This is an updated version of our 2017 article to mark the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol
Today we think of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a cosy piece of traditional seasonal fare, replete with steaming puds and roasted goose and comfortably easy lessons about not being stingy at Crimbo. But when Dickens wrote his novella in 1843 he was delivering a far more serious – and possibly freshly relevant – warning about the moral bankruptcy of a society that destroys human lives in pursuit of profit.
It’s a fact not much considered, but Das Kapital and A Christmas Carol were both written in the same city, in the same decade – just five years apart.
To those familiar only with the numerous adaptations of Dickens’ tale it might seem absurd to look for any point of connection between these two books. What can a feel-good tale of middle class redemption have to do with a study of the class struggle? But this question only begs to be asked because a lot of the real meaning behind the writing of A Christmas Carol has always been missing from the general perception of this work.
As conceived in 1843, Dickens’ short novel was not simply a personal morality tale. It was a raw and impassioned warning to his fellow bourgeois Victorians of the collective responsibility human beings have for one another and the potential danger existing in exactly the social forces Marx would soon be dissecting. Dickens was worried about the rampant injustices in his society, not simply out of a sense of empathy and outrage, but out of fear. He was convinced the grotesque imbalances of wealth and power that endured at the time of his writing might end up tearing the fabric of society apart.
The Hungry Forties
The 1840s, known as the “hungry forties” were years of financial confusion, recession, poverty and unrest throughout much of the developed world. In the USA the boom of 1836 was followed by the “panic of 1837”. The United Kingdom adopted free trade, abolishing most duties & tariffs. There was a railway boom and bust, the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and then a panic in 1847. There was the Irish “potato famine” or “Great Hunger”, when people died of starvation while Anglo-Irish landowners exported the food that would have saved them. In 1846, after heavy lobbying, the Corn Laws were repealed, signalling the end of any protection for domestic producers.
Social injustice was becoming unhinged and self-defeating in its extremity. In 1834 the Malthusian New Poor Law had dehumanised and institutionalised poverty. The law forced anyone needing welfare to enter a workhouse and refusal to do so meant starvation. The new wave of workhouses produced as a result of the Act were places of nightmare, more closely resembling concentration camps than refuges for the needy. Families were forcibly separated, parents assumed to have relinquished all rights over and responsibilities for their children. Segregation by age and gender was enforced. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated until discharge.
1842 – year of insurrection & a government report
As the financial instability and periods of recession increased social unrest grew. In 1842 things began to go critical. There were “starvation riots” in Galway, Ireland. Millworkers in Salford were fired upon while protesting outside their place of work. In Preston two “rioters” were shot by soldiers before the regiment “restored the peace” (the Illustrated London News described this as an “attack on the military” – a bit of soulless sophistry worthy of today’s Guardian). A workhouse in Stockport was attacked by a “mob of 20,000 unemployed”. In Manchester the same year the Home Secretary sent troops and artillery to deal with “considerable labour unrest” in the area. The Illustrated London News a few days later reported insurrection in Liverpool, Manchester and other northern towns.
Meanwhile, the Royal Commission of Enquiry into Children’s Employment issued a report that had taken 3 years to compile. Titled On the Condition & Treatment of the Children Employed in Mines & Collieries, it was a detailed investigation into working conditions in mines and factories in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales “comprising thousands of pages of oral testimony (sometimes from children as young as five)”. It detailed the brutal and harrowing conditions which the children of the poor faced in their struggle to survive. There were over 1,000 children under the age of 13 employed in the Yorkshire coalfields and only slightly less in Derbyshire. The exact numbers for North Wales and Cumberland could not even be exactly quantified.
Children were so numerous in the workplace for one reason only – because they were cheap. On average earning only 20% of an adult’s wage while working the same hours. A child as young as five could work 14 hours a day in conditions of squalor and acute danger. Many such children died of industrial accidents or disease.
The rising toll of human misery was almost beyond measuring. Its social implications clear to anyone with eyes to see.
In the spring of 1843 the young writer Charles Dickens read the Commission’s report and was shocked by it.
He was 31 years old, already successful in his chosen field. Although solidly middle class in heritage and upbringing, he had known some deprivation and genteel poverty in his early years. His father John, famously, was sent to debtors’ prison when Charles was 12. As a result Charles was boarded with an impoverished family friend, forced to leave school and work 10 hours a day in a warehouse. By working class standards this was not a hard life, but for the middle class Dickens family it was humiliating and traumatising.
The impact this early experience of relative poverty had on young Charles is said to have been considerable. It made him both acutely driven to acquire wealth and stability in his own life and acutely aware that poverty was an affliction, not, as many Victorians believed, a vice. In the 1840s Dickens adopted Unitarianism, saying they “would do something for human improvement if they could, and practice charity and toleration.” He was no Marxist, no socialist, not really much of a coherent philosopher, but he did have an understanding of the human cost of poverty and a sense of universalism and fraternity that is expressed throughout his work. He opposed the New Poor Law and the worst excesses of unfettered capitalism from a standpoint of religious morality. Throughout his life he was active in campaigning for the dispossessed and the ‘unfortunate.’
In the 1840s he visited an example of what were known as the “ragged schools”, and vividly recorded his impressions of what he found.
“…It consisted at that time of either two or three–I forget which-miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and write; and though there were among the number, many wretched creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of course–how could it be otherwise!–but, on the whole, encouraging.
The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars–with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY IGNORANT.
This, Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting through these schools; in sample of a Multitude who had within them once, and perhaps have now, the elements of men as good as you or I, and maybe infinitely better…”
He wrote letters to newspapers, he begged the pious and privileged who spent their money on “the building of New Churches” to consider whether helping the ragged schools to provide for the children might be a more Christian duty
to reflect whether some portion of their rich endowments might not be spared for such a purpose…to consider for themselves where the Christian Religion most needs and most suggests immediate help and illustration; and not to decide on any theory or hearsay, but to go themselves into the Prisons and the Ragged Schools, and form their own conclusions
It’s probably not surprising that Dickens read the Commission’s report on child labour shortly after its publication and, like many others, was “perfectly stricken” by its revelations. He felt compelled to act, and wrote to one of the commissioners saying he planned to compose a pamphlet, and he even had a title in his head – “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”
But the pamphlet was never written. Dickens changed his mind and decided he could make a bigger impact on people through fiction. He was excited about the potential it had to influence people for change. He wrote to the commissioner again:
You will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea
His new idea was the germ of the novel that became A Christmas Carol. He wrote it inside six weeks in the autumn of 1843 during a time of some financial strain. He planned for a luxury edition (red binding and gilt edging) that would – he hoped – both solve his cash flow issues and focus the attention of the public on the injustices that had spurred him to write. By the time he finished writing in early December he was in dire financial straits. His bank account was in the red, and his publishers were reluctant to support the publication of such an “odd” and overtly political novel. So Dickens paid for the publication himself.
The book came out on December 19 1843. It sold out very quickly, but the high costs of production, and legal fees spent on contesting a pirated edition meant he saw only modest profit initially. Readers loved its nostalgic and sentimental celebration of Christmas, and warmed to the easy redemption of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge. But the wider message did not then and has maybe not since received as much recognition.
Beyond the simple framing Dickens uses Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his own life and the world he inhabits as a device to explore the grotesque and dangerous inequalities of contemporary society. Scrooge’s famous dismissal of the poor as ‘useless eaters’:
What then? If they be like to die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
expresses the Malthusian ideas promulgated to defend unfettered capitalism as ’natural’ and good for society. We hear the same arguments today from the mouths of super-wealthy social Darwinians like Bill Gates, albeit differently worded and wrapped in unctuous amounts of faux “environmental” concern. The rebuttal Dickens offers is powerful:
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.
This is a lot more radical and egalitarian than most mainstream liberal commentary today.
Dickens also uses Scrooge’s journey to discuss the evils of the workhouse and the institutionalised exploitation of poverty. He attacks the Church and the Sabbatarian movement for their insistence on shutting down Bakers’ kitchens on Sundays. For the poor, many of whom had no means of cooking in their homes, these communal kitchens were the only means of getting hot food. Dickens saw it as vindictive hypocrisy to force them to go without a proper meal out of supposed respect for the deity.
