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Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

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Posted (edited)

Null sent me the book The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the online text of which may be found here. He suggested an online read-along, so any who are interested are invited to participate.

The novel is based on real events in early 20th century England, among the working-class: Laborers who renovate houses for a certain company.

At the center of the novel is Frank Owen, a socialist who is a stand-in for the author himself. How do his fellow workers regard Owen?

He was generally regarded as a bit of a crank: for it was felt that there must be something wrong about a man who took no interest in racing or football and was always talking a lot of rot about religion and politics. If it had not been for the fact that he was generally admitted to be an exceptionally good workman, they would have had little hesitation about thinking that he was mad.

This introduces what appears to be one of the main themes of the work: that the working class is complicit in its own degradation. The men labor like slaves for poverty wages; keeping body and soul together and feeding their families constantly preys on their mind, as they try to keep in the good graces of their malevolent overseer, a certain Mr. Hunter who, behind his back, is called "Misery" and "Nimrod." Without unions or protection of any kind, the men are subject to dismissal at a moment's notice, and indeed early in the work one man is fired by Misery for smoking. The overseer does this because he has a new man whom he can put to work at even lower wages than the man he fired.

But for all that, the workers seem culturally, politically and economically conservative; they blame foreigners and the lazy poor for their plight. This was written more than a hundred years ago, and has anything really changed?

Owen tries to educate them, saying:

'If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilization--the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers--is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal--he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.'

The title, of course, expresses the idea that these men living hand to mouth and working in their ragged trousers are actually philanthropists: they do all the work, and their bosses and company owners live off the wealth that they produced, of which they are denied any more than the mere pittance needed to keep them from the Poor House.

More later.

Edited by davidm
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I'm listening to the Librivox recording of this. The reader (Taig Something) does an admirable job. :yup:

The title, as one might work out from the O.P. includes a touch of irony, because the painters are philanthropists only in the sense that they are working hard for next-to-nothing in order to help those who have a lot, but barely work. If a hard-working man with nothing giving what he has to a lazy man with everything is philanthropy, that is the philanthropy of the novel.

As the novel progresses the ways in which Owen's socialistic views fail to be implemented are explored and developed. Initially, his fellow work mates dismiss his lectures as nonsense, some of them making jokes and taking the mick out of his philosophy when they can. Later on, however, some of the workers admit that he has a point, but they believe there's no point in trying to get it going, because the present system cannot be changed, or at least not by the likes of them; the system has left them in a state of learned helplessness.

In TRP, "Tressel" shows how the poor are the victims of the "current system" (as he is wont to call it) of capitalism, but the are as much to blame as the greedy, lazy rich, because while the latter maintain the "current system" through oppression, the former maintains it through apathy. As davidm has already mentioned in the O.P, this apathy extends to blaming things that aren't really to blame for their plight, rather than the people who are responsible. Going on experience (and I apologise for being anecdotal), this still goes on today, with underpaid, disrespected employees being grateful to their bosses for the meager wages given them (often considerably less than the official living wage), most of which end up back in the bosses pocket, Also, like in the novel, people today have a tendency to blame things that aren't responsible for their poor living conditions. For example, in Britain today, working people on benefits (because their wages are so low they need the benefits to survive) and the disabled are seen as significant problems affecting society, whereas those responsible for making life worse for a lot of people, are shown such contempt. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, using his own brand of rhetoric, has convinced many that the working poor and the disabled are workshy scroungers, and it's their fault that other people are working hard with nothing to show for it, even though the reality is that the people who are angry at the poor and disabled should be angry at the government, who, like the antagonists in TRP, seem to be utilising reverse Robin Hood tactics. IOW, they rob the poor to feed the rich, then get the poor to blame each other for their plight.

So, in response to David's earlier question, I would say that there are themes in the novel that hold true today. The reality may look different to those unwilling to look at the big picture, but the change Tressel hoped for is still some way off.

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Yes, it's all depressingly familiar, in concert with the modern "makers vs. takers" BS of the right wingers. Whereas in fact the real so-called "makers" are actually the takers, and the so-called takers are actually the makers.

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This work is a relentless critique of Christianity. The critique is double-barreled: against the logical inanities of Christian theology, and against the social role of the Church, which is to teach exploited workers not just to accept but to revel in their own exploitation.

Frank Owen finds a starving, suffering kitten and rescues it. The incident inspires him to reflect on a classic theological problem:

This incident served to turn his thoughts into another channel. If, as so many people pretended to believe, there was an infinitely loving God, how was it that this helpless creature that He had made was condemned to suffer? It had never done any harm, and was in no sense responsible for the fact that it existed. Was God unaware of the miseries of His creatures? If so, then He was not all-knowing. Was God aware of their sufferings, but unable to help them? Then He was not all-powerful. Had He the power but not the will to make His creatures happy? Then He was not good.

