Are We Wealthy? by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Among the working-classes shrewd men are now going about putting some very awkward questions which seem paradoxical at first sight, but which are quite understood by many intelligent men to whom they are addressed. The query “Are we wealthy?” seems easy enough to answer; and of course a rapid and superficial observer gives an affirmative in reply. It seems so obvious! Our income is a thousand millions per year; our railways and merchant fleets can hardly be valued without putting a strain on the imagination; and it seems as if the atmosphere were reeking with the very essence of riches. A millionaire gives nearly one thousand pounds for a puppy; he buys seventeen baby horses for about three thousand pounds apiece; he gives four thousand guineas for a foal, and bids twenty thousand pounds for one two-year-old filly; his house costs a million or thereabouts. Minor plutocrats swarm among us, and they all exhibit their wealth with every available kind of ostentation; yet that obstinate question remains to be answered–“Are we wealthy?” We may give the proletarians good advice and recommend them to employ no extreme talk and no extreme measures; but there is the new disposition, and we cannot get away from it. I take no side; the poor have my sympathy, but I endeavour to understand the rich, and also to face facts in a quiet way. Supposing that a ball is being given that costs one thousand pounds, and that within sound of the carriages there are twenty seamstresses working who never in all their lives know what it is to have sufficient food–is not that a rather curious position? The seamstresses are the children of mighty Britain, and it seems that their mother cannot give them sustenance. The excessive luxury of the ball shows that some one has wealth, but does it not also seem to show that some one has too much? The clever lecturers who talk to the populace now will not be content with the old-fashioned answer, and an awkward deadlock is growing more nearly imminent daily. Suppose we take the case of the sporting-man again, and find that he pays three guineas per week for the training of each of his fifty racers, we certainly have a picture of lavish display; but, when we see, on the other hand, that nearly half the children in some London districts never know what it is to have breakfast before they go to school, we cannot help thinking of the palaces in which the horses are stabled and the exquisite quality of the animal’s food. There is not a good horse that mother England does not care for, and there are half a million children who rarely can satisfy their hunger, and who are quartered in dens which would kill the horses in a week. These crude considerations are not-presented by us as being satisfactory statements in economics; but, when the smart mob orator says, “What kind of parent would keep horses in luxury and leave children to hunger?” “Is this wealthy England?” his audience reply in a fashion of their own. Reasoning does not avail against hunger and privation. I am forced to own that, for my part, the awful problem of poverty seems insoluble by any logical agent; but the man of the mob does not now care for logic than ever he did before, and he has advisers who state to him the problems of life and society with passionate rhetoric which eludes reason.

The whole world hangs together, and Chicago may be called a mere suburb of London. English people did not understand the true history of the genesis of poverty until the developments of society in America showed us with terrific rapidity the historical development of our own poverty. The fearful state of things in American cities was brought about in a very few years, whereas the gradual extension of our poverty-stricken classes has been going on for centuries. To us poverty, besides being a horror, was more or less of a mystery; but America exhibited the development of the gruesome monster with lurid distinctness. In the old countries the men who first were able to seize the land gradually sublet portions either for money or warlike service; the growth of manufactures occupied a thousand years before it reached its present extent; and with the rising of manufacturing centres came enormous new populations which were finally obliged to barter their labour for next to nothing–and thus we have the appalling and desolating spectacle of our slums. All that took place in America with the swiftness of a series of stage-scenes; so that men now living have watched the inception and growth of all the most harrowing forms of poverty and the vices arising from poverty. And now the cry is, “Go back to the Land–the Land for the Nation!” Matters have reached a strange pass when such a political watchword should be chosen by thousands in grave and stolid England, and we shall be obliged to compromise in the end with those by whom the cry is raised. I believe that a compromise may be arranged in time, but the leaders of the poor will have to teach their followers wisdom, self-restraint, and even a little unselfishness, impossible as the teaching of that last may seem to be. We have begun a great labour war, in which battles are being lost and won by opposing sides around us every day. The fighting was very terrible at the beginning; but we shall be forced at last to adopt a system of truces, and then the question “Are we wealthy?” may find its answer. At this moment, however much an optimist may point to our wealth, the logical opponent of established things can always point to the ghastly sights that seem to make the very name of wealth a cynical mockery.

