Our Ghostly Commonwealth

Originally published on July 27, 1935

There exists in the United States, alongside our so-called normal social and economic life, another commonwealth, a ghostly one — ghostly because it is largely invisible to those who are not its members, and ghostly in the vague uneasiness which its haunting presence provokes. It is a commonwealth of people who live in a separate world of their own. They are not isolated in some distant state, on some reservation set aside for them, but they live in the midst of us, in our cities and villages, in our very streets. They can vote — although it is suggested in some states that they should not — they look like the rest of us; they have the same desires, the same needs, the same urges. But not exactly, and always decreasingly, the same hopes. They belong to the same trades, professions, crafts, and skills as the rest of us, and, on the whole, to the same races, although there is a larger proportion of Negroes amongst them than in the other society, our own society, and a slightly larger proportion of Mexicans and Filipinos. There are mechanics and farmers, engineers and executives, lawyers and journalists, artists and teachers, laborers and musicians, dancers and actors, miners, carpenters, stonemasons, clerks, stenographers. They are, indeed, a pretty fair cross section of the United States. There are stockbrokers amongst them, and former $50,000-a-year men, and sharecroppers who never in their lives have handled more than $100 a year in cash money. And lots and lots of children. Curiously, there are, proportionately, rather more children amongst them than the rest of us have. They constitute between one-sixth and one-seventh of our population, because, all together, their number is around 20,000,000, and the experts tell us there are an additional 25,000,000 potential members of their society. They are the people on relief.

But the people on relief are not usually referred to as “people.” The society in which they live has a nomenclature of its own, as well as a social and economic organization of its own. They are usually referred to as “clients” or as “cases,” and, in groups, as a “case load.” Thousands of them live in barracks, under the supervision of Army officers, but they are not soldiers. They and many of the others work, and at all sorts of tasks: construction, manufacturing, transportation, education, building, mechanics, drafting, moving pictures. They play instruments, sew clothes, manufacture mattresses, till farms, but they do not work at jobs, but on “projects.” They work, but most of them do not receive wages, but “budgets,” and the amount which they earn is not decided according to their merits, but according to their minimum needs — as determined for them by careful investigation. They produce all manner of things, from iron cots and refrigerators to pictures and plays, but they may not sell anything they produce.

Their lives for ten years back are investigated, recorded, catalogued, and cross-catalogued. More is known about them than about any other part of the population — about their race, and skills, work histories, diseases, even about their personalities — but the knowledge is in the files of state and federal government agencies, and is not part of the public awareness. In so far as the rest of our society is conscious of them, the attitude is a combination of bad conscience and hostility, and of this attitude they are also aware — and repay it, on their part, with a feeling of frustration and hostility.

But the human animal can get used to anything, and an increasing number of them have got used to this curious world created for them. It is a world where the all-powerful functionary, the boss, is the social worker. It is the social worker whom they see when they finally make up their minds to go and apply for relief. It is the social worker who visits their homes and asks a great many questions. It is the social worker whom they deceive about the ten shares of stock which they are wistfully holding for a rise, or about the $100 which is still in the bank, or about the fact that the 17-year-old son has a part-time job. It is the social worker who calls later to see whether the money is really being spent for milk for the children and not hoarded or squandered on cigarettes. Behind the social worker is a vast bureaucratic machine, with which the social worker — oftenest a woman — must herself grapple when anything comes up which is not in the exact schedule — when the children’s teeth need filling, for instance, or another baby is coming along. The social worker is the facade and the chief pillar of the whole system.

No Wages — a “Budget”

The social worker — and the postman. The postman brings the relief check and the post card telling the client to report for work. But at the new work office another social worker receives them and there is more cross-questioning and more cataloguing. What work did they do last? And before that? And before that? Again the names are filed, and each of the possible occupations cross-catalogued with a view to discovering a project which might use the client’s services. Is there a project needing a valve grinder? An automobile finisher? No. But perhaps the automobile finisher can do common house painting, the valve grinder dig ditches. A fortnight or so passes. Then perhaps the client or the case has work, but not a job.

