Chapter 1 the Nature of Modern Society

THIS IS ABOOK concerning Freedom. It attempts to expound in clear terms a social philosophy and a social method by which a practicable liberty can be obtained. It is based on the assumption that the most desirable human good is the social and economic freedom of the individual human being, and its theme is a society in which men will have liberty and space to develop their personalities and to advance, in a world where there exist no longer the bonds of poverty and coercion, towards the complete man of the visionaries.

From the birth of civilisation this ideal of freedom has led poets and philosophers, social theorists and thinking men. In ancient China and ancient Greece men talked and struggled for freedom and the fact that these ideals of personal liberty and of the man who fulfils himself in freedom have been perennial through history shows that the concept of freedom is natural to man and must strengthen as he becomes increasingly aware of his own inner potentiality.

If we survey human society today, engaged in the most evil war of history, we cannot fail to be impressed by the power of this concept of freedom. It is so powerful in the minds of men that its most ruthless enemies find themselves compelled to exploit it in order to hold the continued support of their followers. Thus the leaders of every country at war claim to be fighting for the freedom of their own people - often also for the freedom of others. In the same way there have been rulers in every age who have committed atrocious crimes against humanity and created slavery in the name of its antithesis, liberty.

Before we can discuss the nature of a free society in the future, and indeed, in order that we may determine the nature of that society, we must consider society as it exists today.

Politically, modern society is based on the system of government; economically, on the system of property concentrated is the hands of the few. Its political manifestation is the state; its economic manifestation is the capitalist system of production. Its tendency is centrifugal, so that political power becomes more and more concentrated in the state and economic power progresses from the system of many small capitalists to monopoly capitalism, which in its turn becomes state capitalism. So the totalitarian state is achieved by the coalescence of political and economic power in the same body. But this identity of the state and capitalism is no new thing.

For the state is in reality the translation into social terms of the economic form of society. It serves, in fact, as the executive instrument of those who, by virtue of the economic power conferred by property, are the effective ruling class of the country. And as property comes, through the growth and amalgamation of large scale business trusts, under the effective control of a class which grows progressively smaller and smaller, so the state itself becomes more and more concentrated until the apparent parallels of political and economic life meet in the totalitarian state.

Every major country has become, during if not before the present war, in some measure totalitarian. The circumstances of the war have tended to hasten the concentration of control of property in the hands of the few, and military necessity has enabled the ruling class to concentrate and make more and more intense the power of the state. Organisations, such as trade unions, which functioned before the war on an independent and voluntary basis and whose purpose was, indeed, to some extent in opposition to that of the state, have now become virtually part of its structure, and serve the state rather than the people for whose protection they were formed. Similarly, small proprietors have either been liquidated by conscription or bombing or are subjected to a mass of regulations which limit their independence to such an extent that they are in effect minor distributive or productive bureaucrats who receive a guaranteed price instead of a salary and are preserved from extinction only insofar as they are willing to serve the state.

If the business unity of capitalism has become merged in this manner into the body of the state, the lives of individual men and women have become hardly less dominated by the totalitarian form of war society. Workers in many industries have returned to a state of virtual serfdom, being bound to their work under pain of imprisonment if they leave - or even if they are late. Conditions of labour have reverted to those of pre-Tolpuddle days. Long hours are again compulsory, and many people are forced to work seven days a week under the threat of being drafted into the army. The factory laws have been abrogated, and the safeguards won by the workers in a century of bitter struggle have vanished almost overnight.

The hours after work, which before the war were counted as the citizen’s own time, in which to spend in leisure activities the meagre surplus of his income, are likewise at the command of the state, and the man who has worked sixty hours at some monotonous and tiring employment, may still find himself obliged to spend a further portion of his week in fire-watching or Home Guard duty.

The activities in which he can engage during the small leisure that remains are likewise limited, and almost all of them are used in some way for the transmission of propaganda that will induce him to accept totalitarian conditions. The cinema, music hall, radio, newspapers and periodicals combine to emphasise upon his mind the necessity of supporting the total war and by implication, the total state.

Today society in all countries assumes this totalitarian form, which negates the individual and deifies the aggregate. The difference between the so-called democracies and the open dictatorships is superficial and, for the most part, of degree. War or economic crisis has merely forced the dictatorships to become more open in their suppression of the individual. In the democracies coercion is incomplete, and while the people can be fooled into a course of action beneficial to the state their rulers refrain from forcing them. But even the democracies are forced more and more to use coercion to maintain the stability of the state, and in this way progress towards identity with the dictatorships. Thus the contention is virtually true, that this is a war between two kinds of Fascism and that the victory of neither can bring freedom to the peoples of the world.
It must be remembered that the present suppression of the individual could not have been achieved had it not been for the tacit agreement of the individuals themselves. One reason why the government is less ruthless in this country is that the mass of the English people have become peculiarly amenable to the persuasion of the ruling class, and can easily be convinced, without the terror that serves as persuasion in the openly Fascist states, that the dictates of authority represent their own desires.

