Robert Noonan, an Irish housepainter who wrote a single book in his life under the surname Tressell, died from tuberculosis, that old codeword for poverty, in 1911. His single written work, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, stayed unpublished until his daughter Kathleen found a publisher for some of the material in 1914. Noonan’s complete story would not be published until 1955.
An Edwardian version of HBO’s ‘The Wire’, the book is a slow safari through a system defined by absurd injustice. Characters are sketched and lingered on, but are ultimately mere dots that only make sense when the reader steps back and sees the vivid contrasts in the ways of life described. At which point we recognise this absurd system as our own.
The ordinary stories of housepainters in the English town of Mugsborough [Hastings] towards the end of the long nineteenth century are light on plot. Instead, the exact wrongs and inefficiencies of capitalism that trap a class of people are dramatised, resulting in the same analysis of how capital behaves and the condition of those who sell their labour that is so enticing and consistent about Marxism. And, like The Wire, there is no reason why any independent thinker should not come and see these stories and concur that, for so much of it, the diagnosis is correct.
There are universal moments…
One is the difficulty in talking with your colleagues or family about politics during a tea break, in the pub or over the dinner table. Our ̶c̶u̶r̶r̶e̶n̶t̶ recent debate about Brexit is substituted timelessly by Tariff Reform vs. Free Trade. Everyone has a side but few can explain their reasons.
A second is a chapter called ‘The Great Money Trick’, a parlour game Frank Owen plays with his colleagues, a more truthful version of monopoly, where he cuts a loaf of bread to represent a worker’s labour, their wages, the necessities of life and their cost. He shows the typical inability of a worker to save money, to buy assets or be freed from what is referred to several times as ‘wage slavery’. Whatever name we might choose for this economic idea now should reflect the current version of the Great Money Trick. In April 2018 nearly 10 million households in the UK had no savings whatsoever, yet as recently as February 2020 employment was at a record high. With so much work and so little wealth, Owen concludes that for as long as workers have no share in the fruits of their labour, work and money are the causes of poverty.
A better world?
Noonan was capable of what we now struggle with: imagining a different and better world. He could do this innocently because he didn’t know what happened next. He wrote on a page that was truly blank. He did not have to qualify his ideas to pay down the unpayable debt of The Red Terror, Mao Tse Tung or economic collapse in Venezuela. The author believes, simply, it is only logical that one system should be replaced by another — especially when so many presently suffer.
The campaign to elect an MP in Mugsborough, fought between the indistinguishable Conservative and Liberal candidates, is described in detail to show organised violence against the underdog Socialists. But we ought to recognise this as the behaviour of the politically ascendent and the result of a society that lacks a marketplace of ideas and the ability to consent and dissent. Socialists committed their own acts of violence in the places that had too much socialism, when they were ascendant and when they thought they knew best.
‘Too much’ is the appropriate qualifier for the best and worst parts of the book. ‘Too much’ capitalism creates misery in these characters’ lives, just like in our time — as any episode of John Harris’ video journalism ‘Anywhere But Westminster’, a modern blend of Orwell’s tramp through poverty and the themes of this book, will show.
But when the character Barrington describes the future socialist world to his colleagues in the chapter ‘The Great Oration’ we sense the familiar weakness of a Marxist trying to flesh out a credible alternative. To Barrington, the benefits of replacing all private enterprise with a single state-run shop are obvious and simple. We hear about price setting and planned production quotas — we know where this leads, just as we know the consequences of wage slavery.
Thinking critically about ‘competition’ in the twentieth century is a privilege unavailable to Noonan. The author sees competition as always leading to bad outcomes to worker and customer. Bosses are forced to tender the lowest quote and then force their workers to produce shoddy products in the shortest amount of time. If only, Noonan concludes, workers had more time to complete the job to the highest standards and were paid over that longer period. Indeed that would be better. But a single state employer or shop could never provide this. Real competition could improve it, but then who says we have achieved real competition?
In Britain today there is some competition in the economy, most notably in the retail sector [more than 60% of British GDP is consumer spending after all]. But competition in education, healthcare, railways, water and other natural monopolies is an inefficient sham. Competition in sectors such as financial services is worse than a sham — it is a corrupt mix of Barrington’s world of no choice multiplied by the delight of the Big 4 banks on hearing the consumer is more likely to change their spouse than their current account.
What arch-socialist Barrington does not engage with is the delicate, boring, non-revolutionary and, apparently, non-election winning idea of government as a strong referee with the confidence to send people off the not-so-level playing field for foul play. Or, more radically, government as the public’s only vehicle to participate meaningfully in the economy and drive it anywhere but off the unacceptable cliff face of capitalism.
I’d like to think, in their universe, the main socialist characters, Frank Owen and Barrington, lived to see the Labour government of 1945 realise public ownership of industry and a national health service. However it is far more likely these young-ish men, if they had not already died from some condition of poverty, formed pals’ battalions in 1914 and went off to die in Flanders for their country and indirectly for the preservation of colonialism [racism being a silent question mark for the modern reader especially considering the author’s time in South Africa. Does the socialist utopia expand past the white man?].
The title of the book itself ‘Philanthropists’ is only explained near the end. The hard-working men do not work for their own benefit. Instead, they work entirely for the enrichment of others. More than 100% of their wages are given back to the same or similar individuals or businesses without any long-term enrichment. And so they can be considered philanthropists, their lives a donation, to enrich the already rich.
There could be a socialist vision of the future that is not ‘too much’ and swings the pendulum away from the extremes of capital and back towards labour [small L]. It would see average weekly real earnings growth increase meaningfully for the first time in two generations. It would no longer see suicide as the most likely way for men to die. It would see the wealth that comes from record employment no longer hoarded by 1% of society. It would see workers co-own their business, take business decisions and receive dividends when these decisions pay off. It would see the CEO of a bank paid no more than 20x the lowest employee [just like John Pierpont [JP] Morgan advocated]. It would see big companies pay a rate of tax they disagree with, like the rest of us. It would see some understanding by politicians in the Labour Party that white van men buy their van out of Capex because they are entrepreneurs — even if they speak differently to you. It would see a universal basic income treat workers as humans again. It would make visible the corruption in political parties, boardrooms, religious buildings, monarchies or other institutions that claim to serve and, on seeing this, the public vote peacefully with their feet or at the ballot box to punish it. It would see profit reinvested in the things that help improve the lot of the public.
It would see people not die at work or burn to death in their tower block because of anxieties around the profit motive.
It would see the nutrition and education of children and babies as non-negotiable.
It would see the worker not as a philanthropist to the perpetually rich — but able to secure financial assets for themselves.
And anyone who feels like they could also see this, and could explain how it all might look in the 21st Century, as the rotting pillars of our current system clang to the floor, would do well to read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.