From A Critique of the Philosophy of Progress
By Lyle H. Lanier
Originally published in 1930 (!) in I’ll Take My Stand.
Take special not of excerpt 2, not only for its prediction of WWII, but for what it says to the current economic woes of the U.S. and the attendant machinations of the power-mongers.
The only association or communication of any psychological import is that of face-to-face interaction among individuals, and it appears that instead of more association of this sort in the corporate age there is actually less of it. We do indeed have greater similarity in the behavior patterns of individuals, more people doing the same thing in the same way and perhaps at the same time, but this by no means insures real communion. The fact that along with ten million other persons a man eats potato chips made in Detroit is of about zero order of significance as far as the humanizing process of liberation of spirit in social interaction goes. The two thousand patrons of a modern movie palace engage in no real communication or interaction, and consequently could scarcely be said to participate in an aggregate emotional life or to be sharing experiences in a manner calculated to produce development of personality. The performance of a train of activities along the same external pattern as that followed by millions of other people means no corresponding psychological communism. This real association exists, for the generality of people, only in the agrarian community and in the villages and towns which are its adjuncts. It depends upon a stable population, upon long acquaintances, since human beings do not bear spigots by which “fraternity” can be drawn off for the asking. The city necessarily means a diminution of these associations; the casual, fleeting, formal contacts with great numbers of people only enhance a sense of isolation, and consequently inhibit the very process of “liberation of spirit” which Mr. Dewey rightly regards as of great importance in mental development.
Another phase of the same problem is the decline of the family. This is perhaps much more important than any other phase of contemporary disintegration, since the family is the natural biological group, the normal milieu of shared experiences, community of interests, integration of personality. The segmentation of both adult and child activities which has accompanied the corporate age leaves little to the family beyond the details of finance and the primary sexual functions. Allport has recently pointed out in an excellent article that the moral and educational functions of the family are more and more entrusted to depersonalized external agencies which simulate the form of familial function but which are entirely devoid of its content. The following quotation summarizes the psychological importance of the family very well: “In youth as in age, in work as in play, in physical care as in education and morals, there remains a vital function which only such a face-to-face relation as the biological family can fulfill. No artifice of the social scientist, no new marriage contract of community agency, can replace this relationship as a medium for the development and integration of human personality. Fresh expectancies of conduct may be defined, new organizations may spring up to take over old familial duties; but these devices only dissipate our energies the further and realign us among new factions and patterns. . . . The only reality which is ultimately worth considering is that of human beings which associate together; and the life of the family is the life which actual fathers, mothers, and children live in one another’s company. Unless there are opportunities for individuals to grow and to realize their potentialities through free contact with one another, the most highly perfected pattern of the sociologist will be only an empty formula.”
One outstanding fact in industry at present is that with the great increase in production and in new commodities, and with consumption coerced to the limit, there is a steady decrease in employment. Improvements in technology, as Mr. Stuart Chase has recently pointed out, “can only mean one thing. An equivalent tonnage of goods can be produced by a declining number of workers, and men must lose their jobs by the thousands — presently by the millions.” The so-called “blotting-paper trades” which hitherto have absorbed many of these workers (but not all) are very soggy, thinks Mr. Chase. This seems only logical; there must be a saturation point somewhere in the consumptive process, and we would seem to be approaching it. Chronic unemployment of some 2,000,000 out of 30,000,000 workers in the country, with the figure rising to 4,000,000 or more in times of cyclical depression such as the present, cannot be wiped out by charity, slogans, Hoover conferences which recommend increased buying, or increases in the tariff. Hungry and maladjusted men, women, and children, in numbers that bid fair to increase, is one of the promises of industrialism for the future. With the curve of employment running steadily downward, industry will be increasingly unable to maintain the present army of workers permanently and continuously.
The logical outcome of these conditions is growing internal dissension and, eventually, revolution. This result will be greatly facilitated by the instability in a “floating” populace concentrated in large urban industrial centers, unattached to that tremendous social anchor, land, and lacking in “solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action.” Mr. William Green recently warned a Senate committee that the labor forces under his direction could not be held in line much longer unless drastic measures were taken to relieve the unemployment situation. The latter is, of course, only an aspect of the general problem of industrialism, and it is possible to alleviate the condition temporarily without removing its cause. Another world war, which the international struggle for markets suggests as not an unlikely prospect, would afford temporary “relief.” Mr. Owen Young is quoted in press dispatches as saying that over-production with the consequent competition for foreign markets is a real menace to international peace. There is nothing very strange in this idea, inasmuch as we are now far enough away from the last war to understand the economic translation of “making the world safe for democracy.” Another salvation drama would relieve the labor market and take care of the surplus for a while, but this is neither a permanent nor a very intelligent solution. The institution of various palliative measures by industrialists themselves may also serve to postpone the hour of reckoning. Among these are unemployment insurance, state unemployment compensation, the shortening of working hours with the consequent employment of more men, regularization of production, increase in the age limit of child laborers, and so on. These measure would undoubtedly stabilize conditions for a time, but it requires considerable optimism to believe that they would insure the permanent retention in industrial employment of the large portion of the population now engaged in it. Technological improvements, efficiency experts, and mergers would necessarily add regularly to the burden of any unemployment insurance or compensation plan. Like the present Farm Board’s attempt to handle the wheat surplus, such devices are unnatural and temporary. Furthermore, granting the possibility of tiding over for a few years, even for twenty-five or fifty, the most that is offered to the worker is the bleak assurance that no serious physiological want will overtake him. The men, women, and children will have no humanized living; caught in the throes of these convulsions of a predatory and decadent capitalism, their drab existences will bear mute testimony that our century of Progress lies below the cultural level of the Pyramids.
The alternative course to this blind temporization is to renounce the capitalistic industrial program. This does not mean that the industrial technology should be scrapped; on the contrary, further mechanization of industrial production should be encouraged, since this would mean that progressively fewer persons would be required for its processes. The production of commodities should be stabilized in each industry, and the large surplus of chronically unemployed should be induced by all possible means to return to agriculture. The objection may be made that already there is over-production of agricultural commodities; the answer is that agriculture is more than a process of “production.” The millions of people who now hang to the fringes of industry would find a place to live and food to eat; they would no longer fill the “flop” houses and the bread lines. They would not have to look froward to the demoralizing prospect of the dole, even when made under the guise of “insurance.” They would have a base on which to knit together the fragments of lives now broken on the wheel of what we are pleased to call civilization.