Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The United States
By Guglielmo Ferrero (1871–1942)
From ‘Militarism’

THE MOST essential social bond, which exists as a definite standard of the degree of justice and therefore of civilization, which a community has reached, is the remuneration of labor. A country may possess one institution or another—the family, education, penal or civil justice—better regulated than in other states; but the excellence of these institutions proves nothing for the moral superiority of that nation, if its system of remuneration of labor is more iniquitous than in other states where these social institutions are ruder and more imperfect. In the United States, owing to the abundance of land, the relative but not excessive scarcity of capital and men, human work obtains magnificent remuneration; and obtains it, at least in certain parts of the Union, in the midst of a marvelous and almost perfectly organized civilization. The fabulous prodigality with which the earth pours from her full bosom, after an accumulation of thousands of centuries, the first abundance of her treasures; the possession of the elaborate culture of our civilization free from so many atavisms, prejudices, and dead traditions which encumber the foundations of our society; the extreme freedom and ease of the individual, not handicapped as we are in changing occupations, habits, social caste, received ideals, and social axioms by a social tradition, become almost sacred; the innumerable opportunities in the midst of such constant material and intellectual change for the association of individual talents and energies; the prodigious rapidity with which these combinations can be formed and dissolved; the frequent return of opportunities brought about by the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune; the instability of all things—of good but no less of bad; the purely temporary nature of all conditions; the almost complete want of any definite solutions;—of necessity imply that there is no defeat without reconquest, no decay without rebirth. These conditions prevailing in America render it easy to any ordinarily intelligent and energetic man to obtain for his work remuneration which errs rather on the side of being beyond than beneath his deserts; never so low as to force him to live without other satisfaction than that of not dying of hunger; without rendering possible, however, these fabulous remunerations to be obtained in new countries, still in their infancy and almost uninhabited—demoralizing remunerations on account of their liberality, which are only possible where civilization is not yet fully organized. It is a matter of small importance, then, if American industrial protectionism, for the benefit of a few, renders many things unreasonably expensive; if the money collected by taxes is often spent badly and frequently misappropriated; if oligarchies of capitalists impose levies on the population by means of monopolies. Many may obtain enormous profits from these iniquities, but without reducing the condition of others to such a point as only to allow of their not dying of hunger. Vast industrialism disciplines but does not degrade a nation. Indeed, the fact that American capital is employed by preference in the creation of aristocratic industries, like the mechanical ones, which demand a great deal of instruction and a certain intellectual superiority in the worker, and that the good instinct of the whole people makes them give their preference in the market to articles of the highest quality, both in material and workmanship, has resulted in producing a working class composed, not merely of rude weavers and spinners, of ignorant laborers employed in the simplest trades, who exercise nothing but brute force—as happens in many European countries. We find here, on the contrary, what I might be allowed to call an aristocracy of labor, well educated, and used to an almost luxurious standard of life, a class of workers, in consequence, who cannot be too much imposed on by intrigues of capital without risk of lowering the quality of the work demanded of them. Brutal and degrading works devolve upon negroes, Chinese, and Italian emigrants. It is true that the workers of the United States are, like others, subject to periods of enforced idleness, proportionate to the immense and rapid advance in their industrial speculations, and consequently more intense than similar European crises; but the crisis and misery are of short duration, for the workers who are superfluous in one trade rapidly turn to another which lacks hands.  1
  The lot of the middle class, amidst considerable adversity, is equally good.  2
  Thanks to the almost complete lack of intellectual protectionism—that is, of academical degrees which ensure the monopoly of certain professions—thanks, in consequence, to the lack of a government curriculum of unprofitable and obligatory studies, America is exempt from an intellectual proletariat and from the déclassés, the chronic disease of the middle classes in Europe. Let him who can do a thing well step forward and do it, no one will question where he learnt it: such is the degree required of an American engineer, barrister, clerk, or employee. And as the opportunities to do well are innumerable, everyone can develop the talents with which Nature has endowed him, changing his occupation according to circumstances and opportunity. Whereas for a young man belonging to the middle class in continental Europe, the choice of a profession is a solemn deed, entailing practically the consecration of his whole future to one object from that hour deemed immutable, and against which his will from thenceforward will have but little force. For the American this choice is always transitory and variable in accordance with circumstances; he is never a victim of the tyranny of a choice made once for all for his whole life, often whilst still immature; and he rarely finds himself in either of those two situations so ruinous to the middle classes in Europe, more especially in the Latin countries: the absolute uncertainty of success, and the utter despair of ever recovering from a sudden ruin. Where all professions are handsomely remunerated so as to allow to all a luxurious life, an American is always ready to see the particular stream at which he has been drinking dried up, and be prepared to pack up his belongings and set off in search of another.  3
