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Surplus Value

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

In a recent reading of Karl Marx’s “Capital” I found myself treading very lightly in certain parts of the dismal swamp of economic theory, and this was not my intention. My previous readings had been fragmentary and evasive, as I have noted is the case in any liberal interpretation of Marxian theory, and I wanted to face the main issues and fight through the controversy for myself. But in spite of good ascetic resolutions I found it hard to keep my feet on the ground, and over and over again my plodding turned into flying. When I had finished the two volumes in the Eden and Cedar Paul translation, I was convinced that I had been instructed in the implications of orthodox economic theory, that I had been informed with facts in modern history, that I had been presented with important issues of good and evil; but the overwhelming conviction was that I had read a great book by a great man whose inveterate and incorrigible tendency was not rhetoric, as I had suspected, but poetry. I am convinced that “Capital” is a great, an epic, poem de hominum labore, about tools and the man, about man’s makings. This is the form and all the rest is the matter. I am not concerned to defend this conclusion in terms of metric feet and rhythmic beats, although I suspect that the original German has a proper roar and thunder, but I would be willing to defend my sense of symphonic sequence and tragic integrity in the movement of the narrative. It certainly belongs to the world’s classics, and I do not question the honesty of that part of the world’s population who live by it as by a Bible. It is in this sense that I wish to take it seriously and contribute to its interpretation.

Just as the great theme is human labor, so the focus in the light of which the material achieves its form and glory is surplus value. I am aware that the professional economist warns the unwary of the trickery that lurks in the obscurity of the term, but it is this term that has grown in my mind as I have thought about it, and I suspect that the economist, be he capitalistic or communistic, has missed the oracular sense and power in the phrase. In it lies the evidence of things unseen and the substance of what the communist hopes for. All good men have the right and duty to fear its implications as one fears God.

Surplus value enters the Marxian drama as a riddle. Locke’s and Smith’s theory of value has set the stage arnd money has been accepted as the symbolic guise in which parcels of labor are exchanged in the marketplace. But money is not merely a set of counters; it is also a peculiar kind of commodity, a most permanent and most mobile embodiment of labor. In the right hands it has a magic that obscures and amplifies the simplicities of barter. If all men were honest, industrious, and enlightened, as Adam Smith, whose name significantly combines supra- and sub-lapsarianism, supposed, it is difficult to see how one laborer could get rich while another gets poor. But it seems that the properly controlled saving and spending of money does bring this inequality about in this little worse than the best possible of worlds. Marx’s explanation of the magic is surplus value. It corresponds in this poem to the mystery of the fall of man in Milton’s version.

Marx gives only the accountant’s account of surplus value and leaves us to imagine the rest, including the theft or embezzlement of funds. The capitalist, who was first a laborer and became a capitalist when he discovered the trick of alternate saving and spending of money, pays the laborer at each stage of production for the labor that has gone into the product, but lo and behold, when he sells the finished product he gets back more money than he has paid out. It seems that the product has more value than has been put into it by labor. One might suppose that the salesman has cheated the customer, but Marx is talking about the long run of the market, not about the people that can be fooled all of the time, and he finds surplus value necessary to explain the phenomena of price not merely on the empirical level of monetary prices but also deeper on the level of labor value given for labor value received. The other more plausible possibility is that more labor has gone into the product than is paid for by the capitalist.

The riddle is economically complete when we see how this happens. The laborer comes to the factory from a farm which has been rendered defunct by one or another form of enclosure. He needs tools and machinery to make his labor efficient. The capitalist offers him the use of his tools and machinery if he will work for wages. A quasi-contract is drawn within limits set by two conditions: one set by the laborer, who cannot work unless he has a subsistence wage, the other by the capitalist, who cannot provide the tools and machinery unless he has the degree of freedom that will allow him to save and spend, or hold and move money, according to the demands of business enterprise. The compromise is closed between the man with the machines and the man with the labor power in various dramatic ways, but always at some price that approaches the giving and taking of a subsistence wage, a wage that will daily renew the labor power that has been put into the product, and will leave the capitalist the means whereby he can look into the future with hope, pro-sper-ity. Otherwise confidence drops and production is paralysed. The result is that the laborer must put more of his labor power into the product than the capitalist can regularly and responsibly pay for. It is surplus value in the two forms of gratuitous labor power and of profit that keeps the wheels turning and the laborer alive; the rest is machinery waiting for the breath of its vital energy.

