by Edward Bellamy

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIV. We look over my collection of harnesses

Wires for light and heat had been put into the vault, and it was as warm and bright and habitable a place as it had been a century before, when it was my sleeping chamber. Kneeling before the door of the safe, I at once addressed myself to manipulating the dial, my companions meanwhile leaning over me in attitudes of eager interest.

It had been one hundred years since I locked the safe the last time, and under ordinary circumstances that would have been long enough for me to forget the combination several times over, but it was as fresh in my mind as if I had devised it a fortnight before, that being, in fact, the entire length of the intervening period so far as my conscious life was concerned.

"You observe," I said, "that I turn this dial until the letter 'K' comes opposite the letter 'R.' Then I move this other dial till the number '9' comes opposite the same point. Now the safe is practically unlocked. All I have to do to open it is to turn this knob, which moves the bolts, and then swing the door open, as you see."

But they did not see just then, for the knob would not turn, the lock remaining fast. I knew that I had made no mistake about the combination. Some of the tumblers in the lock had failed to fall. I tried it over again several times and thumped the dial and the door, but it was of no use. The lock remained stubborn. One might have said that its memory was not as good as mine. It had forgotten the combination. A materialistic explanation somewhat more probable was that the oil in the lock had been hardened by time so as to offer a slight resistance. The lock could not have rusted, for the atmosphere of the room had been absolutely dry. Otherwise I should not have survived.

"I am sorry to disappoint you," I said, "but we shall have to send to the headquarters of the safe manufacturers for a locksmith. I used to know just where in Sudbury Street to go, but I suppose the safe business has moved since then."

"It has not merely moved," said the doctor, "it has disappeared; there are safes like this at the historical museum, but I never knew how they were opened until now. It is really very ingenious."

"And do you mean to say that there are actually no locksmiths to-day who could open this safe?"

"Any machinist can cut the steel like cardboard," replied the doctor; "but really I don't believe there is a man in the world who could pick the lock. We have, of course, simple locks to insure privacy and keep children out of mischief, but nothing calculated to offer serious resistance either to force or cunning. The craft of the locksmith is extinct."

At this Edith, who was impatient to see the safe opened, exclaimed that the twentieth century had nothing to boast of if it could not solve a puzzle which any clever burglar of the nineteenth century was equal to.

"From the point of view of an impatient young woman it may seem so," said the doctor. "But we must remember that lost arts often are monuments of human progress, indicating outgrown limitations and necessities, to which they ministered. It is because we have no more thieves that we have no more locksmiths. Poor Julian had to go to all this pains to protect the papers in that safe, because if he lost them he would be left a beggar, and, from being one of the masters of the many, would have become one of the servants of the few, and perhaps be tempted to turn burglar himself. No wonder locksmiths were in demand in those days. But now you see, even supposing any one in a community enjoying universal and equal wealth could wish to steal anything, there is nothing that he could steal with a view to selling it again. Our wealth consists in the guarantee of an equal share in the capital and income of the nation--a guarantee that is personal and can not be taken from us nor given away, being vested in each one at birth, and divested only by death. So you see the locksmith and safe-maker would be very useless persons."

As we talked, I had continued to work the dial in the hope that the obstinate tumbler might be coaxed to act, and presently a faint click rewarded my efforts and I swung the door open.

"Faugh!" exclaimed Edith at the musty gust of confined air which followed. "I am sorry for your people if that is a fair sample of what you had to breathe."

"It is probably about the only sample left, at any rate," observed the doctor.

"Dear me! what a ridiculous little box it turns out to be for such a pretentious outside!" exclaimed Edith's mother.

"Yes," said I. "The thick walls are to make the contents fireproof as well as burglar-proof--and, by the way, I should think you would need fireproof safes still."

"We have no fires, except in the old structures," replied the doctor. "Since building was undertaken by the people collectively, you see we could not afford to have them, for destruction of property means to the nation a dead loss, while under private capitalism the loss might be shuffled off on others in all sorts of ways. They could get insured, but the nation has to insure itself."

Opening the inner door of the safe, I took out several drawers full of securities of all sorts, and emptied them on the table in the room.

"Are these stuffy-looking papers what you used to call wealth?" said Edith, with evident disappointment.

"Not the papers in themselves," I said, "but what they represented."

"And what was that?" she asked.

"The ownership of land, houses, mills, ships, railroads, and all manner of other things," I replied, and went on as best I could to explain to her mother and herself about rents, profits, interest, dividends, etc. But it was evident, from the blank expression of their countenances, that I was not making much headway.

Presently the doctor looked up from the papers which he was devouring with the zeal of an antiquarian, and chuckled.

