The Blogged Trousered Philanthropists

July 5, 2011

Few things are more irritating than otherwise sensible people claiming that they read the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph in order to get ‘all the sides of a story’. Newspapers don’t present sides of a story in terms of a measured weighing of pros and cons, they present the range of feelings you could have about a particular story. They certainly don’t, especially in the case of the Mail, bother to argue about why you should have them.

I’ve always felt that if you genuinely want to try to see other points of view, you should try to understand the philosophical underpinnings behind him. Unfortunately, not all points of view have proper philosophical underpinnings, so in those cases it’s better to understand the emotional case that lies at its root.

Last year I blogged my way through Atlas Shrugged, perhaps the most famous libertarian polemic. I did this initially with the hope that Ayn Rand had a proper philosophical backing for the internet’s most popular religion, but was rapidly disabused of this idea. Instead, what I found most fascinating about the book was the emotional case it presented; the virtues of the industrious presented against the moral cowardice of the feckless and avaricious. It is this emotional case which has led to its appeal.

Going to the opposite end of the political spectrum, I have recently finished reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This book is in many ways the mirror of Atlas Shrugged; a morally compelling account of how capitalism has screwed the working classes over and how only socialism can afford a release. Originally, I considered blogging my way through it, but decided against it for two main reasons. The first is that the standard of prose in TRTP is much better than Rand’s work, which shuts down a whole avenue of potential mocking. The second is that the book is so much less overtly philosophical than Atlas Shrugged, and is set very firmly within a real town at a real period in history. Much of its content makes reference to contemporary legislative and political issues, and a blog of it would prove incomprehensible without providing enough ancillary material to fill a second book.

Nonetheless, it presents a very powerful picture of how capitalism can fail the worst off in society. There are two pieces of it I’d like to explore: The Money Trick and the Co-operative Commonwealth.

The Money Trick is an argument about how capitalism by its very nature screws over the worker. If one considers the capitalist class and the working class as two separate entities, one can understand this argument very clearly. The working class labours for the capitalist class to produce the necessities of life, which on production are owned by the capitalist class. The capitalist class pays the working classes for their labour. The working classes then have to use the money thus paid to buy back the necessities of life after they undertook the work to produce them. The capitalists end up with both the labour they paid for and the money they paid for it. The working classes get to exist.

It’s very clear from this argument that this arrangement is actually worse than slavery. An owner of a slave has an interest in their wellbeing, to ensure that they get maximum value out of their asset. A capitalist employer doesn’t need to care if his employees get sick or die, as there’s plenty more where they came form.

The obvious rejoinder is that the class analysis is wrong; class is a confused inchoate thing, and people on various levels of income have different roles within the economy, and can genuinely see their living standards rise. This is correct, but it’s also important to recognise the fundamental truth contained within the argument: if you’re working all the hours you have to merely sustain your existence, then you’re worse off than a slave. You have no means by which you can improve your prospects if you’re at the top of your field already, as the author’s painters and decorators are. It’s clear that if capitalism is to work for people like that, an element of redistribution is necessary to permit at a minimum some form of advanced training.

The Co-0perative Commonwealth is the author’s vision of a future socialist society, in which all industries are managed by the State and everyone is paid the same, regardless of the work they do. It is presumed that more prestigious jobs will be rewards in themselves for those who choose to take them up, while for jobs such as rubbish collecting, the hours of labour will be constrained to reflect their low status. Pay will remain the same regardless.

There are many other details of this future society in the book, which I will not go into here. However, it’s important to be clear that the society envisioned by the author is inherently romantic. It is an idealised society in which everyone has a chance to flourish in line with their own wishes. And – let’s be clear – it is a wonderful vision of how society might work. Absolute freedom from worrying about the cost of living is something that capitalism will never be able to offer by itself.

The book was written before the formation of the Soviet Union, so it’s wrong to call it to account for not anticipating the horrors that socialism actually brought. However, while socialism never worked in practice, the Co-operative Commonwealth provides an argument that the Right will never be able to refute: that a society in which everyone is free to flourish by any means of their choosing is a wonderful vision. It’s an impossible vision, but that doesn’t stop it being a wonderful vision.