This makes the issues of collectivism and rugged individualism fall into their places in a context. There is the prudent industrial manager exercising a benevolent providence over the processes of production, organizing both machines and men in a way that only financial power makes possible, and taking the risks that only the man with surplus power and energy has the right to take. There are the common men whose greatest virtues are the wise choice of leaders and obedience to them, and whose powers would be comparatively trivial without the social and mechanical instruments and organization which their leaders put into their hands, and whose abilities need the discipline which only basic elemental needs will make them accept. These goods are also the fruits of surplus value, and Adam Smith is their prophet.

But Karl Marx, a hundred years after Adam Smith, could see more consequences of capitalism and could see their focus in surplus value. There are other necessary surpluses. In this system, where goods are produced on a large scale, there has to be surplus demand to make up by large total profits what is lost in single unitary profits. There must be a surplus of labor to keep the wage market near the subsistence level and thus protect the morale of the entrepreneur. There must be a savings surplus in order to carry the productive processes past their ever recurrent crises. There must be a surplus of production to keep a competitive market within the prices determined by effective demand. These are some of the consequences that Adam Smith did not see when he laid it down that the laissez-faire economy must be an expanding economy, although these points are hidden in his words.

I need not go into monopoly and technocracy, technological tenuousness, and technological unemployment, to suggest that the picture has endless ramifications, and that the tree of capitalism is a tree of good and evil; we have all eaten and have our teeth on edge.

Surplus value is an oracular phrase even if we limit ourselves to the accountant’s account, and for good measure allow ourselves to wander in the swamp and jungle of economic thought. It is even more oracular if we allow it to lead us down to the rock bottom of Marx’s theory of value, where labor processes proceed whether we keep budgets balanced or not. A great deal of the revolutionary flavor of the phrase points back to a fundamental principle stated implicitly again and again in both Marx and Smith, namely, that man is a laboring animal. No matter what the apparent injustice at the top, labor will break through and continue against all odds. Surplus value as gratuitous labor, unpaid labor, then looks like the top of a volcano, and its existence is already a continuous revolution that has been going on ever since its first appearance in ancient times. This is registered on the surface in the fact that it is surplus value in the form of profits that makes the progress of technology possible and continually forces the reorganization of industry and business. But these observations merely raise questions about the fundamentals of the labor theory of value, questions which motivate the current denial of it by the professional economist.

If it is only labor that confers value on goods, why is it that goods have to be dumped or sold below cost of production? The Marxian answer is another riddle: it must be socially productive labor that goes into the production if the raw material is to acquire value. It is pointed out that the phrase “socially productive labor” is a veiled reference to demand and all the things outside labor that determine standards of living upon which demand is based. Marx accepts this reference to demand and gives it his hearty approval. Standards of living, he says, are determined by the fundamental techniques of labor, just as the efficiencies of labor are so attained. This is again an oracular utterance, second remove, one which writers like Thorstein Veblen have labored to expand and clarify. Anthropologists have caught the spirit of Sumner’s “Folkways” and tried to follow Veblen through the unknown territory between the fundamental techniques of labor and standards of living. They have all produced a lively satiric poetry in keeping with this level of Marx, but the echoes will not space themselves so we can hear what is being said. In Veblen there are echoes between surplus value and certain of the mores that he points out. The mores of the leisure class are in some sense supernumerary; he calls them mores of conspicuous waste, conspicuous leisure, and idle curiosity, and there are invidious comparisons and rationalizations of status arrayed against the instinct of workmanship and functional institutions. In between these he constructs a theory of business enterprise. The biting, and to some maddening, satire of Veblen’s writing has one obvious aim; he is satirizing us as we move about our daily activities. But satires of this sort usually echo other higher themes.

Reading Marx this time, I was reminded of Veblen when I came upon the riddle of the labor theory of value, but I was also reminded of another satirist whom I had recently read, the Platonic Socrates who also talks about labor and standards of living. He calls them the arts and the virtues, and in their terms lays down the rules for a just division of labor. I want to report what happens when you translate Marx and Veblen into Plato, and then make some applications to more recent history. I wish to make it clear that in making this translation I do not think I am stepping outside Marx’s poetry, although I do think I am stepping from modern economic science back to political economy and finally into moral philosophy, whence our current political arithmetic arose. It seems to me that Marx does well to limit his narrative to business arithmetic and to let the poetic overtones rise to whatever heights the reader will follow. Surplus value is a technical economic term, and so is labor, but they are also great poetic themes. As we might do in reading Dante, we shall now turn to the allegorical meanings in the hope of understanding more fully the literal statements.

