Readers may forgive the lateness of a “Christmas article” at the onset of February, but fortunately in the Catholic tradition Christmas does not officially end until February 2nd. Every year at Christmas there a number of film classics which will be aired on major television channels, two of which are of prime importance, yet their messages are often lost within the commercial breaks bearing opposite philosophies and the commercialism that we imbibe at least in principle. I am speaking of the renditions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
As far as I can tell, the most popular version of the former is with George C. Scott, not only because it is the most aired but because all subsequent renditions copy his inimitable performance, (and generally quite poorly I might add). Nevertheless, when we sit down and watch A Christmas Carol, do we really understand what is going on? The impression most of us walk away with is a mere story of a stingy old man, whose malfeasance and quest for gain badly affects others, and we’re appalled by the tragedy of Tiny Tim, who is suffering and dying due to the lack of access to health care, or at least nutrition. Maybe 19th century England needed the universal healthcare of today some wonder? Maybe Scrooge needed heavier taxes to provide for people, or perhaps there should have been a minimum wage?
Other perceptions find themselves in the now famous “rehabilitation of Scrooge” which we find in libertarian thinking circles, who represents the progeny of those Dickens was writing against. Bob Cratchett was lucky he had Mr. Scrooge to provide him any wage at all, or that because Scrooge was miserly and “invested” his money he provided capital to the market, and did far more good for the economy as a miserly old hell-bound Scrooge, rather than in his converted state donating to charitable organizations and providing Cratchett with a living wage. Yet these very sentiments are condemned by Dickens himself, and when one watches faithful renditions of the movie, such as those with Alistair Sim and George C. Scott (no, I’m sorry, Mickey Mouse’s version is cute but does not encapsulate Dicken’s classic), one can readily see it is the free market Capitalist who is condemned page after page.
For all that, to approach A Christmas Carol with either of the aforementioned reactions is to do so with the phony Left-Right paradigm. We are appropriating what we understand today from the Left, or from the Right and applying it to a message of economic justice which transcends both.
Let us look more closely at A Christmas Carol, before we move on to Frank Capra. We see the preface to the story in a Christmas eve that presents us a Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas because it interferes with his ability to make money. He is a ruthless trader making use of economic factors to exact higher prices at the London stock exchange, which he reveals towards the end of the book to be his “second home.” When asked by some seeking charity for the poor, he says “If they are to die, then let them die, and reduce the surplus population,” a concept clearly Malthusian and not absent from the thinking of some free market economists today. And again, he asks “are there no workhouses, are there no prisons?” Surely the solution is not to provide them with the means to earn their bread, let the state take care of them, or let them do as Voltaire and leave his unwanted offspring at a state hospital to be taken care of by the state. Scrooge, however, is to be called to account, and the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley appears to him that night, warning him that he will carry chains for eternity, and that he will be visited by three spirits. Here, Dickens’ device of Spirits is interesting. He posits an exterior force to move Scrooge toward seeing reality. Dickens could have used a philosopher, or some confrontation with social maladies to cure Scrooge, but instead he uses the exterior force of the supernatural. Why? As we see during the visitation of the Spirits, Scrooge is unmovable, because his error comes from false principles, set in the mind in a fortress immune to human suffering. It can be in front of him, but he will not be moved. He has to be taken from that fortress of liberalism to the very heart of the matter, outside of where he is comfortable. The spirits do not demonstrate all this to him in his bedroom, they do not have a fireside chat about his obligations to the poor. No, they lift him out of his bedroom, ultimately out of himself, to places he dares not to tread, the house of his nephew who married for love and not money or a “good situation,” his employee who is underpaid and makes due with little, or the slums where people who want to work simply don’t have access to capital. There is an economic fallacy in all three places which the ghost of Christmas present takes him that is summarily refuted. In the first place, Scrooge is taken to his employee, Bob Cratchett’s house. Scrooge makes the observation that without his paying Cratchett the miserable salary he does, there would be no Christmas at all, without regard to the fact there is barely enough food, no presents and nothing to make any man happy. When he sees the Christmas goose, of puny size, he says “that’s all?” For which the Ghost must interject “It’s all Bob Cratchett can afford!”
Economists often say it is a wonderful thing that the wealthy invest or buy something at low rates, since if they did not business could not take place. Anything more than what earns them a handsome profit, even if the core working class is absolutely destitute, is extraneous since economics is supposedly value free. The refutation by Dickens is not that man needs a wage, but a living wage, something that a reasonable man could expect to live reasonably on, spending wisely and thriftily.
