Tuesday 27 July 2021

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Tressell (1914) Graphic Novel by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard (2021). Reviewed by Bernadette Meaden, 26 June 2021, in Ekklesia

ACCORDING to George Orwell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book everyone should read. It is often named by people on the left as the book which has had the greatest influence on their politics.

However, there is no denying that unlike Animal Farm or 1984, the book published over a century ago is quite long, and probably less appealing to some modern readers. That is why this graphic novel version, by sisters Scarlett and Sophie Rickard, is of such great value, as it brings Robert Tressell’s semi-autobiographical tale of a group of workers and their families to a new and wider audience. The sisters have distilled the story and the arguments of the original book into an enjoyable, entertaining and thoroughly readable format. The characters are sensitively drawn, with a mix of vulnerability and nobility which makes their situations even more poignant. The book is a real work of art, and the illustrations vividly convey the society, the period and the community in which the story is set.

The format means that some of the usual work of a reader’s imagination, gradually forming our own pictures of the characters and places in our minds, is unnecessary, as they are there before our eyes from the first page. This perhaps allows us to become more quickly absorbed in the story, and the arguments we encounter. To a reader unaccustomed to graphic novels it can initially feel strange, but once entered into fully it is a rich experience, with not just our minds and emotions engaged, but our aesthetic senses too.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the book is how, in so many ways, the injustice experienced by workers at the beginning of the 20th century remain with us. A hundred years on, people in Britain don’t (yet) have to worry about being able to afford medical care, but in many other ways – job insecurity, debt, the lack of affordable housing, the ruthlessness and greed of exploitative businesses and employers – the similarities are striking. And whilst the people’s care for each other, as they share what little they have, is moving, their tendency to be deferential and even grateful to those who treat them so badly, and the ease with which they can be divided, is intensely frustrating.

Frank Owen, the socialist, argues that things do not have to be this way. He tries to persuade his workmates that they should not be defending a status quo which keeps them permanently on the edge of destitution. Some of the specific solutions Owen proposes may not seem the best way forward to today’s readers,but his analysis of the capitalist system, and insistence that any solution needs to be radical and bold, seem ever more valid in an age when billionaires would rather leave the earth’s atmosphere than share their vast accumulated wealth.

One of the pleasures of the book for me was how the children emerge as important characters, asking the crucial questions that sometimes only a child could ask, and personifying the perfectly valid ideals that get crushed by a harsh economic system. And although the book is usually characterised as the story of a group of working class men, the Rickard sisters say: “We have taken great pains in this adaptation to put the women of Mugsborough back in the centre of the action where Tressell planted them. It’s the story of the effects of capitalism on the lives of a group of men who work together. These men’s lives are centred around their homes and families. It is the tale of a whole community dealing with impossible conditions. The capitalist system grinds women down too, but in different ways.”

Another interesting aspect is the portrayal of organised religion, and its role in a struggling community, which could make uncomfortable reading for some people of faith.

William Morris said that we should have nothing in our homes that is not either useful or beautiful. As this book is both beautiful and useful, I’d suggest that every home should have one. And not just every home, but every school, college and prison library. To this end, the #RaggedEducation project allows readers to donate a copy and make the book available in all these places. Helping young people to think about the economic system which now blights our world, and which may be having a very negative impact on their own well being and life chances, seems to be a very worthwhile thing to do. Review published in Ekklesia, 26 June 2021.

Friday 23 July 2021

Unite Behind the Science

In 2019 Greta Thunberg accused the entire adult world of acting like "spoiled, irresponsible children". She called for politicians, heads of state, worldwide corporations and individual families to "follow the science" by starting to live "within the planetary boundaries". Under present circumstances, it is a big ask. We may call for reform, for repentance, for change. But who is going to lead that change? In 2020 worldwide Lockdowns resulted from following the 'science', bringing unprecedented chaos to the world social order. And the question remains unanswered: where do we go from here?

