COLUMNS Stephen Berk

A Dickensian Christmas

By the time this is in print, the holidays will be over, but the Dickensian nature of today’s world will not be. Charles Dickens portrayed the savage inequalities produced by the classical free trade liberalism of his time. American reform writers of Dickens’s era were generally more concerned with the horrors of slavery than industrialism, though Melville described “satanic mills” of the 1850s where young women toiled long hours in squalid conditions. And Thoreau famously chose wild nature over the coming industrial order. Later writers like Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair described the ruthlessness of unbridled capitalism and campaigned for its reform or replacement by a system with greater concern for the common good. In both Europe and the US, egalitarian reform movements did much to lessen inequality during much of the last century.

But with capitalism’s recent deregulation and liberalization of world markets we see global poverty worse than Dickens’s East end of London. We now have statistics showing that most of the world’s wealth is controlled by a tiny elite, while over half of its seven billion people live in desperate straits on less than two dollars a day. Small farmers in lesser developed countries cannot compete with low priced corn and other commodities produced by giant agribusiness firms like Monsanto, Cargill and ADM flooding into their countries in consequence of free trade. These farmers are driven from their land and end up in trash huts in toxic conditions on the edge of cities. They live by gathering scrap metal or other such marginal work. And they are chronically malnourished and sick.

In the US, we have experienced de-industrialization, loss of unions, and the predominance of a low wage economy wherein ever larger numbers work at less than family wages with no benefits, often at two or three jobs for fifty, sixty or more hours per week. People work at more than one job in part because they don’t get enough pay or hours from one. The reason employers limit workers’ hours is to keep them part-time so the company will not have to pay into their health care or retirements. If we had nationalized care, as do most countries, and augmented Social Security, employers would not be so burdened. But the US keeps expensive corporate health care, because insurance and drug companies buy the politicians to maintain it. Most costs are not medical but administrative, paid to managed care bureaucracies and their super rich top executives. And the corporate order reaps greater dividends spending taxpayers’ money on weapons, war and empire than securing a good life for all Americans.

In the globalized Neoliberal economy, the only good is the material benefit of the corporation and its shareholder elites. Shareholders make more money when the corporate stock goes up. And to drive corporate stock up, costs are ruthlessly cut. Hence, if workers in China or Bangladesh can make computers or clothing for pennies an hour with no environmental regulations, then jobs are sent there. Of course, the workers in those countries are treated as wage slaves. They have virtually no free time, live in filthy conditions, and cannot afford even basic necessities. But their exploitation enables the corporation they work under, like Wal-Mart, Gap, or Apple, to cut costs and maximize profits so as to drive up the price of its stock. In the Neoliberal world order only return on shareholder investment, not the worker’s or society’s well being, is considered.

One way transnational corporations get their hands on the resources of less developed countries is through loans made by the US controlled International Monetary Fund. Poor countries are cajoled into taking out big loans to develop infrastructure, like big dams, that will only benefit a wealthy few, while displacing whole farming communities. When these countries inevitably fail to pay off their debt they are saddled with structural adjustment programs, which compel them to sell off natural resources to transnational corporations which mine or drill for oil, thus destroying rain forests with ecosystems that sustained indigenous people and provided them with herbal medicines for thousands of years. The corporate order trumps even survival of life itself, as heavy industry extinguishes hundreds of species a day. So it goes, because vested interests, whose well heeled feet never touch the earth, would lose some of their wealth if they considered the common good.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.