Dickens, Gaskell, and capitalism

Fischer over at Notes from Underground recently blogged about the BBC's miniseries adaptation of Dickens's Little Dorrit and the critique of capitalism implicit in it. I can't comment on that work as the only Dickens I've read is his 1854 novel Hard Times, but that's fine because Hard Times is one of the finest backwards-looking critiques of capitalism I've ever read. Dickens's characters might be caricatures (especially Slackbridge, the union organizer), but damn if there's not some element of truth in most of them, particularly Bounderby, the industrialist who's always reminding those around him of his long climb to the top. Here he is, speaking of himself in the third person:

Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Those are the antecedents, and the culmination. Josiah Bounderby of Coketown learnt his letters from the outsides of the shops, Mrs. Gradgrind, and was first able to tell the time upon a dial-plate, from studying the steeple clock of St. Giles's Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple, who was a convicted thief, and an incorrigible vagrant. Tell Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, of your district schools and your model schools, and your training schools, and your whole kettle-of-fish of schools; and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, tells you plainly, all right, all correct -- he hadn't such advantages -- but let us have hard-headed, solid-fisted people -- the education that made him won't do for everybody, he knows well.

At the end, of course, it's revealed that Bounderby's not a self-made man at all. This is a hypocrisy Dickens returns to time and time again in the work:

This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment.' Dickens had no trouble recognizing this:

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter. And if we didn't get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.


It must be admitted that he allowed her [his indigent mother] half a pound of tea a year, which was weak in him: first, because all gifts have an inevitable tendency to pauperise the recipient, and secondly, because his only reasonable transaction in that commodity would have been to buy it for as little as he could possibly give, and sell it for as much as he could possibly get; it having been clearly ascertained by philosophers that in this is comprised the whole duty of man -- not a part of man's duty, but the whole.

But for all of Dickens's clearsighted criticism of 19th century capitalism, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South is another 1854 novel that is more relevant to us in these years of capitalist crisis (it's also an excellent BBC miniseries -- which you can watch online with Netflix if you're a subscriber). There's none of the caricaturing as in Hard Times, but this works to the advantage of Gaskell's story; the character of John Thornton is an affirmation of one of the central tenets of the Marxist analysis of capitalism, which is that the imminent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him (Marx, Capital.) Thornton is a stern but decent factory owner whose business is on the verge of going under. On the one hand, he's moved to mercilessly exploit his workers and quash their attempts to unionize, and on the other his capitalist cronies are constantly encouraging him -- against his better judgment -- to survive the crisis by speculation. Sound familiar? It's the story of the last 40 years. But lest we think that Gaskell and Dickens wrote timeless works, it's important to remember that both were brilliant precisely because they saw what was new and horrible in capitalism, a social formation that was new to the world in the 19th century. If subsequent writers haven't dealt with capitalism so clearly, it is because they lived in a world that has known nothing else. Dickens, Gaskell and a host of 19th century writers remind us that capitalism is not ageless. If the working class can rise to its historic task, it won't be immortal either.