18 Mar Chapter 8: The Money Trick
Owen’s practical demonstration of Marx’s theory of surplus economics is possibly the most famous scene in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It is a powerful moment, told with great humour. It laid bare the ‘trick’ that the capitalist class uses to extort labour from the working class, and keep them poor and ready to provide more labour.
At the beginning of the chapter, we learn that the house the men have been working on is nearly complete, and they fear that there will soon be no work for them. This is the very situation the Money Trick explains, but this ‘dramatic irony’ goes over the heads of the men on site. They are bored, and provoke Owen into entertaining them during their lunch break. He sets about proving to his laughing friends how money is the cause of poverty.
Using the bread from their lunchboxes to represent the raw materials that nature provides, pocketknives as the machinery of production, and pennies as money capital, Owen starts to play a game…
Owen represents the capitalist class – so he claims the bread, the pennies and the knives all belong to him. He casts his friends as the working class, and generously employs them to use the knives to turn the bread into little squares, to represent “the necessities of life”. He pays them a penny each for a week’s work, which is to produce three little squares.
The workers are hungry. They each buy one square from Owen, with the penny they earned. They eat the bread, and finish the week with nothing. Owen ends the week with the pennies, and more bread squares than he can eat. This is repeated, until Owen decides to take the pocketknives back and close down production, blaming ‘foreigners’ for the situation.
And just like that the ‘working class’ become destitute. They are stuck – so they try marching, then begging. When Owen allows them a crumb of ‘charity’ they glorify his kindness and generosity.
By this point in the book, we know the characters of the men very well, and it was a lot of fun to show them enjoying themselves for once. Despite the relevant and somewhat depressing message of Owen’s demonstration, the whole thing is played out with great humour. It is a very visual metaphor, so we are grateful to Tressell for providing such rich raw materials. We have applied our own machinery of production, and we hope that the results will be consumed by as many people as possible.
It is the Money Trick that has awoken class consciousness and socialist economics in generations of young readers, whose wages stretch to the necessities of life and no more. How many readers from our current precariat will discover The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists through this graphic adaptation?