Twentieth Century, September 6, 1894, 7-10.
CO-OPERATION.—ACQUIREMENT AND OPERATION OF PUBLIC ENTERPRISES.—XVII.
BY W. H. VAN ORNUM.
One of the first questions that I am asked by objectors to Co operation, or by those who have given little or no study to the subject, is: “But how are you going to run the railroads, the water, gas and electric light works, the telegraphs, or the post-office and kindred enterprises, under Co-operation, or without a government?” The manner in which it is asked generally implies that the questioner regards it as impossible of answer. It is frequently followed by that other sage observation that, “you must have a head to everything,” as if that head must be a master. I can imagine a group of Negro slaves before the war gravely discussing the question of how they would get along if thrown upon their own resources, and one of them deciding it by, “There must be a master for everything.” One remark is the exact equivalent of the other, and simply indicates that the one who makes it is so accustomed to contemplating things as they are, without calling in question their rightfulness, that the possibility of anything better has not seriously occurred to him.
First then, let us see how these things are run now. The actual work, partly necessary, but, for a large part, unnecessary, is performed by certain workmen of varying degrees of skill, called employs. Those employees, while doing the work, for the most part, have no interest in the enterprise beyond their stipulated salaries. The stimulus to the acquirement of increased skill and efficiency on the part of those employees is so small that it is practically a minus quantity The hope of increased compensation by reason of such increase, is offset by a knowledge that however efficient and faithful they may be, there are plenty of others just as skillful and faithful, who are not employed, and who stand ready to step right into their places at the same pay, or even less than they are receiving. Their very employment is largely a matter of favoritism dependent upon a certain amount of subserviency on their own part. This want of stimulus to excel is still further heightened by the knowledge that, no matter how much they may add to the prosperity of the particular enterprise which they are engaged in, by such increased efficiency, that added prosperity only goes to swell the hoards of outsiders who perform none of the labor. The dividends to the stock-holders will only be so much the more. And yet, under these discouraging conditions, all these public and semi-public enterprises are carried on. The one seeming exception is the post office; and that is really no exception. The compensation of employees is fixed, based upon the time served. The selections are determined by favoritism depending upon subserviency to certain persons or political parties. And no increase in the revenues of the department can increase their own wages. Instead of the revenues which accrue to all these several enterprises through the labor of these employees, going to the reward of the labor performed, they are diverted from their natural and legitimate channel and are absorbed by the idle and useless stockholders, bond-holders and a horde of extravagant office-holders who are, for the most part, utterly useless. In the very first article of this series, I showed that railroad and other corporations of every kind, are ideal co-operative societies when stripped of their capitalistic features: their stocks, their bonds and their ornamental and sinecure officers; when all the necessary workers are placed on the same footing as to compensation; and when they are all accorded the same voice in the management of their common concerns. Under Co-operation the same men who now perform the labor of these public and semi-public enterprises, will continue to perform that labor, the only difference being that they will be organized as voluntary co operative associations on a basis of perfect equality, dividing among themselves their joint earnings instead of occupying positions of slavish subserviency under idlers who take the greater bulk of their earnings, as now. The question with the workingmen in these industries is exactly the same as with the workingmen in every other industry: and that is, of ridding themselves of the parasites which have fastened themselves upon them and are sucking away their life’s blood.
But how can that be done is the great question. How can labor rid itself of its parasites? How can it achieve its own emancipation? How can it obtain such a control of these public enterprises as will enable it to organize them on a co-operative basis? The answer to the last question is largely determined by that of those which precede it. If labor can organize itself co-operatively in private industries, as outlined in the previous chapters, that same organization will necessarily extend itself, in time, to these public industries. There is no doubt that in the latter the problem is more complex, and probably will require a longer time to work out its solution; but there can he no question as to what that solution will be. The only thing that remains in doubt is, by just what steps it will be reached. It is easy enough to point out a dozen different ways in which it may be done. But how will it be?
I know that there is coming to be a widespread demand on the part of the people that the government should take possession of and operate the railroads and other like public enterprises. This arises from the mistaken idea that the government represents the people,—is by the people. It is no such thing. It represents the combined power of monopoly. It is the bulwark and support of every monopoly in this or any other country. There is not a monopoly that could exist a day without it. It is by the edicts of monopoly, enacted into laws and enforced by courts and bayonets that the whole fabric of capitalism stands arrayed against the people, holding them in subjection while the beneficiaries of that government rob the industrious for the benefit of the idle. Outwardly the pretense is that it protects the rights of the people and preserves order. But inwardly the fact is, that the only rights which it protects to any extent, are those artificial rights which itself has set up in violation of natural rights; and the only order which it preserves is, the order that reigned in
Still, the clamor for the proposed change has become so great that, in one way or another, it may be carried out. The friends of the measure, as yet, are unwilling to call in question the reason for the existence of the government itself. They think that in the hands of a new party it may be made a beneficent institution. What they really want is, to have the railroads, etc., owned and operated by the people. They say, “by the government,” because they have not yet learned the essential difference. That ownership by the people can never come about except through the growth of a general system of cooperation, which will, in time, absorb them all, and finally merge all wealth and all the sources of wealth in a
This does not imply, however, that the agitation for the government ownership of these public enterprises will not be productive of good. The Republican party, during the campaign in which Abraham Lincoln was elected, advocated the limitation of slavery to the territory where it then existed. It said to the slaveocracy, “Thus far and no farther !“
