The Parable of the Water Tank

In 1897, Edward Bellamy published The Parable of the Water Tank, one of the most prophetic short stories of its time. This satirical assault on the perceived evils of capitalism exposes the devastating impact of corporate greed and attacks the dominant corporate miserliness which enslaves and immobilizes a people. Bellamy’s visionary onslaught came before the Great Depression, before the monopolization of industries, and before any real understanding of corporate power. Today, as globalization widens the chasm between excess and poverty, Bellamy’s stirring words ring through as a timeless and universal message to the world.

By Edward Bellamy
(Originally published in the book Equality in 1897)

There was once a very dry land, called Root, where the lives of all the people were daily focused on their need to collect water. In Root, there were no lakes or rivers, but there were widely scattered oases, where stands of palm trees grew, surrounded by grass and flowers. In some of these oases there were springs where cool, fresh water would flow onto the surface, and collect into shallow ponds. Each day, the people of Root would walk to the nearest spring, often miles away, to collect the water that they would need for the day's drink, and cooking, and washing. Some days, the flow of water in the springs was low, and the people who came to collect water were many, so that some who walked to the spring had to return home with only a few sips for their spouses and children and their elderly parents.

Once, a man of Root went to an oasis to collect his daily water, but he found that day that no water poured forth from the spring. In desperate need, he considered that, since water usually flowed at this place, that it must come from a source under the ground. With this thought in mind, he took a shovel, and began to dig. After hours passed in his labors, he eventually reached an underground river, which had been the source of the spring. He lowered his bucket into the river that he had discovered, and drank deeply.

Many other people had come that day to the oasis, and most had returned home empty-handed. Some were still present when the digger reached water, and they ran over in delight, and attempted to fill their buckets. The man who had dug the well was angered, and beat them off with his shovel. “I have water because I alone dug this well!” he shouted. “Do you think that you can just come over and take what I have produced?”

One in the crowd called back: “We are poor and have little, but we must have water, or we will die. I have two pennies only, but I will give these to you for one bucket of water.” The man who had dug the well agreed, and offered the same exchange to all others. Those who had two pennies paid, and filled their buckets. Those who had no pennies returned home with their buckets empty.

The man who had dug the well realized that owning it set him apart from all the other people of Root. To maintain his distinction, he built walls around the well to keep all others out, so that they could get water from it only if they paid him the two pennies. And this man became rich from the pennies he collected, and he became known as the capitalist.

Other men of Root soon heard what had happened at this oasis, and were inspired by the good fortune of the capitalist. They set out to each of the other oases, where the people of Root who had no pennies went for water. They each dug wells, and diverted the underground rivers so that water no longer flowed into the public springs. They built fences around their wells, so that none could take water without their permission, and they gave water only to those who would pay them. And they all became known as capitalists.

But the people of Root were thirsty and poor, and soon few had pennies, and they begged the capitalists to give them water. But the capitalists said: “We cannot do that, because then we would become as poor as you are, and we would perish with you. But if you will be our servants, we will provide you with water.”

And so it happened that the people of Root became the servants of the capitalists. The capitalists ordered their servants into teams with supervisors and managers. Some they put at the wells to dip, and others they made to build water wheels, and some to search for new springs. Some of the people were hired to build a tank in the center of town to hold the water, and this tank was called the Market. And the capitalists said to the people:

“For every bucket of water that you take from our wells and bring to us, and pour into the Market, we will pay you a penny. You may then buy water from the tank, for you and your families to drink and cook and wash, for two pennies a bucket. The difference shall be our profit. If it were not for this profit we would not do this for you, and you would all perish.”

The people of Root were happy that the capitalists had solved the perennial shortage of water, and glad for the work by which they earned the money to buy it. They diligently brought water to the tank every day, and for every bucket they brought, the capitalists paid them a penny. But for every bucket of water that the capitalists drew from the market to give to the people, the people gave the capitalists two pennies.

After many days, the Market overflowed, as for every bucket they poured in, they received only enough to buy half a bucket. Because of the excess that was left to every bucket, the Market overflowed. The people were many and the capitalists were few, and could drink no more than the others.

And when the capitalists saw the Market overflow, they told the people to bring no more water until the Market was empty. But when the people could no longer earn pennies from the capitalists for the buckets of water they brought, they could not buy water from the Market. And when the capitalists saw that they had no more profit, because no man bought water from them, they were troubled. They decided that they had to advertise, and sent forth men to cry: “If any thirst, let him come to the Market and buy water from us.”

But the people answered: “How can we buy unless you hire us, so that we may earn money? Hire us, as before, and we will buy water, because we are thirsty, and you will have no need to advertise.”

The capitalists replied: “Shall we hire you to bring water, when the Market is already overflowing? First you have to buy the water, and when the tank is empty, then we will hire you again.”

