A Problem in Sociology

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William Henry Van Ornum, "A Problem in Sociology," The Arena, XXV, 1 (January 1901), 42-47.


In an article in the September, 1900, Arena, on "The Study and Needs of Sociology," I mentioned two seemingly antagonistic tendencies in social development—one the aspiration toward freedom, which has been the characteristic of every people in every time, and the other the equally marked tendency toward slavery through the growing dependence of each person upon others for even the commonest necessities of life. These opposite tendencies were noted as one of the problems in sociology that must be studied and harmonized before such a thing as a science of sociology becomes possible. I will now consider that proposition and see if there is a way to solve it. But, first, let us understand what is meant by the tendency to slavery through the growing dependence of each person upon others for the common necessities of life.

The most conspicuous characteristic of our industrial system is the constantly growing subdivision of labor, whereby each occupation divides itself into a multitude of smaller occupations, each more specialized than its predecessor, and giving opportunity for the exercise of more skill in their smaller fields. For instance, it is within the memory of many now living when there were watchmakers: that is, when the watchmaker learned to make a whole watch. It required an apprenticeship of many of the best years of the lives of the artisans to learn their trade at all; and when learned, it was incomplete. The watches turned out by hand were, at best, crude and imperfect. But, as the occupation of watchmaking became more and more specialized and subdivided, so that one person performed less and less of the whole work of making a watch, greater and still greater accuracy of all the parts became possible; watches were made better on the whole, and less time was required both to produce the watch and to learn the trade. Other advantages were also made possible by this means. The greater the subdivision of the labor of watchmaking, the simpler became the different processes; consequently, the application of machinery to the art of watchmaking became more and more possible. This has gone on until almost the entire watch is made by machinery; watches are better and more accurately made; and, for the most part, nobody need spend much time in learning how to make watches. That is to say, the time required to learn how to do the little that any one is called upon to do in the making of watches is so small that any one can learn it in from a few hours to a few days. Of course, expertness only comes by practice; but almost anybody can learn to work in a factory at the making of watches so quickly that the old-time watchmaker would have regarded any person as a fool who should have hinted that such a thing would ever become possible.

The same tendencies noted in the industry of watchmaking are equally marked in every other: The movement toward an extreme subdivision of labor applies to every occupation, calling, and profession; arid, while it has added enormously to the productiveness of labor, it has added scarcely anything to the wages of labor. But, on the contrary, it has made the laborers more and more dependent upon one another and upon their employers for the commonest things of life. No man any longer produces the whole of any one thing that he consumes; and if one were thrown upon his own resources, aside from the possible assistance of others, in almost any part of the habitable world, he would certainly perish.

This mutual dependence of the workers is supplemented by certain social adjustments that have grown up along with the entire industrial system, forming a part of it, and that make that dependence one of almost absolute helplessness. Along with the artisan has developed the master, the owner of the factory and the machinery—the capitalist. He owns, not only the shop and tools and the machinery, but the land from which are taken the raw materials that the worker uses in making the goods he turns out. The new-born babe is scarcely more dependent than the artisan with no right to his tools or to the raw materials necessary to carry on his industry. Unless he can find a master he must starve, even though he is ready and willing to work for anybody that will hire him. And the further this system of industry develops, the more general the application of machinery becomes, and the more productive becomes that labor, the more completely the laborer is in the power of the master. At present his only recourse is in trades unions, which, at best, are wholly inadequate. This is what is meant by the "tendency toward slavery," above referred to.

Nor is this tendency confined to what is called the working class. It extends to those of every other. There is no liberty for one class that does not extend to all. And there can be no slavery for one that is not shared by all. Human society is an organism that has been developed through ages of evolutionary growth; and, like the members of our physical bodies, all must suffer in sympathy with those afflicted. There is no way in which we can escape that suffering; hence, if we permit the continuance of a wrong that works injury to any member of this social organism, we are all sure to have our full share of that injury to bear. It bears upon us in a thousand ways in which we least expect it; so that the burdens that fall upon the artisans, the workers, are the very ones that bend the backs of every man, woman, and child in the land. Thus this "tendency toward slavery" is one that applies to all the members of our social organism. Contrasting this tendency, everywhere observable, with the love of liberty implanted in every heart, it is evident that there must come a condition of stress, of discontent, of strikes, and all manner of disturbances, and, when the stress becomes great enough, of insurrections and revolutions to break the surroundings and give opportunity for the aspirations toward liberty to find expression.

Why should these things be? Why should not the increased productiveness of labor bring increased comfort and enjoyment to the workers? It may be answered that it does; that the toilers are better housed, better fed, and better clothed than they were a hundred or even fifty years ago. Admit it, and still it proves nothing. Their bettered condition is as nothing compared to the increase in the productiveness of their labor. It is in nowise commensurate with their earnings. It has not even kept pace with the increase in their needs. But the aspiration toward liberty, which at times may sleep, is certain to reawaken and demand such a readjustment as will be more in accordance with those aspirations. There are periods when resistance to tyranny comes easy, when the very atmosphere seems charged with revolution, and when the great mass of men appear to rise as by some mighty impulse to achieve greater liberty. This impulse assumes different forms at different times. At one time it revolts against religious tyranny, at another it seeks freedom of speech and the press, while again it claims political equality. The particular form of the revolt is always determined by the special form of the oppression that for the time bears most heavily upon the people. The indications are that the world is approaching another such an era; but, unlike the others, it aims at economic freedom. The economic subjection already pointed out has become the most conspicuous abuse of our time, or of all times; and the resistance is certain to focus right there. Again, unlike other great epochs, the questions to be settled are economic ones. The struggle will be conducted along economic lines. It is the struggle that will solve the greatest problem in sociology that has ever been presented to the world—the problem of harmonizing the two seemingly opposite tendencies in human evolution: the one toward freedom and the other toward slavery. Let us see if we can make a forecast of that evolution.

The money question has been by far the most prominent question before the people, not only of this country but of the world, for the last twenty-five years. Every civilized country has had an experience with it, and some have been brought to the verge of ruin—this country in 1893, for instance. Its methods are the oldest, the greatest, and the most universal of all the methods of exploitation and oppression in this world. All others are but children of this parent, and are as pygmies by its side. The events of the last ten years have unmasked its subtle ways until it stands before the world without a rival in any age or time in the cruelty of its greed and its unrelenting avarice. Then, too, it has organized its power and fortified itself in the laws of almost every country—until it regards itself, and most others regard it, as invincible. It is just this condition that always precedes the fall of a tyrant. His destruction always comes at the time when he feels the most secure. The oppressor can never so fortify himself as to guard all the lines of approach. This is as true of oppressive institutions as of men. The greatest struggle that the world has ever seen, greatest at least in its outcome, is even now upon us in the economic movement to free the world from its dependence upon the money power, which consists in the world's being obliged to use its money, and in order to get it to pay interest. The strength of that power is in its monopoly, and arrayed behind that it has every important government in the world. No wonder it feels secure! But "pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty look before a fall."

Even now business men are beginning to see that money can be made unnecessary in the conduct of business. They are awakening to the fact that when they go to the bank to borrow money they only get the legalized certificates of their own credit —credit that they must have before they go, or they will get no money. They begin to see that every dollar they pay as interest, or discounts, or commissions on their loans, is really so much paid for the privilege of using their own credits— something for which the lender renders no equivalent whatever; and that the lender's power to take arises wholly from his monopoly of certain tools of trade. Business men are asking themselves if there is not some way whereby they can certify to one another's credit and arrange for an easy and safe transfer of those credits without being compelled to use legalized certificates that somebody else controls. The moneyed interests have grown rich trading on other people's credits. They pretend to extend credit to their customers, but really do nothing of the kind. By certain schemes and manipulations they have obtained control of the sources of supply of the legalized certificates of credit, which they think the people must have in order to do their business; and when persons that have credit want certificates thereof they make them pay smartly under the idea that they are getting credit. The bankers have their clearing houses, and daily transfer vast credits practically without money. Other people can do the same if they want to. The same principle can be adapted to the transaction of business until not a hundredth part of the money now required will be necessary to carry on business. This will decrease the demand for money, and its price will fall until interest will disappear—and with it all danger of panics and periods of business depression.

Yet these are not the only nor the most important changes that will be brought about. Under such a system as this, every person will control his own credits and nobody's else. The basis of every one's credit will become the service that he can render to his fellow-men; that is, the labor he performs. Every one who works, either with head or hand, can realize on that labor in credits that he can utilize without waiting to turn those credits into money. Privilege will no longer give credit; so that everybody must render service—perform labor of some kind. It furnishes the basis of a reorganization of society upon that of mutual service. All this is within not only the possibilities but the probabilities of the near future. When it is once worked out, it will be the solution of the problem of the ages—the emancipation of man and the harmonizing of the two opposing tendencies in human society: because it will be the achievement of perfect economic liberty, which includes all and is the expression of every form of liberty. At the same time it will be coupled with the perfect dependence of each upon the other for mutual helpfulness.

William H. Van Ornum.

Chicago, Ill.

  • William Henry Van Ornum, “A Problem in Sociology,” The Arena 25, no. 1 (January 1901): 42-47.