Our Dickensian Present

It’s quaintly comforting to read a novel like Bleak House or watch the latest BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist and think, “I’m so glad I don’t live in those bad old days.” But as capitalist oligarchs, ever hungry for more wealth, continue to beat back the causes of the common good, we are seeing more and more the re-emergence of the Dickensian society.

The options for the poor in those days were few. There was no social safety net, and if you couldn’t pay rent, you lived on the street. If you were hungry and couldn’t shake up a few pennies, you could go to the workhouse. In fact, this was the only place you could get relief. It was the only “safety net” provided. You could live and work in the workhouse, for no pay, and be fed and housed. That was it. But who benefited from your labor? Well, it wasn’t the poor. This was slavery, and the upper classes saw the benefit.

Perhaps you thought you could dig out of a scrape with a loan, just to get you by. So you might take out a loan for a few pounds (dollars), but at the end of the week, you still might not be able to pay it back with the interest. In those days, there were no usury laws in England, so moneylenders could charge you as much interest as they liked. If you couldn’t pay, the moneylender could, by rights, have you sent to debtor’s prison. Once there, you would accrue fees for your own upkeep, which would make it very hard to get out of prison. If things were dire, your family might be imprisoned with you.

The United States used to have usury laws, but they went away in 1980, leaving banks to charge 20%, 30%, or even 100% interest in the case of payday lenders. You can pretty quickly find yourself unable to pay your debts. But you don’t have to worry about debtor’s prison, right? Not so fast.

The US court system can very quickly land you in debtor’s prison for failure to pay a fee, fine, parking ticket, civil infraction, or criminal charges. Think you still needn’t worry? If you’re poor and can’t get your left blinker fixed fast enough, you may be ticketed, and if you can’t pay that, a warrant may go out for your arrest. But then you probably can’t pay bail, either, so you’ll probably have to await your day in court from prison. Where you can’t work. So you may lose your job.

But wait, you say. I’m innocent of any crime. Innocent or not, the poor are more likely to be charged with a crime and urged to take a plea deal. So maybe you want a trial by jury. In that case, the prosecutors are likely to make an example of you, and you could easily find yourself in for a long sentence. And once in jail? You will probably cost the state more per year than it takes to send a person to Harvard. Most of this money is now funneling into private prisons, where they profit from you. But you won’t be bored. You’ll get to work for one of the corporations that benefits from your labor for pennies an hour. Most of which you’ll spend at the prison commissary.

Debtor’s prison and the workhouse. Welcome back.

That’s bad enough, but the sheer determination of the wealthy classes to tear up the social contract, which includes Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and even veteran’s care, not to mention public housing and public education, will inevitably lead the average American citizen to struggle to make ends meet, and if they can’t, they must “die and decrease the surplus population,” as Ebenezer Scrooge would say. Because there won’t be any help, or housing, or healthcare. Education, once a civil right, will belong to the few who can afford this luxury, not just with money but with time. The impoverished of Dickens’s day sent their children to work because the alternative was starvation.

The modern workhouse, aside from our current prison system, will be what we once called “a job.” We are halfway there. Many Americans cannot survive on what a single job can pay. A forty-hour workweek? The one that our ancestors actually died for? A thing of the past. We are competing with the cheapest labor in the world, whether that’s in China, Vietnam, or India. Companies pay less each year, and if they can avoid providing benefits like healthcare and pensions, they will do it. “Pensions” have already become archaic. Corporations invite you to play roulette with the 401k market.

One of the most despicable labor practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries was the American practice of paying in “company scrip,” which you could only spend at the “company store.” It was no accident that goods at the company store cost more than you were paid, so the longer you worked, the bigger your debt became. In this scenario, the debtor’s prison was the job. “St. Peter don’t call me, ’cause I can’t go; I owe my soul to the company store.”

The company store appears to be making a comeback. Chris Hedges writes about what the gig economy has done to previously good jobs — the race to the bottom continues — and the once lucrative business of New York taxi driving has changed so much that drivers are required to rent their car and buy their fuel for the day, which means starting their shift $150 in debt. This is insane.

