Monday, 28 March 2011

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists- 100 years on






In 1911 a struggling, unsuccessful writer Robert Tressell died in poverty in a Liverpool hospital. A 1,600 page unpublished novel lay in a tinbox under his bed. That book, which was published many years after his death, "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist" secured his fame albeit posthumously. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature. It is a work that many Socialists would cite as having a transformative impact upon them. Ricky Tomlinson of "Royle" family fame believes it the "best book ever".

The book concerns itself with a group of working men in a mythical town Mugsborough and their struggles against poverty wages, insecurity and tyrannical bosses.

The author embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Tressell's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their superiors.

One might argue that all this was a long time ago. But is it? I have a friend who works at a major food producer in Leek. He works for an agency. The agency also employs many foreign workers. All are on minimum pay. It remains the case that casualisation of labour is increasing. Growing evidence reveals what being part of a "flexible" workforce means, low pay, job insecurity, poor safety and few rights.



The book concerns itself with a group of working men in a mythical town Mugsborough and their struggles against poverty wages, insecurity and tyrannical bosses.

The author embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Tressell's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their superiors.

One might argue that all this was a long time ago. But is it? I have a friend who works at a major food producer in Leek. He works for an agency. The agency also employs many foreign workers. All are on minimum pay. It remains the case that casualisation of labour is increasing. Growing evidence reveals what being part of a "flexible" workforce means, low pay, job insecurity, poor safety and few rights.

It has social fallout in terms of increased child poverty, where women are denied occupational maternity pay. It will mean increased pensioner poverty, as more people are excluded from occupational pensions. It encourages the payment of poverty wages and increases the burden on taxpayers of paying means-tested benefits. It reduces job satisfaction for permanent staff who train the constant stream of new entrants, whose employment is often cut short.

Shortly many people will shortly be forcibly leaving well paid, secure work as the recession impacts. Some in desperation will turn to agencies to find employment practices not far removed from Victorian times.

In age of fat cats and bankers' bonuses, the message behind The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists rings clear.

It's just a shame that after 100 years after Tressell’s death, we're still falling for the same old trick

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