The project may be a long way off. How about transportation? Ask the social worker. And then the pay. The worker is not paid where he works. Still the check comes by mail — the budget check — so much for milk, so much for other food, so much for utilities, so much for clothing. Still the rent is paid — not by the worker, but by the relief authorities, directly to the landlord. The worker is not a real worker; he is a relief worker. The landlord who gets the relief check knows it; the neighbor who observes the visitor knows it; the grocer from whom he gets his food knows it, because in many communities this part of the payment is in the form of a grocery order, and in others the relief worker is forced to trade at certain stores which carry everything on the list. The social worker calls at the stores, too, occasionally, to see whether the worker — the relief worker — is really buying vitamin-rich food, and not ginger ale.

And above all, the worker knows it. He knows it because the conditions of his work, the standards of efficiency, the hours, and the pay are not normal conditions, standards, and hours.

Yet, there are advantages. If the relief worker has belonged before to one of the lowest groups of American labor, there are great advantages. If he has been an occasional or a seasonal laborer, he has more security than he ever has had. His new employer cannot fire him. The budget is very low — it averages $22 a month per family for the whole country, plus certain perquisites, such as medical care from a panel of relief doctors, food, clothing and household goods from the surplus-commodity warehouses, but even at that it may be as much as he has ever had. If he is a Southern Negro agricultural laborer, or a Mexican worker in the Imperial Valley, often it is actually more in cash. And his feelings toward the social worker are mixed. Often he is furious — a social worker’s life is by no means roses. Sometimes social visitors have been stabbed, slashed, and even shot at by furious clients. But they look after the families. The money goes farther, being carefully apportioned. The relief worker can’t make debts — on pain of going off the rolls. He can’t spend money for amusements. “How did you manage to get that radio?” “What have you done with the money for vegetables?” “I am told that you were here last week — or there. How did you pay for that?” He has no contact with other workers not on relief work. Bit by bit his social contacts, as well as his work contacts, come to be amongst the other cases. He settles down into the routine. He begins to think of himself as a permanent member of a certain caste, a permanent citizen of this curiously infantile world. And if he is ambitious he hopes to rise inside this world, for it has opportunities too. A former white-collar worker may become a social worker himself — there are not enough trained social workers for this new order — or a stenographer in the vast offices, a foreman on a construction job, a full-time draftsman making plans for others.

From place to place in these United States, the pattern varies, but only slightly. In Chicago — unless the system has been changed in recent weeks — he gets no cash, but a grocery order. Here he may pay his own rent, and there it is paid for him. On public works, under the PWA, he may be paid on the job. The deviations, however, do not change the main pattern of the society. He may hear that relief is higher in this place than it is in that, and move. He may figure that a single man alone has a better chance in the shelters and camps for relief transients, and leave his family behind him, knowing the relief will go on at home just the same. He may set out energetically to look for a job — a job that is not a “project,” a job which is part of the busy, working world. But there are not a great many jobs, and he soon finds that the employers look sour when he admits that he had been on relief. The employers prefer men who have not been out of work long; prefer men who have had enough savings or family support to keep them going; fear demoralization and the rusting of old skills. Soon he is back in the old routine, back in the bosom of the social worker, back in the world where he is a child again — a child with a minimum degree of security, a minimum of responsibility, and no future other than a continuation of the present.

Our Human Waste

Thousands of children are born into this world and know no other. Thousands and thousands of young people, finishing school, pass into it, never having worked for wages in their whole lives. Although industries throughout the country report increased productivity and increased employment, the size of this ghostly commonwealth changes curiously little. Looking at it, as I have done, from one city to another, one has a strange feeling of permanence — and yet yesterday it was not there.

This caste, this society of charges, this world which speaks in terms of setups and breakdowns, case loads and clients and projects, is not the result of a plot, of a conspiracy — not even of a conspiracy of the social workers. It has come into being because of an almost innumerable number of factors. Not all of these clients belong in the exact technical sense of the term to the unemployed, not all of them are the victims of the great economic catastrophe of the last five years, which is worldwide in its scope and worldwide in its causes. One suspects — what the old-line charity workers have long known, and what the statisticians have been patiently telling us for many years — that the passing of the great pioneer period, the closing of the frontiers inside our country, the end of free land, the emergence of big industry, the centralization of capital and manufacture, science applied to agriculture and technics, the importation — in the past — of cheap labor from all corners of the Earth where labor was cheapest, the great surge of construction and exploitation which opened this country and made its riches and its power in a phenomenally short period of time, have also thrown upon the nation’s scrap heap an enormous mountain of waste — exhausted mines and soil, stripped prairies and forests, huge factories to manufacture things which people very doubtfully want. And amongst this wastage, vast numbers of human beings.

