The Values Of Labour by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Only about a quarter-century ago unlearned men of ability would often sigh and say, “Ah, if I was only a scholar!” Admirers of a clever and illiterate workman often said, “Why, if he was a scholar, he would make a fortune in business for himself!” Women mourned the lack of learning in the same way, and I have heard good dames deplore the fact that they could not read. I pity most profoundly those on whom the light of knowledge has never shone kindly; and yet I have a comic sort of misgiving lest in a short time a common cry may be, “Ah, if I was only not a scholar!” The matchless topsy-turvydom which has marked the passage of the last ten years, the tremendously accelerated velocity with which labour is moving towards emancipation from all control, have so confused things in general that an observer must stand back and get a new focus before he can allow his mind to dwell on the things that he sees. One day’s issue of any good newspaper is enough to show what a revolution is upon us, for we merely need to run the eye down columns at random to pick out suggestive little scraps. At present we cannot get that “larger view” about which Dr. W.B. Carpenter used to talk; he was wont to study hundreds and thousands of soundings and measurements piecemeal, and the chaos of figures gradually took form until at length the doctor had in his mind a complete picture of enormous ocean depths. In somewhat the same way we can by slow degrees form a picture of a changed state of society, and we find that the faculties of body or mind which used to bring their possessor gain are now nearly worthless. In one column of a journal I find that a trained schoolmistress is required to take charge of a village school. The salary is sixteen pounds per annum; but, if the lady is fortunate enough to have a husband, work can be procured for him daily on the farm. This is just a little disconcerting. The teacher must see to the mental and moral training of fifty children; she must have spent at least seven years in learning before she was allowed to take charge of a school; then she remained two more years on probation, and all the time her expenses were not light. As the final reward of her exertions, she is offered six shillings per week, out of which she must dress neatly–for a slatternly schoolmistress would be a dreadful object–buy sufficient food, and hold her own in rural society! The reverend man who advertises this delectable situation must have a peculiar idea regarding the class into which an educated lady like the teacher whom he requires would likely to marry. An agricultural labourer may be an honest fellow enough, but, as the husband of an educated woman, he might be out of place; and I fancy that a schoolmistress whose husband pulled turnips and wore corduroys might not secure the maximum of deference from her scholars. In contrast to this grotesque advertisement I run down a list of cooks required, and I find that the average wage of the cook is not far from three times that of the teacher, while the domestic has her food provided for liberality. The village schoolmistress in the old days was never well paid; but then she was a private speculator; we never expected to see the specialised product of training and time reckoned at the same value as the old dame’s, who was able to read and knit, but who could do little more. While we are comparing the wages of teachers and cooks, I may point out that the chef, whose training lasts seven years, earns, as we calculate, one hundred and thirty pounds per year more than the average English schoolmaster. This is perhaps as it should be, for the value of a good chef is hardly to be reckoned in money; and yet the figures look funny when we first study them. And now we may turn to the wages of dustmen, who are, it must be admitted, a most estimable class of men and most useful. I find that the London dustman earns more than an assistant master under the Salford School Board, and, besides his wages, he picks up many trifles. The dustman may dwell with his family in two rooms at three-and-sixpence per week; his equipment consists of a slop, corduroys, and a sou’-wester hat, which are sufficient to last many a day with little washing. But the assistant, whose education alone cost the nation one hundred pounds cash down, not to speak of his own private expenditure, must live in a respectable locality, dress neatly, and keep clear of that ugly soul-killing worry which is inflicted by trouble about money. Decidedly the dustman has the best of the bargain all round, for, to say the least, he does not need to labour very much harder than the professional man. This instance tends to throw a very sinister and significant flash on the way things are tending. Again, some of the gangs of Shipping Federation men have full board and lodging, two changes of clothes free, beer and rum in moderate quantities, and thirty shillings per week. Does anybody in England know a curate who has a salary like that? I do not think it would be possible to find one on the Clergy List. No one grudges the labourers their extra food and high wages; I am only taking note of a significant social circumstance. The curate earns nothing until he is about three-and-twenty; if he goes through one of the older universities, his education costs, up to the time of his going out into the world, something very like two thousand pounds; yet, with all his mental equipment, such as it is, he cannot earn so much as a labourer of his own age. Certainly the humbler classes had their day of bondage when the middleman bore heavily on them; they got clear by a mighty effort which dislocated commerce, but we hardly expected to find them claiming, and obtaining, payments higher than many made to the most refined products of the universities! It is the way of the world; we are bound for change, change, and yet more change; and no man may say how the cycles will widen. Luxury has grown on us since the thousands of wealthy idlers who draw their money from trade began to make the stream of lavish expenditure turn into a series of rushing rapids. The flow of wasted wealth is no longer like the equable gliding of the full Thames; it is like the long deadly flurry of the waters that bears toward Niagara. These newly-enriched people cause the rise of the usual crop of parasites, and it is the study of the parasites which forces on the mind hundreds of reflections concerning the values of different kinds of labour. A little while ago, for example, an exquisitely comic paragraph was printed with all innocence in many journals. It appeared that two of the revived species of parasites known as professional pugilists were unable to dress properly before they began knocking each other about, “because their valets were not on the spot.” I hope that the foul old days of the villainous “ring” may never be recalled by anything seen in our day, for there never were any “palmy days,” though there were some ruffians who could not be bought. Yet the worst things that happened in the bygone times were not so much fitted to make a man think solemnly as that one delicious phrase–“their valets were not on the spot.” In the noble days, when England was so very merry, it often happened that a man who has been battered out of all resemblance to humanity was left to dress himself as best he could on a bleak marsh, and his chivalrous friends made the best of their way home, while the defeated gladiator was reckoned at a dog’s value. Now-a-days those sorely-entreated creatures would have their valets. In one department of industry assuredly the value of labour has altered. The very best of the brutal old school once fought desperately for four hours, though it was thought that he must be killed, and his reason was that, if he lost, he would have to beg his bread. Now-a-days he would have a valet, a secretary, a manager, and a crowd of plutocratic admirers who would load him with money and luxuries. I was tickled to the verge of laughter by finding that one of these gentry was paid thirty pounds per night for exhibiting his skill, and my amusement was increased
when it turned out that one of those who paid him thirty pounds strongly objected on learning that the hero appeared at two other places, from each of which he received the same sum. Thus for thirty-six minutes of exertion per day the man was drawing five hundred and forty pounds per week. All these things appeared in the public prints; but no public writer took any serious notice of a symptom which is as significant as any ever observed in the history of mankind. It is almost awe-striking to contemplate these parasites, and think what their rank luxurious existence portends. Here we see a man of vast wealth, whereof every pound was squeezed from the blood and toil of working-men; he passes his time now in the company of these fellows who have earned a reputation by pounding each other. The wealthy bully and his hangers-on are dangerous to the public peace; their language is too foul for even men of the world to endure it, and the whole crew lord it in utter contempt of law and decency. That is the kind of spectacle to be seen in our central city almost every night. Consider a story which accidently came out a few weeks ago owing to legal proceedings and kept pleasure-seeking and scandalmongering London laughing for a while, and say whether any revelation ever gave us a picture of a more unspeakable society. A rich man, A., keeps a prizefighter, B., to “mind” him, as the quaint phrase goes. Mr. A. is offended by another prizefighter, C., and he offers B. the sum of five hundred pounds if he will give C. a beating in public. B. goes to C., and says, “I will give you ten pounds if you will let me thrash you, and I won’t hurt you much.” C. gladly consents, so B. pockets four hundred and ninety pounds for himself, and the noble patron’s revenge is satisfied. There is a true tale of rogues and a fool–a tale to make one brood and brood until the sense of fun passes into black melancholy. Five hundred men worked for sixty hours per week before that money was earned–and think of the value received for the whole sum when it was spent! Truly the parasite’s exertions are lucrative to himself!

As for the market-price of book-learning or clerkly skill, it is not worth so much as naming. The clerk was held to be a wondrous person in times when the “neck-verse” would save a man from the gallows; but “clerk” has far altered its meaning, and the modern being of that name is in sorrowful case. So contemptibly cheap are his poor services that he in person is not looked upon as a man, but rather as a lump of raw material which is at present on sale in a glutted market. All the walks of life wherein men proceed as though they belonged to the leisured class are becoming no fit places for self-respecting people. Gradually the ornamental sort of workers are being displaced; the idle rich are too plentiful, but I question whether even the idle rich have done, so much harm as the genteel poor who are ashamed of labour. I do not like to see wages going downward, but there are exceptions, and I am almost disposed to feel glad that the searchers after “genteel” employment are now very much like the birds during a long frost. The enormous lounging class who earn nothing do not offer an agreeable subject for contemplation, and their parasites are horrible–there is no other word. Yet we may gather a little consolation when we think that the tendency is to raise the earnings of those who do something or produce something. It is not good to know that a dustman makes more money than hundreds of hard-worked and well-educated men, for this is a grotesque state of things brought about by imbecile Government officials. Neither do I quite like to know that a lady whose education occupied nine years of her life is offered less wages than a good housemaid. But I do assuredly like to hear how the higher class of manual labourers flourish; they are the salt of the earth, and I rejoice that they are no longer held down and regarded as in some way inferior to men who do nothing for two hundred pounds a year, except try to look as if they had two thousand pounds. The quiet man who does the delicate work on the monster engines of a great ocean steamer is worthy of his hire, costly as his hire may be. On his eye, his judgment of materials, his nerve, and his dexterity of hand depend precious lives. For three thousand miles those vast masses of machinery must force a huge hull through huge seas; the mighty and shapely fabrics of metal must work with the ease of a child’s toy locomotive, and they must bear a strain that is never relaxed though all the most tremendous forces of Nature may threaten. What a charge for a man! His earnings could hardly be raised high enough if we consider the momentous nature of the duty he fulfils; he is an aristocrat of labour, and we do not know that there is not something grotesque in measuring and arguing over the money-payment made to him. Then there are the specially skilled hands who in their monkish seclusion work at the instruments wherewith scientific wonders are wrought. The rewards of their toil would have seemed fabulous to such men as Harrison the watchmaker; but they also form an aristocracy, and they win the aristocrat’s guerdon without practising his idleness. The mathematician who makes the calculations for a machine is not so well paid as the man who finishes it; the observatory calculator who calculates the time of occulation for a planet cannot earn so much as the one who grinds a reflector. In all our life the same tendency is to be seen: the work of the hand outdoes in value the work of the brain.

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