The poverty of the masses is the source of all evils in society. There are strata of the population that are permanently poor, even when their income increases. Among these, some are always more or less impoverished, others become so only temporarily during periods of crisis. The more flexible forms of wage-labor enable these last to recuperate quickly but this does not mean they have escaped from misery.
“What makes misery?” asks an author who was never tired of repeating “work! work!” while refusing to understand how it could be otherwise. He gives an answer which sees in wealth a sort of spontaneous vegetation with no need for effort on the part of human beings to induce it to grow and blossom. “Misery,” he replies, “comes from the poverty of the masses. It is created by their ignorance and lack of training which prevent them from earning a good living. If they had more knowledge and better skills, they would not be poor. They would have no need to beg or to steal in order to live.”
This doctrine which attributes all evils to the poverty of the masses has been adopted by all governments without exception, whatever their political coloration. The bourgeois regime bases its claim to legitimacy on work, that is to say on the misery of the workers. The aristocracy before it justified its privileges with divine right; today’s bourgeoisie relies on labor, that is to say on hunger.
In this respect, the capitalists have a lot of catching up to do. In France for example, among those who receive wages of more than 1,000 francs per month, there are only 90,000 families. For four months each year work is suspended in almost all branches of industry and commerce. Let us say that the annual income of these privileged wage-earners amounts on average to 100,000 francs – an absurd fiction anyway since it excludes property incomes – then we find that the aggregate income from labor does not reach three billion francs which is roughly what their masters draw from human privation. Thus for this handful of idlers as well as for their lackeys (the politicians), misery or labor is the sole source of enrichment.
This is why the bourgeois state which defends their interests, or rather those of their masters, tries to perpetuate the error so as to give itself a good conscience and protect itself from any temptation to improve workers’ lot. It has even gone as far as suggesting that poverty is beneficial since it creates a ready supply of cheap labor for capitalist exploitation; this is an argument advanced by all those who would like “to keep the worker in his traditional poverty.”
In Europe – we need only consult official statistics – there are about thirty million citizens who receive wages of less than ten francs per day (note: this article was written in 1865). Of these one half make up the permanent army of unemployed whose number varies according to the state of trade. This reserve army, always at the disposal of capital, keeps wages down and makes workers more docile. It also obliges them to accept work at any price and in any conditions, even the most dangerous and unhealthy.
The situation is no better in England where there are two million paupers out of a population of twenty-one million. In Belgium, there are 800,000 proletarians who receive less than ten francs per day while in Germany the figure is 1,500,000. In Austria it is 1,600,000 and in Russia 5,600,000. These are conservative figures; if we were to include all those who make less than twelve francs per day – which would mean including those who make less than nine francs, the lowest amount possible – we would find that there are not far short of thirteen million Europeans who live in poverty and want.
What is even worse is that within this poverty stricken population, men and women, young people and children all compete to enter the ranks of the wage-slave workforce at a time when industry needs fewer workers. Let us leave aside the shortage of work which forces so many proletarians to seek jobs they would normally spurn at any price; let us examine only unemployment among adult men aged between twenty and forty-five. It obviously follows from these figures that an increase in their wages would be almost immaterial since it would not provide them with anything approaching what they need to live. What is the point of bettering their living conditions if they are condemned to die of starvation?
The bourgeois state knows this, and for this reason it prefers to encourage immigration rather than give proletarians the incentive of better wages. It has increased competition between workers by encouraging emigration; in England, Belgium and Germany there are millions of proletarians who leave their country every year in search of work that does not exist at home. Thus while these countries need fewer laborers, they make up for this shortage by importing them from abroad. It is true that some immigrants return home after a few years with pockets stuffed full, but then others arrive bringing nothing with them but an appetite for work. There is always a crowd of hungry people on the threshold of misery waiting to take the place of those who have managed to escape it.
If one takes into account the fact that there are now fifteen million proletarians in Europe who make less than ten francs per day, it is clear that any increase in their wages would be a mere pittance and would do nothing to improve their lot. If one also considers the immigrants who swell the ranks of the proletariat every year, it becomes evident that raising wages would not only be useless but could even provoke a reaction on the part of capital. The latter knows only too well that it is faced with an insoluble problem: how can it provide for an ever-growing population when it is restricted by the narrow limits imposed by capitalist production? The