Is this 1910 or 2011?

5 Jul

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Pat McIlvogue looks at today’s parallels with Robert Tressel’s classic novel of working class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell, the nom-de-plume of Robert Noonan, a house painter. It tells the story of a group of painters struggling to find work and keep a roof over their heads.

Although born in Dublin, Tressel settled in England after living in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings, where Tressell lived. The original title page of the book carried the subtitle: “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.” He completed The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910.

Clearly frustrated at the refusal of his contemporaries to recognise the iniquity of society, Tressell’s cast of hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is “not for the likes of them”. Hence the title of the book; Tressell paints the workers as “philanthropists” who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

There are plenty of issues that Tressel raises that will be very familiar to workers today:

  • Causalisation of Labour
  • Cost of Housing and Landlordism
  • Debt
  • Fear in the Workplace
  • Race to the Bottom on Conditions
  • Control Of Information
  • Immigration
  • Distractions
  • Control of Government bodies
  • Social Bail Outs for Capital

All sound as familiar today as they did in the book 100 years ago!

Causalisation of Labour

Has the labour market of today changed significantly from that of the early 1900s?  It seems that businesses are attempting to move us back to what is described by Tressell.

The gains of the labour movement and policies of Social Democratic Governments after the Second World War moved us towards more secure employment with improvements in conditions of employment and great progress in social housing.

In the last decades of the last century neo-liberal governments with a free market agenda set about eroding the conditions of employment that workers had gained, along with the privatisation of the national assets and the removal of social housing.

The other focus of these free market governments was to erode the power of the workers’ trade unions through restrictive and regressive legislation.

The Labour Government of the 21st century halted to a certain extent the erosion of conditions but never repealed enough of the legislation put in place. Although there have been some gains such as minimum wage, working time directive and family friendly legislation.

It could be easily argued that forces are at work trying to return us to world that Tressell faced with the perpetual fear of being stood down at a moments notice.

Today as we speak the government is considering legislation that it says will “Ease the Burden on Business” or as we know it “Get your coat you’re going!”

They are also looking at removing workers rights to challenge unfair dismissal through putting a charge on lodging a employment tribunal claim, making it harder still for workers to get any justice.

This on top of extending the already too long time period for acquiring employment rights from one year to two years. This is if you are lucky enough to enjoy the status of being classed as an employee under law and not that of a worker. Workers already have next to no employment rights.

Business already exploits labour through employment legislation without making it even easier for them again to do so. Figures on agency and temporary work are varied, but range from between half a million to one and a half million at any one time, with these workers used a flexible labour force to meet employer’s requirements or break strikes. This leaves workers with no employment rights as employees as they are classed as workers and not employees.

This it brings us back 100 years to the days of where the Mr Hunters of Tressell’s novel hired & fired at will with no justification and indeed no fear of any consequential action.

The temporary and agency workers of today are used as levers against so-called “core employees”, treated differently in the workplace. Employers encourage core employees to believe that they are superior, and that agency workers are there to fill gaps and are worthless. This leads to divisions within workplaces, and that suits employers.  Is this any different from the divide and conquer tactics used by Rushton and Hunter in the book?

So have conditions changed significantly? The reality speaks for itself: workers today have all the same anxieties that workers faced in the early 1900s.

  • The fear of the sack at short notice
  • The consequences that brings
  • The end results are the same:
  • No job
  • No money
  • No house

Cost of Housing & Landlordism

The perpetual fear of not being able to pay the rent for the painters in the book is the same fear workers of today face for rent or mortgage payments. Indeed the painter’s largest proportion of their wages went on keeping a roof over their families’ heads – is it any different today?

Today it is the same; with the lack of affordable housing available to ordinary working people. The total erosion of social housing by neo-liberal governments has given rein to a new breed of exploiters of labour – the Spivs.

These so called entrepreneurs exploit the needs of the ordinary working person by charging huge amounts of rents for housing and grease the cogs of the capitalist merry go round of property sales.

The average house price in the UK is around £165,000 mark and the average UK wage is around the £25,000 mark. The equation does not square. Is this done by default or by design?

This manifestation keeps the ordinary working person on a perpetual struggle to keep a roof over their head and facilitates a subservient, obsequious workforce. This is yet another mechanism of the capitalists to keep workers under the cosh. A life of perpetual debt.

