Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Robert Tressell – ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

This is a big, polemical, bloody minded book about working men in the early 1900s, and – not their struggle against, but their acquiescence in the condition of poverty to which capitalism has brought them. They are taught from a young age not to question their situation, but to trust in their Liberal or Conservative political masters. Class divisions are absolute, and ‘the likes of us’, as the men refer to themselves, think only of beer, women, football and racing; never of anything that might improve their circumstances. The men live and work in Mugsborough, a town on the south coast of England, and they are house painters. For the first half of the book, they are engaged in doing up a house belonging to the head of the company they work for, Rushton & Co. They are bullied into working as fast as possible by a man variously known as Misery, Hunter and Nimrod, who is Rushton’s right-hand man. He does all Rushton’s dirty work, and all his thinking too: calculating the cost of jobs, and creeping around trying to catch the working men not working, in order to be able to sack one of them and keep the rest on their toes – and ideally to force down the wage for which they are prepared to work . Below him is the foreman of the job, Crass, who does his share of creeping, and gives himself the easy task of mixing paints. This hierarchy is rotten to the core, and is a microcosm of the system of commerce in the wider world, which rewards cunning and greed, and scorns talent and craftmanship:
What Misery did not know about scamping and faking the work, the men suggested to and showed him in the hope of currying favour with him in order that they might get the preference over others and be sent for when the next job came in. This is the principle incentive provided by the present system, the incentive to cheat. These fellows cheated the customers of their money. They cheated themselves and their fellow workmen of work, and their children of bread, but it was all for a good cause – to make profit for their master. (p. 462)
There is a lot of talk of the ‘present system’ in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The central character, Frank Owen, is a socialist, who tries to kindle a sense of outrage in his fellow workers. He tells them that money is the cause of their poverty, and they laugh at him, because it sounds like it makes no sense. But it does make sense:
money is the cause of poverty, because poverty consists in being short of the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are all produced by labour applied to the raw materials: the raw materials exist in abundance and there are plenty of people able and willing to work; but under present conditions no work can be done without money; and so we have the spectacle of a great army of people compelled to stand idle and starve by the side of the raw materials from which their labout could produce abundance of all the things they need – they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! (p. 588)
Tressell goes so far as to prefer feudalism to capitalism:
It would have been much better for them if, instead of being ‘Freemen’, they had been slaves, and the property, instead of the hirelings, of Mr Rushton. (p. 315)
Because then he would have taken care of them, ‘as he would of his horse’. Money cuts ties, creates abstractions. Rushton can pay them when there is work to be done, and lay them off when there isn’t: it’s like a zero hour contract, without the contract. And so the workers strive for the right to earn not enough to live on, and when they are out of work they and their families starve. The council is run by Rushton and his cronies Sweater, Grinder and Didlum, purely for their own profit, and the only councillor who stands up to them, Weakling, is so unpopular he gets voted out. Not because he is unpleasant, or an ineffecive speaker, but because he is not selfish enough, and this puts him in a position of weakness, which the voters can’t stand. Everything continually gets worse, and Tressell has only contempt for the charities which claim to want to help:
If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters’ cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table. (p. 428)
Charity is invariably tied to the Church, which sanctifies ‘the system’, and never, ever does what Jesus would have done. Witness the vile Rev. Mr Belcher:
If he had removed the long garment, this individual would have resembled a balloon: the feet representing the car and the small head that surmounted the globe, the safety valve; as it was it did actually serve the purpose of a safety valve, the owner being, in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulance, which manifested itself in frequent belchings forth through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded. But as the Rev. Mr Belcher had never been seen with his coat off, no one ever noticed the resemblance. (p. 202)
He has been made ill by his disgusting over-indulgence, and the most disgusting thing of all is that the children of his Sunday school are made to collect money from people on the poverty line to send him on holiday to recover.

I kept expecting the workers and the unemployed to form a society to help themselves – the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’of the book’s title. But they are too divided for that. The meaning of the phrase is actually the reverse: that the workers are the source of their masters’ riches, which they essentially donate, via the ‘money trick’ that forms the basis of Owen’s best lecture. Here is his illustration of that trick:

The solution to this problem? It’s not very likely to come about, I’m afraid:
Public Ownership of the Machinery, and the National Organisation of Industry for the production and distribution of the necessaries of life, not for the profit of a few but for the benefit of all! (p. 596)

Thanks to my Secret Santa for this book. I do like the fact that it came to me via work.

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