It’s a holiday tradition; the low murmur of the stereo in the corner of the kitchen, filling the house with the sounds of Yuletide cheer. And in our house that means that — along with Bing Crosby, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and the ongoing freak parade of Mellowmas — we’ll be hearing the audiobook version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The three-hour-plus performance was released by UK publisher Penguin as a free podcast back in 2006, and quickly became mandatory listening for us. The reader, Geoffrey Palmer, has a vast range of accents and timbres at his disposal, and he’s not afraid to go big. A Christmas Carol is as shameless a crowd-pleaser as Dickens ever wrote, and Palmer utterly sells it all — the gooey sentiment, the broad humor, the flashes of horror — with sobs and cries and peals of laughter, and without ever condescending to the material.
Hearing Dickens read aloud is a revelatory experience anyhow. Many modern readers have trouble with his ornate prose — the elaborate syntactical construction of his sentences can leave you unsure where to focus your attention, obscuring the actual point of his work. But in a good reading, with a performer who knows what he’s doing, Dickens’ themes jump right out; the twisted scaffolding of his prose becomes so much soothing background music for the clear, strong melody of ideas.
The plot, I’m sure, is familiar to you. Old Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly misanthrope who terrorizes his beleaguered clerk, Bob Cratchit. One Christmas Eve, Scrooge’s long-dead business partner Jacob Marley, now a tormented ghost, appears to bear him a warning. In an attempt to help Scrooge to avoid his own dire fate, Marley has arranged for Scrooge to be visited by three spirits — the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — in hopes of changing the old man’s ways. In the course of the night, Scrooge revisits scenes from his own youth, observes firsthand the impoverished conditions of the Cratchit family and their crippled son Tiny Tim, and even foresees his own miserable death — alone, unloved, unmourned. Spiritually reborn, he dedicates himself to a life of charity and benevolence.
Like any great story, A Christmas Carol functions on a number of levels. It’s a straight-up moral tale of sin and redemption, of course. And it’s a belated coming-of-age tale, with Scrooge — who is still, in his heart, a lonely, insecure child — coming into his emotional maturity, recognizing his responsibilities to others and finding the confidence to accept them. From a psychological angle, it acts as a parable of the self-actualization process, with a fearless examination of one’s own past actions and current circumstances leading to a bold reckoning with the future. The more you listen, the more there is to hear.
But in listening with my children — especially in light of their growing involvement with social justice issues — your Old Professor finds himself increasingly inclined to hear A Christmas Carol as a fundamentally political work.
Some readers will, no doubt, shake their heads right now. Isn’t that just like a liberal, they’ll think. Dragging politics into everything. Loading down an innocent children’s story with some lefty social agenda. Using this festive time of year as an opportunity to grind an ideological ax. It’s a fair cop, inasfar as it goes. But that ax ain’t mine, friends; it belongs to the Grandmaster of Gads Hill Hisself.
It does the man a disservice to think of him a simply a Victorian sentimentalist. Charles Dickens was a fiercely political writer — and the model for later generations of “problem novelists.” Though he rarely allowed the drumbeat of politics to drown out his characters’ humanity, Dickens’ work was nonetheless keyed in to the social issues of his day. Nicholas Nickleby addressed the laxly regulated education system; A Tale of Two Cities looked at how revolutionary fervor can curdle into mere mob justice; Bleak House is a Gothic melodrama wrapped around an argument for tort reform.
The topic that occupied him throughout his career was poverty — and his great theme, the way that civil authorities address (or fail to address) the plight of the poor. Having spent time on both sides of the income gap — his father had been chronically insolvent, and spent part of Charles’ youth in debtor’s prison, an experience depicted vividly in David Copperfield — Dickens was bitterly critical of societal attitudes towards such inequality; he rejected the Victorian complacency that equated success with divine favor, and the government policies that regarded poverty as evidence of idleness and low moral character. Dickens held special scorn for the Poor Law Amendment Act, or “New Poor Law,” passed in 1834; this regulatory package — perhaps the most sweeping piece of social legislation prior to the New Deal — was the primary background for Oliver Twist, and its far-reaching, draconian measures informed many of his other works, including A Christmas Carol.
