What the Dickens? — a tale of two Scrooges

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By Christopher Phelps

"Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
"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 am very glad to hear it."

In holiday advertisements and popular culture, Ebenezer Scrooge has come to stand as the symbol of insufficient seasonal zeal — and thus the hero of cynics who grumble, "Bah! Humbug!" when confronted by the madness of the waning month of the year.

Originally Scrooge was so much more: a cold-hearted tightwad whose selfish money-grubbing typified the rising social class of Victorian capitalism.

Ethnic cleansing, lively right-wing movements around the world, an unchecked orgy of neoliberalism: it would seem the worst of times. But it is the best of times to dust off Charles Dickens' 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol, and reclaim it from the merchants who stole Scrooge.

No mere naysayer of Christmas — not even a simple curmudgeon — Ebenezer Scrooge was a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous" man of business whose life was lived as "solitary as an oyster" and who spent every spare minute in his bone-chilling counting house, poring over his accounts.

Scrooge did not just deride Christmas as "a time for paying bills without money". He winced at "the ominous word 'liberality'" as it passed the lips of two portly gentlemen seeking donations for the poor, and he waved them away with the Malthusian words that deaths of the indigent would merely serve to "decrease the surplus population".

The medium of film is partly to blame. Not even the most faithful telling of Dickens on the screen can hope to represent with adequate force the literary passage which informs us that the first phantom to haunt Scrooge — his deceased business partner Jacob Marley, who appeared prior even to the Ghost of Christmas Past — dragged a clanking chain forged during his lifetime "of cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel".

"In life", Marley tells Scrooge, "my spirit never moved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole". (Scrooge himself had been "an excellent man of business" even on the very day of Marley's funeral, which he "solemnised ... with an undoubted bargain". Not a farthing wasted.)

No wonder that a society devoted to the pursuit of profit should dull the edge of A Christmas Carol, turn it from a tale about the crasser implications of business thinking into a harmless appeal for Christmas spirit, make Scrooge a gimmick for TV spots aimed at bargain hunters, and evoke Dickens solely to encourage Anglophilic nostalgia for frosted panes, top hats and roast goose.

A jaundiced revisionist might even say that Dickens' mockery of the utilitarian bourgeois of competitive capitalism merely greased the wheel for an emergent corporate society, helping soften the way for the culture of mass consumption that supplanted the work ethic of the small shopkeeper. But a quick glance through Frederick Engels' Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845) will dispel any notion that the most ruthless forms of exploitation and degraded conditions of labour were dissipating in Dickens' day.

Mean-spiritedness hardly died out with Queen Victoria. It is the hallmark of the present season, when gifts to food banks from the federal government and private donors are precipitously down; when the prison house is again the first instrument of social policy; when poverty wears a diaper and Tiny Tims fill the homeless shelters; when employers drive down wages even during a recovery, for the first time in the post-war era; when social science is mobilised to blame the genes of the poor for their circumstances. Surplus populations abound.

If we take A Christmas Carol as we ought — as a parable that we may either live in fear, selfishness and greed, or risk generosity and moral social action — we may reject with a warranted "Humbug!" the forces enticing us to max out our credit cards in the shallow merriment of commodity circulation. Devotion to the downtrodden, not the beeping of cash registers, defined the moral code of Christmas embraced by a humiliated Scrooge.

"Business!", cried the ghost of Marley, wringing its hands. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper, on December 14, 1994. At the time of writing, Christopher Phelps was one of the editors of Against the Current, a publication of the US socialist organisation Solidarity.]