Unemployables We Have Always With Us

Factories may be abandoned, old railroad lines become hidden in grass, but human beings live — live even at incredibly low levels — and when the level is too low, they organize, protest, riot, follow demagogical leaders, and in other ways become apparent and menacing. And above all, they reproduce themselves. Their children appear in the schools, ill-fed, unkempt, difficult to educate and to train. In times of prosperity, the exceptional well-being of the majority blots this group out of the picture. They are kept decently out of sight by neighborly efforts, by community chests, charity organizations, county almshouses, church aids. They are called “unemployables,” and probably this country has had for years more than a million such.

In five different cities, old-line charity workers told me that they had observed, prior to 1929 and at the very peak of prosperity, that applications for charity were increasing rather than diminishing. The experts knew the reasons. One does not have to go through the mountainous reports of this most statistical of all administrations to find out what is and has been going on. The commission appointed by President Hoover which published the report on Recent Social Trends in the United States pointed out as clearly as anyone since what was happening. It showed that although there had been no increased crop acreage in this country for 15 years, and although the agricultural population was steadily decreasing, agricultural production had increased in the same period 50 percent, and production per worker 52 percent. It pointed out that it took more than twice as many man-hours to produce a ton of coal in 1911 as it took in 1929; that in the automobile industry one man was seven times as productive in 1927 as he was in 1904. They might have added that only a few years ago, 30,000 men in Akron produced 30,000 tires in a day, and that now 13,000 or 14,000 men can turn out 84,000 tires. The Hoover Commission predicted the cotton-picking machine which is now a fact, and which will be capable of replacing 2,000,000 Southern laborers, whites and Negroes, in foreseeable time.

The old-line charity workers, observing increased demands for help in the midst of prosperity, knew that new industries were no longer taking up the dislocations caused by improved technique in the old ones. From 1899 to 1914, out of every 1,000 workers, 21 were replaced by machines, but at the same time 149 new jobs were created by new industries. But between 1922 and 1929 — the prosperity years — out of every 1000 workers, 49 were replaced by machines and only 45 new jobs were created. The process since then has immensely accelerated with the depression and the timidity of new enterprises.

What the depression did was to add to this lowest group hundreds of thousands of people who, in prosperity years, never dreamed that they could reach such a level. I have met on relief rolls men who, six years ago, were earning $10,000 a year. Home owners, carriers of relatively heavy insurance policies, architects who once had fine contracts, artists who, six years ago, were getting $1,500 for a picture, minor movie actors who thought that one successful secondary role spelled a secure future. Hundreds of former salesmen, minor executives, and thousands and thousands of white-collar workers. Skilled workmen whose trades had moved to other localities and who continued to believe that business would pick up again. Men and women from stranded communities, where the factories have closed or the mines shut down because prices have fallen. Sometimes they moved in the old flivver in search of a promised land, but where conditions actually were better, others had had the same fine idea and gone there too. California, one of the richest states in the Union, is so crowded with transients from the East that the legislature has been considering a law of doubtful constitutionality which would close the borders against all immigrants unable to support themselves.

It may truthfully be said of some of these people that in time of prosperity they did not exercise sufficient thrift. But is the fault entirely theirs? Our whole production mechanism in the prosperity years was geared to high-pressure salesmanship. There was pressure from all sides to persuade men and women of limited means to mortgage their futures. On the relief rolls are thousands who purchased houses in 1926 and 1927 at immensely inflated values and with extremely heavy mortgages, who today have lost their entire equity and have no roof over their heads.

One Question — Many Answers

Others, with no knowledge of investment, put their money into common stocks without realizing that in the stock market the little man is invariably caught. He always buys high and has to sell low. Today these victims of the depression and their own former optimism walk about on relief projects like men in a daze. They still are not sure what hit them. If they are not utterly discouraged, if they think at all, they look about for an explanation. The Communists have one; the Socialists have one; Father Coughlin has one, and Huey Long. They say: “It’s the system.”

I have heard these words before. I heard them everywhere in Germany in 1930 and 1931. Precisely those words. It was the time when the German democracy, unknown to most German democrats, was tottering into its grave.