On the one hand we must agree with Greta. As a species we are indeed acting as "spoiled, irresponsible children". But the task is not to change 'them up there', the politicians and the corporate heads. They are too busy working to give us what we have been taught to want - electricity at the flick of a switch, food grown, processed, packaged, transported and ready to eat, clothes, shelter, holidays, leisure activities and so on. All is magically available to us through a financial system that acts like a parent figure. Without thought we go to work to earn a wage or salary from the unsustainable system, so that we can buy from the system those goods and services it supplies, regardless of the impact upon the living world around us.

The task is to recognise that the man-made economy that sustains our life on earth, is indeed man-made. Every day of our lives we consume the goods and services designed for us by the corporate world. Every day we use the money system to maintain and care for our homes and families. We go to work as farmers, teachers, factory workers, bankers, medics, office hands and sewage workers so that we can buy the gods and services we need to be fit and healthy workers. Generation after generation, we bring babies into this world, feed them into the school system, prepare them to be the next generation of waged and salaried workers, tend them in their hours of leisure, and care for them when they can no longer work for money.

The disruption of Covid invites us to think about our daily priorities, and the assumptions upon which they are based. On reflection, the health crisis can be seen as a symptom of the economic, the social, and the ecological challenges of today. It could well be that, as Pope Francis observed in Let Us Dream, they have a common solution. "Could it be," he asks, "that the replacing of the objective of growth with that of new ways of relating will allow for a different kind of economy, one that meets the needs of all within the means of the planet?"

Having recognised the problem, it is tempting to grasp at ready-made solutions, but in doing so we can end up in a greater pickle than we are already. Hence the need for discernment. "What is the Spirit telling us? What is the grace on offer here, if we can only embrace it; and what are the obstacles and temptations? What humanises, what dehumanises? where is the good news hidden within the sombre news, and where is the bad spirit dressed as an angel of light?" (p60-1) When it comes to a time to choose, these are questions for those who humbly search and listen, to reflect and pray before launching into action. Addressed to the world at large, and raising the fundamental economic, ecological and social issues of our times, Let Us Dream provides an excellent starting point for study and reflection.

We are called to redesign the economy so that it can offer every person access to a dignified existence while protecting and regenerating the natural world. And that means that, as individuals, we are called to transform our relationship with money and finance. How much of what we do every day is motivated by the need to acquire funds - wages, salaries, expenses? How many of our daily necessities are supplied by exploited labour and ecologically disastrous use of the resources of the land? Humanity has failed to master technology. As a result, technology has ceased to be our instrument and has become our overlord. It has changed our mindset so that we become more intolerant of limits. If it can be done, and it is profitable, we see no reason why it shouldn't be done. As we neglect the needs of Mother Earth, we lose what we need to survive. At the same time we lose the wisdom to live well together.

The finance-driven industrial-commercial corporation is central to contemporary existence. Hence our educational programmes have become subservient to its control. Students must prepare themselves for jobs within the all-enclosing bubble of the industrial-commercial world. Under these circumstances, working outside the financially endorsed economy seems to make no sense: it is contrary to rhyme and reason. As a result, we find ourselves lacking the intellectual tools necessary to develop the wisdom to live well together. To unite behind genuine science and human-centred technology we need to revisit our history, so that we can revive the study methods and practices of the worldwide Adult Education movement of the 20th century.

The above thoughts combine insights from Let us Dream (2020) with those of Thomas Berry's The Dream of the Earth (1988). Both books appear on the 400-strong Booklist that appears on the opening page of the Yorkshire Education Association. See https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/.

In Perspective

A grandmother in South Africa recently published the following in the online business blog – BizNews. Professor Lubbe writes:

I am a seventy-year-old grandmother, so yes, I am in the high-risk group. Over the last year or so, I have listened to a select number of politicians, scientists and medical doctors. I have been exposed to the eloquent views, hysteria and patronising utterances of these experts as well as the authoritarian voices of the Command Council. As each COVID-wave comes and goes, I have been told what to do, when to do it and the deadly consequences of not following the rules. I have been told my grandchildren should not hug me because they can kill me; my grandchildren have been told the same. Every day the main media has bombarded me with the same voices and the same messages. If I don’t behave, if my grandchildren don’t behave, I will die, or worse yet, I will personally be responsible for killing my neighbours. I may have already unwittingly done so because, for all I know, I may have already had COVID. I have certainly had a range of symptoms over the last year that ticks all the boxes. I did not test, so I don’t know. I may contract COVID tomorrow and die, I don’t know, but then again, I may die of cancer or a heart attack, I may die in a car accident or a violent crime; I just don’t know.

