Prelude to the First Edition
1. Flight from the City
II. Domestic Production
III. Food, Pure Food, and Fresh
IV. The Loom and the Sewing-machine
VI. Water, Hot Water, and Waste
VII. Education--The School
IX. Security versus Insecurity
X. Independence versus Dependence
SECURITY VERSUS INSECURITY
MORE than a decade has passed since
the Borsodi family took flight from the city. Experimentation, and interpretation
of the experiments, on the Borsodi homestead finally reached a point where what had
been learned had to be given utterance. The result was that protesting essay which
I called This Ugly Civilization. It was an effort to interpret our quest of
comfort and to develop from it a program which might lead to the conquest of comfort
for individuals and families, if not for society as a whole. But it appeared in 1929,
when the country was most deliriously celebrating the great boom of which Henry Ford
was the prophet and mass production the gospel. Virtually no one wanted to be told
that the whole industrialized world was mistaken; that there was another way and
a better way of making a living and of providing ourselves with our hearts' desires
than through organized, integrated, centralized labor. The way which I urged as desirable
for the individual and essential to the salvation of society seemed romantic to some
who read my book; practicable only for exceptional families to other readers, and
hostile to the social centralization for which others were working.
The situation is different today.
As I write these lines, the newspapers
are carrying a story to the effect that 15,252,000 men and women are unemployed.
This means, according to The Business Week, which was responsible for this
estimate, that during November, 1932, over 31.2 per cent of those who are normally
employed in the United States were unable to earn a living: 46 per cent of those
ordinarily employed in manufacturing; 45 per cent of those in mining; 40 per cent
of those in forestry and fishing; 38 per cent of those in transportation; 35 per
cent of those in domestic and personal service; 21 per cent of those in trade; I7
per cent of those in agriculture; 1O per cent of those in public service; and 10
per cent of our professional classes were unemployed. On the basis of one and a half
dependents for each worker, 37,500,000 men, women, and children were directly affected
by unemployment. And the situation since that estimate was made has become steadily
worse. But these millions by no means number fully all those affected by the economic
catastrophe which struck the country four years ago. It would be safe to say that
again as many have had their standards of living sharply reduced by reductions in
wages, by part-time work, and by declines in the price of what they produce or possess.
And if we were to add those who live in terror of unemployment or of financial ruin,
almost every person in the country would have to be included.
After nearly two centuries of industrial
expansion and a full century of social reforms during which we destroyed monarchical
tyranny, abolished human slavery, established a sound currency, reduced greatly the
hours of labor, granted universal suffrage, and adopted countless other reforms,
we find most of the country unemployed, reduced to poverty, dependent upon charity,
in terror of ruin! In spite of the fact that the whole history of industrial expansion
and social reform is filled with demonstrations of the impossibility of establishing
security, much less happiness, by any measures which still leave the individual dependent
for his living upon the industrial behemoth, what has thus far been done and what
is now proposed by industrial leaders, politicians, and economists is in the main
merely a continuance of the futile process of trying to produce prosperity by creating
new industries, expanding credit, cheapening money, spreading work, shortening hours
of labor, or establishing unemployment insurance.
Yesterday a young married man I know
lost his position. The manufacturing company for which he had been working for four
years as a salesman had to let him go. There had been nothing wrong with his work;
the volume of the company's business had simply declined to a point which made it
imperative that they lay off another man, and as the youngest salesman on the staff,
he was the one to be dropped.
For months he and his wife had lived
in terror of this possibility. A six-months-old baby, with the added financial responsibilities
involved, had increased the fear with which they had contemplated the possibility
of unemployment--at a time when millions were unemployed. Now the blow had fallen.