"I am afraid, Julian, you are on the wrong tack. You see economic science in your day was a science of things; in our day it is a science of human beings. We have nothing at all answering to your rent, interest, profits, or other financial devices, and the terms expressing them have no meaning now except to students. If you wish Edith and her mother to understand you, you must translate these money terms into terms of men and women and children, and the plain facts of their relations as affected by your system. Shall you consider it impertinent if I try to make the matter a little clearer to them?"

"I shall be much obliged to you," I said; "and perhaps you will at the same time make it clearer to me."

"I think," said the doctor, "that we shall all understand the nature and value of these documents much better if, instead of speaking of them as titles of ownership in farms, factories, mines, railroads, etc., we state plainly that they were evidences that their possessors were the masters of various groups of men, women, and children in different parts of the country. Of course, as Julian says, the documents nominally state his title to things only, and say nothing about men and women. But it is the men and women who went with the lands, the machines, and various other things, and were bound to them by their bodily necessities, which gave all the value to the possession of the things.

"But for the implication that there were men who, because they must have the use of the land, would submit to labor for the owner of it in return for permission to occupy it, these deeds and mortgages would have been of no value. So of these factory shares. They speak only of water power and looms, but they would be valueless but for the thousands of human workers bound to the machines by bodily necessities as fixedly as if they were chained there. So of these coal-mine shares. But for the multitude of wretched beings condemned by want to labor in living graves, of what value would have been these shares which yet make no mention of them? And see again how significant is the fact that it was deemed needless to make mention of and to enumerate by name these serfs of the field, of the loom, of the mine! Under systems of chattel slavery, such as had formerly prevailed, it was necessary to name and identify each chattel, that he might be recovered in case of escape, and an account made of the loss in case of death. But there was no danger of loss by the escape or the death of the serfs transferred by these documents. They would not run away, for there was nothing better to run to or any escape from the world-wide economic system which enthralled them; and if they died, that involved no loss to their owners, for there were always plenty more to take their places. Decidedly, it would have been a waste of paper to enumerate them.

"Just now at the breakfast table," continued the doctor, "I was explaining the modern view of the economic system of private capitalism as one based on the compulsory servitude of the masses to the capitalists, a servitude which the latter enforced by monopolizing the bulk of the world's resources and machinery, leaving the pressure of want to compel the masses to accept their yoke, the police and soldiers meanwhile defending them in their monopolies. These documents turn up in a very timely way to illustrate the ingenious and effectual methods by which the different sorts of workers were organized for the service of the capitalists. To use a plain illustration, these various sorts of so-called securities may be described as so many kinds of human harness by which the masses, broken and tamed by the pressure of want, were yoked and strapped to the chariots of the capitalists.

"For instance, here is a bundle of farm mortgages on Kansas farms. Very good; by virtue of the operation of this security certain Kansas farmers worked for the owner of it, and though they might never know who he was nor he who they were, yet they were as securely and certainly his thralls as if he had stood over them with a whip instead of sitting in his parlor at Boston, New York, or London. This mortgage harness was generally used to hitch in the agricultural class of the population. Most of the farmers of the West were pulling in it toward the end of the nineteenth century.--Was it not so, Julian? Correct me if I am wrong."

"You are stating the facts very accurately," I answered. "I am beginning to understand more clearly the nature of my former property."

"Now let us see what this bundle is," pursued the doctor. "Ah! yes; these are shares in New England cotton factories. This sort of harness was chiefly used for women and children, the sizes ranging away down so as to fit girls and boys of eleven and twelve. It used to be said that it was only the margin of profit furnished by the almost costless labor of the little children that made these factories paying properties. The population of New England was largely broken in at a very tender age to work in this style of harness.

"Here, now, is a little different sort. These are railroad, gas, and water-works shares. They were a sort of comprehensive harness, by which not only a particular class of workers but whole communities were hitched in and made to work for the owner of the security.

"And, finally, we have here the strongest harness of all, the Government bond. This document, you sec, is a bond of the United States Government. By it seventy million people--the whole nation, in fact--were harnessed to the coach of the owner of this bond; and, what was more, the driver in this case was the Government itself, against which the team would find it hard to kick. There was a great deal of kicking and balking in the other sorts of harness, and the capitalists were often inconvenienced and temporarily deprived of the labor of the men they had bought and paid for with good money. Naturally, therefore, the Government bond was greatly prized by them as an investment. They used every possible effort to induce the various governments to put more and more of this sort of harness on the people, and the governments, being carried on by the agents of the capitalists, of course kept on doing so, up to the very eve of the great Revolution, which was to turn the bonds and all the other harnesses into waste paper."

