February Blog

Making bread out of circuses : Some Lenten reflections on  Carnival capitalism and Socialist sacrifice in the Age of Austerity

I recently got an invitation to a party organised by Common Knowledge, a co-operative of left wing artists and designers who are involved in various kinds of community activity in East London. It was  billed as a Mardi Gras Masquerade and in case guests  weren’t up to coming in costume,  masks were available at the door.  Any excuse for a party, of course, especially in the depths of Winter, but the event was unusual because in Britain carnival normally  takes place in the Summer. The Notting Hill carnival – the largest afro-Caribbean festival outside Rio,   and the London Mela, the big annual celebration of the South Asian community  –   both take place in August; meanwhile in towns and villages up and down the country, a domesticated version of Carnival, with floats, processions, a Carnival Queen etc, continues over the Summer months  year after year,  part  throwback to the historical pageants of  our imperial past, part ritual celebration of official civic culture, with marching bands, scouts and guides, the Salvation army, and local businesses  putting on a show.

The  original rationale for Carnival, at least in Catholic countries, was that it offered a period of licensed excess before the ritual austerities of Lent. You let your hair down,  dressed up, got drunk, cocked a snook at authority   and generally indulged your fantasies about turning the world  upside down before  a period of  repentance, fasting and self denial, when you  renounced all forms of carnal pleasure ( not to mention revolution) in favour of spiritual discipline, and the contemplation of the sacrificial passion of Christ under the stern guidance of the Church.

In his famous painting ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’ (see illustration) Brueghel depicts the  tension between the two cultures of popular hedonism and religious asceticism. The scene is set in a town’s market square, with, on the left, an inn and a crowd of drunken revellers, while on the right there is a church  with Lady Lent in the foreground, dressed like a nun,  and looking on sternly  as her followers feed on bread and biscuits and other traditional Lenten fare. In  the middle, and as it were mediating between two is the figure of Carnival impersonated by a  large man riding a beer barrel, wearing a huge meat pie as a hat; he is wielding a long spit, complete with a pig’s head, as a weapon for the fight. The man behind the barrel is dressed in yellow, which symbolises deceit, and he is followed by a female figure who is carrying on her head a table with bread and waffles on it. In one hand she holds a tumbler and in the other a candle, again allegorical symbols for deceit. Brueghel produced this painting from a bird’s eye view, as if he didn’t want to take sides but he was in the habit of placing a symbolic detail in the middle of the picture,  to indicate his preferred point of purchase  on its.


In this case it is a married couple with their backs turned, guided by a fool with a burning torch. The man carries a strange bulge under his clothes, giving the impression of being a hunchback or else concealing a sack, which in mediaeval allegory represents the burden  of personal sin. The unlit lantern hanging by the woman’s  belt emphasises the fact that she   is guided by a fool, not by  the light of  faith or reason. The burning torch the latter carries is also symbolic of destruction  as is the  rotting pig.

There are many possible  interpretations of the painting – is it a comment on the hypocrisy of the church or the duplicity of the masses, who are only too willing to sell their  souls for the proverbial mess of pottage? Is Breughel portraying  the duality of human nature or  divisions in society ?

I think it is significant that the background is dominated by people working, primarily with food: women preparing Lenten fish, men carrying wine from the inn and a woman making waffles. At the very back of the picture, other festivities are going on with a bonfire, dancing figures and beggars.  There is a common plebian culture shown here which embraces both  Carnival and Lent. Indeed the  punctuating opposition between excess and austerity  could be read  as a representation  of the periodic oscillation  between  plenty and dearth  in the peasant economy,  the perennial fear of starvation and the Utopian longing for Cockayne, the promised land of milk and honey where:

There is many a pleasant sight, It’s always day, there is no night.

There are no quarrels and no strife, There is no death, but always life; Food and clothing are never short, You’ll never hear a sharp retort…

We are dealing with tensions  within what has been called a moral  economy, a set of normative attitudes and customary practices concerning the social relations and behaviours which in pre-capitalist societies  regulated the availability of food, the prices of subsistence commodities, the proper administration of taxation, and the operation of charity. In times and places where the church has played a role in these mundane matters, the notion of a ‘just price’ has often prevailed. This is sometimes referred to as a subsistence ethic: the idea that local social arrangements should be organised in such a way as to respect the needs of the poor.

There is, of course, a theological dimension to this. Let us remember  that according to at least some interpretations of the Sermon of the Mount, the kingdom of God was reserved for those who renounced their wealth and that vows of poverty have often been regarded as  essential  for anyone who wanted to follow  Jesus. Mendicants  were to be blessed because they offered the opportunity to  show charity. However the poor themselves  rarely regarded their condition as a blessing, even though they sometimes internalised the official ecclesiastical view that it was a mark of divine displeasure or a punishment for original sin.