What I do know is that my freedoms and choices have been taken away by people with whom I do not necessarily agree or even find particularly pure of motive. I want to hear views from all sides, I want discussion and debate in the main media and then I want to make my own choices. I have come to realise that debate has been stifled and that anyone holding a different view on any issue relating to COVID, be it medical, economic or social, have been silenced. The main media has taken it upon themselves to define what false news is, and debate has become the sacrificial lamb at the altar of a pre-determined COVID-agenda. Anyone wishing to enter into the debate is lumped together with some crackpot conspiracy theorist. I read voraciously, and I try to understand different views. I am not awestruck by people in authority, and I am not convinced of something simply because someone else says so, even if they are so-called experts. I believe in critical thinking. So why are we being told what to do by the same people who stifle all debate? Where is the discussion? I don’t particularly appreciate being told what to do simply because others who ostensibly know better are telling me.

I have become more and more convinced that the reigning COVID scientists, politicians, doctors and media are each, for their own particular reason, on a mission to eradicate COVID at the expense of all else. COVID determines every move we make. I don’t think scientists and doctors have ever before had such extraordinary power over entire nations, and to “save lives”, they are now dictating public policy. Politicians are curtailing our freedoms because they have the ideal opportunity to do so. Humankind has been placed at the altar of COVID to serve these interests. Reputations are at stake here. We must endure every other illness as long as we don’t get COVID; we must lose our jobs, see our families suffer and our children fearful as long as we don’t get COVID. We must stifle independent thought and follow the rules just so that we don’t get COVID. We should stop questioning the lockdown measures because the reigning scientists, the politicians, the doctors know best. If we do, we risk being ridiculed, insulted and labelled conspiracy theorists.

I have been fearful many times; I don’t want to get COVID, I don’t want my family, friends or neighbours to get COVID, but then again, I don’t want to get cancer, die in a car accident or be murdered. What I do want is my freedom to choose what I want to do in an imperfect world where dangers lurk and people die. My children and grandchildren’s future depend on it.”

Berendien Lubbe, emeritus professor at the University of Pretoria, articulates, quite brilliantly, what many others in the BizNews community have expressed in different ways.

Thursday 15 July 2021

The Household Under Capitalism

In 1988 I was involved with an interlinking network of researchers, activists and writers campaigning for peace, economic justice and ecological sustainability. In those circles there were Marxists in plenty, but followers of John Ruskin and William Morris were few and far between, and followers of Rudolf Steiner were neither to be seen nor heard. As a teacher, social worker and parent I was concerned at the lack of debate on issues of child care, care of the sick and elderly, food, farming, care of the land, and home making in general. I wrote a short article entitled "The Midas Touch". Following its publication in Contemporary Review, I was encouraged to return to post-graduate study with a view to answering the questions raised in the article. Thus I embarked upon a career of research and writing. This resulted in a series of books and articles on economic history and the social order, many of them co-authored and/or refereed by academics. Much of this material, including "The Midas Touch" and "The Child - as Father and Mother?", is available on the RESOURCES\FRANCES HUTCHINSON page of https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/.

Central to my work was the study of the Douglas Social Credit movement, and that came about as follows. As I discussed the policies of the then emerging green movement, with my elderly neighbour, he pointed out that it had all been said before. In the 1930s he, along with other working class men and women, had attended a series of WEA (Workers Educational Association) and University Extension classes on the Social Credit movement that was sweeping across Canada, Australia and the UK. He talked of the mass of literature available at the time, produced some examples, and gave me a fair introduction to the issues covered by the movement.

