My wife and I are not fancy people by any stretch. Our wardrobes are not filled with designer brands. We have not sunk our hard earned dollars into things such as cottages, pools or Taylor Swift concert tickets. Nor have we been swept up in the latest financial fads such as Bitcoin, NFTs and the like. We are practical people for the most part. But there is one aspect of our lives in which we have refused to compromise and that is with regard to food. My wife and I like to eat. It was this mutual love of food that was part of our initial attraction all those years ago when we first met. To us, the act of sharing food often has less to do with the nutritional value of what we are eating and more to do with the social and emotional bonds created by sitting around a table together with those we love. Thus, in our home, dinner time is one of the few times in our busy lives that you are pretty much guaranteed to find all four of us together in one spot. But find us you will. We place a high value on our family time and being connected to our children and their lives. Being able to enjoy good food together helps to facilitate this. Consequently, even though the times we live in are such that the cost of groceries seems to be rising exponentially week after week, we still are willing to invest our hard earned dollars in the act of maintaining a well-stocked fridge and cupboards.
But a funny thing has begun to happen during our weekly grocery store expeditions. Seeing other people with a full cart in the grocery store is becoming rarer and rarer. It is becoming far more common to see people slowly wandering from aisle to aisle, small baskets in hand, working the math in their heads to see what they can afford to buy and what will have to stay upon the shelves. For an increasingly large number of people, going to the grocery store in Canada is becoming an exercise in compromise, sadness and humiliation. I am particularly noticing this with people who are on fixed incomes such as seniors. For us, having a full cart seems almost decadent. My family’s privilege is having the ability to make the purchase of food as our luxury expenditure in life. To say out loud that buying food can be considered a luxury should be an absolutely outrageous statement to make in a country like Canada, yet here we find ourselves. For anyone with even a passing knowledge of history, there is no shortage of irony in hearing the news from a year or so ago that grocery store chains in Canada had colluded in inflating the prices of that most common of food stuffs…bread. Loblaws, in particular, was fined millions of dollars for price-fixing. Where history comes into play is knowing that it was with shortages of bread (and flour) that the seeds of the French Revolution were sown. As much as we would like to simply blame governmental incompetence for the state of our inflationary times, the truth is that money and greed have fuelled cycles of economic bust and boom for centuries now. Change always comes after times when a societal reset takes place. For us, that societal reset happened with the arrival of the COVID pandemic. Historically, one of the first times a great societal reset took place was in the years following the introduction into Europe of the Bubonic Plague. *(Biblical believers will state that the flood that happened in the story of Noah and his ark was the original societal reset). In any case, in order to understand what is happening today and predict what the immediate future appears to be, it is instructive to go back in time to those heady post-plague/pre-industrial revolutionary days. In order to get an accurate portrait of those times, I will draw upon the expertise of someone who is a far better writer than I am…Mr. Charles Dickens. Starting with A Christmas Carol, Dickens developed a reputation for the honesty with which he chronicled the lives of those living in poverty. Perhaps no work of his captures the depths of despair felt by those on the wrong end of the economic system than the story of Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist is a story that revolves around the struggles of a young boy named Oliver. In the opening of the story, Oliver finds himself living in a workhouse, along with many other boys his age. In one of the single most powerful examples ever written regarding the inhumanity of our capitalist system of economics, Oliver Twist, having already consumed his watery gruel, takes his empty bowl back up to where the cooks are standing and politely says, ”Please sir. I want some more”. In response to his query, the person in charge yells, “More!!!???” as if the request is the most impertinent, unthinkably rude question that ever could have been asked. In this simple scene, Charles Dickens illustrates the power imbalance that occurs when access to food becomes weaponized by those with the power to do so. The effect of such power is a form of control that strikes at the very core of one’s being.
The whole context of the story of Oliver Twist is one in which, at one time in the history of England, it was actually illegal to be poor. In the time between the onset of the Plague and the start of the Industrial Revolution, the way of life for ordinary workers changed significantly. Initially, much of Europe was an agrarian society. With the Plague wiping out much of the workforce, those who were left alive suddenly found themselves in an advantageous position of being able to demand higher wages and better working conditions because the pool of available workers was so small. But, in time, populations began to return to normal levels. With that and the introduction of industrialization to Europe, the role of labour changed. Factories began replacing farms. Machines began replacing workers. Unemployment became an issue. Then along came King Henry VIII, who felt the time was right to change the entire system of religion in England. While the politics of abolishing Catholicism in favour of The Church of England meant that the line of succession to the throne could be controlled better by those already in charge, the decision also had a detrimental effect on individual citizens of England. Prior to King Henry VIII’s decision, churches and monasteries held a lot of influence in the towns and villages in which they were constructed. While this influence was abused at times, churches also served as the first point of contact by people in need, regardless of what that need entailed. However, when the existing church system underwent a huge makeover and was stripped of much of its power, it was left to individual municipalities to raise their own taxes and care for their own citizens in need.
