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Trevor Hancock: Neoliberal elite need a Christmas Carol-style conversion

Scrooge’s awakening to humanitarian instincts and conversion to a spirit of generosity needs to be replicated at scale
Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) awaits the Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. VIA FLICKR

It’s that time of year, when Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family is everywhere.

But it’s not just a charming story of how a mean old curmudgeon sees the light and becomes a kindly old gent and a generous benefactor to his employee, Bob Cratchit.

It’s about the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the appalling living and working conditions of the poor.

An article in The Guardian a couple of years ago quotes Dickens biographer Michael Slater to the effect that A Christmas Carol is “Dickens’s reaction to the attitude of the government and many of the ruling classes in the 1840s … saying, if the poor couldn’t get work and couldn’t look after themselves, they’d have to go to the workhouses.”

The article also quotes University of Cambridge Prof. Robert Mayhew as saying the story is “a very seriously intended work of moral fiction.”

There are echoes of that same inhumane attitude to the poor around today, at a time when we find inequality rising to levels not seen since the early 20th century, the age of the plutocrats.

According to the World Inequality Report 2022, around 1900, globally, the ratio of the income of the top 10 per cent and the bottom 50 per cent was more than 16 to 1. By 1980, this had fallen to 8.5 to 1, but today, it is back up to 15 to 1.

Inequalities in wealth distribution follow a similar pattern, which continues today. If we look at the top 1 per cent globally, we see an extreme concentration of wealth and economic power: “Between 1995 and 2021, the top 1 percent captured 38 percent of the global increment in wealth, while the bottom 50% captured a frightening (that is to say, frighteningly low) 2 percent,” the report notes.

While the level of inequality was less in Canada, we see the same pattern here.

In 1900, the ratio of the income of the top 10 per cent and the bottom 50 per cent was a bit more than 3 to 1, dropping to 1.5 to 1 by 1980. But, notes the World Inequality Report, “income inequality in Canada has been rising significantly over the past 40 years,” and now sits at about 2.5 to 1.

The reasons for this are not hard to find: “Income and wealth inequalities have been on the rise nearly everywhere since the 1980s, following a series of deregulation and liberalization programs which took different forms in different countries.”

In Canada, notes the World Inequality Report, it was due to a combination of “financialization, deregulation and lower taxes.”

This, of course, is the neoliberal revolution spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. In the name of freedom, individual responsibility and the worship of wealth accumulation, neoliberalism rolled back the policies that had contributed to low levels of inequality.

But in an interview in Scientific American this month, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was blunt: “Unfettered capitalism, unfettered innovation does not lead to the general well-being of our society … One can’t just leave it to the market,” he said.

The authors of the World Inequality Report were equally blunt: “Addressing the challenges of the 21st century is not feasible without significant redistribution of income and wealth inequalities.”

Our modern-day Scrooges operate at a much larger scale. They are the neoliberal elite who run many of our corporations, sit on their boards and in many cases in cabinet, and who support and are supported by the right-wing think tanks that peddle this neoliberal claptrap.

And they are the billionaires who turn up at Davos and, most recently, COP28.

Of the 34 billionaires registered as delegates at COP28, an Oxfam analysis reported in The Guardian found, “at least a quarter … made their fortunes from highly polluting industries such as petrochemicals, mining and beef production.”

Scrooge’s awakening to humanitarian instincts and his conversion to a spirit of generosity needs to be replicated at scale among this neoliberal elite.

Rather than putting profit and power first, they need to put people and planet first.

That would be a desperately needed Christmas Carol for our times.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy