Law, Association and the Trade Union Movement

Pamphlet No. 2: The Threefold Commonwealth Group, c. 1938

The members of the Threefold Commonwealth Research Group are drawn together by their common perception, not merely that the forms of Rudolf Steiner’s Threefold Commonwealth are good, but that these forms are in some sense struggling to come into being of their own accord. Thus, the question for us is, not, How can we start a new movement? but, Will the struggle succeed? and, Can we do anything to assist it? To me it appears that, if anything can be done immediately to arrest the headlong progress of Europe to catastrophe, it will be done by running alongside the demented beast and giving an occasional slight push or tug of the reins in the hope of guiding it along the safer of two parallel but appallingly different paths.

For this purpose therefore it is important to understand existing social forms as accurately, and yet imaginatively, as possible and to detect in them everything which appears to spring from the genuine underlying movement of human consciousness in this particular age. For we not only have to reckon with that movement; we have to rely on it. The Group is convinced that such an understanding can best be gained with the help of that vast body of new thought which Rudolf Steiner brought to bear on this as on other subjects.

In his Threefold Commonwealth and the World Economy Dr. Steiner speaks much of “economic associations.” What is an association, as the word is used by Steiner, and how is it related to that underlying movement of human consciousness, upon which every social form that is to endure beneficently for more than a day must be built? Until we are clear on this, we cannot possibly discriminate.

Men have co-operated socially (and for economic purposes among others) since the beginning of history, yet we are told that economics associations are new. In what way are they new? To understand the answer, we must have before us a picture of the march of human experience from group-consciousness towards individual consciousness. The ancient theocratic state had its groups and societies, but they were organised from within, from the centre outwards. They were composed, or rather they consisted, as all societies must and as the word itself implies, of a number of human beings. But the composition was different; it was working so to speak in the opposite direction. The society was there to begin with (summed up, it may be, and expressed in some one person who was its titular head) and the individuals were born from out of it. Such, at any rate, was the way in which the members themselves looked at it. Cities, families, trades, castes traced their origin back to the spiritual world through some god or hero or otherwise. The typical association was such that its members would say, if they thought about it, not: “I joined in making this society”; but rather “I was made by this society.”

The idea of this kind of group and the idea of a completely self-conscious and independent individual human being are mutually exclusive. As self-consciousness waxes, social consciousness (of this kind) wanes. When at last in the slow process of history the individual being is placed upon his own feet and totally emancipated from all forms of instinctive group-consciousness, he finds himself alone. Alone, that is, until he himself begins to take some action in the matter. But he does begin to take such action. And it is called association.

Thus, “association” is not really a synonym for “society,” though it would be pedantic to stress the etymological point. It is, however, very far from pedantic to stress the underlying distinction between the things themselves. It is just the sort of distinction, familiar to all students of Rudolf Steiner and quickly enough recognised when it is historically put, which is nevertheless constantly being forgotten again when we move out of the frame of reference to which we are accustomed to apply such special conceptions and into humdrum subjects for which we are apt to think the ordinary conceptions good enough—Trade Unions, for instance. Everything we read on such subjects is infected with the confusion and so we become confused ourselves.

In this case it is easy to see how the confusion arose. As long as men are still truly members of the old type of involuntary “society,” it does not occur to them to theorise about it. It is only when they become emancipated, self-conscious, alone and aware of being alone, that they begin to do so.  And then,  out of their own present longing for association they explain the origin of society. They project back their own condition upon a supposed remote and pre-social past, for the existence of which there is nowhere any evidence, and proceed to derive society itself from an imaginary “social contract” made between a number of individuals at a time when individuals capable of “contracting” did not yet exist.

It seems to me that it is necessary to keep alive this historical sense of the nature of association, in order to understand a second element in the idea of the Threefold Commonwealth about which thinking is all too apt to become vague and inadequate. I mean the relation of law and equity to the Associations. We are apt to think of the economic life of the community which we desiderate, and therewith of the economic Associations, as being in some way “outside” of the law and apart from it. Yet this is clearly absurd. Any system of law is by its very nature all-embracing throughout the region of its jurisdiction. Anything about which the law is silent is, by law, permitted. Every association must be either lawful or unlawful, and if it is lawful, then it is within the law. Thus the relation of the system of law and equity to any part of the life of the community must be a pervasive, not a parallel one. In all their proper activities, spiritual and economic, men will be obeying the law without being aware of it—just as our bodies, whatever else we are doing, are breathing without our being aware of it. This comparison is drawn from Dr. Steiner himself. It is nothing new that I am pointing out, only something that I find it very easy to forget directly I get away from the text-books and into the world.

