In this posting we will look at the situation of organized labor and how a movement intended to recognize and enhance the dignity of the worker ended up shackling owners of labor to an outdated wage-benefit-welfare paradigm that alienated both “labor” and “capital” from society and each other to a greater degree than ever before.
|Pope John Paul I|
This was an issue that concerned Pope John Paul I greatly, both before and after his election. The difficulty was that, regardless of what the wage earner needed, no one could be paid more than the market-determined rate of pay for labor for very long without disrupting the system at the most basic level, as the mounting global debt crisis has made abundantly clear.
John Paul I could not simply declare that people should be paid what they need and chance the consequences. That would violate justice. Nor could he say that people should be paid at only the market rate, for that would be inadequate for most people’s common domestic needs.
He was therefore left with demanding a wage determined by “natural justice,” that is, justice completed and fulfilled with charity, but missing the essential means to be able to move to the critical next step: turning first workers, then everyone into capital owners to get out of the wage system entirely. Nor was this a matter of concern solely because of the problem of inadequate income, but because the presumed solutions, whether capitalist or, especially, socialist resulted in social alienation, even atomization.
As we saw in the previous posting in this series, one of the more serious, yet often overlooked problems with capitalism is that it fosters a growing sense of alienation among people. Socialism, which claims to decrease this alienation, only makes it worse by trying to impose a false solidarity by subsuming individual human beings into an overreaching collective which it then turns into a de facto god. As political scientist George Holland Sabine (1880-1961) described this development in the Third Reich,
|George Holland Sabine|
The results were similar in the social and economic structure. Totalitarianism undertook to organize and direct every phase of economic and social life to the exclusion of any area of permitted privacy or voluntary choice. But it is important to observe what this type of organization concretely meant. First and foremost it meant the destruction of great numbers of organizations that had long existed and that had provided agencies for economic and social activities. Labor unions, trade and commercial and industrial associations, fraternal organizations for social purposes or for adult education or mutual aid, which had existed on a voluntary basis and were self-governing were either wiped out or were taken over and restaffed. Membership became virtually or actually compulsory, officers were selected according to the “leadership principle,” and their procedures were decided not by the membership but by the outside power that the leader represented. The “leadership principle” meant merely personal power or the power of a clique, so that organizations which had been self-governed were subjected to regimentation and manipulation. The result was a paradox. Though the individual was “organized” at every turn, he stood more alone than ever before. He was powerless in the hands of organizations of which he was nominally a member and that claimed to speak for him and to protect his interests. But with respect to those interests he had nothing to say. National socialism poured scorn on democracy and capitalism as forms of “atomic individualism,” but totalitarian society was truly atomic. The people were literally the “masses,” without information except what propaganda agencies chose to give them and without power to combine for any purposes of their own. (George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, Third Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, 918-919. Cf. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, II.22.)
|David Émile Durkheim|
Thus, David Émile Durkheim, who claimed that his version of solidarism, a combination of socialism and fascism, overcomes the alienation of capitalism — what he called anomie, the “law of the jungle” imposed by capitalism, was actually laying the groundwork to make the problem much worse.
According to Durkheim, a student of the New Christian prophet Henri de Saint-Simon, the solution to “the social question” is to require people (coerce them, if necessary) to organize in order to restructure society into monopolistic vocational groups (cf. the so-called “Industry Council Plan” that would impose the same obligation on business enterprises). This would achieve “functional representation” to alter the division of labor by shifting from “mechanical” solidarity to “organic” solidarity.
Durkheim’s theory was that the act of organizing would subsume not merely individual rights, but individual personalities, into the group. Humanity would in this way achieve a natural society sort of like other social animals like bees and ants. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter commented,
[Durkheim] realized that individual behavior can never be explained exclusively from the facts that pertain to the individual himself and that it is necessary to fall back upon the influences of his social environment. This can be done in many ways. Durkheim’s way was to construct a group mind — or, since his method was to explain things by means of material about primitive civilizations, a tribal mind — that feels and thinks and acts as such: since this idea itself is of romantic origin, we may describe Durkheim’s position as a sort of positivist romanticism. (Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, 794.)
|Father Isaac Thomas Hecker|
Durkheim did not, however, start the drift of the labor movement into socialism, modernism, and New Age thought. He merely capitalized on it and systematized some of the theory. Nor would it be accurate to say that the labor movement is socialist, modernist, and New Age, although it has integrated enough elements from New Christian/Neo-Catholic thought to give credibility to accusations that it is.
The problem manifested itself from the beginning of the labor movement. Nor was this unusual, given the fact that the movement was originally explicitly socialist. When the noted American converts Orestes A. Brownson and Isaac T. Hecker presented themselves for entry into the Catholic Church — both having been members of the socialist “Workers Party” — they had to reassure Church authorities that they had definitely repudiated socialism. As Father Hecker recalled years later during the controversies stirred up by Father McGlynn and Henry George (keeping in mind that the terms “communism” and “socialism” were used interchangeably during the 1840s when Hecker and Brownson converted),
But, as for my part, at the time Bishop Fitzpatrick wanted me to purge myself of communism, I had settled the question in my own mind, and on principles which I afterwards found to be Catholic. The study and settlement of the question of ownership was one of the things that led me into the Church, and I am not a little surprised that what was a door to lead me into the Church seems at this day to be a door to lead some others out. [An allusion to Fr. McGlynn — ed.] But when the bishop attacked me about it, it was no longer with me an actual question. I had settled the question of private ownership in harmony with Catholic principles, or I should not have dared to present myself as a convert. (Rev. I.T. Hecker, “Dr. Brownson and Bishop Fitzpatrick,” The Catholic World, April 1887, 3.)
It was not, however, until the 1880s that New Christian principles began infiltrating the labor movement as a whole. This was largely through their influence on the Knights of Labor and missteps made by the organization’s most noted leader, Terrence Powderly.
|Terrence Vincent Powderly|
Terrence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924), a Catholic with liberal leanings, had been Grand or General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor since 1879 (the titles appear to have been used interchangeably). In 1883 Powderly gave the agrarian socialist Henry George his personal endorsement and had copies of George’s books distributed to the Knights’ local organizations.
Later, when the Vatican was considering condemning the U.S. Knights of Labor as a secret society (there were strong Masonic overtones in the organization) as had been done in Canada, Powderly began working with Cardinal Gibbons in an effort to stave off condemnation. This would have been fatal, for many members were Catholic. During the negotiations Powderly broke with George and Fr. Edward McGlynn over an unrelated issue and the Knights condemned George’s attacks on William O’Brien of the Irish National League when O’Brien refused to endorse George during a visit to New York . . . a visit that may have been intended in large measure to repair the damage done by League president Michael Davitt’s endorsement of George’s program. (The League was very careful always to try and maintain good relations with the Catholic Church; even Davitt was very concerned with George’s anti-Catholic rhetoric.)
|James Cardinal Gibbons|
Gibbons managed to obtain approval of the Knights on condition that they make certain minor changes in the wording of their constitution, which Powderly promised to make. While Powderly was probably sincere at the time he gave the Cardinal his assurance, he was soon involved in a fight to retain the leadership of the Knights, and never made good on his promises. A few years later, perhaps driven by guilt, he was openly attacking Gibbons and other Church figures in his speeches. For their part, over Powderly’s protests, the Knights gave George their endorsement, but the organization was already on the wane.
Although the Knights of Labor eventually merged into other labor associations, the organization’s commitment to wages and benefits instead of ownership set the agenda for the next century and a half of labor relations. Aside from such proposals as the distributism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, that tended to become marginalized due to the lack of a feasible plan or even technique for financing widespread capital ownership — as George Bernard Shaw was fond of pointing out — it was evidently not until labor statesman Walter Reuther came across the ideas of Louis O. Kelso that anyone in organized labor considered private property instead of collective ownership as a serious goal for organized labor.
|Gilbert Keith Chesterton|
This was despite the fact that Pope Leo XIII had specified capital ownership for workers as the way to resolve the conflict between “labor” and “capital.” As he said (and as we quoted in a previous posting),
If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)
Thus, as Leo XIII saw it, the main point was not the increase in wages, but the means to acquire and possess capital.
The fact is, however, that wages alone are insufficient both to meet ordinary living expenses and enable the wage earner to save enough to purchase an adequate capital stake. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one — and the one that sets up the paradox — is that advancing technology makes it less expensive to employ technology than human labor to produce marketable goods and services. This means that, just as there are more goods and services to purchase, there is less income with which to purchase them.#30#