for promoting the public welfare. But, after all, I am impressed that, in the light of a clear and unprejudiced moral judgment, it must be conceded that the very ability of so many private individuals to bestow phenomenally large endowments upon public institutions is itself a symptom of an unideal, an essentially abnormal, condition of the economic world.

With reference to great numbers of individuals promoting and benefiting by the monopolistic trust both exceptional ability and high personal character must be promptly conceded. That they are conscientious, benevolent, and in many cases men of rare insight, men often of exceptional personal and social charm, is readily to be admitted. But these men have been intensely educated in the direction of their own pursuits. They see things in their own light. They are largely the creation of the very interests to which they have so fully given their devotion. The very interests which have absorbed them, and the exceptional gains which they have realized, have filled their vision with a lure which has given both color and limitation to their social and moral judgments.

Not all great capitalists are to be indiscriminately condemned. They, in their very monopolistic ambitions, in their essentially selfish modes of life, in their practical isolation of themselves into a select oligarchy in these, and in kindred qualities so conspicuously represented in the lives of the extremely rich, we see only the fateful product of a plutocratic philosophy. That such men are often benevolent is a testimony to their essential humanity. In the large benefactions which they now and then bestow the story of at least their partial triumph over motives which would prompt them to be utterly hard and sordid is told.

I recur to a single sentence used by President Wilson. Speaking of the fact that the government of the republic has been so largely "captured by interests which are special and not general," he says : "In the train of this capture follow the troops of scandals, wrongs, indecencies, with which our politics swarm." President Wilson speaks as a man of large observation of, and participation in, public life. Presumably, he is not indulging in mere rhetorical fulminations. He knows something of methods used by great corporate interests in connection with politics and legislation.

The financial interests have sought and secured large political control. The venal voter has been bribed at the ballot-box, and legislative majorities have been purchased. Through practical control of lawmaking bodies great sources of natural wealth have been as-signed to corporate interests without corresponding compensation to the public treasury or to the general welfare. Exclusive and most valuable franchises have been secured at but trifling costs, while the public, who should be the larger sharer in the benefits of these franchises, is forced to pay high tribute to these private corporations for its privileges. The press, omnipresent in influence, and which ought to be one of the most free, fearless, and illuminating teachers of righteousness, which ought to stand in unflinching advocacy of the rights of all men, is largely venalized by, and its great powers prostituted to, corporate greed. It goes, and should go, without the saying, that, morally measured, there are grades and grades of corporate interests. But still in the interests of greed essentially the most infamous and powerful combinations are effected. The liquor interest, highly capitalized, is not only enlisted in the murderous mission of making drunkards by the wholesale, but it is in leagued alliance with the traffickers in prostitution and the recruiting agencies of white slavery. Traffics in these nefarious missions are so lucrative that their promoters stop not short of attempts to corrupt the municipal courts, and to bribe the officers of public safety into collusion and silence. The role of iniquitous traffics and of evil agencies, all instituted and employed in the interests of mammon, is too long for review. The whole list furnishes a dismal, frightful, and tragic arraignment of human nature.

But perhaps, for our present purpose, the most pertinent phase of the larger question is that which is now staged in the relations between capital and labor. Aside from the two great forces which may not improperly be designated as capital and labor, there is a large other section which is sometimes named as the "middle class." With this latter class we need not here concern ourselves.

In the last sixty years the wealth of this nation has increased well up toward two thousand per cent. Our present national wealth does not fall far, if any, short of $140,000,000,000. This figure is something amazing, and yet it is likely to be vastly increased in near decades to come. It may in a general way be safely said that the vast wealth-producing power of America came hand in hand with the general introduction of machinery. To the economic student it is but a truism to say that with the introduction of machinery the relations of labor to capital were not only radically, but well-nigh universally, changed.

The introduction of machinery meant the passing out of the private artisan. It meant the advent of the big factory and the big capitalistic combination. It was the prophecy, quick of culmination, of what we now see, namely, upon the one hand, huge corporations in control of railroads, factories, and all the implements of production; upon the other hand, a vast army of labor empty-handed, waiting at the gates of the corporation to sell its toil.

The situation does not require much analysis. It is evident that in any industrial conflict the corporation will have immense advantage over labor. Allan L. Benson calls attention to the fact that "The Stanley Steel Committee's investigation showed that by a system of interlocking directorates, eighteen men control $35,000,000,000 of industrial property." The corporations are in position to set the price both upon products and upon labor. The corporations, without reference to larger public needs, have the power to limit production to the line of most satisfactory profit to their directors. The corporations can water their stock, either for the purpose of selling at an exorbitant price to an innocent public, or to cover up the appearance of earning in-ordinate dividends on capital invested.

The corporations can at any time close a factory, and thus throw a thousand men out of employment, and the men are helpless. The corporations, many of them, use automatic machinery which can readily be worked by women and children. The labor of women and children is cheaper than that of men. And so where the State has not interfered and the State has interfered in too few cases-delicate women and sensitive growing children are overtaxed in the relentless demand to keep pace with machinery. The corporations, by the monopoly of raw material and control of the markets, .have largely succeeded in suppressing competition as against themselves. But real competition is still left to do its depressing work in the labor world. Skilled and organized labor is able to take reasonable care of its own interests in the wage market, though its margins of surplus are always narrow.

But aside from skilled and organized labor there is always a vast contingent of less skilled or unskilled labor which is absolutely dependent upon employment for daily bread. Under corporate regulation of the labor market, there are at best always in this country a million unemployed persons. In times of trade depression this number is likely to be greatly increased. This means that with certain grades of labor, at times with pretty much all grades, there is always a desperate condition of want. The laborer is compelled to sell his labor at any price he can command, however meager the price. It means in multitudes of cases that wives and children must all seek some outside work in order that the family may live at all.

There is an enormous aggregate of prosperity in the country, but as between the corporations and the labor world, the division of this prosperity is inordinately one-sided. The representatives of the corporations are the capitalists. They control the banks, own the palaces, the pleasure yachts, the high-priced automobiles, and they command for themselves and families every material comfort and luxury which money may purchase. Their children may enjoy the most costly educational advantages, all the benefits of travel, and they are recognized as the heirs of a privileged class.

On the other hand, there is a great army, outnumbering many times the corporate capitalists, which is made up of simply wage-earners. This army neither owns the factories in which it toils, nor does it own the tools of production. It is made up of empty-handed workers. For the most part, it has no ownership in the humble dwellings which shelter its families. Its bank account, at best, furnishes but a frail barrier between its members and the disasters of want and sickness. Its children enter life, many of them greatly handicapped by poor physical and moral inheritance. Nearly all of them are under the social and industrial doom of adversity. The wages of the rank and file of this industrial army are inexorably held to a low level, not even in the most favorable cases such as at all proximately to permit such expenditure and luxury as that which may be easily affordable by the capitalist. This army always marches on the borders of dependence and want. Its members look forward, if at all, to an old age when they shall either be the wards of their children or of public charity. When the slender stipend of their wages ceases to come, multitudes of them look out into a world, God only knows how dreary.

And, if this army is one of discontent, who shall wonder! It is a simple irony to say that these men are receiving far better wages, and they enjoy more physical comfort, than were ever known to their fathers. If this were true, it would scarcely amount to a mitigation in the case. It might be said of the capitalists that they too are receiving many times over the emoluments which came to their fathers, and for this reason they ought to be more than content. They ought on this account promptly to initiate policies of liberal distribution of their surplus revenues for the benefit of their less privileged neighbors.

The truth is that the laborers live in a different world from that with which their fathers were familiar. If in this age of multiplied facilities and conveniences of life, factors which ought to be within the reach of all, and which ought to add real values to every life, they were content to live just as their fathers did, they would be less human than they are. But when the changed conditions are fairly measured it does not appear true that the modern laborer receives better wages or is better conditioned. The scale of the fathers' living bore no comparison with the necessitated high costs of the present day. The father, if a tradesman, owned the tools of his craft, had his own workshop and his own customers. The worker of to-day is the owner of no tools, of no shop, and it would be impossible for him to compete against modem machinery for customers in any craft.