While all now know, and many knew then, that, as a practical measure of reform it was grossly inadequate; it was an attack upon the institution of slavery. On that issue the battle was joined, resulting, as all know, in the success of the Republican party. The slaveholders became alarmed for the safety of their peculiar institution, and precipitated the war of the rebellion, which resulted in the abolishment of slavery as a war measure. It is not at all unlikely that history will repeat itself in this case. The People’s party represents a popular revolt against the conditions which are building up enormous fortunes on one side in the hands of a few, while practically enslaving the mass of the people on the other. Its voice is the agonized cry of labor crushed beneath its load of debt and taxation, and shut out from access to the land except by the grace of the landlord. Its demands for the government ownership of the public monopolies, for the government issue of the circulating medium and for its proposed measures of land reform are all attacks upon the artificial institution of property and privileges of the rich as set up by the law; and no matter how inadequate they may all be, as measures of relief, they furnish points around which that popular revolt may gather. The privileged classes too recognize the gathering storm; and just as the slaveholders did in 56—6o, they are planning how they can resist its fury. Just as they did then they will attempt a forcible resistance which is not unlikely to precipitate a civil war. The events of July past carried us dangerously near that point, and they are liable to break out again at any time with redoubled force. None of the issues at stake at that time have yet been settled, or can be settled, until labor shall become emancipated. That great strike was only one of the incidents leading up to the coming revolution, which is inevitable. The privileged classes never yet relinquished their privileges until beaten by superior physical force. We may talk as much as we please about enacted reforms brought about by law, but reforms never come in that way. It is all right to agitate and vote for a third party, for it furnishes a rallying point around which the revolt may gather ; hut a third party which makes any serious attack upon the privileges of the rich will never be allowed to obtain the reins of power without a fight. If labor could be permitted to unite in co-operative associations, gradually extending to include all industries, public and private, that revolution when it comes would be a bloodless one. But it wont. There is no hope that those in the enjoyment of legal privilege will submit to being deprived of those privileges peacefully, no matter how strictly the forms of law are observed. The starting of co-operative associations and communities for carrying on private industries, in itself, furnishes less excuse to the rich to precipitate civil strife than does the attempt to obtain possession of the public enterprises—to interfere with their monopoly of the issue of money, or to change the basis of the land tenure— because, unless the people control these, no permanent improvement can be wrought by co-operation or any other scheme, in the material condition of the people. The power of monopoly would remain unbroken. This is why the privileged classes will resist more bitterly and more stubbornly attacks upon these privileges than they will to prevent the absorption of private enterprises by co operative societies.
But because I clearly foresee that the rich will resort to force when beaten at the ballot box, and because I realize that they will have to be beaten again in the field, it does not imply that I favor force as a means of righting social wrongs. It is of slight consequence whether we favor or condemn. The force comes, and nothing we can do will prevent it. Then, in the course of the contest, the necessity is almost certain to arise for decreeing the abolition of all titles to vacant land, all patents and all copyrights; the abolition of all mortgage and bonded indebtedness, and the confiscation by the people of all public enterprises—in short, the abolition of every species of special privilege. So much I regard as inevitable. Now, when this takes place, if co-operation shall have obtained a considerable foothold, the breaking down of these obstacles means the final removal of everything which impedes the extension of co-operation to all the forms of production and distribution of wealth. The social regeneration must come through the growth of co-operation. The revolution will only break up the old conditions and give opportunity for the new to take root and grow.
When capitalism is finally overthrown, as it is certain to be in the course of the coming struggle, the railroads of the country will be very different affairs from what we know them now. Their stocks and bonds will be all wiped out. There will be none who own exclusive privileges and franchises. They will be like the free public roads, open to any person or co-operative society which wishes to go into the business of transportation, on equal terms with any other. That business will not be burdened by fixed charges which increase from ten to twenty times over the cost of that transportation. They will be owned by the people in common, instead of being owned by a few wealthy monopolists who now use them as a means of extortion and oppression, not only of the people in general, but of those who actually perform the labor of transportation. There is all the difference in the world between the roads being owned by the people and the people being owned by the railroad corporations. There will he no. more corrupt rebates to favored shippers ; no more corrupt purchases of legislatures ; no more corrupt combinations to keep up extortionate rates ; no more control of vast areas of agricultural and mineral lands in their interest, and no more of their corrupting and degrading influence in politics. And what is true of railroads is just as true of all other of the corporations great and small, and for all sorts of purposes. These corporations have no legitimate place in a free commonwealth. They are purely a result and expression of capitalism.
It will be claimed that to confiscate the railroads, the telegraphs and kindred public enterprises; to abolish their franchises; to abolish all titles to land not actually used by those who claim title to them; to abolish all banking privileges; to set aside all patent and copyright laws ; and, in short, to repeal all special privileges whatever, will be to violate the property rights of individuals. But this is true only far as those artificial rights are concerned, which have been enacted into law in violation of natural right, and which ought to be abolished. Privileges which have been granted by law may certainly be taken away by the same authority. No human law can be passed which cannot be repealed by the same authority which enacted it. But when it comes to claiming any special sanctity for laws bought by the bribes of those who were to benefit by them, it is a little too much. And besides, even if these special privileges had not been tainted with fraud in the granting of them; their history has since been marked with the grossest abuses in their administration; with extortion practiced in every conceivable way, and with utter disregard of those who have performed the labor under them. They have forfeited all claims to consideration already; but when they attempt to inaugurate civil war, in order to maintain themselves, as they are sure to do, they will have no possible ground on which to justify themselves or claim anything. And as to the land, every one of their titles are founded in violence already and they are estopped from interposing any objection when the united force of an outraged and robbed people shall be exerted to retake it.
My opinion is that at a critical time in the course of the struggle between the privileged classes and the people, the proclamation will go forth, as Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation went forth, declaring the land free and inviting the world to come and make homes among us. Before it, armies raised to fight us, will melt away to nothing. They would rather come and live with us and make homes for themselves than to fight and destroy us. Once started, it will spread until it will destroy every despotism on the face of the earth.