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Sumner on the industrial system as an example of social co-operation (c. 1900)

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) argued that the accumulation of capital by peaceful productive activity required the cooperation of millions of people across the globe and resulted in mankind rising above the level of “the brute”:

The modern industrial system is a great (example of) social co-operation. It is automatic and instinctive in its operation. The adjustments of the organs take place naturally. The parties are held together by impersonal force—supply and demand. They may never see each other; they may be separated by half the circumference of the globe. Their co-operation in the social effort is combined and distributed again by financial machinery, and the rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all. All this goes on so smoothly and naturally that we forget to notice it. We think that it costs nothing—does itself, as it were. The truth is, that this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements …

We know that men once lived on the spontaneous fruits of the earth, just as other animals do. In that stage of existence a man was just like the brutes. His existence was at the sport of Nature. He got what he could by way of food, and ate what he could get, but he depended on finding what Nature gave. He could wrest nothing from Nature; he could make her produce nothing; and he had only his limbs with which to appropriate what she offered. His existence was almost entirely controlled by accident; he possessed no capital; he lived out of his product, and production had only the two elements of land and labor of appropriation. At the present time man is an intelligent animal. He knows something of the laws of Nature; he can avail himself of what is favorable, and avert what is unfavorable, in nature, to a certain extent; he has narrowed the sphere of accident, and in some respects reduced it to computations which lessen its importance; he can bring the productive forces of Nature into service, and make them produce food, clothing, and [60] shelter. How has the change been brought about? The answer is, By capital. If we can come to an understanding of what capital is, and what a place it occupies in civilization, it will clear up our ideas about a great many of these schemes and philosophies which are put forward to criticize social arrangements, or as a basis of proposed reforms. …

So from the first step that man made above the brute the thing which made his civilization possible was capital. Every step of capital won made the next step possible, up [62] to the present hour. Not a step has been or can be made without capital. It is labor accumulated, multiplied into itself—raised to a higher power, as the mathematicians say. The locomotive is only possible to-day because, from the flint-knife up, one achievement has been multiplied into another through thousands of generations. We cannot now stir a step in our life without capital. We cannot build a school, a hospital, a church, or employ a missionary society, without capital, any more than we could build a palace or a factory without capital. We have ourselves, and we have the earth; the thing which limits what we can do is the third requisite—capital. Capital is force, human energy stored or accumulated, and very few people ever come to appreciate its importance to civilized life. We get so used to it that we do not see its use. …

The ties by which all are held together are those of free co-operation and contract. If we [65] look back for comparison to anything of which human history gives us a type or experiment, we see that the modern free system of industry offers to every living human being chances of happiness indescribably in excess of what former generations have possessed. …

The modern industrial system is a great social co-operation. It is automatic and instinctive in its operation. The adjustments of the organs take place naturally. The parties are held together by impersonal force—supply and demand. They may never see each other; they may be separated by half the circumference of the globe. Their co-operation in the social effort is combined and distributed again by financial machinery, and the rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all. All this goes on so smoothly and naturally that we forget to notice it. We think that it costs nothing—does itself, as it were. The truth is, that this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements, because here, more than anywhere [67] else, intelligence comes in, but intelligence so clear and correct that it does not need expression.

About this Quotation:

This essay needs to be be seen in the context of Sumner’s ongoing intellectual battle against socialist critics of the free market system which he waged for nearly 40 years. In it he defends the accumulation of capital which he correctly believed made it possible for mankind to rise out of the poverty of “the brute” and thus create a “civilisation” in which men and women could devote themselves to more than finding enough to eat and avoiding predators (both animal and human). Part of the “brutish” stage which mankind had to escape was the existence of coerced or forced labour, such as men excercised against women who had been nor more than “drudges and slaves” to them, and then over the millennia by other forms of coercion such as “various grades of slavery, serfdom, villainage, and through various organizations of castes and guilds” until the “modern industrial system” liberated them. What this quotation focusses on is the passage where Sumner describes in very Hayekian terms how the modern industrial system is a spontaneous order which has emerged unplanned by any one individual, and where economic activities across the globe are coordinated by complex “financial machinery” (prices?) There is also more than a single dose of Bastiat-like economic “harmony” in sentences like the following: “rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all”. Sumner concludes by saying that the accumulation of capital and the prosperity made possible by “this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements.”

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