What Christmas means for capitalism
It is that time of the year again, writes Simon Hardy. But what is the real meaning of Christmas under a capitalist system?
Every year Christmas seems to start earlier. No sooner are the Halloween costumes taken down from the displays than the fake plastic trees, chocolate calendars and snow-in-a-can decorations come out. Whilst Christmas is meant to be a ‘magical time’ it can often be incredibly stressful for many, and often sees family bust ups and rows as everyone is forced together to have a good time.
The time of year is a particular pressure on women. The adverts on television for women to go shopping, to be the ones who make sure that ‘Christmas happens’ are an ideological bombardment which is designed to reinforce deeply entrenched attitudes about the role of women – just take the Boots advert (“here come the girls”) . It is because the Christmas season revolves around family, hospitality and cooking which are of course primarily associated with women.
The annual ritual of Christmas is an important one for capitalism – it is usually a highly profitable time for retail. People spend a lot at Christmas, usually much more than they can afford, not just on presents but on food and alcohol as well as on transport to and from family homes.
People are critical of how commercialised Christmas is. Having started life as the personification of the ‘Christmas spirit’ in the 16th century, Father Christmas subsequently merged with another folktale – St Nicholas, a Greek Bishop who was reputedly sent Nuns out to give gifts to the poor and provided sailors with cheap presents for their families.
Today Father Christmas is the greatest mascot the toy industry could have – a ritual of consumerism dressed up in feel-good sentimentality, deeply embedded in the cultural traditions of billions of people. We should also ponder why, despite Father Christmas only giving out presents to the good children, that it seems the richer ones always get the better presents.
Spend, spend, spend!
Many people on the left are critical of what they see as a consumerist culture which has left us apathetic and uncritical. Indeed, the idea that we have been co-opted into the capitalist system through the mass media or “mindless consumerism” is a popular one. The idea started with people like Daniel Bell and Theodor Adorno in the 1950s and 60s who argued that economic growth was creating a ‘post-political’ society where class contradictions and struggles were diminishing. It was a period of unprecedented economic growth, and the start of the idea that each generation would be better off than the last.
But all of the consumerist culture that we live in today is very much a product of the rising wages after the war and cheap consumer credit which the bosses used under globalisation to give their system a massive boost. Falling prices, and cheap credit encouraged consumer spending, allowing millions to ‘buy into’ the system, and feel that they had a stake in capitalism.
Today wages are falling and credit is an albatross around our necks – many of us won’t be able to have the standard of living that our parents had, or even our grandparents. In that sense even if it is true that people became less active in socialist politics this is not a result of consumerism. People are not less politically active because they have consumed more; they are less politically active because they feel their lives have improved somehow under the current system – why overthrow it? The increased consumption is a by-product of that, not the cause of it.
It was the German Marxist Walter Benjamin who examined the role of ‘consumerism’ in how the ruling elites try to shape and mould our outlook on life. But being awash with consumer commodities also creates a problem for ruling ideology, because it promises us a fulfilment that we can rarely achieve. We can never get all the things we are told we should want – that was the ‘un-political’ aspect of the summer riots, the desire to have the trainers and plasma screen TVs in the face of wage cuts, job losses and austerity.
This disappointment, the gap between what is promised and what is possible for most people opens up a space, one that can become radicalised if it is linked to an anti-capitalist critique – rather than just a feeling of apathy towards political action.
Christmas after capitalism
If you cut through the consumerist alienation and phony good will around Christmas time, there is a real sense of living in a world where the usual traumas of work and social alienation are gone – where we feel goodwill and a merry time together. It is not just the Christian message which lies, increasingly obscured, behind the Disneyfied season which we experience that provides the sense of compassion. We lavish each other with presents and gifts. Everyone has thought ‘why can’t everyday be Christmas?’ at some point in their lives – and why shouldn’t it be?
The idea of goodwill on earth and peace to everyone, those feel-good movies that they show on TV, the classic Dickens Christmas Tale of Scrooge and his journey from horrible, gnarled old capitalist to a lovable philanthropic gent, are all part of an ideological message about human community, forgiveness and tolerance. Normally someone might shout at that guy for cutting in front of them in traffic or ignore homeless people – but in December… well everything is just different. Maybe your boss even lets you finish work a few hours early so you can spend more time with your family. It tacitly acknowledges that the rest of the year we are miserable, alienated and angry with each other – victims of an increasingly stressful work life which grinds us down. People have to ask themselves, why should we be nice to each other only at Christmas?
Christmas is a time of mixed emotions – it can be exhilarating and frustrating, a high point of the year and a low point. As part of the struggle for human emancipation we have to be critical of the way these holidays are manipulated by capitalists for their own benefit and reinforce a particular way of life.
There is no crystal ball which we can gaze into to get a picture of life after capitalism. But a society which replaces capitalism would necessarily be one founded on removing the exploitatative basis of capitalism. Ending private ownership and removing the profit logic would reverse the trend towards poverty in the home and alienation in the workplace. It would be a society geared towards organising the productive efforts of humanity to solve our crises of housing, education and oppression, rather than generating massive wealth for a few individuals. It would be a world driven by solidarity, empathy and collective action rather than selfishness, individualism and greed. Better than all the Christmases put together!