DECEMBER BLOG

Santa with Claws , or Socialism is not just for Christmas  : some seasonal reflections on the im/moral economy

The dominant image of Christmas, the one that mesmerises and haunts so many people, is of a family reunited  around the tree  joyfully exchanging  presents. One, perhaps unintended, result is that   those   for whom the family has become a locus of loss or lack,   find the knife  being  twisted in the wound ; we are  offered   a major walk-on part in the Christmas story as the object of  public compassion by the very narrative  that is compounding  our misery.

Selling Christmas, whether as consumerfest  or   religious mega-event   depends on the  complicated web of associations   which  this image evokes.  It pulls powerfully upon  childhood memories of Christmas and a more or less sentimentalised version of   family life in which doting parents are rewarded by the respect and admiration of their offspring.  In fact, as we know,  the   excessive gift giving  in which many parents indulge at Christmas  is a recipe for spoiled brats  who only know   cupboard love.

This Christmastide family romance speaks to a deep longing for  bonds of intimacy, of caring and sharing, that can exist between  kith and kindred  and which are only with great difficulty extended  into the wider society.  This is where the residual Christian message kicks in  to remind us that we are our brothers’ – and sisters’- keepers,  that sacrificial giving or charity  is the true path to salvation and we have a special duty of care to the poor, the outcast  and  the oppressed in  body and spirit.

If Christmas in Western capitalist countries is above all a carnival of commodities, it is  still accompanied  by  unprecedented   acts of generosity.   In fact the market and moral economies, which   at other times co-exist in  varying degrees of tension, are  here seamlessly woven together.   In this special cycle of prestation, the gift- as- commodity  continually reverses into  the commodity- as- gift.    Christmas is a wonderful morality dissolver. It offers charity as an entree to guilt-free excess. If charity didn’t exist we would have to invent it. I well remember  my parents going out in their Rolls Royce on December 25  scouring the streets for down and outs to whom they could give a Christmas box.  In this way the ‘vices’ of sloth and satiety are converted into the virtues of  altruism.

Christmas is a time of licensed excess. It’s roots lie in the seasonal rhythms of  pre-capitalist production and the  desire of peasants  to transform  winter  from  its association with  barrenness and dearth  into a  time  of  fecundity  and plenitude. The  Christmas story about  poor parents  who  cannot afford the price of a room at the Inn and  their  new born child who will bring   about a changed world   in which the last shall be first and the first last,  answered   admirably to  this script.  No wonder   so much traditional Christmas  card imagery still hearkens back to some imaginary quasi-mediaeval Merry England,  where fattened geese are being  roasted over open fires and it is always snowing on thatched cottages.

Economic times change, but the invented traditions of Christmas  evolve much more slowly.  I grew up in a  period when austerity was linked to  post war reconstruction  and  building socialism , not to bailing out a  bankrupt financial system.  We reacted against the Puritanism of our parent’s generation, we countered their  inherited sense of thrift  with a new found profligacy.  Our Blakean slogan was ‘ The road of excess leads to the Palace of wisdom’ , and we  threw ourselves enthusiastically  into a drugs, sex, and rocknroll life style.   It has been argued, with some  cause,  that the hedonistic pleasure principles of  1960’s counter culture pioneered a new wave of  ‘hip’ consumer capitalism, especially through youth culture.  As a result we are today living in a society whose economic wellbeing depends on stimulating excessive consumption; indeed there is a whole industry dedicated to promoting  commodity addiction in the form of ‘brand loyalty’.  At the  same time those who, like  our late adopted son, Stephen,  fall victim to excess, find themselves stigmatised  because they represent the unacceptable face of consumerism – they all too visibly and  symptomatically represent  the ill- being which is its consequence.

There is another dimension to the Christmas story which gives it  a   deeper political and  existential significance, in  connecting the birth of the subject to that of the nation.  The  myth of virgin birth    resonates  with an entirely secular   notion  of autochthony ,  of nations  being created   out of nothing by some providential act. ; but, at a deeper, more unco9nscious level  it  speaks to  the  baby’s  phantasy   that s/he is the sole object of the mother’s affection  and  that  it is possible to sustain a  symbiotic relation to her body  as a model of self sufficiency.   Families, or rather ‘family values’ are  thus a crucial   link   between the   autonomous self- authored  individual   promoted by  neo-liberalism and  the collective dream of ‘one nation united  under God’.Or just possibly the Labour Party!

The late entry of ‘Father Christmas’ onto the  scene  was essential  for the commodification  process  and  indeed is a  compelling metaphor for its magical post Fordist productivity.  What would Xmas be without ELF , the enthusiastic labour force who toils away  in his (now rapidly melting)  icebound  kingdom at the North Pole to produce  on-demand toys just in time for Xmas. What would Xmas be without  ELF )  Elf His presence in the Christmas story   disrupts  its maternal closures, of course,  but as a  patriarchal figure  benignly dispensing  largesse,  he also shores up family  values. Gifts  are transformed into rewards for good  behaviour and the potentially seductive  sugar daddy  becomes  a pillar of social rectitude. Once again the moral and market economies  effortlessly inter-twine.

These  somewhat unseasonal  thoughts were precipitated   by a recent visit to Harrods, that mecca of   the worshippers  of Mammon.  I had not been there for nearly  fifty years and  much had changed.  I  looked in vain for the animal menagerie, where , once upon a time, it was possible to buy snakes, brilliantly coloured cockatoos, and  monkeys  doing rude things to each other.  Instead there was a department specialising in pet toys where you could buy your dog a bone made of   venison marrow (£50) and your canary a  special cocktail of birdseed  that would make it sing its head off (£30).  The atmosphere was decidedly festive, the galleries were thronged, the  shop assistants, dressed immaculately in black suits( both sexes)  stood poised by the counters  as   the crowds surged past.  I was expecting to see the  a posh clientele  draped in the latest fashions. Instead it was full  of working class    families who had come ‘up west’  with the their children for a  treat   to see the  Christmas lights   and indulge themselves vicariously in the spectacle of luxury they could not afford .  When the going gets tough the tough go window shopping.  I was looking for a pullover, but  the cheapest I could find was £350. I settled for some liver pate from the food hall, (price £5.00) instead.

The experience  reminded me of  a little  Situationist ‘provocation’ in which  I had been involved many years ago in another great department store.  It  took place in Selfridges one  wintry December day in 1966 and featured a Red Santa, plus assorted comrades and friends, who turned up in a posse at the toy department  and proceeded to hand out ‘free gifts’ from the counters to passing children – much to the kids’ delight and their parents’ bemusement. The customers probably thought it was some kind of weird promotional stunt until they read our leaflet denouncing Xmas as a ‘capitalist con’ and the store detectives arrived in force to escort Santa off the premises. He did not go quietly and the children watched open-mouthed as he was carried, effing and blinding, down the stairs. “What are they doing to Santa?” one little boy asked his mum, clutching the fire engine he had been given. “Never you mind, dear,” she replied, hurriedly stuffing the toy into her bag, “he’s probably forgotten to feed the reindeer. Just be thankful for the nice present.” We may not have undermined anybody’s faith in consumer capitalism that day, but we sure did shake some kids faith in  Santa Claus.

In fact department stores were one of the delights of my childhood. They opened up visions of other possible worlds  than the  culturally  narrow universe  my parents inhabited.   They  displayed  exotic goods from all over the globe – Chinese lanterns,  garishly coloured  textiles  from Africa, the pungent smells of foreign cooking… My favourite haunt was Gamages , which was more like an oriental bazaar than a department store. It specialised in what were then called novelties and fancy goods; you could roam around this vast, ramshackle emporium and find the most extraordinary things. Plastic flowers that glowed in the dark, coronation potties with a picture of the Queen in full regalia inside the bowl, awaiting your pleasure, and a cake stand on wheels, that played selections from Gilbert and Sullivan when you pushed it along – these were just some of the items I remember. But for children, Gamages meant only one – or rather two things: Christmas and toys. It had the best grotto in town and the best selection of decorations, party games, indoor fireworks, and other festive delights. It was quite simply – and to coin the title of a recent popular TV soap opera about just such an enterprise – Paradise.

Christmas tends to bring out the residual Puritanism amongst us lefty intellectuals. We mutter darkly about ‘the alienation of the masses’  and  ‘creeping affluenza’  , or, if religiously inclined   about ‘selling one’s birthright for a mess of potage’ , in the fine biblical phrase. We want to end inequalities  in the quality of life, but we tend to look   askance at the ways in which ‘the masses’ actually have fun, unless we go to the other extreme and uncritically celebrate even the most mind numbing aspects of popular culture.

Materialism wears two faces.  There is  the hysterical materialism  of consumer capitalism – where people shop till they drop and find in material possessions a  substitute gratification  for lives that are  unsatisfied by their conditions of work and everyday  circumstance. We might call this a transcendental materialism in so far as it  promises   to enable people to  magically escape their material conditions of existence – while continuing to be defined by them. Material goods  are valued  not for what you can do with them , or even  how much they cost, but  because of the social status or symbolic advantage  that accrues from having them.

Against  all this, the Left  mobilises  what might be called   dialectical mysterialism.  Through the strenuous application of dialectical reasoning  the aim is to demystify- or as we would say now  ‘deconstruct’ –  the false consciousness  generated by commodity fetishism. Dialectical thinking ,  that special dance of the mind which is supposed to simultaneously  grasp and go beyond the bitter binaries of social contradiction, is invested with magical healing powers:  the capacity to reconcile opposites by transcending them in a higher order of comprehension.  It is a form of rationalism    that fails to grasp  just how carnal  are the desires  which  capitalism fuels and feeds off.

The oscillation between self indulgence and asceticism, Christmas blow out and New Year ‘Good Resolutions’ is  intrinsic to the way   cultures  become embodied.  But this  takes on a particularly acute aspect  under advanced  capitalism, where  the permanent revolution  of everyday life takes the  form of  eternalising the transient   under the sign  of ‘modernity’  and   where  ‘the new’ always has to be more than the old.  Within this frame the  work ethic  with its  self- sacrificing ‘no gain without pain’ philosophy  takes on  as great a libidinal charge as the instant gratification promised by  consumer culture.

Just how difficult it is to shift this bi-polar structure of feeling , or at least disembed it from the integrated circuits of  social production and consumption  becomes clear when we try to imagine a society organised along different lines.  It is entirely possible  to devise a socio-economic system – let’s  provisionally  call it  libertarian socialism-  that  minimises the rewards  of greed, envy , meanness, cruelty  and competitiveness  and maximises  the benefits of co-operation and  generosity    etc.  But  this is to introduce an element of calculation and self interest, ie. market values,   into  the moral economy    in a way which potentially undermines its practices of mutualism. Indeed co-operative  behaviour  may be  encouraged within the capitalist enterprise   precisely  because it  increases  productivity  and  flattens  the hierarchies that otherwise create divisions within the workforce – and hence improves competitive advantage and profitability.   That is indeed the thrust  of post Fordist management strategy.    Instead  we need to give more thought  to identifying  those aspects of everyday systems of  mutual aid – to which Christmas gives a temporary gloss   –  that   can be developed into  sustainable frameworks of  reciprocity  embedded in the main institutions of civil society.  Co-operation in social production has to be based on co-ownership and democratic workplace control. Socialism is not just for Christmas.