100 year old excuses for unemployment

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised to find out that exactly the same arguments being made today about an issue have also been made in the long distant past. Back then they may not have known any better, today we definitely should. A comment from Peter Martin on Labourlist gave me another example of this phenomenon. He quotes from Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” which was written in 1912 to show what arguments were being made around that time to account for high unemployment.


‘Yes,’ said Crass, agreeing with Slyme……… Then thers all this new-fangled machinery,’ continued Crass. ‘That’s wot’s ruinin’ everything. Even in our trade ther’s them machines for trimmin’ wallpaper, an’ now they’ve brought out a paintin’ machine. Ther’s a pump an’ a ‘ose pipe, an’ they reckon two men can do as much with this ‘ere machine as twenty could without it.’

The immigrants:

‘Why, even ‘ere in Mugsborough,’ chimed in Sawkins–……..We’re overrun with ’em! Nearly all the waiters and the cook at the Grand Hotel where we was working last month is foreigners.’

On cheap foreign labour:

“you know very well that the country IS being ruined by foreigners. Just go to a shop to buy something; look round the place an ‘ you’ll see that more than ‘arf the damn stuff comes from abroad.”

Over 100 years later, this is still fairly mainstream political discourse in the UK. We had this UKIP poster:

I also often see people arguing that cheap foreign labour overseas is costing us jobs in the UK.

And you still hear the Luddite argument that machinery will replace all our jobs. Technology has and will continue to replace jobs that are being done by humans today, but this doesn’t mean unemployment is guaranteed. A lot of people on the left use this argument to advocate a guaranteed basic income, but it ignores the fact that new forms of work are being created all the time, and we could also broaden what we think of as work to include activities that are not being paid to do at the moment.

We had full employment in the 1960s and there is no reason we shouldn’t have it again. As Keynes said:

“…Our main task, therefore, will be to confirm the reader’s instinct that what seems sensible is sensible, and what seems nonsense is nonsense. We shall try to show him that the conclusion, that if new forms of employment are offered more men will be employed, is as obvious as it sounds and contains no hidden snags; that to set unemployed men to work on useful tasks does what it appears to do, namely, increases the national wealth; and that the notion, that we shall, for intricate reasons, ruin ourselves financially if we use this means to increase our well-being, is what it looks like – a bogy.”


Food banks and the replacement of ‘social security’ with ‘charity’

Two things over the weekend reminded me of a chapter from Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” called “Facing the ‘Problem’. Both are related to the increasing proliferation of food banks. Firstly, there was a varying reaction to the news that the Trussell Trust had given an emergency food parcel to almost a million people over the last year. The DWP reacted quite angrily, accusing the Trussell Trust of being “publicity-seeking” and that the increase was purely a result of them “aggressively marketing their services”, but David Cameron actually seems quite pleased with the expansion of food banks, saying he wanted them to expand. Secondly, The Mail on Sunday decided to do a hatchet job on food banks in an article entitled “No ID, no checks… and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims”. The article gives the strong impression that most food bank uses are just spinning the food banks a line in order to get free food, and many of them have no urgent need for the food parcels. It quotes Tory MP Brian Binley as saying he had “always been very suspicious” of the level of abuse in some food banks, and that “there are always a lot of dishonest people who will cadge their way into situations”.

In the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (written before the introduction of the welfare state), those who become unemployed either pawn their possessions or rely on credit to survive. The last resort is relying on the ‘charity’ of the capitalist class:

“…district visitors distributed tickets for coal and groceries. Not that that sort of thing made much difference; there was usually a great deal of fuss and advice, many quotations of Scripture, and very little groceries… These ‘charitable’ people went into the wretched homes of the poor and – in effect – said: ‘Abandon every particle of self-respect: cringe and fawn: come to church: bow down and grovel to us, and in return we’ll give you a ticket that you can take to a certain shop and exchange for a shillingworth of groceries. And if you’re very servile and humble we may give you another one next week.

They never gave the ‘case’ the money. The ticket system serves three purposes. It prevents the ‘case’ abusing the ‘charity’ by spending the money on drink. It advertises the benevolence of the donors: and it enables the grocer – who is usually a member of the church – to get rid of any stale or damaged stock he may have on hand.

When the visiting ladies’ went to a workman’s house and found it clean and decently furnished, and the children clean and tidy, they came to the conclusion that those people were not suitable ‘cases’ for assistance. Perhaps the children had had next to nothing to eat, and would have been in rags if the mother had not worked like a slave washing and mending their clothes. But these were not the sort of cases that the visiting ladies assisted; they only gave to those who were in a state of absolute squalor and destitution, and then only on condition that they whined and grovelled.”

The birth of the modern welfare state should have made this a thing of the past, but we are now seeing the safety net being eroded to such an extent that more and more people are relying on the whims of others for emergency food aid. The ‘visiting ladies’ have now been replaced by GP’s, Citizen’s Advice Bureaus and the job centre who are being asked to decide on who is a ‘deserving case’. You need a ticket to go to a food bank, just like in Tressell’s day, and the are already noises from certain Tory MPs about expanding the ‘ticketing’ system to mainstream social security. If people become reliant on charity to survive – charity that can be denied at will – they are no longer free, and those in control of the charity become very powerful indeed.

In the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, work for the protagonists is insecure and poorly paid – not enough to live on, and the spectre of unemployment is never far away. In some respects, we seem to be backsliding to those pre-welfare state days. In a modern, western economy, that should be give Cameron a sense of shame, not the sense of pride he inexplicably seems to feel.

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?