The Primark Trousered Philanthropists
By Alan Morrison
commissioned by Tribune, 2006
In 1906, Robert Tressell (real name Noonan), started writing his great working-class novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, while working a fifty-six hour week as a painter and decorator in Hastings. The novel was to tell the story of Noonan’s alter-ego, Owen, who attempts to convert his exploited workmates to Socialism, ultimately to no avail. It was completed by 1910 and returned unread by the publishers because it was in long-hand. It was finally published four years after the author’s premature death, in 1914.
It is dispiriting to glimpse in a novel written at the turn of the previous century, passages of social and industrial parallel; to some extent, the book’s themes appear perennial as the Socialist and Marxist ideas that inspired its ethical fibre. That this novel has over the past century gained a cult status among the British Left as a veritable social Bible further emphasises its timeless relevance; it even achieved the accolade of helping the Labour Party win the 1945 general election, from which ensued the most radically leftwing welfare reforms in British history.
The story invites us into the dead-end existences of a group of painters and decorators employed by an exploitative private firm, Rushton & Co, which pits its downtrodden employees against one another in an inexorable grappling for scant work placements. The firm encourages its workers to ‘scamp’ (i.e. rush) their jobs in order to maximise profits at the expense of doing the work properly. Socialist Owen nicknames his workmates ‘the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ for their submission to the lifelong servitude of the capitalist system in return for pitiful wages, and bouts of unemployment and poverty. The derelict lots of these ‘journeymen’ are depicted tangibly in twelve hour working days painting and plastering the freezing interior of a large house referred to throughout as ‘the Cave’, constantly stalked by their taskmaster foreman. Seems remote? One only needs to draw up the contemporary parallel of call centre staff having their work time monitored by their own computers (even logging in and out to go to the toilet) to see how this Orwellian practise has translated into the post-electronic age.
The only daily respites of the ‘philanthropists’ are pitifully short breaks, sipping stewed tea from tins, sat on upturned pails which on some occasions Owen uses as makeshift soap-boxes for tub-thumping on the sanity of Socialism, which almost always falls on deaf ears:
it was not as if it were some really important matter, such as a smutty story … something concerning football or cricket, horse-racing or the doings of some Royal personage or aristocrat. (p748)
Sound familiar? If our present ‘celebrity’-obsessed, Royalist society is anything to go by, very little has changed in terms of the British idea of ‘culture’. These ‘philanthropists’’ rely for their opinions on the local tabloid rag, The Obscurer, which voices the jingoism of the Directors of the limited company that funds it:
The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of … the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, … the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. (p34)
Here one can immediately see a parallel to the reaction of British tabloids such as The Daily Express to the proposals of EU Enlargement in April 2004:
Only three days to go before thousands of eastern European migrants head to Britain. … Gypsies say they can't wait to arrive in land of dole and benefits…
Their lives, materially and intellectually – despite Owen’s touting the dictums of his hard-earned Socialist pamphlets – undernourished, wreak profoundly of cheap tobacco, turpentine and tubercular diets:
the workers subsist on block ornaments, margarine, adulterated tea, mysterious beer (p772)
the Happy Shopper and Poundstretcher fare of yesteryear.
The employees of Rushton & Co. are liable to dismissal at an hour’s notice. This might no longer be the case today in permanent jobs, but it is still par for the course in temping placements. I used to temp as a secretary for a private employment agency and on at least two occasions had placements terminated at less than a day’s notice. I learnt I had very little rights and that I had to submit frequently to humiliation inflicted by various employers who were seemingly taking advantage of my financial insecurity:
…all the time he (the worker) holds his employment at the caprice and by the favour of his masters… . If he is not abjectly civil and humble, if he will not submit tamely to insult, indignity, and every form of contemptuous treatment … he can be dismissed, and replaced in a moment by one of the crowd of unemployed… (p623-4)
This paragraph speaks to me, from experience, more clearly than anything I have read. The recent industrial debacle of Gate Gourmet’s instant sacking over loud-hailer of 160 Union-backed workers for striking over poor working conditions, shows little has changed. The ‘philanthropists’ are ruled by the tyranny of ‘references’, a psychological blackmail still inflicted on modern day employees, whether permanent or temporary:
The men knew … that if they got the sack from one firm it was no easy matter to get another job, and that was why they were terrified. (1120)
New laws restricting an employer’s power to provide unsatisfactory references, like the measly rate introduced to serve as a ‘minimum wage’ still does not go far enough to protect the employee: a present day employer can still imply an unsatisfactory reference by omitting to provide a satisfactory one. Even present day temping agencies blacklist clients to their competitors simply on the say so of often dubiously minded contractors.
