Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - The Daily Mail School of Economics

The myth of the self-made man

The DAILY MAIL employs a plague of journalists, writers like Richard Littlejohn, who attack anyone who dares criticise the profit system or questions the pursuit of capitalists amassing vast fortunes at the expense of the working class.

Richard Littlejohn has his pet hates but he has one hero; the capitalist who seemingly has worked himself up from nothing. Anyone who criticises the ?self-made man? ?a myth that goes back to the 19th century with the publication of books like Samuel Smiles? SELF-HELP (1859)-is berated by Littlejohn as ?the politics of envy?.

Of course ?the politics of envy? like its polar opposite ?the politics of greed? are both logically invalid because they attack the person not the ideas or argument the person holds. And the Socialist case against capitalism is based on principle and reasoned argument supported by facts.

Capitalists have to exploit the working class to remain capitalists and under pain of competition they have to accumulate capital. Workers have to resist the intensity and extent of exploitation and struggle for higher wages at the expense of the profits of the capitalist class. This has nothing to do with ?greed? or ?envy? but the objective outcome of the class struggle; a political struggle over the ownership and non-ownership of the means of production and distribution.

After the Tory conference in 2009 Littlejohn was at it again. Under the banner ?Better the politics of sunshine than envy? Littlejohn moaned:

?The idea that everyone who has made a few bob over the past decade is some kind of cigar-chomping, cartoon fat cat, trampling on the workers is as dangerous as it is inaccurate?They have built their own businesses,...?, providing goods and services at prices people have been happy to pay. In the process, they have created jobs and paid a small fortune in taxes...??The Money they have spent has kept the economy going and given work to car salesmen, gardeners, builders, cleaners, waiters, travel agents, taxi drivers and dozens of others who make their living from service industries? (DAILY MAIL 09.10.09).

Well Littlejohn?s ?few bob? for defending the capitalist class and the interests of his employer, Viscount Rothermere, is reported to be in the region of £850,000 a year Not bad for producing and disseminating ruling class ideas. Not once has he ever criticised his employer?s off-shore tax havens (, yet thinks nothing of denouncing single parent mothers on sink estates for eking out an existence on State hand outs. He knows not to bite the hand that feeds him.

However when he refers to ?everyone who has made a bob or two?, Littlejohn has in mind the self-made man not those like himself on high salaries or those who inherited wealth like his paymaster Viscount Rothermere. He is thinking of the likes of Lord Sugar and Sir Richard Branson.

Telling it how it really is

It comes as no surprise when reading Samuel Smiles? book on self help why it is so popular today among social conservatives who want to wean a large segment of the working class off State benefits. Here is Smiles:

?Heaven helps those who help themselves" is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience...? The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many; it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength... Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates...? Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless (London, 1882, pp. v, 1-3,5-7. 294).

Socialists see nothing edifying in workers living off State hand-outs any more than being recipients of charity. Social security payments and charity are equally degrading particularly when all the social wealth has been made by the working class in the first place. Workers should not be looking at self-help but uniting with other workers as a “class for itself”; that is, taking conscious and political action to replace capitalism with Socialism.

What of the self-made man escaping from the cobble-street back-to-back slum to a Docklands apartment overlooking the Thames? The poor worker hauling himself up by his own boot straps into the capitalist class is largely a myth. Some workers have become capitalists but not through the way either Smiles or Littlejohn understands.

The working class remains a class in poverty precisely because they do not own the means of production and distribution. Workers can work as hard as possible and save up some of their wages but can still find themselves locked within the wages system. Long periods of unemployment see workers lose their savings and their redundancy payments. Workers who do set themselves up as “self-employed” are often crushed by competitors with over 50% failing in the first year and 90% failing after 5 years (Growing Your Own Business What keeps workers as an exploited class is the wages system and what allows a tiny minority to escape and become capitalists is the access to of money capital to set up businesses and exploit workers. For it is in the exploitation of workers that capitalists derive their profit.

Primitive Capital

There is a very interesting survey of the background of the first capitalists in Britain given in F. Crouzet in his book “THE FIRST INDUSTRIALISTS: THE PROBLEM OF ORIGINS”:

During the 19th century, it was widely believed… that industrialists were mostly self-made men. Born in “humble circumstances” (…), i.e. were born from modest or even poor families, they had started life as wage earners, often working with their own hands; but thanks to hard work, thrift, mechanical ingenuity and character, they had been able to set up their own business, to develop it and eventually to become wealthy and powerful. The paternity of these views is often imputed to Samuel Smiles, in his best seller, SELF HELP, published in 1859…(Ch 3 p. 37 Cambridge University Press 1985)

But he went on to say;

… a large majority of industrialists came from the middle class, which had a high index of representation, as it did not make up more than 30% of England’s population…(Ch 9 The Self-Made Man Again? p. 126).