Meanwhile, The Catholic Worker movement was spreading a very similar philosophy in the United States. Peter Maurin's Easy Essays are designed to be an easy introduction to the setting up of round table discussions, houses of hospitality and agronomic (care of the land-based) universities. He explains the history of capitalism, as it progressed through its five stages. In the beginning consumers sought out the producers able to supply them with the goods and services they wanted. They met and exchanged face to face, without the intervention of a middle man. Under Mercantile Capitalism the producer sold to the middle man, who sold on to the consumer, breaking the link between consumer and producer. The functional society faded away and the acquisitive society came into existence.

Factory Capitalism grew as the middle men built factories and took the crafts men out of their craft shops. Men, women and children became factory hands, working outside the home on terms decided by the factory owner. As a result, there was nobody at home to mind the young children and tend the land.

Monopoly Capitalism followed as the firms of the middle men became larger and more centralised, and took legal control over resources of land, labour and capital. The debt-financing of production enabled Finance Capitalism to hold sway. And, in the final stage of State Capitalism all economic activity came to be supervised by State bureaucrats. Deprived of "personalist vision", the workers were deprived of the means to take the personal responsibility necessary for dynamic democracy.

In Peter Maurin's view,: The world would be better off * if people tried to become better. * And people would become better * if they stopped trying to become better off.

It is now necessary to build a new society within the shell of the old. "Man was placed here [on earth] with talents, to play his part, and on every side he saw the children of this world wiser in their generation than the children of light. They built enormous industrial plants, bridges, pipelines, skyscrapers, with imagination and vision they made their blueprints, and with reckless and daredevil financing made them actual in steel and concrete. Wheels turned and engines throbbed and the great pulse of the mechanical and physical world beat strong and steady while men's pulses sickened and grew weaker and died. Man fed himself into the machine." Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness.

Reflecting on their work together, Dorothy Day noted that Peter Maurin was a peasant, while she was a city product. "He knew the soil; I, the city. When he spoke of workers, he spoke of men who worked in agriculture, building, at tools and machines that were the extension of the hand of man. When I spoke of workers I spoke of factories, the machine, and man the proletariat, the slum dweller, and so often unemployed." Peter saw "only the land movement as the cure for unemployment and irresponsibility". The good society would not come from better conditions under capitalism, but from a good society where people took the responsibility to generate informed discussion, to house the homeless and to create 'agronomic universities'.

COMMENT: See https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/ for Yorkshire Educational Association material, and a range of articles on related issues. With due acknowledgement, material can be downloaded and printed out without charge for study purposes.

Tuesday 13 July 2021

From Focus to Study Groups

Powerful multinational corporations are paying researchers very good money to run focus groups to find out how and what we think. By obtaining 'qualitative date' on our perceptions and thought processes through interactive and directed discussions, they learn how to manipulate our choices as consumers and citizens.

It has been going on for a long time. As a student of the social sciences way back in the 1960s, I learned how research into human thought patterns and behaviour was being used to promote mass marketing techniques. It was in the interests of Big Business to use quantitative and qualitative research methods to understand, and hence to control,the ways we think and act. We learned how 'lies, damned lies and statistics', the tools of social engineering, were already being developed and used. To this day, the focus group remains one of the powerful social science tools used to govern the political economy.

Focus groups are a research method organised for the purpose of collecting 'qualitative data' through 'interactive and directed discussions'. Researchers bring together groups of individuals selected according to pre-determined criteria such as age, sex, social class and so on. The interviewees are asked about their perceptions, attitudes, opinions, beliefs and opinions regarding topics that may range from abortion and politics to views on commercial products and services. Group members are encouraged to talk and interact with each other, allowing researchers to explore and clarify the thinking of participants.

Participation follows 'discussion stimuli', which may take the form of a provocative thesis, a lecture on a text, a short film, or the unfolding of a concrete problem for which a solution needs to be found. Typically, groups are conducted face to face, so that non-verbal behaviour can be observed and assessed. There are certain advantages to online methods, however, such as ease of access and the avoidance of the need to travel. Because corporate products and services are marketed across geographically vast areas, online discussion groups are a very practical way of allowing geographically diverse individuals to determine how mass produced products can best be marketed free from local considerations.

