Money Value and Wealth

There's confusion, in common English, between the meanings of money, value and wealth. Conventional economics does nothing to enlighten us, but marxism does.

Not many people read Marx of course, but for better or worse he has lots of interpreters. Robert Tressell is one of his less well known admirers whose novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists achieved prominence in left-wing and trade union circles after its posthumous publication in 1914. The unabridged, socialist version wasn't published published until 1955. I first heard of it myself in the early seventies from some old tramway communists who'd read it in their study groups.

Michael Roberts, in his excellent Marx 200, cites the following chapter by Tressell to illustrate how capitalism uses money to exploit the working class. This is basically a man-in-the-street version of Marx's laws of value and surplus value (the street would've run through England before the First World War, as the language is not what we'd expect today). The Labor Theory of Value is what separates Marxism from all other strands of economics, as well as linking Marx's thought to earlier philosophers such as Ricardo and Smith.

There has been considerable debate about this Labor Theory of Value, which I do not canvas here except to point to the work of Steve Keen (against both LTV and neoliberalism), Andrew Kliman (a marxist, strongly for LTV) and Fred Mosely article here and longer PDF here.

Read your winter blues away, or settle for the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists!

The Great Money Trick

'Money IS the real cause of poverty,' said Owen. 'Prove it,' repeated Crass.

'Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labours.' 'Prove it,' said Crass.

Owen slowly folded up the piece of newspaper he had been reading and put it into his pocket.

'All right,' he replied. 'I'll show you how the Great Money Trick is worked.'

Owen opened his dinner basket and took from it two slices of bread but as these were not sufficient, he requested that anyone who had some bread left would give it to him. They gave him several pieces, which
he placed in a heap on a clean piece of paper, and, having borrowed the pocket knives they used to cut and eat their dinners with from Easton, Harlow and Philpot, he addressed them as follows:

'These pieces of bread represent the raw materials which exist naturally in and on the earth for the use of mankind; they were not made by any human being, but were created by the Great Spirit for the benefit and sustenance of all, the same as were the air and the light
of the sun.'

'You're about as fair-speakin' a man as I've met for some time,' said Harlow, winking at the others.

'Yes, mate,' said Philpot. 'Anyone would agree to that much! It's as clear as mud.'

'Now,' continued Owen, 'I am a capitalist; or, rather, I represent the landlord and capitalist class. That is to say, all these raw materials belong to me. It does not matter for our present argument how I obtained possession of them, or whether I have any real right to them; the only thing that matters now is the admitted fact that all the raw materials which are necessary for the production of the necessaries of life are now the property of the Landlord and Capitalist class. I am that class: all these raw materials belong to me.' 'Good enough!' agreed Philpot. 'Now you three represent the Working class: you have nothing--and for my part, although I have all these raw materials, they are of no use to me--what need is--the things that can be made out of these raw materials by Work: but as I am too lazy to work myself, I have invented the Money Trick to make you work FOR me. But first I must explain that I possess something else beside the raw materials. These three knives represent--all the machinery of production; the factories, tools, railways, and so forth, without which the necessaries of life cannot be produced in abundance. And these three coins'--taking three halfpennies from his pocket--'represent my Money Capital.'

'But before we go any further,' said Owen, interrupting himself, 'it is most important that you remember that I am not supposed to be merely "a" capitalist. I represent the whole Capitalist Class. You are not supposed to be just three workers--you represent the whole Working Class.'

'All right, all right,' said Crass, impatiently, 'we all understand that. Git on with it.'

Owen proceeded to cut up one of the slices of bread into a number of little square blocks.

'These represent the things which are produced by labour, aided by machinery, from the raw materials. We will suppose that three of these blocks represent--a week's work. We will suppose that a week's work is worth--one pound: and we will suppose that each of these ha'pennies is a sovereign. We'd be able to do the trick better if we had real sovereigns, but I forgot to bring any with me.'

'I'd lend you some,' said Philpot, regretfully, 'but I left me purse on our grand pianner.'

As by a strange coincidence nobody happened to have any gold with them, it was decided to make shift with the halfpence.

'Now this is the way the trick works --'

'Before you goes on with it,' interrupted Philpot, apprehensively, 'don't you think we'd better 'ave someone to keep watch at the gate in case a Slop comes along? We don't want to get runned in, you know.'

'I don' think there's any need for that,' replied Owen, 'there's only one slop who'd interfere with us for playing this game, and that's Police Constable Socialism.'

'Never mind about Socialism,' said Crass, irritably. 'Get along with the bloody trick.'

Owen now addressed himself to the working classes as represented by Philpot, Harlow and Easton.


'You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class I am going to invest all my money in
various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. I shall pay each
of you one pound per week, and a week's work is--you must each produce three of these square blocks. For doing this work you will each receive your wages; the money will be your own, to do as you like with, and the things you produce will of course be mine, to do as I like
with. You will each take one of these machines and as soon as you have done a week's work, you shall have your money.'

The Working Classes accordingly set to work, and the Capitalist class sat down and watched them. As soon as they had finished, they passed the nine little blocks to Owen, who placed them on a piece of paper by his side and paid the workers their wages.

'These blocks represent the necessaries of life. You can't live
without some of these things, but as they belong to me, you will have to buy them from me: my price for these blocks is--one pound each.'

