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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Parenticide Club By Ambrose Bierce Characters: 11096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

THE time seems to have come when the two antagonistic elements of American society should, and could afford to, throw off their disguise and frankly declare their principles and purposes. But what, it may be asked, are the two antagonistic elements? Dividing lines parting the population into two camps more or less hostile may be drawn variously; for example, one may be run between the law-abiding and the criminal class. But the elements to which reference is here made are those immemorable and implacable foes which the slang of modern economics roughly and loosely distinguishes as "Capital" and "Labor." A more accurate classification-as accurate a one as it is possible to make-would designate them as those who do muscular labor and those who do not. The distinction between rich and poor does not serve: to the laborer the rich man who works with his hands is not objectionable; the poor man who does not, is. Consciously or unconsciously, and alike by those whose necessities compel them to perform it and those whose better fortune enables them to avoid it, manual labor is considered the most insufferable of human pursuits. It is a pill that the Tolstois, the "communities" and the "Knights" of Labor can not sugarcoat. We may prate of the dignity of labor; emblazon its praise upon banners; set apart a day on which to stop work and celebrate it; shout our teeth loose in its glorification-and, God help our fool souls to better sense, we think we mean it all!

If labor is so good and great a thing let all be thankful, for all can have as much of it as may be desired. The eight-hour law is not mandatory to the laborer, nor does possession of leisure entail idleness. It is permitted to the clerk, the shopman, the street peddler-to all who live by the light employment of keeping the wolf from the door without eating him-to abandon their ignoble callings, seize the shovel, the axe and the sledge-hammer and lay about them right sturdily, to the ample gratification of their desire. And those who are engaged in more profitable vocations will find that with a part of their incomes they can purchase from their employers the right to work as hard as they like in even the dullest times.

Manual labor has nothing of dignity, nothing of beauty. It is a hard, imperious and dispiriting necessity. He who is condemned to it feels that it sets upon his brow the brand of intellectual inferiority. And that brand of servitude never ceases to burn. In no country and at no time has the laborer had a kindly feeling for the rest of us, for everywhere and always has he heard in our patronising platitudes the note of contempt. In his repression, in the denying him the opportunity to avenge his real and imaginary wrongs, government finds its main usefulness, activity and justification. Jefferson's dictum that governments are instituted among men in order to secure them in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is luminous nonsense. Governments are not instituted; they grow. They are evolved out of the necessity of protecting from the handworker the life and property of the brain worker and the idler. The first is the most dangerous because the most numerous and the least content. Take from the science and the art of government, and from its methods, whatever has had its origin in the consciousness of his ill-will and the fear of his power and what have you left? A pure republic-that is to say, no government.

I should like it understood that, if not absolutely devoid of preferences and prejudices, I at least believe myself to be; that except as to result I think no more of one form of government than of another; and that with reference to results all forms seem to me bad, but bad in different degrees. If asked my opinion as to the results of our own, I should point to Homestead, to Wardner, to Buffalo, to Coal Creek, to the interminable tale of unpunished murders by individuals and by mobs, to legislatures and courts unspeakably corrupt and executives of criminal cowardice, to the prevalence and immunity of plundering trusts and corporations and the monstrous multiplication of millionaires. I should invite attention to the pension roll, to the similar and incredible extravagance of Republican and Democratic "Houses"-a plague o' them both! If addressing Democrats only, I should mention the protective tariff; if Republicans, the hill-tribe clamor for free coinage of silver. I should call to mind the existence of prosperous activity of a thousand lying secret societies having for their sole object mitigation of republican simplicity by means of pageantry and costumes grotesquely resembling those of kings and courtiers, and titles of address and courtesy exalted enough to draw laughter from an ox.

In contemplation of these and a hundred other "results," no less shameful in themselves than significant of the deeper shame beneath and prophetic of the blacker shame to come, I should say: "Behold the outcome of hardly more than a century of government by the people! Behold the superstructure whose foundations our forefathers laid upon the unstable overgrowth of popular caprice surfacing the unplummeted abysm of human depravity! Behold the reality behind our dream of the efficacy of forms, the saving grace of principles, the magic of words! We have believed in the wisdom of majorities and are fooled; trusted to the good honor of numbers, and are betrayed. Our touching faith in the liberty of the rascal, our strange conviction that anarchy making proselytes and bombs is less

dangerous than anarchy with a shut mouth and a watched hand-lo, this is the beginning of the aid of the dream!"

