Front Page Titles (by Subject) 11.: Cooperation: Intended Speech 1825 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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11.: Cooperation: Intended Speech 1825 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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Cooperation: Intended Speech
MS, Connecticut College. Inscribed in Mill’s hand: “Speech at the Cooperative Society / Not delivered.” The speech (like Nos. 10 and 12) was undoubtedly prepared for the second of the two debates between the Utilitarians and the Owenites at the latter’s Co-operative Society in 1825. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
at the last meeting of this Society the opinions which I hold were assailed with a variety of epithets, expressive of hatred and contempt. I shall not follow this example: I shall not call Mr. Owen’s theory a spurious theory nor shall I say that it ought to be torn into tatters and scattered to the winds. But I shall endeavour to shew that it is founded on mistaken views of human nature and of the course of human affairs; and that the end which its supporters have at heart, the greatest happiness of the greatest number,1 would not be attained, but frustrated, by the adoption of the means which they so warmly recommend.
Before I submit to this Society, my view of the subject, I deem it proper to offer some few remarks on the principles, which were so ably put forward by a gentleman2 on the last evening, as the basis on which the system of Mr. Owen is founded.
The first of these principles is, that labour is the only source of wealth:3 that the wealth of a country is wholly produced by labour, and that all other classes are supported out of the produce of labour. From this it was inferred, that the burden of poor-rates is wholly borne by the labourer, that all other classes are living at the labourer’s expense, are receiving a portion of that which of right belongs to him, and which they either extort from him by force, or which at least they owe to his charity and forbearance.
In answer to this, it was observed on the preceding evening that wealth is indeed the produce of labour, but not of unassisted labour: and if other classes enjoy a portion of the produce of labour, it is not without giving some sort of an equivalent in return. It is of very little use to tell the labourer that it is he, and not the capitalist, who is the producer of wealth, when the labourer knows well that if the capitalist deserts him, he must starve. Turn out a labourer or if you please a score of labourers into an untilled field, of whatever fertility, even the finest soil in the world—and without the aid of the capitalist, what can they produce? Nothing; absolutely nothing. It is not then labour alone, which produces the national wealth, but labour assisted by tools, assisted by seed, or materials, and supported by a previous supply of accumulated food. It is the capitalist who supplies all these; and is not the capitalist entitled to some remuneration for this assistance? Is it not the interest of the labourers themselves, that he should be remunerated for it? Can it be expected that he would afford this assistance, if he were not remunerated?
These things having been stated on the preceding evening, the gentlemen on the other side brought forward in reply, an argument which they seemed to think a complete coup de grâce to their opponents, and which, judging from the applause with which it was received appeared so to most of the persons present. This capital, said they, these tools, this seed or material, and this accumulated food, was itself the produce of labour. Well; so it was: and what then? Why, then it all belonged to the labourer, and consequently it was not the capitalist who afforded the capital, it was the labourer who produced it, and the capitalist took it from him, and now demands a remuneration for allowing him to make use of that which is of right his own. This was the argument. I hope I have stated it fairly; if not, I request that some gentleman will correct me.
Well, then, I proceed to point out the fallacy. The food, tools, seed, and material, in one word the capital, is the produce of labour, sure enough, but of what labour? They were not produced by the labourers who consume them. They are the accumulated product of the labour of the capitalists themselves, or of their ancestors, and they are wholly made up of the savings from that labour. This may appear to many who hear it, paradoxical, but I am entitled to be heard while I shew on what foundation it rests.4
The journeyman weaver, the journeyman cotton spinner, the agricultural labourer, and so forth, cannot say of the tools which they use, I made them; they cannot say of the seed which they sow, or of the material which they work up, I produced them; of the food which they eat, I raised it from the ground. As individuals, therefore, it will be allowed that they could not produce any thing, that they could not live, in fact, unless the capitalists consented to cooperate with them in the work of production. But then you will say, If they did not produce this food, tools, etc., other labourers did. Very true; but how? Not unaided, not by themselves; but with the assistance of other capitalists. Thus we find that capital, although produced by labour, was not produced by the unaided labour of any of the present generation, the present capital was produced by the present labourers aided by a former capital: this former capital was produced by former labourers, aided by a capital of a still older date, and so on: All these capitals must have been paid for, or they would not have been had: The labourers are under the necessity of foregoing a part of what they produce, in order to obtain that assistance, without which they could not have produced any thing: and how far must we mount up in order to arrive at the period, when the whole produce belonged to the labourer? Why, to the origin of the first capital. Before there was any capital except the spontaneous produce of the earth, the labourer was the owner of all that he produced. Let us see then how capital originated, let us see who the first capitalist was. Let us see how the other labourers were persuaded to let him rob them of the fruits of their industry, that he might live in idleness at their expense. They seem to have been easily duped by this cunning fellow, to have been nicely taken in—No, Sir, this will not do. The first capitalist was the man who laboured harder than his neighbours—the man who worked when others were idle, or who saved when others spent. This was the origin of capital. The first capital was produced by labour, but it was by the labour of the capitalist: and it is to the capitalist, and to him alone that it of right belonged.
The error lies in considering the labourer and the capitalist as men of a different genus: like a man and a beast. It is true that at this advanced stage of society, the same man is rarely a labourer and a capitalist; but all capitalists were originally labourers, or descendants of labourers, and all capital is the saving from the produce of their industry.
The transformation of labourers into capitalists frequently takes place even at the present day. A journeyman saves a small sum from his wages, and sets up as a master: he begins in a small way; his business gradually extends, and he becomes at length perhaps the richest man in the country and if he does not, his son or his grandson may. Look at Sir Robert Peel?5 Is not that his history? And all capital was originally produced in the same way.
Two men produce the same quantity of food; one man squanders it all in idleness, the other man goes on producing more and adding to his stock. Thus one man obtains a great deal more than he has immediate occasion for, and another man is starving. Well, the provident man says to the spendthrift, You are a strong man, and have the physical power of producing a great deal; but you are unable to work, because you have squandered that food which ought to have maintained you while you were working: I have food; come, and work for me: I will feed you; and you will give me, all that you produce. Would you prevent him from making this offer to his distressed fellow labourer? Would you prevent the other from accepting it? Then you see the consequence: the one starves; the other being unable to purchase the labour of others, has no resource but his own labour, he is compelled to labour equally hard, whether he saves or no, and of course he does not save.
Or I will alter the case. A labourer by the exertion of his ingenuity invents an implement: a spade we shall suppose. With great time and labour he makes this spade; and then says to his neighbours, Instead of working for yourselves, come and work for me: With this spade, you will be able to produce twice or three times what you can produce without it. You will not indeed be suffered to retain the whole of what you produce, but that portion which you will retain, exceeds the whole of what you are now able to produce without the spade. The other labourers consider the matter; they consider how much time and labour it will cost them to make spades for themselves. And if they find that it will cost them more time than the food which they possess will last, they accept the proposal; and the inventor gets the reward of his ingenuity.
What then is the reason why there is a class of capitalists, and a class of labourers? It is because one man has worked harder, or squandered less, or had more skill, or more ingenuity, or a smaller family, than another; and has thus acquired the means of paying others to work for him, and because he has been permitted, at his death, to leave the products of his industry to his children and those other persons whom he holds most dear. The labourer therefore does not support the capitalist any more than the capitalist supports the labourer. The capitalist has nothing but what he or his ancestors have actually produced by their labour, together with that which others have voluntarily given them as a remuneration for the use of what they produced. The fortune even of a Baring has no other source.6 Mr. Baring’s father or grandfather or some of his ancestors produced a part by the sweat of their brow; and in order to obtain the use of this part, the labourers were willing to give to Mr. Baring a part of what they produced, but what they could not have produced without his aid.
Having thus, as I think, shewn how utterly untenable are the doctrines of my opponents, I shall endeavour to expound my own. And as the spurious school of political economy has been charged with caring for nothing but the accumulation of wealth, I will tell you, Sir, what are my principles. They are these. That the working people being the majority of the whole population, the interests of all the other classes are of no importance compared with theirs. So far from thinking that they are too well off I think that they never can be too well paid: that they never can have too many comforts and enjoyments: and if it were necessary I would willingly suffer every other person in the community to starve, rather than that they should be inadequately provided with the necessaries of life.
It is then an enquiry of no trifling importance, what the remuneration of the labourer depends upon. In the present state of society, every one here will agree with me that it depends upon competition. By competition, I mean, the competition on the one hand, of capitalists to get labourers, and on the other hand, of labourers to get employment. Wages will be high or low, according to which of these competitions is the greatest. When there is a greater number of labourers, compared with capital, wages are low: when there is not a great number of labourers, compared with capital, wages are high. I need not go, I presume, into the proof of this proposition, which is indeed self evident.
This then being admitted, I say, that it is the tendency of population to increase faster than capital; that consequently wages have a constant tendency to fall; and therefore that every plan for ameliorating the condition of the people, which is not founded upon a regulation of their numbers, is futile and visionary.
It is acknowledged by my opponents that the working classes are in all countries very inadequately provided with the means of subsistence. Well, then, I ask, how this could possibly be the case, if population had not always increased so fast as to overtake the most rapid accumulation of capital? If capital on the contrary had increased faster than population, wages would have been very high, and the labourers very well off. Why is the fact so strikingly, so notoriously otherwise?
These gentlemen will probably tell us, that the cause of low wages is the unequal distribution of wealth, which gives so much to the other classes of society, and therefore leaves so little to the labourers. And that if wealth were better distributed, there would be enough for all.
Let us suppose, then, that wealth were distributed in the best possible manner. I ask, would private property have any existence under that system? I ask the question, because I wish to be informed, what distribution of wealth these gentlemen would have. I pause for an answer.
The gentleman has judged rightly. If private property had existence; if the man who produced most, were suffered to have most, or if he who saves instead of spending, were suffered to have an exclusive right to that which he saves, there would in a few years be the same inequality of property which is now so loudly complained of; we should soon see those who have not working for those who have; wages would again be regulated by competition, and the same cause which produces low wages now, would produce low wages then.
Observe, then, these gentlemen renounce private property. With most people, this would be considered a complete reductio ad absurdum. Let us grant to them, however, the distribution of wealth which they wish for. Let us place them in Mr. Robert Owen’s communities, and see what will happen.
I will grant for the sake of argument that they would all be very well off at first, though I might fairly dispute even this proposition7
[1 ]The utilitarian maxim, enunciated by Jeremy Bentham first in his Fragment on Government (1776), in Works, Vol. I, p. 227.
[2 ]Not identified.
[3 ]Owen, Report, p. 1.
[4 ]A vertical line through this and the previous sentence may signal cancellation.
[5 ]Robert Peel (1750-1830) inherited the fortune from calico-printing initiated by his father Robert in 1764 and increased by new industrial techniques. In turn the fortune came to the third Robert Peel (1788-1850), then Home Secretary.
[6 ]Alexander Baring (1774-1848), 1st Baron Ashburton, inherited the highly successful banking house established by his father Francis (1740-1810) in 1770. The family fortune was initiated by Francis’s father, John, who emigrated from Bremen and established a cloth manufactory near Exeter.
[7 ]The manuscript ends here in the middle of the page.