But what is the function of the law in its historical development? It gives to the individual his individuality within society. It transforms “societies” into atomic aggregations of individuals. Its network is cast about man’s life, as the network of the abstract thought-shadows is cast about his inner consciousness—to shut it off. Law, and especially equity, says to the Lord: No, that tenant-family is not simply a part of yourself, like one of your limbs, to do as you choose with it. Later, it says to the tenant himself: No, your son, your wife, your daughter are not mere extensions of your own personality. They, too, are personae, individuals. And so on in a continual process of disintegration of groups and integrations of persons. Equity protects individuality within society. It is a condition of human consciousness that full individuality, full self-consciousness, can only arise through mutual intercourse on a basis of equity. Where there is the relation of master and slave, it is not only the slave’s but also the master’s personality which remains incompletely developed. The “I” is shocked into self-awareness by contact with the “not I.” The material world is enough to begin this process, but it can only be completed through the recognition of another human being as being indeed other and therefore equal; and equality is equity. Thus, as long as the underlying movement of human consciousness is in the direction of an increase of individuality within society, it is natural that law should be the principal avenue of progress  and reform and that all emphasis should have been placed upon it. Jeremy Bentham, one of the most pronounced individualists of the 19th century, was also one of the greatest, probably the greatest, of the small body of English law reformers.

But if it be true that in our time the underlying movement of human consciousness has changed, as it were, its direction; that human beings in general (it may well be without their knowing it) are now in process of willing to replace the disintegration which the evolution of “society” has brought about, by themselves creating voluntary associations, then for this purpose the emphasis will no longer be on law and the law-making body (the “state”). Where will it lie? Rudolf Steiner answers: in the economic life, the economic activities of men. Hence the natural growth of economic associations of every possible description. The law can not create, or even guarantee, such associations as it can and must guarantee the rights of the individual. It can only suffer them. And it ought to suffer them with a certain suspicion, a latent hostility. For, as equity, it holds a watching brief for the rights of the individual within these associations. That is what it is there for. The corporations of the economic life must be legally recognised, but not nationally constituted. There is a world of difference between the two.

A “club,” which has no juridical existence as such, is a much truer model of the economic association than, say, a joint-stock company. A club is a free fraternity of individuals in association. It is the individual members who have legal rights and liabilities, not that club. The only right which the club, as such, has is the right to exist without being called a “conspiracy.” But a company is, in the eye of the law, itself a “person.” From the moment of its incorporation, the fact that it is composed of a number of individual men and women drops out of sight and henceforth interest centres on the rights of the company as a whole as against other companies. But the rights of a company are not essential to human dignity. They are purely contractual and competitive. A statutory or nationally constituted corporation is not a true association at all. The individuality of the members is not modified, transcended, still less enhanced by mutual intercourse; it is simply erased. And we end where we began with an isolated person, based on rights guaranteed by law—only now it is an abstract person.

I have tried to intimate the true foundations in the history of consciousness of the present trend away from individualism towards various forms of collectivism. For it seems to me that it is only by obtaining a thorough grasp of these that we can discern the true type of human association from the false, the healthy from the unhealthy. In general there is no surer or more easily detected symptom of disease (from the associative point of view) than the presence in any association of a tendency to become itself an individual, a “person” at law. And unless we are aware of this, we shall be able to do very little that is effective towards the reconstruction of economic life on an associative basis.