“Spirit,” said Scrooge, after a moment’s thought, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.”
“I!” cried the Spirit.
“You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,” said Scrooge. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I!” cried the Spirit.
“You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day,” said Scrooge. “And it comes to the same thing.”
“I seek!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,” said Scrooge.
The Spirit’s admonishing of Scrooge’s lazy assumption could apply as well to now as to 1843.
There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.
Ignorance and Want
Dickens also addresses the very basis of the threat he sees to the social order. Beneath the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present he sees what he thinks may be a “foot or a claw” protruding. When the Spirit raises his robe two children are revealed “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable…”
“…They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
This is the heart of Dickens’ message, still as relevant today as it was in 1843. This is the passage that, more than any other, make the work manifestly much more than a reminder to one selfish man to mend his ways. It’s an apocalyptic warning to society as a whole – allow ignorance to fester, encourage and exploit it for you own ends, and you, and all of us, will perish. It’s the very core of Dickens’ anger and fear, and the message he most feels the need to communicate to a heedless and wilful, comfortable and well-fed Victorian bourgeoisie. But paradoxically it is the passage most frequently omitted from the numerous dramatisations of the work.
Dickens’ message today
We are currently dealing with social issues Dickens would find very recognisable. After a brief period (1945-1970) in parts of the western world of relative prosperity for the working class, the gap between rich and poor is once again widening and the disadvantaged are once again being regarded with a casual contempt that would have seemed incredible just ten years ago, but which Dickens would find very familiar. Malnutrition and rickets are reappearing. In the UK many working people rely on food banks to survive. Homelessness is reaching epic proportions. Universal Credit is born from the same detachment from reality and vindictive drive to punish the most vulnerable that produced the Victorian workhouses.
The familiar morality tale of A Christmas Carol would be an obvious vehicle for exploring these modern issues. So, what is being offered up?
Well, earlier this year we got this. It purports, according to IMDB, to be a fictionalised account of the “journey that led to Charles Dickens’ creation of A Christmas Carol, a timeless tale that would redefine the holiday.”
Great. Except it does leave out a few quite important details. Like any mention – at all – about the Commission report on child labour that inspired Dickens’ creative rage. Or the ragged schools he visited and despaired over. In this version Dickens is a lovable doofus with writer’s block and parent problems, who really needs to figure out how to tell a funs Christmas story so he can fix his financial problems.
Well, at least the financial problems were real. So that’s something. It’s based on this book, by a professor at a Florida university. Judging by the cover blurb the book doesn’t mention the poverty and injustice thing either. Maybe all that heavy duty stuff is just a bit too much for your average professor of creative writing to wrap his head round.
Oh, and then there’s this:
This is a piece of artwork, several of which were commissioned by the Dickens museum to re-imagine A Christmas Carol in the 21st Century.
Scrooge is manspreading.
In the 21st Century, this age of sterile ‘identity politics’ and pathological narcissism masquerading as activism, maybe this really is the worst social evil we can imagine. Though another commission does, at least, show some understanding of the story’s really applicability to today:
For better or worse Dickens’ clarion call to social responsibility has been largely reduced to a roll-out of cosy family movies that tend to eschew most of the grittier parts of the story (though, oddly, the recent Disney version does reinstate some of the grit), and extract it from any social or political context. Most modern analyses of the original betray partial or complete ignorance of its deeper message or the social ills that inspired it. Even when some reference is made to Dickens’ social conscience it tends to be sanitised and cursory. We are even told by one website that A Christmas Carol is actually endorsing unfettered free market capitalism because, if not for that, Scrooge could not make the charitable donations he does at the end of the story.
The most egregious example of this shallow neoliberal revisionism is last year’s The Man who Invented Christmas – a film notionally telling the history of Dickens’ work, but actually selling a cosy myth. Dicken’s becomes a foppish oaf, more concerned with his bank balance and personal rivalries than the problems of Victorian society. Societal crimes are sidlined and ignored in favour of invented inter-personal drama. Dickens’ anger softened into sentiment and simplistic emotions.
