09 Dec The Council
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a realistic novel, but at the same time it is an allegory or mythical representation of a wider problem. The town of Mugsborough represents the whole of capitalist democratic society, just as Manor Farm can represent the whole of Russia for Orwell.
The town council is made up of wealthy local businessmen, elected to manage the town’s affairs because of the apparent competence they have demonstrated in managing their own so successfully. They are the employers and landlords of the working classes, and they decide the fates of the needy. They are majority shareholders in the newspaper as well as the public services such as the waterworks and public transport. It would not be an exaggeration to describe these power dynamics as a kind of feudalism, enabled and disguised by the logic of capital.
The council consistently promotes the continuance of the system that has benefited them, and it seems unlikely this would ever change. The one exception to their selfishness is Dr Weakling, who is ridiculed and ignored in meetings. Dr Weakling has met and worked alongside ordinary people and can see where change is needed, but the others will never vote for anything that damages the interests of the property-owning classes.
They engage in conspiracies without flinching, safe in the knowledge that the rate-payers are too busy trying to make ends meet to show any interest in public affairs. They abuse their public office to enrich themselves and they shamelessly raise their own salaries whilst cutting those of the most vulnerable. They don’t care that the lives of the working classes are cut short by their conditions – they laugh and point out, “there’s plenty of them left!”
As a metaphor for the way capitalism enables a few to thrive at the expense of the many, Mugsborough Corporation is excellent. As a local council, I fear it is shockingly accurate even a century later. Throughout this blog I have linked to modern examples of how the metaphor holds strong. It feels so sad that more than a century after Tressell wrote this story, I had such a range of examples to chose from. I’m sure you’ll see them in your own day-to-day life.
A comic hero once said ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. In our society many of those who wield great power over our lives choose not to take care or responsibility for how those lives are lived, or even ended. And that is how we reach a position where Jacob Rees-Mogg says that Grenfell victims died of a lack of common sense.