But what is the origin of this disease? If we do not rest content with the statement that the existence of law has fostered the growth of individuality but, instead, enquire more closely how it has done so; if we look into the details of the process, we at once come face to face with the doctrine, or the conception, of ownership—property. It is no accident that we use the same word “properties” to convey the attributes which distinguish one object from another and mark its individuality. In the mode of ownership and its recognition the human being unites himself in a special way with the earthly element. This is obviously true in the case of ownership of land, but most things which can be owned are also a part of the material earth. This relation between ownership of land and the development of social independence can quite easily be traced out into details. A simple example is the change in the last 150 years in the legal status of married women in this country. In the eyes of the Common Law husband and wife were “one person.” Not only was this so but one of its more exuberant political exponents could add without, I believe, intending any mysticism —“and that person is the husband.” Nobody could raise a finger to protect the liberty or even the person of a female party who was deemed not to exist. But some few married women were fortunate enough to receive gifts of property, which its donors intended should belong to them in their own right; perhaps they were the beneficiaries under some trust; whereupon English equity, which could do nothing to assert any rights they might possess as mere human beings, could nevertheless and did exert itself to protect them as property-owners even from the husbands in whom they had been legally merged.1 Gradually people became accustomed to the idea; reforms were pressed in Parliament; and the newly-won independence of married women was confirmed and extended by a series of statutes. These rights, which began in property, became detached from their origin, so as at length to clothe (as far as legal “rights” are concerned) with independence and equality the persons of all married women irrespective of their possessions or poverty.

Man draws his individuality, his self-detachment, from the earth itself, not only by borrowing from the earth his physical body but also by developing the concept and fact of ownership and the law of property. This is not merely good Anthroposophy. It is also good law. At least it is good English law. And as a matter of fact the property basis probably has been more marked in England than elsewhere.

The property-basis, necessary as it no doubt was, has had one deadly result. During the 19th century individual liberty within society became insensibly identified with competition. Every man must be free. What do we mean by that? Oh, we mean that every man must be free to acquire for himself and to retain what he has acquired. What are the rights of man? The right to compete. What kind of contract shall we judges declare to be illegal, as “contrary to public policy”? A contract by which a workman binds himself to ruin his health and moral welfare in order to gain a livelihood? Oh, no, that’s all right—but we will not allow a contract in restraint of trade.  Trade must be free, whatever else is in chains. “You might as well prevent a man from going to church as prevent him from doing business,” as an English judge remarked as hundred years or so ago. The liberty of the individual has become inseparably entangled in people’s minds with the principles of competition.

To-day, however, the underlying movement of human consciousness is such that the principle of competition is discredited. It is no longer capable of evoking and sustaining the often noble enthusiasm which it could evoke in the 19th century. Human beings cannot believe in it with their whole hearts, whatever assent they may give to it with their minds. This discrediting of the idol of competition is a fact and unless it is fully reckoned  with, nothing will be done. This is the strength alike of the Left and of the Right Wing movements in politics and it is the weakness of the Liberalism which they are rapidly overwhelming. They are winning because they correspond to something that has actually happened in the depths of human consciousness. Human beings to-day know intuitively that association is more important than competition, and appeals and manifestoes in the spirit of the old Liberalism and the old individualism will never stem the tide of that knowledge. In the utterance of a personality such as, let us say, Professor Harold Laski, we hear that spirit and maybe it rejoices our hearts like the cry of a pelican in the wilderness, but if we know what is really going on, it is useless. It smacks too much of the property-basis from which it originally sprang. So, at any rate, thinks the Communist who hears in it only the voice of the bourgeois, the “man of property.” He perceives dimly the new associative life which the principle of democracy, falsely identified with freedom to compete, is preventing. The Fascist dreams of the old group life, the “society,” which it has destroyed.

Law, together with the system of absolute ownership, has produced the principle of individual liberty. In a sense they have produced the individual human being himself. In order that that being may bear its true part in association with others, the property-basis must be left behind. Unrestrained competition must go. This is perceived clearly enough by both the Left and the Right. Unfortunately, they have not perceived the corollary: that the pure law-basis must be retained for the protection of the individual and moreover that it must not be transferred to the associative life. Historically the recognition and protection of human rights may be traceable to the exclusive and permanent possession of property. These rights may nevertheless be essential to ordinary human dignity and as such they may be continued after the property basis has disappeared. So much we saw in the case of married women. Must it not be equally possible to leave behind the capitalist conception of absolute ownership and of that unrestricted competition that is associated with it—and nevertheless to retain, protected by the full majesty of the law, the individual independence which these things brought into being?