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist's terms. They each bought back and at once consumed one-third of the produce of their labour. The capitalist class also devoured two of the square blocks, and so the net result of the week's work was that the kind capitalist had consumed two pounds worth of the things produced by the labour of the others, and reckoning the squares at their market value of one pound each, he had more than doubled his capital, for he still possessed the three pounds in money and in addition four pounds worth of goods. As for the working classes, Philpot, Harlow and Easton, having each consumed the pound's worth of necessaries they had bought with their wages, they were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work--they had nothing.

This process was repeated several times: for each week's work the producers were paid their wages. They kept on working and spending all their earnings. The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased. In a
little while--reckoning the little squares at their market value of one pound each--he was worth about one hundred pounds, and the working classes were still in the same condition as when they began, and were still tearing into their work as if their lives depended upon it.

After a while the rest of the crowd began to laugh, and their merriment increased when the kind-hearted capitalist, just after having sold a pound's worth of necessaries to each of his workers, suddenly took 
their tools--the Machinery of Production -- the knives away from them, and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.
'Well, and wot the bloody 'ell are we to do now?' demanded Philpot.

'That's not my business,' replied the kind-hearted capitalist. 'I've paid you your wages, and provided you with Plenty of Work for a long time past. I have no more work for you to do at present. Come round again in a few months' time and I'll see what I can do for you.'

'But what about the necessaries of life?' demanded Harlow. 'We must have something to eat.'

'Of course you must,' replied the capitalist, affably; 'and I shall be very pleased to sell you some.'

'But we ain't got no bloody money!'

'Well, you can't expect me to give you my goods for nothing! You
didn't work for me for nothing, you know. I paid you for your work and you should have saved something: you should have been thrifty like me. Look how I have got on by being thrifty!'

The unemployed looked blankly at each other, but the rest of the crowd only laughed; and then the three unemployed began to abuse the kind-hearted Capitalist, demanding that he should give them some of the necessaries of life that he had piled up in his warehouses, or to be allowed to work and produce some more for their own needs; and even threatened to take some of the things by force if he did not comply
with their demands. But the kind-hearted Capitalist told them not to be insolent, and spoke to them about honesty, and said if they were not careful he would have their faces battered in for them by the police,
or if necessary he would call out the military and have them shot down like dogs, the same as he had done before at Featherstone and Belfast.

'Of course,' continued the kind-hearted capitalist, 'if it were not for foreign competition I should be able to sell these things that you have made, and then I should be able to give you Plenty of Work again: but until I have sold them to somebody or other, or until I have used them myself, you will have to remain idle.'

'Well, this takes the bloody biskit, don't it?' said Harlow.

'The only thing as I can see for it,' said Philpot mournfully, 'is to 'ave a unemployed procession.'

'That's the idear,' said Harlow, and the three began to march about the room in Indian file, singing:

'We've got no work to do-oo-oo'
We've got no work to do-oo-oo!
Just because we've been workin' a dam sight too hard, Now we've got no work to do.' As they marched round, the crowd jeered at them and made offensive remarks. Crass said that anyone could see that they were a lot of lazy, drunken loafers who had never done a fair day's work in their lives and never intended to.

Posted by Ranterulze June 2018

Robert Tressell (Croker) was born in Dublin in 1870, the illegitimate son of a senior police officer and an Irish mother, Mary Noonan. For most of his life he called himself Robert Noonan, adopting Tressell as his pen name later. He developed a radical political consciousness around the age of sixteen and worked mostly in the sign-writing and building trades. Speaking several languages, he lived variously in London, Liverpool and South Africa.

Influenced by the Marxist-influenced ideas of designer and socialist William Morris, he joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. The next year at 37 he lost his job and his health began to deteriorate. He eventually developed tuberculosis. Unemployed and unable to remain politically active, he started writing hoping to earn enough money to keep him from the workhouse.

He used a pen name as he feared the socialist views expressed in his book would have him blacklisted. He chose Tressell as a play on the trestle table, an important part of a painter and decorator's kit. He completed The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, (originally called The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists) in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected by three publishing houses. The rejections severely depressed him, and his daughter had to save the manuscript from being burnt, keeping it in a metal box beneath her bed.

In poor health he decided to emigrate to Canada with his daughter Kathleen, but died of TB in Liverpool in 1911. He was buried in a pauper's grave in Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, later known as Walton Park Cemetery, on 10 February 1911. It was unmarked and "lost" until 1970. The site is now a community farm and garden which also holds Commonwealth War Graves and Dutch War Graves. There's a nice blog post in memoriam of Tressel on this link.

Tressell grave

Kathleen mentioned her father's novel to a friend of hers, journalist and poet Jessie Pope, who recommended it to her publisher. It was published in Britain, Canada and the US after Kathleen sold the rights for 25 GBP, about $AUD2800 today. A pittance for a book that's been read by millions! But Pope (an imperialist minded supporter of the First World War) edited much of the socialist content out of the manuscript. The original was not rediscovered and republished until 1955.

Parodoxically, the socialist Tressell was also a small business owner and while in South Africa opposed the extension of workers' rights to black workers. He also fought with the Boers because, as an Irishman, he opposed British imperialism. But then he later supported the empire in the lead up to the First World War. A contradictory life which left an invaluable legacy in the form of a book that influenced generations of working people.

This post came to mind after reading Michael Roberts' Marx 200 a short book that summarises and advocates the main "laws" of Karl Marx. Roberts publishes a regular column at The Next Recession