Monday, April 18, 2011

Beatrice Webb

My Apprenticeship, AMS Press, New York, 1977 (reprint of the 1926 London edition published by Longmans, Green & Co.)

For Beatrice Webb (née Potter) the underlying controversy of life is the struggle between the Ego that affirms and the Ego that denies, and it is upon the course of this controversy that the attainment of inner harmony and consistent conduct in personal and public affairs rests.  For Beatrice this debate was resolved into two questions: Can there be a science of social organization, analogous to mechanics or chemistry, that would enable mankind to forecast what will happen in society and allow us to alter those events.  And, if there is such a science, is science all we need?  Or do we also need religion?  This book is a tentative attempt to answer those questions and describes her journey towards socialism, the Fabian Society and her marriage to Sidney Webb.

She concludes, finally, that society is a vast laboratory in which experiments in human relationships are constantly being carried out, consciously or unconsciously, and that to survive and prosper we should equip ourselves with the knowledge of how things happen.  And that this knowledge can only be obtained by persistent research into the past and present behavior of humanity.  But knowing how things happen does not settle the question of what ought to happen nor should it because, with regard to that question, science has no answer.  Answering the question of ‘ought’ depends upon human values, which alter from society to society and over time.

For Beatrice, answering the question of ‘ought’ led her to socialism.  Her research in the East End revealed to her the physical misery and moral debasement that was the legacy of the rack-renting landlord and the capitalist profit-maker of nineteenth-century commerce and industry.  Some of these ills (low wages, long hours, unsanitary working conditions) she felt could be remedied by appropriate legislative action and pressure from the Trade Unions.  This meant a move from early Victorian individualism to an all-pervading control, in the interest of the community, of the economic activities of landlords and capitalists.

But even if this regulation did succeed in alleviating the worst injustices of the capitalist system, there still must be some way to insure a minimum state of civilized existence for every citizen via some form of socialism that would provide public education, public health, public parks, and public provision for the elderly and the ill, and some form of support for the involuntarily unemployed, paid for out of rates and taxes.

To address what she considered the psychological evil of a society divided into the haves and have nots, or the rich and the poor, a schism that would not be remedied by a rise in wages as the United States demonstrated, she recommended an alternative to the modern business model based upon the co-operative movement.  In the co-operative she saw the invention of a new type of industrial organization in which an industry was governed by the community of consumers for the common benefit of the consumers.  To this organization she wished to add Trade Unions or professional societies, whose purpose it was to protect personal dignity and individual freedom by giving workers the means to participate in the administration of their trades and services.