Owen The Creation Of The Milieu

Robert Owen, The Creation Of The Milieu

The creation of a social milieu was the one impelling force that in­spired all Owen's various experiments. This was his one desire, whether he asked it of the masters, the State, or of the workers themselves.

He has thus some claim to be regarded as the father of etiology— etiology being the title given by sociologists to that part of their sub­ject which treats of the subordination and adaptation of man to his environment. His theory concerning the possibility of transforming the organism by influencing its surroundings occupies the same posi­tion in economics as Lamarck's theory does in biology. By nature man is neither good nor bad. He is just what his environment has made him, and if at the present moment he is on the whole rather bad, it is simply because his environment is so detestable. Scarcely any stress is laid upon the natural environment which seemed of such supreme importance to writers like Le Play. Owen's interest was in the social environment, the product of education and legislation or of deliberate individual action. Change the environment and the individual would be changed. He failed to see that this meant begging the whole question. If man is simply the product of his environment, how can he possibly change that environment? It is like asking a man to raise himself by the hair of his head. But the futility of such criticism will be readily appreciated if we remind ourselves that it is to such insignificant beginnings as these that we owe the conception of the garden city. It was Owen's concern for the worker and his great desire to provide him with a home where some degree of comfort and some measure of beauty might be obtainable that gave the earliest impetus to that movement.

From a moral point of view this deterministic conception resulted in the absolute denial of all individual responsibility. Every noble or ignoble deed, every act, whether deserving of praise or blame, of reward or punishment, reflects neither credit nor discredit upon its author, for the individual can never be other than he actually is.

There was all the more reason, then, why all religious influences, especially that of Christianity, should be excluded. This contempt for religion explains why Owen found so little support in English society, which revolted against what appeared like cynical atheism, although Owen himself was really a deist.

Economically, the doctrine of payment according to work rather than capacity was to result in absolute equality. For why should higher intelligence, greater vigour, or capacity for taking pains entitle a man to a greater reward if it is all a question of environment? Hence Owen's associations were to be communal.

We need not here detail the history of his experiments in colonization. It is the usual story of failure and disappointed hopes. At last Owen himself was driven to the conclusion that his attempt to mould the environment which was to re-create society had proved unsuccess­ful. He renounced all his ambitions for building up a new social order, and contented himself with an attempt to rid society as at present constituted of some of the more potent evils that were sapping its strength. And this brings us to his second essential idea, the abolition of profit.