The factual inaccuracies come thick and fast – someone tells Dickens he “should have been a journalist”. Of course, Dickens WAS a journalist for years.
Elsewhere, we are told that the episode with the monstrous children, “Ignorance” and “Want”, is all about the need for “education” among the poor. Because most of us no longer understand the thing Dickens knew full well – that these things are not unhappy accidents but deliberately imposed methods of control and exploitation.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’
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cozy? only to those with no imagination/EXPERIENCE OF HARDSHIP.
Perhaps Dickens intuitively understood the broken window theory of business before it was articulated in our time. Without equivocation he was a socially hypersensitive chap that was financially traumatized by the fact that his father was incarcerated in debtors prison which was undoubtedly socially stigmatizing for anyone during that time. Social stratification was dependent upon reputation in a community. The old black & white Hobson’s Choice film with Charles Laughton was designed around that kind of plot.
Like Marx we can see that Dickens also understood the class disparity that wealth facilitated to extreme.
Dickens was all for the white working class. He was a racist and imperialist. What a pity! On India:
“I wish I were Commander in Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon the stain of the late cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
This is not the only instance of him advocating genocide against non-whites. He frequently described Africans, American Indians and Asians as savages, and wanted to write a history of the savage! In 2008, Dickens’ great-great grandson apologised for his forbear’s slander of the Inuits.
A horrible man, even Wilkie Collins tried to distance himself from Dickens’ vile public remarks. I, for one, do not read his books anymore. Plenty of other writers out there to glean a moral truth!
I enjoyed this essay, thanks.
The pyschological threads connecting greed during the Dickensian era to today’s form of hyper-captialism seem all the more pertinent after Phillip Alstons damning report of poverty in Britain.
Yet the official line from senior tories was, ‘bah humbug’.
Despite Dicken’s cautionary tale it is obvious the ruling class have learned literally nothing about the social harms arising from inequality and extreme wealth division.
Dickens had a great, big, warm heart, most of all. He was a keen and often brilliant observer of the world around him which was going through a period of rapid and transformative change. Much of the old being rolled over by the engines of the new world being shaped. Like many Victorians from his background he was deeply sentimental too.
One could make an academic career out of Dickens’ writing about money in his work. Just one aspect is the way money functions like ‘magic’ in the novels. So many people are really the heirs to fortunes, one way or another. Money transforms peoples lives, but there are often costs involved.
Dickens never really attempted to write a 100% realistic novel that didn’t flinch from discribing society the way it was without political filters. Arguably this would have been completely impossible, given Victorian values and the marketplace for litterature. Just the sexual practices of the lower orders packed like sardines in ghastly living conditions in the teemiing cities, would have so shocked Victorians that putting that in a novel, realistically, would have been impossible. It would have to wait for over a century for that.
Another area of study is the way Dickens has been sanitised over the decades and atttiudes towards his work have changed. Like he was never seen by contemporary readers as primarily an author for children, yet, that’s what he’s become over the years as his texts were edited and changed. The Muppets Christmas Carol for example.
The role of the poor in Dickens seems to be about making the comfortable middle class feel really, really, glad that they aren’t poor. This was an obsession of most middle class Victorians. Dickens seems to be saying, please give a little of your wealth to the poor, it’s good for your Christian soul, but perhaps even more importantly, though this is seldom expressed openly, it’s in your own self-interest too. If ever that crushing poverty turns into rage and action, watch out!
“It’s a fact not much considered, but Das Kapital and A Christmas Carol were both written in the same city, in the same decade – just five years apart.” Actually, they were 20+ years apart. “A Christmas Carol” came out in 1843. “Das Kapitol” didn’t come out until later – 1867. In 1843, Marx had just left Germany and moved to Paris. I only know this because I’m reading through Gareth Stedman Jones’ biography of Marx.
You are correct sir. The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.