In emphasizing, some pages back, the strategic position of surplus value in the capitalistic system, I said that all but surplus value in the form of gratuitous labor or in the form of profit was dead machinery waiting the breath of vital energy. That statement is rhetorically distorted except for the captain of industry just emerging from a depression and calling on whatever gods there be to free him from his debt of gratitude to an emergency government. Marx sometimes talks ironically about nature, machinery, and men as if they were merely the passive mediums for the propagation of kinetic energy and in that sense even profits would appear as corporeal matter, like coal, releasing energy to turn the wheels of industry. But this is irony like Veblen’s, by a riddle calling attention to a hidden truth.

Just as inanimate matter undergoes a substantial change when it is assimilated by an animate creature, so natural resources are transubstantiated when they become the means and ends of man, the rational animal. Socrates, like any Greek, called this transubstantiation art, techne. Marx was radical only in the sense of returning to the roots of a tradition when he accepted and expanded the labor theory of value. He was saying that human goods are the products of arts. So Socrates said and then followed the argument where it led. The argument is complex and I shall state only some of the conclusions. In one dialogue alone Socrates makes mention of eighteen different human arts for the sake of arriving at one of these conclusions, namely that the practice of any art depends on some degree of rational knowledge and some grasp of the good which is its end. Some of the complication in the argument is due to the fact that the arts are not merely separate activities, but they belong together in definite ways. Some, like Homeric poetry and generalship, have a common subject-matter, soldiers, and may depend upon a common knowledge of that subject-matter, though they are not subordinated to one another. Others, like carpentry and architecture, belong in an order of subordination in which one supplies material for the other and the other is master of the one. In some sense all the arts belong together under one master art, such as government. These complications are of a great importance for what might be called a material concern.

For what might be called a formal concern another ordering of complications is needed. Some of the arts are occupied with the production of things that are good only for something else; these are the useful arts. Some produce things that are good for themselves and good for other things as well; these are the liberal or intellectual arts, by which we attain knowledge. Still others achieve only goods in themselves. These three kinds may be subordinated in inverse order, as carpentry is to architecture, but they are also more closely related in that any one of them internally involves the other, and this is most especially true, as any prag-matist would say, in the case of the useful arts. A useful art is not even possible unless someone somewhere knows what its product is to be used for, and this knowledge in turn involves a knowledge of what is good in itself.

Furthermore, to understand an art we must be aware of another distinction which falls within any art by itself. Any art has a proper product, a thing which is made, and leaves a discipline or a habit in the maker. In a broad sense this is the distinction which the economist is trying to make when he differentiates wealth and welfare, wealth in products and possessions, and welfare in quality of life. Both are goods, but in very different senses. The three kinds of arts differ widely in our understanding of the ratios of these goods that they achieve. Our emphasis in the useful arts is chiefly on the products, the things that are made, but it is obvious to a workman, at least in our system, that his chief good lies in the skills that he attains. In the past generation one of the chief claims of the workman was his right to a skill, now very often expressed as the right to an education. It is obvious that the arts train, educate, and inform, even if the craftsman holds most of his acquired knowledge in the form of habits. In the liberal arts we have a more balanced understanding of the twin goods that they confer: we have wealth in the knowledge stored in books, operating in institutions of learning and in engineering and industrial enterprises, and the welfare that goes with this wealth is in the intellects of men who learn, teach, and direct. There will be serious disagreement about these two phases of good in the case of the third kind of art, the arts that achieve goods in themselves. The modern emancipated reader will think of the fine arts first, and point out their products and techniques and find them together in the appreciator. This would be a sentimental travesty for a Greek, who would agree with Socrates that happiness is the great good in itself and that the greatest happiness consists in wisdom, and that the art of wisdom is the philosophical life. A later period would have said that The End of man is to know and love God and enjoy Him forever. We might agree if it were put as follows: the only good in itself is to be wise, and that is both the wealth and the welfare which makes all else good.

