When I look at the world — not particularly at the world at war, but at our Western civilisation generally — I find myself dividing people into two main groups according to the way they think about work. And I feel sure that the new world after the war will be satisfactory or not according to the view we are all prepared to take about the work of the world. So let us look for a moment at these two groups of people.
One group — probably the larger and certainly the more discontented — look upon work as a hateful necessity, whose only use is to make money for them, so that they can escape from work and do something else. They feel that only when the day’s labour is over can they really begin to live and be themselves. The other group — smaller nowadays, but on the whole far happier — look on their work as an opportunity for enjoyment and self-fulfilment. They only want to make money so that they may be free to devote themselves more single-mindedly to their work. Their work and their life are one thing; if they were to be cut off from their work, they would feel that they were cut off from life. You will realise that we have here a really fundamental difference of outlook, which is bound to influence all schemes about work, leisure and wages.
Now the first group— that of the work-haters— is not made up solely of people doing very hard, uninteresting and ill-paid work. It includes a great many well-off people who do practically no work at all. The rich man who lives idly on his income, the man who gambles or speculates in the hope of getting money without working for it, the woman who marries for the mere sake of being comfortably established for life — all these people look on money in the same way: as something that saves them from the curse of work. Except that they have had better luck, their outlook is exactly the same as that of the sweated factory hand whose daily work is one long round of soul-and-body-destroying toil. For all of them, work is something hateful, only to be endured because it makes money; and money is desirable because it represents a way of escape from work. The only difference is that the rich have already made their escape, and the poor have not.
The second group is equally mixed. It includes the artists, scholars and scientists — the people really devoured with the passion for making and discovering things. It includes also the rapidly diminishing band of old-fashioned craftsmen, taking a real pride and pleasure in turning out a good job of work. It includes also — and this is very important — those skilled mechanics and engineers who are genuinely in love with the complicated beauty of the machines they use and look after. Then there are those professional people in whom we recognise a clear, spiritual vocation — a call to what is sometimes very hard and exacting work — those doctors, nurses, priests, actors, teachers, whose work is something more to them than a mere means of livelihood; seamen who, for all they may grumble at the hardships of the sea, return to it again and again and are restless and unhappy on dry land; farmers and farmworkers who devotedly serve the land and the beasts they tend; airmen; explorers; and those comparatively rare women to whom the nurture of children is not merely a natural function but also a full-time and absorbing intellectual and emotional interest. A very mixed bag, you will notice, and not exclusively confined to the “possessing classes,” or even to those who, individually or collectively, “own the means of production.”
But we must also admit that, of late, the second group of workers has become more and more infected with the outlook of the first group. Agriculture — especially in those countries where farming is prosperous — has been directed, not to serving the land, but to bleeding it white in the interests of money-making. Certain members of the medical profession — as you may read in Dr. Cronin’s book, The Citadel — are less interested in preserving their patients’ health than in exploiting their weaknesses for profit. Some writers openly admit that their sole aim is the manufacture of best-sellers. And if we are inclined to exclaim indignantly that this kind of conduct is bad for the work, bad for the individual, and bad for the community, we must also confess that we ourselves — the ordinary public — have been only too ready to acquiesce in these commercial standards, not only in trade and manufacture, but in the professions and public services as well.
For us, a “successful” author is one whose sales run into millions; any other standard of criticism is dismissed as “highbrow.” We judge the skill of a physician or surgeon, not by his hospital record, but by whether or not he has many wealthy patients and an address in Harley Street. The announcement that a new film has cost many thousands of pounds to make convinces us that it must be a good film; though very often these excessive production costs are evidence of nothing more than graft, incompetence and bad organisation in the studios. Also, it is useless to pretend that we do not admire and encourage the vices of the idle rich so long as our cinemas are crowded with young men and women gaping at film-stars in plutocratic surroundings and imbecile situations and wishing with all their hearts that they too could live like the heroes and heroines of these witless million-dollar screen stories. Just as it is idle to demand selfless devotion to duty in public servants, so long as we respect roguery in business, or so long as we say, with an admiring chuckle, about some fellow citizen who has pulled off some shady deal with our local borough authorities, that “Old So-and-so is hot stuff, and anybody would have to get up early to find any flies on him.”
We have all become accustomed to rate the value of work by a purely money standard. The people who still cling to the old idea that work should be served and enjoyed for its own sake are diminishing and — what is worse — are being steadily pushed out of the control of public affairs and out of contact with the public. We find them odd and alien — and a subservient journalism (which we encourage by buying and reading it) persuades us to consider them absurd and contemptible. It is only in times of emergency and national disaster that we realise how much we depend upon the man who puts the integrity of his job before money, before success, before self— before all those standards by which we have come to assess the value of work.
Consequently, in planning out our post-war economic paradise, we are apt to concentrate exclusively on questions of hours, wages and conditions, and to neglect the really fundamental question whether, in fact, we want work to be something in which a man can enjoy the exercise of his full natural powers; or merely a disagreeable task, with its hours as short as possible and its returns as high as possible, so that the worker may be released as quickly as possible to enjoy his life in his leisure. Mind, I do not say for a moment that hours, wages and conditions ought not to be dealt with; but we shall deal with them along different lines, according as we believe it right and natural that men should work to live or live to work.
At this point, many of you will be thinking: “Before we can do anything about this, we must get rid of the capitalist system.’’ But the much-abused “system” is precisely the system that arises when we think of work in terms of money-returns. The capitalist is faithfully carrying to its logical conclusion the opinion that work is an evil, that individual liberty means liberty to emancipate one’s self from work, and that whatever pays best is right. And I see no chance of getting rid of “the system,” or of the people who thrive on it, so long in our hearts we accept the standards of that system, envy the very vices we condemn, build up with one hand what we pull down with the other, and treat with ridicule and neglect the people who acknowledge a less commercial — if you like, a more religious — conception of what work ought to be.
But now we are faced with a big difficulty. Suppose we decide that we want work to provide our natural fulfilment and satisfaction, how are we to manage this in an age of industrial machinery? You will have noticed that all the workers in my second group possess three privileges, (1) Their work provides opportunity for individual initiative. (2) It is of a kind that, however laborious it may be in detail, allows them to view with satisfaction the final results of their labour. (3) It is of a kind that fits in with the natural rhythm of the human mind and body, since it involves periods of swift, exacting energy, followed by periods of repose and recuperation, and does not bind the worker to the monotonous, relentless, deadly pace of an inhuman machine.
The factory hand has none of these advantages. He is not required to show initiative, but only to perform one unimaginative operation over and over again. He usually sees no step in the process of manufacture except that one operation, and so can take no interest in watching the thing he is making grow to its final perfection; often, indeed, it is some useless thing that only exists to create profits and wages, and which no worker could admire or desire for its own sake. Thirdly, it is the pace that kills — the subjection of the human frame to the unresting, unchanging, automatic movement of the machine. The other day, a journalist was talking to some miners. He says: “With one voice they told me that they think the machines are becoming monsters, draining their life-blood, and how they longed for the old days when they worked longer shifts, but with their hands, and the process of procuring the coal was less exhausting.’’
This last statement is very interesting, since it shows that the regulation of hours and wages cannot by itself do away with the difficulty about certain kinds of work. The economic solution will not solve this problem, because it is not really an economic problem at all, but a problem about human nature and the nature of work.
Some people are so greatly depressed by these considerations that they can see no way out of the difficulty except to do away with machines altogether, as things evil in themselves and destructive of all good living. But this is a counsel of despair. For one thing, it is not a practical proposition in the present state of things. Also, this suggestion takes no account of the real delight and satisfaction that the machines are capable of giving. It throws on the scrapheap the skill and creative enthusiasm of the designer, the engineer’s pride in his craft, the flying man’s ecstasy in being air-borne, all the positive achievements of mechanical invention, and all those products — and they are many — which are actually better made by machinery than by hand. To renounce the machines means, at this time of day, to renounce the world and to retire to a kind of hermitage of the spirit. But society cannot be exclusively made of saints and solitaries; the average good citizen, like the average Christian, has to live in the world; his task is not to run away from the machines but to learn to use them so that they work in harmony with human nature instead of injuring or oppressing it.
Now, I will not attempt, in the last few minutes of a short broadcast, to produce a cut-and-dried scheme for taming machinery to the service of man, I will only say that I believe it can be done, and (since my opinion would not carry very much weight) that there are many people, with personal experience of factory conditions, who have already worked out practical proposals for doing it. But it can only be done if we ourselves — all of us — know what we want and are united in wanting the same thing; if we are all prepared to revise our ideas about what work ought to be, and about what we mean by “having a good time.”
For there is one fact we must face. Victory is the only possible condition upon which we can look forward to a “good time” of any kind; but victory will not leave us in a position where we can just relax all effort and enjoy ourselves in leisure and prosperity. We shall be living in a confused, exhausted and impoverished world, and there will be a great deal of work to do. Our best chance of having a good time will be to arrange our ideas, and our society, in such a way that everybody will have an opportunity to work hard and find happiness in doing well the work that will so desperately need to be done.