This discord lies at the heart of many of the disputes in politics: an impossible but just society is still something many of the Left would argue politics should be directed towards, while those on the Right argue that politics should be directed towards the possible. The conflict of impossible justice against vicious reality is eternal, and unlike Rand’s doorstopper, this is a book I can heartily recommend.

8 Responses to “The Blogged Trousered Philanthropists”

  1. Phil Ruse said

    I was all ready to leap to the defence of The Telegraph and then I thought… actually, he’s got a point! Really like your description of the “Left” & “Right” at the end, gives me something to ponder.

    • Adam Bell said

      You’re very kind. To be honest, picking on the Mail and the Telegraph was unfair of me, as all newspapers perform the same function.

  2. Ed said

    “all industries are managed by the State and everyone is paid the same, regardless of the work they do”

    Romantic, really?

    How does something like a Cornish B&B work in this model? I have to notify the state that I want to lease out rooms in my house, be told a meaningless price to charge people and hand over all the money to the state in return for my standard stipend? What if I want an espresso machine for breakfasts? Do I have to save up through my state stipend but then give the earnings from the added value to the state for free? Yikes …

    • Adam Bell said

      I clearly can’t speak for the author, but the obvious answer is that you wouldn’t be allowed to do so. All hotels would be state-run. B&Bs as we know them would not exist. I imagine the justification for this is that if you did manage a hotel, you could do so in the perfect knowledge that you’d never go out of business or have your position threatened, so you’d be free to manage it in the way you chose. It’s this opening up of space for human flourishing which is romantic; the impossible bit comes in when you realise that people don’t necessarily want to flourish.

      • Ed said

        But surely that would be “manage it in any way you choose” – subject to state approval. If the state has to balance the books, they might require that I use battery eggs instead of free-range and so on.

        To my mind, the impossible bit comes in when decoupling work from earnings destroys any rational price structure on goods, no one knows what is in demand and you get surpluses and shortages *even if* everyone in the country is inclined to flourish and work hard.

  3. Adam Bell said

    I’m sure advocates of this position would at this point indulge in some handwaving about a mechanism that ensures accountability for service provision while ensuring maximal freedom. Difficult to see how it would work in practice.

    The state planner’s rejoinder to your second point would be that, “Well, we know we have X numbers of men, women and children in the country, growing each year by X%, so we need X of foodstuffs, housing and employment.” This novel was written in the context of widespread extreme poverty, and eliminating those wants would’ve taken priority over the supply of luxury goods.

  4. Ed said

    Ha, well I guess debating Adam-wearing-state-planner-hat is probably a bit meta and pointless.

    On the Money Trick, though, Tressell picks his numbers fairly carefully and assumes a few things (like no price competition, free raw materials for the capitalist etc.). Whether the labourers or the capitalist end up with the better deal in the end depends on the labourers’ ability to negotiate wages and the capitalist’s ability to sell product: the product of the labour is probably pretty useless to the capitalist unless they can sell it. Who wants 10000 loaves of bread?

    • Adam Bell said

      But meta-debating is the best debating! Without any commitment to the truth of the matter, one is free to be entirely unreasonable.

      I think in the context of Tressell’s argument, the assumption of free raw materials for the capitalist is acceptable, as a consequence of the enclosure of land. For agriculture, this amounts to outright seizing of the means of production. For other industries such as mining, this does result in free resources.

      I would also argue – and this is me actually doing the arguing – that a labourer’s ability to negotiate wages is constrained by circumstances external to their own abilities. Tressell does demonstrate an acknowledged fact that, during the period in which he was writing, labourers were competing for work to such an extent that they were willing to labour for less than the cost of living. This is functionally equivalent to working at a loss, and unlike capitalists, labourers don’t go bust. They die instead. I would say that there is a clear case for safeguards to prevent this, and to help make sure that competition is focused more on ability and less on availability.

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