  In the American the passion for work is combined with the pride in doing his best, the ambition not to allow himself to be overcome by any difficulties, and to reach an unsurpassed grade of excellence. All men work with a view to some reward; but some are satisfied with pay, others, besides a money reward, seek to satisfy their own amour-propre, and to obtain the admiration of others. It is the same with the work of nations, and indeed, from the reward generally sought after, the quality of the work may be judged. Although Americans are commonly accused of cupidity, their work ranks among the most disinterested, because they aim not only at accumulating money, but also, they display an insatiable thirst for perfection, which tends to idealize their work; and into nearly all they do they put extra labor, not with the object of gaining more money, but of improving the quality of the work. The decisive proof of the superiority of American work was given by industrial protectionism which, in continental Europe, has lowered the standard of goods, because the manufacturers, content with the easy profits obtained by protectionism, consider themselves exempt from the trouble of perfecting their own goods. American industries, on the contrary—the mechanical ones more particularly—have reached a marvelous degree of perfection, notwithstanding protectionism, because the manufacturers were stimulated, not merely by a desire to gain money, but also by the ambition of displaying a degree of excellence in their productions till then unknown to the world. American goods, moreover, have notoriously the reputation of costliness and high finish.  4
  No doubt this passion for work and this ambition for excellence, so deep-rooted in the American and English mind, may be due to the fact that work is not too hard and its remuneration good. The Americans are made of the same clay as other white men, and great hardship in work and very poor recompense for it would have created in them, as in other civilized peoples, insupportable weariness of labor and indifference to its quality. But as luckily for them this is not so, the passion for work and its excellence became the ruling force of their nation, and the moral basis of their society, for to these two sentiments are attributable the greatest qualities and the worst defects of the Americans—amongst their defects, the weakness of family ties, the inordinate admiration of success, and the lack of scruples in the struggle; amongst their good qualities, their force of will, their courage, their strong spirit of social solidarity and justice, the capacity to act on other than directly personal motives and interests.  5
  What power does not this sentiment give to American and English society? The greatness of a nation depends on a high standard of moral solidarity and this is high only where each respects in others the rights he himself claims, and admits for himself the same duties which he would impose upon others under similar circumstances; it arises from the recognition of the fact that if men differ from one another in talent, culture, and wealth, they are nevertheless morally equal, and that no one of them is morally bound to serve his fellow without receiving just and equivalent remuneration. Where this sentiment of the moral equality of men is most deeply felt, everyone resents the injustice done to others, and in thought and action aims at social justice. But the conditions most favorable to the development of this sentiment are those under which no one depends for his livelihood on the capricious benevolence of others, but like the American and Englishman, only on his own capacities to serve in some way his fellows, receiving their services in exchange, and these not measured arbitrarily by some power outside himself but governed by his own judgment. This liberty develops in him the sense of moral dignity, which is the backbone of the human character and of the sentiment of moral equality. When, on the contrary, men depend for this livelihood on the caprice of others, the patron claims for himself other rights than he recognizes in his protégé. When the protégé admits this, there is born the sentiment known as servility—the protégé acquiescing in the fact that the patron on whom he depends has the license to commit iniquities and to be overbearing. These things may annoy him when he is the direct victim, but do not offend his torpid sense of justice when inflicted on others, and indeed in the long run he often grows indifferent. But the man who is alive to the sense of his moral equality with others does not bow to injustice, for this sentiment becomes such a stimulus to his energies that it generates in him an insatiable desire to perfect his own conditions and those of others, and to free them from the ever-diminishing degree of injustice which, to his refined conscience, appear more intolerable the meaner they are—a desire which he satisfies in diverse ways, and which maintains in a free society a continuous and lively circulation of ideas, and an interest in moral and social reform. Indifference to injustice, on the contrary, renders man apathetic and lazy, leading to aimlessness in life and inertness of intellect, as we shall better demonstrate in speaking of Spain, in societies organized, not in accordance with principles of liberty, but of protection.  6
