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In the first of two extracts from Ignoble Displacement, Stephanie Polsky outlines the connections between Dickens’ writing and imperialist political economy

Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times’

Extract from Stephanie Polsky, Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times’ (Zero Books 2015) 321pp

Great Expectationsis based on the misapprehension of debts owed to others. Pip’s fate appears to coincide with the sudden appearance of a ‘foreign guest’, who will soon emerge from the depths as a domestic product: a prisoner marked for transport to the colonies. Derrida notes that ‘Britain’s “great unifying projects”, all come down to the apprehension of this shadowy figure, a figure who unites the centre with the periphery of the Enlightenment project, and links the concentration of wealth with the concentration of individuality’ (Spectres of Marx 4). Equally this shadowy figure belies the fact that our freedom spring forth from others’ confinement. As Britons we all emerge as ‘ghosts chained to ghosts’, racked with the guilt of our collectivity, mounting up, over the course of history, as unpaid existential debt to the others who made our lines credit worthy (4–5). Dickens recognises this ‘ghost’ as ‘the violence of domination, an oppression of the weak by the strong, in the name of any form of hierarchical superiority’, including but not limited to cheap labour, indentured servitude, or slavery, which in quick succession could be made to translate into ‘the abstract value of money or capital’ under the terms of that very same unifying project (Klaver 104). Indeed, the political economy of British imperialism boils down to ‘the totalizing system of monetary value’ (107). The reality of this fact is small comfort to anyone who, thanks to the cold gales of global capital, finds themselves poor or disenfranchised. Those who were the labouring classes, i.e. the vast majority of Britons, ‘were evaluated by society according to their body’s capacity for work, giving sexual pleasure, or for taking punishment. All three activities, were tightly controlled by rigid institutions and their representatives – factory owners, the police, the lawyers, prison guards, and landlords, who had license to detain, injure, trade or sell any person, anybody lacking the means to defend themselves’ (Logan 4).

The attempt to distance these activities from one another is founded with the concept of transportation, where literally masses of people for whom Britain had no further need (due to the rise of industrialisation) could be sent out of view to work jobs no free settler would do. It was perhaps too easy for the Peel government to criminalise this segment of the British population. The workers could not overcome the challenges of mass unemployment, a saturated labour market, falling wages and rising prices created in the wake of mass industrialisation. When conditions of desperation naturally set in, the government in turn endeavoured to apprehend and punish them severely when they resorted to thievery to maintain their survival. The trick of it was to institute poverty through the rapid expansion of capitalism and then to appear to resolve its appearance by shipping an entire class of people elsewhere as criminal charges, this as the new cost of doing government business.

What subtends both the wealth and civilisation of Britain is a matter of far greater moral ambiguity than many Britons were prepared to fully realise as the eighteenth century drew to its close. If colonial exile was something imagined as a solution for the country to do away with unwanted classes, few appreciated the true conditions of these exiles as on par with the brutal conditions of slavery. What makes the picture all the more puzzling is that critics of transportation, condemned it for its financial ‘extravagance’, and argued that ‘for less cost per man and woman the convicts could be clothed in velvet and fed on beef and claret in London’s strand’. Nonetheless ‘the Prime Minister, William Pitt, assured the house of commons in 1791 that “no cheaper mode of disposing of convicts could be found”’ (Judd 29). It stands to reason, then, that the costs were offset by some other means. Unremunerated labour could be garnered from these convicts to develop Britain’s new colonial holding at Botany Bay at virtually no cost to the state during the typical seven years of their sentencing. Essentially what Britain was doing was making a slave class from their convict class, which in every way mirrored the African and Caribbean slave trade that had made their former American colonies so prosperous. In Australia they were merely duplicating the methods of slavery to produce a novel unwaged labour population elsewhere capable of repeating such financial gains.

