Modern Industry in the Light of the Gospel
You have asked me to “attempt to define the nature of our society and to examine its significant institutions in the light of the Gospel”.*
This is a task which is as challenging and difficult as it is necessary– indeed, urgent.
What is the “nature”, what are the “characteristics” of this our actual, present-day Industrial Society”. Everything has a many-sided “nature’ and many characteristics; by what standards are we going to distinguish the essential from the non-essential”. You say: “in the light of the Gospel”. This means that, in spite of my lack of qualifications in this respect, I must first define how the light of the Gospel appears to me.
First of all, it seems to me, the Gospels tell us that life is a school, a training ground, and cannot therefore be understood simply in its own terms. The Great Headmaster’s idea seems to be that we should not merely be comfortable (although comfort a such is not to be despised” but should learn something, strive after something, and with His help, become something more that we are. This something is generally called “the Kingdom of Heaven”, and the method of attaining it is described as loving god and loving our neighbour as ourselves. but the whole essence of the education is that it should proceed in freedom, that the end-product should be persons and not puppets.
It seems to me, therefore, that I am obliged to consider the characteristics of industrial society from the point of view of this all-important task.
THE WHEAT AND THE TARES
Before I do so, however, I feel I should remind myself of at least one of the great parables in the Gospels, the parable of the wheat and the tares. It suggests that it is part of the great design that they are allowed to grow up together. If we take this seriously, we must expect to encounter the coexistence, almost inextricably intermixed, of great good and great evil in our society. For the indication — the signs of the times — are that the season is now pretty far advanced and the time of the harvest, when the wheat will be separated from the tares, may not be far off.
What indications? What signs of the times?
I think there are many, of which I shall mention only one: the extraordinary increase in the rate of change. If you would draw a curve of the rate of change, it would appear as an exponential, or logarithmic, curve of continuous acceleration. It is quite clear that no such curve can proceed for any length of time on this earth. It must come to a stop before long, and that must mean the end of an era and “the revaluation of all values: or, in the imagery of the gospels, the separation of the wheat from the tares.
Looking at present-day industrial society I should expect therefore to find, almost inextricably intermixed, great good and great evil. Very likely it is mainly a matter of temperament which of the two impresses you most. But any view or description that includes only the one or the other would be likely to miss an important part of the truth.
Modern industrial society is immensely complicated, immensely involved, making immense claims on man’s time and attention. This, I think, must be accounted its greatest evil. Paradoxical as it may seem, modern industrial society, in spite of an incredible proliferation of labour-saving devices, has not given people more time to devote to their all-important spiritual tasks; it has made it exceedingly difficult for anyone, except the most determined, to find any time whatever for these tasks. In fact, I think I should not go far wrong if I asserted that the amount of genuine leisure available in a society is generally in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs. If you would travel, as I have done, from England to the United States and on to a country like Burma, you would not fail to see the truth of this assertion. What is the explanation of the paradox? It is simply that, unless there are conscious efforts to the contrary, wants will always rise faster than the ability to meet them.
The wide-spread substitution of mental strain for physical strain is no advantage from our point of view. Proper physical work, even if strenuous, does not absorb a great deal of the power of attention; but mental work does; so that there is no attention left over for the spiritual things that really matter. It is obviously much easier for a hard working peasant to keep his mind attuned to the divine than for a strained office worker.
I say, therefore, that it is a great evil — perhaps the greatest evil — of modern industrial society that, through its immensely involved nature, it imposes an undue nervous strain and absorbs an undue proportion of man’s attention. Of course, it might be otherwise. It is still conceivable, for instance, that hitherto undeveloped countries might pick and choose what they wish to take over from Western industrialism, adopting only those things which really facilitate and enrich life while rejecting all the frills and harmful elaborations. But there is no sign of this happening anywhere in the world. On the contrary, it is cinemas, television, transistor sets, aeroplanes and such like which catch on much more quickly that anything really worthwhile.
THREE DEADLY SINS
Whether the tendency to raise wants faster than the ability to meet them is inherent in industrialism as such or in the social form it has taken in the West may be a debatable question. It is certain that it exists and that the social forms exacerbate it. In this country, expenditure on advertising falls only a little short of expenditure on all types of education. Industry declares that advertising is absolutely necessary to create a mass market, to permit efficient mass production. But what is the great bulk of advertising other than the stimulation of greed, envy and avarice” It cannot be denied that industrialism, certainly in its capitalist form, openly employs these human failing — at least three of the seven deadly sins — as its very motive force. From the point of view of the Gospels, this must be accounted the very work of the devil. Communism, which rejects and derides the Gospels, does not appear to be bringing forth anything better; its main claim is that it will shortly “overtake” (as they say) Britain or even America. British Socialism once upon a time showed an awareness of this evil, which it attributed solely to the peculiar working of the private enterprise-and-profit system. But today, I am afraid, British Socialism has lost its bearings and presents itself merely as a device to raise the standard of living of the less affluent classes faster than could be done by private enterprise. However that may be, present-day industrial society everywhere shows this evil characteristic of incessantly stimulating greed, envy and avarice. It has produced a folklore of incentives which magnifies individual egotism in direct opposition to the teachings of the Gospel.
