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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 3 Chapter 7: Over production

But what will reflective readers say of a Governing Class, such as ours, addressing its Workers with an indictment of ‘Over-production!’ Over-production: runs it not so? “Ye miscellaneous, ignoble manufacturing individuals, ye have produced too much! We accuse you of making above two-hundred thousand shirts for the bare backs of mankind. Your trousers too, which you have made, of fustian, of cassimere, of Scotch-plaid, of jane, nankeen and woollen broadcloth, are they not manifold? Of hats for the human head, of shoes for the human foot, of stools to sit on, spoons to eat with - Nay, what say we hats or shoes? You produce gold-watches, jewelleries, silver-forks and epergnes, commodes, chiffoniers, stuffed sofas - Heavens, the Commercial Bazaar and multitudinous Howel-and-Jameses cannot contain you. You have produced, produced; - he that seeks your indictment, let him look around. Millions of shirts, and empty pairs of breeches, hang there in judgment against you. We accuse you of over-producing: you are criminally guilty of producing shirts, breeches, hats, shoes and commodities, in a frightful over-abundance. And now there is a glut, and your operatives cannot be fed!”

Never surely, against an earnest Working Mammonism was there brought, by Game-preserving aristocratic Dilettantism, a stranger accusation, since this world began. My lords and gentlemen, - why, it was you that were appointed, by the fact and by the theory of your position on the Earth, to ‘make and administer Laws,’ - that is to say, in a world such as ours, to guard against ‘gluts;’ against honest operatives, who had done their work, remaining unfed! I say, you were appointed to preside over the Distribution and Apportionment of the Wages of Work done; and to see well that there went no labourer without his hire, were it of money-coins, were it of hemp gallows-ropes: that function was yours, and from immemorial time has been; yours, and as yet no other’s. These poor shirt-spinners have forgotten much, which by the virtual unwritten law of their position they should have remembered: but by any written recognised law of their position, what have they forgotten? They were set to make shirts. The Community with all its voices commanded them, saying “Make shirts;” - and there the shirts are! Too many shirts? Well, that is a novelty, in this intemperate Earth, with its nine-hundred millions of bare backs! But the Community commanded you, saying, “See that the shirts are well apportioned, that our Human Laws be emblem of God’s Laws;” - and where is the apportionment? Two million shirtless or ill-shirted workers sit enchanted in Work-house Bastilles, five million more (according to some) in Ugolino Hunger-cellars; and for remedy, you say, - what say you? - “Raise our rents! “I have not in my time heard any stranger speech, not even on the Shores of the Dead Sea. You continue addressing those poor shirt-spinners, and over-producers, in really a too triumphant manner:

“Will you bandy accusations, will you accuse us of over-production? We take the Heavens and the Earth to witness that we have produced nothing at all. Not from us proceeds this frightful overplus of shirts. In the wide domains of created Nature, circulates no shirt or thing of our producing. Certain fox-brushes nailed upon our stable-door, the fruit of fair audacity at Melton Mowbray; these we have produced, and they are openly nailed up there. He that accuses us of producing, let him shew himself, let him name what and when. We are innocent of producing; - ye ungrateful, what mountains of things have we not, on the contrary, had to ‘consume,’ and make away with! Mountains of those your heaped manufactures, wheresoever edible or wearable, have they not disappeared before us, as if we had the talent of ostriches, of cormorants, and a kind of divine faculty to eat? Ye ungrateful! - and did you not grow under the shadow of our wings? Are not your filthy mills built on these fields of ours; on this soil of England, which belongs to - whom think you? And we shall not offer you our own wheat at the price that pleases us, but that partly pleases you? A precious notion! What would become of you, if we chose, at any time, to decide on growing no wheat more?”

Yes, truly, here is the ultimate rock-basis of all Corn-Laws; whereon, at the bottom of much arguing, they rest, as securely as they can: What would become of you, if we decided, some day, on growing no more wheat at all? If we chose to grow only partridges henceforth, and a modicum of wheat for our own uses! Cannot we do what we like with our own? - Yes, indeed! For my share, if I could melt Gneiss Rock, and create Law of Gravitation; if I could stride out to the Doggerbank, some morning, and striking down my trident there into the mud-waves, say, “Be land, be fields, meadows, mountains and fresh-rolling streams!” by Heaven, I should incline to have the letting of that land in perpetuity, and sell the wheat of it, or burn the wheat of it, according to my own good judgment! My Corn-Lawing friends, you affright me.

To the ‘Millocracy’ so-called, to the Working Aristocracy, steeped too deep in mere ignoble Mammonism, and as yet all unconscious of its noble destinies, as yet but an irrational or semi-rational giant, struggling to awake some soul in itself, - the world will have much to say, reproachfully, reprovingly, admonishingly. But to the Idle Aristocracy, what will the world have to say? Things painful and not pleasant!

To the man who works, who attempts, in never so ungracious barbarous a way, to get forward with some work, you will hasten out with furtherances, with encouragements, corrections; you will say to him: “Welcome, thou art ours; our care shall be of thee.” To the idler, again, never so gracefully going idle, coming forward with never so many parchments, you will not hasten out; you will sit still, and be disinclined to rise. You will say to him: “Not welcome, O complex Anomaly; would thou hadst staid out of doors: for who of mortals knows what to do with thee? Thy parchments: yes, they are old, of venerable yellowness; and we too honour parchment, old-established settlements, and venerable use and wont. Old parchments in very truth: - yet on the whole, if thou wilt remark, they are young to the Granite Rocks, to the Groundplan of God’s Universe! We advise thee to put up thy parchments; to go home to thy place, and make no needless noise whatever. Our heart’s wish is to save thee: yet there as thou art, hapless Anomaly, with nothing but thy yellow parchments, noisy futilities, and shotbelts and fox-brushes, who of gods or men can avert dark Fate? Be counselled, ascertain if no work exist for thee on God’s Earth; if thou find no commanded-duty there but that of going gracefully idle? Ask, inquire earnestly, with a half-frantic earnestness; for the answer means Existence or Annihilation to thee. We apprise thee of the world-old fact, becoming sternly disclosed again in these days, That he who cannot work in this Universe cannot get existed in it: had he parchments to thatch the face of the world, these, combustible fallible sheepskin, cannot avail him. Home, thou unfortunate; and let us have at least no noise from thee!”

Suppose the unfortunate Idle Aristocracy, as the unfortunate Working one has done, were to ‘retire three days to its bed,’ and consider itself there, what o’clock it had become? -

How have we to regret not only that men have ‘no religion,’ but that they have next to no reflection: and go about with heads full of mere extraneous noises, with eyes wide-open but visionless, - for most part, in the somnambulist state!

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