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Scrooge's Redemption Extinguished by Oxygen of the Economy

Stephen Gowans

approached by two gentlemen soliciting donations for the poor, a chronically dyspeptic, money-grubbing Ebeneezer Scrooge growls, "It's not my business. It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's."

Later, Scrooge is reproved by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. For Marley, it's too late. Condemned to walk the earth experiencing the human suffering he hardened himself to while alive, he remonstrates with Scrooge, urging him to mend his ways before he too ends up like Marley, suffering humanity's woes vicariously for eternity.

"But you were a good man of business," says Scrooge. "Humanity was my business," howls Marley, in reply.

For most of us, Dickens's tale of moral renewal is a powerful Christmas story, but it's unlikely that the story diverts many of us from the course we follow in everyday life -- the course of Scrooge as we first meet him, attending to his own business, not Scrooge as he becomes.

How many of us unless poor ourselves pay much attention to the impoverished, expect perhaps at Christmas, with a donation to a food bank or to a snow suit fund, as if the poor only want for food and warm clothes at Christmas.

And how many of us deal with poverty by dismissing it as a problem, an artifact of a too liberal definition, as the well-fed and complacent people who work at right-wing think tanks or National Post columnists do. To them poverty isn't struggling to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself it's being unable to feed, clothe and shelter yourself. Not poverty, in other words, but destitution.

The National Council on Welfare says that 5 million Canadians are struggling, but the right-wing Fraser Institute takes exception. The 5 million figure, it points out, is based on Statistics Canada's low-income cut-off, which the Fraser rejects as too broad.

The Fraser's social-policy director Fred McMahon says, "Poverty has a meaning in the dictionary and it suggests real deprivation." He goes on to add that real deprivation means not having enough income to pay for food, clothing and shelter.

By the Fraser's "real deprivation" measure, there is half the number of poor Canadians as estimated by the National Council on Welfare 2.5 million, not 5 million.

This is supposed to say, "Oh yes, some Canadians may be poor, but hardly as many as you think. It's not much of a problem."

But is that what it says? If the true poverty rate is half the National Council on Welfare's estimate, and true poverty is real deprivation, there are 2.5 million people in this country an amount equal to a large city, by Canadian standards who are severely deprived. That's an extraordinary level of deprivation (or destitution) in a rich country with a population of only 30 million.

And yet it's unlikely many people will have taken much notice of that number, let alone think about how it is that so many could be so poor in a country so wealthy.

Dickens was concerned with the poor, with the dreadful conditions under which people worked in his time. Children toiling for 12 hours a day or more in dimly lit, oppressive factories for meager pay. Families huddled in squalid shelters. Mendicants begging for crusts of bread. Conditions, that today, are called Dickensian, as if they're historical curiosities -- anachronisms. But poverty as vile and repellent as anything Dickens ever described exists today in places like Indonesia, and Vietnam, and China, and Eastern Europe, and South and Central America, and Africa. In other words, over much of the globe. And sweat shops and child labor and overwork and subsistence level wages all are firmly ensconced in the new global economy, just as much, and maybe even more so, than they ever were in Dickens's time.

And straitened circumstances exist as well, in some hidden parts of Canada, for 2.5 million of us.

Karl Marx was concerned with Dickensian poverty too, but differently than Dickens was.

Dickens seemed to think that if all the people who owned factories, and mills, and mines, could only be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, that the horrors of poverty, and ceaseless toil, and empty lives that the Industrial Revolution had wrought (for the working class) could be put to an end.

But Marx saw it another way. He wrote that capital the people who own and control the economy -- "takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker..." And why should it, Marx asked. After all, the conditions that injure the worker's health and shorten his life contribute to capital's profit. And what is the oxygen of capitalism but profit (or shareholder value in trendy business school parlance)? Marx wrote: "(Capital's) answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of overwork, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our profit? But looking at these things as a whole, it is evident that this does not depend on the will, either good or bad, of the individual capitalist. Under free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him."

In other words, whether reformed by ghostly, Christmas Eve visitations or not, owners and people who controlled the factories and mills and mines in which the people like Bob Cratchit worked, would still be under the imperative to treat workers just as dreadfully.

