The Great Money Trick

The Great Money Trick

Children's Story: The Politest Man in the World All the inhabitants of the City of Fools were very excited because a very famous person was going to visit them.  He was the world’s most polite man, and he was to speak in the town hall about how he had become so polite and why it was necessary to be polite 
On the morning of the day when the speech was to be delivered, two of the citizens of the City were walking in the market-place when they spotted a stranger sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. He was very well dressed and looked important. “That’s him!” said one of the citizens.  “That’s the politest man in the world, the man who is going to talk to us tonight!  I’m going to find out for sure.”  
With that, he left his friend and went over to the stranger.  “Excuse me,” he said, “But are you the politest man in the world, the man who is going to speak to us in the town hall tonight?” The stranger looked up from his newspaper and said, “Who do you think you are coming up to me and disturbing me while I’m quietly reading my newspaper?  Go away you ugly oaf and don’t trouble me any more with your stupid questions!  If you speak to me any more I shall punch you in the nose!”  
The young man didn’t waste any time in getting away, and he ran back to his friend. “Well, did you find out?  Was he the politest man in the world?” “I don’t know,” replied his friend, “He didn’t say.” 

You don’t have to walk very far in Dublin before you come across the birthplace of some famous writer or other. James Joyce was born in Rathgar, George Bernard Shaw in Synge Street, and Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square. The poet Thomas Moore’s birthplace is on George’s Street – it’s a pub now - and, on Harcourt Street, not a hundred yards from the Unitarian church, you can find the birthplace of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. These are all well-known and are part of every literary tour. Not so well known is 37 Wexford Street, which I used to pass on my way to church every day. It’s the birthplace of Robert Tressell, the author of the novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Tressell died just a hundred years ago, in February 1911, and so it is fitting that we celebrate his life and legacy at this time.

Faded Plaque on 37 Wexford Street

Robert Noonan c.1908
He was born Robert Noonan on April 17th, 1870, the illegitimate son of Mary Noonan and Samuel Croker, a police inspector. In the early 1890s, he emigrated to South Africa, married, and sired a daughter, Kathleen. Following his wife’s death in 1895, Robert and Kathleen moved to Johannesburg, where he gained a reputation as a skilled workman and a political radical. By 1901 he was in England, in Hastings, making a living as a signwriter and house painter. His health was failing. Like so many at the time, he was suffering from tuberculosis, and his condition was exacerbated by his poor living conditions and the long hours he had to work – when he could find work - in order to make ends meet.
He was very intelligent and, despite his lack of formal education, very well-read. He read Shakespeare, Dickens, Shelley, Swift, William Morris and John Ruskin, and was nicknamed ‘The Professor’ by his workmates. Very early in his life, he became a socialist, and was heavily influenced by the writings of Marx and Engels. In the turbulent and impoverished years before the First World War he became a committed member of the Hastings Social Democratic Party, painting placards and designing pamphlets, and taking part in unemployed marches and political education campaigns. He encountered much opposition – principally from the working men themselves, who, he said, understood little of socialism even though they vehemently condemned it – and as part of his campaign to educate people in the ideals and principles of socialism he undertook to write The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which, he said was to be a ‘readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of socialism being treated incidentally’.  He adopted the pseudonym ‘Tressell’ in honour of the tools of the decorating trade.
Robert never saw his book published. After his death, Kathleen took it round various publishers and it was eventually published in 1914. It has seen numerous editions since and has become something of a bible to generations of left-wing thinkers, many of whom will say that it introduced them to socialist thought or that it reinforced their previous convictions. I’ve bought at least five copies of the book over the last forty years or so and I’ve lent them to friends who’ve never returned them. I hope they’ve been passed on. I bought my latest copy in London last month and was spoiled for choice. Gratifyingly, there were three different editions on the shelves in Waterstone’s. I bought the cheapest.

It’s a big, rambling book, about 750 pages long, and even a novice reader can see that it would benefit from substantial editing. It’s repetitive, preachy, naive, sentimental, angry and poorly constructed, with little in the way of character development. However, for all its obvious faults, it is inspiring, mind-blowing, life-changing. It’s an easy read, too, humorous in parts, and along with the humour there is a disturbingly accurate portrayal of working-class life in the industrial cities of early 20th century England which will tear your heartstrings, and renew your commitment to social justice better than any political tract. It is also a deeply religious book, extolling a religion of humanity which honours Jesus’ words – which he quotes frequently to highlight the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful who proclaim the message of Jesus while living in a way that runs diametrically counter to his teachings.
It tells the story of some painters and decorators who live in the fictional town of Mugsborough, The name is reminiscent of the City of Fools in the Sufi story I told the children. Like Dickens, Tressell uses names as a shorthand delineation of character – Mr McChoakumchild and Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times leave the reader in no doubt about Dickens's attitude to these men. So, among Tressell’s characters there’s Slyme, the devout Christian, Crass, the foreman, Snatchum, the undertaker, Councillor Didlum and Councillor Grinder, Alderman Sweater, and Sir Featherstone Blood – to name but a few! The various decorating firms in Mugsborough are called Pushem and Sloggem, Bluffum and Doemdown, Dodger and Scampit, Snatcham and Graball, Smeeriton and Leavit, and Makehaste and Sloggit. There’s little room for nuances of character in Tressell! ('Sir Featherstone Blood' is a reference to the three miners shot dead in the village of Featherstone by soldiers during a 'lockout' by the mine-owners in 1893.)
The citizens of Mugsborough work when they can, get into debt when they can’t, live in cold houses, suffer all the illnesses associated with poverty, dress in hand-me-downs and jumble-sale clothing, and eat bread and margarine. They undertake to work for a pittance, and will even volunteer to work for less than their fellows if this will ensure them a brief spell of employment. So, men who have been working for 7d an hour will be laid off to make room for those who will work for 6d. Men are sacked with no reason, dismissed without compensation or pension when they become too old to work – usually sometime in their early fifties-, and, as often as not, after a lifetime of unrewarded effort are unceremoniously dumped in a pauper’s grave. 
But, says Tressell, for all that they suffer in this way, the men defend and support the system that keeps them in poverty. ‘It’s always been like this,’ they say. ‘Nothing can change it. Just be glad you’ve got a job, and keep your mouth shut.’ Their religious leaders are in cahoots with the rich, promising pie-in-the-sky in return for compliance and silence. ‘Parsons and publicans is the worst enemies the workin’ man ever ‘ad,’ says one of his characters (page 168). And the newspapers they read – and quote from – The Daily Obscurer and the Daily Chloroform – keep them in ignorance and reinforce their feeling that the system is beyond reform. They doff their caps to their ‘betters’, cheer their good fortune, wish them well, and thank them for the privilege of giving them work.
Hence the strange title of the book. These men are ragged trousered philanthropists – men dressed in rags and living in hovels offering goodwill and obeisance to people who wear the finest clothing and live in mansions. They do the work, live like slaves, in order that others can live in luxury. These men, who should be organising to defeat the system that enslaves them, are cheerfully defending it. ‘The ones who are esteemed most of all and honoured above all the rest, are those who obtain money for doing absolutely nothing.’ (page 340). Tressell writes ‘It would be easy enough to convince them if they would only take a little trouble to understand, but he knew that they certainly would not “worry” themselves about such a subject.’ He goes on:

