1844 AND 1902, OR BETWEEN ENGELS AND LONDON: WHAT GOOD IS CAPITALISM?

NOTE: This post was written on 26 July

Preparing for my Victorian Literature subject next semester –in particular for Oliver Twist– I read back-to-back Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (published 1845 in German, 1887 in English) and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1902). Each is a fascinating account of the stay of the author (complete with proletarian disguise in London’s case) among ‘the other half’ as Jacob Riis would put it, or the other ‘nation’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s lexicon. I’ll grant that I have not read these books just to better understand what Dickens fictionalised in Oliver Twist (1838) and then again far more bleakly in Hard Times (1854), but to find some kind of spurious comfort in the idea that rich Victorian Britain failed worse than current poor Spain in protecting her weakest.

Reading Engels’ thorough account of the misery brought about by the first tides of the Industrial Revolution I have a feeling not dissimilar from what I felt when reading Roger Casement’s Congo Diary (1902) and comparing it to Heart of Darkness (1897): I’m quite annoyed that not even the best Victorian fiction was up to the task of representing the horrific reality of the poorest, whether in central England or Africa. It irks me that in Oliver Twist Dickens can so rely on a shameless sentimental plot to save the angelic Oliver from a worse-than-death fate. Likewise, it irks me that Conrad’s prose poem focuses on Kurtz rather than on his victims. Then I pause to think that Dickens, not Engels, has left us the most vivid portrait of the tyrannical abuse that the workhouse system heaped on the poor. Again likewise, Conrad, not Casement gave us the most crushing portrait of colonialist greed. Yet, and this is a big yet, for a moment I’m tempted to simply drop Dickens and teach Engels –not to worry, I’ll just use Engels’ criticism of the workhouse as a bitter side dish.

Jack London was roughly the same age as Engels (around 25) when he reported on the horrors of the East End, where tomorrow the 2012 Olympic Games will finally allow the Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, to chuck out the proles and make room for gentrification. Engels and London, both foreigners curious about the richest empire of their time, found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer squalor they met. Engels was writing at a time when children could still be employed up to 10 hours a day (there was no state-sponsored primary education until 1871); he wonders how far the degradation of human life will go in an England subjected to periodical economic crisis. London visited his namesake city almost 60 years later, at the time of Edward VII’s coronation, to report on the effect of that terrible squalor on subsequent generations. He stresses that this is a prosperous time for Britain; still, the systematic abuse that Engels described prevails with little improvement.

Surely I’m not the first reader to be upset by London’s last chapter, in which he wonders whether “Civilization [has] bettered the lot of man”. He compares the Inuit folk of Alaska, a “very primitive people” who are “healthy, and strong, and happy” except at times of occasional famine with the citizens of London’s East End. His conclusion is that whereas the Inuit suffer only in “bad times” East Enders “suffer from a chronic condition of starvation.” He notes that “each babe (…) is born in debt to the sum of $110. This is because of an artifice called the National Debt,” which rings a bell here in Spain. London is sharp: “Since Civilization has failed to give the average Englishman food and shelter equal to that enjoyed by the Inuit, the question arises: Has Civilization increased the producing power of the average man? If it has not increased man’s producing power, then Civilization cannot stand.”

Indeed, it doesn’t –just replace ‘Civilization’ for ‘Capitalism’ and you’ll see how 110 years later, although the extreme squalor is gone from the streets of Western Europe (at least, I assume so), the same truth stands: not even the richest countries in the world, whether the United States or China, can prevent their poorest citizens from suffering much –indeed, they don’t care. Here in Spain we were satisfied, believing we had managed to strike a happy medium but, sadly, this has proved as delusional as the idea that Victorian Britain got ‘Civilization’ right.

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