With only three weeks' pay in his pocket, he and his wife, neither of them over twenty-five
years of age, were simply terror-stricken. The landlord, the milkman, the butcher,
the grocer--those upon whom they were immediately dependent for food and shelter--were
suddenly transformed into menaces. Some idea of what this terror meant to this couple,
as in one degree or another it has meant to millions of others in these troublous
times, can be gathered from the fact that when my wife called the young mother on
the phone, shortly after the husband left for work the morning following his discharge,
to ask her not to remain alone if she was worrying, the hysterical answer received
was that she couldn't come over just then--that she had suffered some kind of hysterical
spell after her husband left her, had become nauseated, and vomited, but that after
she straightened herself out, she would come right over.
Then there is the Segerstrom family.
This is not their name--but it suggests their real name. Segerstrom is a carpenter.
He has recently worked for me a little at odd jobs, so that I know him to be a hardworking,
conscientious workman. He has an equally hard-working wife, and five children. Up
to the collapse of the building boom in the fall of 1929, as far as I can now learn,
he worked steadily month after month, earned high wages, and lived according to the
conventional standard of skilled workingmen of his class. The Segerstroms then lived
in a home which they had bought for a little down and a little each month; they owned
a Ford car; they had the usual kind of furniture in their home, a radio, and all
the comforts to which they felt an American standard of living entitled them. They
had even managed to save a little money, some of which had been invested in securities
recommended to them by the bank in which they deposited their money.
Then came the crash. Regular employment
ended. At the end of the fourth winter of occasional work at odd jobs they had lost
their home, lost and sold virtually all their furniture, and when we first heard
of them they were living in a rented house in the country without a single modern
convenience, and dependent upon the wood which they could cut in the woods about
their house for fuel with which to keep warm during the wintry weather in this climate.
His wife was working as a maid three days a week, and this managed to bring in just
enough cash with which to pay the rent and occasionally buy some groceries. For the
rest, they were engaged in a desperate struggle to act enough odd jobs and occasionally
a little work at his trade of carpenter to keep the family from descending to the
charitable agencies for relief.
As I write, Mrs. Segerstrom has lost
her job as a maid, the family which had employed her having decided to move to another
part of suburban New York. As far as I can judge, through no fault of their own but
merely because of their blind reliance and dependence upon the scheme of living which
is conventional in our industrial civilization, this family is going to become an
object of public charity. In that respect their problem is the problem of millions
of equally sober, decent, and useful human beings today.
Or take the case of the Smythes, which
also is not their name, but suggests the two of them.
The Smythes were a rather proud couple
in their fifties. They had no children. They had a nice home of their own in one
of the most fashionable sections of northern Jersey. They drove a Chrysler, purchased
when that meant more than it does today. Their home was much more than comfortably
furnished. Smythe had been cashier and confidential man in some kind of brokerage
business for over twenty years. His firm decided to liquidate, owing to the losses
sustained when commodity prices slumped early in the depression. Through no fault
of his own, Smythe found himself at fifty trying to secure any sort of position at
all in which his knowledge of bookkeeping might be used. But not only was there an
oversupply of bookkeepers--there was no demand at all for bookkeepers of his age.
In spite of his efforts to locate himself for a period of nearly two years, the time
finally came when the Smythes were reduced to a state in which they were without
coal with which to heat their house, their telephone was being disconnected, and
they had virtually nothing left to set upon the table. But so far as the neighbors
could see, nothing was wrong. The Smythes seemed to be living substantially as they
had been living for the past two years.
But one day the neighbors became conscious
of the fact that the Smythes had disappeared. Investigation showed that two days
before Smythe had picked up a hatchet, split open his wife's skull as she lay in
bed, gone down to his garage, started the motor in his car, lain down by the exhaust,
and asphyxiated himself.
Then there was the case of Jones--which
promises to end more hopefully than that of Smythe.
One day I received a letter from a
man named Jones, or a name very similar to Jones, begging the privilege of an interview.
