Robert Tressell on money

I finally got round to reading Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists this summer. It’s a fantastic and often heartbreaking description of working class life in the early 20th Century. There are a lot of parallels that can be made with today. This passage in particular struck me as particularly pertinent:

…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 labour could produce abundance of all the things they need–they are rendered helpless by the power of Money! Those who possess all the money say that the necessaries of life shall not be produced except for their profit.’

‘Yes! and you can’t alter it,’ said Crass, triumphantly. ‘It’s always been like it, and it always will be like it.’

”Ear! ‘Ear!’ shouted the man behind the moat. ‘There’s always been rich and poor in the world, and there always will be.’

Several others expressed their enthusiastic agreement with Crass’s opinion, and most of them appeared to be highly delighted to think that the existing state of affairs could never be altered.

There’s two obvious points to make hear. The first being that there is still a relevant abundance of raw materials and definitely an abundance of people willing and able to work, but because we are told there is no money left, millions must once again stand idle, and while they may not be starving today, the proliferation of food banks suggests a weakening of the safety net we’ve come to expect as a given. That’s just crazy. It should be the availability of real things, not the availability of mere tokens that determines whether or not we produce.

The scene from which the passage above is quoted is the one where the character Owen makes his final attempt to convince his fellow workmen of the problems with the ‘present system’. The response of Crass and co also rings true with what I see a lot of today. While people may be unhappy with their lot, nevertheless, as soon as an alternative way of doing something is proposed, they instantly look for reasons why it couldn’t work, and as Tressell writes appearing “to be highly delighted to think that the existing state of affairs could never be altered.” I don’t understand this attitude. Is it because they want to hang on to what they’ve got? Fear of the unknown? What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Robert Tressell on money

  1. “Fear of the unknown? ”

    Fear of change. ‘Better the devil you know’ and all that.

    To effect positive change you have to sell a vision of a better future – a promised land.

  2. This book has been my bible for the last 30 odd years, I lent my copy to a mate 12 month ago, not got it back yet, although I keep hinting.Considering it was written a hundred year ago the parallels are almost exact. Don’t forget the fat preacher brainwashing them with heaven and hell, how they should be happy with their lot. How the owners and bosses had the power of life and death over the men. This book should be on the school curriculum, I believe it was one of Tony Benns favourite books. I think Johnny Vegas did a 2 part play of it, on radio 4 a couple of years ago, with a guest appearance of one John Prescott, as a bobby on the beat. I think you’ll find you’ll be reading it again soon.

  3. Robert Tressell’s only book, a novel about working class life prior to World War, was first given to me by a friend in my student days with recommendation that I might quite like it!
    Yes, indeed I did. I should go back and read it again. Tressell’s explanation of the money trick shows the depth of his insight at the time.

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