The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'.
In this series of blogs on the notes I made from the book, I am looking at the alarming parallels between attitudes then and attitudes now. In this particular blog, I am looking at the characters' reflections on the causes of poverty.
Crass, the foreman, says '….we've had Free Trade for the last fifty years and today most people are living in a condition of more or less abject poverty, and thousands are literally starving. When we had Protection things were worse still. Other countries have Protection and yet many of their people are glad to come here and work for starvation wages. The only difference between Free Traded and Protection is that under certain circumstances one might be a little worse than the other, but as remedies for Poverty, neither of them are of any real use whatever, for the simple reason that they do not deal with the real causes of Poverty.'
'The greatest cause of poverty is hover-population,' remarked Harlow......
'Over-population!' cried Owen, 'when there's thousands of acres of uncultivated land in England without a house or human being to be seen. Is over-population the cause of poverty in France? Is over-population the cause of poverty in Ireland? Within the last fifty years the population of Ireland has been reduced by more than half. Four millions of people have been exterminated by famine or got rid of by emigration, but they haven't got rid of poverty...'
'Drink is the cause of most of the poverty,' said Slyme....
'Yes,' said Crass, agreeing with Slyme, 'an' thers plenty of 'em wot's too lazy to work when they can get it. Some of the b—s who go about pleading poverty 'ave never done a fair day's work in all their bloody lives...'
Owen however attacks this position. "There's no need for us to talk about drink or laziness...because they have nothing to do with the matter. The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of the majority of those who are not drunkards and who do work hard? Why, if all the drunkards and won't works and unskilled and inefficient workers could be by some miracle, transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would under the present conditions, be so much worse for us, because there isn't enough work for all now and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction of wages and a greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs, for the purpose of preventing us from discovering the real causes of our present condition."
He goes on to say: 'What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food….If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilisation he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilisation - the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers - is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect of lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal - he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.'
Owen describes the people of his time in poverty as being "worse off than slaves, for if we were slaves our owners in their own interest would see to it that we always had food…"
Again, later on in the book Owen reiterates that 'Poverty…consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their ends, those people are in a condition of poverty. If you think that machinery, which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance, is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me that there must be something the matter with your minds....if there wasn't something wrong with your minds...you would be able to see that we might have "Plenty of Work" and yet be in a state of destitution. The miserable wretches who toil sixteen or eighteen hours a day - father, mother and even the little children - making matchboxes, or shirts or blouses, have "plenty of work", but I for one don't envy them. Perhaps you think that if there was no machinery and we all to work thirteen or fourteen hours a day in order to obtain a bare living, we should not be in a condition of poverty? Talk about there being something the matter with your minds! If there were not, you wouldn't talk one day about Tariff Reform as a remedy for unemployment and then the next day admit that Machinery is the cause of it! Tariff Reform won't do away with machinery, will it?...
'…Poverty is not caused by machinery; it's not caused by "overproduction"; it's not caused by drink or laziness; and it's not caused by "over-population". It's caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolised everything that it is possible to monopolise; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolised the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing we accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people saying for want of air — or the money to but it o even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessaries of life. You would see people gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless they had the money to pay for it...'