Between 1750 and 1850, out of the 316 capitalists cited in the book only 11.7% came from the working class (Table 5 p.150). However, where the original capital came from for these capitalists to establish their businesses in the first place is not recorded.

One notable source of capital available to early capitalists was the consequence of the lucrative slave trade. As merchants and others investing in the slave trade got richer they began to invest in inventions, corporations, and factories that helped develop the industrial revolution. In an article “Slavery and Industrialisation” the historian, Robin Blackburn wrote:

Liverpool merchant bankers, heavily involved in the slave-based trades, extended vital credit to the early cotton manufacturers of its Lancashire hinterland. West Indian planters built stately homes - some, ridiculously extravagant dwellings such as William Beckford's Fonthill - and furthered the modernisation of British agriculture by 'improving' their estates”. Others invested in canals… (

Also, Banks - like Heywoods (subsequently owned by Barclays Bank through banking acquisitions in the 19th century) - and Insurance companies (Lloyds of London) were created by or benefited from the slave trade. Banks like Heywoods gave substantial capital to early industrial capitalists and Lloyds underwrote the ships that carried the slaves from Africa to the Americas.

As of the self-made man, Anthony Howe, in his book THE GENESIS OF CAPITAL, when writing of the textile mill owners, remarked:

The textile elite comprised not so much self-made men, in the sense of socially mobile men from the ranks of the disadvantaged of the pre-industrial world, but men with considerable economic and educational resources” (Cambridge University Press 2002 p.106)

In the Nineteenth Century there was endless literature from people like Samuel Smiles and others, warning the working class, against riotous living, urging them to work hard, with keenness and thrift, and if they did they would become rich, like the people who were written up in Samuel Smiles book SELF HELP. The self-made man was pure fiction and it was in the fiction of novelists like Charles Dickens’s that the myth of the self-made man was explored and ridiculed.

One of the characters in Dickens’ novel, HARD TIMES is Josiah Bounderby of Coketown who encompasses the mistaken belief of the self-made man. With Bounderby, Dickens set out to show that no person, male or female, can achieve what he has in life through the actions of himself solely.

Dickens exposed the myth of the self-made man, and he did so by showing the hypocrisy of Bounderby, who brags about how he climbed up the social ladder after being “born in a ditch” and through his own hard work to become a wealthy hardware merchant without the help of others. In fact Bounderby, it transpires, had a family who took good financial care of him by placing him with an apprenticeship and no doubt later in life found a banker who lent him the capital to set up his business.

In the 1970’s Monty Python also lampooned the myth of the self-made man in their famous comedy sketch of four self-satisfied Yorkshire businessmen – modern day Bounderby’s - outdoing each other in describing their humble backgrounds over a bottle of Chateau de Chasselas. These four characters glossed over the origin of the capital they initially started with to start up their businesses which would later allow them to live lives of luxury and drink smart red wine in their villas in the sun.

By the 1980’s the self-made man was being ridiculed in the sitcom ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES where the central character Del Trotter tries unsuccessfully to escape from the prison of Nelson Mandela Towers. It is only the chance discovery of two antique watches which propels the Trotter brothers temporarily into the ranks of the rich.

From Fiction to Fact

In his book THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION IN THE 18TH CENTURY, Paul Mantoux gives many examples of how industrial capitalists really developed as a class. One example he gives is of Joshua Fielden who owned and farmed the family holding. He set up three looms in his house and sold the cloth in the market at Halifax. With the rise of the cotton industry in the Halifax area he bought some Jennies and set up work in three small cottages where his nine children made up the work force (see ch. 11 Industrial capitalism pp374 -408 1928). What he paid them in wages-if he did-is not known.

For the origins of capitalism attention should be given to the writings of Karl Marx. He noted that it was the slave trade, plunder, pillage, piracy, exploitation of women and children, throwing the peasants off the land and the break-up of the feudal guild system that created the conditions for the development of capital on the one hand and the working class on the other. Marx wrote: the capitalist class came into the world “dripping from head to foot from every pore in blood and sweat” (Marx Capital vol. 1. ch. 31). Such is the reality of primitive capitalism.

The real question of the production of social wealth in fact is not the self-made man at all. The real question is this; what is the origin of the money capital the capitalist receives as a loan from the bank or other sources to start off his business. How is it that an initial investment of capital can lead to a greater amount as if by magic? And Marx answered it with his theory of surplus value (The general Formula for Capital, p. 251 Penguin ed.) in chapter four of CAPITAL. So let us not begin with the mythical self-made man but with the real question of economics: who really produces the social wealth in capitalism?

To answer the question we have to turn to the writings of Marx. Capital is dead labour; that is, past wealth created by the working class. And it is living labour that creates more wealth than they receive in wages and salaries.

Marx went beyond the superficial view of Richard Littlejohn’s understanding of economics. That is why Marx is very high on THE DAILY MAIL hate list. They do not lose an opportunity to deride him and belittle his ideas. What other 19th century thinker is trawled through the pages of the modern press with such fear and loathing? They not only hate Marx’s ideas but they also fear them. And with good reason. Marx wrote of:

…the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins [that is, the slave trade].These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation… p915. . (Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, CAPITAL VOLUME 1, 1867 p.915)

Marx, unlike Smiles and his latter supporters, showed how capitalism really developed as a historical social system in its own right. Genesis, for the capitalist class, was no Garden of Eden populated by honest men of “hard work, thrift, mechanical ingenuity and character”. Throughout the short chapter on the genesis of the industrial capitalist, Marx sketched out a process of violence, appropriation, slavery, war, violence, barbarism, rape, piracy and pillage. The harmonious and benign trade of the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker of Adam Smith’s fictional account of the origins of capitalism is replaced with the reality of the slave-owner, class exploitation and the ambition of “naked self-interest”.

Journalists who defend the interests of the capitalist class like Richard Littlejohn just do not understand the origins of capital and what capital is. Why should Mr Littlejohn. On £850,000 a year he has well and truly been bought. Socialists call this type of “journalism” by its true name; intellectual prostitution.

Class Exploitation and Class struggle

The image of the capitalist with top hat, tails and cigar is an image still to be found on the placards of the anti-capitalist movements. Yes it is a caricature. Capitalists may be female or male, gay or straight, disabled or able-bodied and black or white but what unites them as a class is that they own the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of a working class majority.

The pressures of competition mean that capitalists are always restless having to expand and introduce the latest techniques of production. The object of capitalism is capital accumulation for the sake of accumulation. Businesses have to compete, destroy their competitors and grow otherwise it is they who will fall behind, face takeover or bankruptcy. And production under capitalism is not to meet human need. Production under capitalism takes place to make a profit.

Capitalism is a system of generalized commodity production and exchange for profit which includes the buying and selling of the worker?s labour power. The worker does not own the means of production; the raw resources, factories, machinery and warehouses. He is forced onto the labour market to sell his labour power to a capitalist for a wage or salary. Capitalists do not employ workers out of charity or goodwill. They do create jobs but only with the view selling commodities for a profit. And without workers capitalists cannot make a profit.

Salaries and wages are the price of labour power and since labour power is also a commodity, bought and sold like any other commodity, it has its value. The value of labour power is determined by the socially necessary labour that goes into its production. For the worker this means sufficient wages and salaries to produce and reproduce himself and his family as a subject and exploited class.

And this class exploitation takes place whether the capitalist is either a Lord Sugar who comes from the capitalist school of hard knocks or from Lord Rothermere who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. All capitalists exploit; they have to in order to remain capitalists.

The actual level of real wages depends, in part, on the outcome of the class struggle with the capitalists trying to extend and intensify exploitation and workers resisting either individually or in trade unions. In fact the class struggle is a political struggle, the motor force of history and revolutionary change, because it is a struggle over the ownership of the means of production and distribution, what they are used for and for whose benefit.

The difference between the value of the commodities produced and the value of the labour power used in their production ? and with a high productivity of labour it is a very big difference indeed ? is called surplus value.

The surplus value belongs to the owners of the means of production. It is the source of their unearned income as industrialists, bankers and landlords. In other words the capital lent by the banks to the so-called ?self-made? man is nothing but the result of past exploitation; ?dead-labour? Marx called it.

And Capital is in reality nothing more than a social relationship. As Marx noted:

Capital?is a social relation of production. It is a bourgeois production relation, a production relation of bourgeois society?capital is the sum of commodities?capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other?As long as the wage worker is a wage-worker his lot depends upon capital?(WAGE LABOUR AND CAPITAL pp 38-32 Moscow 1974).

Machinery in capitalism is only capital while there is a class of workers whose labour power is sold as a commodity. Here is Marx again:

?A cotton-spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in certain relations. Torn from these relationships it is no more capital than gold itself is money or sugar the price of sugar? (loc cit p. 28).

In Socialism where there will be free men and women engaged in co-operative and social work to meet human needs machinery will just be machinery. There will be no money capital, no buying and selling of labour power and no labour markets.

It is the working class who generate social wealth. And they are employed and exploited precisely because they produce this wealth.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |