Mr. Ralph Borsodi has written one of the most challenging and important books of recent years. During the height of the madness of 1929, when the book was first published, it was easy to ignore it. Indeed, to many people Mr. Borsodi’s arguments seemed fantastic in the face of Coolidge “prosperity,” high wages and rising prices. Now that four years of depression have vindicated so many of them, his program—which seemed so impossible a few years ago —is rapidly becoming the only way out for many of those staggered by the insecurities of modern industrialism.
The most striking and dramatic aspect of the book is its slashing attack upon the ugliness, oppressiveness and irrationality of our factory system, as run under the present profit motive in an era of speculative business enterprise.
There is nothing completely new about this. The traditions of John Ruskin, William Morris and others, and their assault upon the repulsive and repressive nature of our machine age and factory system, are old and familiar. That Mr. Borsodi has done the job again in effective fashion in terms of our present economy is not in itself an epoch-making contribution to the literature of social and economic criticism. Nor is his proposal to escape by building up self-supporting domestic units on the land wholly novel.
Far more fundamental and much more truly challenging is Mr. Borsodi’s relentless exposure of the shallow and superficial nature of the most sacred shibboleths of contemporary civilization.
Mr. Borsodi is sufficiently well informed and realistic to recognize that the factories are but a product and a symbol of underlying principles and processes. Behind them, their operation and the disposition of their products, is a dominant philosophy.
There is the current doctrine that the well-being of the human race is to be assured chiefly, if not exclusively, through mass factory production and business prosperity. Efficiency and economy in the operation of the factory are designed to insure high productivity. Expert advertising will market the products. Large sales insure high profits. Such profits enable the employers to offer high wages and steady employment. Permanent work and good wages are to make it possible for the employees to buy more and, hence, to speed up consumption. Greater consumption is to lead to the placing of larger orders at the factories, and so on around the circle.
But at no point have we been willing to raise the basic question as to whether the greater consumption means greater happiness and larger satisfaction with life.
Greater consumption, indeed, but greater consumption for what? This is a question with which Henry Ford has never grappled. To do so would involve him in obvious embarrassment, if not in destructive confusion.
Our current business philosophy has passed through three stages. The first was that of the crude days of industrial expansion following the early period of machine-factory production. It was the public-be-damned era. Immediate profit was all that concerned the business man. Large profits could only be insured, it was believed, by depressing wages. This was proved a fallacy which, if persisted in, would lead to the disintegration of capitalistic enterprise.
So some employers then came to understand that if they were to find a market for an ever larger supply of goods they would have to pay decent wages in order that the worker might be an effective consumer. High wages meant general prosperity, and well diffused prosperity meant extensive consumption.
We are now entering upon a third stage of analysis and evaluation. This will introduce qualitative, moral and sociological considerations. The judgments demanded can no longer be exclusively those of the bookkeeper. Tentatively accepting the doctrine of greater consumption as a means of assuring human happiness, we are coming to ask such questions as, consumption for what? Consumption of what? How much consumption? What price consumption? And the like.
It is the fact that Mr. Borsodi rocks to its very foundations the whole philosophy of the present era of mass-production that gives his book real significance. It may not convince us and it may not convert us, but it will be a thick-headed or irresponsible person who can read the book without being moved to reconsider his economic and social philosophy and, perhaps, his whole way of living.
Sooner or later, we shall have to deal with the question of whether we are to live to consume or to consume to live. When we face this issue it will be necessary to do more than call conferences of industrial leaders or radical agitators.
Mr. Borsodi is sensible and realistic enough not to launch an undiscriminating blanket attack upon machines and factories. The machines have enormously contributed to lessening human effort and to increasing our productive power. Only when introduced in factories have they become a menace to mankind. Even a factory is not in itself inherently destructive of human well being. Factories which manufacture essential products render a great social service. It is the factories which manufacture non-essential or harmful products and are linked up with irresponsible types of modern advertising that menace the welfare of humanity.
The core of the whole matter is to be found in the changed philosophy of production and consumption which accompanied the establishment of the factory:—”Before the coming of factory production commerce devoted itself to producing what the buying public wanted, rather than to marketing what producers fabricated.”
In 1929 Mr. Borsodi’s devastating critical analysis of the fundamental deficiencies and thoughtlessness of industrial civilization seemed far more important and convincing than his proposal for escape. The factories and factory machines were busy everywhere, and escape from them in large numbers seemed impossible. In 1933 the situation is different. Millions are leaving the city to return to the country.
Whether we follow Mr. Borsodi to the country or stay in our congested cities, we must face the question of what really constitutes a satisfactory life and how both factories and farms can be employed to produce it.
Mr. Borsodi answers this question by placing before us an economic philosophy based upon a twelve year experiment with domestic machinery and production for use. If the depression lasts long enough, millions may turn to production for use, domestic machinery, the decentralization of electric power, and what Mr. Borsodi calls self-sufficient homesteads as the instruments for achieving the good life.
Even if one believes that we shall solve our current industrial problems primarily by curbing speculative piracy and insuring high wages, while preserving the system of mass production, he will find Mr. Borsodi’s book of real value. For, under the most favorable outcome, many will be unable to find work within the industrial system. Automatic machinery is likely to throw more and more out of work. Therefore, though Mr. Borsodi’s program should prove an incidental and secondary line of defense against poverty and confusion, it is, nevertheless, bound to be highly significant. Several millions of Americans, at least, are destined to find this their only practicable mode of relief.
To those to whom Mr. Borsodi has directly addressed his book —the men and women he calls quality-minded, artists, teachers, scientists, poets and all those belonging to the cultured minority—his program will prove particularly interesting at this time. For it points to a way in which they might do what Mr. Borsodi has done: make themselves economically independent enough to end any subservience on their part to contemporary business, social and political pressures
HARRY ELMER BARNES
Next Section | 1933 Preface to the Second Edition