It is peculiar that a civilised society is defined by how charitable its individual citizens are to those who are less fortunate than themselves. Rather than striving for a society where charity is not needed, we are encouraged to illustrate our moral compass through choosing to give to the poor. But surely, a civilised society is one in which beggars rattling their tins are not seen as a common ornament in our streets.
Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol has been celebrated by socialists and non-socialists alike for its anti-capitalist sentiments following the rapid acceleration of the Industrial Revolution. But with further inspection, Dickens’ glorification of the charitable acts of capitalists highlights not only a pro-capitalist message of the time, but also identifies the ongoing narrative visible in today’s society, namely, that capitalism can comfortably coexist with benevolence.
Dickens, through the character of Scrooge, argues that if the rich were shown a portrait of themselves as greedy misers, complicit in the suffering of their workers, they would surely have an epiphany. At the start, when asked to give a donation to the poor, Scrooge responds with, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”. After being shown the extent of others’ hatred towards him, he promises to convert to a life of charity, renouncing the inertia he previously benefited from. Here, Scrooge exemplifies the virtuous rich man narrative, using his exponential wealth for good but not completely giving it up. Through his other works, it becomes clear that Dickens resented the Revolution, painting revolutionary radicals as “lunatics”. A Dickens sensibility suggests that if the capitalist was presented with the suffering of those beneath him, then the savagery of the revolution and the deaths that accompanied it could have been avoided. But here Dickens presents the fallacy that capitalists are unaware of the suffering they are causing. Scrooge is presented as encumbered by his wealth and materialism, to the point where he was oblivious to the social ills he was participating in. Dickens states, “Enclosed trains zipped the bourgeoisie to and from the centre of town, keeping them ignorant of the smells of disease and stagnant water that represented the innards of the working-class world.” But this is a misconception; the rich are not detached from the reality that their wealth is built on the backs of the working-class.
Dickens is hailed as a revolutionary writer, but as we know, the revolution requires society’s economic infrastructure to be turned on its head and brought under the control of the proletariat. Dickens’ vision does not entail the proletariat seizing the means of production, rather, he imagines the abolition of suffering through the kindliness of those who deserve to sit at the top of the social hierarchy. J.F. Teachout comments, ‘while [Dickens] advocated social reform, he did not advocate specific social reform legislation. Instead, it was through his enormous popularity as the foremost British author of his day that the influence was wielded for the eventual betterment of the working classes in Victorian England.’ Orwell points out that this attitude is the antithesis to revolutionary thinking. Innate to the revolution is class struggle. The capitalist who robs from the worker and provokes him into revolting is playing a necessary part in the orchestration of the revolution.
In a socialist society where resources and wealth are distributed equally, charity will not be required. Some also argue that charity itself is a tool used by the ruling class to mask inequality, generating the façade that we are all in this together. But in reality, charity cannot eradicate poverty, only glorify and bolster the prestige of the ruling class who are responsible for the existence of social inequality. Charity in our capitalist society feeds the idea that we require the existence of the rich as they are beneficial to the rest of us. This revisionist approach to tackling the suffering of the poor is instrumental in continuing the false consciousness of those who are purposefully neglected by the system.
Bill Gates has a net worth of around £67 billion, and was the richest man in the world until recently being surpassed by Jeff Bezos. Businessman turned charitable philanthropist, Gates deliberately sought to position himself as one of the virtuous capitalists, using his wealth for good and simultaneously attempting to justify his right to hoard that much wealth. Unconvincingly, his charity was established four years after Microsoft was subject to antitrust charges. The ruling class’ pretence of benevolence can be seen as a strategic move in ensuring the working class cannot locate those responsible for their poverty.
With the chasm between the rich and the poor being its widest since the 1850s, it is not surprising that we can identify Scrooge-like narratives in our society today. Where the rich are justified in hoarding wealth, charity is seen as a long-term solution to our social ills and the poor are expected to be grateful for the benevolence of those who are to blame for their poverty in the first place. Orwell’s essay on Dickens in 1939 illustrates how Dickens distinguished the charity of the privileged from the indignation of the Radicals. In our time, we make the same distinction between the paternalism of the welfare state and the social justice of socialism. Dickens disapproved of the revolutionary “savages”, yet he also disapproved of the greediness of the bourgeoisie. His solution of implementing a “sharing is caring” approach is an attempt to justify the existence of a class system where the rich keep the poor afloat simply because they are kind enough to do so. But surely a civilised society is one in which the poor does not exist at all?
Image: 1915 edition of A Christmas Carol illustration by Arthur Rackham