The Problem of Evil usually raises apologetics about how human free will is of such value that God must accommodate it even at the risk of generating evil; but the author's simple invocation of a starving and suffering kitten blows all of these tortured apologetics out of the water. What does human free will have to do with a suffering and starving kitten? The existence of this kind of suffering cannot be explained by the exercise of anyone's free will. The existence of this kind of suffering, and many other kinds of suffering as well, such as that brought about by natural evils (tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) has nothing to do with human free will. The existence of these kinds of evil, this kind of suffering, logically disproves God. There is not, nor can there possibly be, any entity that is all-powerful, all-knowing and morally perfect. If there were, then there would be no starving, suffering kitten; but there is such a kitten; consequently there is no God. It's really that simple.

Morever, as Owen notes, Christians themselves, or at least those that preach it from the pulpits, know this perfectly well. Following up his classic statement of the Problem of Evil, Owen goes on to note:

No; it was impossible to believe in the existence of an individual, infinite God. In fact, no one did so believe; and least of all those who pretended for various reasons to be the disciples and followers of Christ. The anti-Christs who went about singing hymns, making long prayers and crying Lord, Lord, but never doing the things which He said, who were known by their words to be unbelievers and infidels, unfaithful to the Master they pretended to serve, their lives being passed in deliberate and systematic disregard of His teachings and Commandments. It was not necessary to call in the evidence of science, or to refer to the supposed inconsistencies, impossibilities, contradictions and absurdities contained in the Bible, in order to prove there was no truth in the Christian religion. All that was necessary was to look at the conduct of the individuals who were its votaries.

The novel repeatedly explores the malignant social role of Christianity, and this was a century ago, before many crimes of Christianity were brought to light, such as the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is a cult of child molesters, and no doubt has been for many centuries. In sum, the social role of the Church in the novel's milieu is to enforce an economic system in which the workers work for poverty wages and their overlords reap the benefits. This is done through indoctrination: the working poor are inculcated from early youth with the idea that it is good and right and proper that the workers should suffer and the idlers who control them should benefit. The payoff, they are taught, will come in the next world: The workers will finally receive their reward, not in this life, but after they are dead. In a sense, this is right, though not in the sense that the church would like one to believe: You will not suffer after you are dead, because you will no longer exist. The dead do not suffer.

The novel thus lays bare the fundamental nihilism of Christianity. Christianity is pre-eminently a nihilistic enterprise. Nothing has any meaning in this life. Meaning comes in the next life. Only, since, as Christians themselves perfectly well know even if they are loath to admit it, there is no next life. In a social context, though, the fiction of a next life must be maintained, for if the idea were to be seriously challenged, than the workers depicted in this novel might begin to seriously challenge the social basis for their oppression. As it happens, however, most of the workers, except for Owen, not only accept their plight as part of the natural order, but even agree that it right in proper: that the good things in life "are not for the likes of them." They have been well-indoctrinated.

Later, the author shows the typical behavior of the good Christians in the house where Owen and his family lives. Not only is he held in contempt for being a common working man, but what is most appalling of all is that Owen is an atheist.

This low fellow, this common workman, with his paint-bespattered clothing, his broken boots, and his generally shabby appearance, was a disgrace to the street; and as for his wife she was not much better, because although whenever she came out she was always neatly dressed, yet most of the neighbours knew perfectly well that she had been wearing the same white straw hat all the time she had been there. In fact, the only tolerable one of the family was the boy, and they were forced to admit that he was always very well dressed; so well indeed as to occasion some surprise, until they found out that all the boy's clothes were home-made. Then their surprise was changed into a somewhat grudging admiration of the skill displayed, mingled with contempt for the poverty which made its exercise necessary.

The indignation of the neighbours was increased when it became known that Owen and his wife were not Christians: then indeed everyone agreed that the landlord ought to be ashamed of himself for letting the top flat to such people.

But although the hearts of these disciples of the meek and lowly Jewish carpenter were filled with uncharitableness, they were powerless to do much harm. The landlord regarded their opinion with indifference. All he cared about was the money: although he also was a sincere Christian, he would not have hesitated to let the top flat to Satan himself, provided he was certain of receiving the rent regularly.

The only one upon whom the Christians were able to inflict any suffering was the child. At first when he used to go out into the street to play, the other children, acting on their parents' instructions, refused to associate with him, or taunted him with his parents' poverty. Occasionally he came home heartbroken and in tears because he had been excluded from some game.

At first, sometimes the mothers of some of the better-class children used to come out with a comical assumption of superiority and dignity and compel their children to leave off playing with Frankie and some other poorly dressed children who used to play in that street. These females were usually overdressed and wore a lot of jewellery. Most of them fancied they were ladies, and if they had only had the sense to keep their mouths shut, other people might possibly have shared the same delusion.