We have to take up a totally new method of meeting and dealing with the poor; and rich and poor alike must learn to think–which is an accomplishment not possessed by many of either class. In the early part of the century, when the ideas of the Revolution were still very vital, there was hope that a time might come when wealth and power would be shared so as to secure genuine human existence to the whole population. Then came the mad hopes that followed the Reform Bill, when grave Parliamentary men wept and huzzaed like schoolboys on seeing that remarkable measure passed. People thought that the good days had at last come, and even the workers who were still left out in the cold fancied that in some vague way they were to receive benefits worth having. The history of human delusions is a very sad one, as sad almost as the history of human wickedness; and all those poor enthusiasts had a sad awakening, for they found that the barren fights of placemen would still go on, that the people would continue to be shorn, and that the condition of the poor was uncommonly likely to be worse than ever. The hour of hopefulness passed away, and there succeeded bitter years of savage despair. The unhappy Chartists struggled hard; and there is something pathetic in thinking how good men were treated for preaching political commonplaces which are now deemed almost Conservative. The wild time in which every crown in Europe tottered was followed by another period of optimism; for the great religious revival had begun, and the Church resumed her ancient power over the people, despite the shock given by Newman’s secession. Then once again the query “Are we wealthy?” was answered with enthusiasm; and even the poor were told that they were wealthy, for had they not the reversion of complete felicity to crown their entry into a future world? We must believe that there is some compensation for this life’s ills, or else existence would become no longer bearable; but it was hard for people in general to think that everything was for the best on this earth. Soon came the day of doubt and bitterness, which assailed eager philanthropists and mere ordinary people as well. The poor folk did not feel the effects of Darwin’s work, but those effects were terrible in certain quarters, for many precipitate thinkers became convinced that we must perish like the dumb beasts. Wherefore came the question, “Why should the poor go without their share of the good things of this world, since there is nothing for them in the next?” A very ugly query it is too, because, when the question of number arises, rash spirits may say, as it was said long ago, “Are we not many, and are you not few?”

I have not any fine theories, and I do not want to stir up enmities; and I therefore say to the instructors of the poor, “Instead of egging your men on to warfare, why not teach them how to use the laws which they already have? No new laws are wanted; every rational and necessary reform may be achieved by dint of measures now on the statute-book–measures which seem to slumber as soon as the agitation raised in passing them has glorified a certain number of placemen.” Every year we have the outcry, to which we have so often alluded, about disgraceful dwellings; yet there is not a bad case in London or elsewhere which could not be cured if the law were quietly set in motion by men of business. As a matter of fact, a very great portion of the wealth of the country is now at the service of the poor; but they do not choose to take it–or, at any rate, they know nothing about it. Look at the School Board elections, and see how many exercise the right to vote. Yet, if the majority elected their own School Board, they could divert enough charities to educate our whole population, and they could do as they chose in their own schools. Again, the Local Government Act renders it possible for the populace to secure any public institutions that they may want, and in the main they can order their own social life to their liking. What is the use of incessant declamation? Organisation would be a thousand times better. Let quiet men who do not want mere self-advertisement tell the people what is their property and how to get it, and there will be no need of the outcry of one class against another. It is a bitter grief for all thinking men to observe the inequalities that continue to make life positively accursed in many quarters, and the sights of shame that abound ought to be seen no more; but rage can do nothing, while wise teaching can do everything. The population question must be dealt with by the people themselves; they must resolve to crush their masses no more into slums; they must choose for themselves a nobler and a purer life–and that can be accomplished by the laws which they may set in action at once. Then they will be able to say, “England is wealthy, and we have our share.”

Some excellent articles have been turned out by the brilliant professor of biology who inspects our fisheries for us. He has done rare service for the people in his own way–no one better, for he was one of the first who eagerly advocated the education of the masses; but I fear he is now becoming “disillusionised.” He talked once about erecting a Jacob’s Ladder from the gutter to the university; and he has found that the ladder–such as it is–has merely been used to connect the tradesman’s shop and the artisan’s dwelling with the exalted place of education. The poor gutter-child cannot climb the ladder; he is too hungry, too thin, too weak for the feat, and hence the professor’s famous epigram has become one of the things at which scientific students of the human race smile sadly and kindly. And now the professor grows savage and so wildly Conservative that we fear he may denounce Magna Charta next as a gross error. I know very well that all men are not equal, and the professor’s keenest logic cannot make me see that point any more clearly than at present. But suppose that one fine day some awkward leader of the people says, “You tell us, professor, that we are wealthy, and that it is right that some men should be gorged while we are bitten with famine. If Britain is so wealthy, how is it that eleven million acres of good agricultural land are now out of cultivation, while the people whom the land used to feed are crushed in the slums of the towns in the case of labourers, or gone beyond the sea in the case of the farmers?” I want to be impartial, but freely own that I should not like to answer that question, and I do not believe the professor could. The men who used to supply our fighting force are now becoming extinct. If they go into the town and pick up some kind of work, then the second generation are weaklings and a burden to us; while, if they go abroad, they are still removed from the Mother of Nations, who needs her sons of the soil, even though she may feel proud of the gallant new States which they are rearing. And, while rats and mice and obscure vermin are gradually taking possession of the land on which Britons were bred, the signs of bursting wealth are thick among us. Is a nation rich that cannot afford even to keep the kind of men who once defended her? To me the gradual return of the land to its primitive wildness is more than depressing. There are districts on the borders of Hertford and Essex which might make a sentimental traveller sit down and cry. It all seems strange; it looks so poverty-stricken, so filthy, so sordid, so like the site of a slum after all the houses have been levelled for a dozen years; and this in the midst of our England! I say nothing about land-laws and so forth, but I will say that those who fancy the towns can survive when the farms are deserted are much mistaken. “Are we wealthy?” “Yes,” and “No.” We are wealthy in the wrong places, and we are poor in the wrong places; and the combination will end in mischief unless we are very soon prepared to make an alteration in most of our ways of living. In many respects it is a good world; but it might be made better, nobler, finer in every quarter, if the poor would only recognise wise and silent leaders, and use the laws which men have made in order to repair the havoc which other men have also made.

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