The naked and tragic fact is that since civilization began there has been no class of nominally free workers who have been more absolutely at the mercy of an impersonal, irresponsible, and irresistible despotism than are the laborers to-day under corporate employment. It is no wonder that enlightened writers, analyzing carefully the whole situation, have characterized the domination of corporate capital over labor as the ful novel of recent issue, turns upon the contest between a wealth both heartless and shoddy in its shameful treatment of poor employees in the "Heth Works" and the spirit of a poor young physician of transparently beautiful Christian character who gave himself in continual sacrifice and finally to a tragic death in the service of the poor.

The hero of Basil King's The Way Home, himself a child of the rectory, incensed by the treatment which his own father received in old age from rich parishioners, and finally entering upon business life with the policy of considering no one's interest but his own, becoming rich, says one day to his morally sensitive wife that even she would not have married him if he had not had money. He says to her: "You cared for me because I am what I am. And I am what I am because I've got money. How I got it is secondary to you, as it is secondary to everybody else. The world is full of high-principled, right-meaning people who haven't words enough to express their scorn of the man who grows rich by what they choose to consider improper means, but who, when it comes to personal dealings, can't show him too plainly how much they respect him."

And then at her protest he adds : "I don't put you lower, darling, than I put the whole order of bishops, priests, and deacons, and all the other idealists who are so easily outraged by our brutal modern ways of growing rich. They're awfully fluent in words; but once get rich, and" he snapped his fingers "you can do what you like with them."

One of the most vivid of Mrs. Humphry Ward's recent books, Richard Meynell, furnishes a plot which turns upon the same conditions of conflict between plutocracy and the individual's right of free thought as are involved in the instances above cited.

The Rev. William Muir, of Scotland, who has written one of the ablest books which have yet appeared on Christianity and Labor, himself the son of an artisan, and having had in a long pastoral experience close and sympathetic contact with labor, says :

There is nothing which is more fruitful in class hatred and civil war than the caste which still prevails in the Christian Church. Nothing has done more to promote the growth of the anti-Christian spirit which prevails among many sections of the working classes. Every new set of statistics of church attendance shows an ever smaller proportion of the community at public worship, and with the exception of the very rich the working classes seem more completely estranged than any other section. In some towns it is comparatively rare for genuine working-men to be connected with a church. Even what are paraded as working-class congregations are composed for the most part, so far as the men are concerned, and they are always the minority, of clerks, foremen, and small shopkeepers, and seldom have any considerable number of artisans. . . . As a workingman who has been among workingmen all my days, and the son of a Christian artisan, I cannot pretend to be surprised that the laborers of our land cannot see that the Church of the living God has been their friend and champion, as it should have been... . Even yet caste is nowhere more powerful than in the Church of Christ. Nowhere is money mightier, and it seldom happens that inconvenient questions are asked as to how the money was made. It is enough that it be there to insure respect and influence. Nor is there anywhere more of that patronage of the poor which is quite as hateful as truckling to the rich. As for the results of all this, there is overwhelming testimony to the alienation of the working classes from the churches.

To these testimonies cited from the prominent current literature of the day indefinite other statements could be added from like sources. This consensus of statement concerning the undue influence of plutocratic wealth in the counsels of the Church is no accident. The authors furnishing this testimony are among the foremost seers of the times. They have high gifts for interpreting the social and industrial thought-movements of the age for practical busy men and women. This united testimony is significant. It points to a great fundamental necessity on the part of the Church to revise its own spirit and methods. It is really a call to the Church to seek renewal of its life in the Spirit of its Master.

( Originally Published 1914 )

The Cross Of Christ
Christianity And The New Age:
Incomprehensible Christ

The Church - The Church Urban And Rural

The Church And The Poor

Christianity - Rational Readjustments

Biblical Criticism

Secularized Education

Christianity - Educated Leadership

Plutocracy

Socialism

Christianity's Leavening Life

Read More Articles About: Christianity And The New Age



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