The capitalist system that flourished in the time of Dickens is still upon us, as are all of its ills and evils. Reminiscent of the popular festive tale A Christmas Carol, in 2006, over 150 years after Charles Dickens wrote the story reflecting the callousness of a society divided by class, we still find that ordinary working peoples everyday lives are subject to the whims of a minority of parasitic individuals. This has found expression most recently in the Farepak fiasco.
Farepak was a Christmas hamper company that many people used to help spread over the year the burden of an increasingly commercialised holiday period. Individuals or local clubs would make contributions when possible, usually to local Farepak agents. These savings could then be redeemed for Farepak hampers or as vouchers for many of the UK's biggest retailers such as Woolworth's, Argos and Sainsburys. On October 13th Farepak collapsed, wiping away the Christmas savings of over 150,000 people.
Sarahjane Kinsey, a mother of two, lost £700 in savings. She told the BBC:
"Sainsburys are saying they'll offer compensation…it's better than nothing, I guess. But it means we have to rely on their charity…for money that we've earned and saved."
People don't want to have to rely on charity. They want the dignity that comes with managing their own affairs, not having to accept hand-outs when they run into problems.
But whose fault is this problem? Sainsburys and Tesco have pledged donations, although in the case of Sainsburys in store credit only. Yet it is rumoured that it is these stores that are the cause of this present crisis. After the collapse of a company similar to Farepak, high street stores panicked and demanded their money up front. This changed Farepak's payment arrangements, which their bank, HBOS, would not accept. This pushed HBOS to call in Farepak's overdraft, ruining the company.
Here we see another example of working class people having to absorb the blunderings of capitalism. This time the ruling class are extremely embarrassed because it's not difficult to conclude that these people have been robbed of their Christmas, plain and simple. The mysterious "free" market is the culprit.
Now the representatives of the ruling class are running around like headless turkeys in search of a scapegoat. The MP for South Belfast, Alasdair McDonnell, has urged the government to "ruthlessly pursue" those responsible. And so it should. Yet scapegoating individuals conveniently diverts attention away from the real essence of the problem, that capitalism is fundamentally flawed. Peoples' welfare is subordinate to maintaining profit.
Sir Clive Thompson, chief executive of Farepak, has been a popular target of recent weeks. Known as the 'Unreconstructed Thatcherite', he was dumped by his former company Rentokil with a £395,000 golden handshake and a £13M pension scheme some years ago. Sir Clive opposes the minimum wage that can 'price low-paid workers, such as cleaners and security guards, out of jobs' (cleaners and security guards having been big business for Rentokil incidentally). In turn Sir Clive has put the blame on HBOS because of their refusal to support Farepak's £1.5M funding shortfall.
Tories of Sir Clive's ilk, like MP for Wantage Ed Vaizey, have even tried to blunt the issue. Referring to Farepak customers savings he said:
"They're not considered financial products so the Financial Services Authority doesn't regulate them". So if one such company fails Farepak does not have to compensate its customers- and it won't.
This sums up the real attitude of the ruling class: absolute disregard. They split over secondary issues like referring to Sir Clive Thompson as the 21st century Sheriff of Nottingham or a "modern-day scrooge" as Anne Snelgrove, MP for south Swindon put it, yet fail to address the real issue. This is because it is not in their interests to point out the folly a system that they represent and grow fat off. On occasion the odd CEO might have to be sacrificed. But as long as the system remains in place these are acceptable losses.
In August HBOS announced half-year, pre-tax profits of £2.65 billion. Yet on principal they could not absorb Farepak's debt, a demonstration of capitalisms' short-sightedness. And all the while, as the BBC reported, HBOS approved Farepaks' continuing acceptance of payment from customers after it knew it was in trouble. Some reports estimate this cut Farepak's overdraft by £40M.
The Telegraph has found that Farepak families have been approached by loan sharks offering money at interest rates of 120%, while at this time hampers are still sitting in Farepak warehouses. And circling like vultures will be those legal cousins of the loan shark, credit card companies and providers of high interest loans, ready to pick at the carcass of a Christmas that for many people will be dead on arrival.
In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the central character Ebenezer Scrooge was reformed overnight as three spirits visited him and appealed to his better nature. The conclusion to the tale is unsatisfactory. Whilst individual captains of capitalism in their autumn years, on occasion, seek to repent and make amends for their past wrongs, it is a drop in a bucket for ordinary people. For the likes of the Farepak families, they are now facing a threadbare Christmas and New Year. What a real indictment of the capitalist system! It is time it was put on the scrap heap.