Carlyle, Dickens and the Strange Death of Liberal America – Part I

If the gap between rich and poor has produced Donald Trump, the problem is not new.

Early in the 6th century BC, a lot of people in Athens found themselves in a position faced by many in that city today.  They had spent more than they had, and had got themselves in the clutches of very tough creditors.  They were now buckling under the austerity and the welfare of the state was in question.  Small farmers without capital had borrowed on the security of their land.  The little farms were covered with stones on which mortgage bonds were inscribed.  The black earth was enslaved.  Solon made laws to alleviate the problems.  If he was not an aristocrat or an admirer of wealthy people de facto enslaving the poor, he did not show sympathy for extremist agitators who were looking for wholesale land redistribution.  Nor did he interfere with the money market.

These laws did not go far enough for some.  There was conflict between the Hill and the Coast and the Plain.  Peisistratus, a friend of Solon, formed a political group, what we might now call a party, based on the Hill.  He seized power and became a tyrant through a stunt much followed later.  He appeared in the agora wounded, he claimed, by his rotten enemies who were against him as a friend of the people.  He got the Hill in the assembly to vote him a bodyguard for the emergency, and then he used that bodyguard to seize the acropolis, and make himself master of the city-state.  People like Mussolini and Hitler would follow the same pattern – an exaggerated threat; an emergency response, and a seizure of power.

Much of the history of the Roman Republic arose from the conflict between nobiles and plebs.  In the 2nd century BC, two leaders named Gracchus suffered horrible deaths trying to look after those down the pile.  In the case of Caius Gracchus, the Senate passed a resolution – ‘the ultimate decree’ – declaring that the state was in danger.  (L’état en danger.)  Consuls and others were charged to see that ‘the republic take no harm.’  The government promised moral support to officers proceeding by summary executive action to protect the state.  In a foretaste of the French Terror, a kind of posse was raised by a general levy, and more than 3000 were murdered.  Caius escaped the head-hunters by getting a slave to stab him.  The great German historian, Mommsen, was disposed to be cool on Caius:

On the very threshold of his despotism, he was confronted by the fatal dilemma, moral and political, that the same man had at one and the same time to hold his ground as a captain of robbers, and to lead the state as its first citizen – a dilemma to which Pericles, Caesar, and Napoleon also had to make dangerous sacrifices.

If we pass over revolts by peasants in England and Europe in the Middle Ages – they were almost a carnival event in France – and if we come to earthquake of 1789, équalité meant a lot more than liberté to a large part of the population who were rural peasants.  They were out to annul the infamy of caste.

That revolution was recorded by Thomas Carlyle in a famous book (that some have read many times) that Dickens would follow in A Tale of two Cities.  In 1843, Carlyle published Past and Present, an essay on medieval England compared to England then – that many thought was on the brink of revolution.  He started by looking at the worrying divide between private wealth and public welfare.  People worshipped money – Mammon – and not God.  There are three motifs in Past and Present – the unholy mix of dire poverty and great wealth; the stagnant condition of the rich; and putting Mammon before God.  The Mammon-Gospel dictated:

We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation….Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather cloaked under due laws-of –war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility.  We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man.

So, Carlyle was lamenting not just what would come to be called the death of God; he was lamenting the coronation of lucre.  ‘Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost.’  It is the kind of perverted Darwinism that we find in those regimes we least admire.

But Carlyle’s message would have been revolting to many, not least in the US.  Was he doing any more than asking whether Christianity could live with capitalism?  And if you think that that question is silly, how might the founder of that faith have responded to it?

Between 1846 and 1848 Dickens published Carlyle’s message in novel form.  Dombey and Son is about the sin of pride and the evil of money.  Paul Dombey is the leader of a mercantile house.  He has a child but he hardly notices the girl.  He wants a boy to carry on the name, the business, and the wealth.  He is insufferably proud and remote.  His wife dies in giving him his son.  The novel is about how pride and financial lust desiccate the humanity of Paul Dombey.  He suffers from a kind of monomania that leaves him emotionally – and, of course, spiritually – sterile.  His wealth corrupts him, and allows him to escape reality by shutting out the world with ‘a double door of gold.’

Dombey has a fawning office manager, John Carker, who flashes his teeth in the fixed smile of a flight attendant – but who knows his place.  His address and its contents show that Mr Carker knows his place.  But we become aware that Mr Carker is not just cunning.  He is malevolent; when it comes to malice, Mr Carker makes Malvolio look like a cheer-leader in a mini-skirt and white boots.  He plots to bring Mr Dombey down by decamping from the business that he has imperilled and by defiling his employer’s second wife – who is in her own self an estranged victim of the commodifying of marriage partners, and a match for Dombey in iced arrogance.  Why is Carker so bad?  Because he wants revenge for a lifetime of humiliation.

Carker is pursued to France with Mrs Dombey as an effective captive who has just threatened to kill him.  He is detected and nearly apprehended at Dijon.

The crash of his project for the gaining of a voluptuous compensation for past restraint; the overthrow of his treachery to one who had been true and generous to him, but whose least proud word and look he had treasured up, at interest, for years – for false and subtle men will always secretly despise and dislike the object upon which they fawn, and always resent the payment and receipt of homage that they know to be worthless; these were the themes uppermost in his mind.  A lurking rage against the woman who had so entrapped him and avenged herself was always there; crude and misshapen schemes of retaliation upon her floated in his brain; but nothing was distinct.  A hurried contradiction evaded all his thoughts.  Even while he was so busy with this favoured, ineffectual thinking, his one constant idea was, that he would postpone reflection until some indefinite time.

Carker is an authentic villain who meets an end that obviously had a big impact on Tolstoy – it involves a speeding train – but what we used to call the moral of the novel was set out by the young Paul Dombey, a young boy of brittle health but subtle insight.  The son asks his father: ‘What is money?’

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty.  He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating–medium, currency, depreciation of currency… But looking down at the little chair and seeing what a long way down it was he answered: ‘Gold, and silver, and copper.  Guineas, shillings, half pence.  You know what they are?’

‘Oh yes, I know what they are,’ said Paul.  ‘I don’t mean that, Papa.  I mean, what’s money after all….. I mean, Papa, what can it do?’

‘Money, Paul, can do anything.’….

‘Anything, Papa?’

‘Yes.  Anything – almost’ said Mr Dombey.          

‘Anything means everything, don’t it, Papa?’

‘It includes it: yes,’ said Mr Dombey.

‘Why didn’t money save me my mama?’ returned the child.  ‘It isn’t cruel, is it?’

It is not hard to see these universal themes in the recent history of the United States – of which more next time.

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