A Christmas Carol is often mistakenly charged with creating our contemporary, festive, largely secular Christmas. And while that may have been one of Dickens’ motives, a bigger one is more obvious: that of better treatment of children and the working poor. Dickens’ own experience of being plunged into poverty and having to work at the age of 12 stoked his frustration with continued desperate conditions for children in England. From a 2010 Guardian article:
Dickens himself had written about Christmas before 1843 – there are references to it in Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers – and he continued to do so long afterwards. He published five Christmas books in total (including The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth) and a great many stories on the theme by other writers in Household Words, some of which it is thought he collaborated on. But it is the Carol that has endured in the public imagination. Sickened by the finding of Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the Children’s Employment Commission set up by Parliament, he set to work on a book which he hoped would revive the real meaning of Christmas: love, charity and goodwill. Cannily, he incorporated a supernatural element that proved enormously popular with readers.
Now in reading a story that is 170 years old, it’s far too easy to overdo projecting the preoccupations of our era on to a very different time. But politically and economically, we are in the midst of a finance-led counterrevolution, in which the top wealthy, having succeeded in taking an ever-larger share of assets and wealth, are seeking to cement and extend their gains by rolling back hard-won labor reforms and social welfare programs. Their immediate target is the New Deal, but they’ll take as much ground as they can. That makes Victorian England more relevant than it might seem.
Scrooge is a speculator; he has no compunctions about profiting on his corn position even when told his gains come at the expense of the poor.Scrooge is strict and stingy: he begrudges the cost of coal to heat the office, has few servants for a man of his wealth, and thinks that people who go to parties are after free food and drink. He feels much abused by having to give his clerk Bob Crachit one day paid day off a year because convention demands it. He famously berates a group of men who ask for a holiday donation for the poor:
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge. “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again. “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.” “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Both very busy, sir.” “:Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.” “Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?” “Nothing!” Scrooge replied. “You wish to be anonymous?” “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
Perversely, Scrooge comes off well relative to our modern neoliberal elites. He was the product of a class-stratified society with no pretense of equality of opportunity. Yet his beliefs appear to echo our contemporary myth of meritocracy: his wealth and superior position are the result of his hard work, and those less fortunate must deserve their fate.
While he and they (for the most part) choose to know little about desperation in the lower orders, he is in most regards as stingy with himself as he is with them. By contrast, just as some important aspects of warfare have become more distant and sanitized than in, say, the Civil War (think bombings, drone warfare, missile strikes), so to has class warfare become a more sterile affair. Executives, business pundits, and the press don’t go about saying the poor should hurry up and die faster. Yet that’s happening in certain cohorts in America, such as rural white women. The game is more advanced in Europe, with Greece as the warning to the other nations of the cost of not falling in with the Troika’s programs earlier. And the excuse is the need for more fiscal discipline, and for greater labor market “flexibility,” aka “China made us do it.”
However, Scrooge 1.0 hates consumption, while in theory neoliberals regard it as a driver of commerce, and love to drive activities into markets because neoliberals attribute virtuous, even magical, attributes to them. Yet both views come to the same end. Capitals should have the untrammeled right to call the shots, the consequences to human welfare be damned. And we see that ultimately this leads to austerian policies and a belief that most people have to accept, indeed deserve, lower standards of living. That of course means lower consumption. So it is a mistake to assume that the neoliberals’ fondness for markets as a device is actually the same as being pro-consumption (better living standards). Ordinary people get to have them only to the extent that that end serves the needs of more powerful interests.
Obviously, it’s important to acknowledge that ordinary people have seen tremendous gains since Victorian England. But while we no longer have pre-teens working in factories to keep their families from starving, the trend is going entirely in the wrong direction. Hunger and homelessness among school-age children are rising. School budgets are under attack. Educated young adults have a brutally hard time finding jobs, let alone stable, meaningful employment. But even with with a hostile job market, large segments of the media depict those out of work as lazy and parasitical. Make no mistake about it, the program is to thin the surplus population. And ordinary citizens can’t afford to rely on supernatural intervention to get their oppressors on their side.