Of Scrooge, Bentham & Reagan

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Paul Siegel

DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL is familiar to everyone as the expression of the very essence of the Christmas spirit. However, A Christmas Carol is not merely a story of the Christmas that comes but once a year; it is, as Edgar Johnson, author of the definitive biography of Dickens, says, “a serio-comic parable of social redemption.”

“The miserly Scrooge,” Johnson points out, “is the embodiment of the pursuit of material gain and indifference to human welfare represented by both the businessmen and the nineteenth-century economists, and his conversion is a symbol of that change of heart in society on which Dickens had set his own heart.”

For the economists of the Manchester school, who were identified with one wing of utilitarianism, “the greatest good for the greatest number” was to be achieved by each one rationally seeking his own self-interest. The “unseen hand” of the market would bestow maximum good on society at large. In this way one could be truly philanthropic I

An article on A Christmas Carol, appearing in Westminster Review-the journal founded by Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism-objected to the novel on the ground that “a great part of the enjoyments of life are summed up in eating and drinking at the cost of munificent patrons of the poor,” who provide generously in a “feudal” manner. The article commented sagely: “Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them — for, unless there were turkey and punch in surplus, some must go without — is a disagreeable reflection kept wholly out of sight.”

According to such reasoning, one should never help someone out, since there is almost certainly someone else who is even worse off, and who, therefore, will be deprived. Better to plough one’s money back into one’s business, thereby gaining profit and providing employment for others-at, of course, wages determined by the “free market,” not “artificially” raised by the “coercion” of trade unions.

Dickens’ friend Leigh Hunt linked utilitarianism with Puritanism as forces opposed to the spirit of Christmas. After describing the rural sports and merry­makings of Christmases past, he said, “Such was the Christmas of our ancestors, till Puritanism spoiled one half of it, and Money-getting the other…. “

In the eyes of the Puritans everything was to be judged against the stem measure of utility — for instance, James Mill, a Benthamite disciple, forbad his son to play childhood games because they were not “useful.”

R.H. Tawney in his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism gave historical verification for Hunt’s perception of the relation between Puritanism and utilitarianism. “Some of the links in the Utilitarian coat of mail,” he stated, “were forged … by the Puritan divines of the seventeenth century.”

Although Puritanism was a revolutionary force that made its contribution to political freedom and social progress, it also provided a “new medicine for poverty.” This “medicine” was harshly bitter.

The Puritans did not regard “good works,” the giving of charity under the aegis of the Church, as a way of gaining favor in the eyes of God. Since the elect were rewarded for serving God by worldly prosperity, as in the Old Testament, poverty was attributed to the moral failings of the poor, whose idleness was not to be encouraged.

This, says Tawney, was the origin of “the theory that distress was due… to… what the Poor Law Commissioners of 1834 called ‘individual improvidence and vice.’ ” It is this Poor Law of 1834 that sought to discourage idleness by instituting workhouses in which inmates had their private lives investigated and the able-bodied labored under rigorous and subsistence conditions. Scrooge refers to them, asserting that as long as workhouses are in operation and the Poor Law in full vigor he will not give any money for the poor.

The Work Rhythms of Capitalism

The seventeenth-century Puritans, knowing well that the traditional Christmas was a conglomeration of pagan observances adopted by the Catholic Church and turned to its purposes, were opposed to it.

Moreover, the twelve days of Christmas celebration were a part of the frequent festivities of an agricultural society that were ill-suited to an emerging urban economy. Instead of these holidays, whose irregularity disturbed the work rhythms of the new economy, Sunday was made a day of dedication of one’s service to God, the great Taskmaster, with sports and recreation being outlawed. Under Cromwell Christmas, too, was deprived of its festiveness and was turned into a day of fasting. A poem of the time lamented:

Gone are those golden days of yore,
When Christmas was a high day:
Whose sports we now shall see no more;
‘Tis turn’d into Good Friday.

Although the Puritans reduced Christmas from twelve days to one, Scrooge continues in their tradition in objecting to giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off and paying for it too. He learns better from the Ghost of Christmas Present who, bearing the pagan-derived holly, mistletoe, and cornucopia of the ancient figure of Father Christmas, denies that he favors the puritanical Sunday Observance bills that would close down bakeshops on holidays. (These were days in which the poor would take their dinners there to be cooked, enabling them to obtain an infrequent, but hot, meal.)

