24 March 2010

Vote for the Original Red Robbo

Robert Owen was a paradox. A self-made millionnaire entrepreneur who is considered to be the father of co-operation. A pioneer of mutualism, all of whose schemes failed, and who was only able to be successful by using capitalist methods. With his 'silent monitor' system at the cloth mill in New Lanark he could also be considered a pioneer of modern managerial methods, and yet he is considered to have liberated the working man.

Owen was a living manifestation of the truth of Oscar Wilde's epigram that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. I wonder if the two ever met. I like to think of Owen in his Manchester days, possibly rubbing shoulders with the radical thinkers of the day, who congregated in the unitarian chapel. Did he influence the philosophies of Marx and Engels? Did his work experience find its way into the novels of George Eliot?

The English are rather embarrassed about Robert Owen and not only because he was a fan of naturism. He is claimed by the Scots, because of his stature as a businessmen in Clydesdale, although he was actually a Welshman. His greatest popularity today is in Japan, where the Robert Owen Society keeps his memory alive and the country's co-operative sector flourishes.

And now, perhaps the greatest paradox of all, there comes a petition to call for Owen to be commemorated on a Scottish banknote. Owen saw through the iniquities of the banking system and how it was used to extract value from working people. His Equitable Labour Exchange and his time-based money were established precisely to end this exploitation. So should we support the campaign? I think so, if only because the paradox would probably have amused Owen himself.

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