Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Period of Anarchy. - Fabian Essays in Socialism
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The Period of Anarchy. - George Bernard Shaw, Fabian Essays in Socialism 
Fabian Essays in Socialism, ed. G. Bernard Shaw, American Edition Ed. by H.G. Wilshire, (New York: The Homboldt Publishing Co., 1891).
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The Period of Anarchy.
The result of the industrial revolution, with its dissolution of medievalism amid an impetuous reaction against the bureaucratic tyranny of the past, was to leave all the new elements of society in a state of unrestrained license. Individual liberty, in the sense of freedom privately to appropriate the means of production, reached its maximum at the commencement of the century. No sentimental regulations hindered the free employment of land and capital to the greatest possible pecuniary gain of the proprietors, however many lives of men, women and children were used up in the process. Ignorant or unreflecting capitalists still speak of that terrible time with exultation. "It was not five per cent. or ten per cent.," says one, "but thousands per cent. that made the fortunes of Lancashire."
Mr. Herbert Spencer and those who agree in his worship of Individualism,16 apparently desire to bring back the legal position which made possible the "white slavery" of which the "sins of legislators" have deprived us; but no serious attempt has ever been made to get repealed any one of the Factory Acts. Women working half naked in the coal mines; young children dragging trucks all day in the foul atmosphere of the underground galleries; infants bound to the loom for fifteen hours in the heated air of the cotton mill, and kept awake only by the overlooker's lash; hours of labor for all, young and old, limited only by the utmost capabilities of physical endurance; complete absence of the sanitary provisions necessary to a rapidly growing population: these and other nameless iniquities will be found recorded as the results of freedom of contract and complete laissez faire in the impartial pages of successive blue-book reports.17 But the Liberal mill-owners of the day, aided by some of the political economists, stubbornly resisted every attempt to interfere with their freedom to use "their" capital and "their" hands as they found most profitable, and (like their successors to-day) predicted of each restriction as it arrived that it must inevitably destroy the export trade and deprive them of all profit whatsoever.
But this "acute outbreak of individualism, unchecked by the old restraints, and invested with almost a religious sanction by a certain soulless school of writers,"18 was inevitable, after the economic blundering of governments in the eighteenth century. Prior to the scientific investigation of economic laws, men had naturally interfered in social arrangements with very unsatisfactory results. A specially extravagant or a specially thrifty king debased the currency, and then was surprised to find that in spite of stringent prohibitions prices went up and all good money fled the country. Wise statesmen, to keep up wages, encouraged the woolen manufactures of England by ruining those of Ireland, and were then astonished to find English wages cut by Irish pauper immigration. Benevolent parliaments attempted to raise the worker's income by poor-law allowances, and then found that they had lowered it. Christian kings eliminated half the skilled artisans from their kingdoms, and then found that they had ruined the rest by disabling industry. Government inspectors ordered how the cloth should be woven, what patterns should be made, and how broad the piece should be, until the manufacturers in despair cried out merely to be let alone.
When the early economists realized how radically wrong had been even the well-meant attempts to regulate economic relations by legislation, and how generally these attempts multiplied private monopolies, they leaned in their deductions heavily toward complete individual liberty. The administration of a populous state is such a very difficult matter, and when done on false principles is so certain to be badly done, that it was natural to advocate rather no administration at all than the interference of ignorant and interested bunglers. Nature, glorified by the worship of a famous school of French philosophers and English poets, and as yet unsuspected of the countless crimes of "the struggle for existence," appeared at least more trustworthy than Castlereagh. Real democratic administration seemed, in the time of the "White Terror," and even under the milder Whig hypocrisy which succeeded it, hopelessly remote. The best thing to work and fight for was, apparently, the reduction to impotence and neutrality of all the "Powers that be." Their influence being for the moment hostile to the people, it behooved the people to destroy their influence altogether. And so grew up the doctrine of what Professor Huxley has since called "Administrative Nihilism." It was the apotheosis of Laissez Faire, Laissez Aller.
Though the economists have since had to bear all the blame for what nearly every one now perceives to have been an economic and social mistake, neither Hume nor Adam Smith caught the laissez faire fever to as great an extent as their French contemporaries and imitators. The English industrial position was not the same as that of France. The "mercantile system" by which, as by "Fair Trade" to-day, foreign trade was to be regulated and encouraged according as it tended to cause the stock of goods, especially coin and bullion, to increase in the country, was the same on both sides of the Channel. But our political revolution had already been partly accomplished; and the more obvious shackles of feudalism had been long since struck off. No Englishman was compelled to grind his corn at the mill of the lord of the manor;19 to give up unpaid days to plow the lord's field and cart the lord's hay; or to spend his nights in beating the waters of the lord's marsh so that the croaking of the frogs might not disturb the lord's repose. Our labor dues had long before been commuted for money payments; and these had become light owing to the change in currency values. Our apprenticeship laws and guild regulations were becoming rapidly inoperative. No vexatious excise or gabelle hampered our manufactures.