This is the tragedy of our time. Law can never be the basis of a true association of human beings. It can prevent a true association from becoming a false one, but it can only do that inasmuch as it is not itself the cement which binds the association together. For then it protects the individual within the association. If the associations are within the law—so too must the law be within the associations (within them, because it attaches separately to each individual). But when the law itself, or the law-making body, the State, actually originates, guarantees, is the association, then the association becomes a false one. Thus the corporative state and the proletarian state are not so much associations as a new and rather unpleasant kind of individual. Internally competition does indeed tend to be eliminated—because the individual is eliminated. But as against other states, the principle of competition, economic and national, is not only permitted, but glorified beyond the brightest dreams of Malthus or Ricardo. Still more so the principle of absolute ownership. Indeed, like a joint-stock company, the totalitarian state gives the impression of having been formed precisely for the purpose of competing more successfully. The individuals who have been amalgamated to form this new juridical “person” are totally erased, as far as rights are concerned, and we are confronted with a new and abstract person—“the State.” But whereas the joint-stock company, though often a mean and parsimonious person and usually of a moral standard below the average of its component parts, is at least a more or less impersonal person; the “State” contrives to retain all the personal vices as well. It is truculent, vulgar, irritable.  It swanks, sulks, snarls, is a notorious liar,2 touchy as a prima donna, easily huffed as a fifth-form schoolgirl, and for the same reasons. What do the other girls think of me?—(prestige). What do I look like in the glass?—(foreign opinion).

The conflict between the principle of competition and the newer principle of voluntary association is perhaps nowhere more marked than in the history of Trade Organisation, Trade Combinations of all kinds, and particularly Trade Unionism. The liberty of the individual, conceived primarily as freedom to trade, and thus to compete, seems to imply the liberty to combine with other individuals for that purpose. He voluntarily forgoes the right to compete—let us say, by underselling—with the other members of his group, in order that they together may compete still more successfully with other individuals and groups outside them. What could be more self-evident? Until the theory becomes widespread and more elaborately organised—and then it is observed that this principle of combination is gradually eliminating that very “freedom of the individual” on which it was based. For commerce and industry are nowadays a connected whole and every part is quickly affected by a change in any other part.  The effects of something done in one trade spread to all like water dropped on a surface already wet. An agreement not to sell at less than a given price may be limited to those members of the combination who have voluntarily bound themselves. But there are ways of compelling the unwilling. For instance, a “black list” may be compiled of traders who refuse to come in and wholesalers may be persuaded (by threatening to withhold orders) not to supply any firms on the black list. Then if the combination is wide enough, the recalcitrant ones will be ruined. It is when combination reaches this stage that the law begins to speak of “conspiracy,” and in English law the principle was gradually evolved that an act which would be lawful if done by a single individual may nevertheless be unlawful if done by a number of people in combination. Especially is this the case if the result is unduly or “unfairly” to restrain trade.

In this country the earliest economic associations seem to have been formed precisely with the object just described. It will be suggested shortly that another principle was also at work, but the ordinary historical view is, I should say, correct—that they were mainly competitive associations. The principle of competition was implicit in their foundation. They were based on it; and it was on this very foundation that they proposed to themselves to mitigate certain of the evils which as far as their own members were concerned would otherwise have been wrought by the unrestricted working of that principle. In the main they were associations for keeping up prices.

I have already explained in what sense the principle of association is “new” and the explanation involved an extended historical survey. Yet the economic association is of course not simply a modern phenomenon. The Hanseatic League is as old as the thirteenth century and many of the guilds are no doubt older still. But it is with the advent of the industrial revolution that this thing becomes an urgent problem. In the early nineteenth century the tempo of social change was suddenly accelerated beyond all precedent and then that principle, always latent in trade and industry, which we may call its wholeness, its mutual interdependence, came abruptly to the surface of experience; since the “Great War” it has been coming no less abruptly to the surface of theory.