Our Government has broken down at every point, and the two irreconcilable elements whose suspensions of hostilities are mistaken for peace are about to try their hands at each other's tempting display of throats. There is no longer so much as a pretense of amity; apparently there will not much longer be a pretense of regard for mercy and morals. Already "industrial discontent" has attained to the magnitude of war. It is important, then, that there be an understanding of principles and purposes. As the combatants will not define their positions truthfully by words, let us see if it can be inferred from the actions which are said to speak more plainly. If one of the really able men who now "direct the destinies" of the labor organizations in this country, could be enticed into the Palace of Truth and "examined" by a skilful catechist he would indubitably say something like this:

"Our ultimate purpose is abolition of the distinction between employer and employee, which is but a modification of that between master and slave.

"We propose that the laborer shall be chief owner of all the property and profits of the enterprise in which he is engaged, and have through his union a controlling voice in all its affairs.

"We propose to overthrow the system under which a man can grow richer by working with his head than with his hands, and prevent the man who works with neither from having anything at all.

"In the attainment of these ends any means is to be judged, as to its fitness for our use, with sole regard to its efficacy. We shall punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. We shall destroy property and life under such circumstances and to such an extent as may seem to us expedient. Falsehood, treachery, arson, assassination, all these we look upon as legitimate if effective.

"The rules of 'civilized warfare' we shall not observe, but shall put prisoners to death or torture them, as we please.

"We do not recognize a non-union man's right to labor, nor to live. The right to strike includes the right to strike him."

Doubtless all that (and "the half is not told") sounds to the unobservant like a harsh exaggeration, an imaginative travesty of the principles of labor organizations. It is not a travesty; it has no element of exaggeration. Not in the last twenty-five years has a great strike or lockout occurred in this country without supplying facts, notorious and undisputed, upon which some of these confessions of faith are founded. The war is practically a servile insurrection, and servile insurrections are today what they ever were: the most cruel and ferocious of all manifestations of human hate. Emancipation is rough work; when he who would be free, himself strikes the blow, he can not consider too curiously with what he strikes it nor upon whom it falls. It will profit you to understand, my fine gentleman with the soft hands, the character of that which is confronting you. You are not threatened with a bombardment of roses.

Let us look into the other camp, where General Hardhead is so engrossed with his own greatness and power as not clearly to hear the shots on his picket line. Suppose we hypnotize him and make him open his "shut soul" to our searching. He will say something like this:

"In the first place, I claim the right to own and enclose for my own use or disuse as much of the earth's surface as I am desirous and able to procure. I and my kind have made laws confirming us in the occupancy of the entire habitable and arable area as fast as we can get it. To the objection that this must eventually here, as it has actually done elsewhere, deprive the rest of you places upon which legally to be born, and exclude you after surreptitious birth as trespassers from all chance to procure directly the fruits of the earth, I reply that you can be born at sea and eat fish.

"I claim the right to induce you, by offer of employment, to colonize yourselves and families about my factories, and then arbitrarily, by withdrawing the employment, break up in a day the homes that you have been years in acquiring where it is no longer possible for you to procure work.

"In determining your rate of wages when I employ you, I claim the right to make your necessities a factor in the problem, thus making your misfortunes cumulative. By the law of supply and demand (God bless its expounder!) the less you have and the less chance to get more, the more I have the right to take from you in labor and the less I am bound to give you in wages.

"I claim the right to ignore the officers of the peace and maintain a private army to subdue you when you rise.

"I claim the right to make you suffer, by creating for my advantage an artificial scarcity of the necessaries of life.

"I claim the right to employ the large powers of the government in advancing my private welfare.

"As to falsehood, treachery and the other military virtues with which you threaten me, I shall go, in them, as far as you; but from arson and assassination I recoil with horror. You see you have very little to burn, and you are not more than half alive anyhow."

That, I submit, is a pretty fair definition of the position of the wealthy man who works with his head. It seems worth while to put it on record while he is extant to challenge or verify; for the probability is that unless he mend his ways he will not much longer be wealthy, work, nor have a head.

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