Allan Powell: What can we learn from 'Little Dorrit?'

March 22, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

Hardly more than a year ago, I made my first contact with “Little Dorrit” when I read a newly published biography of Charles Dickens. Then, a friend, the late Robert Molten, bound several editions of Harper’s Magazine (1856) into three bound books about “Little Dorrit.” Most recently, my daughter, Sherry, brought four discs about Dickens’ famous hero which gave me a visual acquaintance. I now know the meaning of the phrase, “You’re gonna get the Dickens.” The scenes of the sordid and squalid conditions of the working class in the 1850s reactivated memories and thoughts about the plight of laborers throughout history.

The contempt held by the wealthy toward those at the lower ranks of society should touch the hardest heart. But, Dickens made it clear that “Little Dorrit” and her suffering friends and neighbors had more nobility and humanity than the “nice” people who assumed their superiority. Do not be too quick with the reflexive response that things are so much better now. Social status is a very flexible and relative thing to measure and judge. But it should be obvious that we are seeing more public attention to the plight of our working class in the last 10 years than at any time since the Great Depression.

A quick survey of the history of commerce shows a concerted and aggressive quest for cheap labor. When we are told daily about our businesses moving to China and India for cheap labor, and the Chinese are moving their businesses to the south for cheaper labor in Third World countries, can we suppose that the eternal quest for cheap labor is a new event?

The record shows that captives of wars were the accepted means to get cheap labor in the early days of civilization. These slaves did the tedious and dirty work for the victors. There was one slight exception, when the Romans captured Greeks to teach them philosophy. In our early history, the slave-owning class had no problem using African slave traders to supply slave labor. Further, they had the power to force the Founding Fathers to insert three clauses into the Constitution as a condition of ratification.

Cheap labor for the cotton growers was then extended to orchard and vegetable cultivators in the Southwest and West. It was taken for granted that these laborers would remain docile servers and stay in “their place.” But they, too, like the underclass in Dickens’ novels, began a struggle to improve their lot and attain a higher standard of life and even the possibility of citizenships and the right to vote.

I will not purchase any products from a company that uses gimmicks to maintain cheap labor, and I wouldn’t accept its goods if they were offered to me free. I am quite willing to pay more so that employees can have a higher standard. If enough people would support such workers, they could force management to alter cheap labor policies.

We will see this struggle over cheap labor accelerate now that President Obama has made a public appeal for a raise in the minimum wage. The reaction is inevitable and predictable. One has but to recall every request for a minimum wage since the New Deal. The arguments never change and prove to be wrong. “It is a threat to the free market” comes first. Then, “It will destroy many jobs.” Finally, “What is this world coming to?” However, in every instance, the market adjusted and we moved on.

Labor is honorable. It is not possible nor is it desirable for everyone to be a professional or a skilled blue-collar worker, but we can all labor with dignity. As Jefferson once said, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people.” With that sentiment in mind, we can be reminded of the symbolism of “Little Dorrit” to Dickens. This dear little soul, born in a debtor’s prison, was proud of her skills as a seamstress in the homes of the rich. She cared for her father, who was imprisoned, and never moaned about her seemingly hopeless situation. We also learn that there will always be those who take advantage of others. There are “givers” and “takers” wherever there are human beings.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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