I had a boss, no Marxist (at least not self-proclaimed, but unknowingly a Marxist in his understanding of the economy) who could have been quoting directly from Marx when he said to me, on the occasion of thousands of fellow employees being forced to take a 50 percent reduction in pay, that while the pay cut was regrettable, while it was undesirable, and while it clearly was injurious to the victims, it was just part of the normal working of a capitalist economy. The people who made the decision, he went on, weren't unfeeling, despicable people. Indeed, their feelings didn't matter at all.

A senior executive of a large Canadian brewery was forced into retirement not too long ago after he refused his good will and humanity intact to throw hundreds of middle-aged men and women who were unlikely to land another job at a decent wage on the streets by closing one of the firm's money-losing breweries. His replacement immediately closed down the plant.

It didn't matter that the executive cared about his employees. The immanent laws of profit confronted him as a coercive, external, force, unmoved by human sentiment. He was removed. The machine ground on. People were thrown out of work. And the firm's profits, and its shareholder's take, brightened. Nothing personal just business.

The United Nations says that 11 million children under the age of 5 die every year of preventable diseases. That's more than all the people who died in the Holocaust. And while the Holocaust is rightly remembered as a horrific event, and moreover, one that didn't have to happen, and should never have happened, and should never be repeated, almost twice as many children are dying every year, and their deaths don't have to happen and shouldn't happen, either. But they do.

The United Nations says that 100 million children don't go to school. Malnutrition means that 177 million never grow properly.

How much would it take to provide clean water, sound nutrition, health care, sanitation, and basic education to all the children in the world who don't have these things now, so that children don't die needlessly, so that they grow as they should, and so that they aren't incarcerated in cages of ignorance?

It would cost $80 billion a year, by the UN's reckoning.

To put that in perspective, the United States spends $310 billion per year on defense, and with George W. Bush and his future Secretary of State Colin Powell promising to forge ahead with the lame-brained, but defense contractor-friendly, National Missile Defense, the expenditure will be higher still.

Imagine if some of that money, earmarked for killing people, were used instead to make people's lives better. Is it possible?

If $310 billion were necessary to defend the borders of United States from strong countries willing and able to throw their weight around, perhaps, but who can take on the United States? America's regional rivals Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Libya together spend one-seventeenth of what the United States spends on the military. That's together, not individually.

The country with the next largest defense budget is Russia and it spends one-quarter of what the United States spends. Which works out to about $80 billion a year what it would cost to prevent a virtual Holocaust against the world's children from happening every year.

In other words, the United States could provide clean water, food, sanitation and basic education to all the children who haven't these necessities, and still spend more on defense than Russia by a factor of three and more than its regional adversaries combined by a factor of 11.

But who really believes the United States will wage an easily winnable war on poverty, even if Dubya is visited this Christmas Eve by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future?

Doing something meaningful about poverty or about the virtual annual Holocaust against the world's children means doing more than buying a large turkey at Christmas for a struggling family, as Scrooge did, or making pleas to the government of the United States to spend its vast resources humanely and rationally, or raising Dubya's I.Q. to the normal range.

It means, at the first, recognizing that good will, while essential, is not enough. For allied with good will must be the will to uproot the coercive, impersonal, external forces that operate independently of people's will, good or bad. The forces that simply push those of good will like the brewery company executive out of the way, and move inexorably on.

To put a name to it, these are the forces of (as my boss put it) a capitalist economy. Forces that say: greater share holder value can be created by paying these people less, and laying these other people off, and shifting these jobs to low wage countries that outlaw unions, where people can be paid subsistence level wages and can be overworked in a manner as vile and horrific as anything from the bleakest Dickens novel. Forces that demand the spending of obscene sums on the military to fatten the profits of military contractors. Forces that create armed forces so overwhelming that they can be used as battering rams to smash down the walls that seal off "rogue" countries from the global economy and cow recalcitrant regimes whose policies threaten share holder value. Forces that aren't driven by human sentiment, or human need, or human requirement, but by one, insuperable demand -- to fatten profits.

Against that imperative, Scrooge's moral redemption is nothing.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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