I hope the reader will not have forgotten in the complications of these conclusions and in the suggested complications of the argument that leads to them that this is the allegorical development of what Marx means by labor and the labor theory of value which he adduces to explain the price system. Perhaps it is not necessary to push the claim that this superstructure arises from the notion of surplus value; it appears superfluous enough to the economist, but I am persuaded that the faithful communist reader of Marx starts with surplus value and hopes to rise to the allegorical heights I have suggested, he and his comrades as well. Plato distributed the skills and disciplines, as well as the products, of these arts in two ways: in the classes of the state, and in the parts of the soul. The communist refuses to recognize the classes, but accepts the goods for each individual in toto. Each man must be an artist in all three senses, for only thus can he be a man.

I hope also that the reader will agree with me that the Socratic account of the arts makes sense of the labor theory of value. The laborer produces commodities by certain skills and disciplines which amount to training in certain techniques. These necessarily belong in part to all three kinds of art. But the laborer is also a consumer and user of the products and as such his discipline and character will determine his wants and demands—in short his standard of living. Labor therefore determines value through its determinations of both sides of the supply-demand equation. This is the fundamental theory of value and of course needs the casuistry of circumstance to connect it with the diurnal rise and fall of prices. In Socrates it is a moral theory of value, an intellectual theory of value, and finally a theological theory of value. It is through the levels and arrays of this hierarchy that the Good distributes itself throughout the excellences, the virtues, of men and the products of their arts. That the good is not always and everywhere equably and justly distributed, and therefore that the economic system is not normally a smoothly working machine, is due to the varying degrees of virtue that men achieve. It is not entirely due to chance and fortune that man’s wants and external goods are usually out of joint, and that the marketplace where they are supposed to meet is often a place of bad humor and foul play. It is for this reason that the state is set up by men of good will. Political government arises not so much from the sense of well doing as from the sense of sin in the individual’s recognition of imperfection. It pleads for loyalty to the common good and obedience to law even when the good in the law eludes immediate understanding. Failing these, the government on occasion must step in to control the arts and even to fix prices.

But since emergencies are always with us, and can sometimes be foreseen in the widening of the difference between luxury and poverty, government is a permanent institution looking before and after the immediate urgent occasion. It thus has the continuous function of guarding the virtues and facilitating the good life. It is therefore within political science that we should look for the theory that will order the virtues, and it is in political governments that we should find their embodiments and artistic operations.

It is not within the limits of this article, nor yet within the powers of this author, to spread an array of historical illustrations that would be adequate to this analytical demand. On the other hand, a beginning can be made by taking less imposing examples of institutions that cultivate the virtues, and letting a sort of analogical light arise from these and fall on the larger things that correspond with them. These larger things would be monarchy as represented in the Holy Roman Empire, the theocratic republic of Calvin’s invention, and the Soviet Republic of Lenin’s invention. These are outstanding archetypes of classes of states that have many variations and degrees of perfection. As Plato took man as the microcosm of his ideal republic and its degraded forms, so I shall take the monastery answering to the Holy Roman Empire, the university answering the theocratic republic, and the soviet factory answering the Soviet Republic.

In many ways the monastery is the mother or matrix of all modern European and American institutions. Later establishments have been either direct copies of it, actual creations of it, or partial derivatives of it. This recognition shocks the liberal mind because the monastery has become a liberal by-word for all that the liberal mind has revolted against, just as medieval has become a by-word for that inner duplicity that modern honesty has tried to shun. But this revolt is very significant, as a Freudian would say. It is evidence of an unresolved Oedipus complex, Oedipus the man who married his own mother in his attempt to escape incest. If institutions can be mothers, the monastery is the mother of the modern brood. Fascination is the word for our relation to the monastic ideal; we love and fear it.

The monastery was founded and operated on the basis of the ancient world’s experience with the arts. The ancient world in this respect stands to us as a grandmother with whom we have more direct sympathy and common insight. The Rule of Saint Benedict is constantly reminiscent of Plato’s Republic. The period between the two seems merely to have served as a time within which a youthful speculative insight has matured into wisdom and confidence; human problems have been revised and reduced to manageable size and shape. Christianity and Aristotle had something to do with this maturation, but the main lines remain Platonic.

