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? That there is such a program is shown bythe letters which follow, one from a letter received shortly after This Ugly Civilizationwas published and the other, from a letter received from the same writer two anda 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. About two and a half years later and overa year after the writer of this letter had moved to his own "island of intelligenceand 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. Need anything more be said on this subject?
Prelude to the First Edition
1. Flight from the City
II. Domestic Production
III. Food, Pure Food, and FreshFood
IV. The Loom and the Sewing-machine
VI. Water, Hot Water, and WasteWater
VII. Education--The Schoolof Living
IX. Security versus Insecurity
X. Independence versus Dependence
SECURITY VERSUS INSECURITY
MORE than a decade has passed sincethe Borsodi family took flight from the city. Experimentation, and interpretationof the experiments, on the Borsodi homestead finally reached a point where what hadbeen learned had to be given utterance. The result was that protesting essay whichI called This Ugly Civilization. It was an effort to interpret our quest ofcomfort and to develop from it a program which might lead to the conquest of comfortfor 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 Fordwas the prophet and mass production the gospel. Virtually no one wanted to be toldthat the whole industrialized world was mistaken; that there was another way anda better way of making a living and of providing ourselves with our hearts' desiresthan through organized, integrated, centralized labor. The way which I urged as desirablefor the individual and essential to the salvation of society seemed romantic to somewho read my book; practicable only for exceptional families to other readers, andhostile to the social centralization for which others were working.
The situation is different today.
As I write these lines, the newspapersare 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 thisestimate, that during November, 1932, over 31.2 per cent of those who are normallyemployed in the United States were unable to earn a living: 46 per cent of thoseordinarily employed in manufacturing; 45 per cent of those in mining; 40 per centof those in forestry and fishing; 38 per cent of those in transportation; 35 percent of those in domestic and personal service; 21 per cent of those in trade; I7per cent of those in agriculture; 1O per cent of those in public service; and 10per cent of our professional classes were unemployed. On the basis of one and a halfdependents for each worker, 37,500,000 men, women, and children were directly affectedby unemployment. And the situation since that estimate was made has become steadilyworse. But these millions by no means number fully all those affected by the economiccatastrophe which struck the country four years ago. It would be safe to say thatagain as many have had their standards of living sharply reduced by reductions inwages, 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 industrialexpansion and a full century of social reforms during which we destroyed monarchicaltyranny, abolished human slavery, established a sound currency, reduced greatly thehours 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 expansionand social reform is filled with demonstrations of the impossibility of establishingsecurity, much less happiness, by any measures which still leave the individual dependentfor his living upon the industrial behemoth, what has thus far been done and whatis now proposed by industrial leaders, politicians, and economists is in the mainmerely a continuance of the futile process of trying to produce prosperity by creatingnew industries, expanding credit, cheapening money, spreading work, shortening hoursof labor, or establishing unemployment insurance.
Yesterday a young married man I knowlost his position. The manufacturing company for which he had been working for fouryears 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 itimperative 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 livedin terror of this possibility. A six-months-old baby, with the added financial responsibilitiesinvolved, had increased the fear with which they had contemplated the possibilityof 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-fiveyears 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--weresuddenly 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 troubloustimes, can be gathered from the fact that when my wife called the young mother onthe 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 receivedwas that she couldn't come over just then--that she had suffered some kind of hystericalspell after her husband left her, had become nauseated, and vomited, but that aftershe 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. Upto 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 theconventional standard of skilled workingmen of his class. The Segerstroms then livedin a home which they had bought for a little down and a little each month; they owneda Ford car; they had the usual kind of furniture in their home, a radio, and allthe comforts to which they felt an American standard of living entitled them. Theyhad even managed to save a little money, some of which had been invested in securitiesrecommended to them by the bank in which they deposited their money.
Then came the crash. Regular employmentended. At the end of the fourth winter of occasional work at odd jobs they had losttheir home, lost and sold virtually all their furniture, and when we first heardof them they were living in a rented house in the country without a single modernconvenience, and dependent upon the wood which they could cut in the woods abouttheir 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 justenough cash with which to pay the rent and occasionally buy some groceries. For therest, they were engaged in a desperate struggle to act enough odd jobs and occasionallya little work at his trade of carpenter to keep the family from descending to thecharitable agencies for relief.
As I write, Mrs. Segerstrom has losther job as a maid, the family which had employed her having decided to move to anotherpart of suburban New York. As far as I can judge, through no fault of their own butmerely because of their blind reliance and dependence upon the scheme of living whichis conventional in our industrial civilization, this family is going to become anobject of public charity. In that respect their problem is the problem of millionsof equally sober, decent, and useful human beings today.
