Today marks the centenary of the death of Robert Tressell, whose book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has for decades been an inspiration for the Left. One of the very few authentic working-class voices from an era that is now more likely to be associated with costume dramas and the perceived opulence of the pre-war wealthy, it contains a classic passage in which the principal character, Owen, describes what has become known as The Great Money Trick, a passage worth quoting at length:
“Money is the real cause of poverty,” said Owen.
“Prove it,” repeated Crass.
“Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour.”
“Prove it,” said Crass.
Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it in his pocket.
“All right,” he replied. “I’ll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked.”
Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread, but as these where not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left should give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives of Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them as follows:
“These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light of the sun.”
“Now,” continued Owen, “I am a capitalist; or rather I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present argument how I obtained possession of them, the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the landlord and capitalist class. I am that class; all these raw materials belong to me.”
“Now you three represent the working class. You have nothing, and, for my part, although I have these raw materials, they are of no use to me. What I need is the things that can be made out of these raw materials by work; but I am too lazy to work for me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins” – taking three half pennies from his pocket – “represent my money, capital.”
“But before we go any further,” said Owen, interrupting himself, “it is important to remember that I am not supposed to be merely a capitalist. I represent the whole capitalist class. You are not supposed to be just three workers, you represent the whole working class.”
Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.
“These represent the things which are produced by labor, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent a week’s work. We will suppose that a week’s work is worth one pound.”
Owen now addressed himself to the working class as represented by Philpot, Harlow and Easton.
“You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in various industries, so as to give you plenty of work. I shall pay each of you one pound per week, and a week’s work is that you must each produce three of these square blocks. For doing this work you will each receive your wages; the money will be your own, to do as you like with, and the things you produce will of course be mine to do as I like with. You will each take one of these machines and as soon as you have done a week’s work, you shall have your money.”
The working classes accordingly set to work, and the capitalist class sat down and watched them. As soon as they had finished, they passed the nine little blocks to Owen, who placed them on a piece of paper by his side and paid the workers their wages.
“These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can’t live without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is one pound each.”
As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the capitalist’s terms. They each bought back, and at once consumed, one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week’s work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of things produced by the labor of others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital, for he still possessed the three pounds in money and in addition four pounds worth of goods. As for the working classes, Philpot, Harlow and Easton, having each consumed the pound’s worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they had started work – they had nothing.
This process was repeated several times; for each weeks work the producers were paid their wages. They kept on working and spending all their earnings. The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pool of wealth continually increased. In a little while, reckoning the little squares at their market value of one pound each, he was worth about one hundred pounds, and the working classes were still in the same condition as when they began, and were still tearing into their work as if their lives depended on it.
After a while the rest of the crowd began to laugh, and their merriment increased when the kind-hearted capitalist, just after having sold a pound’s worth of necessaries to each of his workers, suddenly took their tools, the machinery of production, the knives, away from them, and informed them that as owing to over production all his store-houses were
glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.
“Well, and wot the bloody ‘ell are we to do now ?” demanded Philpot.
“That’s not my business,” replied the kind-hearted capitalist. “I’ve paid your wages, and provided you with plenty of work for a long time past. I have no more work for you to do at the present. Come round again in a few months time and I’ll see what I can do.”
“But what about the necessaries of life?” Demanded Harlow. “we must have something to eat.”
“Of course you must,” replied the capitalist, affably; “and I shall be very pleased to sell you some.” “But we ain’t got no bloody money!”
“Well, you cant expect me to give you my goods for nothing! You didn’t work for nothing, you know. I paid you for your work and you should have saved something: you should have been thrifty like me. Look how I have got on by being thrifty!”
The unemployed looked blankly at each other, but the rest of the crowd only laughed; and then the three unemployed began to abuse the kind-hearted capitalist, demanding that he should give them some of the necessaries of life that he had piled up in his warehouses, or to be allowed to work and produce some more for their own needs; and even threatened to take some of the things by force if he did not comply with their demands. But the kind-hearted capitalist told them not to be insolent, and spoke to them about honesty, and said if they were not careful he would have their faces battered in for them by the police, or if necessary he would call out the military and have them shot down like dogs, the same as he had done before at Featherstone and Belfast.
It’s in some respects a crude analogy, but it has a power and truth that resonate down the ages.
The Great Banker Trick
Today things have moved on. Our modern Owen – let’s say, a librarian or a health-care worker faced with redundancy thanks to the Con Dem coalition – would describe something very difficult. For a start, the capitalist would be a manipulator of debt too. He’d happily lend the money to buy the essentials of life, because he has learned that the illusion of affluence built on credit and debt is a powerful tool to compel economic compliance. But since the workers are poor he would do so at usurious rates of interest against their next payday.
And, more significantly, he’d be explaining how he increased his wealth, not by investing in productive capacity but by speculating and gambling on the markets in which market was exhanged, or by buying raw materials and stockpiling them, creating shortages and therefore bidding up prices; or by developing huge, elaborate edifices of debt and lending. And, once the fact that they were built on air was exposed, and the edifice collapsed around them, they would convince governments that they needed to be bailed out, with the taxes of the people who worked productively. And then he would show how he would require that to pay for this bailout the decencies of life provided by taxes were unaffordable, and the people delivering them were doing non-jobs. But he’d continue to pay himself, and just as Tressell’s Mugsborough had its comic pompous mayor, Londoners would have their own ponderous comedian saying that we had to grant even more tax privileges to the failed bankers to avoid their running away and failing to make their great contribution to their city’s wealth, even though that contribution is illusory.
And, just as in Tressell’s day, the power of capital was maintained by churchmen, brewers, and rentiers donating to charity while deciding who was deserving, the bankers’ friends in Government would reinvent themselves as makers of popular culture, advocates of the big society, floppy-haired Etonians with a sense of entitlement that they knew best.
And a future generation might, just might, realise the abject irrationality of what was being done, the damage and the waste.