The Rule lays down a program for the day that reflects the variety of the human arts. Instead of distributing the arts between the brothers on the principle of the division of labor, the interpenetration of the arts is recognized by dividing the day into approximately three equal parts in which each brother shall practise each of the three Platonic kinds. Early morning and late afternoon are to be devoted to manual work, chiefly agriculture; the middle of the day is occupied with reading and writing; the third portion, which we might call the philosophical or theological arts, the liturgical and sacramental practices, is divided into many parts and interspersed between the other periods.

This is a truly classless society in ways that differentiate it sharply, but not essentially, from both Plato’s republic and the communists’ utopia. Class lines that arise from the arts and technology in Plato, and that are ignored in communism, are recognized and functionalized in what might be called a principle of rotation. Applied to the useful arts the principle dictates the rotation of necessary duties, tilling the soil, preparing the food, making clothes, repairing buildings, and cleaning, among the brothers, so that there are long enough spells for each to learn a special art, but not long enough to make him a specialist. As between useful, liberal, and theological, the rotation keeps step with the passage of the sun for each man. Inside the liberal arts the rotation is almost Ptolemaic in its complexity. There is a progression around the circle of the encyclopedia of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. On this large circle there are the two major circles of the trivium and quadrivium, the first three and the last four respectively, each revolving on independent centers. Within these epicycles there are still others, the single arts themselves that cover and recover their several orbits as one art illuminates the other. These are self-balancing and self-distributing disciplines, and furthermore they are mutually supporting. The highly elaborate liturgical arts of the church contain their own order of rotation, keeping step with seasons, occasions, crises, and doctrines, and conferring unique qualities on all the other arts.

It has been pointed out by Lewis Mumford in his “Technics and Civilization” that the original monastery, the Benedictine, is the only European institution that has intentionally combined the cultivation of the intellectual and the useful (manual) arts both collectively and individually. This is remarkable, since it has always been assumed to some degree that every man must cultivate them together. Viewed historically and analytically on the background of the theory of the virtues, it is even more remarkable, since it is merely the embodiment of the theory. There are the useful virtues that we call skills and techniques, manifold and endlessly distinguishable; there are the intellectual virtues, art (in the special sense of applying theory in practise), science, intuitive reason, and wisdom; and the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity. One would think that the fourth kind of virtues, which are called moral and have obvious institutional applications, would have dictated the combination of the others as we find them in the monastery many times before. The moral virtues have an ordering effect on all the others. In general they express the principles by which form is applied to matter in all the arts. In particular, temperance consists in the proper subordination of matter to form; fortitude consists in the proper selection of material and the protection and strengthening of the form-matter bond; justice consists in the selection of forms appropriate for the time and situation in the artistic process; and wisdom consists in the knowledge which informs the process. It should be noted here that each of these divisions in the order of the virtues contains a term in common with the preceding division. Thus art as an intellectual virtue also applies to the more professional of the useful arts, medicine for example. Wisdom which occurs first in the intellectual virtues, also appears in the moral virtues, and in the theological virtues it is the name for all three taken together. The interpenetration of the arts and virtues that this exhibits in elementary ways is obviously difficult to transfer from utopia to man, the rational social laboring animal. Can it be that grace is necessary for incarnation, as the theologians would say?

If we ask what the art of the monastery as a whole was producing, the ancient answer would be saving grace, or spiritual life. All the arts were subordinated to the theological arts, and their several products were only to provide properly formed receptacles for such grace. Further, it was thought that none of the subordinate arts were even efficiently practiced without the influx of grace, and this defines the monasteries’ relations and functions with the external world. The monastery was to be the center and irradiating source for divine grace without which all human and natural arts and virtues would have only specious ends. They believed that only in divine grace does supply meet demand. All other attempts to find them commensurate result in the loss or maldistribution of surplus value. This belief may still be indicated in our business cycle and in the communistic remedy; it should be remembered that common property was one of the stipulations in the Rule of St. Benedict.