But this was now a rare occurrence, because the parents of the other children found it a matter of considerable difficulty to prevent their youngsters from associating with those of inferior rank, for when left to themselves the children disregarded all such distinctions. Frequently in that street was to be seen the appalling spectacle of the ten-year-old son of the refined and fashionable Trafaim dragging along a cart constructed of a sugar box and an old pair of perambulator wheels with no tyres, in which reposed the plebeian Frankie Owen, armed with a whip, and the dowdy daughter of a barber's clerk: while the nine-year-old heir of the coal merchant rushed up behind…

The above passage show a big virtue of this work, which is that it not just polemical, but is a powerful literary work as well, the author's concerns expressed in the voice of the writer, the artist.

The landlord regarded their opinion with indifference. All he cared about was the money: although he also was a sincere Christian, he would not have hesitated to let the top flat to Satan himself, provided he was certain of receiving the rent regularly.

:mrgreen:

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Posted

One note. If the plight of the kitten was different than a person, then that would surely indicate that God existed. That would be too simple to figure out. :)

-Scott

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This link allows you to skip straight to whichever chapter you wish, so I figured it'd be more useful than the other one, which requires you to bookmark or remember a page number (which is annoying when you're already halfway through the book).

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3608/3608-h/3608-h.htm#chap01

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Posted (edited)

Moving on in Ragged Trousers: Owen has read a newspaper story of a family driven to destitution in which the father cut the throats of his children and wife, and then his own throat. Owen contemplates murder/suicide of his own family, knowing that they are a step away from destitution as well, and he considers better alternatives: Carbon monoxide, various types of poisons, and hanging. Sad stuff. :sadcheer:

Edited by davidm

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Posted (edited)

:lol::@: "Mrs M. B. Sile," "Mrs M. T. Head," and "Mrs Knobrane."

(Chapter 36)

Edited by DaveT

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Posted (edited)

Nice bit where Rushton gives Owen a chance to create his own artwork in a house being renovated. Owen devotes a huge amount of time to the project, never once thinking about how he will be remunerated, or even if he will. He cares only about the creativity, the work in and of itself. Rushton, otoh, cares nothing about the art, only how he, personally, can profit from the work of Owen, work that Owen is talented enough to do but is utterly beyond the ability of Rushton. But Rushton will make the money. This scene ends with:

But although this question of what profit could be made out of the work never occurred to Owen, it would in due course by fully considered by Mr Rushton. In fact, it was the only thing about the work that Mr Rushton would think of at all: how much money could be made out of it. This is what is meant by the oft-quoted saying, 'The men work with their hands--the master works with his brains.''
Edited by davidm

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A side note: One of the reasons I don't wholly hate Ayn Rand is because when she wrote The Fountainhead, she was still partially sane. And she has scenes in that novel very like the scene described above. At one point the architect Howard Roark makes it explicit to Peter Keating, who is trying to get Roark to build a housing project and let Keating put his name on it. Why would Roark do that? It's not the money. It's not the fame. It's because Roark will love to do the work. In this Rand is at her sanest, and "best," if that word can be applied to her. A person who does things only for money is really an empty person, actually a prostitute. Money for its own sake is a chimera. When one loves what one does and does what one loves the money may or may not follow, but the work is its own reward.

Edited by davidm
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I'm trying to avoid spoilers while D. Miz catches up. For this reason, I'll be brief, and try to avoid plot details in future posts.

I think I can imagine a possible criticism of the book is that these characters are used to represent an extreme view that Tressel can attack to get his point across. There's no redeeming qualities to them; they're 2-D, like all the other characters. Critics of the text may claim that Tressel is exaggerating the faults of those he attacks to the point at which the characters themselves become risible.

The work, if we focus solely on the characters, could have an opposite equivalent, in which all the rich people are working hard for the good of society, and the socialists spend their time being lazy, demanding that they be given food and money for no work, and discussing the best way to build a gulag without actually building a gulag (due to them all being too lazy to do so).

In short, as far as the characters go, sometimes the novel reminds me of a bad episode of South Park, in that the work attacks stereotypes rather than realistic, well-rounded, 3-D (etc) characters that relate more to their real-life counterparts.

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Posted (edited)

.

Edited by DaveT

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I can see how someone might make this criticism, Dave, but I don't think it carries too much weight. If we think of a literary work of art as containing depths and contradictions and sudden departures from the expected, then perhaps this work falls a bit short on that criteria. But I don't think that was the writer's goal. It's worth remembering that he just didn't make all this stuff up. It's essentially a fictionalized memoir, which to me is what gives it so much power. One actually feels that one is reliving a moment in history. Moreover, sometimes people just ARE 2d.

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Posted

"...was dead. End of Chapter 46"

:eek3:

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There's a brief essay on the book here:

http://www.unionhistory.info/ragged/ragged.php

Elsewhere on the site are images of the original manuscript. Interestingly, Noonan -The author's real name- had written, then crossed out, "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down."

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David, did you ever finish reading this?

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