If I had been writing this article in the late 1940s I would probably be approaching it more optimistically, talking of how British society had finally started to achieve some of the ideas that, for one, Tressell’s novel proposed. Unfortunately I am writing in 2006, a time endemically tarnished by the ethics of Thatcherism, the same sort of philistine carrot-throwing – offering council house tenants the opportunity to buy their houses, the new consumer class, shares etc. – that Tressell relates as far back as 1906:
These wretches had abandoned every thought and thing that tends to the elevation of humanity. They had given up everything that makes life good and beautiful, in order to carry on a mad struggle to acquire money which they would never be sufficiently cultured to properly enjoy. (1304-5)
1906/2006 parallels proliferate the novel: Rushton & Co.’s ‘bounding’ of a boy apprentice for no wages the first year, and only two shillings for the second prophetic of the YTS’s transparently ‘improved’ New Deal for 18-24 year olds, involving a ₤10 top up on the pittance of ₤44.50 weekly JSA for working in the ‘community’. Our contemporary Housing Benefit system, due to its inexorable application processing delays does little to placate the interminable cycle of arrears faced by claimants, rendering the following extract still pertinent to today:
…the rent is an expense that goes on all the time, whether they are employed or not. If they get into arrears when out of work, they have to pay double when they get employment again (p389)
Modern claimants often end up unknowingly swapping rent arrears for benefit debts on learning some way down the line that the House Benefit department has accidentally overpaid them previously. The interrogative questions of modern day benefit forms have also changed little from the wording of 1906’s Distress Committee:
`Where do you live?'
`How long have you been living there?'
`What was your previous address?'
`Are you Married or single or a Widower or what?'
`What kind of a house do you live in? How many rooms are there?'
`Who was your last employer? Why did you leave?'
`Give the full names and addresses of all the different employers you have worked for during the last five years, and the reasons why you left them?'
`Does your wife earn anything? How much?'
While I was growing up in the late Eighties/
early Nineties, my mother did shift work as an auxiliary nurse for a private nursing home and my father, as a security officer for a private security firm. Both worked on average ten hour shifts for paltry wages. My father was not allowed any sick pay at all and so often had to go to work when he was ill in order not to lose any of his wage. Anyone who argues that slave labour is a thing of the past falls as much on my deaf ears as Owen’s attempts at Socialist conversion do on those of his workmates. The recent introduction of a minimum wage does little to alleviate our working rights in British society: it can be seen as another ‘carrot’ thrown to us to quell any potential agitation. If the minimum wage is a meagre concession to the working people for the astronomical rise in private companies’ profits, it does not go far enough.
One of the most depressing parallels between 2006 and 1906 is the cancer of privatisation: despite the much-needed surgery of nationalisation in the mid 20th century, this growth has re-attached itself post-Thatcher.
The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. … "It's Their Land," "It's Their Water," "It's Their Coal," "It's Their Iron," so you would say "It's Their Air," (p397)
The results of these combines have been - an increase in the quantities of the things produced: a decrease in the number of wage earners employed - and enormously increased profits for the shareholders. (p1351)
Today we see the plague of Private-Public Partnership infesting the NHS to the detriment of patient welfare and provision. Then taking into account the rapid rise in prescription charges since 1951, we are again pretty much back to 1906:
It happened that it turned out to be more expensive than going to a private doctor… The medicine they prescribed and which he had to buy did him no good, for the truth was … he … needed … proper conditions of life and proper food…. (p1673)
Owen’s health problems are down to poor diet and work/unemployment-related stress – with the present Government’s proposal to replace Incapacity Benefit with a new Working Support Allowance and place employment advisers in GP surgeries, the once sanctuary of ‘the sick’ is to contract into a new set of pressures.
Highlighting the timeless relevance of the most loved novel of the British Left then is a sad task. We have in effect arrived back at 1906: we presently have a Labour Government which has disowned its former Socialism and championed the capitalist edicts of privatisation and the free market. Our ‘public’ services are calved up between unaccountable private companies, who siphon off profits instead of investing in improving the ‘services’ they inflict. Our ‘public’ services serve bosses and shareholders first and second, customers third. The working people are no longer represented in Parliament by any significant party. Our ‘democracy’ itself now seems – as Tressell’s Mugsborough (Hastings) – dictated to by media tycoons and businessmen; and the three main parties – analogous to the soft and hard capitalisms of the novel’s Liberals and Tories – are squabbling over an ideologically arid centre ground. At least in 1906 Tressell’s generation had a shred of hope invested in Keir Hardie’s Labour Party, which took its first seats in Parliament that very year. In 2006, with the bitter hindsight afforded post-Thatcherite society, the Socialist optimism of the likes of Tressell is put into a tragic context. We are now the Primark Trousered Philanthropists.
[All quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg website, the pagination corresponding with Robert Tressell’s original longhand manuscript]