What is described (with considerable eloquence) is the intrinsic logic of neoliberalism. The rising tide which was supposed to float all boats got diverted, not by accident, into the canals and dams of the rich and powerful. These people have no sense of morality or empathy with the fellow countrymen. The two nations as described by Disraeli was bad enough in England, but near abroad it was akin to an extreme form of political, economic apartheid and mass murder. During the great potato famine in Ireland a million people died in 1848. But the PTB in London had neither the economic and/or moral wherewithal to even attempt to assuage the situation. One observer was to opine the Irish people had ”died from an overdose of political economy administered by quacks.” The ideological universe of the British political class inhabited did not have solutions to the catastrophe which confronted them.
”This led to a remarkable situation where a delegation from Ireland visited the British PM Lord John Russel to plead for more relief for the starving poor, only to have the PM read to them from Adam Smith’s ”Wealth of Nations”. The relief they were asking for would, according to Russel’s political economy on make the situation worse and result in more deaths.”
Plus Ce Change!
And this is the same neo-liberal claptrap which is trotted out in academe and the media by distinguished professors and highly rated business executives, in addition to global institutions such as the IMF, WTO and WB, all of which are controlled one way or another by the transnational globalist class. The contemporary mantra is contained in the holy trinity of privatisation-liberalisation-deregulation.
I get the sentiment, it’s a great story. And the globalist corporatocracy we’re heading towards is becoming similar in many regards. However, there is another viewpoint here about the individual vs collective. Scrooge was in reality a hard working businessman – one of many that facilitated the industrial revolution of the time. His crime was becoming successful, and not giving his money away. That’s it. Perhaps not a Christian virtue, but does the church give more than it takes? Its vast and dubious finances say not. His wife left him because he spent more time building the business than giving her attention. However, he raised them out of poverty by hard work and got them a great house in central London. Would she truly have been happy in poverty together forever? It’s a nice sentiment, but a romanticised fiction. The opposite is demonstrably true today. Dickens doesn’t mention Scrooge’s satisfied customers, as there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so wealthy. He chased his debtors because he ran a business not a charity. His debtors wanted him dead – which is a childish emotion of wanting to live for free. As to his underpaid clerk – if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone than what Scrooge paid him, he could have moved jobs. Since no one did, Cratchit was worth exactly what he was paid. He burned little coal because he was not irresponsible with outgoings, like any business. It wasn’t a taxpayer funded institution. Dickens inadvertently made Scrooge by far the most intelligent and responsible adult in his fable. The key word is adult. A world full of the other characters would have remained in the fields picking cabbages. Maybe there they could be happy and sing, away from the evil Scrooges! Everyone would want progress magically and for free. Scrooge lost his enthusiam for life by the hard facts of making a living. It’s a sacrifice. His taxes likely paid for half the workhouse funding and for many families’ welfare. Yet people wanted more, like children, and despised him for it. Too right he was miserable – responsibility and hard work does that to you, escpecially when others hate you for it (but like children ignore the welfare and jobs creation). Without Scrooge their borough would have been so much poorer, and far more miserable, not better off. They needed more Scrooges! There can be no arguing with Dickens’s wish to show the spiritual advantages of charity. But there was no need to make the object of his lesson an entrepreneur whose ideas and practices benefited his employees, society at large, and yes himself. I enjoyed a Christmas Carol as a child. As a man, it’s a nice romantic fiction that makes me long to be a child again.
Spoken like a true Scrooge, only you are STILL blind to reality. The corporatocracy disdains small business entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the number of them that’ve been shut down in the past two years alone while the large monopolies remained open. Aristocratic fascism demands conformity, lockstep, in order for its dream of a world government to operate sufficiently. There is no room for individual thought, creativity, invention, literary genius, the “wisdom of uncertainty” in today’s world of status quo end-of-history lockdown.
As for “being an adult”, it’s not adult when world poverty is viewed as a solution, not a problem. The World Bank and IMF think of poverty as low-priced labor, creating a competitive advantage for countries that produce labor-intensive goods. So poverty and austerity are seen as an economic solution that’s built into their models.
