Austerity? What austerity? In defence of Ebenezer Scrooge

21/12/2010 by

The figure of Ebenezer Scrooge is the only one that our societies allow their upstanding members to despise during the festive season. Of course, the point of the ritual admonition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol protagonist is to celebrate charity and the Christmas spirit by focusing attention on Scrooge’s remarkable Christmas Eve transformation (with the ghosts’ help) into a serial do-gooder. And yet, especially so after The Crash of 2008, it is exceedingly unfair for our societies to admonish the early Scrooge.

Come to think of it, Scrooge did not steal from anyone, cheat anyone, gamble with other people’s money or, indeed, lie through his teeth, pretending to be sharing and caring while, behind the scenes, creating the circumstances for other people’s calamitous freefall. Admittedly, he was mean, unpleasant and extremely miserly. But he was a man of principle who treated his own self with as much tight-fisted austerity as he did Cratchit, his impoverished employee. For Ebenezer Scrooge austerity was a way of life. And a defensible one at that. If he insisted that Cratchit works in a desperately cold room to save on the heating bill, it was because he thought it imprudent for anyone to do otherwise; himself first and foremost.

Compare and contrast Ebenezer’s principled espousal of austerity with the current crop of austerity’s proponents. They deliver passionate sermons on how essential austerity is. They shout from the rooftops that the end of the world is nigh, unless we tighten our belts. They claim that our collective agencies (with the state being the worst offender) jeopardised our place in heaven by spending and borrowing too much. And then what do they do? They insist that the insolvent borrow more. Much, much more. To what purpose? To build new factories and ships by which to flood the world with wonderful gadgets and shining artefacts? No, they insist that bankrupt states with a history of poverty and emigration (like Greece and Ireland) use the mountainous loans to re-pay bankers who produce nothing while, at once, the factories and the shops shut down and turn into wastelands. They tear their clothes warning that the gates of hell are upon us unless we all borrow to reward those whose only real innovation in the past thirty years (as Paul Volcker put it) was the ATM. The very same bankers who lost the world two years ago through imprudence of an industrial scale.

Ebenezer Scrooge, had he been around today, would not have liked us Greeks. He would probably, along with Mrs Merkel, have felt disdain at the way we take every available opportunity to celebrate even our misery by drinking and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. But nor would he have approved of the IMF, the ECB, Mrs Merkel and, above all else, the decidedly fake austerians. Those people who, in the name of austerity, are responsible for the worst profligacy human history has hitherto witnessed. The very same people whose mantra is:

  • Give nothing to those in need – but give oodles of money to those who do not need it
  • Give nothing to those who lost their own savings out of sheer bad luck or small time imprudence – but throw mountains of the stuff to those who lost everyone else’s hard earned money

We live not in times of austerity. This is not an era that the early Scrooge would have approved of. The largesse of the Republicans across the pond, and of the EFSF loans on this side of the Atlantic, would have destroyed his soul. And while the early Scrooge would have been outraged by the profligacy, the late Scrooge would feel distraught by the meanness.

As far as we are concerned, we should be enraged by this astounding hubris; by this combination of meanness and profligacy. If some of us  are insisting that there is a better way, if we are canvassing for the Modest Proposal, it is because of a sense of urgency and ethical indignation at the extent to which rationality, humanism and common decency have fallen prey to the worst instincts known to women and to men alike: those demonstrated by our elected representatives in Brussels, Berlin, Athens, London, Dublin and Washington. In the name of minimal human virtues, I am hereby calling, at the very least, for the rehabilitation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Compared to today’s austerians, he was a paragon of moral virtue – even before the ghosts of his Christmas past and future paid him a visit on that fateful Christmas Eve.

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