"As a representative of the nineteenth century," I said, "I can not deny the substantial correctness of your rather startling way of describing our system of investments. Still, you will admit that, bad as the system was and bitter as was the condition of the masses under it, the function performed by the capitalists in organizing and directing such industry as we had was a service to the world of some value."

"Certainly, certainly," replied the doctor. "The same plea might be urged, and has been, in defense of every system by which men have ever made other men their servants from the beginning. There was always some service, generally valuable and indispensable, which the oppressors could urge and did urge as the ground and excuse of the servitude they enforced. As men grew wiser they observed that they were paying a ruinous price for the services thus rendered. So at first they said to the kings: 'To be sure, you help defend the state from foreigners and hang thieves, but it is too much to ask us to be your serfs in exchange; we can do better.' And so they established republics. So also, presently, the people said to the priests: 'You have done something for us, but you have charged too much for your services in asking us to submit our minds to you; we can do better.' And so they established religious liberty.

"And likewise, in this last matter we are speaking of, the people finally said to the capitalists: 'Yes, you have organized our industry, but at the price of enslaving us. We can do better.' And substituting national co-operation for capitalism, they established the industrial republic based on economic democracy. If it were true, Julian, that any consideration of service rendered to others, however valuable, could excuse the benefactors for making bondmen of the benefited, then there never was a despotism or slave system which could not excuse itself."

"Haven't you some real money to show us," said Edith, "something besides these papers--some gold and silver such as they have at the museum?"

It was not customary in the nineteenth century for people to keep large supplies of ready money in their houses, but for emergencies I had a little stock of it in my safe, and in response to Edith's request I took out a drawer containing several hundred dollars in gold and emptied it on the table.

"How pretty they are!" exclaimed Edith, thrusting her hands in the pile of yellow coins and clinking them together. "And is it really true that if you only had enough of these things, no matter how or where you got them, men and women would submit themselves to you and let you make what use you pleased of them?"

"Not only would they let you use them as you pleased, but they would be extremely grateful to you for being so good as to use them instead of others. The poor fought each other for the privilege of being the servants and underlings of those who had the money."

"Now I see," said Edith, "what the Masters of the Bread meant."

"What is that about Masters of the Bread?" I asked. "Who were they?"

"It was a name given to the capitalists in the revolutionary period," replied the doctor. "This thing Edith speaks of is a scrap of the literature of that time, when the people first began to fully wake up to the fact that class monopoly of the machinery of production meant slavery for the mass."

"Let me see if I can recall it," said Edith. "It begins this way: 'Everywhere men, women, and children stood in the market-place crying to the Masters of the Bread to take them to be their servants, that they might have bread. The strong men said: "O Lords of the Bread, feel our thews and sinews, our arms and our legs; see how strong we are. Take us and use us. Let us dig for you. Let us hew for you. Let us go down in the mine and delve for you. Let us freeze and starve in the forecastles of your ships. Send us into the hells of your steamship stokeholes. Do what you will with us, but let us serve you, that we may eat and not die!"

"'Then spoke up also the learned men, the scribes and the lawyers, whose strength was in their brains and not in their bodies: "O Masters of the Bread," they said, "take us to be your servants and to do your will. See how fine is our wit, how great our knowledge; our minds are stored with the treasures of learning and the subtlety of all the philosophies. To us has been given clearer vision than to others, and the power of persuasion that we should be leaders of the people, voices to the voiceless, and eyes to the blind. But the people whom we should serve have no bread to give us. Therefore, Masters of the Bread, give us to eat, and we will betray the people to you, for we must live. We will plead for you in the courts against the widow and the fatherless. We will speak and write in your praise, and with cunning words confound those who speak against you and your power and state. And nothing that you require of us shall seem too much. But because we sell not only our bodies, but our souls also, give us more bread than these laborers receive, who sell their bodies only."

"'And the priests and Levites also cried out as the Lords of the Bread passed through the market-place: "Take us, Masters, to be your servants and to do your will, for we also must eat, and you only have the bread. We are the guardians of the sacred oracles, and the people hearken unto us and reply not, for our voice to them is as the voice of God. But we must have bread to eat like others. Give us therefore plentifully of your bread, and we will speak to the people, that they be still and trouble you not with their murmurings because of hunger. In the name of God the Father will we forbid them to claim the rights of brothers, and in the name of the Prince of Peace will we preach your law of competition."