He had read This Ugly Civilization, he wrote, and had a straightforward question
he wanted to put to me. He asked me to give him a few minutes in which to put his
case before me if I possibly could spare the time, since he was prepared to stake
all he had upon my answer to it. Of course I saw him. And this is the story he told
"Mr. Borsodi," he said, "I
am an accountant. The firm for which I used to work failed just about a year ago.
I had worked for them for nine years. But I had made such a good record and had managed
to save $ 1,500, so that I wasn't particularly worried. But that was a year ago.
Since that time I have walked the streets of New York without a single, real chance
to secure any kind of a position which would enable me to support my wife and daughter.
I have tried almost everything. I have answered every help-wanted advertisement in
the newspapers, registered with all sorts of employment agencies, called on all my
friends and relatives and almost everybody with whom I was even remotely acquainted,
in an effort to find some sort of work which I might do. Fortunately, my wife was
able to secure occasional employment in a department store, clerking at the counter.
She would leave our little girl with her grandmother during the period she worked.
But in spite of the money she managed to earn, and a little which I managed to pick
up, we have been steadily wiping out our savings. Even after practicing every sort
of economy, the rent makes big holes in our savings each month, though we have managed
to even reduce this by doubling up with my wife's parents. Today I have only $500
left of my original savings. And I can see the end of that this coming year.
"Like lots of other men, when
tired of walking around, I have dropped into the public libraries to read and get
my mind off my troubles. About a week ago I happened to pick up your book, This Ugly
Civilization, and I raced through it--it seemed to be written just for me. I don't
need to tell you how it affected me. It seemed to furnish the complete answer to
just such problems as the one with which I had been struggling. But what a ghastly
joke that I should have stumbled upon your book only after most of my capital had
been sunk in the sheer cost of keeping my family alive this past year. I have been
torturing myself ever since thinking about what I might have done to maintain them
if I had worked in a garden of my own instead of just tramping the streets of New
York trying to find jobs under conditions such as prevail at present!
"Now, Mr. Borsodi, the question
I would like to ask you is this: Should I take a chance with my last $500 and try
to get to the country, where we would have a chance at least to partially support
ourselves, even if we couldn't do it completely right away, or should I take a chance
on finding work before my $500 has all gone to the milkman, the grocer, and the landlord?
Is it possible, with only $500 cash, to make a start toward the independence of a
job which you advocate in your book? This is the question which my wife and I have
been debating night after night ever since I read your book. What do you think? I
am perfectly willing to work. I think I can make a success of such a homestead as
you describe; my wife is willing to work just as hard as I am--but will $500 enable
us to make a start toward independence?"
The terror, the suffering, and the
tragedies of my young neighbor, of the Segerstrom family, of the Smythes, of Jones
the accountant, and of most of the millions of men and women who are unemployed today,
are consequences of that mysterious phenomenon known as the business cycle--mysterious
as to cause but not as to effects--which periodically produces in our industrial
civilization a decline in the volume of trade, a sharp drop in prices, a shrinkage
in the amount of credit, a decrease in the demand for goods, a decline in the volume
of production, and in consequence an increase in the number of unemployed. Men and
women at work in factories and offices and stores, workers in building and in railroading,
all the myriads engaged in the services, trades, and professions--barbers, waiters,
actors, artists, reporters, architects, who are busily at work during periods of
prosperity and good times--suddenly find themselves out of work, while those who
remained employed find themselves in most cases working only a part of each week
and at lower wages and salaries. A force beyond their control and in most cases utterly
beyond their comprehension suddenly leaves them without the income with which to
pay rent, buy food, purchase clothing, and pay their debts.
But equally through no fault of their
own, other millions of cogs in our industrialized world and interdependent economic
system find themselves periodically without the income which will enable them to
buy the necessaries of life because of seasonal unemployment, or technological unemployment,
or what I call style unemployment. Just as the winter season tends to throw building-workers
out of employment, and the invention of new machines and new techniques tends to
throw out of employment those engaged in manufacturing staple and established products,
so style changes with their shifts in demand from wool dress goods to silk, from
short skirts to long skirts, from crockery to glassware, and from phonographs to
radios, create unemployment for workers in some industries even though employment
is created for other workers in other industries.