For the last hundred years the English industrial workers have been subjected to a progressive conditioning administered by the most capable ruling class in history. By a clever application of a series minor concessions the activities of the workers were turned away from the revolutionary trends of the 1830’s to the reformism of the New Model Trade Unions. Workers’ organisations were, by the corruption of their leaders, turned into instruments for assisting class rule, until, today, the trades unions have been incorporated in the totalitarian state machine and the leaders of the Labour party, built on the workers’ efforts and cash, act the most brutal parts in a reactionary government. By means of universal state education; the press, the radio, the cinema, the workers have been doped into an ignorance of social truths and a general mental unawareness far greater than that of their ‘illiterate’ ancestors of Owen’s day.

By the granting, in easy stages and over a number of years, of universal suffrage, the workers have been encouraged in the illusion of political equality, the illusion that the possession of the vote gives them a say in the government of the country. The Jacob’s ladder of social and economic advancement has been hung continually before them, manifested in a graded caste system among workers. Every worker can become a foreman if he is sufficiently servile. Every clerk can become a manager if he is sufficiently officious and unscrupulous. In their higher-paid ranks, skilled craftsmen, foremen, engine drivers, etc., the workers tend to become dovetailed into the petty bourgeoisie, imitating their manner of life and acquiring their social prejudices. Avery high proportion of the proletariat has been completely demoralised by these golden apples of capitalism, and is devoid of any revolutionary consciousness. Not the least appalling result of this corruption of the workers of Britain is the fact that they have lost any real sense of self-respect, any desire to develop their personalities for something better than the social and economic scrum of would-be go-getters.
While it would be ridiculous to contend that capitalism has given out its prizes to a majority of the workers, many have benefited from the exploitation of the empire, and their good fortune has given a hope to many more of their fellows. But they should keep no illusion of continued good fortune. Capitalism will not, cannot continue to offer such baits to the proletariat. English capitalism, if it survives, will have a poor time after the war. Then the English workers will begin to experience something nearer the life of their Indian comrades, on whose misery their comparative (if slight) well-being has been based. As the contradictions of capitalism drive it to act for its own eventual destruction, it will turn the screw ever more and more severely on the proletariat. Then, if not before, we can hope to see a revolutionary consciousness among the English proletariat.

This revolutionary consciousness is to be found more in countries with small industries and large peasant populations than in countries preponderantly industrial.

In the great western European industrial nations, revolutionary movements have failed on every occasion. Great organisations have been built by the political socialists among the industrial proletariat. Governments of social democrats have held power in England, Germany and France. And yet, not only have these socialist movements failed to achieve the social revolution, but also, when faced by a definite offensive by the forces of reaction they have, in Germany, England and France alike, failed to make effective resistance and have lost the social improvements gained over years of struggle.

On the other hand, it is among those countries where capitalism has been least developed that there have during these years been the few hopes of the social revolution.

In such countries men have not been subjected to the intensive conditioning imposed by efficient capitalism. The state, though perhaps more ruthless in theory, is, in practice, less efficient and subtle in its oppression. The workers have not been subjected to the demoralisation of bourgeois standards, of social and economic advancement. For them there have been no Jacob’s ladders, no golden apples of the Hesperides. Having escaped the regimentation of great factories, of universal state education, of the giant press, they have retained their natural perceptions, their human individuality and integrity, of which the workers of Britain have lost so much. In these countries the revolution has not retreated through the ineptitude of corrupt political parties that gulled the workers into giving their support to a fatal programme of reformism and appeasement.
Quite apart from the demoralisation induced by the policy of rulers, it seems that there is an inner, fundamental demoralisation in the factory system itself, with its usual accompaniment of a life divorced from any close or lasting contact with rural life. It takes considerable strength to withstand the spiritually destructive elements in a mass life, a life of regimentation and uniformity, of division of labour carried down to the absurdities of the Ford and Bedaux systems. Such a system is in itself a prime cause of the intellectual sterility that falls like a blight over the lives of the great majority of the urban proletariat.

In this connection it is significant to note that among the workers of Britain the most emotionally alive, culturally sensitive and socially conscious, are those whose circumstances of work and life bring them in some close contact with nature, or provide some form of work that allows a certain individual initiative or creativeness. Thus the miners, most of whom still live in fairly close contact with rural surroundings, are the most militant of the British workers.