Or take the case of the Smythes, whichalso is not their name, but suggests the two of them.
The Smythes were a rather proud couplein their fifties. They had no children. They had a nice home of their own in oneof the most fashionable sections of northern Jersey. They drove a Chrysler, purchasedwhen that meant more than it does today. Their home was much more than comfortablyfurnished. Smythe had been cashier and confidential man in some kind of brokeragebusiness for over twenty years. His firm decided to liquidate, owing to the lossessustained when commodity prices slumped early in the depression. Through no faultof his own, Smythe found himself at fifty trying to secure any sort of position atall in which his knowledge of bookkeeping might be used. But not only was there anoversupply 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 timefinally came when the Smythes were reduced to a state in which they were withoutcoal with which to heat their house, their telephone was being disconnected, andthey had virtually nothing left to set upon the table. But so far as the neighborscould see, nothing was wrong. The Smythes seemed to be living substantially as theyhad been living for the past two years.
But one day the neighbors became consciousof the fact that the Smythes had disappeared. Investigation showed that two daysbefore Smythe had picked up a hatchet, split open his wife's skull as she lay inbed, 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--whichpromises to end more hopefully than that of Smythe.
One day I received a letter from aman 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 questionhe wanted to put to me. He asked me to give him a few minutes in which to put hiscase before me if I possibly could spare the time, since he was prepared to stakeall he had upon my answer to it. Of course I saw him. And this is the story he toldme.
"Mr. Borsodi," he said, "Iam 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 managedto 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 chanceto 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 inthe newspapers, registered with all sorts of employment agencies, called on all myfriends 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 wasable 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 pickup, we have been steadily wiping out our savings. Even after practicing every sortof economy, the rent makes big holes in our savings each month, though we have managedto even reduce this by doubling up with my wife's parents. Today I have only $500left of my original savings. And I can see the end of that this coming year.
"Like lots of other men, whentired of walking around, I have dropped into the public libraries to read and getmy mind off my troubles. About a week ago I happened to pick up your book, This UglyCivilization, and I raced through it--it seemed to be written just for me. I don'tneed to tell you how it affected me. It seemed to furnish the complete answer tojust such problems as the one with which I had been struggling. But what a ghastlyjoke that I should have stumbled upon your book only after most of my capital hadbeen sunk in the sheer cost of keeping my family alive this past year. I have beentorturing myself ever since thinking about what I might have done to maintain themif I had worked in a garden of my own instead of just tramping the streets of NewYork trying to find jobs under conditions such as prevail at present!
"Now, Mr. Borsodi, the questionI would like to ask you is this: Should I take a chance with my last $500 and tryto get to the country, where we would have a chance at least to partially supportourselves, even if we couldn't do it completely right away, or should I take a chanceon 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 ajob which you advocate in your book? This is the question which my wife and I havebeen debating night after night ever since I read your book. What do you think? Iam perfectly willing to work. I think I can make a success of such a homestead asyou describe; my wife is willing to work just as hard as I am--but will $500 enableus to make a start toward independence?"
The terror, the suffering, and thetragedies of my young neighbor, of the Segerstrom family, of the Smythes, of Jonesthe 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--mysteriousas to cause but not as to effects--which periodically produces in our industrialcivilization a decline in the volume of trade, a sharp drop in prices, a shrinkagein the amount of credit, a decrease in the demand for goods, a decline in the volumeof production, and in consequence an increase in the number of unemployed. Men andwomen 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 ofprosperity and good times--suddenly find themselves out of work, while those whoremained employed find themselves in most cases working only a part of each weekand at lower wages and salaries. A force beyond their control and in most cases utterlybeyond their comprehension suddenly leaves them without the income with which topay rent, buy food, purchase clothing, and pay their debts.
But equally through no fault of theirown, other millions of cogs in our industrialized world and interdependent economicsystem find themselves periodically without the income which will enable them tobuy 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-workersout of employment, and the invention of new machines and new techniques tends tothrow 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, fromshort skirts to long skirts, from crockery to glassware, and from phonographs toradios, create unemployment for workers in some industries even though employmentis created for other workers in other industries.
And quite without regard to whetherthe cause is seasonal, or cyclical, or technological, or style unemployment, allthese victims of unemployment are alike in this respect, that they are periodicallyunable to support themselves and their families through no fault of their own becauseof their dependence upon what they earn as a cog in some part of the complex machineryof our factory-dominated civilization. If the period of unemployment proves tobe a short one, their savings are reduced or wiped out and debts accumulated whichimpair their ability to save for some time after they are again employed, while ifthe period proves a long one--as long as the period through which twelve or thirteenmillions 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 loathebut to become revolters against a social system which subjects them to such treatment.