If they listen to Senator Long, the system is the concentration of wealth. If they listen to Father Coughlin, the system is the international bankers. If they listen to the Communists, the system is the whole of bourgeois society. But they listen least, perhaps, to the Communists. The Communists appeal to workers. But they are no longer part of the great body of workers. They are cut off from working ranks. Their vigor is dissipated. Communism is revolutionary; it demands control. It seeks to conquer the state. They, on the contrary, are not learning to conquer the state, but to make demands upon it.

The form which our treatment of this great group of vastly various elements has taken was again partly predicated by social and political conditions and by the state of public opinion.

No federal government in the Western world was less prepared to receive the victims of economic catastrophe than ours, either technically or psychologically. In all Western European countries nets had long been spread to catch those whom economic life dropped from its pay rolls. Everywhere else there was some plan or other of unemployment insurance. It might have been merely the Ghent system of compensation through subsidized trade union funds. But such a system was out of the question in the United States, where the American Federation of Labor has never been able — and one suspects not even very desirous — to organize the unskilled, and which has in its membership many monopolistic groups, and as much rugged individualism as elsewhere in American life. Both the German and the British contributory systems were rejected by public opinion, which hated the very idea of a dole as un-American and humiliating, and which was often completely uninformed as to the nature of unemployment insurance. There was the realization, too, that in all countries the insurance systems had broken down, had had to undergo constant revision; the very just criticism was made that there was no single case to be found throughout the world in which the actuarial basis proved to be valid, for the hazards of unemployment, unlike the hazards of illness, death, fire, or accident, are quite unpredictable. In all countries with unemployment-insurance schemes, the man or woman who remained unemployed for a period of from 26 to 52 weeks — depending upon the previous stability of his employment and the number of premiums he had paid — eventually reached the relief rolls, the actual dole, in spite of the insurances.

Something to Break the Fall

Nevertheless, the insurance schemes were a net to break the victim’s fall at the outset. They provided him with a breathing space in which to seek new work; above all, they kept him for a few months, at least, in the community of his fellows. Furthermore, they set up a permanent, impersonal, and nonpolitical mechanism for dealing with a situation. The workman or small-salaried employee in Britain who loses his job, if he has paid 26 contributions to the insurance fund, has the right to collect 26 weekly payments, and in proportion as he has paid into the fund, many more. There is no investigation beyond establishing the fact of his previous employment and his present lack of work through no fault of his own. He cashes the benefits as simply as one would cash a check. He is not a case. Thus, from the outset, there is a differentiation between the man who is out of work because he is a drunkard, or an epileptic, or otherwise maladjusted, and an able-bodied, competent citizen who is the victim of an economic catastrophe. Even when these benefits are exhausted, he can continue for another 26 weeks on other benefits frankly subsidized by the government. Only now he is subjected to a means test which investigates his resources. But if he is found to be without means, the payments continue in the same way and on the same level. And only when these are exhausted does he have to fall back upon local charity, upon the social worker.

Limitations of Local Relief

Complicating the American problem further was a decline in the authority and prestige of local governments, due to a system in many respects obsolete, and to political corruption. The poor have long been the charges of state, county, and township governments. The idea that charity has been chiefly a function of private agencies is an illusion. Private agencies, such as the community chests, which have to raise money by private subscription, make of necessity a considerable noise, but traditionally the destitute have been cared for by local taxpayers. But possible taxation for such purposes was severely limited. And the whole mentality of local poor administrators was awry. To them, the destitute were so because they were simply misfits. It was, in essence, their own fault. The attitude was embodied in some New England states by laws which disfranchised recipients of public relief. The local poor-law authorities were trained by tradition and experience to take care of the ne’er-do-wells, the village idiots, the aged, the infirm, the orphaned. But they were not prepared for a program of relief for Thomas Smith, able-bodied, aged 35, six years ago receiving a salary of $25 a week and a so-to-speak house owner, meaning that he had a house “worth” $5000 on which he had a $4000 mortgage; four years ago cut to $20; three years ago cut to $12, and unable to pay the mortgage; two years ago dismissed because of “lack of business,” and today totally without resources.