From the point of view of economic associations and their development the industrial revolution had two important effects. In the first place, it revealed the limitations of the competitive principle. Inasmuch as the principle was being applied more rapidly, more widely and with much more efficient organisation, it became apparent (as I have attempted to show) that the principle of competition contains in itself the seeds of its own destruction. The law of this country, in restricting trade combinations and proscribing contracts in restraint of trade, showed its appreciation of this. In our own time the casting out of competition with the object of improving competition has reached its logical conclusion in the totalitarian state. Not quite its conclusion. We watch the totalitarian state being impelled by the same logic, now grown delirious, towards the totalitarian world.

In the second place, with the new methods of machine production, and the large-scale farming made possible by the Inclosure Acts, one particular set of prices became all-important to the masses of the people. There was one particular commodity whose price it became a matter of life and death to millions to maintain in face of the inroads of competition; and associations sprouted into being all over the country for just this purpose. This commodity (for so it was universally conceived and so it is still conceived by the greater part of economists and industrialists) was human labour. The early Trade Unions and the varied types of workers’ organizations which preceded them were trade-combinations for maintaining the price of labour. They were formed on the model of monopolies for keeping up sale prices. Their principal function was “collective bargaining.” They are still, in the most part of their activities, bargaining bodies.

It is not the object of this pamphlet to decry competition and proclaim that it should be wholly ousted from Society. When commodities are ready for consumption a free market is in most cases necessary in order that their normal price may be ascertained. A free market means a market in which there is competitive buying and selling. In the purely trading part of a nation’s economy, therefore, that is in all those activities carried on by middlemen and wholesalers with one another and with retailers, free competition is an absolutely necessary principle, and it should not be restricted by combinations and monopolies. But the economic system is not all trade. It includes production before the moment of trade and consumption after it. Nor is the Commonwealth all economic system. It comprises also, as Rudolf Steiner pointed out, the life of the human spirit and the complex of mutual rights, which two, with the economic life, go to form a community.

It is in these other parts of the Commonwealth, not in the economic system, that we should be standing when we think about human labour and when we make regulations and provisions concerning its remuneration. Labour is not merely not a commodity which requires a free market to ascertain its normal “price.” Labour is not a commodity at all. Thanks to the origin of Trade Unions as bargaining bodies for maintaining the level of wages, and to their continued strenuous engagement in the rough and tumble of an industrial community (a community which still thinks of the level of wages as the price of a supposititious commodity called labour)—due to precisely these solid, practical, feet-on-the-earth which make the Trade Union Movement of inestimable importance in a world hag-ridden by bombast in the cloak of theory, the Movement has failed to grasp this all-important principle; failed to make this essential change of thought. It protects the worker against exploitation, but it still speaks from the standpoint that the worker is the vendor of a commodity called labour. It still has competition in its bones. The Unions even compete against each other for members. “Strongly as we condemn competition under capitalism,” wrote a very well-known Trade Unionist some years ago, “we cling to it in the Trade Union World.” In this respect the political Labour Party and the doctrinaire socialists are far ahead of it. But they lack the other qualities. They are not weighty. They are not in the economic life, as the Trade Unions are. They are not economic associations.

I can imagine objections being raised by someone who has actual experience of the Trade Union Movement. I may be told that in describing Trade Unions as “bargaining bodies,” I have given an unduly narrow and misleading impression of the spirit behind the Movement. Nothing would satisfy me more than such an objection; not because I enjoy irritating people, but because it is just in the hope that the bargaining element in the Trade Union habit of thought is not overwhelmingly preponderant that this pamphlet is written. What would the objector say? For one thing, I think he would point out that from very early days Trade Unions and kindred organizations have interested themselves in conditions of labour as well as in its “price.” If he were really enthusiastic, like the compiler of the memorial volume to the Tolpuddle martyrs, which was produced by the Trade Union Movement in 1934, he might add that there was yet another impulse active in the creation of trade unionism besides the desire for betterment of wages and conditions. This is something which it is harder to put into words. It has sometimes been called “solidarity.” It is an impulse which is always ready to be born where there is common labour upon production. It is not confined to workers engaged in complicated machine industry. Tolstoy knew of it. It flashed on me most vividly once when I saw from a train window four men walking together in line and carrying on their shoulders a single steel girder, which none of them could have moved an inch unaided. Rudolf Steiner called it “fraternity”; that human impulse which demands expression and finds it naturally in the economic sphere; just as the demand for “equality” in society can only be satisfied in the sphere of equity, and the demand for “liberty” in the life of the spirit.