Next the ghost takes Scrooge to his Nephew’s house, which is considerably larger and better furnished with food than the Cratchett’s. Here the issue is not poverty, but the use of money. Economists teach that the wealthy investing their money and not spending it on themselves is a higher good, since it puts more capital out there to be earned. This is necessary in a debt based society. People who spend money and live well themselves are bad, since they are not constantly increasing their profits. Yet, this is also a fallacy, refuted by the very fact that Scrooge is unhappy, and considered miserly and poor by all those in attendance who have a good time, eat well and make merry. Happiness cannot be bought, success sometimes abject failure, where what Scrooge (and the economists) considers a failure is in fact far more successful on a human standard than anything he or those like him have stored up in their counting houses.
Lastly, climatically for this section of the story, the ghost of Christmas present takes Scrooge to the slums, under a bridge where a homeless family huddles over a fire, and the children rejoice that their father was able to gather some loaves of bread that fell from a car. The lie and deception of free market economics, one of the most vicious lies they tell to sleep better at night, is that those on the streets or without work are so because they do not want to work. They want the government to take care of them, they don’t have enough initiative or skills. Malthus saw this problem as well, and predicated it as too many people competing for scarce resources, so that only those who are fit and worthy (like the aristocracy in Malthus, Darwin and Nassau Senior’s thought) will get work and everyone else should be eliminated by disease and bad hygiene. If they must die, then let them die after all. What Scrooge is placed in front of however, is a broken man despairing because there is no work he can provide for his family with. “It’s not right that there is no work, these hands, they want to work.” It is inconceivable that someone in finance capital cannot see the meaning here, yet the economists, represented by Scrooge himself, turn a blind eye to it. Don’t tell me you want to work, because for my theories to continue making me rich you must not! Thus the ghost has one more thing for Scrooge to see. He opens up his robe, and shows him two sickly, starved and anemic children named “ignorance” and “want”. The ghost tells him, “These are your children!” Why? They are begotten by all like Scrooge (the economists and free market capitalists) and likewise ignored by them. Scrooge himself wants nothing to do with them, and merely quips: “Have they no refuge, no resource?” And the ghost, as frequently in Dickens’ narrative, refers Scrooge back to his own words: “Are there no workhouses, are there no prisons?” The scene under the bridge, as well as the dramatic unveiling of “ignorance” and “want”, are juxtapositions of reality with the Utopian conceptions of the economists, exemplified in the pre-converted Scrooge. Thus Scrooge says “cover them,” and the Ghost does so, but reminds him, “but they live, O, they live.” The consequences of the economists behavior are solvable by institutions, for which they are taxed by the government, irrespective of how terrible and inhuman they might be. They simply turn a blind eye. Or, in Malthus’ thought, it is solved by encouraging the poor to practice bad hygiene and contract diseases and thus, “deplete the surplus population.” If you are not a useful slave of finance capital, better that you never were. Yet, they live.
Scrooge is moved to conversion at this point, knowing his doom is near, which is not so clear in the films apart from George C. Scott and Alistair Sim’s, yet in the novel the seeds have been planted. Scrooge, confronted with the reality of his words in lieu of their human effects sees the problem, while the ghost of Christmas future brings about the climax for Scrooge, the wages of sin are death. To prevent his own death, he must change the present. It is unlikely that Dickens had any knowledge of the connection of physical health with emotional and psychological well-being. Another age-old idea present in the visitation is that of the rich man and Lazarus; the latter begged, after death and judgment, to go back to his fellows and warn them, whereas he is told “they have the law and the prophets, let them heed those.”
Scrooge did not believe after Marley warned him. He is coy and dismissive. It is only when the ghost of “Christmas Present” juxtaposes the economists with their human effects, and the ghost of “Christmas Future” presents him with the consequence, his death, that Scrooge changes. There is one other thought that Dickens presents to us with the image of Scrooge and the ghost of “Christmas Future,” that of the transitory nature of money. Scrooge sees a woman who has taken his things to the 19th century’s equivalent of a pawn shop. He sees the stock exchange where they speak of his money–where is it going to go? This is of course tangential. Dickens wants to show us that it doesn’t matter, he’s dead (in the future), his money is still here and now will do him no good, just as he did no good in life.
On this concept of the transitory nature of money, we turn to another holiday classic, equally ignored as it is misunderstood, namely Frank Capra’s classic: It’s a Wonderful Life. I hope in the future to present a review of all of Frank Capra’s films, but for the present we’ll limit ourselves to this Christmas-themed film which has as its subject a man’s ability to do good. This is eminently contrary to the capitalist message, even though they often try to co-opt it.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie about George Bailey, an average man from a small town, with big ideas but limited means. His ideas are quite different from what in the end he would actually achieve, but what we find at the end of the movie is that what he accomplished was above and beyond what he might have planned on.
After graduating from High School, George plans on going to college, and afterward, seeing the world. In the backdrop of George Bailey’s youth Capra presents us with a good guy and a bad guy: Bailey’s father runs a building and loan that is kind and lenient to borrowers because it is better for the common good. The bad guy, Mr. Potter, is a wealthy man with interests in local government infrastructure from the bank to the Bailey Building and Loan. When George’s Father dies, just before George is ready to go to college, he lays the foundation of the battle which will be fought throughout his life. Potter, an investor in Bailey Building and Loan wants to have it shut down, and at the same time goes on a long diatribe about how George’s father was a bad businessman and created all these problems. This is too much for George to stomach, not just because of the affront to his father, but because of the manifest injustice. Potter basically argues that because Bailey let people who were behind on their payments off, or gave loans to people who were denied a loan by the bank, he was a financial menace. George rebuts, adding that his father wasn’t a businessman, he was in the business of the human race (like the converted Scrooge), if you let someone off when they’ve missed a payment, and it lets them stay in their house, doesn’t that make them better customers? Doesn’t that mean they will be better off? He adds on (in the money value of the day) “Do you know how long it takes a working man to save up $5,000?” (It’s somewhat amusing, that even though money’s purchasing power has plummeted since the movie was made, it still takes a working man a long time to save up $5,000!) George’s diatribe against Potter is so moving, that the Board votes Potter down, if George will take over the Bailey Building and Loan.
So he does and gives his college money to his brother. George continues with his father’s vision, even though he wants nothing to do with it and feels like he is wasting his life. He does it because he sees that for the common good there needs to be opposition to Potter and his individualistic vision of the future where everything revolves “around him and his money.” Planning on passing the torch to his younger brother Harry, his brother returns from college and with marriage on the horizon and a job working for his new father in-law. Again, George is stuck with Building and Loan. George gets married (which is important to the vision of the movie in terms of George’s moral and emotional support, but somewhat tangential to our considerations here), but on his wedding day the bank fails. Driving past the Bailey Building and Loan, he sees a mob banging on the door. So George, thinking he’ll be back to his wife and off to his honeymoon shortly, decides to let them in and calm the people down. While he is talking to his uncle, Potter calls, notifying George that he’s insured the bank (to which George quickly assesses that Potter has “taken over the bank”), and again, the central battle of the movie is re-ignited. George tries to explain the concept of the building and loan, and why he doesn’t have money to give to people, as their money is an investment on “x” number of buildings with an expected return. When the people threaten to go to Potter and get half of their money in exchange for their stocks, his wife offers the $2,000 they received for their honeymoon. So George at last offers the money to tide people over until the banks re-open. By not closing his doors and turning the people away, George insures he will be able to continue the fight against Potter.
Yet, he has forgotten something. At closing time he remembers he just got married and his wife is waiting for him, though he doesn’t know where. So he goes out and finds Ernie, a taxi-driver whom George has helped, to bring him to his “home.” He finds that his home is an old broken down wreck that his wife has always loved, which she purchased and plans to fix up. There is actually something very important in this scene, in as much as Mary shows her metal, so to speak. She proves she is ready to love George irrespective of money, and more importantly, to fight the same battle. Thus, in the next scene we see Mary and George building homes for the poor of Bedford Falls.
Potter does not take this well. His advisers warn him that George Bailey will infuse a liquidity into the community that will seriously damage Potter’s hegemony. So Potter tries to bribe him. Capra does two interesting things here. In the meeting with Potter, we do not see George Bailey, the community knight out to slay the rich dragon that seeks to ruin the community. Rather, they both agree. Potter has watched George Bailey over the years. He knows that George does not want to be running the Building and Loan. He knows that George would rather be in an exciting job or seeing the world. George ends up agreeing with him, nodding with each proposition Potter puts forth, over a fine and expensive cigar. At last Potter offers him a top salary, $20,000 a year. I wonder if people watching this every Christmas ever marvel that a wealthy salary in the 1950s is well below the poverty level 60 years later. Nevertheless, if only George would hand over the Building and Loan, he’ll live the good life. This is appealing to George, until he stops and remembers what kind of man Potter is. He recalls what kind of business he runs. George does not get all high-minded as a crusader for justice. As he says later in the movie, “I’m not a praying man.” What Capra is painting for us is an image, not of an idealist, but of an average guy with a human bone in his body. Certainly George Bailey has his ideals, there is no question about that, but he is not really interested in the common struggle of the community against the oligarch, even though he is right in the middle of it. George is the average guy who knows what is right, and he knows that oligarchs need to be fought. This is why he tells Potter off and storms off.