Government benefits for the poor began in England in the fourteenth century — after the Black Death had nearly wiped out the economy — and operated for hundreds of years in various forms, and with various degrees of success. By the 1830s, the system was widely regarded as being unsustainably broken. At the same time, various strains of political philosophy were gaining currency that would alter the English social landscape. Thomas Malthus’ influential Essay on the Principle of Population argued that, unless checked, population growth would outstrip a nation’s ability to feed itself — and that by making it possible for the “unproductive” members of society to continue breeding without fear of starvation, the social safety net would actually exacerbate the problem. Economist David Ricardo postulated an “iron law of wages,” theorizing that welfare benefits for the unemployed in fact held down the wages of the working poor.
Even high-minded philosophies were twisted to justify the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. Darwin’s theories of evolution had been perverted into the catchphrase “survival of the fittest,” and life was characterized as a zero-sum competition for resources, a brutal war of all against all. The utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham — which held that that action is best which gives the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people — had been dumbed-down into the notion that sometimes the few must suffer for the good of the many; and his notion that people inherently choose pleasant options over unpleasant gave rise to the idea that, given the choice, poor people would rather be idle than work.
Eventually, these cold-blooded economic ideas were given the force of law. Things were forced to a head when an 1832 Act of Parliament extended the vote to the middle classes — mainly commercial businessmen. Immediately afterward, under pressure from the newly enfranchised commercial class, a royal commission was convened to look into the current system of relief for the poor. And surprise, surprise! In what was seen even at the time as a preordained conclusion, the commission determined that there was rampant fraud and abuse within the system, and put forth a series of recommendations — eliminating no-strings cash benefits, instituting means-testing and work requirements, privatizing aspects of the system, generally stigmatizing relief — all aimed at controlling costs and driving down the numbers of people on the welfare rolls.
It’s all depressingly familiar, isn’t it? A newly successful class, pulling up the ladders after itself — we’re seeing that now in San Francisco, where the hateful yuppies of the tech sector are waging war on public transport. Businessmen and politicians falling for trendy philosophers — Bentham and Malthus then, Ayn Rand and The Art of War now. Free-market gurus classifying an entire segment of society as expendable — we see that now in the debate over economic justice; inequality is the engine that drives the economy, so the argument goes, and if children go to bed hungry in this, the richest nation in the world, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right? And the assumption that freeing up money in the entrepreneurial sector — “job creators” — will somehow translate into better conditions for the working classes: What is Ricardo’s “iron law of wages” but trickle-down theory by another name?
And most depressing (and most familiar) of all, the overriding suspicion and loathing of the poor as cheats and idlers, “mooches” and “takers,” as lazy sheep living a life of ease and dependence on Big Government. This othering of the poor as morally inferior beings who should not be coddled (as by providing them with, y’know, the means to keep fed, clothed, and alive), but who must be reformed — who must be made to learn the value of hard work, to learn that nothing comes for free — we see that still, in Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent.”
By eliminating cash benefits, the New Poor Law forced those seeking relief to enter a workhouse. In these prison-like institutions, the population was segregated by age and gender, meaning that families were split up, and the inmates were set to hard labor; breaking rocks into gravel for roads, grinding bones for fertilizer, twisting rope. Clothing and food rations — even the menus of gruel, pickled pork, bread, and cheese — were determined by a central commission based in London. These rations were insufficient, by their very design. The workhouses were intended to act as a deterrent, not as a refuge — and so conditions inside were made intentionally harsh, so that only the truly destitute would apply for aid. So meager were the rations that bone-crushing operations had to be suspended, when inmates of one workhouse were found to be fighting over the rotten bones, in order to suck the marrow.