President Hoover, with the experiences of the war, the Belgian relief, the all-European campaign against typhus, the 1930 drought, and the Mississippi flood behind him as justification, believed that there was sufficient goodwill, energy, and organization power in the American people to deal with the administration of this problem on a local and largely voluntary basis. He foresaw the danger resulting from the isolation of a large part of the community from the rest. He knew that voluntary committees of local people would have only one interest — the reabsorption of the unemployed in actual economic life and the ending of their own jobs. He foresaw that any bureaucracy has a vested interest in its own continuance. He believed that the best talents of every community could be summoned for patriotic purposes to give of their time and their abilities to end the condition. He knew that voluntary committees of leading citizens would use all sorts of legitimate pressure upon their friends to create jobs for the wards whom they would be anxious to get rid of. He believed in the neighbor rather than in the social worker. He saw the fight against destitution conducted with the élan of the war. He believed in the complete exhaustion of local resources before the federal government should step in.

Actually, a network of committees was created throughout the country, which, in great numbers of communities, functioned admirably in the alleviation of destitution, and which were often far abler to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving, or, in more precise terms, the economic case from the social case, than many case workers from outside the community can do.

But the analogy with the war and with President Hoover’s previous great relief administrations was fallacious in one important particular. The war, the postwar starvation, the drought, and the Mississippi flood were catastrophes which affected all parts of the population. People starved in postwar Belgium because there was actually no food. Everybody starved. The good and the bad, the poor and the rich, the deserving and the undeserving. In the war, the banker’s son needed bandages as well as the truck man’s. And the Mississippi rose upon the just as well as upon the unjust, upon the efficient as well as the unlucky. There was solidarity of action because there was solidarity of distress.

No such solidarity of experience exists between the employed and the unemployed. But one thing which President Hoover foresaw has come to pass. Many of the fortunate, being isolated from any participation in the troubles of the unfortunate, except to pay for them, are developing a callousness and hostility toward them which aggravate the whole social situation, and which no amount of press releases from the publicity bureaus of the various relief administrations can dissipate. This country is dividing into two classes — the employed and the people on relief. A genuine class struggle is emerging, but it is not the class struggle according to Marx — not the workers against the capitalists, but the working against the workless, the haves against the people they support.

The Working and the Workless

This is reflected in almost every conversation which one may have with people whom the depression has not touched severely. The Long Island ladies who are indignant that they cannot get a handy man to help lay a carpet; the newspaperman who has kept his job securely all through these last five years; the employers of cheap labor who can’t find men at prices they can afford to pay. Being cut off from the problem, which is isolated behind a bureaucracy, they generalize from their own experience, and there are plenty of experiences to bear them out. They see the relief problem in its bulk and implications only in the un-quieting growth of the extraordinary budget.

In the great cities, in the winter of 1932, the attempts at local relief had certainly broken down. The local charities were bankrupt. Milkmen could not deliver milk, because their cars were overturned and the milk looted. Grocery windows were smashed. There were riots. Gangsters joined the ranks of the unfortunate, and racketeering was coupled with destitution. There was a clamor from all quarters that something should be done. And President Roosevelt came in, surrounded by youth and social indignation, pledged to action, and a lot of it. And gallantly flinging back their locks from their foreheads, and with a smile cheery and brave, this administration gathered the whole kit and caboodle of the destitute to its bosom.

Since then it has been exceedingly busy trying to bounce many of them off again.

The federal government had no more experience than anyone else in being an eleemosynary institution. It had vast quantities of goodwill, optimism, and idealism. It was manned with as attractive a crowd of people as ever were got together in Washington; for eagerness and earnestness, youth and enthusiasm are extremely attractive qualities. It is probably the most literate administration that this country has ever had since the early days when politics was believed to be a gentleman’s profession, and it is certainly the most talkative. It is also probably one of the most truly representative of administrations, for it shares practically all the illusions of the typical American intellectual. It believes that any action is better than none; that the scientific attitude is synonymous with being willing to try anything once; that economic reform can be interpreted in terms of social uplift; and that the lion and the lamb can be brought to lie down together by persuasion.

This is preeminently the administration of goodwill — on all sides. But the good, says the proverb, die young. It is the wise who die of old age.