The popular formula of social reformersfor mitigating the evils of unemployment is unemployment insurance--which deals withthe effect of the trouble, and the popular formula for ending unemployment altogether--isto have the government in some way or other control if not own and operate all industry.
Neither the formula for mitigation--whichmerely shifts the cost of unemployment from those unemployed to those employed, northe formula for ending unemployment--which merely shifts the control of our economiclife from capitalists to public of ficials of some sort or other--appeals particularlyto me. Neither furnishes, in my opinion, a cure for the fundamental defect in ourpresent economic system--the excessive dependence of individual men and women fortheir livelihoods upon the smooth functioning of nation-wide and even internationaleconomic activities.
There remains to be considered theformula of despair--that the unemployed should leave our cities and turn to farmingto support their families. But the modern farmer, specializing in the productionfor sale of wheat or cotton or milk, has just as difficult a problem in employinghimself profitably as has the wageworker or the office-worker. For the unemployedto exchange their present dependence upon industrial activity for dependence uponagricultural prices--for them to exchange the insecurities of the labor market forthe insecurities of the grain or cattle or produce markets--is merely to jump outof the frying pan into the fire.
The only reason that everybody doesnot as yet recognize the fact that the average farmer has a problem of employmentis because the evil effects of a decline in the price of the crop he produces donot put him on charity as quickly as the evil effects of a decline in the sales ofthe products of some industry. With declines in sales of manufactured products, industrialworkers are promptly laid off or fired, but with declines in agricultural prices,unemployment only appears after foreclosure of farms for non-payment of interestand taxes leaves farmers without farms on which to work. It is true, of course, thatthe evil effects of dependence upon the general condition of business are smallerin degree in the case of farmers, even for those who specialize in cash crops suchas wheat and cotton and hogs, because most farmers tend to produce some of theirown necessities of life. If they own their own farms, they at least provide theirown shelter instead of renting it. If they have a vegetable-garden and orchard, ora cow and some chickens, they at least produce some of their own foodstuffs. Eventhough they are in the long run affected disastrously by their dependence upon thegrowing of crops sold in the produce markets at prices fixed by the total supplyand demand for what they produce, this limited degree of production for use givesto 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 heis apt to suffer from the problem of employment.
The essence of the matter is that whenthe farmer shifted his productive activities from production for his own use to productionfor sale, he subjected himself to economic insecurities of a type roughly comparablein nature to the insecurities to which the wage-worker and the office-worker arenow subjected. The farmer at one time was self-sufficient. He not only produced hisown foodstuffs; he produced his own fabrics and clothing. Weaving and knitting wereas much the activities of the homestead as farming. Sheep furnished him wool; thecattle he slaughtered furnished him leather; a wood lot furnished him fuel for heatand cooking. The farmer of the past, in most instances, spent the part of the yearwhen farming operations could not be performed because of the season, operating grist-millsor lumber-mills, or working at some craft or trade. Such a life had only the insecuritieswhich nature itself seems to impose upon human activities, and the possible damagefrom storm and drought, from locusts and hail, was reduced by storage of suppliesand diversification of production. The threat of dispossession and unemployment whichthe dependence of the farmer upon the cash market has brought into farming was thenunknown. 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 ora chicken; on 30 per cent there is not a single hog, and on approximately 90 percent not even one sheep. What is more, on many of the farms in our banner agriculturalstates 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 haveexchanged 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 establishmentof unemployment insurance, and not even the planning or socialization of industrialactivities, will furnish an adequate alternative way of life to the artist and craftsmanfor whom the problem of living includes some sort of escape from the repetitive workwhich is all that an industrial civilization offers them.
A short time ago I received the followingletter from a man with quite a reputation as a poet. The situation with which hehas been confronted by our industrial civilization is quite typical of that withwhich countless numbers of talented men and women are today faced. Since my bookappeared I have received scores of similar letters:
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?
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 of life.
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?
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.
For this man, and for any man who willsimilarly start on the road to independence, the problem of employment can hardlybe said to exist.
Prelude to the First Edition
1. Flight from the City
II. Domestic Production
III. Food, Pure Food, and FreshFood
IV. The Loom and the Sewing-machine
VI. Water, Hot Water, and WasteWater
VII. Education--The Schoolof Living
IX. Security versus Insecurity
X. Independence versus Dependence
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?
That there is such a program is shown bythe letters which follow, one from a letter received shortly after This Ugly Civilizationwas published and the other, from a letter received from the same writer two anda 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.
About two and a half years later and overa year after the writer of this letter had moved to his own "island of intelligenceand 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.
Need anything more be said on this subject?