It is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, a man whose ideas were to shape a significant part of Twentieth Century and whose work has found renewed favour among those searching for alternatives to the stumbling neo-liberalism that led to the economic crises and ensuing austerity of the past decade. A recent Financial Times feature acknowledged the continuing relevance of Marx’ work The Communist Manifesto, accepting that there were insights of continuing relevance, but, it being the FT, suggesting that the word “activism” be used instead of “communism.”
Karl Marx’ writing has the density one would expect from a Hegelian philosopher and doesn’t seem the most accessible of political texts. Sometimes ideas set in a narrative context are more readily comprehensible ways of comprehending deep ideas, such as the function of money.
Robert Tressell’s easily readable The Ragged Trousers Philanthropists, written before the First World War, explains it as the “Money Trick.” Owen, the leading character in the story, sits down with his workmates one lunchtime. With a hunk of bread that was his lunch, three knives, and three ha’penny coins, he explains the Communist view of the economic system:
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.’ . .
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. . . .
`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.’ . . .
`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!’
There are many working people who feel the frustration of Philpot. In times of deskilled jobs, zero hours contracts, migrant labour used to force down wages, corporations avoiding taxes, money being moved to offshore havens, what chance is there for ordinary working people?.
Is Tressell right? The rise of Communism after the First World War did not do much more to assist workers than had capitalism; money and power were still in a few hands. But who is offering alternatives?