The present condition of the petty bourgeoisie is more complex than that of the industrial workers, in that they are in transition from being servants of individualist capitalism to being more or less direct agents of the total state. Symptomatic of this is the increase of the civil service establishment since the commencement of the war from half a million to nearly a million bureaucrats. In addition to this we must consider the large number of typical members of the bourgeoisie who have obtained commissions in the army and in various civil defence services. In this way the petty bourgeoisie is rapidly changing into a new class of state parasites similar to the great middle-class bastions of authority that form the bureaucracy and ruling party in both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. As we have already seen even that section of the petty bourgeoisie that continues in private business becomes gradually transformed into agents of the various state ministries, in fact into an unofficial bureaucracy supporting the bureaucracy proper.

This rise of the bureaucracy as a class in itself, rather than as the section of a class is the logical end of the development of industrial capitalism, running parallel with the gradual subjugation and robotisation of the industrial working class and the metamorphosis of individual capitalism into trust and finally state monopoly capitalism. It is a component of the development of the apiary society of totalitarianism, in which a graded and rigid authoritarian hierarchy replaces the partial individual freedom of liberal capitalist society.
These statements have, of course, only a general application. Workers and bureaucrats are first and foremost individuals, men with their own personalities and characteristics. They only become classes and masses when and in so far as they undergo a common reaction to common circumstances. And just as there are events or conditions which make a universal appeal transcending all class reactions, so there are special circumstances which impel the individual to diverge from the common way, and there are also men who remain isolated, to a very great degree, from the mass direction, and direct their lives and opinions as individuals.

Such individually minded men are found in all classes, but they are most frequent among the intelligentsia, and if we study the various trends of thought among intellectuals during recent years we can gain some idea of the tendencies among independently minded men. For individualists, even, form a class in a negative manner through their common reaction against the domination of authority.

The most significant of developments of the attitude among English intellectuals since the war is the swing from cut-and-dried systems, from dogmas, from that very totalitarian tendency which characterises modern society, towards a reintegration of the individual, towards a negation of political dogma and a general opposition to political movements and political action, in fact, towards a personal if not yet a social anarchism.
For the intellectual world the period up to September 1939 was an age of confidence in abstractions, of adoration for the restless, sterile intellect. Political and psychological systems laid out the world’s needs and our own with encouraging simplicity. Demagogues and well meaning scientists prophesied our future with astrological self-assurance. Literary lackeys mirrored the accepted visions of party and politician. And the serious artists were likewise influenced by the prevailing feeling of sureness. But their sureness was pessimistic, of the inevitability of war, for instance, which characterised almost every significant poet.
The accepted systems had their counterparts in the extremes of literature and art. Communism was reflected in social realism, Freudian psychoanalysis in surrealism. The tendency to elevate intellect above emotions dominated various trends towards the intellectualisation and abstraction of poetry and art into conventionalised games with set codes of refined and obscure symbolism. In the representative poetry of the period, the work of Spender, Auden and their followers, we find elements of all three extreme approaches. Almost every poet had a determinist attitude of some kind that gave poetic conceptions a certain mechanistic flavour. The age in its pessimism showed the paradoxical culmination of the nineteenth century materialism with its optimistic belief in progress.

War came, and its complicated and unforeseen events broke the faith in systems. There was a retreat from communism, and surrealism, never robust in England, waned to a game of outdated cranks and phoneys. Above all, there was a general weakening of belief in the omnipotence of the intellect. Most of the near-communists of immediate pre-war years realised the essential identity of communism and fascism, the ineptitude of political parties and the futility of political action. Thus, not only did the younger poets after the early sterile months of the war express an individualistic attitude which in many cases combined with a hostile attitude to the state and war; but many of the older poets, such as Spender and Auden, dissociated themselves from the political movements they had embraced in the past and began to proclaim the necessity for recognising the fundamental importance of the individual.

This movement among the more acutely developed minds of our present society across and not with the contemporary social current is of great importance in demonstrating the awakening of a discontent with modern society more real than that expressed by the political malcontents who really desired an intensification in one direction or another of the attack on the individual by the total society. For the writers are expressing a feeling of hostility towards authoritarianism of which many individuals in all classes are gradually becoming aware.

To recapitulate, the typical form of modern society is the totalitarian state, and the totalitarian state is hostile both to freedom and to the individual. If we regard freedom as necessary, if we regard the free development of the individual as the greatest human good, then we must search for some form of social organisation which will give that freedom instead of the greater or lesser slavery offered by the various totalitarian states.