Instead of paying small farmers well to develop ecologically sound farming methods, we are paying an army of researchers to manipulate our minds so that we will buy the mass produced products so cleverly marketed through the mass media. The use of social science research techniques allows vast corporations to dominate the political, economic and cultural spheres of the social order. It was not always so.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, when focus groups were first being developed, Peter Maurin's Easy Essays were published. He distinguishes between five forms of capitalism: Mercantile (no middleman: consumer deals with producer direct), Factory (waged slavery outside the home), Monopoly (massive centralised cartels), Finance (debt-based) and State (bureaucratic controls). He concludes:

"Economic activities* are now supervised* by State bureaucrats.* State bureaucrats* can give the people* State supervision. * State supervision* is not a substitute * for personal vision. * And without personal vision * people perish. * Personal vision * leads to personal action. * Personal action * means personal responsibility. * Personal responsibility * means dynamic democracy."

(In the above passage * indicates a line break.)

Since the mid-twentieth century, when The Catholic Worker published Easy Essays, focus groups have supplied corporate capitalism with the means to eliminate virtually all sense of personal responsibility for family, local community and the needs of the living planet. Social science research methods do not seek to help members of the group understand their rights and responsibilities. On the contrary, they cultivate the materialistic values of the corporate world. Their purpose is to create a population of willing producers and consumers content to serve materialism in all its forms. In this scenario, protests and petitions for social justice and ecological sustainability will at best serve to consolidate the status quo. One might as well save one's breath to blow one's porridge.

Through his work with Dorothy Day on The Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin enabled the poor and homeless to join with others to think things through for themselves. They were a part of the massive, liberal adult education movement that spanned the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. Study groups organised by the Workers' Education Association (WEA) and other similar bodies were a powerful force for social change, bringing public libraries, health, education and welfare services, often run democratically by municipalities. Those provisions were planned and organised by ordinary citizens in their roles as producers and consumers of the goods and services needed by the local community. See any local history of the municipality in which you currently live.

The task ahead is to use the techniques of mass production, mass transportation and mass communications to the benefit of local communities. That can only happen when well-informed individuals take time to develop the personal vision that leads to personal, responsible action. And that will not happen by chance. Fortunately, a wealth of study material is available to hand, and much of it is already being discussed in informal, non-vocational study.

Currently, study groups take many different forms. These include Steiner/anthroposophical groups, faith groups, book clubs, gardening, political, art clubs and so on. Such groups are called together by individuals who gather over a period of weeks or months to share in discussion of non-vocational ideas and practices. Often an existing group can shift to study of new material introduced by one of the members.

The reader of this blog might consider drawing together a group of friends, in person or on Zoom, with a view to sharing thoughts on the following:

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster;

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson;

Bloke's Progress by Hunt and Emerson (and John Ruskin);

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer/Feminism, the Body and the Machine by Wendell Berry. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard;

A starting point for an altogether new group might be a one-off gathering to discuss the merits of Yorkshire Airlines (You Tube) as a social commentary.

COMMENT: For all the works mentioned, except the last, see the Booklist on the YEA page of https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/

Wednesday 7 July 2021

A Word to Socialists

Extract from Eimar O'Duffy, Life and Money (1933)

Socialism is almost a religion with the most earnest of its adherents; who, in consequence, are apt to shut their minds to arguments against it, much as the pious shut their minds to the seductions of unbelievers. They regard all non-Socialists as the heathen and the publican, and refuse to believe that those who do not accept their dogmas can be genuinely seeking social regeneration. As I was a Socialist myself in younger days, I can under­stand their mentality, and propose, therefore, to add a few words for their benefit, which non-Socialists may skip.

The first difficulty in dealing with Socialists is to get them to define Socialism. They differ among them­selves, both as to its end and as to its means. I have even known vigorous champions of the creed to declare that it means nothing in particular—a fine example of the mental chaos of this enlightened age. The most generally (252) accepted definition, however, is ‘the public ownership of all the means of production and distribution’. Some Socialists boggle at the ‘all’, but in doing so they give away their case entirely; for nearly everybody is agreed that some of the means of production and distribution should be publicly owned (many of them are publicly owned already), and if the Socialist is merely a person who wants public ownership more or less extended in scope, then there is no general Socialist position to attack or defend, but only a number of particular cases to be decided on their merits.

