Monday, June 9, 2014

What would Dickens do?

Dickens was a great popular writer, but he was also, in a way rarely seen today, a political writer, and his social criticism should not be buried in the convenient backwater of Victoriana.

Dickens was a social conservative with the imagination of a radical. That is, while he accepted implicitly the middle-class assumptions of the Victorian patriarchy — hard work, the nuclear family, sensible commercial ambition — his sympathies were with the weak, the exploited, the strange and the fanciful, the dispossessed and struggling. And he was far too aware of the power and richness of language to be impressed by pettifoggery, hypocrisy, complacency and indifference, which he attacked at every turn with greater and greater sophistication.

Do you want to imagine what privatised education and charter-schools can devolve into? Reread Nicholas Nickelby. Do you think that corporate interests in collusion with state power always supports innovation? Then read Little Dorrit and take the Circumlocation Office as a warning. Do you think that rationalist economics based on metrics can conjure up human happiness? Check your copy of Hard Times again. Do you dream that the revolution and the apotheosis of state power will be the path to universal freedom? Read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, what would Dickens do in response to the plainly inequitable, the profoundly Scrooge-ish and strangely regressive budget recently produced by the Australian Federal Government under Tony Abbott? Dickens was instrumental in projecting the idea in the English public that the Australian colony could be a nation of opportunity rather than a place of incarceration and punishment. Whatever his reaction, the sheer hypocrisy and political malfeasance of claiming equal sacrifice while rewarding the wealthy and attacking the weakest would surely have attracted his most ferocious attention.