The task of caring for those in poverty started with examining those who had fallen on hard times through circumstances beyond their control as compared to those who were not working because they simply chose not to. For those who were fit to work, a choice was given to immediately find a job, or else be assigned to a workhouse or, as they were sometimes called, a poorhouse. In the beginning, there were only a few workhouses and they were filled almost exclusively with adult males. Soon industrialists came to see those in workhouses as a source of free or cheap labour. Not surprisingly, more workhouses were built and more and more of the working poor ended up being placed in them in a form of indentured servitude. In time, the focus of municipal policies began to centre upon the problem of those who required care from authorities but were unable to work. This group of people tended to be the infirm, the elderly, women and/or the very young. Soon it became policy to place these people in poorhouses as well. One can only imagine the frantic conversations that were being held in family homes when parents realized that they could not afford to feed all of the children in their family, but that they could also not go to the authorities for help, either, because to do so meant that their children would be taken away and placed in poorhouses. If you have ever read Hansel and Gretel, you will know that these sorts of conversations were happening all too often to very real families whose only crime was being poor and needing some help to get by. There was also a famous song called “My Old Dutch” that was sung by Albert Chevalier at the end of the 1800s that concerns a husband and wife who were married for forty years. The husband refers affectionately to his wife as “my Ol’ Dutch”, meaning that she was a tried and true companion all those years. Unfortunately, being an older couple, they could no longer afford to care for themselves and were being forced into a poorhouse, which were all organized by gender. “My Old Dutch” is a lament at having to be separated after forty years of marriage for no reason other than that they were poor and in need of help to get by. This song was one of the first big hits of the era when music halls first came into being as places where ordinary people could go and hear songs and see plays with social undertones to them. This brings us back to Oliver Twist.
Charles Dickens opted to focus on exposing to the world the dirty secret of how children in poorhouses were being used as child labourers. He detailed the cruelty of their existence in these facilities. His frank depictions of physical and emotional abuse between adults and children and between the adults with each other caused much shock in polite society circles. However, Oliver Twist has gone on to stand the test of time and is now viewed as a classic piece of literature that everyone should read at least once in their lives. But for those who are more visual learners, the story of Oliver Twist has been made into a musical as well as an Academy Award winning movie. In both of those cases, the story has been retitled as simply Oliver! The songs for the musical were written by a man named Lionel Bart. He is an interesting character. He had a reputation as being quite the playboy and living a very bohemian life. Prior to writing songs such as “Food! Glorious food!”, “Consider Yourself”, “Where is Love?” and “As Long As He Needs Me” *(which helped Bart win the award for Best Musical Score in 1964 when the musical debuted in London’s West End), Bart wrote a song called “Maggie Mae” for a musical of the same name. The story of Maggie Mae is about a kind-hearted prostitute. When singer Rod Stewart went solo and decided to write a song about losing his virginity, he named the song “Maggie May” after Bart’s version in order to protect the identity of the older woman who helped him transition to the other side, so to speak. *(You can read a previously written post about this song here). When The Beatles were recording songs for the album Let It Be, they included a forty-second arrangement of the Bart version as well. In any case, Lionel Bart eventually fell upon hard times of his own. He was aging, of poor health and in financial debt. In a moment that I am sure he lived to regret, he sold away the publishing rights to Oliver!, Maggie Mae and the rest of his song catalogue (and all of the royalties that came with them) for pennies to a corporation that continues making millions from them to this very day. In the end, Bart died a poor man.
The economics of poverty are seen by some as an opportunity to realize new visions of doing things in a society. Great societal resets tend to bring out the worst in those who view profit as a religion and labourers as disposable assets. One of the things about historical cycles is that they tend to swing back and forth in terms of who benefits and in what manner that benefit is enjoyed. As we have seen, industrialists enjoy great profits when the cost of labour goes down and is controllable. Plagues and pandemics may seem to hurt economies, but that has not historically been the case for larger corporations. The only ones who truly get hurt are the labourers themselves and their families, along with the smaller local business people whose profit margins cannot take the initial hit that comes with temporary social upheaval. If you look at the state of the business world in 2023, who are the companies that are thriving and growing richer? Conglomerates such as Walmart and Amazon have the retail market sewn up. Land developers and grocery store magnates are recording record profits as the cost of eating a basic diet and having a roof over one’s head becomes a dream for many. Finally, information gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook/Meta are controlling the flow of information that is put out there for us all to consume. Everywhere you look, more and more money and power is resting in fewer and fewer hands. As for the rest of us, every town seems to have a problem with homelessness now. One of the reasons given by those opting to live in tented encampments is that they don’t trust the organized government-run assistance plans that are in place. They say that it isn’t safe in emergency shelters. They say that there isn’t help available for the many who simply want affordable housing and access to decent food. Others tend to paint a picture of these folks being too demanding and unrealistic in their expectations. I am not intimately involved in the local encampment scene in my town to state, one way or the other, whose version of reality is true. However, based on my knowledge of history, I am left to wonder how long it will be before these encampments will be outlawed and those staying there forcibly placed in mandated shelters. Will the poorhouses of the past simply become the emergency shelters of the present? All that I really know is that each time I push my cart around the grocery store, I am seeing more and more anxiety in the faces of my fellow shoppers. Many seem defeated. Access to food (and housing) should never be made to seem as though it is a luxury that is attainable for only the privileged few. But that is increasingly where we are as a society. Can the next Oliver Twist story really be that far away?
The link to the trailer for the movie Oliver! can be found here.
The link to the official website for Charles Dickens can be found here.
The link to a video of The Beatles singing “Maggie Mae” by Lionel Bart can be found here.
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