A Sympathy All-Embracing

This administration has been truly encyclopedic in its sympathies. It has tried, in the midst of depression, to raise wages and preserve profits. It has encouraged monopolies and sought to protect labor. It has advocated high prices and the protection of the consumer; [Secretary of State] Mr. [Cordell] Hull wants to restore international trade, and so does [Secretary of Agriculture] Mr. [Henry] Wallace, but meanwhile Mr. Wallace scales down production to domestic consumption. It believes in inspiration and in the expert.

Now, the same ambivalence of feeling dominates the relief program. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration is accurately described by one word in the title, and somewhat accurately by another. It is almost “Federal,” and it is certainly “Administration.” But no one whom I have been able to find in the whole organization, whether in Washington or in the field, believes that it is “Emergency.” On the contrary, its members are convinced that we are settling down to deal with a permanent problem, and they are directing policy with this in view. It is not relief. It is — or intends to become — a system of employment and, as such, should be no more relief than the check I hope to get for this article. The destitute, in the mind of this government, have a right to support. But there is something humiliating about the exercise of this special right. Therefore, work must be provided for them. But the work must not interfere with private industry. The relief worker must be free, but in order to live on his budget, he must be controlled. The relief worker must not be insulted, but the public must be scrupulously protected. The problems of the immediate present must be met. The problems of a distant future must be met. The chief aim must be to provide immediate projects to meet the needs of the individual unemployed; the chief aim must be to construct lasting works of public importance. Every destitute person in the country must be relieved, but the taxpayer must not be overburdened.

Evolution of a Bureaucracy

And whatever happens, a record must be left: A record of every case, of every administrative and work-project setup; of every racial, occupational, sex, and age group breakdown.

But not, I trust, of every nervous breakdown.

The way in which the administration of relief has developed has been partly due to the situation and agencies that existed when the administration began; partly — and very importantly — due to the personalities who came into power, who had many contradictory viewpoints, all of which, through various bureaus, received expression; and partly due to the wind of public opinion, to which the administration, as a political body, is naturally susceptible.

In a succeeding article I shall attempt to show that the contradictions in program which one observes in the field of operations are due to fundamental contradictions in attitudes and philosophies at the source. But the program, as a whole, has also been strongly influenced by attempts to satisfy a critical and not very well-informed public opinion with a strong moral attitude. Originally, the FERA plan, as dictated by law, provided for grants in aid to the states. Relief was to be state planned and state administered. But as the contributions of the federal government increased, the responsibility of the federal government for how the money should be spent also increased. The man who pays is invariably the boss. So it followed that the program came to be largely dictated by Washington. But to dictate a program, even for a country as vast as this, with wide variants in population, wage scales, and local conditions, demanded the setting up of standards and a considerable rigidity of rules. This carried with it, logically, the creation of a centralized bureaucracy. Since this bureaucracy was suspected of being a political organization and possibly, therefore, corruptible, it was necessary to keep most rigorous records, with which, if necessary, to confront the critics, and this increased overhead. Meanwhile, a public isolated from the ramifications of the problem, which were being handled by “experts,” kept veering around in its attitudes. The original opposition to the dole led to the development of the work program. But as the public begins to realize that a work program is infinitely more costly than straight relief, opinion is turning, and today the conservatives who, two years ago, attacked the dole are all for it.

The federal government, having got itself into the administration of unemployment relief in the states, is finding that the problem of dealing with all the destitute is being dumped upon its doorstep. Not only the unemployed but the lame, the halt, and the blind — old Aunt Agnes, whom the family is sick of supporting, the oldest native inhabitant, the widows whose state-pension funds have become exhausted. The invitation to come in and visit Santa Claus has been universally accepted, not only by the cases themselves but by the communities, and it is necessary constantly to flourish a big stick in order to get the states to appropriate funds. The big stick, as far as the states are concerned, is more funds — is, indeed, not so much a stick as a bait.

But the indigent from social rather than economic causes — the so-called unemployables — are definitely being returned by the federal government to the counties, which have not taken them back with enthusiasm. For one thing, they claim that their charges have been spoiled by federal relief. Then there is a quarrel between counties and federal-state administrations as to what constitutes an “unemployable.” The counties claim that a blind man with one leg can sell pencils on the street — ergo, is, if he becomes a charge at all, the problem of the federal-state administration. The federal-state shifts the man energetically back upon the counties.

Work Projects for All and Sundry

Unemployment relief. That is how it started. Destitution relief is what it became. Work relief is what it is trying to be, and already is in many communities.