It’s not adult to destroy a nation’s election process, to exploit natural monopolies like education and healthcare, to practice planned obsolescence in manufacturing, to privatize the media in order to produce perpetual lies, to shut down normal government investment in the public sector (what’s left of it) while green-lighting blank checks to defense and corporate subsidies, to censor, to create fabrications leading to war and unnecessary deaths… I could go on and on.
Humanity is faced with an epidemic of immaturity in leadership today. If anyone is living in a romanticized fiction of capitalism, it’s you my friend.
I fail to see where in the story one can find anything that points to Scrooge being “a hard-working man” . . .
Others worked for him, and he watched them like a hawk to make sure they had no peace.
He also worshipped his accumulated goods, like a true, miserly slave owner.
The only thing that doesn’t work in the book is his salvation, since he is clearly a badly damaged soul.
“Oh, I see the error of my ways!” doesn’t come easily to such people.
Thanks for this wonderful essay, Catte! And merry Christmas …
Dickens was unquestionably one of the greatest writers and he was right in assuming that he could reach far more people through fiction than through any amount of essay writing. (I think the main reason why The Bible has become such a hugely popular and influential book is that it takes the form of parables whose meaning makes an instant connection with readers who would never feel the same response to abstract argument.)
However, “A Christmas Carol” does highlight a basic limitation. Dickens is clearly relying on the good will of those who have to give some out to those who don’t have. It was precisely Marx’s point that the capitalist system itself follows certain trends which inevitably rise every time. Individual capitalists may be very decent human beings in their private lives. But they can only effectively function as capitalists by being as ruthless as possible in their business dealings. Were an individual capitalist decide to be a really sweet guy in his business life, he wouldn’t last long and would always be overtaken by others.
This ruthlessness is therefore driven not by greed. (And oh how individual capitalists would love to believe that since it makes them feel macho!) It is driven by fear. And fear is a far deadlier force than greed. I would never kill through greed – but I might if I was terrified enough. That’s why employers can be downright vicious with their workforce. Every employer feels the breath of investors and competitors constantly whistling down his neck.
Greed and fear are the two sides of the same coin … and also the twin pistons of capitalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greed_and_fear
Excellent heartfelt article, Catte. Sad that this kind of work is never available to those who stick with mainstream sources. There is an excellent production of “A Christmas Carol” on at The Old Vic at the moment. Very moving although the politics present in the original text has been, as you say, largely removed. Nonetheless people get the message even if they struggle to connect all the dots. This is as powerful a story as there is; powerful enough to collapse any heart that is even half alive.
‘In the 21st Century, this age of sterile ‘identity politics’ and pathological narcissism masquerading as activism, maybe this really is the worst social evil we can imagine.’
I agree. It can be fought and be resisted quite easily, however, as I think all (and many many more) know who visit this website
This is from an essay from Ramzy Baroud, who first describes the hardship of 21st century Muslims, particularly Palestinians, and then says:
‘Sometimes I pity those who are born into privilege: although they have access to money and material opportunities, they can rarely appreciate the kind of experiences that only want and suffering can offer. Nothing even comes close to wisdom born out of pain.’
This is the exact opposite of the sterile ‘identity politics’ and ‘winner takes all’ mentality that can never, ever, accomplish the fulfillment of a meaningful life.
Does that mean that I am wishing all the hard life that Muslims must live in Palestine? – No, but it does show that even the winners who seem to have taken all, cannot have everything, in fact miss the most important thing in life: meaning.
It has been a long time since I last read (saw on TV in the 1980s, to be honest, I never read the book) A Christmas Carol. As I recall, I think correctly, the house of Scrooge was empty and felt cold, while those who were barely able to makes ends meet, had a celebration at Christmas eve, and felt warmth and comradeship. I also remember the salvation for Scrooge and his agonizing dreams: give instead of take, as giving is so much more rewarding than taking. Such a small story makes much more sense to me than all the self congratulatory news that fills the daily news of our leaders, stars and other windbags who consider money, power and health as their God given right and who just want one thing from their viewers: to be idolized.
Thank you for the comments and thoughts here and Merry Christmas.