Before his reformation, Ebenezer Scrooge is the mouthpiece for the Establishment values that led to the creation of this appalling system. When he is approached by two philanthropists, seeking donations for a charitable fund to assist the poor folk of London, we get this exchange:
“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 prisons and the workhouses] — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
[The gentleman replied,] “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. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that. . . . It’s not my business.”
It’s all there, in that one little passage. Malthus’ idea of “surplus population,” the conception of the poor as lazy dodgers, the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude, the notion that poverty is Somebody Else’s Problem — and above all the defense of the status quo: Hey, I pay my taxes. I support the System; let the System handle it. What more do you want from me? You want to change the world, or something? Good luck, pal — but keep me out of it.
In political terms, Scrooge is espousing conservative values here — opposing heavy-handed government (or even private) solutions to social issues. Malthusianism is essentially libertarianism taken to its extreme, applying market solutions to the problems of poverty and overpopulation. Under this doctrine, scarcity and famine are manifestations of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, and governments should take no action to prevent the mass starvation of the poor, as it is a necessary measure to bring populations down to a sustainable level. For Malthus — and for Scrooge — a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a market correction.
What’s funny, and sort of sad, about reading A Christmas Carol today is that while Dickens has plenty of vitriol for the conservative attitudes of his time, the progressive alternatives are … well, pretty regressive, to be frank. As the story opens, we hear Scrooge’s kindhearted nephew Fred — one of the good guys, mind you — exclaim that
[Christmastime is] the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Maybe it’s the phrase “people below them” that sets my teeth on edge; maybe it’s that little “as if”; maybe it’s the tacit admission that it’s somehow natural to regard the poor as a separate species. In any case, it is, to modern ears, a dreadfully patronizing little speech. One can’t help but think that, while Fred’s heart is in the right place, he could do with a bit more consciousness-raising.
The philanthropic gentlemen, too, with their plans for charitable redistribution, seem rather feckless. Their scheme, while well-intended, is both naive and unsustainable, and utterly fails to address the underlying socioeconomic issues of chronic poverty. At best, it’s a Band-Aid on a sucking wound, and from the vantage point of 150 years on — where economists are rethinking the very notion of poverty, and some are arguing convincingly that it can be ended outright — we can recognize that. But that leap remains too great for the Victorian mind.
And even Dickens cannot entirely shake off the contemporary equation of poverty with vice. The struggling Cratchit family are representatives of the virtuous poor — and even they are not so sticky-sweet at that. All of them, even Tiny Tim, guzzle gin punch on Christmas afternoon, and there’s a throwaway hint that the oldest son Peter — who “might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawn-broker’s” — might occasionally supplement the family’s income with a bit of petty theft. But, we are told, “they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.” Contrast that with this nightmarish vision of a squalid neighborhood, from Scrooge’s glimpse into the future:
The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth and misery.
In this wretched hive of scum and villainy, he finds a rag-and-bone shop, where a housekeeper, a laundress, and an undertaker’s assistant are divvying up the plunder from a dead man’s rooms. We are far from the shabby domesticity of the Cratchits — these poor folk are sodden, callous brutes, who will literally strip the shirt from a dead man’s back for a few coppers.
Note, too, what happens in Dickens’ conclusion. Even after his reformation, Scrooge does not give up one iota of his own status or privilege. He does not restructure his business into, say, a community-owned credit union, or into a cooperative building-and-loan society — unlike the hero of a certain other Christmas classic. He does not capitalize a microfinance venture to help wretched slum-dwellers lift themselves out of poverty. Despite what you may remember from the Mickey Mouse version, he doesn’t even take Bob Cratchit on as an equal partner. He’s still the boss, even if he is now “as good a master . . . as the good old City knew.”
