Amid the wreck of capitalism and socialism, Dickens is timelier than ever. After all, we live in hard times, and all the indications are that they may get much, even very much, harder. No one, at any rate, would take a bet that they won’t.
The number of children in America claiming subsidized meals in school has shot up; the homeless are increasing by the hour; the formerly prosperous are laid off without so much as a thank you; the young struggle to find any work at all; beggars are making a comeback on the streets of cities as if they had been hiding all these years, waiting for the right moment to emerge from their subterranean lairs into the world above.
The February 2012 bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, then, could hardly come at a more appropriate moment in economic history, for Dickens was the revealer, the scourge, the prose poet, of urban destitution—a destitution that, in our waking nightmares, we fear ‘hard times’ may yet return.
And in this context, it’s worth considering Dickens’s novel of that title, especially as political economy is one of its most important themes. Has this book, published more than a century and a half ago, anything to say to us about our present predicament, beyond young Tom Gradgrind’s exclamation, “For God’s sake, don’t talk about bankers”?
Dickens is often reproached for his absence of firm and unequivocal moral, political, and philosophical outlook. He veers crazily between the ferociously reactionary and the mushily liberal.
George Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, saw in this philosophical and moral muddle not a weakness but a strength, a generosity of spirit, an openness to the irreducible complexity of mankind’s moral situation, an immunity to what he called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.” And indeed, the principal target of Hard Times is such an orthodoxy, namely a hard-nosed utilitarianism combined with an unbending liberalism.
Read this illuminating anniversary essay in full at The American Conservative …