But there were many by-products of the monastery. Lewis Mumford notes the invention of the clock. Apparently the necessity that mothered it was the desire in some curious monk’s mind to escape the work of ringing the bells for the monastery periods, or perhaps he rationalized this by combining it with the desire to standardize the intervals of work. At any rate, the automatic ringing of bells by clockwork opened the way for the industrial revolution, even as the discovery of the laws of breeding opened the way for the Men-delian science of genetics and Burbank’s arts of breeding in more recent years. These two by-products are well known, and there must have been many others born of the monastic practice of eye-hand correlation through intellectual process. The windmill for pumping water and the sailing-boat for fishing are candidates for consideration. Another byproduct is the university, with its combination of teaching and research. If the industrial revolution arose from the useful and intellectual arts, the university arose from the intellectual and theological arts at a time when knowledge was useful not only for the craftsman but also for the salvation of the soul and the glory of God, Domirms illuminatio mea. Out of the university comes the professionalizing of medicine, law, and theology, as well as the preliminary training in the liberal arts that forms the basis for modern liberal education, at least where the classics and mathematics are retained. I need not go into the longer list which includes hospitals, almshouses, leprosy colonies, and the like to illustrate the mothering of our institutions by the monastery— and convent.

But the inevitable historical question arises, what happened to the monastery? What is the principle of its corruption? There is the general answer that the monastery is a human institution, and that therefore it is subject to all the human vices. The apologetic answer is that it is a divine institution, and therefore has not been corrupted; it has only been hindered by the obstructions of the world. Both of these are true, but they are not historical answers. I believe we can get a clue to such an answer by returning to the Rule of St. Benedict which prescribes the arts for the cultivation of the virtues, and by asking the question, what would happen if we eliminate or subordinate the theological arts? The theological arts are peculiar. In the sacraments, for instance, we give ourselves or our possessions and by a combination of divine and human operations we are transformed, we partake in divine wisdom, we make ourselves, and are made, wise. Discipline and product are one, and not separable as they are in the other arts. Nature does something like this if we conceive her as an artist continually making and remaking herself, but still there is an internal otherness of that which makes and is made. The human arts always separate agent and product.

But the virtues that are made in the theological arts also have external effects. Faith, hope, and charity are involved in all the other arts and their effects there can be most easily mistaken for their own proper ends. The theological arts can be practised merely in order that we may become more intelligent, moral, and efficient; in fact they are very powerful magical instruments. But if this happens in the minds of the faithful, the corruption is already in effect. The ends of the other arts may remain temporarily valid, but a chance failure in their practise leaves them unsupported and there is nothing to reinstate them. Faith, hope, and charity are virtues for meeting failures; if they are ordered to lower ends which are discredited, one failure is enough to render them merely romantic. Since the monastery was to the world as the theological arts were to the other arts in the monastery, the external demands of princes of the church and the state put a strain upon the monastery and tempted the monastery to justify itself in external goods both outside and inside its walls. The result was disestablishment both within and without, and the romantic temperament again went forth into the world.

Something like this happened and the monastery itself, in so far as it continued, became the archetype of all institutional corruption and at the same time the object of our most intense romantic nostalgia—see Abelard’s “History of Calamities.” But the reliques of the monasteries are not only in our minds; they are also in our institutions. As the theocratic republic is a relique of the Holy Roman Empire, so the university is a relique of the monastery. The republic takes over the useful and moral arts and cultivates the corresponding virtues. The virtues, having lost their superior ends, become codes of morals, hierarchies of duties, and constitutions of governments, tempered only by romantic ideals of truth and freedom. So the university takes over the intensive cultivation of the liberal arts and becomes an independent republic of letters. The wisdom of the theological arts undergoes the academic transformation, losing humility and gaining confidence until it is threatened from outside. Then it turns itself into the cult of intellectualism and rationalism. At the same time it loses the supporting skills of the useful arts, substituting the athletic arts of the playing field for the cultivation of the soil, and falling back on the rituals of the church for the comfort and moral discipline of the individual, who adds religious freedom to academic freedom to make up his liberal heritage.

The laboratory is perhaps the most typical of the institutions within the post-renaissance universities. Viewed from the monastic origin, it springs from the hospital, where the natural sciences were applied to natural human phenomena. The hospital was the empirical embodiment of medical science in operation. With the disordering of ends the hospital became a charitable institution for the healing of the poor, but like the paupers’ field it also supplied the material for scientific investigation. But medicine and natural science can brook no limit to their curiosity, nor do they neglect any device of the useful arts which can be turned to a liberal investigatory purpose. As levers and ropes can be turned from the building arts into ruler and compass in geometry, so can medical, agricultural, and mechanical tools be put to the ends of observation. Experimentation, which first had a therapeutic (useful) end, adds a theoretical (liberal) end to its justification. Thus the grammar of the liberal arts, the modes of practical prudence, and the tools of the useful arts were collected in the laboratory, and their identification in modern empirical science has now become the rallying point of the disintegrating curriculum of the liberal university. Wisdom has become speculative rationalism, and now even rationalism must express itself only in the mediums of the useful arts. The laboratory is the internal strength of the modern university, but it is also the point of vulnerability where the external world can enter and enslave the liberal man who is still looking for a lost justification.

Internally the university shows chaos, but externally it idealizes its function. It is still producing independent minds and intellectual characters which are reminiscent of the free man of Athens, the Roman patrician, and the English Puritan. Whether under a theocratic or a romantic ideal, the manual skills, the moral virtues, and the intellectual virtues here maintain a modicum of stability in a world that has almost completely forgotten the cardinal intellectual virtues and the liberal arts that have made its freedoms possible. The university produces men of learning and men of moral character; perhaps it is ungrateful to ask for what end, since these are goods in themselves.

In Veblen’s description of the modern world one wonders what going concern it is that finds so many apparent goods superfluous, just as in Marx’s description one wonders what the process is that throws surplus value into the foreground. The answer I believe is the factory, and I also believe that I am not stretching the point too far when I say that the factory also is one of the children of the monastery. I have followed Lewis Mumford in attributing the beginning of the industrial revolution to the idle curiosity of the monk who invented the clock. It is in keeping with Veblen’s notion, that the modern industrial state was only embarrassed by mercantilism in its transfer of feudal organization to industry, to say that the factory has its prototype in the monastery. The Marxian description of the mutual supports and interdependences of the separate processes in the factory is reminiscent of the Platonic and Benedictine understanding of the ordination of the arts. But in the factory there has been until recently only slight recognition of anything but the useful arts. The other arts, under whatever epithets, the higher learning, idle curiosity, conspicuous waste, and conspicuous leisure in the owner, are superfluous. The recent recognition of waste, leisure, and curiosity in the industrial laboratory does not temper the charge of exploitation and bad faith which these epithets carry; it rather argues that the university has sunk to the level of industry, and that its laboratories are really extensions of the useful arts, colonies on the frontier of industry. Still, factories have developed trade schools for the cultivation of liberal adjuncts to the useful arts, and they have supplied parks, hospitals, community centers, and even houses for the workers. They have even seen that the proper preachers inculcate the relevant moral virtues, and they have seen to it that individual thrift takes the place of charity. Protestant ethics finds its most realistic application in the factory and its outhouses, as Max Weber and Tawney have shown. However, most of the effect of the factory on the arts other than useful has been like the effect of the clock on the timekeeping of the monastery; it has transferred the theological, moral, and liberal arts from men to machines, which, it must be added, have shown very superior efficiencies in point of utility. There have not been prayerwheels, but there have been stereopticon lanterns and moving pictures in place of sermons; the scientific instrument has taken the place of arithmetic and geometry; and the mechanical gadget has transformed our morals.

It is true that the factory has let loose many surplus values. It has raised our standard of living, which means that the use of its products has given us new habits and virtues and therefore new demands, but these have on the whole been habits and values on the useful level. It might be better to say that it has extended the range of our standard of living. It has created a leisure for some, a leisure which is radically free, even from any goods to fill or control it. Through commerce it has widened the range of our curiosity until it covers the whole globe with at least the beginnings of understanding and science. It has created a new brotherhood of man, in fact two brotherhoods who are now engaged in the class struggle. The factory has brought on a revolution whose consequences we cannot see or estimate.

These historical illustrations seem to fall into a narrative of degradation, but that has been due only to the accident of writing one paragraph after another. They have also fallen into a pattern of disintegration, but that is only an accidental result of analysis. Marx and others tell the same story with progress and integration as the resulting impression. Historical impressions are often the result of accidental immediate concerns. I have been speaking of the immortality of the arts, therefore of human labor and welfare, a theme which lends Marx’s “Capital” its immortality and sublimity. I shall leave the prejudices that we all have regarding monasteries, universities, and factories to the individuals who are in them—and to those who have revolted from them.

Still the individual can ask himself further questions. For instance, I have aired my prejudice and romantic nostalgia for the monastery. The monastic advice on such a complex would be to get back to that part of the monastery where my work is and keep my mind on God; as the Shakers have it: Hands to work and hearts to God.


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