Yes, Victorian England was a place of extremes, but in my opinion the cause of much of it was not so much cruelty on the part of the ruling elite (as might be the case today), but simply the huge rise in population which destroyed the traditional methods of coping with deprivation, leading to extreme poverty (worse than today) and the creation of the monstrous Workhouse system.
The population of England in 1801 was according to the census 8.9 million and in 1901 32.5 million. That’s a bigger rise than in the next 100 years. I’m not sure what caused the rise, I would speculate that it was mostly due to medical advances. Immigration was mostly from Ireland at this time and emigration to Australia and New Zealand may have outstripped that.
Charles Dickens was – at best – from the lower rungs of the English middle class. (I’m being generous). He wasn’t part of the traditional English middle class elite – the Gentry, unlike people such as Jane Austen, for example. She was very much a part of that. Personally, I wouldn’t describe him as “middle class”, but the term “working class” does not seem appropriate either. And his father had been imprisoned for debt at one time, of course.
Dickens I have always thought was a writer on social issues. He was firstly a journalist – which often meant something in those days. Oliver Twist predates 1843, but explores some of the themes of the deprivations of Victorian London. (It probably would not be considered PC today with it’s unflattering characterisation of Fagin!)
You seem to be echoing the Malthusian view that it is overpopulation that leads to all that deprivation. But the rise of capitalism was facilitated by enclosure of the commons i.e. the forcing of peasants off land that had traditionally been theirs for countless generations. They either starved to death in the country or made their ways to the cities where they would be forced to take up the most poorly paid work under the most appalling conditions. Malthus himself blandly assumed that a rise in population would inevitably lead to poverty but never advocated contraception because he knew that a surplus population suffering the direst poverty would be a necessary tool of coercion to make those who could find employment accept the aforementioned horrendous conditions.
So, what sort of contraception was available to the poor (or anybody else) in 1843?
“Neo-Malthusians differ from Malthus’s theories mainly in their enthusiasm for contraception. Malthus, a devout Christian, believed that “self-control” (abstinence) was preferable to artificial birth control. ”
So clearly some form of artificial birth control was available back then.
“Early Egyptians used various forms of penis protectors for protection against disease and insects, and as badges of rank and decoration.
1564 Gabriello Fallopius recommended a moistened linen sheath for protection against STIs.
18th century onwards Condoms were made from animal intestines.”
Malthus’s invaluable service to the capitalist overlords was that he managed to serve their interests while co-opting a humanitarian sentiment. The problem was that the wretched exploited ones so necessary for capitalism were obviously brutalised – which didn’t sit well with those all-too-numerous souls who could not look away. So this is what Malthus came up with: “Don’t try to help them. You will l just make it worse. The slightest assistance will cause them to multiply and so exacerbate the misery. And so the best thing to do with the surplus is to give it to that capacious maw of the church. Let us eat the remainder and so put all those wretched ones out of the misery of having the means to expand their suffering.”
@John2o2o: “I’m not sure what caused the rise, I would speculate that it was mostly due to medical advances.”
Drains. “Good drains are worth more than the entire Pharmacopeia” — Medaware
The invention of the microbe by Louis Pasteur only served to stimulate 19th century’s passion for vast civil engineering projects — after the trains they built the drains. Marcel Proust’s father was a doctor; by the time Proust reached the age of understanding, his father had reached the stage where “he treated nothing smaller than a river basin”.
Really a pleasure to read.
On a lighter note I was recently accused by a colleague of ‘manspreading’ and had to look it up online to see what it meant.
Luckily my offence of placing a book on a colleague’s chair wasn’t quite enough to get me in the news: Unlike this gentlemen ( if the image is not available click the link to the final photo in the restaurant) who was clearly ‘manspreading’ at Gatwick Airport. Please also observe the ladies doing the same – and getting away with it on the left of the picture.
“A 47-year-old man from Crawley, was arrested in the town on suspicion of manspreading at Gatwick Airport. He remained in custody at 11am on Saturday.