"'And above all the clamor of the men were heard the voices of a multitude of women crying to the Masters of the Bread: "Pass us not by, for we must also eat. The men are stronger than we, but they eat much bread while we eat little, so that though we be not so strong yet in the end you shall not lose if you take us to be your servants instead of them. And if you will not take us for our labor's sake, yet look upon us: we are women, and should be fair in your eyes. Take us and do with us according to your pleasure, for we must eat."

"'And above all the chaffering of the market, the hoarse voices of the men, and the shrill voices of the women, rose the piping treble of the little children, crying: "Take us to be your servants, for the breasts of our mothers are dry and our fathers have no bread for us, and we hunger. We are weak, indeed, but we ask so little, so very little, that at last we shall be cheaper to you than the men, our fathers, who eat so much, and the women, our mothers, who eat more than we."

"'And the Masters of the Bread, having taken for their use or pleasure such of the men, the women, and the little ones as they saw fit, passed by. And there was left a great multitude in the market-place for whom there was no bread.'"

"Ah!" said the doctor, breaking the silence which followed the ceasing of Edith's voice, "it was indeed the last refinement of indignity put upon human nature by your economic system that it compelled men to seek the sale of themselves. Voluntary in a real sense the sale was not, of course, for want or the fear of it left no choice as to the necessity of selling themselves to somebody, but as to the particular transaction there was choice enough to make it shameful. They had to seek those to whom to offer themselves and actively to procure their own purchase. In this respect the submission of men to other men through the relation of hire was more abject than under a slavery resting directly on force. In that case the slave might be compelled to yield to physical duress, but he could still keep a mind free and resentful toward his master; but in the relation of hire men sought for their masters and begged as a favor that they would use them, body and mind, for their profit or pleasure. To the view of us moderns, therefore, the chattel slave was a more dignified and heroic figure than the hireling of your day who called himself a free worker.

"It was possible for the slave to rise in soul above his circumstances and be a philosopher in bondage like Epictetus, but the hireling could not scorn the bonds he sought. The abjectness of his position was not merely physical but mental. In selling himself he had necessarily sold his independence of mind also. Your whole industrial system seems in this point of view best and most fitly described by a word which you oddly enough reserved to designate a particular phase of self-selling practiced by women.

"Labor for others in the name of love and kindness, and labor with others for a common end in which all are mutually interested, and labor for its own joy, are alike honorable, but the hiring out of our faculties to the selfish uses of others, which was the form labor generally took in your day, is unworthy of human nature. The Revolution for the first time in history made labor truly honorable by putting it on the basis of fraternal co-operation for a common and equally shared result. Until then it was at best but a shameful necessity."

Presently I said: "When you have satisfied your curiosity as to these papers I suppose we might as well make a bonfire of them, for they seem to have no more value now than a collection of heathen fetiches after the former worshipers have embraced Christianity."

"Well, and has not such a collection a value to the student of history?" said the doctor. "Of course, these documents are scarcely now valuable in the sense they were, but in another they have much value. I see among them several varieties which are quite scarce in the historical collections, and if you feel disposed to present the whole lot to our museum I am sure the gift will be much appreciated. The fact is, the great bonfire our grandfathers made, while a very natural and excusable expression of jubilation over broken bondage, is much to be regretted from an archaeological point of view."

"What do you mean by the great bonfire?" I inquired.

"It was a rather dramatic incident at the close of the great Revolution. When the long struggle was ended and economic equality, guaranteed by the public administration of capital, had been established, the people got together from all parts of the land enormous collections of what you used to call the evidences of value, which, while purporting to be certificates of property in things, had been really certificates of the ownership of men, deriving, as we have seen, their whole value from the serfs attached to the things by the constraint of bodily necessities. These it pleased the people--exalted, as you may well imagine, by the afflatus of liberty--to collect in a vast mass on the site of the New York Stock Exchange, the great altar of Plutus, whereon millions of human beings had been sacrificed to him, and there to make a bonfire of them. A great pillar stands on the spot to-day, and from its summit a mighty torch of electric flame is always streaming, in commemoration of that event and as a testimony forever to the ending of the parchment bondage that was heavier than the scepters of kings. It is estimated that certificates of ownership in human beings, or, as you called them, titles to property, to the value of forty billion dollars, together with hundreds of millions of paper money, went up in that great blaze, which we devoutly consider must have been, of all the innumerable burnt sacrifices which have been offered up to God from the beginning, the one that pleased him best.

"Now, if I had been there, I can easily imagine that I should have rejoiced over that conflagration as much as did the most exultant of those who danced about it; but from the calmer point of view of the present I regret the destruction of a mass of historic material. So you see that your bonds and deeds and mortgages and shares of stock are really valuable still."

Return to the Equality Summary Return to the Edward Bellamy Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson