Modern Industry in the Light of the Gospel

 

Modern Industry in the Light of the Gospel

by E. F. Schumacher

SOCIETY FOR DEMOCRATIC INTEGRATION IN INDUSTRY
12 DOWNSIDE CRESCENT, BELSIZE PARK, LONDON, N.W.3

OCTOBER 1962

 
 
INTRODUCTION
 
This is a pamphlet that should be read by every Christian.  The domination of economics throughout life is the outstanding characteristic of modern society. Every concept of economics in industry today is rooted in materialism, destroying our spiritual life.  This is still god's world and must be run in accordance with His Will and Purpose.
 
"He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches."  (Rev. 3.13).
 
Without necessarily agreeing with everything the author says, we commed thee pages to your careful thought and responsible endeavour.
 
Canon L. John Collins.
The Rev. Prebendary A. Stephan Hopkinson
General Director of the Industrial Christian Fellowship.
Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, D.B.E., F.R.S., D.Sc
The Very rev. George F. MacLeod, M.C., D.D.
The Rev. Donald J. McNeill, Methodist Minister and
Hon. Secretary of the Fund for Human Need.
The Rev. Donald O. Soper, M.A., Ph.D.
The Rev. John S. strong, Worker Priest.
The Rev. T. Corbishley, S.J.
 
Note.  As readers will observe, this booklet is supported by outstanding leaders of various churches and expresses views which no Christian in Industry today can afford to ignore.
 
Demintry has published this pamphlet in the belief that it is a vital contribution to discussion of urgent issues of our time, but without necessarily endorsing all the opinions expressed in it.
 

 

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 woud 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.
 
 
IMMENSE COMPLICATION
 
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.
 
 
AUTOCRATIC MANAGEMENT
 
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 stuntedor 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, isnot 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 larte 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 aull 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. A. 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.  
 
 
*Lecture given to a group of young Christians studying industrial problems, London, May 1961.

 

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was an internationally influential economic thinker, statistician and economist in Britain, serving as Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for two decades. His ideas became popularised in much of the English-speaking world during the 1970s. He is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralised and appropriate technologies.

The Schumacher Center Library is home to the bulk of Dr. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher's personal library and archives, donated in 1994 by his widow, Vreni Schumacher. His collection, consisting of 2,500 books, has been computer indexed and its catalog can be searched online