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Beyond Uncharted Seas

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

The Economy of Abundance. By Stuart Chase. New York: The Macmillan Company, $2.50. The Choice Before Us. By Norman Thomas. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Property or Peace. By Henry Noel Brails-ford. New York: Covici Fricdc. $3.00. The Coining American Revolution. By George Soule. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. The Method of Freedom. By Walter Lippmann, New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50. Statesmanship and Religion. By Henry A. Wallace. New York: Round Table Press. $2.00.

Man who lives in a world of hazard and insecurity has ever sought to achieve some certainty of existence, by magic and sacrifice in olden days, by invention and direct action in more modern times. In this turbulent age of social maladjustments men are not wanting who seek to steer a course towards an ideal, predetermined haven. Almost a century ago, John Stuart Mill questioned the promise of invention to lighten the burden of work, yet prophetically declared that they (inventions) “have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish . . . under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight.” Definitely all the helm-guiders and compass-setters among us are of one mind that the day of destiny has come.

Stuart Chase is no doubt one of the most courageous, exuberant, and bold in the service of the goddess of Abundance. In “The Economy of Abundance,” he is vivid and lucid in describing the past and present of our economic captivity; he demands the immediate scrapping of rules and institutions of the economy of scarcity; he promises peace and abundance if we follow him. The thesis of the economy of abundance is not original; others have pointed out that in an age of power-energy the very workings of the economic system must perforce become altered.

But “abundance demands no compromise,” and there Mr. Chase lets the matter rest. His proposals for change and transition are indefinite: he has no technique to offer for realizing the hypothetical ideal system of abundance. His eighteen-point program covers certain desirable ends, such as capacity operation of the productive plant, shorter hours of work, the elimination of waste and monopoly, the encouragement of research, etc.—matters of reform familiar to capitalism and liberalism. He calls for an overhead system of planning and control under a centralized government, for “a working dictatorship over industry” to be exercised by a general staff of technicians; but he is vague as to the methods by which control over property would be secured by a democracy, or what class of the population would assume the leadership in the revolution. There is only the naive assumption that nobody would really be injured in the process, and that the change would, within a decade, give us an average standard of living comparable to an income of ten thousand dollars in 1929, and a thirty-hour working week. (The technocrats of blessed memory promised twenty thousand dollars.) Mr. Chase is dazzled by the power of machinery to produce abundance and happiness, but he has no real test of ideas and institutions as serving the ends of worthiness, wholeness, and freedom of mankind. He does not perceive that the mechanistic basis of things and efficiency is not in full harmony with the aspirations of man after wholeness, or that his conception of the happy hive might invalidate other inalienable rights of the complete human personality; mesmerized by the machine, he does not for a moment doubt that an acceptable civilization could be built with the enlarged fragment of mind that is implied in the dictatorship of technician-kings.

Mr. Norman Thomas also opens “The Choice Before Us” with the familiar picture of the crisis of capitalism, with its war preparedness, unemployment, and that most bitter type of poverty caused by economic abundance. He accuses the present administration of policies tending to bolster up monopoly in industry; he derides the policies aiming to restore a partial prosperity to farmers by methods of artificial scarcity at the expense of consumers. The workers must be educated against the inroads of fascism, trained for socialism through persuasion; and the socialist movement must avoid the tactical mistakes of German and Austrian socialism, with their extreme devotion to mere reform and parliamentarism and their faith in continual “nose-counting.” He speaks of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a plan that “could be called socialist,” and again writes that “some of the machinery we are getting under the New Deal will be useful for the easier achievement either of the co-operative commonwealth or of the totalitarian state, depending entirely on which group presses forward to power.” Yet he also cautions his readers that the present scheme is not suitable to socialism, nor can it be regarded as a transition to it, and he ends by demanding a unified farmer-laborer-white-collar party under the socialist banner. Nowhere does Mr. Thomas have an inkling of the fact that farmers and organized labor actually feel themselves wedded to the regime of private property in spite of the many shortcomings of that institution, that despite the occasional revolutionary clamor on the fringes of the labor movement trade unionism is a conservative social force, and that only a preponderance of power on the part of large disinherited classes can bring about an effective social revolution.

Broadly, the position of Mr. Brailsford, representing British socialist labor, in “Property or Peace,” is that the institution of private property is incompatible with either domestic or international peace, that as the result of a discrepancy between saving and spending, between the growing power of the productive plant and the cumulative inadequacy of purchasing power, capitalism is destroying itself; therefore no system of planning painlessly within the framework of capitalism is possible in the long run, for the effort to limit profits under government regulation must strike at the principle of the system conducted by men of a muddled acquisitive instinct. Profits, he holds, cannot be controlled under the American recovery program, for its advocates can never be sufficiently vigilant and prompt in the interests of wage-earners and small farmers, never devise and apply different formulas for the marginal and the more successful business concerns, nor be agile enough to devise new controls with every change in industrial processes and rationalization.

It is the view of Mr. Brailsford that socialism is attainable by constitutional methods, that every effort must be made to avoid violence, and that compensation for socialized property in the form of terminable annuities shall be offered in order to ease the tenseness of the transitional period. But he is opposed to further compromises between socialism and its opponents. He knows that the real question of politics is one of actual power, that violence and fascism may be around the corner, and that society will not become master of its life and destiny unless it chooses to face courageously every risk, without compromise of principles, and to prefer property or peace. He doubts whether democracy is the appropriate form of government in times of grave difficulty demanding swift action and adjustment, for democracy takes an atomistic view of society, and is unsuited to bold initiative and experiment.

Among leading American publicists, George Soule would uphold Mr. Brailsford’s thesis that the collapse of capitalism is inevitable, and that no consciously planned economy can be assimilated by the present system. His indictment of laissez-faire monopoly, in “The Coming American Revolution,” is splendidly articulated, unequivocal, cool-headed, accurate in the use of facts, scrupulous in theoretical and political bias, free from menace or promise, and therefore more provocative and disturbing. His primary concern is with the trend of events and the morphology of social transformation; he assumes that the difficulties of the economic system are inherent contradictions of our profit-based capitalism that cannot recognize the ultimate fact of power-surplus civilization, that the system is unbalanced and lacking in resiliency for survival, and that adjustments in production, employment, debts, prices, and trade are welinigh impossible—whether under a bewildered Hoover or under the social improvisations of a Roosevelt. Fascism may overtake us, but only as “a temporary and repulsive reaction”; reformism must fail us in the next capitalist crisis, to be followed by a period of turmoil and a chance for the forces of social management to learn their tasks by experience, which will be the beginning of some undetermined form of socialism. But social management must depend upon the growth in our society of the idea and habit of co-operation, and not until a rising class has achieved potential power and has gained confidence in itself can its activities assume a revolutionary character that would make social management the inevitable and fruitful result. For the present, Mr. Soule sees changes in class loyalties under the surface only, but no definite alliances between farmers, manual workers, professions, and white-collar workers. He admits that the middle-class psychology is still firmly based in the modern social structure, and that wide elements of the working population are instinctively anti-collectivist. Yet revolution remains the inevitable social process, and change will be rapid when the stream of social aspirations is dammed, when reforms by insiders have failed, when the internal economic and political regime has become weakened through its own inner contradictions, and when an intelligent and confident leadership stands ready to seize authority in a purposeful defense of society against reaction in civil affairs. With all the proponents of security and collectivism under an economy of abundance, Walter Lippmann sees eye to eye; but he refuses to listen to prophecies of inevitable doom. To him the issue is between an absolute and a free form of collectivism, between a fascism or a communism originated under conditions of war and the free collectivism of a nation nurtured in traditions of democracy. “The Method of Freedom” is then the tactics of discipline and self-limitation through persuasion rather than through coercion, working to correct and to overcome the disorders and abuses of capitalism, to repress crude unconscious individualism in the use of property rights, to prevent monopoly and fraud, regulate public utilities, equalize bargaining power. This policy of constant and planned intervention (not economic planning) he calls “a compensated economy,” working as a balancing principle, an extension of the principle of checks and balances to economic affairs under an officialdom that “would enjoy an independence roughly comparable to that of the federal judiciary.” Through such a compensated economy our representative democracy will restore and maintain the regime of liberty. It involves, of course, a struggle with existing political practice, it demands the endowment of the executive with greater initiative, but the social aim of the reform is clear—to enlarge the foundations of private property and security and to revert to the traditional way of American democracy, that has ever conceived of the state as the servant of the people in safeguarding the standards of life and freedom.

Freedom, then, in the view of Mr. Lippmann, must remain the right of the individual, but Soule et al conceive it as the character and condition of the new society. There is a wistful yearning common to all this company of thinkers and writers, a yearning for social justice and cultural wholeness; this is a psychological force of greater cogency than errors of fact and reasoning about the present order of life. Thus Mr. Brailsford: “None of us has ever lived in a society, save perhaps in war-time, when a social purpose, however ambiguous, did unite us as soldiers.” The plaint is that modern society means hatred, suspicion, fear, coercive relationships in earning a livelihood, spiritual loneliness—an immoral society. Therefore the faith in the glory beyond the doom of the present order, even if it must come at first at the sacrifice of certain civic rights and prerogatives of human atoms. (This is not Mr. Lippmann’s position.) Again Mr. Brails-ford: “The final step is to develop social consciousness that we can all move boldly as individuals, while we work loyally for a common end in a team.”

The ultimate note is then spiritual, the yearning for undreamed shores. Repentance, a change of heart, as well as intelligently directed secular virtues, is the demand of Secretary Henry A. Wallace, in “Statesmanship and Religion.” “To enter the kingdom of heaven brought to earth and expressed in terms of rich material life it will be necessary to have a reformation even greater than that of Luther and Calvin. . . . The men in the street must change their attitude concerning the nature of man and the nature of human society.” Secretary Wallace deprecates the “infantile irrelevancy” of the Church in the face of modern issues. His anger is not with capitalism as expressed in terms of competition and gain, but with its failure to distribute abundance through the channels of trade. He would have us meet our problems with the moral earnestness of the Protestant reformers and the passion for social justice of the Hebrew prophets. With profound humility he declares that though we can easily construct the machinery of the New Deal and improve with time its operation, our success demands a disciplined spiritual life, a definite change in the hearts of men, and a universal religion that will absorb nationalism in the consciousness of human kinship.

Let it be admitted, without taking issue with individual authors, that the unmarketed surpluses of capitalism become glut, depression, unemployment, misery; that these evils are not the casual by-products of demerit or corruption here and there, but the irreconcilable tendencies of a world unadjusted to the age of power-energy; that economic abundance must be translated into terms of leisure and welfare. Yet it is superficial to assume that the power of the machine is an informed power, or that its control whether for profit or social use does not involve profounder problems of social and moral significance. Because the machine has energizing power of acceleration taken from steam and gas and electricity, it has power also to enhance the personal will of man and the splendor of his pride of dominion. It has therefore become a symbol of personal desire, an object of universal human worship. The mere extension of machine energy and its direction into channels of service by other masters may not at all readily become the happy state envisaged by reformers. For the machine per se is not a principle related to any conception of wholeness and worthiness. Neither Secretary Wallace with his call to repentance, nor the advocates of socialism or of compensated economy, question the means and activities which the will of man has erected into universal ends; therefore they do not venture behind the problems of conduct and motive. They equally fail to grapple with the profounder issue of life, that the enemy of grace or Christian values is not materialism or the evil will of man, but the false religion of man, the perverted religious passion operating on a wrong scale of values, the pride in power and dominion over nature and mankind even when divorced from true human ends. For means of saving grace we need a new scale of excellence. Will the American folk become more integral in culture because the directing business group is replaced by social-minded officials or technicians, and will it then develop new defences against economic discord? What conscious standards will there be, beyond comfort, bigness, and leisure, beyond the dominion of power and things? Without some new organic tradition of the unity of nature and humankind, we must continue to live in part only, unconscious of the wholeness of life, and so become more uniform in thought and manner, in art and politics, in custom and sport. The problems of human destiny are not solved by exalting another set of practical men, seeing that they worship machinery and power, another clamorous caste of men, another absolute concept of property, another autonomy of state. This way lies tyranny; this is opening the door to another type of the absolutist ego, and, I fear, a new age of subdued and homogeneous existence for the average man. We do not solve the economic problem unless we go beyond matters of facts and policies of social action, unless we erect a new scale of excellence upon which the will of man could operate, a new tradition of wholeness and worthiness (not happiness), other than the polity of power, that shall command the loyalty and worship of man’s spirit.


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