The Rise of Neo-Victorianism
I’m sure I wrote a post about the rise of Neo-Victorianism sometime about 2 years ago, concerned with the anti-social behaviour rhetoric that was prevalent in the media at the time. I can’t find it. Either way, during my time at home this Christmas, we watched the recentish BBC serialisation of Dickens’ Bleak House as a family. Somehow this government is managing to make Dickens’ work even more depressing to watch…
A search for Neo-Victorianism on Google brings up mostly subculture stuff; genres like Steam Punk, images of clothing designed to develop Victorian themes. “From a non-Political view it means stuff like steampunk, fashion, art and literature inspired by Victorian era by subverted/modernised through a contemporary perspective” as a friend kindly put it. Alongside the vast stream of television programs dedicated to the subject of the historical Victorians themselves lately, we’re on a pretty hard diet of the stuff, and “all expound a lot of the positives while glossing over the true scale and depth of the negatives. Therefore, when politicians refer back to that period it is in a context of favourable media presentation of the time.” Jeremy Clarkson’s name comes up twice in the list passed to me, first for ‘Jeremy Paxman’s Victorians’ and second for his continual raving about the era.
Two of the commenters on the facebook status I put out today said more or less the same thing: “The concept of undeserving and deserving poor is, I think, Victorian in origin and seems to be behind a lot of the Tory thinking on benefits.” “but also the idea that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough. It was bollocks then and it’s bollocks now.” – pretty much what I thought we might be talking about.
Considering Dickens, I wasn’t really thinking of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the time, but beneath “the blatant feel good message of an elderly miser seeing the error of his ways” one finds “an ideology whereby the poor depend upon the generosity of the rich in order to overcome their poverty” . “Some people are meant to be rich, some people are meant to live in poverty, and this is just the way things have to be, yet there’s an obligation on the former to help the latter. It’s a touch nicer than some of the more viciously anti-working class attitudes one comes across – both in the Victorian era and our own – but it retains the idea that privilege and the class structure are normal, acceptable and inevitable things that we need to just accept. Asking that the rich be a bit nicer to the poor, while admirable, does still take it as a given that there have to be rich folks and poor folks in the first place. If you want to talk about Neo-Victorian attitudes, I’d argue that this is just as much a part of the Victorian era as anything else – if anything, the use of philanthropy could be argued to normalise class hierarchy in a way that blunt elitism couldn’t.” 
In other books, various characters talk about upholding family honour, or bettering themselves, whilst either pitying or outright reviling those with less than themselves. The only collective attempt to rise out of poverty is the self-made family man – patriarchy exemplified. Several of Dickens’ more villainous characters are essentially employed by the rich to manipulate the poor.
An article I was passed compares Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to the Workhouse Trustees in Oliver Twist, and tales of his particularly take on Christianity seem rather worrying. Indeed, the Big Society has much going for it in terms of recreating Victorian Britain – the poor, if they deserve it, can rely on those around them and on patronage from the rich for which they must be entirely grateful.
The similarities probably come to a head around the issue of benefits. Loathing of benefits recipients is at an all-time high and we increasingly hear about people who don’t deserve their benefits, as if somehow the individual must be deserving. The poor souls stuck in wheelchairs should have no voice of their own, clearly. They should either be more grateful or get a job. Their parents should care for them, as its their fault in the first place (a view not often spoken, but certainly heard loud and clear by some)..
But its the structural inevitability that I think is most obvious. The Coalition’s education policy is couched entirely in terms of increasing mobility – people’s ability to move relative to others – and not in terms of development of a community. We give people the individual opportunity to get out of their housing estate. Bright students will be given bursaries – a success story is someone who goes from rags to riches and sets an example for other to follow, rather than stays at home and does everything they can to move their community forwards. The drive towards competition as if it were the be-all and end-all of human existence (a very masculine understanding, if I might add) is also very concerning as the competition is naturally rigged according to the status and ‘success’ of one’s parents. I could spend all day pulling this apart, and indeed others have written whole books on the matter.
Whilst its been a very shallow survey of the evidence, there are key aspects of Victorianism coming through in the politics of this government, reworked (hence Neo) to take account of present situations. Tied to attempts to moderate behaviour and reinforce moralism, its all getting eerily familiar. Indeed, the conditions we find Britain in after 5 years of this government could well give rise to a similar project to the Work Houses of old. After all, where else will the poor go if they can’t fend for themselves?
With major thanks to  Nick,  Alastair,  Owen,  Adam,  Jonny and everyone else I’ve been trying to have a discussion about these themes with. It seemed better to plagiarise with credit than to rewrite everything.