And quite without regard to whether
the cause is seasonal, or cyclical, or technological, or style unemployment, all
these victims of unemployment are alike in this respect, that they are periodically
unable to support themselves and their families through no fault of their own because
of their dependence upon what they earn as a cog in some part of the complex machinery
of our factory-dominated civilization. If the period of unemployment proves to
be a short one, their savings are reduced or wiped out and debts accumulated which
impair their ability to save for some time after they are again employed, while if
the period proves a long one--as long as the period through which twelve or thirteen
millions of Americans are now struggling--they are apt to become social charges,
to become utterly demoralized by public charity, and in the end not only to loathe
but to become revolters against a social system which subjects them to such treatment.
The popular formula of social reformers
for mitigating the evils of unemployment is unemployment insurance--which deals with
the effect of the trouble, and the popular formula for ending unemployment altogether--is
to have the government in some way or other control if not own and operate all industry.
Neither the formula for mitigation--which
merely shifts the cost of unemployment from those unemployed to those employed, nor
the formula for ending unemployment--which merely shifts the control of our economic
life from capitalists to public of ficials of some sort or other--appeals particularly
to me. Neither furnishes, in my opinion, a cure for the fundamental defect in our
present economic system--the excessive dependence of individual men and women for
their livelihoods upon the smooth functioning of nation-wide and even international
There remains to be considered the
formula of despair--that the unemployed should leave our cities and turn to farming
to support their families. But the modern farmer, specializing in the production
for sale of wheat or cotton or milk, has just as difficult a problem in employing
himself profitably as has the wageworker or the office-worker. For the unemployed
to exchange their present dependence upon industrial activity for dependence upon
agricultural prices--for them to exchange the insecurities of the labor market for
the insecurities of the grain or cattle or produce markets--is merely to jump out
of the frying pan into the fire.
The only reason that everybody does
not as yet recognize the fact that the average farmer has a problem of employment
is because the evil effects of a decline in the price of the crop he produces do
not put him on charity as quickly as the evil effects of a decline in the sales of
the products of some industry. With declines in sales of manufactured products, industrial
workers are promptly laid off or fired, but with declines in agricultural prices,
unemployment only appears after foreclosure of farms for non-payment of interest
and taxes leaves farmers without farms on which to work. It is true, of course, that
the evil effects of dependence upon the general condition of business are smaller
in degree in the case of farmers, even for those who specialize in cash crops such
as wheat and cotton and hogs, because most farmers tend to produce some of their
own necessities of life. If they own their own farms, they at least provide their
own shelter instead of renting it. If they have a vegetable-garden and orchard, or
a cow and some chickens, they at least produce some of their own foodstuffs. Even
though they are in the long run affected disastrously by their dependence upon the
growing of crops sold in the produce markets at prices fixed by the total supply
and demand for what they produce, this limited degree of production for use gives
to farmers in general a position somewhat more secure than that of industrial workers.
But that is all. The more dependent the farmer is upon his cash crop, the more he
is apt to suffer from the problem of employment.
The essence of the matter is that when
the farmer shifted his productive activities from production for his own use to production
for sale, he subjected himself to economic insecurities of a type roughly comparable
in nature to the insecurities to which the wage-worker and the office-worker are
now subjected. The farmer at one time was self-sufficient. He not only produced his
own foodstuffs; he produced his own fabrics and clothing. Weaving and knitting were
as much the activities of the homestead as farming. Sheep furnished him wool; the
cattle he slaughtered furnished him leather; a wood lot furnished him fuel for heat
and cooking. The farmer of the past, in most instances, spent the part of the year
when farming operations could not be performed because of the season, operating grist-mills
or lumber-mills, or working at some craft or trade. Such a life had only the insecurities
which nature itself seems to impose upon human activities, and the possible damage
from storm and drought, from locusts and hail, was reduced by storage of supplies
and diversification of production. The threat of dispossession and unemployment which
the dependence of the farmer upon the cash market has brought into farming was then
unknown. Today farmers have abandoned not only the production of fabrics and clothing,
but on about 20 per cent of the farms in this country there is not even a cow or
a chicken; on 30 per cent there is not a single hog, and on approximately 90 per
cent not even one sheep. What is more, on many of the farms in our banner agricultural
states no gardens are kept and almost every article of food is purchased at the store.