It is not relief, as such, but the rigidity of federal control and the intention of putting back to work, within a year, some 3,500,000 heads of families, which has immensely complicated the problem from all angles, financial, administrative, programmatic. For, as we have seen, these unemployed are a cross-section of our economic life, belonging to all trades, professions, and skills. Can public works absorb them? The answer is no. You cannot make a mechanic or a ditch digger out of a violin player. You can only ruin a violinist and a lot of ditches. Therefore, says the federal government, one must create a work project for violinists. You cannot even make a domestic servant — with a good chance of a real job in many communities — out of a stenographer. Therefore, you must retrain some stenographers and make work projects for others. Can you put a former movie cameraman at work canning beans? No, says the relief administration, and puts him at work on a project filming other projects for the publicity department of the administration.

Meanwhile, what are you to do with whole populations which are stranded? With the lumbermen and coal and copper miners from the Northern Michigan peninsula, for instance? Here the mines are so deep that the owners cannot mine the minerals at the merest subsistence wages, except above the world-market price, and in many counties 70 percent of the people are on relief. Shall the government go into copper mining at a loss in order to give these people work? Or move them onto subsistence farms? And if it does, will the miners be happy or successful farmers?

Putting 3,500,000 men and women from all walks of life to work inside an otherwise competitive economic system simply means setting up a special social order for them parallel to the one in which the rest of us live. And this is precisely what is being done. Given the thesis, the procedure is logical. But what will be the eventual social results?

Since the unemployed are being put to work for the unemployed, on projects which must be financed and maintained by the state, you have a social order in which the taxpayer is really the absentee owner. He is in more than one respect absentee, for the great bulk of unemployment relief in the South is supported by the Northeastern States.

Since the work of this society must not conflict with the work of the other society to which it runs parallel, you have a rigid suppression of actual wages to a subsistence level, and a shutting out of its products from any but its own market. Since the taxpayer must always be considered and relief payments are not subsistence if left to the untrained spending of the recipients, you have the budget system and social workers’ control.

Benevolent Serfdom

In this system, the government is a bad employer. It is bound to be. This administration believes in the right of workers to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike. How about these workers? They have tried it in some states — in Michigan, for instance — and they have been kindly but firmly dealt with. But it is extremely difficult to explain to a man who is working that he isn’t really a worker.

The government is a bad employer, secondly, because it is impossible to make adjustments on the spot and at the moment when difficulties occur. The various projects operate under a set of rules. If something comes up not in the rules, the lower instance must consult the higher, and the higher a still higher.

I am amazed that some people consider that the work-relief system is a form of socialism. Go out and look at it, and you see that it is actually a new form of benevolent serfdom. I say “benevolent” because almost all the people in administrative positions from top to bottom are full of human kindness, full of sympathy. They are not well-paid themselves. They work extremely hard. They are, for the most part, vigorously honest. And most of them know that this system will not work in the long run. Some of them foresee its extension into a universal program of production for use, a sort of nationwide EPIC. Others believe that the government must openly compete with private industry and gradually expropriate it. They should observe that no country yet has managed to edge its way into socialism. Others believe that such a system can only be integrated with the rest of society by political means.

Now, the political means of integrating such a society with the rest is fascism. It is, as far as I know, the only political means which has been pragmatically successful.

Germany, from 1925 onward, built up a system of work relief very similar to this one. In fact, it is the only parallel which I can find in a study of social service in European countries. It had the same sort of projects — subsistence farms, unemployed production for unemployed, and in the Voluntary Works Corps, an organization not unlike CCC. It did not, under this system, stabilize the social order. The resentment of the unemployed against the state was prodigious.

According to the classes from which they came, the younger elements flocked to the extreme right or the extreme left. They furnished strong support for Hitler. And when he came into power, he took over the whole system. It was literally ready-made for him. He reorganized it along military lines. He put the workers in camps into uniforms, and the social workers, to a large extent, as well. He kept the system and changed the psychology.

Now the subsistence workers are not pariahs of the social order but are hailed as its pillars. They are the builders of the New Germany. They have parades. They are drilled, exercised, trained. Arrangements are made to keep many of them permanently in this status. And a vast propaganda machine with the whole field to itself is busy persuading them that they like it.

Well, perhaps they do. But would we?