"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" The heartless cry of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol was intended to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of laissez-faire capitalism. The same "airless quality" is present in the first report of the Welfare Working Group. The Painting is Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874. Food and shelter in the "Casual Ward" of the parish workhouse were made available to all comers - but only for a single night.
GORDON CAMPBELL described the report as having a "peculiarly airless quality". It’s authors, hermetically sealed in their ideological cocoon, could have been writing "at any time over the past four decades".
The veteran journalist is right. The report of the Government’s Welfare Working Group (WWG) makes not the slightest attempt to interrogate the flesh and blood world of contemporary unemployment, sole parenting, chronic illness and invalidism. But, then, why would it – when it already knows all the answers?
In the WWG’s own words:
"We have come to the view that the scale and consequences of long-term benefit receipt are deeply concerning and that the system is not achieving what New Zealanders could reasonably expect. It is not sustainable, it does not provide equal and fair opportunities for those people on different benefit types and it is associated with poor social outcomes."
Let’s unpack that extraordinarily dangerous statement.
To begin with, who are the people identified by the WWG Chair, economist Paula Rebstock, as being in "long-term benefit receipt". Overwhelmingly, they are those on sickness, invalids, and domestic purposes benefits: people who can’t work; people whose physical or mental disability makes ordinary paid work impossible; and people engaged in the raising of babies and small children.
What on earth is so "deeply concerning" about providing long-term support to such people? If you’re suffering from a temporary or chronic affliction; if you lack the resources required to look after a young family; then to whom should you appeal for assistance – if not your fellow citizens?
What would be "deeply concerning" is a society which defined sickness, invalidism and sole parenthood as self-inflicted conditions – sins which can only be expiated through the pain of social humiliation and the self-redeeming qualities of unrelenting toil.
The grim workhouses of Victorian England were erected on the flint-hard foundation of these vicious bourgeois prejudices. Deliberately constructed to terrify the poor into righteousness, they were known colloquially as "Bastilles" – after the grim Parisian fortress. So harsh were the regimes within these institutions that many risked death, rather than enter their prison-like gates.
In his celebrated 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, Dickens parodies the harshness of laissez-faire capitalism in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to the exchange which a request for a donation to assist the poor provokes:
‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’
‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
When pressed, Scrooge’s parsimony turns deadly:
‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’
There it is again, that airless quality, which Dickens’s storytelling makes explicit by enveloping Scrooge’s counting house in a dismal and noxious fog.
In the 167 years since A Christmas Carol’s first appearance, the world appears to have turned full circle. By the 1970s the Welfare State, which Mickey Savage described as "applied Christianity," had consigned the workhouse and the treadmill to history’s dustbin. But in the ensuing four decades, as Mr Campbell rightly observes, the noxious fog of laissez-faire capitalism has returned – along with the prejudices of epochs past.
And who will melt the hearts of these modern-day Scrooges?
For all their squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching and covetousness, the Victorians still knew themselves to be sinners, and were thus receptive to Dickens’s marvellous parable of Christian redemption.
In 2010, when only the spirits of Gain and Greed are admitted to Society’s feast, who will risk the WWG’s censure by insisting that we can afford to – and should – "make idle people merry"?
This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 13 August 2010.