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22 December 2014

Why Scrooge is an anti-capitalist hero, bravely resisting the commercialisation of Christmas

It’s time we reclaimed Dickens’ villainous skinflint.

By Owen Clayton

Each December, our media adorns itself with festive clichés as rapidly as a young boy throws tinsel on a yuletide tree. One word that reappears with grinding regularity is “Scrooge”, a term used to silence anyone who objects to the tiniest aspect of our annual consumerist orgy.

It’s not difficult, for example, to find articles that say “you’d have to be a real Scrooge not to like” this year’s John Lewis advert. Since I didn’t like the advert, this claim got me thinking. Why aren’t I overjoyed at the sight of a young boy purchasing a mail-order bride for his sex-starved, imaginary penguin? Maybe I am a Scrooge. But then Scrooge, the miser from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), isn’t the villain that we typically assume. He represents, in fact, a figure of resistance to the capitalist vision of Christmas.

To begin with, Scrooge sees through the season’s shallow festivities – viewing them as an ideological sham, or “humbug”. Discussing Bob Cratchit, he says “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam”. The madness implied through his reference to “Bedlam” is that of Cratchit blithely accepting poverty as his natural state. Scrooge knows that singing carols and making merry won’t provide Tiny Tim with much-needed food. As he says to his impoverished nephew, “What is Christmas to you but a time for paying bills without money?”

When do-gooders knock on his door asking for donations, he rejects their piecemeal charity and asks whether the “Union workhouses” would not be a better alternative. Here Scrooge shows himself to be an early advocate of state intervention. The workhouse has a deservedly awful reputation, but it was still a baby step along the road to a proper welfare state. Crucially, he understands that individualist philanthropy is not the answer to structural poverty, whatever our tax-dodging, millionaire musicians might say to the contrary.

Scrooge is a heroic character, at least as far as preserving life on this planet goes. He is famously frugal: limiting the amount of coal he burns at home, and sitting by the light of a fire rather than spending money on gas. Though motivated by saving money (“Darkness is cheap”), his actions result in a low-emission lifestyle that could preserve the earth for future generations. Scrooge would love the savings to be made by installing solar panels.

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Unlike the CEOs, bankers and politicians of today, he does not impose austerity from a luxury yacht. He is not willing to spend frivolous money on himself any more than he would on others. This attitude, which seems mean-spirited, can also be highly radical. If everyone consumed like Scrooge today then capitalism would collapse within a few weeks, which makes him a strange choice of hero for those on the neo-liberal right.

His frugal ways do not last, of course. Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts, who put him through a programme of psychological torture. First he is terrified by the apparition of Marley, his old business partner, who shows him the tools of his future imprisonment if he should refuse to change his ways. Then follow the three Spirits. They deprive Scrooge of sleep, disorient him with strange images, confuse his sense of time, manipulate his emotions, convince him that he is unloved, and present him with a vision of his own death. After a long night of supernatural waterboarding, he is reprogrammed into the ideal festive shopper.

Scrooge demonstrates his redemption by buying the Cratchit family a prize turkey: a bird “as big as me”, according to the young boy he hires to carry it. Buying the turkey, Scrooge is “as giddy as a drunken man”, as hysterical as our own commodity fetishists knocking each other down in quest of a half-price television on Black Friday. This is all very bad news for our planet. The turkey is a product of the meat industry, which is today a bigger contributor to climate change than cars or airplanes. By promoting such conspicuous consumption, Scrooge is doing a far worse thing than he has ever done before.

Our most famous Christmas story is an ecological tragedy. If the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had taken Scrooge further forward in time, to a world ravaged by extreme weather, expanding deserts and acidic oceans, then (like Mrs Scrooge in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem) he might have learned a different lesson. As Naomi Klein has argued, there will be no lasting solution to climate change that is not a post-capitalist solution.

Since words define the limits within which we think, they have an important role to play in preventing global warming. For this reason, it’s time we reclaimed Dickens’ villainous skinflint. Instead of being a miserable old curmudgeon, a “Scrooge” should signify someone who resists the consumerism that is destroying our world. That’s a Scrooge I’d be proud to be.