In 1834 the Woolcombers admitted new members to their Union by means of an “initiation ceremony,” during the first part of which the candidate’s eyes remained blindfold. At the close of the ceremony the bandage was removed and the Vice-President addressed him in the following words:

Then amongst us, you will shortly be entitled
to the endearing name of brother
And what you hear or see here done you must
not disclose to any other.
We are uniting to cultivate friendship as well
as to protect our trade
And due respect must to all our laws be paid.
Hoping you will prove faithful and all encroachments
on our rights withstand,
As a token of your alliance—give me your hand.


It would be a matter of some importance to ascertain how far this spirit of fraternity is still present in the Trade Union Movement. But I think it is a question which the Trade Unions themselves must answer. Anything an outsider said would, I feel, be suspect in their eyes, or at any rate in their feelings. They might think him gushing if he answered yes; they would certainly detect a sneer if he answered no.

It is possibly not without significance that the Trade Union Movement should find itself so incessantly concerned at its annual conference precisely with problems of organization. Conflicting theories on this subject spring naturally from the two conflicting principles at work in the Movement. On the one hand as a bargaining movement, as the incorporated salesman of a supposed commodity termed labour, it gropes naturally towards a more centralized structure, on the lines of a juridical corporation. The elaborate and often derided system of representation by delegates is an example of this tendency, which at its extremity would presumably coincide with a politically and legally unified proletariat under a single dictator. On the other hand this tendency is continually being arrested and upset by an opposition which springs not only from a different theory of organization, but from something in the very nature of industry—in the very nature, one might say, of Nature. The possibility of so many different classifications of industrial workers, by organizations, by crafts, by locality, by the particular industry in which they are engaged, is a possibility inherent in industry itself. It is inherent, too, that these classifications should overlap and so interfere with the nice symmetry of any pyramidal structure which it is attempted to superimpose on them. This basis in actual human labour and thus in nature itself tends (and this is the point of all I am trying to suggest) to shape the Trade Unions into true economic “associations.” Whereas their basis in collective bargaining tends to turn them into abstract “persons.”

So far as they are such persons, they cannot, I think, escape being caught up into the political struggle and ranged on one side in the “war of ideologies” which threatens to engulf Europe. So far as they are true economic associations, however, they seem to me to be capable of fulfilling a very different function. Nothing came out more strongly in the Trade Union Congress of 1936, as reported in the Press, than the fact that the Movement does not want to become ranged on one political side in Europe. It does not want to be identified with either Communism or Fascism. Its freedom from centralization marches naturally with a freedom from crystallized doctrine. If the rank and file of the English Trade Union Movement ever form part of a political “Popular Front,” the majority will, I believe, do so unwillingly; they will have been driven to that course for want of a policy more congenial to the true nature of the Movement and yet not obviously hopeless. The question arises whether there is such a policy.

The suggestion which follows is meaningless except in connection with the whole of what has gone before. Whatever the form in which it were ultimately presented to the mass of members, it could only be initiated by someone with a true perception of the way in which the “economic associations” are struggling into being, and of how the tension created by every fresh political move is the reverse side of this very struggle. In making it, I have in mind a simple chemical experiment which I sometimes used to perform with soda crystals used in photography. You dissolve them in water, then you dissolve more of them. You go on doing this until the solution has reached a sort of saturation-point. Then you ask someone to take on single small crystal and drop it into the dish. He does so, and ping! the whole thing has turned from liquid in the twinkling of an eye. If it was really at saturation-point, one crystal is enough and any one is as good as another. But it must be a crystal of the same substance that is already there in solution; and there must be someone there to pick it up and drop it in; someone who is not paralysed.

Suppose the Trade Unions were to become fully aware of their existing, and still more their possible function as true economic associations. Suppose they were to make a new and deliberate choice, emphasizing henceforth the associative principle, pursuing less ardently the other political principle of their being. I believe the effect would be an immediate relief of political tension.