And so the people did not work, and because they did not work, they could not buy, and minstrels reported abroad that Root was in crisis. The people thirsted as never before, because they could not collect water at the oases, as their fathers had done. The capitalists had taken all the springs, and the wells, and the water-wheels, and the buckets, so that no man could get water except from the Market. The people begged the capitalists: “The tank is overflowing! Please give us water, so that we don't die!”

But the capitalists answered: “The water is ours. If you want it, you have to buy it.” And they confirmed this with an oath to each other, saying “business is business.” But the capitalists were worried, because they sold so little water. They said: “Our profits have stopped our profits. Because of the profits we've made, we can't make any more profits! How is it that our profits have become unprofitable, and our gains now make us poor? We must send for the soothsayers to interpret this to us.”

And the soothsayers had several explanations. One blamed it on overproduction, another on the failure of the people of Root to save their pay, and yet another on lack of confidence. When the capitalists sent the soothsayers to the people, the soothsayers told them that now they must thirst, because there was too much water. But the people became angry, and chased the soothsayers away with stones, and cried out: “Do you mock us? Does plenty bring famine? Does nothing come of much?”

When the capitalists saw this anger, they were afraid that the people might storm the water tank. So they sent their holy men, who were false priests, to calm the crowd. The false priests told the people that their thirst was an affliction from God to test their souls, that they should bear it in patience and not trouble the capitalists. Then they proved the capitalists' generosity by going to the Market, and wetting their fingertips in the overflow, and scattering the drops upon the people who thronged the tank. The drops of water were called Charity, and they were bitter. But the crowd raged even more than before.

Since both the soothsayers and the false priests had failed to calm the people of Root, the capitalists next called upon all who had skill in war. “If you will guard our tanks, then we will pay you money, so that you may buy water for yourselves and your families,” the capitalists told them. And the men of war were persuaded by their thirst, and took their swords into their hands, and struck down the people who thronged to the tank.

In the following days, the capitalists made fountains and fish ponds and flower gardens, and they bathed in the water with their wives and children, and wasted the water for their pleasure. When the Market was empty, they proclaimed: “The crisis is ended!” They hired the people again to bring water from the wells to the Market, and paid them as before a penny for every bucket. But for every bucket that was taken from the tank, the capitalists received two pennies. And so, after a time, the Market once again overflowed, and once again the word was spread that there was a crisis.

Time and again, the tank overflowed, and the people of Root thirsted. And when, after suffering their agony, the Market was empty, the people of Root could once again buy the water they needed. And the recurrent overflowing and emptying of the water tank was called the Cycles of the Market.

After many Cycles of the Market, there arose in the land certain men who were called agitators, because they stirred up the people. And the agitators told the people that they should associate, and then they would have no need to be servants of the capitalists, and would no longer thirst.

The agitators asked the people: “Why can you not buy water from the Market? Because you have no money. Why do you have no money? Because for every bucket you put into the Market you receive one penny, but for every bucket you take from the Market you must pay two pennies, so that the capitalist must have his profit. So the tank must overflow, being filled by your lack, and made to abound out of your emptiness. Do you not see, that the harder you work, and the more diligently you bring the water, the worse off you will be, and not the better? And that this is so because of the system of profit, which will keep the people of Root poor forever?”

The agitators told this story at every opportunity, wherever they could, to whomever would listen. At last there were people who responded to them: “You are right. It is because of capitalists and their profits that we cannot receive the fruit of our labor. The more we toil to fill the Market the sooner it overflows, and we receive nothing because there is too much. But what can we do to end the cycles of the Market?”

And the agitators replied: “What do the capitalists do for you, that you should give them profits from your labor? You collect the water and transport it, but from the capitalists you receive only a little of the water you have brought. Here is how to free yourselves from bondage; do for yourselves what is done by the capitalists: namely, the ordering of your labor and the marshalling of your bands, and the dividing of your tasks. Organize yourselves! Set your production goals to the meet the needs of all the people of Root, but not with an eye to profit. Assign to every worker a job to which he is suited, and that pleases him. When he tires of that job, let him find another way to help the production. And, as each person produces more than he can use, and the products of each worker’s labors are multiplied by the cooperation of others, let each man take from the Market all that he needs. Then you will have no need at all for the capitalists, and will not yield them profits. Then you shall share as brothers all the fruit of your labor, so the tank shall never Overflow until each man is full. And afterward, with the overflow you shall make pleasant fishponds and fountains to delight yourselves, just as the capitalists did; but these shall be for the pleasure of all.”

And the people of Root cried out with one voice: “Equality, brotherhood and freedom, forever!”

The capitalists heard the shouting, and what the people said. And the soothsayers heard it too, as did the false priests and the men of war. And they trembled, and said to one another: “It is the end of us!”

And the people did the things the agitators had told them to do. Soon there was no longer any thirst in the land, and no one hungered, or was naked, or cold, or suffered any manner of want. And every man called his fellow “my brother,” and every woman called her companion “my sister,” for they were all to each other as brothers and sisters who live together in unity. And Root enjoyed the blessings of prosperity and peace forever after.

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