I take it, then, that Socialism means the public ownership of all the means of production and distribution. The arguments of ‘big business’ against that solution of our difficulties are well known, and mostly stupid, and Socialist writers can make short work of them. What Socialists fail to realise is that the instincts of the ordinary man and woman are against it, and quite rightly, for it is based on wrong first principles. It is true that eight million electors voted for the Labour Party at the general election of 1929 and that even more may be induced to do so in the future; but that does not mean that eight million people voted for Socialism as properly defined. Most of those votes represent either the natural desire of workers for better conditions, or the general yearning (253) for a better social life than the present muddle and scramble.

Socialism is fundamentally Procrustean. Its principle is that man exists for the state, instead of the state for man. Socialists have definitely maintained that proposi­tion in argument with me, and it is, moreover, implicit in all Socialist doctrine, whether individual Socialists deny it or not. Many Socialists (Bernard Shaw, for instance) assert that the state should have the right to enforce birth-prevention. If the state is to be responsible for production, they say, then it has the right to regulate the number of consumers. (Note once again that ‘regula­tion’ for Procrusteans always means ‘restriction’.) Of course there are Socialists who would not go so far as this, but if once the principle of ‘the state over all’ is admitted, there is no limit to the extent to which it might be applied. Socialism, in fact, involves an amount of government interference in people’s personal affairs which the ordinary man and woman will not tolerate. There is already too much of it—mostly due to well-meaning attempts to remedy notorious abuses—and we don’t want any more. An economic reform which runs contrary to that sound and healthy human instinct can never command general acceptance.

Though Socialism lays down no definitely Sisyphist principle, it is coloured throughout with Sisyphistic concepts, as I have already shown. Thus, Socialists usually express the utmost horror at the idea of the national dividend. ‘Why should some people have to work to maintain others in idleness?’ Faced with the fact that in an age of plenty there is not enough work to go round, they propose that everybody should be (254) compelled to do a certain amount of the work that is necessary—that Shelley should be taken from his poems to do a turn at a machine, while a perfectly competent mechanic is sent to lout about at a loose end. Surely it would be far better to leave Shelley alone, to dream on his dividend, and pay the mechanic handsomely to do the work he is fitted for and enjoys doing? Or, if you object to the exceptional example of the poet, is it not better to pay one mechanic to do the job properly than to compel half a dozen indifferent or unwilling men to do it badly?

‘Economic equality’, you object. But equality does not really matter if everybody has plenty. When writers and speakers deplore the ‘inequalities’ of the present system, their theme in reality is poverty: if there were no poverty, nobody would bother about inequality. In a society where an individual had a free choice between leisure at, say, £250 a year, and work for six hours a day at £600 a year, the inequality would not be an injustice. What we want to do is to abolish poverty and establish prosperity; and the only way to do that is to produce plenty of goods and equate our consuming power to the supply. Socialism, aiming at equality through restriction, work fetishism, and suppression of liberty, can only achieve an equality of poverty, or at best a general industrious frugality, like that of bees in a hive.

The process of reasoning which led to Socialism is fairly obvious. Karl Marx crudely divided mankind into Capitalists and Workers and declared that there was an essential clash of interests between them. This was true enough in an age of scarcity, though it would have been more accurate to say that there was a clash of interests between every man and every other man—(255) that each had to scramble for what he could get, and that the capitalists, being the best equipped, came off best. In an age of plenty, however, this conception of society has become as false as the doctrines of the bankers and orthodox economists. There is enough for everybody, and the interests of individuals no longer clash with one another, nor with those of the community, though the restrictions on plenty caused by a deficient currency make them appear to do so. The prosperity of each de­pends on the prosperity of all, if only people could be got to see it. The scheme proposed in this book shows how this can be realised in practice. By equating consumption to production we can make the self-seeking instincts of the ordinary individual work out to the benefit of the community as a whole.

 COMMENT: Spotted the above recently in O'Duffy's Life and Money. Published in 1933, it has dated very little with the passage of time. The whole document is available on the SOCIAL ART page of https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/