So, it was thanks to Charles Dickens that I enjoyed a brief reputation as the class communist.
In the autumn of third year I did a unit on Victorian Literature. I didn’t want to be there – partly because I did not appreciate having to spend a precious module slot (it was compulsory) on a unit outside my Medieval/Renaissance stomping grounds, and partly because I don’t really read the Victorian novels even for pleasure. The poetry is good. The nonfiction is fine. But the chunky Victorian novel is one of those beasts I have never really got along with, same as some people are allergic to Romanticism or free verse.
So I was already moderately annoyed about the Vic Lit module before term even started, which probably contributed to the row (well – for a very academic value of ‘row’: particularly heated discussion) that started in the first seminar, reappeared in the second, and raised its head occasionally later in the course, about welfare and reform. And communism.
I still don’t think anything I said was particularly (specifically) communist, but whatever. Perhaps it was because we were also discussing Engels; perhaps just because ‘communism’ is probably a more familiar term to most than ‘socialism’, and also tends to be used in popular political discourse as a blanket term for systems that aren’t our present one. Who knows? Anyway.
People know that the Victorian era wasn’t, in hindsight, a great time. While plenty of people are worryingly nostalgic for its sexual and racial politics (and imperialism – resentment at losing ‘our’ Empire seems to underpin a peculiarly British form of racism), very few would willingly return to the smog and mud and sewage and lack of electricity and cars. It was not great, even for the rich. It was even less great if you were (as most people were) crushingly poor.
And this is where Dickens comes in. He’s is known for decrying the evils of the workhouses, but hailing him as a champion of rights for the poor is to go a little too far. Dickens’ tiny, oppressed, downtrodden heroes are always rescued not by state reform, but by individual charity – the benevolent hand of the bourgeois or upper class, who in their munificence lift the virtuous orphan out of poverty. In Dickens-land, this solves everything . . . for the virtuous orphan, at least.
Similar beneficence is not, however, extended to anyone else. Oliver Twist, had he existed, would have been one of thousands of street children who turned to or were forced into crime; but Dickens’ benevolent upper-class saviours only rescue Oliver. The old Victorian catchphrase ‘the deserving poor’ is lurking behind every line: we’ll help you out of poverty not because poverty is bad, but because you, you specifically, are good.
Sadly this kind of rhetoric didn’t die with the Victorians. It’s alive and well and it’s eating away at us every bloody day. It’s most blatantly stated in the particular brand of corporatist libertarianism that insists that we would do just fine without all those expensive governmental safety nets, because the work of welfare would be picked up by individual philanthropists. They never seem to quite get that for lots of us, the idea of being held up for scrutiny by someone with more money and power than you, who will decide whether you are worthy to be helped survive (and will then likely expect grovelling gratitude from you for the rest of your life) is just about a perfect description of hell. Especially for the people to whom it’s already happening.
Every time a marginalised group takes the field, the rhetoric of deserving-ness tends to pop up again – the desperate attempt by members of the group in question to prove that they are Not All Like [Insert Stereotype Here], that they are Deserving, and are therefore worthy of being treated like human beings.
It should not have to work like this.
People play by the rules because there’s only so much space in anyone’s life, only so many spoons to hand, and we all do what we need to do to survive. I blame nobody for deciding that their best option to get through the day is to conform as closely as they can to the existing rulebook. On a system-wide scale, though, that needs to change. Not just our ideas of what constitutes ‘deserving’; the whole damn concept that certain people have to deserve, have to earn, the same rights that others automatically enjoy.