Debt

Tressell’s painters were caught in never ending circle of debt:

  • When they were not working they ran up debt with the sellers of the necessaries of life.
  • When they were working they had to use their wages to pay their debt off or else when they were out of work they would not receive credit to acquire the necessaries of life and would starve and die.

Yet again this facilitates the capitalist merry go round of buying and selling and keeps a constant flow of money back to the capitalist class even when workers are not being directly exploited by them in the workplace.

Is today any different? The principle is the same – the mechanisms have only moved with the times.

Today it is still the capitalists who control the credit; they do this with credit cards and loans. Indeed the poorest pay the highest rates for credit, this is another way of keeping workers in the perpetual need for employment to provide the necessaries of life.

This is fear that exists away from the workplace today the same as it existed in Tressell’s time. But what about the similarity in the fears of the workplace of Tressell’s time to the fears in the workplace of today?

Fear in the Workplace

Tressell continually describes the regime of fear applied by Hunter and Rushton on the hired hands or employees. Hunter is constantly monitoring the men, harassing them, pressuring them to do more, cut corners and constantly attempting to catch them not working.

Today complex monitoring machinery monitors the worker on the job, so the need for a character like Hunter is not as great as it was although they do exist. Computers do the job of Hunter, they log the time a job is completed and how efficient it is deemed to be.

Whether this is cutting a piece of metal in an engineering works to answering a phone in a call centre, everything is monitored. Charts are produced under the guise of monitoring the process to improve it to make it easier on the worker.

The exploiters of labour play the charade of wanting workers to “work smarter not harder”. This is bullshit. The reality is that it is the Hunter of today except it is worse as:

  • there is no respite from the Hunter of today.
  • he is ever watching
  • ever present
  • he does not have to be there to apply his fear.

The real reason for these processes is the same as Rushton and Hunter wanted: They want more for less and will spin any yarn to get it.

The exploiters of labour of today are just a bit more subtle about it. They use Human Resource Management techniques such as Team Based Working and Self-Directing Teams that offer Empowerment and Ownership of the processes of the workplace.

These processes facilitate the art of the negotiator for the employer as it allows employers to apply to workers the:

  • “Let them have our way” strategy
  • It is much easier and more efficient to have workers police and drive themselves than having a Nimrod to do the hunting.
  • This allows the exploiters of labour to portray that they are benign and only giving worker what they want.
  • Propaganda applied at its finest and it works.
  • Foolish workers buy in to it in a quest for self preservation.

These processes facilitate cuts in conditions and numbers of employees. They give the employer evidence to race to the bottom on pay and conditions.

Race to the Bottom on Conditions

The constant scheming by Hunter in looking in ways to cut costs, is as relevant today as 100 years ago. Employers are constantly looking at ways to erode conditions & cut wages by pitting one employee against another potential employee. They will sacrifice anything including quality to cut costs and increase profit.

Control of Information

In the same way as Tressell describes in the book the newspapers the Obscurer and the Ananias shaping and controlling the opinions of ordinary working class people to the benefit of the ruling capitalist classes, today’s media fulfills that role for today’s capitalist classes.

The difference today is the control is much wider and more intense. Capitalist moguls such as Murdoch control the world media of newspaper, TV and TV news, espousing their right wing doctrine that facilitates the keeping of the working classes down and the capitalist classes free from regulation that would curtail their exploitation of labour.

The avenues of these media allows the capitalist to present smoke and mirrors around issues facing workers and thus skewers the views of the working classes into their way of thinking. These outlets allow the capitalist to distract workers with coverage of issues that are twisted to suit the capitalist class’s aims.

Immigration

None more so than in the illusion of Johnny Foreigner taking away all British Jobs and how things would be fine it was not for them coming over here. Tressell captured these views early on in the book, when he told us of the views of some of the painter stating that all foreigners should be driven into the bloody sea.

This is the same today with the Sun and the Daily Mail especially as they fill the roles of the Obscurer and Ananias. These papers – especially the Sun – facilitate the illusions of distraction with their coverage of trivial issues that seem to capture the masses: celebrity, scandal and sport.

