The American author Jack London is famous worldwide for his adventure stories set in the Klondike and the Pacific. With a reputation for having been a rugged individualist it comes as a surprise to many when they learn that London was a socialist politically. The Question of the Maximum is believed to have been written in 1898 and it was used in a speech that was given by him to the Socialist Labor Party in Oakland, Calif. on Nov. 26, 1899.
It’s said that an editor purchased The Question of the Maximum from London and then became fearful of publishing itbecause of its radical nature. Several years then passed before it did find a publisher.
In his essay London made the claim that in all social movements there’s a maximum limit beyond which they can no longer proceed. Once that point is reached society must either change the direction in which it’s heading, or that society will begin to decline.
In the Question of the Maximum London analyzed the world’s economy, and its social and political implications. The struggle that was taking place between the various empires in the late 19th Century was the world’s first worldwide struggle for commercial and industrial supremacy.
Modern industrial production dates to the late 18th Century when the Industrial Revolution first began in England. The wealth of India coupled with the advanced production capabilities brought about by the industrial inventions of that period led to a fundamental change in England’s economy. England purposely sacrificed agricultural self-sufficiency in order to increase her industrial capabilities. Because the Royal Navy was unchallenged worldwide the world was hers to exploit. That combination of unique circumstances gave England a 100 year head start on other nations for worldwide commercial dominance.
Inevitably other European countries and the United States modernized, and then they began to export their surplus products too. That led to a decline in England’s share of the world’s commerce. Once England’s trade imbalance could no longer be paid off with her foreign investments and the earnings from her commercial shipping, she had to start selling off her foreign investments just to break even.
The U.S. became the world’s economic giant in the late 19th Century when its exports began to rise without a corresponding increase in imports. The French economist, M. Leroy-Bealieu, argued for a commercial alliance of European nations in order to compete against the U.S. Bealieu believed that economic alliance could eventually turn into a political alliance. It seems that Bealieu foresaw the modern European Union.
London argued that the struggle for foreign markets had never been more intense that it was at that period in time. He wrote about predatory capital wandering the world in search of safe investments. That and other points brought up by London over a hundred years ago in many ways still seems applicable today.
Colonies once owed their prosperity to the mother country, but things were evolving to where the mother countries owed their continued existence tothe colonies. The colonies were a guaranteed market for surplus products. London claimed that maximum development will have occurred when the colonies begin production of their own and they begin sending that surplus back to the mother country.
His geopolitical assessment of the world at that time was that the few areas that weren’t colonized by one empire or another was due to the fact that the powerful nations of the world held one another in check. Western countries sought open door policies and spheres of influence in the Far East. England was losing ground to other countries, and Japan was preparing to play the part in Asia that England had in Europe 100 years earlier.
The nations in the east were beginning to compete with the western nations for trade. The eastern countries needed modern industrial machines, and it seemed a certainty that the western countries would fight with each other to supply those machines.
The question then became what would happen in the west once the eastern countries had the modern industrial machines and could then enter into direct competition with the western countries? London believed that large populations would migrate back and forth worldwide in search of employment and that the standard of living would decrease for millions of people worldwide. Interest rates would decline and that would put an end to individuals saving for their old age.
London believed there would be political changes too. He says that either private corporations would absorb the governments, or the governments would absorb the private corporations. In short, the choice would be between fascism and socialism, to use more modern terms. He believed it’d most likely be the oligarchs and their corporations that would take control for a period of time at first. But he also believed that it was unlikely that they could retain that control.
The Question of the Maximum is a fascinating essay where Jack London lays out his economic and geopolitical assessment of the world in his day in a forceful manner. It’s a bit of a surprise to read his social beliefs expressed so clearly. Perhaps most surprising is that several astute observations made by London over 100 years ago are still being played out today. I recommend The Question of the Maximum to Jack London fans, and anyone interested in economics, geopolitics, and history.