It would be a startling and difficult decision, for it would involve Trade Unions soft-pedalling so to speak on their claim to impose wage-rates and conditions of labour and handing these matters progressively over to the State. We (they would have to say) will henceforth aim at becoming purely economic bodies concerned with the production and distribution of commodities. Labour itself, however, is not a commodity. The conditions under which it is proper for a man to work are a question of human rights, not an economic question at all. We will aim at leaving  all such questions more and more to Parliament, trusting not only to the Parliamentary Labour Party, but also to the general awakening of social conscience in these matters to see that equity is done. But when it comes to the best method of dealing with the Distressed Areas, the transfer of workers to new districts and of industries to old ones, the distribution of “surplus” milk to those who need it, the problems of overproduction and of home and overseas markets, these we regard as our province. Behold, we do now invite all other economic associations, such as the Co-operative Societies, the Chambers of Commerce, the employers’ associations and perhaps the municipal enterprises and public utility bodies, to join us in this task.

I believe the mere issue of such an invitation would result in the first place in a great improvement in the social and psychological health of England. It would be a very different matter from an invitation by theorists to a conference of theory. Its acceptance and successful application would disburden Parliament of about half its present work (which becomes every year more and more exclusively economic) and would leave it free to make a really intelligent study of (for instance) foreign affairs, which are part of its true province. But this would be only a small part of the benefits which it would bestow. Still more important would be the resulting mental disentanglement of “economic laws” from the economic effects of rights, or of the absence of rights, of a purely legal nature. This mental clarification, with its accompanying catharsis of political passion, could hardly be confined within the boundaries of the United Kingdom. It is a commonplace with returned travellers that all eyes in Europe are turned anxiously to this country at the present juncture, in the hope of finding here a steadying or at least a balancing weight of influence. But England cannot continue to stand midway between the two opposing types of totalitarian state which are swallowing Europe unless from within herself someone takes the initiative to withstand the forces which elsewhere  have produced these political forms. Political England shifts uneasily from one foot to the other, turning her head first this way and then that. But suppose there arose into being an “economic England,” not any corporate body defined by a frontier, and still less one pursuing any competitive and diplomatic policy, but a collection of associations, not one but many and overlapping, associations with which the economic associations existing within other nations were able to have mutual intercourse; drawing and imparting strength in the process and becoming more and more conscious of themselves as an actual world organization apart from the political states of which their members were citizens. I believe the effect would be incalculable. It would be a step towards genuine internationalism, without being at the same time a challenge to national sovereignty.

Moreover, I cannot help feeling that a step of this kind, involving great numbers of people in association and based on a true sense of the underlying needs and impulses of humanity at the present time, would swiftly reveal how far and in what way the political chaos of Europe is due to economic chaos. In doing so it would act as a solvent of passions and prejudices and loyalties which may well have grown too solid to yield to purely financial or currency treatment. The extent to which the current “idealogical warfare” is due to economic discontents, and in particular to shortage of purchasing-power, is a matter of dispute. It is clear enough that the seeds of totalitarian propaganda would never have thriven as they have done except in a soil of widespread penury and despair. But whether the jungle luxuriance to which they have now in fact attained would be sufficiently sapped by removing its original cause is another matter. It has already been suggested that that luxuriance maintains its giant shapes and pungent odours from other sources besides the soil out of which the first shoots originally sprang. Something too is owed to the moist atmosphere and surrounding  ether, in a word, to all that underlying movement of human consciousness to which I have already referred. The people of today, and especially the young people, are determined to have some kind of association. If they cannot get the right kind, they will plunge for the wrong. And once having plunged, it will not be so easy to tempt them back home with offers of propertied comfort and “Kulak” security.

It is the positive gesture that is important. It would be absurd to suggest to the Trade Union leaders that they should take the negative step first, that they should deliberately slacken their customary vigilance as watchdogs of labour and then look round to see what else they could do instead. Yet the growing tendency of the State to step in (often on the invitation of the Trade Unions themselves) and settle any big wages dispute, the existence of legislation of the type of the Workmen’s Compensation Act and many other  modern developments may properly be pointed out. Such developments suggest that there is in fact an inchoate falling apart of the two functions, the equity function and the economic function, which the Trade Unions have hitherto combined. They do suggest that some slackening of that vigilance in favour of other and purely economic functions may at any rate prove possible as time goes on.

It is true that nearly all attempts which have hitherto been made by Trade unions to acquire a share in the control of industry have met with determined opposition from those already in control. But it must be remembered that the old type of “capitalist” is rapidly disappearing. Today very few businesses are managed by their owners. The old line between the employee and the owner-capitalist has shifted to the right and is drawn now between those who finance industry and those, whether manual or administrative workers, who engage in it. The opposition of pure finance to any form of decentralization and free association is to be expected in the nature of things. It will, if Major Douglas and Mr. Hollis, are to be believed, be as unscrupulous as it is powerful. It is no less obvious to all but mere defeatism that it must be faced. And in this the first and most difficult task will be to expose it. Nor can I imagine any more practical and convincing exposure than the public activities and deliberations of a network of associations purely economic in their aims and functions, concerned neither with property nor with rights of any sort, free from all prepossessions about the right to work, the right to earn, the right to inherit, the right to own, concerned and concerned solely with the production and distribution of commodities. With this addition to the commonwealth the rights, and the wrongs alongside of them, would very soon become apparent without the help of collective bargaining and propagandist advocacy. And once they are seen and admitted, once they are disentangled, the machinery for dealing with them is already there. It has been there for hundreds of years. It is called the Constitution.

I conclude by again emphasizing that the mere existence of a purely economic platform for investigation and discussion would be half the battle for sanity. Men are maddened by the economic anomalies from which they suffer, and yet the purely economic aspect is never presented to them in a way which they can fully understand. Once this were done, international rivalries and alliances would at least be seen and felt for what they actually are. Their importance would not be artificially inflated by the wind in a million empty stomachs. Then the practice of shaping one’s verdict upon an alleged transgression of the League Covenant to suit, say, an urgent need to export butter would stand forth in its naked idiocy. And it may after all need some underlining when your children are half-starved because you have not the wages which an export market will provide. The difficulty of overcoming the inertia of a cast movement such as the Trade Union Movement so as to induce it to change its direction in the way I have suggested must of course be enormous. The only possible comment on this kind of objection is that the emergency too is enormous. A violent crisis is a proper occasion for making attempts and taking risks which in ordinary circumstances would be imprudent or sentimental. Moreover, in a crisis, there is a huge hidden reserve of enthusiasm and goodwill awaiting any new move which offers any new hope. It is frequently suggested, and not only over here, that this country and the Empire hold a kind of key position in the present world crisis. It may be that the Trade Union Movement holds a similar key position in the social life of this country, that—economically—it is England within England. If there is even a possibility of this being so, it will be agreed that the occasion is not one for sitting down under difficulties. Difficulties enough! But I am entitled to insist that any judgment passed shall be passed while looking steadily in the actual conditions of Europe in the year 1937. And if anyone in a position to take up the suggestion I have made should reject it on the score, not of inherent impossibility, but of obvious difficulties, then I think I may fairly say: Well, what do you suggest? What are you going to do instead?

Owen Barfield



1 Some of the methods adopted displayed an ingenuity which is pleasing. For example, the Courts of Equity would admit the husband’s Common Law claim to ownership of all the wife’s movable property, but would add that he owned it as trustee for the wife—and they would see that he behaved accordingly. Return.

2 Thus, while the Italian army was invading Abyssinia and before the use of poison-gas had been definitely established, the question was debated in Geneva and elsewhere whether gas was in fact being used. Evidence was heard and discussed, yet never once did anyone put the simple question to Italy’s Managing Director or his travellers: Are you using gas in Abyssinia? As far as I know the question has not been put to this day. Where, however, we are concerned with real, instead of corporate persons, we suppose that even the lowest criminal may possibly tell the truth, and think it worth while hearing his evidence. The spy-system is admittedly employed by every great nation. Yet a private person who behaved in this way would be universally shunned as a filthy and pestilential rat. The point is that if the pseudo-personalities which describe themselves through the mouths of a few diplomats and government officials as “Italy,” “Germany,” “Russia,” “Great Britain,” etc., became incarnate in a human body and called on the average Italian, German, Russian or Englishman at home, they would be shown the door before they had been in the room five minutes. We should have to wash after shaking hands with them. Return.

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