This is an ugly civilization.
It is a civilization of noise, smoke, smells, and crowds—of people content to live amidst the throbbing of its machines; the smoke and smells of its factories; the crowds and the discomforts of the cities of which it proudly boasts.
The places in which the people work are noisy. The factories are filled with the recurring, though not the rhythmic, noises of machines and the crash and clatter incidental to their operation. The offices, too, are noisy with the rat-tat-tat of typewriters, the ringing of telephones, the grinding of adding machines. The streets on which the people move about, and around which they work and play, resound with the unending clatter of traffic—the roar of motors, the squeaks of brakes, the shrieks of sirens, and the banging of street cars. And even the homes in which they are supposed to rest are noisy because they are not only packed close together but built tier on tier so that the pianos, phonographs, and radios in them blare incongruously above, below, and on all sides of them.
The people of this factory-dominated civilization accept its noisiness. For noise is the audible evidence of their prowess; the inescapable accompaniment of their civilization’s progress. The greater the noise, the greater the civilization.
The people of Pittsburgh, a city of more than half a million souls, live in a cloud of soot. Soot shuts out the sun by day; the moon and stars by night. Soot blackens Pittsburgh’s churches and courthouses; its humble dwellings and towering office buildings. It creeps and sifts into Pittsburgh’s homes. It smuts the walls, the draperies, the rugs, the furnishings in Pittsburgh’s homes. In Pittsburgh people accept a sooty civilization because soot makes Pittsburgh great.
The people of Chicago, a city of over three million souls, live under an encircling and overpowering smell. At breakfast, at luncheon, at dinner: while working and playing; awake and asleep; Chicago’s millions inhale penetrating smells from the mountains of dung and offal in its great stockyards. The greater the smells the stockyards make, the greater their contributions to Chicago. In Chicago people accept a smelly civilization because smells make Chicago great.
The people of New York, a city of over six million souls, shuttle back and forth morning and night between their flats at one end and their jobs at the other end of a series of long underground tubes. Twice each work day throughout their lives New Yorkers push and are pushed into their noisy, sweaty, obscenely crowded subways, elevated railroads, street cars and busses. In New York people accept a civilization of crowded homes, crowded streets, crowded stores, crowded offices, crowded theatres because crowds make New York great.
Pittsburgh is not our only sooty factory city; Chicago is not our only smelly stockyards town; New York is not our only crowded metropolis. The cities of the country differ from one another only in degrees of sootiness, smelliness, noisiness and crowdedness. What is most discouraging, those not so sooty as Pittsburgh, nor so smelly as Chicago, nor so crowded as New York, aspire to equal these three shining jewels of our civilization in the very things that make for ugliness.
Travel on the Erie Railroad from New York to Buffalo and you will see how this civilization scars what should be one of the most beautiful regions of the world. The train moves through a countryside that is one unending delight—a succession of hills and valleys, fields and streams of entrancing loveliness. From the time it leaves the factory dotted area of northern New Jersey, which the sprawling cities of Jersey City, Passaic and Paterson make hideous, it travels through a region that should inspire all of those who dwell in it to the building of beautiful places in which to work and play.
Instead, the cities and towns are eyesores, especially those that contain factories, and most of them do; made more hideous because of the contrast between the dingy places built by men and the natural beauty about them. What the factory has left undone to mar the country seems to have been done by the signs and billboards advertising factory products; by the huddle of stores and warehouses in which factory products are distributed; by the drab, box-like houses in which dwell the makers of factory products. Between the factory itself and these by-products of a factory dominated countryside all has been done that could be done to make the country ugly.
Above all, this civilization is ugly because of the subtle hypocrisy with which it persuades the people to engage in the factory production of creature comforts while imposing conditions which destroy their capacity for enjoying them. With one hand it gives comforts—with the other hand it takes comfort itself away.
The servitude to the factory which it enforces uniformly upon all men harnesses skilled workers and creative individuals in a repetitive treadmill which makes each muscle in their bodies, every drop of blood in their veins, the very fibres of their being, cry out in voiceless agony that they are being made to murder time—the irreplaceable stuff of which life itself is composed.