Tyranny there was, enough and to spare, and economic spoliation; but they did not take the form of personal interferences and indignities. The non-noble Frenchman was bond, and he knew it; the middle-class Englishman to a great extent thought himself free: his economic servitude, though it galled him, was not clearly distinguishable from the niggardliness of nature. The landlord in France was an obvious tyrant: here he certainly caused (by the abstraction of the economic rent) an artificial barrenness of the workers' labor; but the barrenness was so old and had been so constant that it was not seen to be artificial, and was not resented as such. No peasant rebels against the blight. Accordingly, we have, since 1381, never had in England a burning of the chateaux; and accordingly, too, Adam Smith is no complete champion of laissez faire, though his great work was effective mainly in sweeping away foreign trade restrictions and regulations, and in giving viability to labor by establishing the laborer's geographical freedom to move and to enter into the wage contract when and where he best could. The English economists, stopping illogically short of the complete freedom preached by Rousseau and Godwin and the scientific Anarchists of to-day, advocated just as much freedom as sufficed to make the fortunes of Lancashire capitalists and to create the modern proletariat. The Utilitarians are appropriately coupled with the Political Economists in connection with this phase of thought. Although Adam Smith did not belong to their school, almost the whole work of developing and popularizing the new science was done by them. It was not until after the Peace—when Bentham and James Mill were in full vigor, and soon to be reinforced by Austin, Villiers, John Stuart Mill, Roebuck, Grote, Ricardo, and others—that Political Economy became a force in England. The motive and enthusiasm for the new science undoubtedly came from the Utilitarian ethics. If the sole masters of man were pleasure and pain, the knowledge of the natural laws expressing the course of social action, and thus regulating pleasure and pain, became of vital importance. If it is God's will, as Paley and Austin asserted, that men should seek for happiness, then the study of how to obtain economic comfort becomes a sacred duty, and has ever been so regarded by such rational divines as Malthus, Chalmers, Maurice, Kingsley, and the young High Church party of to-day. Christianity and the course of modern thought began to join hands; and we may see in Bishop Berkeley and Paley the forerunners of such a development as the Guild of St. Matthew.20
The Utilitarian philosophy, besides aiding in the popularization of economic science, strongly influenced its early character. The tendency to Laissez Faire inherited from the country and century of upheaval and revolt against authority, was fostered by Bentham's destructive criticism of all the venerable relics of the past. What is the use of it? he asked of every shred of social institution then existing. What is the net result of its being upon individual happiness? Few of the laws and customs—little, indeed, of the social organization of that time could stand this test. England was covered with rotten survivals from bygone circumstances; the whole administration was an instrument for class domination and parasite nurture; the progress of the industrial revolution was rapidly making obsolete all laws, customs, proverbs, maxims, and nursery tales; and the sudden increase of population was baffling all expectations and disconcerting all arrangements. At last it came to be carelessly accepted as the teaching both of philosophy and of experience that every man must fight for himself; and "devil take the hindmost" became the accepted social creed of what was still believed to be a Christian nation. Utilitarianism became the Protestantism of Sociology, and "how to make for self and family the best of both worlds" was assumed to be the duty, as it certainly was the aim, of every practical Englishman.
[16.]Few, however, of Mr. Spencer's followers appear to realize that he presupposes Land Nationalization as the necessary condition of an Individualist community (see Economics of Herbert Spencer, Humboldt Pub. Co.)
[17.]It is sometimes asserted now-a-days that the current descriptions of factory life under the régime of freedom of contract are much exaggerated. This is not the case. The horrors revealed in the reports of official inquiries even exceed those commonly quoted. For a full account of the legislation, and the facts on which it was founded, see Von Plener's English Factory Legislation. The chief official reports are those of the House of Commons Committee of 1815-6, House of Lords Committee, 1819, and Royal Commission, 1840. Marx (Capital) gives many other references. (Humboldt Pub. Co.). See also F. Engel's Condition of the English Working Classes. (N. Y. Labor News Co.)
[18.]Professor H. S. Foxwell (University College, London), p. 249 of Essay in The Claims of Labor (Edinburgh: Coöperative Printing Company, 1886).
[19.]This statement, though generally true of England, is not absolutely so. It needed an Act of Parliament in 1758 (32 George II., c. 61) to free the inhabitants of the "village" of Manchester from the obligation to grind all their corn and grain at the manorial watermills (Clifford's History of Private Bill Legislation, vol. II., p. 478). Even so late as 1809 they had to obtain the consent of Sir Oswald Mosley, the lord of the manor, before a company could be incorporated to provide a water supply (Ibid, p. 480). Leeds was theoretically compelled to grind its corn, grain and malt at the lord's mills down to 1839, and actually had then to pay £13,000 to extinguish this feudal "due" (Ibid, p. 498).
[20.]See its organ, the Church Reformer. London: 8 Duke Street, Adelphi.