The Economic Teachings of 'Abdu'l-Baha
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
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An Article written by Mary H Ford nearly 100 years ago but surprisingly still relevant!
The world vision of 'Abdu'l-Baha included in every way the betterment of mankind. This betterment must be physical as well as spiritual for the enlightened individual can not continue to exist under conditions that are only suitable for a primitive creature.
'Abdu'l-Baha says the day of force has passed, the day of love has dawned. In the ages behind us force and competition constituted the laws of being, but in the period we are entering love and co-operation will be the dominating principles. The Messenger of God, always the Divine Educator in each new age, reveals laws for the founding of a divine civilization.
While in the United States 'Abdu'l-Baha told us how an ideal community might be established. He also outlined definitely the changes that would manifest in business methods reflecting the New Era. These he explained would gradually eliminate competition, and substitute co-operative means of conducting all sorts of industrial and commercial enterprises. He said that employer and employee must be brought together so that the management of affairs would not rest solely in the hands of the owners of a factory or institution, but would permit of consultation between worker and director, so that all decisions would result from mutual understanding. Strikes arise he declared because neither worker nor manager feels the point of view and temper of the other. He insisted that workmen must always be represented on the boards of the companies employing them, that
they must have access to the books and understand the financial status of the concern for which they worked so that they could estimate the justice of any change contemplated in the wage scale.
He declared that strikes could never accomplish the end desired by the workers for until they understood the financial conditions of the firms employing them they would keep on demanding more and more wages in ruinous degree, while if they comprehended the financial situation they would themselves propose reasonable measure. 'Abdu'l-Baha taught moreover that violent action invariably produces reaction, thus defeating the end in view, and collectively or individually brutal force destroys its own purpose.
He said the workers must become owners of stock in the centers that employed them and have a share in the profits which accrued so that in the end they would no longer be paid wages but would receive their portion of the return on work and capital invested. He said also that in such a plan the employee must be protected from loss, because as he did, not possess capital in cash but rather in his industry there would come lean years in which the financier could wait comfortably for his delayed dividends, on account of his accumulated wealth, but at such periods the worker endowed only with hands and brain, must receive the stipend necessary for his expenses.
When the worker has his seat upon the board of management and can vote on the rate of wages, the disposition of surplus capital, dividends, employment individual and collective, and all questions involving the control of the enterprise, then the worker and manager will understand one another and strikes will be completely eliminated. This has been
the result wherever such a method has been inaugurated and it is surprising to observe its rapid increase in adoption. 'Abdu'l-Baha's plan is practically that of the shop committee system applied many years ago by Hart Schaffner and Marx the great clothing firm. It was initiated after a terrible strike during which the members of the concern discovered to
their amazement that they did not understand at all the conditions of their employees, and being kindly people they wished to guard against the return of a similar situation. Since then they have had no strikes.
Sidney Hilman has established the Amalgamated Garment Workers Union on the same system. This involves an elected board of workers and employers which in case of failure to arrive at a majority decision in any question selects a financial expert from the outside in whom both sides have perfect confidence, who casts the majority vote to which all submit.
The commercial world has recently been much interested in the fact that the Nash Garment Factory of Cincinnati whose owner has become famous under the title of "Golden Rule Nash" as a result of his endeavor to follow the Golden Rule in dealing with his employees, has invited Sidney Hilman to organize a branch of the Amalgamated in the Institution. Nash never permitted union membership among his employees, declaring that his own methods and authority were sufficient to ensure justice and fair dealing with his people. In the last two years however his business has grown so immensely that he could no longer keep in personal touch with his workers and through the constant intervention of foremen and superintendents injustice crept in. He realized that it was necessary to have help and looking over the union field was immediately attracted by the shop committee plan of the Amalgamated as one which ensured a continuous understanding between employers and workers. It is planned to create harmony and therefore must eliminate strikes. Perhaps the
most brilliant illustration of such harmony is the immense Cochrane Carpet Factory of Yonkers, where this method was introduced many years ago by Alexander Cochrane,
with the most beneficent results.
The establishment is at present on what is practically a co-operative basis with the best possible relationship between owners and employees. 'Abdu'l-Baha spoke of a new consciousness that would arise in mankind that would render it impossible for men in future to enjoy great wealth selfishly. At present a man lives in a palace in London or New York, and within a stone's throw of him are people who never in their lives have fully satisfied hunger. The man in the palace enjoys his own comforts feeling no responsibility for the others; but by and by he will become so uncomfortable in the knowledge of other men's sufferings that
he can no longer endure his luxury.
Then he will devote his energies to changing the laws of the community so that henceforth no one can be hungry and poverty will be abolished. The day must come, 'Abdu'l-Baha declared, when no city will tolerate slums, when all children will have equal rights of education, and when the rich will even begin to give away their wealth because of the new consciousness of other's needs which penetrate them.
We are able to see the fulfillment of this last prophecy, at least in its commencement, in the immense Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and in the numerous cases already in evidence of people like Dix the garment maker, who having acquired a fortune of several millions through the assistance of his faithful employees, decided that he had enough money and he would like to offer his employees an opportunity to be equally fortunate in business. So with the co-operation of his son, he put his factory into the hands of his workers at a temporary and nominal royalty, and with his son served the new company for a year with no salary, so that the firm should have the benefit of experience in its inauguration. Within the past year at least a dozen manufacturing establishments have followed the example of Dix which plainly indicates that another feeling is arising in the world about the possession of money.
'Abdu'l-Baha said that in the future all economic conditions would be ameliorated, and the law of brotherhood would become the basis of life.
As an illustration of future possibilities he sketched the business methods of an agricultural village, saying he chose agriculture because its proper regulation is the basic factor in all economic life. He explained that the organization of the village would apply to any community. According to this system each citizen of the town owns and tills his
own fields without jurisdiction or limitation of acreage, but the village elects a committee of citizens to market the product of the entire community and when the harvest is sold the committee levies a tax on each producer according to the amount of surplus he has, beyond the amount necessary for the support of his family. Only the surplus is taxed, and each is allowed perfect freedom, as to his expenses; but if his surplus is large it is quite heavily taxed on the principles of an ascending tax for individual wealth.
This last is easily comprehensible to us from the point of view of the income tax with which we are familiar, but the application of the tax and its existence as a fluid income in the village is not so easily appreciable. It is an expression of the new economic consciousness. There will be some producers, comments 'Abdu'l-Baha, whose return will not provide sufficient income for their needs. For instance if a farmer has expenses of five thousand dollars and an income of twenty thousand, he can pay a considerable tax on the fifteen thousand surplus which comes to him. But if a man has expenses of five thousand dollars and only returns of three thousand, then he must meet a deficit of two thousand.
In such a case, says 'Abdu'l-Baha, he draws two thousand dollars from the exchequer of the community, and in this way taxation becomes a fluid source of wealth flowing back and forth among all citizens, banishing poverty and assuring comfort for everyone. Certainly in such a commonwealth there could exist no slums, there could exist no prejudice, nor suspicion, nor hatred. To image it gives one a sense of sympathetic brotherhood which is almost inconceivable at the present moment. But its reality lies in the new consciousness that is developing.