Distractions

Booze, betting, football, are the same today as in Tressel’s book. A new one is celebrity and the quest to achieve this through X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. All distraction that keeps the working classes amused and focused while they are exploited and used by the capital classes in their quest for the status quo to remain.

Control of Government Bodies

Tressell describes that the capitalist classes of Muggsborough had control of the local council and decided policy that best served their business interests rather than the interests of the citizens of the town.  Is the situation the same today?

Like most things over 100 years they evolve; this too can be said of the capitalist control of not just local government bodies but global government. Multinational companies bully governments of countries into what best serves the needs of their business rather than the needs of the country’s people.

They sway huge influence with their capital and the threats of the damage to the country if they remove that capital and take it to a more accommodating country.

Social Bail Outs for Capital

Tressell aptly described how Sweater, Rushton, Didlem & Grinder schemed to get the local tax payer to buy out their interests in the failing gas works business. They did this through a manipulation of the press they controlled and the local government that they also controlled. This is a clear demonstration of individualising the profits by socialising the loss!

Is this so much different from the government bail out of the banks? It’s another demonstration of the Win Win game of casino capitalism that the controlling capitalist classes play.

Their insurmountable greed dined on huge profits and bonuses when it was going good, they then screamed when the floor gave way on their greed.

They then wanted the same socialism that Sweater wanted in the book: That was take the profits and socialise the loss.

Is this arrogance from Sweater any different from that of Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays PLC who now states:

It’s time for the banks to stop apologising for the banking crisis and get back to what they do best and create wealth?

The question is creating wealth for whom?

Change is Possible

There are straight correlations with what Tressell described in the book in the 1900s to that we are faced with today. It’s uncanny the relationship he describes then to the contemporary position.

Socialism is mocked and the working classes have a degree of fatalism about their lives:

  • It’s the way it is,
  • the way it has been and always will be,
  • there is no other way that works.

It is the same spin that is espoused today, by our right wing media and governments that are controlled by business.

We need to educate the working classes of the charade that they are falling for. We need to get them to evaluate:

  • not what businesses, media & governments are saying
  • but why they are saying it!

We need to use modern forms of communications that are unrestricted by the capitalist establishment. Social networks, twitter, text messaging and the internet spread news very quickly and very effectively and they also engage younger workers.

Look how successful these forms of communications where in organising citizens in Egypt in what looks like a successful campaign for regime change.

If you asked anyone a year ago in Egypt about change they would have told you no:

  •  It’s the way it is,
  • the way it has been and always will be,
  • there is no other way that will work here.

In the same way that the capitalist are repeating their successes of the past so can we. This time we need to make better use of the gains we make!

Gains of the past

At the time of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, trade union membership was 2.5 million. By 1920 it was 8.3 million. The face of the trade unions was changing. The traditional artisan craft unions were now being supplemented by the growth of “New Unionism”, or as we know them today general unions.

It differed from the established trade unionism in both organisation and tactics. “New Unionism” brought organisation to large numbers of unskilled workers. Catering for the unskilled and poorly paid, its unions recruited across industrial barriers.

The organisers saw the role of trade unions as active rather than passive – to win improvements from employers by industrial action, but industrial action on its own was not enough.

Today we see large general unions like Unite espousing an organising agenda to win gains in the work place.

Unite’s national organising structure is pushing forward the union’s radical strategy for growth. Organising is the key to the future; it is a focus on taking trade unionism out to the millions of workers who need it.

Unite is grasping these new opportunities and is refocusing its time, money and effort into organising. The work of rebuilding is about much more than just recruitment. Union organisation depends on developing a whole new generation of activists and representatives, able to embed trade unionism and win and grow in the workplace by getting active again.

The two main aims are:

  • Strengthening organisation in existing workplaces to win and grow through the 100% Membership Campaign
  • Organising the unorganised on a scale no union has ever attempted as Unite mobilises to bring trade unionism to all workplaces throughout Britain and Ireland

There has to be congruent industrial and political progression to match the aspirations of the working classes who are again growing frustrated with their position within the capitalist society.

If the industrial environment is to be changed for the good of the working classes, then there has to be a strong political voice affiliated to the trade unions and the working classes and this needs to be representative and effective.

It is no different today as it was as Tresselll describes in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

We must now use our gains more effectively!

Watch Pat McIlvogue speaking on The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.


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