Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published posthumously in 1914, has become a recommended text for initiates into the Socialist movement. It is a dispiriting text in need of a good editor. The plot is episodic and disconnected, the characters don’t develop much beyond caricatures, possibly because the book’s main purpose is to convey (albeit heavy-handedly) the author’s political philosophy through the mouth of Owen, the committed Socialist among a group of impoverished day workers in turn-of-the-century England. But it does contain a relevant message.
In a series of mealtime lectures, Owen tries to show his fellow workers how they do not benefit from their own efforts, how their passivity and compliance reinforce their own poverty. The novel’s title derives from the author’s belief that the laborers are working for the material benefit not of themselves but rather for their ‘superiors’ and ‘betters’, and that their ignorance of the system perpetuates their exploitation. They do not even know how to vote in their own best interests, but choose the candidate that will ensure the status quo.
My father would have felt at home in Tressell’s band of unskilled workers. He was one of the chauffeurs to the managers at an international cement company, a position that rubbed salt into his class-conscious wounds as he fetched and carried executives to and from meetings, airports, and railway stations. He made his bitterness endurable by developing a love for the ironic put-down, demeaning and dismissive comments that were laced with cruel humor – “There he was, throwing his money around like a man with no arms” – designed to make himself feel better and to ingratiate himself with his fellows at the bottom of the pile.
Additionally, in order to rectify the perceived injustices of his position, he would filch small items from the works canteen or supply cupboard, and bring them home to our family, proudly handing them over like a cat with its latest kill. Drums of instant coffee, cases of paper towels, large logs of carbolic soap, regularly changed hands between my father and mother, augmenting the family supplies, regardless of whether they were of any use or not, one small stone in David’s anti-Goliath sling bag.
But there were no other stones of revolt, and such gestures of defiance were his sole means of retaliation against what he perceived as an unjust system. These uncoordinated and pointless thefts made him feel that he was rectifying the imbalance of his position, and although he did use his political vote to prompt a change in the system, his naturally nihilistic outlook prevented him from involvement in any thing that would actually make this happen; he remained pessimistic that his lot would ever improve, and that his perceived victimization was best alleviated by a hot cup of stolen instant coffee (which, ironically, he didn’t like.)
Challenging the perpetuation of an unjust social order should be everyone’s business, but inertia and helplessness prevent individuals from discovering where and how to be effective. Even the Declaration of Independence is realistic on this point; ‘…mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’ To address the list of perceived injustices perpetrated by the King, it took a general revolution, a proud and fearless collaboration fomented by a handful of individuals who saw open defiance as their only option. America would not be the land that it is if the signers of the Declaration had contented themselves with some snarky backchat and an illicit cup of coffee.
The effectiveness of small protests is hard to measure. When Mark Rothko visited the newly finished Four Seasons restaurant in New York in 1958, in whose dining room his specially commissioned paintings were to hang, he broke off work on the series because he didn’t like the use to which his paintings were to be put. Even though he had known at the inception of the contract the extremely luxurious nature of the room’s appointments and the elevated social standing of the anticipated clientele, he now felt that his work was being enlisted to support a cause that he despised. Initially he had hoped that his contemplative paintings would unsettle the wealthy and self-satisfied diners, but after the site visit he distanced himself from the project, returned his cash advance and put the paintings in storage for the next ten years. These Seagrams Murals now hang in art galleries in London, Tokyo and Washington D.C.
The art world could use a little more analysis of whom it benefits. Performing arts organizations often have mission statements containing ‘…for the furtherance of the musical art’ and ‘…to bring quality musical performances to our communities’, which are disingenuous in their vagueness and insufficiently parse the truth. Such superficial platitudes do not fully acknowledge the economic system within which artistic performances operate, and use the smokescreen of social largesse to avoid a fuller understanding of any unexplored or unrecognized truer agenda.
Sad to say that at the end of Tressel’s novel the workers continue to work for the benefit of the wealthy and never escape their own poverty, there is no material change in their behavior or outlook, and there are no optimistic predictions of meaningful improvement. The system continues unchallenged and unchanged, awaiting the next Revolution.