It was not as if it were some really important matter, such as a smutty story, a game of hooks and rings or shove-ha-penny, something connected with football or cricket, horse-racing or the doings of some royal personage or aristocrat. (page 330)

Although he sympathises with their plight, Tressell really has nothing but contempt for the resignation and willful ignorance of the working men. They accept their own poverty, condemn their children to it, and refuse to listen to anyone who suggests a way for them to extricate themselves from it. ‘And then the starving, bootless, ragged, stupid wretches fell down and worshipped the System, and offered up their children as living sacrifices upon its altars.’ (page 460)
            And what is poverty? Tressell gives us an answer: ‘Poverty consists not merely in being without money, but in being short of the necessaries and comforts of life – or in other words in being short of the Benefits of Civilisation, the things that are all, without exception, produced by work. (page 322)
            On one occasion Owen tells his workmates – to their great consternation and mocking disbelief - that poverty is not caused by foreigners coming in and taking jobs; it’s not caused by women in the workplace; it’s not caused by trade tariffs, as the Liberals claim, or lack of trade tariffs as the Tories claim; it’s not caused by competition with industries in foreign countries. The cause of poverty is money. One of the central chapters of the book explains what he means. It’s called The Great Money Trick, a title I’ve appropriated for this address.
            I won’t go into details – I hope you’ll read the chapter for yourselves. Suffice it to say that using a few slices of bread, three pocket knives and a few halfpenny coins Owen shows how the owners of the means of production – the capitalists – get the workers to work, appropriate the results of their work, pay them part of the value of their work and then sell part of their own products back to them. The inevitable result is that the rich man has increased his capital and the poor man is back where he started – with nothing, and sometimes, with less than nothing. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in the fifties:

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

Money is the cause of poverty. It sounds strange today, too, doesn’t it? And yet, looking at the current financial crisis who can doubt it? Hordes of workers lying idle, surrounded by work that needs to be done.  Countless half-built houses, raw materials in abundance, yet thousands of architects and builders out of work. Massive ‘debts’ but no one precisely sure exactly who we are all in debt to. Politicians blaming each other, ordinary people blaming foreigners, blaming the Chinese, the bankers – everybody but the system which few understand but nobody seems to question. Never before in human history has it been possible to produce enough to feed, clothe and educate every single human being on earth, wrote Tressell at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, a hundred years on, our capacity is even greater and yet, as the Trocaire adverts tell us, every second a child dies because he lacks clean drinking water, and a good percentage of the world’s population will go to bed hungry tonight.
            The system is to blame all right, but I’m not as sure as Tressell was that it’s easy to change. Those regimes that tried to follow Tressell’s Marxist path have ended in dictatorship and tyranny. He wrote before the Russian and Chinese revolutions. But he also forgot one more thing, or perhaps, writing pre-Freud, he wasn’t aware of it. The Great Money Trick is not just a cruel fiscal con-trick played on us all by Capitalism: it is much more insidious. Money has tricked us into making it the yardstick by which we measure worth, the criterion we choose to compare ourselves against our fellows. It pretends to be the antidote to our insecurities and anxieties, even of our mortality. ‘Love of money is the root of all evil,’ says St. Paul, and nothing has happened in the past two thousand years to show that he was wrong. Erich Fromm, the great 20th century Marxist Freudian thinker, said that our obsession with money and our love of it stems from the fact that we live our lives in ‘having’ mode and not ‘being’ mode. That is, we have come to believe that our happiness lies in accumulation and not in transformation. This is why Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor – to change the orientation of his life. Only then could he enter the kingdom of heaven, which means that only then would he be living a life of integrity, free from the distractions which blind him to his own spiritual needs, and fully open to the concerns and needs of his fellow human beings.
            The gospel of Jesus is nothing less than a call to a radical transformation of our nature. Without such a transformation we are condemned to live lives of spiritual poverty and to witness untold millions living in material poverty. Tressell’s book presents this perennial problem in all its starkness. The treatment he suggests may be naive, but the diagnosis is correct, and I challenge you to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and not be moved by its humanity and inspired by its righteous anger.
I also challenge you to read it and not to come away with a determination to reassess the ways in which Money is playing a great trick on you.


13th March 2011


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