Americans have been sold a bill of goods about capitalism, which in America is more accurately “corporatism.” We think of Mom & Pop stores. Anyone can open one! Which sounds great. Unless a handful of those start to buy other stores, then more, and accumulate so much wealth that they put the competition out of business. Then they incorporate and get all the full rights of a human being in the process. And they use their “free speech” money to pay off politicians, who legislate favorably for them, hurting the Mom & Pop stores in the bargain. The whole point of the game Monopoly was to show how this works. A few people can become incredibly rich this way or, more likely, by inheriting their wealth from someone else who did. They benefited from the public good, but they’re not so keen on paying into it. And so our public gains, our common good, starts to get nibbled around the edges. Maybe we don’t need usury laws. Maybe we don’t need to regulate banks or the environment. Maybe we don’t need to help the poor. Maybe we shouldn’t provide healthcare for people if we can make a lot of money off of it instead (the laws were changed under Nixon so that healthcare could be in the profit business). What else can we charge for?

The result is a form of slavery for most of the population. Oh, yes, there are those in the upper echelons who don’t feel like slaves. They had a good education; they have a nice house; they drive a nice car. They have a good job! At least, until they don’t. A debt slave is still a slave, and most Americans are not far away from financial disaster, even if they make a million a year.

In Dickens’s time, women had no rights. They couldn’t vote, most couldn’t own property, and they had no autonomy to speak of. Things have changed, but look around — there are people out there who would like to reverse our gains. Ironically, these are often the same folks who scream about “Sharia” law.

Just about the only Dickensian horror we haven’t reproduced so far is the sanitarium, where the mentally ill were locked in chains and subjected to inhuman “treatments.” Instead, our mentally ill population roam the streets, homeless.

Charles Dickens brought awareness to these horrible conditions and more, including decrepit slum housing and the horrors it contained. When Bill Sikes kills the prostitute Nancy (in Oliver Twist), it is just life in the slums. Dickens delivers justice at the hands of a mob, but in the real world, justice would be uncertain. The police force and all the laws of England exist mostly to protect the property of the rich. Bill Sikes would be more likely to be hung for theft than the murder of a nobody. What is certain is that most of the population who receive “justice” at the hands of the law are of the poor, lower classes. Nothing has changed.

Dickens’s characters bring exposure and empathy to these crimes against humanity, and yet here we are today, assuming that things have changed and that “good people” will always be okay in the end. If a wrong occurs, it is easy to imagine that they “deserved it” or were simply too lazy to help themselves. The goodness of ordinary people is not exalted in the popular novels. We are quick and ready to judge. If you doubt it, look at every unarmed black victim of a police shooting.

The upper classes of Victorian England by and large did not see the suffering of the poor, so it may as well not exist. The upper classes don’t see it today, either, and many of the so-called middle class either don’t see it or make excuses for what they see. The pain is real enough that some were convinced by a false savior that he would set the world aright again and level the playing field. But Trump is just another carpetbagger, out to help himself.

So now here we are again. We are working longer than ever, and more jobs than ever to survive. The debtor’s prison is back. The company store is creeping in under the guise of the “gig economy,” in which you take all the risk and the company makes all the cash without giving you any benefits at all. Extreme usury, once outlawed, is common practice. Debt slavery is increasing as everyday necessities become harder to reach, as our wages go down and prices go up. The price of simply staying alive is high. Meanwhile, the corporations with power divest from communities and are rewarded with fewer and fewer taxes, getting a free ride on the backs of the average citizen, who keeps paying, and paying, and paying.

We must free ourselves of this Fat Cat economic system, in which a few make out like bandits while the masses suffer and pay through the nose. Corporate personhood must be banned. Corporations themselves should probably become beholden to the public trust, rather than to a few investors. Private banks should be replaced with public ones. And all utilities and natural resources should be publicly owned. Should businesses still exist? As community players, yes. Everyone has the right to ply their trade and prosper. What shouldn’t be allowed is for one player to dominate the rest and pay little or nothing for the resources it consumes. It’s been a long time since antitrust laws were enforced.

The alternative to doing nothing is to watch our environment degrade to dirty, Victorian levels (thanks to corporate-backed deregulation) that compromise our health. Corporate greed and short-term thinking will ensure that our climate changes radically, which will probably cause the deaths of millions of human beings and wildlife. We are in a mass extinction event now. The suffering caused by corporatism will only increase with climate change. It is time to change our way of thinking. We cannot behave as a bunch of self-advocating individuals and survive. We must come together as one tribe. We must help each other to survive with dignity and to work on solutions to our vast and critical problems. There are severe difficulties ahead. We can make this better, or we can sit back and watch it become so much worse.

Illustration from “Oliver Twist,” by Boz



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Asha Hawkesworth

Asha Hawkesworth

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.