If the unemployed of the cities turn to that kind of farming, they will merely have
exchanged one kind of economic insecurity for another.
What is called subsistence farming,
however, is a step, though only a step, in the right direction.
But no return to farming, no establishment
of unemployment insurance, and not even the planning or socialization of industrial
activities, will furnish an adequate alternative way of life to the artist and craftsman
for whom the problem of living includes some sort of escape from the repetitive work
which is all that an industrial civilization offers them.
A short time ago I received the following
letter from a man with quite a reputation as a poet. The situation with which he
has been confronted by our industrial civilization is quite typical of that with
which countless numbers of talented men and women are today faced. Since my book
appeared I have received scores of similar letters:
The question that persisted in my mind
after reading the necessarily incomplete account of your ideas and their operation
in that interview, is this: Can your plans obviously sound and salutary in their
application to a crisis like the present, be made continuously operative; not only,
that is, to provide self-sustaining work instead of wasteful charity to the jobless
victims of hard times, but to afford a continuous way of living through all kinds
of times? But by "way of living" I do not mean an existence just beyond
the margin of want, nor a way devoid of participation in the characteristic conveniences
of modern times; I do not mean a mere throw-back to the simplicity that characterized
American farm and rural-town life up to fifty or sixty years ago; but I mean, can
a community organized on your principles not only afford a sane, healthful existence
to its members, but also, as long as a capitalistic organization of society endures,
a modest and constant increment of usable wealth in the form of money, to give access
to the world and its goods outside the community, to provide insurance against age
and casualty, and to provide some inheritance for the next generation?
Consider my own position. Born and
raised in a city, reared and educated not to use my hands but to use my head to "get
along" in life; overlooked by nature, however, in the distribution of the acquisitive
instinct; I have drifted and tumbled along through life, never producing anything
(except some negligible literature and criticism), but precariously holding and losing
various parasitical jobs, seldom quite earning my way. Finally comes a small inheritance,
some of which was lost in Wall Street; the bulk of it, small enough, is in the soundest
investments the country affords; which nowadays yield diminished income, have in
part lost their liquidity, and are slowly melting as I draw on them to eke out earnings,
by myself and my wife, insufficient to meet the expenses of a modest scale of living.
I can in the nature of things have no program but to live carefully and keep alert
for another chance at parasitical employment, in government or in private business.
Is there a saner way, not as a temporary
expedient, but as a permanent program?
--and a way which would enable us not
only to keep housed, clothed, and fed, but to have some freedom of movement, some
chance to participate in the good things which our urbanized, industrialized, capitalistic
civilization does afford, along with its evils?
That there is such a program is shown by
the letters which follow, one from a letter received shortly after This Ugly Civilization
was published and the other, from a letter received from the same writer two and
a half years later:
I have just finished reading This Ugly
Civilization, and cannot rest until I have made an effort to let you know what
it means to me. Though I attained the age of thirty only a few days ago, I have long
been preaching many of the reforms you advocate. And as librarian and instructor
in an institution filled with herd- minded students and instructors, controlled by
quantity-minded capitalists and politicians, and located in a hopelessly conventional
and very religious college community, you may be able to imagine the inhibitions
and morbid mental confinement of my existence. Having the sweet companionship of
your book in such an iron-clad environment of bondage is comparable to the Mormon
conception of Joseph Smith finding the golden tablets.