This is not to minimize the difference that Scrooge makes in the lives he touches. By raising Cratchit’s salary — and, presumably, helping young Peter Cratchit to find a decent job — Scrooge has secured the family’s future security, and his subsidizing Tiny Tim’s medical care literally saves the boy’s life. But Dickens never subjects to any serious interrogation of the market system that creates the inequality between them in the first place, or to search for alternatives to system. We are left with capitalism, with its winners and losers; and again and again, in works from Oliver Twist to David Copperfield, Dickens shows that the best that the blameless poor can hope for is to become winners — usually by finding a rich benefactor who will rig their outcomes — rather than to play a different game.
For that, ultimately, is what it will take to tackle these issues. The Poor Law was never really intended to alleviate endemic poverty, which contemporary thinking regarded as inevitable, even necessary to the functioning of the economy. It was only meant to reduce government spending, on the backs of the poor. Like the “reforms” of the Clinton years, the workhouse system did indeed drive many people off the welfare rolls — and onto the streets.
But even as a cost-cutting measure, the Poor Law was a failure. In the words of historian Simon Fowler, the workhouse system was “largely designed for a pool of able-bodied idlers and shirkers . . . However, this group hardly existed outside the imagination of a generation of political economists.” Those who did enter the institutions were the truly desperate —the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill — whose capacity for work was minimal. By mid-century, the workhouses became de facto charity hospitals. The designers of the system had failed to account for cyclical or seasonal unemployment, meaning that in many places, especially in the industrial north of England, the workhouses stood empty for long stretches of the year. Even with strict cost-control measures, the institutions lost money hand over fist, and eventually became unpopular even with the commercial class that had endorsed them in the first place. Although the workhouses never became profitable or even self-sufficient, largely due to a lack of able-bodied inmates, many business owners still resented being undercut by what amounted to slave labor.
These are all lessons that should have been learned long ago, from policies that have demonstrably failed time and again. But here in America, the rhetoric surrounding poverty has hardly shifted from that of Dickensian England. The stone truth is that people on government assistance earn every goddam penny of it, by the bureaucratic nonsense they have to go through and the systematic dehumanization they must endure. But the Right still demonizes the poor, muttering darkly about “welfare queens” in their Cadillacs, and proposes new regulations that would strip our most vulnerable citizens of their last shreds of self-worth and autonomy. In those states where cash unemployment benefits are still available, ballot initiatives are afoot to forbid recipients from “wasting” their benefits on things like cigarettes, booze, or lottery tickets. This headline from Forbes lays it on the line: CAN THE POOR BE TRUSTED WITH YOUR TAX DOLLARS? State Republicans admit openly that voter ID laws and reduced polling hours are being enacted specifically to make it harder for the poor to vote.
On the federal level, there are always rumblings about cutting SNAP benefits, a.k.a. food stamps, or at least restricting what can be bought with them, to ensure that recipients eat simple, healthy meals — gruel, perhaps — instead of steak or, God forbid, lobster. A Republican senator is seriously proposing that kids who qualify for free school lunches should be made to perform manual labor around their schools, to “earn” their benefits: “Think what we would gain as a society in getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch!” he says.
Underpinning all this is an unspoken notion that basic human needs — the means of survival, self-determination, the right to make decisions about one’s own life — should be the exclusive property of those who can afford them; that the poor should be content with whatever we deign to give them, and that the ungrateful little bastards should be glad that we don’t just let them die in the streets. Indeed, there’s an increasingly vocal Objectivist strain of American conservatism that thinks we should do just that. Scrooge at least paid his taxes to support the Poor Law. The radical libertarian right doesn’t even want to do that much. In this worldview, there are “makers” and there are “takers,” and the takers don’t deserve a thing. Not even life. Not even liberty. Certainly not any happiness.
Applying A Christmas Carol as a yardstick for contemporary attitudes towards poverty, it is alarming to see that — while progressive ideas have come a long away forward — conservative thinking has actually regressed. Even such social safety net as existed in Dickens’ time would be considered too generous for contemporary conservatives.
And Ebenezer Scrooge — that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” — would be considered left of center.
God help us, every one.