LACK OF DIGNITY
R. H. Tawney, one of the great ethical thinkers of our time, has spoken of “the straightforward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain”. The “system” he refers to is again our modern industrial society, and again it may be a debatable issue whether these evils are the result of industrialism as such or of the particular capitalist form in which it made its appearance in the West. I myself fear it is industrialism as such, irrespective of the social form. In what way does it stunt personality? Whatever Mr. Tawney may have had in mind, I should say: mainly by making most forms of work — manual and white-collared — utterly uninteresting and meaningless. Mechanical, artificial, divorced from Nature, utilising only the smallest part of man’s potential capabilities, it sentences the great majority of workers to spending their working lives in a way which contains no worthy challenge, no stimulus to self-perfection, chance of development, no element of Beauty, Truth or Goodness. “Every man,” it has been said, “should be a special kind of artist.” How many men can be artists of any kind in their daily work? The basic aim of modern industrialism is not to make work satisfying but to raise productivity; its proudest achievement is labour saving whereby labour is stamped with the mark of undesirability. But what is undesirable cannot confer dignity; so the working life of a labourer is a life without dignity. The result, not surprisingly, is a spirit of sullen irresponsibility which refuses to be mollified by higher wage awards but is often only stimulated by them.
In addition, industrial society, no matter how democratic in its political institutions, is autocratic in its methods of management. If the workers themselves were given more say in the organization of their work, they might be able to restore some interest and dignity to their daily tasks– but I doubt that they would. After all, they too, like everybody else, are members of modern industrial society and conditioned by the distorted scheme of values that pervades it. How should they know how to do things differently? It is a frequent experience that as soon as a working man finds himself saddled with managerial responsibility he begins to develop an almost uncanny understanding for and sympathy with the current preoccupations of management. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Modern industrialism has produced its own coherent system of values, criteria, measurements, etc.; it all hangs together and cannot be tampered with except at the risk of breakdown. If anyone said: “I reject the idolatry of productivity; I am going to ensure that every job is worthy of a Man”, he would have reason to fear that he might be unable to pay the expected wages or, if he did, that it landed him straight in the bankruptcy court. All the same, autocratic management which treats men as “factors of production” instead of responsible human persons, is a grave evil leading to innumerable stunted even wasted lives.
Maybe a type of industrial society could be developed which was organised in much smaller units, with an almost infinite decentralisation of authority and responsibility. From the point of view of the Gospels, a hierarchical structure, i.e. authority as such, is not an evil. But it must be of a size compatible, so to say, with the size of the human being. structures made up of, say, a hundred people can still be fully democratic without falling into disorder. but structures employing many hundreds or even thousands of people cannot possibly preserve order without authoritarianism, no matter how great the wish for democracy might be.
I have listed and discussed four main characteristics of modern industrial society which, in the light of the Gospels, must be accounted for great and grievous evils:
- its vastly complicated nature;
- its continuous stimulation of, and reliance on, the deadly sins of greed, envy and avarice;
- its destruction of the content and dignity of most forms of work;
- and its authoritarian character owing to organization in excessively large units.
THE USES OF LITERACY
All these evils are, I think, exacerbated by the fact that the bulk of industry is carried on for the purpose of private pecuniary gain. And although some “big business” has civilized itself in recent years to a significant extent — largely owing to the “counter-vailing power” of the Trade Unions in conditions of full employment — there still remains a large fringe of big and small business which manifests the worst features of capitalist irresponsibility in a extreme manner. Perhaps the outstanding examples are to be found in the field of “communication media”, in sections of the press, the entertainment industries, book publishing and so-forth. You may have read Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, which is a terrible indictment. The worst exploitation practiced today is “cultural exploitation”, namely, the exploitation by unscrupulous money makers of the deep longing for “culture” on the part of the less privileged and under-educated groups in our society. The exhibition of reading matter on most of the bookstalls in industrial localities is, to my mind, the worst indictment of present-day industrial society. To claim that “this is what the people want” is merely adding insult to injury. It is not what they want, but what they are being tempted to demand by some of their fellow men who will commit any crime of degradation to make a dishonest penny.
THE IDOLATRY OF GROWTH
The great and blatant evils about which I have spoken are not on the decrease. On the contrary, they are spreading right across the world and all the time gaining in intensity. The modern industrial system has a built-in tendency to grow; it cannot really work unless it is growing. The word “stability” has been struck from its dictionary and replaced by “stagnation”. Its continuous growth pursues no particular aims or objectives: it is growth for the sake of growing. No one even enquires after its final shape. There is none; there is no “saturation point”. Who, it may be asked, calls the tune? Fundamentally, the technologist. Whatever becomes technologically possible — within certain economic limits — must be done. Society must adapt itself to it. The question whether or not it does any good is ruled out on the specious argument that no one knows anyhow what is good or evil, wholesome or unwholesome, worthy of man or unworthy.
As Prof. Archibald V. Hill says in his recent book on The Ethical Dilemma of Science: “To imagine that scientific and technical progress alone can solve all the problems that beset mankind is to believe in magic, and magic of the very unattractive kind that denies a place to the human spirit.” What I wish to emphasise is that the modern industrial system does in fact just this and is effectively denying a place to the human spirit. Too much contact with machinery has convinced the masters of the system that economic development is a mechanical, i.e. unalterable, process which could only be thrown into disorder but never stopped or modified by the intrusion of value judgments.
JUSTICE AND FREEDOM
In the face of this preponderance of evil, it may well be asked where one could hope to find even the smallest good. Have not the tares altogether suffocated the wheat?
As Christians, we are not to fall for the temptation of thinking so. It is the task and function of the devil to do the work of God. There must be some good in these processes, or else why should they be permitted to take place?
You will not expect me now to point to the external, temporal achievements of industrial society as the great good that has grown up alongside the evil. If I did so, I should be guilty of altogether forgetting the great warning in the Gospels : “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole World and lose his own soul ?” In the light of the Gospel we cannot but judge that these achievements profit us nothing because they are being purchased by throwing away the pearl of great price. If there is any good to be found, it must be a spiritual good. And I think it is not too difficult to find it.
We can note the gradual spread and establishment of certain basic notions of justice and freedom. Even the greatest evildoers find that they have to justify themselves hypocritically, and “hypocricy”, as the Duc de la Rochefoucauld observed three hundred years ago, “is the homage paid by vice to virtue.” Do not fail to notice the significance of all tyrannies today describing themselves as democracies, and all conquests as liberations, and all arbitrariness as the people’s justice. This already is a great victory of light over darkness and a great step forward from the Machiavellian approval of every kind of political crime.
THE PROGRESS OF IDEAS
If life is a “school of becoming”, a school of self-development, the ideas of personal freedom and personal responsibility must become ever more firmly established. It may be utopian to hope that they will ever gain universal mastery on this earth because good and evil tend to grow together; but, as ideas, they can and, I am sure, will become so powerful that ever greater forces will need to be mobilised by the evil one to resist them. In the ages of slavery, serfdom and of capitalist exploitation at its worst, great masses of people never looked upon themselves as potentially free and responsible. It is different today, even in concentration camps, forced labour camps, and the like. The average factory worker may make precious little use — or even very damaging use — of his freedom, but he is in no doubt that he has it and that it is a precious thing. No matter how much these ideas are being sinned against, there can be no doubt, I suggest, that, as ideas, they are today more firmly established than ever before. It is ideas that matter more than facts. It is not so long ago that ideas like colonialism, imperialism, “masters and men”, and the like seemed perfectly reasonable; they do not any more. Many people indeed still argue against the practicability of freedom, of ensuring the dignity of the person, of self-determination and so forth, but no one argues against the ideas as such.
All this is clearly visible when we look at the modern industrial system. It is indeed authoritarian and may become more so as the size of units increases. But neither the masters nor the men are any more “taken in” by authoritarianism. The masters are authoritarians with a bad conscience; the men accept them only sullenly and only when they must. There are everywhere discussions on the social obligations of business. People realise that a firm is responsible not only to its shareholders, but also to its employees, its customers and the community as a whole. In Britain, we have a substantial public sector, where determined efforts are being made to do justice to all, and institutional means have been devised to this end. There are no shareholders; but the employees demand “accountability” through Joint Consultation, the customers, through Consumers’ Councils, and the community, through Parliament and the responsible Minister.
From the point of view which we are taking here, it is not of decisive importance whether these arrangements work “better” or “worse” than undemocratic enterprise; they are better, because they are more in line with the meaning of human lifo than any wealth-producing machine — however successful — that is based upon and motivated by the acquisitive instinct.
Let us return to the thought that life is a school. As one advances in school the tasks and examinations become more difficult. But the problems set by the Great Schoolmaster also become more meaningful and more to the point. Modern industry, by producing comfort on a scale unheard of in human history yet almost destroying the real educational function of daily work, quite clearly sets the most difficult examination task; how not to lose sight of the spiritual in face of these overwhelming temptations. Many people — albeit a small minority — are rising to this task. I think we are living in an age of increasing “polarisation”. A great mass of grey is being separated out into some very black and some very white units. As one might expect, the process seems most advanced in the United States; very great evils are coming all the time from over there (and we, in Europe, strive exceedingly hard to copy and adopt them), but make no mistake: there is also a great drive towards, and consciousness of, goodness in that turbulent society, more plain goodness, I think, than in Europe.
It is my personal belief that, speaking from a worldly point of view, industrial society, as at present constituted, and unless radically reformed, must come to a bad end. Now that it has adopted cumulative growth as its principal aim, its end cannot be far off. But that does not mean that it will have failed in its purpose from the point of view of the Gospel. Out of the tremendous examination test set by this monstrous development many Single individuals will emerge triumphant; uncorrupted and hence incorruptible. This is all that really matters.
This does not mean that we can wash our hands of this worldly failure; for only those can triumph who never cease for a moment, no matter what are the odds against them, to fight evil and try to restore order. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! ” (Matth. 18:7). Anyone who merely “washes his hands” is one of those by whom offence comes.
Why should industrial society fail? Why should the spiritual evils it produces lead to worldly failure? From a severely practical point of view and without being able here to argue the case, I should say this:
- It has disrupted, and continues to disrupt, certain organic relationships in such a manner that world population is growing, apparently irresistibly, beyond the means of sub-sistence.
- It is disrupting certain other organic relationships in such a
manner as to threaten. those means of subsistence themselves, spreading poison, adulterating food, etc.
- It is rapidly depleting the earth’s non-renewable Stocks of scarce mineral resources — mainly fuels and metals.
- It is degrading the moral and intellectual qualities of man while further developing a highly complicated way of life the smooth continuance of which requires ever increasing moral and intellectual qualities.
- It breeds violence — a violence against nature which at any moment can turn into violence against one’s fellow men, when there are weapons around which make non-violence a condition of survival.
It is no longer possible to believe that any political or economic reform, or scientific advance, or technological progress could solve the life-and-death problems of industrial society. They lie too deep, in the heart and soul of every one of us. It is there that the main work of reform has to be done — secretly, unobtrusively. I think we must study non-violence deep down in our own hearts. It may or may not be right to “ban the bomb”. It is more important to overcome the roots out of which the bomb has grown. I think these roots are a violent attitude to God’s handiwork instead of a reverent one. The unsurpassable ugliness of industrial society — the mother of the bomb — is a sure sign of its violence. “Blessed are the patient; they shall inherit the land,” and “Blessed are the peace-makers: they shall be counted the children of God.” (Matth. 5:4 + 5:9, Knox transl.).
WHAT ARE WE TO DO ?
At this point I should want to finish. But I shall be asked to declare what anyone of us can do in this very difficult situation. What did Christians do during the breakdown of the Roman Empire? They did not run away but went to work cheerfully among the apparent doom. The degeneration of the industrial system — that is, its ever-intensified idolatry of getting rich quickly — offers everywhere ample opportunities for bringing light into dark places. Everywhere the values of freedom, responsibility and human dignity have to be openly affirmed, even where a neglect of these values would appear to allow the big industrial machine to run more smoothly and more efficiently. It may not be possible to do this without causing offence. To tell a young person that bis personal integrity is more important than bis career may sound almost like Sabotage in the ears of the efficiency experts. To insist that the reckless waste of natural resources is a crime does not sound co-operative to those who think that the highest possible rate of consumption is the only worthwhile pursuit for mortal man.
It is the individual, personal example that counts. The greatest “doing” that is open to everyone of us, now as always, is to foster and develop within himself a genuine understanding of the situation which confronts us, and to build conviction, determination and persuasiveness upon such understanding. Let us face it, to look at modern industry in the light of the Gospels is not the fashion of the day, and the diagnosis I have given here is not acceptable, at this moment of time, to the great majority of our contemporaries. What, then, is the use of asking for a “programme of action”? Much thinking, much discussion, much imaginative, personal pioneering work will have to be done before democratic, collective action becomes possible. There are already groups at work to find practical answers to the problems of industrial organisation. “DEMINTRY” is one.
Those who have understood know what to do. They also know that, although in a minority, they do not stand alone.
* Lecture given to a group of young Christians studying industrial problems, London, May 1961.