For America is a respecter of things only, and time—why time is only something to be killed, or butchered into things which can be bought and sold.
Wherever the factory dominates, there you will find the factory-generated waste of human life and natural resources, and the noise, soot, smell and crowds of industrialized America.
For the misdirection of human energy which destroys beauty is neither exclusively American nor exclusively modern. Ugliness has existed in all ages and is to be found among all the peoples of the earth. The tragic universality of the “misfortune” to which Friedrich Nietzsche calls attention in Thus Spake Zarathustra has made ugliness the common curse of mankind. Says Nietzsche:
There is no sorer misfortune in all human destiny, than when the mighty of the earth are not also the first men.
For “the mighty of the earth,” when bereft of wisdom, have to devote themselves ruthlessly to perpetuating their own might. This is the genesis of the interminable warfare waged by predatory quantity-minded men upon the quality-minded men who seek to make the world a more beautiful place in which to live.
Substitute “church” for “factory” and the argument of this book applies equally well to the situation of mankind when Voltaire waged his war with l’Infame. Hypatia the church tore to pieces. Bruno it burned at the stake. Copernicus and Galileo it terrorized into temporary silence. What the church did when it had full sway to the quality-minded individuals who sought to make the world a more intelligent place was similar in essence, although far worse in kind, to that which the factory does today.
Substitute “slavery” for “factory” and the argument applies equally to that period of history when mankind accepted the idea that heredity and power gave to limited numbers of men the right to enslave others. Nothing in all history is more vile than the institution which permitted a “noble” Roman to cripple Epictetus, because he owned him! What slavery did when it flourished to the quality-minded individuals, both slave and free, who sought to make life more beautiful, was no different in essence from that which the factory does today.
Substitute “absolutism” for “factory” and the argument applies equally to every period and every place in which kings, princes and nobles wielded absolute powers. What absolutism did wherever it had sway to quality-minded individuals was similar in essence to what the factory does today.
The civilizations dominated by the church, by slavery and by absolutism were each in their way ugly. But the superstitions, cruelties, and injustices which marred them were the symptoms and not the true causes of the perhaps incurable disease from which all of them suffered.
The institutions which dominated those civilizations, just as the factory dominates ours, expressed the activities of acquisitive, predatory, ruthless, quantity-minded types of men. Because these powerful but inferior types impose their wills upon superior types of men, the individuals who mitigate the tragedy of life—those who have contributed all the beauty to be found amidst the wealth of folly and waste in the world—are penalized and handicapped in their work.
Under penalty of all that is dear to men—work, comfort, fellowship, even life itself—they are forced to subscribe to the false facts, false hopes, false fears, false tastes of the conventions of their times. The penalties for failure to conform have varied from burnings-at-the-stake, the favorite method when the church dominated civilization, to starvation-into-accepting-a-place-in-the-factory system, the favorite method now that the factory dominates civilization.
America has not yet permitted the factory, officially, to take over the government. America still gives, officially, lip-service to the rights of the individual. But factory-dominated America is slowly but surely destroying its idealists by making laws, schools and all other popular institutions “practical.” Already the factory has created a factory folkway. In America “business as usual” is not a mere slogan—it is a holy and patriotic virtue.
But look at Russia. In Russia proscription of the nonconformist is practiced—after socialization—on an even greater scale than in capitalistic America.
There the factory is supreme.
There the factory has taken over the government.
And there all men are being forced to conform to the needs of the factory, precisely as in ancient Sparta they were forced to conform to the needs of the state, and in the Middle Ages to the needs of the church.
And now let me try to tell you why it is that I have come to the conclusion that it is the factory—the gross abuse of the factory—that has produced this ugly civilization.
For it is an ugly civilization.
It is ugly because of its persistent failure to concern itself about whether the work men do, and the things they produce, and above all the way they live, create the comfort and understanding essential if mankind is to achieve an adequate destiny.
And it will remain ugly and probably become uglier year by year until the men who are able to mitigate its ugliness free themselves to do so.
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