Season’s Hauntings

’Tis the season. Every year at this time I am haunted by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Even though the first version I saw was the cartoon with Mr. Magoo, the story has grabbed me since I was a kid.

The story has a social justice edge, but it was the idea of learning through hauntings that has really stuck with me. Scrooge was transformed by ghostly visitations that forced him to confront his own past, present, and future in new ways.

Bah! Humbug!

Scrooge’s “Bah! Humbug!” is perfectly aligned with most business and government leaders today, whereas when I was a kid in the 1960s, there was enough of a welfare state that Scrooge’s selfishness seemed a bit old-fashioned. Sadly, his mentality seems all too contemporary again.

Early in the story, two men approach Scrooge to make a Christmas donation “for the Poor and destitute.”

Scrooge replies with a sentiment that is expressed in the policies of Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, and David Cameron, asking, “Are there no prisons?” Reassured that prisons and poor houses are still functioning, Scrooge says: “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.”

But the charity seekers insist punitive institutions are not sufficient for people living in poverty at this special time of year: “Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude… a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

Scrooge, of course, replies, “Nothing… I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

And so it goes with debates about social assistance and “hard-working taxpayers” today. Scrooge is a nasty guy, but he would hardly stand out in a lineup of employers and politicians today.

Ghost Lessons

In Dickens’ story, Scrooge is transformed. He learns through hauntings where his current perspective will lead. The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit to awaken his conscience. They show him the suffering he causes and the moral emptiness of his life.

I love the idea of learning through hauntings, but I think Dickens misdirected the story with his emphasis on awakening Scrooge’s conscience. Fat chance, in reality. And even if you could make the employers and government leaders feel something for others, all you would end up with is a free turkey and a pittance of a pay raise.

A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge’s big turn-around, where he surprises his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit with Christmas cheer and generosity. “A merry Christmas, Bob!… A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family.”

But the story could have gone differently. What if instead of Scrooge, the ghosts of past, present, and future haunted his exploited clerk Bob Cratchit and his family, to awaken their rebel souls? Dickens’ story ends with Scrooge “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” I’d rather see it end with Cratchit holding up his fist to exclaim, “No gods, no masters!”

The Power of Hauntings

I think that as activists we are indeed haunted by the past, which is with us at every moment, though we are not always aware of its influence. We are haunted by the present, which we often take for granted as the only way things could possibly be. And we are haunted by the future, by the implications of the present day that lurk just beyond the horizon of our vision.

The challenge is to learn deliberately from these hauntings, to make sense of them and raise them to a level of effective knowledge. Political organizing is not a question of experienced revolutionaries teaching the uneducated masses something new; it’s a matter of working with others to make sense of the hauntings of past, present and future.

As 2014 meets 2015, radicals are haunted by a past that includes remarkable mass movements, but we are also haunted by the shortcomings and omissions of these movements. Too often, radicals have based conceptions of solidarity on political projects grounded in whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, and settler colonialism.

Ghosts of the Radical Present

We are also haunted by the ghosts of the present. We tend not to fully make sense of the present. Instead, we live it as a series of immediate and undigested experiences. We need ways to learn deliberately from the present, just as we need to make sense of the past and the future. This past year has seen important developments in the struggle against sexual assault and violence against women, for Indigenous sovereignty, against racist police violence, and for a living minimum wage, to name a few struggles. We face the challenge of developing deeper activist learning through these movements. To rid ourselves of Scrooges and their police allies, we need to deepen our organizing, draw in new activists, and build alliances based on strategic orientations.

No More Scrooges

We are haunted by ghosts of the future, too. First, there is the future that results from continuity with the ways things are right now. In that future, we are haunted by ecological catastrophe, growing precariousness, deepening inequality, and crumbling democracy. This is a future of ever more Scrooges. A future where Stephen Harper’s “Bah! Humbug!” in response to demands for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is repeated again and again in response to our demands.

But there are also the ghosts of other possible futures if we can organize more effectively. This year we have seen activists face down Kinder Morgan and its proposed tarsands pipeline on Burnaby Mountain on the West Coast, for example. But this resistance, on its own, barely touches the power of mass insurgency and real democracy from below. The rule of the Scrooges will not end by appealing to the conscience of the masters but instead by overthrowing them.

At the very end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge has learned “how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” We who wish to rid the world of Scrooges should write another ending to this story. To do so, we must take possession of what haunts us, to create collective knowledge from our hauntings, and then act together on that basis.

Alan Sears is a writer and activist who teaches sociology at Ryerson. He is an editorial associate of New Socialist webzine and the co-author (with James Cairms) of The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century (University of Toronto Press). His new book is The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood Publishing).