David Lammy, the Tottenham Labour MP, gave an emotional interview in the days after the Grenfell Tower tragedy: ‘This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before last and it’s still here in 2017’. Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was published in 1859, and while the novel really is about London and Paris at the time of the French revolution, people like Lammy often use the ‘two cities’ phrase as a metaphor for inequality and to highlight the plight of the poor.
Dickens wrote his book at the end of the period we now know as the ‘Industrial Revolution’. But while Dickens is famous for describing the poverty and deprivation that certainly was commonplace in London at the time, the subjects of his famous novels span two centuries where worldwide per capita income is estimated to have increased ten time and the world population six times. Dickens lived through an economic miracle (it is true, however, that conditions for the common worker saw limited progress until after his death (in 1870), with the last quarter of the 19th century seeing declining prices and improvement in urban housing, sanitation and health).
So, while Dickens was writing novels of deprivation and poverty, businessmen across England were busy inventing new methods of production, transportation and construction, in the process deriving the system we now know as capitalism. This system proved capable of something other ways of organizing society had not previously achieved: given time, it succeeded in essentially eradicating absolute poverty. Since the origins of capitalism, every society that has allowed free enterprise to flourish has grown richer, and every attempt to move away from the model towards socialism has failed – and not only failed the capitalist class, but even more so the working class. When capitalism is not allowed to flourish, it is the poor that suffer the most.
Contemporary debate ignores this and is dominated by an incessant focus on inequality. But the poor cannot survive on equality. Churchill put it like this: ‘The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.’ However unequal, since the industrial revolution blessings have been shared amongst every layer of society. The rich have gotten richer, and so have the poor – to an extend that would have seemed utterly unfathomable to Dickens and his contemporaries.
Today, when David Lammy evokes Dickens to illustrate inequality in present day London, he conjures up images of 19th century poor houses. The truth could not be more different. Grenfell Tower may be in a relatively poor pocket of Kensington, but a Dickensian poor house it was not. Before the fire, a two bed flat (pictured below) on the 18th floor of the building was available for rent for GBP 1,712/ month.
Not knowing the standard of the Lammy residence, this is certainly not what a 19th century East London industrial worker had to go home to after a hard day at the factory.
So, the awful tragedy that is the Grenfell Tower fire does illustrate disparities: a tale of two cities, yes – but the city is actually the same: The miserable London of Dickens’ novels and the prosperous city Londoners today call home. The difference is simple: a couple of centuries of capitalism.