Dickens had some awareness of the way in which Puritanism and utilitarianism were manifestations of the capitalist ethos and were opposed to that sociality he loved, a sociality which found its highest expression in the Christmas season.

This is indicated by Dickens’ use of the words “Puritan” and “utilitarian” in his account of his journey to the U.S. in 1842. He had been prepared to hail the reduction of privilege in the land of liberty, but, although he found many things to admire, he was repelled by “that vast counting­house which lies beyond the Atlantic.”

In Connecticut he noted the ”blue laws” and declared that “too much of the old Puritan spirit exists … to the present hour; but its influence has not tended… to make the people less hard in their bargains, or more equal in their dealings.”

Portrait of a Puritan

Scrooge displays what Max Weber calls the “worldly asceticism” of the Puritans, which caused seventeenth-century writers to use such epithets as “presbyterian old usurer” and “devote miser.” With his bowl of gruel, he himself lives in the kind of austerity he enforces upon Bob Cratchit. Comical in his curmudgeonly behavior, he bears some resemblance to the comically grotesque old usurer Arthur Gride in Nicholas Nickleby, although Gride, seeking to wed the young, beautiful heroine, is more repellent.

Both characters are in the literary tradition of the Puritan usurer, who is comical in his automaton-like behavior that will not permit him to be deflected from the pursuit of gain. Scrooge’s Christian name, Ebenezer, incidentally, is an Old Testament name that was common among Puritans, as is that of his partner and alter ego, Jacob Marley.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, written a year after A Christmas Carol was published, Marx draws an excellent portrait of Scrooge in describing the secularized Puritanism of the political economists of his time.

“Political economy… is… the science of asceticism. Its true ideal is the ascetic but usurious miser. . .Its principal thesis is the renunciation of life and of human needs. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the public house, … the more you will be able to save and the greater will become … your capital ….You must not only be abstemious in the satisfaction of your direct senses, such as eating, etc. but also in your participation in general interest, your sympathy, trust, etc. if you wish to be economical.”

His human wants and feelings shrunk almost to nothing through starvation, Scrooge is alienated not only from others, but from himself. He has forgotten what he was before he became a money-making automaton. It is through reminding him of the emotions he had in his childhood and early youth that the Ghost of Christmas Past sets him off on his road to regeneration.

The alienation of Scrooge is the alienation of modem society. Work-for the middle-class person and the worker, as well as for the capitalist-is, generally speaking, not a means of realizing one’s self. We are, furthermore, all cut off from each other by the overspecialization of an assembly-line economy. And the tendency in an economy of commodity production — in which everything is an object of exchange-is to regard other humans as things.

The credo of the United States, it is stated in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, is “Every man for himself, and God for us all.” Dickens’ mentor, Thomas Carlyle, pointed out that in a capitalist society “cloaked under due laws-of war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth,” there is “a mutual hostility.” Extreme alienation and loneliness is the consequence.

Although Scrooge is an image of the alienation of modern man, he is in a number of respects a representation of a capitalism that was already becoming outmoded in Dickens’ day. During the early period of capital accumulation, “worldly asceticism” was appropriate; afterward, what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption” became the standard.

Mr. Bounderby in Dickens’ Hard Times, a “banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not,” is the new kind of capitalist. He likes to boast about being a self-made man who rose from a deprived childhood.

As he lunches on chops and sherry, he indulges in his favorite plaint about workers who “expect to be … fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon.”

“I don’t make merry myself at Christmas,” says Scrooge, “and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” On the other hand, Mr. Bounderby, who does not stint himself, still sees the world as being in a conspiracy to live lavishly off him.

Bounderby’s sentiments are very much present in the United States today. After all, Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s friend and adviser, said, “We’ve had considerable information that people go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s easier than paying for it.” Presumably taxpayers, like Scrooge, should refuse to give a penny more than the money for the most rigorous kind of “workfare” program currently being put into place-reminiscent of the nineteenth­century workhouses.

Today almost a quarter of the children in the United States live in poverty. These Tiny Tims have been forgotten by an administration that has talked jubilantly of a great wave of prosperity.

The man who is the president of the United States may have the amiable, beaming manner of the Cheeryble brothers, the benevolent philanthropists of Nicholas Nickleby, but his social philosophy and actions are those of Scrooge. The figures of Want and Ignorance whom the Spirit of Christmas Present showed the dismayed Scrooge still exist, but Reagan and the other unregenerate Scrooges who rule the country are blind to them.

November-December 1987, ATC 11

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