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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 9: Working Aristocracy

A Poor Working Mammonism getting itself ‘strangled in the partridge-nets of an Unworking Dilettantism,’ and bellowing dreadfully, and already black in the face, is surely a disastrous spectacle! But of a Midas-eared Mammonism, which indeed at bottom all pure Mammonisms are, what better can you expect? No better; -- if not this, then something other equally disastrous, if not still more disastrous. Mammonisms, grown asinine, have to become human again, and rational; they have, on the whole, to cease to be Mammonisms, were it even on compulsion, and pressure of the hemp round their neck! -- My friends of the Working Aristocracy, there are now a great many things which you also, in your extreme need, will have to consider.

The Continental people, it would seem, are ‘exporting our machinery, beginning to spin cotton and manufacture for themselves, to cut us out of this market and then out of that!’ Sad news indeed; but irremediable; -- by no means the saddest news. The saddest news is, that we should find our National Existence, as I sometimes hear it said, depend on selling manufactured cotton at a farthing an ell cheaper than any other People. A most narrow stand for a great Nation to base itself on! A stand which, with all the Corn-Law Abrogations conceivable, I do not think will be capable of enduring.

My friends, suppose we quitted that stand; suppose we came honestly down from it, and said: “This is our minimum of cotton- prices. We care not, for the present, to make cotton any cheaper. Do you, if it seem so blessed to you, make cotton cheaper. Fill your lungs with cotton-fuz, your hearts with copperas-fumes, with rage and mutiny; become ye the general gnomes of Europe, slaves of the lamp!” -- I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy, selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. Cotton-cloth is already twopence a yard or lower; and yet bare backs were never more numerous among us. Let inventive men cease to spend their existence incessantly contriving how cotton can be made cheaper; and try to invent, a little, how cotton at its present cheapness could be somewhat justlier divided among us! Let inventive men consider, Whether the Secret of this Universe, and of Man’s Life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money! There is One God, just, supreme, almighty: but is Mammon the name of him? -- With a Hell which means ‘Failing to make money,’ I do not think there is any Heaven possible that would suit one well; nor so much as an Earth that can be habitable long! In brief, all this Mammon-Gospel of Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost, begins to be one of the shabbiest Gospels ever preached on Earth; or altogether the shabbiest. Even with Dilettante partridge-nets, and at a horrible expenditure of pain, who shall regret to see the entirely transient, and at best somewhat despicable life strangled out of it? At the best, as we say, a somewhat despicable, unvenerable thing, this same ‘Laissez-faire;’ and now, at the worst, fast growing an altogether detestable one!

“But what is to be done with our manufacturing population, with our agricultural, with our ever-increasing population?” cry many. -- Aye, what? Many things can be done with them, a hundred things, and a thousand things, -- had we once got a soul, and begun to try. This one thing, of doing for them by ‘underselling all people,’ and filling our own bursten pockets and appetites by the road; and turning over all care for any ‘population,’ or human or divine consideration except cash only, to the winds, with a “Laissez-faire” and the rest of it: this is evidently not the thing. ‘Farthing cheaper per yard:’ no great Nation can stand on the apex of such a pyramid; screwing itself higher and higher; balancing itself on its great-toe! Can England not subsist without being above all people in working? England never deliberately purposed such a thing. If England work better than all people, it shall be well. England, like an honest worker, will work as well as she can; and hope the gods may allow her to live on that basis. Laissez-faire and much else being once well dead, how many ‘impossibles’ will become possible! They are ‘impossible,’ as cotton-cloth at two-pence an ell was -- till men set about making it. The inventive genius of great England will not forever sit patient with mere wheels and pinions, bobbins, straps and billy-rollers whirring in the head of it. The inventive genius of England is not a Beaver’s, or a Spinner’s or Spider’s genius: it is a Man’s genius, I hope, with a God over him!

Supply-and-demand? One begins to be weary of such work. Leave all to egoism, to ravenous greed of money, of pleasure, of applause: -- it is the Gospel of Despair! Man is a Patent-Digester, then: only give him Free Trade, Free digesting-room; and each of us digest what he can come at, leaving the rest to Fate! My unhappy brethren of the Working Mammonism, my unhappier brethren of the Idle Dilettantism, no world was ever held together in that way for long. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest; such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’ in howling universal famine, ‘impossibility,’ and suicidal madness, as of endless dog-kennels run rabid. Supply-and-demand shall do its full part, and Free Trade shall be free as air; -- thou of the shotbelts, see thou forbid it not, with those paltry, worse than ‘Mammonish’ swindleries and Sliding-scales of thine, which are seen to be swindleries for all thy canting, which in times like ours are very scandalous to see! And Trade never so well freed, and all Tariffs settled or abolished, and Supply-and-demand in full operation, -- let us all know that we have yet done nothing; that we have merely cleared the ground for doing.

