In Rudolf Steiner’s lecture series ‘World Economy’ he speaks of those people who have no particular skill to offer the world. We live in a time when the manner in which humanity has evolved raises challenges to itself, and does so on account of widening perceptions. In and of itself, this brings people into situations that would never have been possible in the mediaeval cultures. This was a time when humans made everything they needed: and if you wanted a purple edging for your toga, you had to spend a substantial amount of money to obtain it. The edging might cost three to five times what the rest of the garment cost.
At the time, if something was expensive, there was a very good reason for it to be expensive. The mollusc that produced the purple dye was not only rare, extracting it was a difficult process. Hence it was expensive because of the labour it required. Gold was expensive, valuable, on account of its relative scarcity and more importantly, its durability. Everything had a value that could be directly related to the amount of human toil involved in producing it, or in its durability.
Naturally, in a society like Rome that owned slaves, there were costs to be saved – but it has to be said of the urban slave that their standard of living would be well in excess of a nineteenth century miner. Well fed, well dressed and with a comfortable home to live in, the only thing they lacked was their freedom. But then, in Rome, it was far from unusual for slaves to gather in the marketplace for a chat before returning home with the wherewithal to make the lunch or dinner. Freedoms of this kind would have been a blessing to the miner whose only freedom was the pub at the end of the street and the annual miner’s gala. Holidays in those far off times really were holidays: one or other national holiday ordained by the calendar year. As a side note, my great-grandfather was a baker, and he gave his staff two weeks’ holiday. In the 1920s this was unheard of. Yet my mother, who when old enough did all his accounts, knew the reality of this beneficence: for this small kindness, the staff put in far more work.
My great-grandfather had that spark of genius that makes a modern business rock. He gave a little to get a lot back; in giving a little, he didn’t need to force his workers to work harder, they did so willingly. This is to look at the realities of human nature in our modern times, and to recognize that Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy springs directly from the nature and needs of humanity. I will not speak of what anthroposophy has become in the last half century.
The point of this ramble is to show that one could expect things of people in times past that one cannot today. My great-grandfather is an example of this, in as much as he wanted to share a little of his good fortune with those who worked for him. Little did he know that the result would be a workforce that was clearly better motivated, clearly more profitable – and that because they were happy to work as hard. Nevertheless, it shows that a small kindness can bring real dividends, especially when that kindness meets the direct needs of those to whom it is given. Oh, and these two weeks’ holiday were on full pay.
Because if you want to get good work from a proletarian, respecting them as humans will bring you substantial benefits.
My great-grandfather’s business was taken over by my uncle Oliver and sputtered on into the late seventies. Other forces were at large, ones that saw the human side of the proletarian diminish. By this time, holidays were established by law, and were no longer something that attracted the best staff available. The holiday had become a right that any worker could expect. Which is to look at our modern time from its negative side: there is nothing in creation to suggest that workers need paid holidays. Humanity has existed for millennia without anything close to the week’s bed and breakfast by the sea. Something has changed in human society that demands holidays, something that is the topic of an upcoming post.
Work in our time for many has become meaningless toil. The division of labour has gone too far when a person is expected to do one thing and one thing for the entire day, month – or even decade. Standing beside a conveyor belt and cutting the head off a chicken is something a poulterer used to do on his shop counter. But then, he dressed the rest of the bird and hung it in his shop for sale. He had added human value to the carcass of a creature that burst from its egg a year earlier without so much as a thought to the length of its life or the price that would be placed on its dead body. Animals exist, and do so without any concept of economy: they just exist. Economy is a very human activity, indeed, it is an expression of a person’s humanity.
The poulterer with his open fronted shop would sell anything from a quail to a goose – swans in England being the property of the Crown. A swan on the table meant you were dining with royalty.
The point being that the poulterer had a business that whilst tedious at times, was at least varied from day to day. We have reached here the appropriate point at which the division of labour stops: where the poulterer has too many chickens to process and he asks his neighbour’s two sons to come and help him dispose of them. The poulterer knows what to do, and the boys can do it albeit less effectively. But then, they aren’t paid the same as the poulterer himself.
Take the division of labour further and we have the situation in America: people working beside a conveyor belt for eight or nine hours on the trot. Their human needs have been eroded by the pressure of competition, an economic phenomenon that arises directly out of the dividing of labour too far. A person who needs a conveyor belt to process his chickens does not do so because he has a small family business that deals in poultry; it is because he has a large business that produces thousands of plastic wrapped frozen chickens for the supermarkets. His immediate problem is that anybody else can do this, and what with supermarkets being supermarkets, they aren’t interested in anything else but the immediate cost of the product. With two or three other businesses to compete with – and the horror of cheap frozen chicken being imported from Thailand… how else can he compete but by aggressively pushing his suppliers’ prices down? In the world of commodity, it really is sink or drown.
How else they compete but by slashing the comforts of the chickens they produce? Who cares if they are fattened by their thousands in closed sheds on a diet of antibiotics? Only to be slaughtered on a conveyor-belt at the age of seven weeks? Three hundred chickens are slaughtered every second in the USA alone. Around the clock.
How else is the slaughterer to compete but by slashing the comforts of his workers? Who work their eight or ten hour shifts without a break. Not even for the toilet: they wear nappies while they work.
Which is to ask a question of the proletarian worker: are you so desperate to have a job that you will stand this kind of abuse? But then, in an economy that is eating itself alive, is it any wonder that there aren’t any jobs for those people who only have their physical presence to offer by way of a service?
What of the businessmen who have so little ability to think? How is he to make a decision? Brought up in a school where the teacher was right and he was invariably wrong, authorities are important in such a person’s life. Without the ability to choose for oneself, the only thing left is to allow those considered better placed than you to do it for you. Not that this is conscious, of course. The businessman hasn’t made the decision for himself, circumstances and the numbers written down by his preferred ‘experts’ are the stuff of his decisions. Over which he has no control at all. The businessman is making a decision by groping around to feel the things that aren’t repellent. The rest is chance. The other side of this coin is that everything the businessman reads is about numbers, money and how he can have more of it.
If you – or a government – are going to establish limitations of any sort, it is to resort to measures that are not appropriate to our day and age. With people thinking in the manner of the mediaevals, they are going to be worried about their own wellbeing, and disregard that of anybody else. That was fine in those far off times when such disregard was still a disregard for humans. Now it is a disregard for the things they possess; their machinery. The comfort-zone – whether expressed individually, economically or nationally – is a plague on this world if it sees everything outside it in terms of its own (unconscious) proclivities. The things that please the comfort zone become the evidence upon which it makes its decisions: that which displeases becomes the threat, the competition.
The challenge of our time is to see those threats and realize that this competition is as human as you are yourself.