1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

Robert Owen turns in his grave

Readers who feel that the socialist message tends to be swamped by a sea of frenzied capitalist merchandising may have felt a little more optimistic about the situation when the Co-operative Bank announced the arrival of the Robert Owen Visa Credit Card, which was to be “Free for Life”.

“Free for Life” because, the Co-operative Bank explained in their introductory leaflet: “We do, after all have a reputation for innovation.”

This was exciting news; something “Free”, and “for Life”, hardly believable in a capitalist economy.

Did this herald the arrival of a new era in the banking industry? Was some fundamental feature of the current UK banking and credit industry about to be swept away by a credit card which operated in accordance with some innovative idea that the socialist pioneer Robert Owen had advocated in the early 19th century’?

Well, hardly, because a study of the accompanying literature tells us that, although this “innovative” credit card may be “Free for Life”, it attracts a staggering interest rate of 32.5 percent on all cash advances under £100, and a rate of 29.8 percent on over-the-counter purchases.
However, as if to justify this the Cooperative Bank application form informs us that Robert Owen “attempted to create a New Social System among the people This was an attempt that the Co-operative Bank doesn’t take too seriously, as they state on the form that applicants for this new card must be: “Over 25, own their own home, and earn more than £15,000 a year.”
Disenchanted readers who feel that they may now be disqualified from the pleasures to be derived from the possession of a Robert Owen credit card, may be beginning to wonder just what Robert Owen’s New Social System was really all about.
Well, unfortunately for the Co-operative Bank the “New Social System” that Robert Owen hoped to establish not only had no plans for interest rates of 32.5 percent, or banks for that matter, but money itself would in his words, “become useless, unsought for, and will be forever abandoned” (New Moral World, 1842, Part 5).
He goes on to emphasise his hostility towards the use of money, stating that in his new social system “there will, be no money, the cause now of so much oppression and injustice”; and continues his attack on money saying “it is an artificial medium which enables some few to become enormously rich, at the expense of the many, dooming masses of them to the lowest stages of poverty, and degradation, those who produce the real wealth suffering the latter, while those who make the artificial wealth, or money from paper, gold, silver, or copper, enjoy all the advantages at present desirable for real wealth, which they obtain for their artificial wealth”.
In a rational society, “Robert Owen continues, “money will be abandoned, and full justice will be done to everyone, and everyone will act justly to everyone else ” (Part 5, The New Moral World).
As well as his dislike for the money system Robert Owen held strong views about private property. Again, in the Book of the New Moral World, he states that private property “is now the sole cause of poverty, and its endless crimes, and miseries, over the world, and in principal it is, as unjust as it is unwise in practice”, and “will never exist in a future society”. He goes on to add in his 12th Law for a future “Rational System of Society” that when people are living in harmony together “there shall be no useless private property”.
Robert Owen wrote The Book of The New Moral World in the 1830s, and his other books and speeches played an influential part in the development of socialist thought in the 19th century. He died in 1858 and is buried in Newtown, in Powys, Wales. Quite what he would have felt about a credit card being named in his memory when he made his views on money perfectly clear is not hard to imagine, but unfortunately when you are dead there is not a lot you can do about it.
Stuart Schofield