The second thing that’s interesting is we don’t see George saying spit on Potter and his money. He rues the fact that he can’t take it! This is not the normal hero. He is not a hero who is an entirely selfless like one of Capra’s other great films, Mr. Smith goes to Washington. He rues the fact that he is stuck with the Bailey Building and Loan, stuck with the small salary he has. When he goes home, his wife shares with him the good news that she is pregnant. George never again doubts his mission, and here Capra sets for us the climax. George’s partner and uncle, Willy, misplaces an $8,000 deposit, at the same time as the bank examiner comes to audit the books. This means that George could go to jail and lose everything that matters. It is at this time that he wants to commit suicide, when God sends an angel to prevent him. Rather than a Deus ex machina, Capra weaves this very cleverly into the climax. Clarence the Angel, has great difficulty in finding the solution for George. At last, he gets an idea, he asks God to change the world so that George was never born. The door slams, and the world is different.
Capra uses this to show us what happens when there is no justice in society, when someone like George Bailey is not there to fight the system. The happy little town of Bedford Falls is transformed into Pottersville, a slum with strip shows, drugs, poverty and everything wicked and filthy, which also makes money for Potter. Since there was no one to fight him, he and his money owned the town. All the side characters who serve as subplots are not the happy people they were. They are in the worst situations imaginable. The last the thing that defined him, his family, is not there. This wakes George up to the fact that he really has a wonderful life (hence the title), but it is also meant to wake us up to what a wonderful life entails, what is accomplished and what it takes to accomplish it: fight the co-opting of society by the minority wealthy.
In sum, the ends of Dickens and Capra are the same. They are both opposed to the errors of the economists, to the rabid individualism and “enlightened” self-interest which supposedly make society better, but in reality produce the family under the bridge with the Ghost of Christmas present, and the horror of Pottersville when we see a world without George. Interestingly, both stories use supernatural imagery to drive home the point. Why? There are three reasons. The first is because it can be difficult to see through the errors of the economists. They have pulled the psychological operation of a majority telling us something is true. Secondly, because they do it by hidden hands and hidden frauds. In Capra we see this during the bank run, where Potter says he has guaranteed the banks loans. Sounds like a work of charity, but George puts the correct gloss on it when he tells his uncle: “He’s just taken over the bank.” Why? The power of wealth to corrupt, engineer and monopolize is often unseen until its effects are plain. Lastly, as I noted in the case of Scrooge, the ivory tower of liberalism shields the idealist, like Potter or Scrooge from seeing the reality of human suffering, and the obligations one has just for society itself. Potter wants his hegemony for all sorts of reasons, elitism, control, name recognition, who knows what else. His control of it however transforms a good town into a terrible crime ridden slum. George’s contribution of wealth into the community by the Bailey Building and Loan is juxtaposed with Potter’s sucking it out and preventing economic activity. Yet, the supernatural is used differently in Capra than in Dickens. Capra does not send the supernatural agent to the bad guy to be converted, he sends it to the good guy to be saved and preserved. Yet in doing so we see the same effect.
Now, both of these films are shown every Christmas and have become classics, yet they are not really understood. I’m sure a number of bankers guilty of destroying middle class fortunes, happily watch A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life without realizing they are closer to the characters of the pre-converted Scrooge and Potter than they are to the heroes of those stories. Therein lies the problem, the need for the supernatural. The rich man of the Gospel asked that he be allowed to tell his fellows the fate that awaits them, but Abraham says “They have the law and the prophets, let them heed those.” Yet what is the law and who are the prophets? They are supernatural revelation to be believed because they have God as their author. Scrooge receives this singular privilege when Marley comes to warn him, but he is coy and dismissive. He has to see. George does not believe he had a wonderful life until he sees what would be if he wasn’t there to do any good. The “law and the prophets” of the Gospel narrative help one to see what is needed in our age, and these two stories, presented to us each Christmas, should be as good a start as any.