  But in the American the sentiment of social solidarity is strengthened by the proud ambition never to give way to obstacles, and to aim always at the highest perfection in all things. This introduces a new altruistic stimulus to life, rendering man capable of acting from other than selfish motives. If this stimulus, born of pride, cannot be considered especially noble, it is nevertheless a precious one if we consider the gross egoism of man. It is always a great thing to raise man from his native selfishness, if only by means of pride; and still greater if his ambition to conquer is stimulated, not with a view to obtaining the good opinion of others, but of satisfying his own. Thus it is with the American who has in him, in his pride to succeed well in all he undertakes, the chief incentive to raise himself from the pettiness of private interest, and to labor not only for himself but also for a perfection in which he will find none but ideal satisfaction.  7
  In short, what has made American society appear to Europeans in the light of an enchanted world, is that it combines two qualities which seemed each naturally to exclude the other by absolute contrariety: the refinement of culture and morals only possible to a long-established civilization, and the freedom of the individual from those oppressive historical, political, moral, and intellectual tyrannies which the State accumulates and imposes on all our anciently civilized countries. Hence arises the marvelous range of moral energies in the individual, which, in the United States, vents itself in an unmeasured ambition to do great things, and to which the benignity of surrounding Nature gives such full satisfaction. Who has not heard say that in America the dimensions of everything were designed by men with double or triple sight? An aristocracy of wealth served by an infinite mass of inanimate slaves, animated by a soul of steam or electricity, which spare their masters the trouble even of slight exertion; this is the ideal of life to the American, to satisfy which his ingenuity conceives and constructs every year a prodigious number of machines to perform the greatest and the meanest of services—to convey electricity across continents, to squash flies, and to clean shoes. Everything there is on a gigantic scale: the newspapers print sufficient paper every day to envelop the world; their houses rival the tower of Babel; their great offices have the dimensions of cities; donations to public schools can be reckoned by tens of millions of dollars, and the fortunes of the very rich by thousands. This is the modern form taken by that instinct of greatness which in the past gave rise to the mightiest aristocratic creations of history, then directed towards art and now to mechanical industry; that same instinct which led the Romans to create the Colosseum and the Baths, the Venetians to create the Grand Canal, the Florentines Santa Maria del Fiore, and which now leads the Americans to create a world where real things have taken the proportions we behold. These grandiose aristocracies—so prodigal of beauty, wealth, and grandeur—pass away, because the benignity of the natural and social conditions amidst which they grow are rapidly exhausted; and so also the day will come when the population of the United States will have multiplied a hundredfold, and the earth will be a little tired, and then the Americans also will have to be more economical. Then our descendants, when recollecting the fabulous prodigality of the past, will receive an impression analogous to that which we receive when looking back on the princely grandeur of Venice; they will find in them both two different forms of the same sentiment, the ambition for greatness, which at times takes hold of social communities and entire nations, and whose first incentive in the Americans was fundamental justice and the splendid liberality of the remuneration given to human work.  8
  Thus social iniquities in America are as cyclones that rise, go their way, annihilating men and their work along the course of their terrible progress, and then dissolve into nothing. In a word, iniquity is one of the violent and intermittent forms of evil, like fire, and tempests and earthquakes amongst physical phenomena, and acute and mortal diseases amongst the phenomena of organic life. The most terrible of all, I hear someone exclaim. Indeed no: the most in appearance, perhaps, but the most innocent in reality. The violent forms of evil wrench some fruit from the tree of life, break a few branches, denude it of some beautiful leaves, and this is the extent of the evil of which they are capable. The really terrible forms of evil are slow and continuous: not those which annihilate, but those which insidiously corrupt life; those which attack the root, and diffuse themselves upwards from it, poisoning the purest lymph in the live trunk. The terrible in life and nature is not the violent outburst of evil in passing devastations, but the slow and continuous spread of malignant essences, which continuously distil in the secret recesses of being, and spread by means of the most subtle natural influences through the veins of creation. The fury of a storm destroys pastures, cattle, houses: many people die in consequence of it, much property is destroyed, but calm returns shortly, and only a vague recollection of the tempest remains. But in the countries which nature has for centuries inoculated with the germs of fever, where man finds himself attacked by an enemy always present and invisible; where he breathes the fever the earth exhales at sunrise and sundown, and drinks fever dissolved in water and in the juice of fruits; where whole populations die slowly, without having received any external shock;—the poison, secreted and absorbed for centuries by the earth, destroys their constitutions by slow degrees.  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.