“Christian Socialism? Humbug!” — The Ghost of Scrooge, 1997-2010
Scrooge was just a hard working businessman, one of many that facilitated the industrial revolution. His crime was becoming rich, and keeping the money to himself. That’s it. The rest is childish socialism and the politics of envy. His wife left him because he spent more time building the business than giving her attention. However he raised them out of poverty – from which she would have left him for anyway (for a richer man) in all likelihood. Dickens doesn’t mention Scrooge’s satisfied customers, but there must have been plenty of them for Scrooge to have gotten so rich. He chased his debtors because people are not children and need to take responsibiity – he is not a charity. If they reneg on the deal they are commiting theft. As to his underpaid clerk – if Cratchit’s skills were worth more to anyone than what Scrooge paid him, there would be someone glad to offer him a job. Since no one did, Cratchit must be worth exactly his present wages. Dickens inadvertently made Scrooge by far the most intelligent and responsible character in his fable. He may have been miserable, but that’s not a crime, making wealth for others to enjoy the fruits of often gets you nothing but hate. The other characters shirk responsibility and just want to mess about and blame everyone else for their suffering, like children rebelling against a perceived authority. The fact is without Scrooge their community would have been much poorer, and far more miserable, not better off. There can be no arguing with Dickens’s wish to show the spiritual advantages of love. But there was no need to make the object of his lesson an entrepreneur whose ideas and practices benefited his employees, society at large, and yes of course himself. So, I say Humbug!
Really? You post the same drivel under different names, “Rich”? How very childish.
Very timely and well written as usual. I like what you have done with the offG and here.. My only concern is for the offGuardian once again to use Bill Gates as a metaphor for greedy rapacious capitalism or as a modern day Cecil Rhodes or JD Rockefeller. That is to say, Rockefeller’s image before his personal cleric Reverend (also) Gates got ahold of him and explained how to combat the Yellow Press portrayal of JD, accurate though that was.
I might be just as socially conscious as you are but you don’t seem to know much about Gates, whose philanthropy has not been a response to Hearst attack dogs or their modern equivalents. And your snide characterization of Gates’s motives are gratuitous and I am confident are grotesquely incorrect.
Otherwise keep up the good work and Merry Christmas to you. This is meant sincerely and not just to conform to a stroke, kick, stroke format.
The only reason Gates has the money to be a philanthropist is the rapacious methods he used to acquire his wealth. This is why charity cannot be an answer to social and economic inequality.
Gates employs about 90,000 people worldwide, jobs he created and which are highly sought after. Microsoft finishes highly in surveys of best employers. His products have been successful because they are good and often better than the competition. Yes he is competitive but that allows him to do more good. What rapacious capitalism? It is the system in which he works. He did not create it. He is doing the ultimate redistribution of wealth and you hate him for it.
How many jobs have you created? How much wealth have you brought to your country so the poor can be looked after? What percentage of your income goes to charity? Gates gives away more money than your entire ancestry has ever earned, and more each day than you may have gotten in your lifetime. I would wager. And it is money he has earned, not stolen or begged for. No one has been as clever in maximizing the effect of his charity, and he has never exhibited any sense of entitlement.
I am weary of the ill-informed slagging off of Bill Gates on this site. Do some homework on the Gates Foundation.
Actually Microsoft is at the top of employers. Don’t you feel silly?
As for “the only reason” you give, are you aware his SAT score was 800? Do you think that had anything to do with it?
Marx the great Christian? No more absurd than Jesus the great Christian. There’s a lot of red blooded Socialism in Jesus — and a lot of Romantic idealism in Marx.
By the way, heard from any Christian Socialists recently? There used to be a lot of them around in my youth, but nowadays I come across more Islamic Socialism, with Iran and its Low Gini coefficient. Have Blair and Brown put a cursed Christian Socialism in Britain?
In GKChesterton’s essay on Dickens in Encyc.Britt. he refers to Dostoevsky referring to Dickens as “the great Christian”. Generosity, Merriment and Good Fellowship, make sure the wine doesn’t run out at the party — even if that needs a miracle; CKC and Dickens understood that part of Christianity; but which part did Dostoevsky understand?