NEW YORK -- As I listen to the news coming out of England after the recent wave of urban riots -- and as I read Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling new biography of Charles Dickens, Becoming Dickens -- life and art seem to be echoing each other.
In the wake of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed reviving children's courts, urged harsh sentences and orange jumpsuits for convicts, and floated even more odious ideas. For example, convicts could be intentionally exposed to public harassment through cleanup assignments, and their families, who have not committed crimes, could be evicted from their state-subsidized housing. Cameron is also testing arrests for Facebook comments, the suspension of social networks, and more lethal power for police.
In Dickens' England, the judiciary was not independent, and newspapers were subject to state censorship. Kids (like Oliver Twist) were punished in ways designed to break them; poor people convicted of relatively minor offenses were transported to Australia, or given publicly humiliating forms of punishment; police had unchecked and violent power over the poor.
I am not endorsing leniency for looters and thugs; but we already know where the raft of punitive legislation that Cameron is proposing, and his efforts to exploit civil unrest to clamp down on civil liberties, would lead the country.
Likewise, we already know what an England without a social safety net -- where the poor have no hope and no mobility -- looks like. Public education barely existed for the "lower orders" 150 years ago, and university was a fantasy for them -- as it could well be again, with tuition fees set to triple under Cameron.
In Becoming Dickens, Douglas-Fairhurst, rejecting recent "poststructuralist" literary theory, reexamines Dickens and his England within their historical and political contexts. This approach yields valuable insights -- and not a moment too soon. Such "historicist" interpretations of Victorian London have also appeared recently in the fascinating current exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, "Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life," and in Bill Bryson's new bestseller, At Home, which examines the social history surrounding a Victorian curate's manor.
The renewed interest in Victorian social history -- what people ate and wore, who worked for whom, etc., as opposed to the history of battles and "great men" -- may not be a coincidence. Western capitalist societies, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, are currently in the process of spooling time backward to the pre-Victorian era, for the benefit of a small group of elites that excludes the working and middle classes who benefited most from the Victorians' social, economic, and political reforms -- let alone the poor.
As a result, it has become urgent to remember that it was the later Victorians who recognized modernity's moral dimension, originating almost every kind of public reform that we now take for granted as the mark of a civilized society.
Early Victorian reality -- destitute street children, raging cholera epidemics, and mounds of uncollected "night soil" in the streets -- was a highly "privatized" reality. In the 1830's, as Douglas-Fairhust movingly demonstrates, boys and girls who came from economically vulnerable families could find themselves unschooled and working 18 hours a day in blacking factories, like the 12-year-old Dickens.
People who did not pay their creditors were sent -- with their families -- to debtors' prisons, as John Dickens, Charles' father, was for owing 40 pounds. Elderly people with no means of support died in rags in alleyways, while lower-middle-class families, with no unemployment insurance or welfare benefits, were perpetually in terror of illness or layoff, which would mean "ruin" and, possibly, being turned out into the street.
London in the 1830's was a city in which a third of women were servants and another third were prostitutes. A massive gap between the elites and everyone else ensured that the top echelons of literature, business, and politics were managed by the wealthy few, and that the talents that would emerge a generation later, in the wake of wider state-funded education, were suppressed. And this is more or less what all of England looked like without a social safety net.
In contrast, the later Victorians, from the 1850's-1880's, created major public works and public-welfare initiatives, including state-funded infirmary networks and compulsory primary education. They expanded a system of workhouses and poor relief for the destitute, built up municipal water and sewage systems, municipalized police forces, and oversaw public investment in landmarks that are still with us, such as the Thames Embankment and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Likewise, with tens of thousands of street children entirely dependent for food on what they could scavenge or steal, the later Victorians established systems of orphanages. They commissioned the first epidemiological surveys to identify the source of cholera outbreaks -- which could wipe out half the population of a neighborhood in a matter of weeks -- and built new waterworks to stop the spread of the disease from the filthy Thames and tainted local pumps. They built the first major public hospitals at a time when home births and other home care spread contagion and death.
In today's advanced capitalist democracies, most citizens' obliviousness to this history serves elite interests; otherwise, many more people, if not most, would be screaming bloody murder at increasingly successful efforts to shrink the public sector.
As Cameron and other Western conservatives intensify their efforts to clear a path to the past, it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing novel or innovative about the absence of a welfare state and the privatization of basic services. We have been there already -- indeed, much of what is now being dismantled in Britain was built in the Victorian era because of appalling social conditions for most people. If today's conservative political forces remain in power, the dark, dangerous, and ignorant past is where England -- and other Western countries -- risks returning.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.