Yes, were the Corn-Laws ended tomorrow, there is nothing yet ended; there is only room made for all manner of things beginning. The Corn-Laws gone, and Trade made free, it is as good as certain this paralysis of industry will pass away. We shall have another period of commercial enterprise, of victory and prosperity; during which, it is likely, much money will again be made, and all the people may, by the extant methods, still for a space of years, be kept alive and physically fed. The strangling band of Famine will be loosened from our necks; we shall have room again to breathe; time to bethink ourselves, to repent and consider! A precious and thrice-precious space of years; wherein to struggle as for life in reforming our foul ways; in alleviating, instructing, regulating our people; seeking, as for life, that something like spiritual food be imparted them, some real governance and guidance be provided them! It will be a priceless time. For our new period or paroxysm of commercial prosperity will and can, on the old methods of ‘Competition and Devil take the hindmost,’ prove but a paroxysm: a new paroxysm, -- likely enough, if we do not use it better, to be our last. In this, of itself, is no salvation. If our Trade in twenty years, ‘flourishing’ as never Trade flourished, could double itself; yet then also, by the old Laissez-faire method, our Population is doubled: we shall then be as we are, only twice as many of us, twice and ten times as unmanageable!

All this dire misery, therefore; all this of our poor Workhouse Workmen, of our Chartisms, Trades-strikes, Corn-Laws, Toryisms, and the general down-break of Laissez-faire in these days, -- may we not regard it as a voice from the dumb bosom of Nature, saying to us: Behold! Supply-and-demand is not the one Law of Nature; Cash-payment is not the sole nexus of man with man, -- how far from it! Deep, far deeper than Supply-and-demand, are Laws, Obligations sacred as Man’s Life itself: these also, if you will continue to do work, you shall now learn and obey. He that will learn them, behold Nature is on his side, he shall yet work and prosper with noble rewards. He that will not learn them, Nature is against him: he shall not be able to do work in Nature’s empire, -- not in hers. Perpetual mutiny, contention, hatred, isolation, execration shall wait on his footsteps, till all men discern that the thing which he attains, however golden it look or be, is not success, but the want of success.

Supply-and-demand, -- alas! For what noble work was there ever yet any audible ‘demand’ in that poor sense? The man of Macedonia, speaking in vision to an Apostle Paul, “Come over and help us,” did not specify what rate of wages he would give! Or was the Christian Religion itself accomplished by Prize-Essays, Bridgewater Bequests, and a ‘minimum of Four thousand five hundred a year?’ No demand that I heard of was made then, audible in any Labour-market, Manchester Chamber of Commerce, or other the like emporium and hiring establishment; silent were all these from any whisper of such demand; -- powerless were all these to ‘supply’ it, had the demand been in thunder and earthquake, with gold Eldorados and Mahometan Paradises for the reward. Ah me, into what waste latitudes, in this Time-Voyage, have we wandered; like adventurous Sindbads; -- where the men go about as if by galvanism, with meaningless glaring eyes, and have no soul, but only a beaver-faculty and stomach! The haggard despair of Cotton-factory, Coal-mine operatives, Chandos Farm-labourers, in these days, is painful to behold; but not so painful, hideous to the inner sense, as that brutish godforgetting Profit-and-Loss Philosophy, and Life-theory, which we hear jangled on all hands of us, in senate-houses, spouting-clubs, leading-articles, pulpits and platforms, everywhere as the Ultimate Gospel and candid Plain-English of Man’s Life, from the throats and pens and thoughts of all but all men! --

Enlightened Philosophies, like Molière Doctors, will tell you: “Enthusiasms, Self-sacrifice, Heaven, Hell and such like: yes, all that was true enough for old stupid times; all that used to be true: but we have changed all that, nous avons changé tout cela!” Well; if the heart be got round now into the right side, and the liver to the left; if man have no heroism in him deeper than the wish to eat, and in his soul there dwell now no Infinite of Hope and Awe, and no divine Silence can become imperative because it is not Sinai Thunder, and no tie will bind if it be not that of Tyburn gallows-ropes, -- then verily you have changed all that; and for it, and for you, and for me, behold the Abyss and nameless Annihilation is ready. So scandalous a beggarly Universe deserves indeed nothing else; I cannot say I would save it from Annihilation. Vacuum, and the serene Blue, will be much handsomer; easier too for all of us. I, for one, decline living as a Patent-Digester. Patent-Digester, Spinning-Mule, Mayfair Clothes- Horse: many thanks, but your Chaosships will have the goodness to excuse me!

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