As librarian I am ever searching the
publications which list and advertise new books and when I first saw yours advertised,
I began to hope that my long search, with its many disappointments, had at last found
its reward. In reading page after page I rejoiced to find not only my own ideas,
but a great many more which I had not yet arrived at, all expressed in clear, logical
language. You see, for years I have been slowly yet carefully gathering notes . .
. building up my case against the masses who control my every action . . . gradually
preparing myself for the time when I might stand high on my firm and ever-accumulating
foundation of fact and reason and denounce them all. Somehow I can't get over the
feeling that the book was prepared especially for me, that I might grasp it eagerly:
a complete and carefully constructed basis upon which to rest my own peculiar philosophy
My most cherished dream has long been
the establishment of my own "little island of intelligence and beauty"
that should stand gallantly and undefiled "amidst the chaotic seas of human
stupidity and ugliness." Nearly a year ago I selected and purchased ten acres
of land and will soon be able to make the final payment on it. We managed to erect
a habitable building, dig and equip a well, and raise a small flock of pullets; and
my dear old mother is heroically holding the fort until we can achieve the financial
status necessary for me to join her. And if nothing happens this should be within
the present year. Then, with my mother, the two children of my deceased brother,
and a distant young lady who has promised to share the transvaluation with me, I
plan to sacrifice the present emoluments and future prospects of my profession and
begin the great experiment of my life.
Your book comes at an opportune time
to serve as my handbook of procedure and inspiration. And, having the encouragement
it has brought and my plans for the reasonable life so far along, I feel sufficiently
independent to begin to voice more openly the ideas which I have so long considered
in secret. Hereafter I shall not only speak on the subject, but I intend to quote
appropriate passages from your book. Of course I shall place one or more copies of
it on the library shelves. However, there is every reason to believe that, if it
reaches the hands of any of the more conservative members of the faculty (and it
probably will), they will request its removal because of the remarks on religion.
But why worry over trifles?
About two and a half years later and over
a year after the writer of this letter had moved to his own "island of intelligence
and beauty," I received the following letter from him:
Since receiving your letter some two years
ago, I have had ample time to consider the truth of your statement that the cards
were stacked against the farmer. However, we may console ourselves with the fact
that the farmer is not now suffering alone. Here I did not plan to farm on a large
scale, but only to have some chickens. With the chickens I have used plenty of caution
and as yet have not suffered any losses. Despite the depression, things have gone
on quite well. I have a position at the local university library and divide my time
between this seat of learning and the ranch. We have a comfortable home, ten acres
and the first three units of the chicken arrangement finished and it is all paid
for so we feel fairly independent.
We are all well satisfied and like
the open spaces more all the time. In some respects our situation is ideal. Although
it takes less than fifteen minutes to reach the city, we are far enough out to hear
the coyotes howl now and then. We enjoy (more than I had thought possible) the attractions
of the city along with the peace and freedom of the desert. I think this type of
community will be more and more popular in the future. As yet no house is closer
than a quarter of a mile to us, yet we have all the essential conveniences of the
city such as electricity for light, power, and heating; telephone, daily newspaper
service, all kinds of city delivery such as ice, coal, milk, laundry, and the like.
But what I like most is the diversified
work that I have to do out here, it is such a delightful variety in contrast to the
routine work I have been used to. Out here no day seems half long enough, for there
is everything from writing poetry to cleaning the hen- house to be done, and every
type of activity is interesting.
Need anything more be said on this subject?
For this man, and for any man who will
similarly start on the road to independence, the problem of employment can hardly
be said to exist.
Prelude to the First Edition
1. Flight from the City
II. Domestic Production
III. Food, Pure Food, and Fresh
IV. The Loom and the Sewing-machine
VI. Water, Hot Water, and Waste
VII. Education--The School
IX. Security versus Insecurity
X. Independence versus Dependence