“Such is the tangle of conflicting interests in a tooth-and-nail society that people cannot avoid being scabs, are often made so against their desires, and unconsciously”
[Although the author of this paper has been chiefly known to the readers of the Atlantic as a writer of stories of the Klondike, he has given many years to the study of social problems. The People of the Abyss is one of his latest productions in this field. The present article is an interesting contribution, from a radical point of view, to the Atlantic‘s series of papers on the Ethics of Business. It is to be followed in February by an article, Is Commercialism in Disgrace? by John Graham Brooks. — THE EDITORS FROM THE ATLANTIC.]
In a competitive society, where men struggle with one another for food and shelter, what is more natural than that generosity, when it diminishes the food and shelter of men other than he who is generous, should be held an accursed thing? Wise old saws to the contrary, he who takes from a man’s purse takes from his existence. To strike at a man’s food and shelter is to strike at his life, and in a society organized on a tooth-and-nail basis, such an act, performed though it may be under the guise of generosity, is none the less menacing and terrible.
“It is not probable that employers can destroy unionism in the United States. Adroit and desperate attempts will, however, be made, if we mean by unionism the undisciplined and aggressive fact of vigorous and determined organizations. If capital should prove too strong in this struggle, the result is easy to predict. The employers have only to convince organized labor that it cannot hold its own against the capitalist manager, and the whole energy that now goes to the union will turn to an aggressive political socialism. It will not be the harmless sympathy with increased city and state functions which trade unions already feel; it will become a turbulent political force bent upon using every weapon of taxation against the rich.”
This struggle not to be a scab, to avoid giving more for less, and to succeed in giving less for more, is more vital than it would appear on the surface. The capitalist and labor groups are locked together in desperate battle, and neither side is swayed by moral considerations more than skin-deep. The labor-group hires business agents, lawyers, and organizers; and is beginning to intimidate legislators by the strength of its solid vote, and more directly, in the near future, it will attempt to control legislation by capturing it bodily through the ballot-box. On the other hand, the capitalist-group, numerically weaker, hires newspapers, universities, and legislatures, and strives to bend to its need all the forces which go to mould public opinion.
A capitalist, such as the late Collis P. Huntington, and his name is Legion, after a long life spent in buying the aid of countless legislatures, will wax virtuously wrathful and condemn in unmeasured terms “the dangerous tendency of crying out to the government for aid” in the way of labor legislation. Without a quiver, a member of the capitalist-group will run tens of thousands of pitiful child-laborers through his life-destroying cotton factories, and weep maudlin and Constitutional tears over one scab hit in the back with a brick. He will drive a “compulsory” free contract with an unorganized laborer on the basis of a starvation wage, saying, “Take it or leave it,” knowing that to leave it means to die of hunger; and in the next breath, when the organizer entices that laborer into a union, will storm patriotically about the inalienable rights of all men to work. In short, the chief moral concern of either side is with the morals of the other side. They are not in the business for their moral welfare, but to achieve the enviable position of the non-scab who gets more than he gives.
But to scabbing, no blame attaches itself anywhere. All the world is a scab, and with rare exceptions, all the people in it are scabs. The strong, capable workman gets a job and holds it because of his strength and capacity. And he holds it because out of his strength and capacity he gives a better value for his wage than does the weaker and less capable workman. Therefore he is scabbing upon his weaker and less capable brother workman. This is incontrovertible. He is giving more value for the price paid by the employer.
The superior workman scabs upon the inferior workman because he is so constituted and cannot help it. The one, by fortune of birth and upbringing, is strong and capable; the other, by fortune of birth and upbringing, is not so strong or capable. It is for the same reason that one country scabs upon another. That country which has the good fortune to possess great natural resources, a finer sun and soil, unhampering institutions, and a deft and intelligent labor class and capitalist class, is bound to scab upon a country less fortunately situated. It is the good fortune of the United States that is making her the colossal scab, just as it is the good fortune of one man to be born with a straight back while his brother is born with a hump.
It is not good to give most for least, not good to be a scab. The word has gained universal opprobrium. On the other hand, to be a non-scab, to give least for most, is universally branded as stingy, selfish, and unchristian-like. So all the world, like the British workman, is ‘twixt the devil and the deep sea. It is treason to one’s fellows to scab, it is treason to God and unchristian-like not to scab.
Since to give least for most and to give most for least are universally bad, what remains? Equity remains, which is to give like for like, the same for the same, neither more nor less. But this equity, society, as at present constituted, cannot give. It is not in the nature of present-day society for men to give like for like, the same for the same. And as long as men continue to live in this competitive society, struggling tooth and nail with one another for food and shelter, (which is to struggle tooth and nail with one another for life), that long will the scab continue to exist. His will to live will force him to exist. He may be flouted and jeered by his brothers, he may be beaten with bricks and clubs by the men who by superior strength and capacity scab upon him as he scabs upon them by longer hours and smaller wages, but through it all he will persist, going them one better, and giving a bit more of most for least than they are giving.
Footnote refers to John Graham Brooks’ The Social Unrest. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903. This article was printed by the Atlantic.