If you have opened a newspaper, turned on the radio or flicked through the British TV schedules at all in the past few weeks you will know that this year is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. Much of the hoo-ha centres on his rag-tag army of characters, whose quirks, catchphrases, bulging bellies and enormous facial hair are made for Sunday evening prime-time adaptations.
Dickens was more than a comic novelist, though. During his life-time Britain moved from industrialisation to capitalism, and he documented the change in his books. At the start of his career Dickens’ businessmen were hard-working bourgeois types, traders and merchants. As Dickens became increasingly appalled by the conditions of the poor, the evil factory-owner became a stock character.
In the earlier novels the world is created by people and their decisions – and the world can be improved by changing the people who make those decisions. Dickens was an optimist. Look at the education of Scrooge. Show factory-owners the consequences of their actions, is the idea, and you change the world. But in the later novels, while the human comedy is still there, underneath it is a darker vision. Characters’ lives are guided by impersonal forces – the law in Bleak House and money in Great Expectations. Like Schopenhauer, Dickens became pessimistic and like Kafka portrayed people crushed by these machine-like forces.
Dickens’ views were no doubt informed by the great speculative bubbles of the 1820s and 1830s, and especially the Railway Mania of the 1840s, which followed an act of parliament in 1844 making it easier to form joint-stock companies. Fraud and sharp practices robbed many new investors of their money. For the new middle-classes money was now something that could multiply with the right investment or vanish with the wrong one. This was the birth of capitalism, and it was scary and unsettling.
The destructive power of this new world is seen in Great Expectations. Miss Havisham is defrauded and her life destroyed. Magwitch - equally unjustly from a moral point of view, given that he is a nasty piece of work – becomes mysteriously wealthy and Pip, also undeservedly, gets the benefit. This windfall does neither of them any good. The free circulation of capital was then, as now, an article of faith for advocates of laissez-faire economics. Its results were then, as now, not always palatable.
Dickens was no communist – he was mesmerised by the goods from all over the world on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and wrote forcefully and repeatedly that the waterways of the world should be opened up. He loved the globalisation of the era and liked to write about the benefits of circulation. But circulation, which was fine for goods, could be an evil when it came to money. Is that a contradiction? Maybe, but don’t listen to anybody who tells you that “circulation” is a natural or inevitable thing. The first person to use the metaphor of “circulation” for money was a doctor-economist called Francois Quesnay in the 18th century, who thought that nations were like bodies, and money was their blood. To put it politely, it’s not obvious that we should subscribe to that idea.
The whole point of capitalism is that capital accumulates. But that accumulation can be damaging; look at those who have ruined their lives with cheap credit, the heirs of the unsuspecting railway speculators. While it might be tempting to put it all down to blind fateful forces, it’s just not true. Yes, things happen that are out of our control, but knowledge and education can go some way to giving us back that control. Wealthy families, particularly those in family businesses, know that their next gens have to be educated about how to handle money.
Miss Havisham could have done with a bit of that. Not to mention the Pips of this world. Novelists and ideologues trade in big ideas, but they don’t always get it right. I take a more down-to-earth lesson from Dickens: that capitalism can only work well if people understand it.