Harold Skimpole is one of the most brilliantly drawn of all the Dickensian villains. Unlike Josiah Tulkinghorn, who also features in Bleak House, he is not nakedly evil. Indeed, as Paul Mankowski explains in an essay for First Things, Skimpole appears to be the gentlest of souls:
“…a prototype of the consummate pluralist, the besotted lover of all creation, the friend of peace, the man who can tolerate anything but intolerance: with malice toward none, with kindness and caring toward all.”
Appearances, though, are deceptive:
“Harold Skimpole never quite manages to lose his charm, and yet readers of Bleak House become increasingly appalled by him. He affects unselfishness, but is in reality fanatically, even maniacally, self-centred – existing in the soap bubble of an almost perfect solipsism. He insists in his sunny prattle that he is ‘a mere child,’ while he is fact a grotesque parasite: a colossal tick, a leech, a tapeworm with a taste for Mozart, who, it turns out, is childlike in his pursuit of pleasure, but shrewd and willful in his studied neglect of responsibility.”
What makes Skimpole’s sponging worse is that he does not understand, and is not interested in, the labours of those who support him:
“The problem with Skimpolism is that it ignores, and refuses to acknowledge, the sources and causes of its own good fortune: the enormous human enterprise of toil, commerce, and distribution, the attendant fatigue, risk, worry, and vexation, the requisite virtues of foresight, prudence, honesty, and diligence—all of which are necessary for something as ordinary as a peach or a glove to end up in Skimpole’s dining room.”
Far from expressing gratitude for what others do for him, he sees himself as the nobler half of the equation:
“His sensibilities are exquisitely tender, and yet he has a talent for causing pain, for making his benefactors feel slightly soiled by their own honest labor.”
For Mankowski, Harold Skimpole symbolises all that is wrong with theological liberalism within the Church. How easy it is to elevate the soft and cuddly aspects of a religious tradition while disdaining the discipline and sacrifice required to keep it alive and intact down through the centuries.
Skimpolism is also rampant within the political world. Harold Skimpole’s habit of getting others to pay his debts has some obvious contemporary parallels, but it goes a lot further than that.
One of the reasons why social democracy is in decline is the suspicion that the centre-left doesn’t understand or care about what others must do to put revenue on the government’s table. All too often the sole emphasis is on the needs and nobility of the recipient, not the benefactor.
This is not how things used to be. When Marxism (either full-strength or watered-down) was the primary influence on the left, there was a great deal of interest in the origins of wealth. Obviously, Marxists offered a radically different interpretation to that advanced by capitalist thinkers, but the two sides at least shared a concern for the people they respectively identified as the true wealth creators.
The growth of the welfare state, however, provided a new context for leftwing thought. Transfers of wealth were no longer limited to contractual relationships between workers and bosses, or to the covenantal relationships of family and community. Direct and indirect forms of state redistribution created a third category of transfer, governed neither by contract, nor family, nor voluntary association. Thus was formed a sphere in which political Skimpolism has flourished and in which questions about the origins of wealth are easy to ignore.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to the public sector or to the left; corporate welfare has grown alongside the conventional kind, leading to the rise of crony capitalism.
As well as reforming the benefits system, conservatives must take on the pinstriped Skimpoles of big business and starve them of other people’s money.