The eight-month voyage to Australia was in some cases literally a terminal one for the human cargo on-board who bleakly accepted that their exile there was to be a permanent one. In the event of their survival, and disembarkation, they faced a future that held ‘nothing but hard labour and vile rations’ where ‘the cat of nine tails, the chain gang and the unrestrained sexual demands of their overseers, and their stronger, more dominating fellow prisoners’, made any distinction from their counterparts in the new world colonies virtually meaningless (Judd 29–30). This was taking place at the same time as a settler community was forming; the Australian colonies began to receive hundreds of thousands of free immigrants from Europe, hoping to stake their fortunes through gold or wool. It was through this dual economy of population that a system of social apartheid was established, not between blacks and whites as had been the case with other colonised societies, but between free whites and convict whites, creating an intra-racially divided territory, wherein even those who eventually gained their freedom through a combination of hard work and good behaviour could not overcome the stigma of their former status. Financial standing played no part in this economy of exclusion. It was this damning economy that begot another one, in the form of genocidal hatred directed toward Australia’s Aboriginal tribes. As Judd writes, ‘the vehemence with which they were condemned and ridiculed probably owed a great deal to the need of the transportees to find human beings worse off and lowlier than themselves’ (31). This hierarchy held great resonance with the biologism at home that justified such class brutality across a wide spectrum of society. 

During this same era, back home in Britain the poor were established as an enemy cohort in the minds of a nascent bourgeoisie. In their moral indignation they would care little for the fate of such deviant individuals, and were only too happy for the issue of conspicuous poverty to be forcibly shipped abroad and out of societal view. The denigration of these individuals effectively stripped them of their rights to maintain their place in British society. It also removed their identity as British subjects because they were legally barred from returning to the shores of their birth, or having communication with their loved ones, who would continue to reside there. As the privileges of national belonging were torn away from their bodies, their remaining purpose shifted to one task alone: to provide ‘slave labor for colonial development … undergoing such mutations towards respectability as whips and chains might induce’ (Lesjak 99). What mattered most was that such events were happening far away and out of sight, with few Britons realising what bargains had been struck between the colonial seizure of foreign territory and the slave labour coerced from any number of dominated peoples (including these former Britons themselves) to create and maintain Britain’s illustrious empire.

The making of a gentleman relies on a disavowal of such exploitation, and at the same time remains hopelessly tethered to it, by capitalistic design. There is no place elsewhere for that situation to reside and yet those who aspire to become gentlemen remain wilfully blind to its inherent destructive qualities. This was the case for both Pip and Herbert Pocket, who literally end up buying into this economy of wealth and success, only to find themselves becoming the commercial servants of empire, rather than its masters. In the end they become capitalism’s imperial distributors, engaging not coincidentally in a trading company that specialises in the insurance of ships and their cargo, including those vessels that transport slaves and convicts, as well as free settlers and the goods consumed and manufactured by such labourers.

This course of events is determined thematically, when Pip is given the opportunity to re-encounter Herbert as a result of ‘coming into his good fortune’ (Dickens, Great Expectations 167; ch. 22). This development, in turn, furnishes a financially strapped Herbert with a position as Pip’s class mentor. Once the two are re-established on felicitous ground, Pip plucks up the courage to ask what exactly Herbert ‘was’ (174). That the question is framed ontologically rather than empirically, in terms of qualifying a professional attribute, says a great deal about how identities are formulated in this nascent era of capitalism. Herbert replied, ‘A capitalist – an Insurer of Ships’ (174). Pip initially misinterprets Herbert’s occupation as domestic in nature, where again Pip is at a loss to classify his position, in a manner that prompts Herbert to correct him: ‘I suppose he saw me glancing about the room in search of some tokens of Shipping, or capital, for he added, “In the City”’ (174).

Despite Herbert’s spatial qualifier, Pip remains fixed to a notion of being rather than doing, and reasserts a biological value to these proceedings. This scenario leads to Pip’s silent admission that ‘I had grand ideas of the wealth and importance of Insurers of Ships in the City, and I began to think with awe, of having laid a young Insurer on his back, blackened his enterprising eye, and cut his responsible head open’ (Dickens, Great Expectations 174; ch. 22). The sequence of allusion follows on from Pip’s pattern of thought to include profit, notoriety, domination, violent competition and cannibalism. These terms point the way towards a darker underside that subtends capitalist grandeur. Investigation of this aspect of capital enthrals a naïve Pip, enticing him to imagine his own position within the larger world of commercial enterprise that resides far beyond their immediate domestic surroundings.


Ignoble Displacement: Dispossessed Capital in Neo-Dickensian Times will be published by Zero Books in September, and this extract is taken from the chapter, ‘Cosmopolitan Fortunes: Imperial Labour and Metropolitan Wealth in Dickens’s Great Expectationswhich is available to read here.