In the transition to capitalism  this moral economy became subsumed under a market ideology. The alternation of  seasonal dearth and harvest plenty gave way to the more unpredicatable trade cycles of boom and bust.  The protestant work ethic rewarded deferred gratification and industrial production introduced  new bio-energetic norms  of efficiency based on economy of effort. Blake may have written that ‘the road of excess leads to the Palace of wisdom’ and the Romantics  did their best to practice what he preached, but moderation or modesty  in everything from  sex to politics was the gospel that  prevailed in large sections of Victorian class society. Those  who transgressed these norms, who were seen to delight  in extreme  passions or  ideas were  pushed  to the social margins along with the outcast and downtrodden, the wretched of the earth.

The early English socialists, deeply influenced by Methodism, revived moral economy and   their  image of the flat bloated capitalist oppressing emaciated workers struck a chord with the reforming middle classes. But with the advent of  mass consumer society,  and cheap credit, living on the ‘never never’ became a prescription for the ‘good life’ now seemingly within the reach of all. Hedonism not deferred gratification, shopping  not work discipline was now what kept the wheels of industry profitably turning.   Marx had described  the urban riots of the rural and urban poor   as the ‘carnivals of the oppressed’, but  the carnival of commodities   was more fun and didn’t result in damage to property. Capital could exploit popular festivity   more efficiently that the State could suppress it. The capitalist post war economic miracle did not turn water into wine, but the creative industries in alliance with the enterprise culture  did  make bread out of circuses. A popular culture of permanent celebration emerged in which  euphoria was institutionalised. Who needed Lent when you could have carnival 24/7? What I have elsewhere called ‘high culture’ – of which rave culture is the symptomatic expression- became the  sign of the times and with it came  the diseases of ‘affluenza’.   The  gym fit and toned  business executive with his expensive calorie  controlled diet of  organic food  now stood in contrast to  his obese janitor  stuffing his face with crisps and  coca cola.

Then, as the old testament prophets of   Marxism predicted, there came a Day of Reckoning, if not Final Judgement. With the collapse of the financial markets in 2006  followed by  the public bailing out of the banks and the credit crunch,  a new era of austerity was inaugurated. We were told we had to pay for the excesses of the  long boom years by tightening our belts. Penitent bankers confessed their sins and denied themselves a small percentage of their annual bonus.  The Tory party  quickly got into the sale of indulgences  to the wealthy  by creating  an expanded platform for private philanthropy to replace the public services they cut;in fact it has been  business  as usual in   David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, where the poor and unemployed  are encouraged to  become bootstrap capitalists  while the rich learn to practice mutual aid amongst themselves.

Socialists have never quite known what to make of either asceticism or excess, Lent or Carnival. Saint Simon in his Proposal to end the revolution (1817), advocated the establishment of Festivals of Hope – ceremonies celebrating the glory of investments, the power of industry and the joys of commerce, stimulating citizens to work with passion by making them feel how much better their lot would be after they have brought these projects to completion. These festivals were to be organised and scripted by what he called ‘positive intellectuals’, artists and thinkers inspired by his techno-meritocratic vision, whom he contrasted with the jurists and scholars who merely stood on the sidelines and carped. Hmm, sounds familiar.

The socialist work ethic was really  a collectivist version  of the protestant principle of salvation.  The  Stakhanovite who stored up  merit  in the Soviet fatherland  through meeting  his or her productivity targets for  the five year plan was following the same logic as the devout Christian who stored up merit in the next world by doing good works in this.  Socialism   gave a new ideological twist to the spirit of self-sacrifice, of surrendering or sublimating individual desires to the  collective good, often in the name of historical necessity. But its roots still lay in the  family, in  the parental  instinct to  ensure that  offspring  survive and flourish, even at the expense of their own well being.  It was a spirit that sustained working class struggles of long duration, in which defeats  were regarded as momentary  setbacks in the onward march of labour. In the 1980s that culture collapsed and  then after Thatcher  along came New Labour  and out went all the old  ideological baggage. If there was one thing that Blair, Prescott, Mandelson at al had in common, apart from being intensely relaxed about the process  of wealth creation , it was in recognising the vital necessity of throwing a good party,   as a way making the country an   attractive proposition for inward  investors.  The  Puritans retreated into left wing sectarianism while the  champagne socialists  and spin doctors took centre stage.

Where does this leave the Left today?  There are still  the miserabilists, who can only look forward to some catastrophic  crisis which will immiserate the  masses and lead them to overthrow the  system that exploits them. And there are   the easy riders  who think that  life is just a bowl of cherries  which anyone  in a meritocracy can grab if they have enough encouragement.  But  there have always been those who  recognise that a true appetite for life  can only be properly  cultivated and satisfied  in a society  where as far as is practicable no one has to bear more than their fair share of pain, and no-one is denied their fair share of pleasure and that social arrangements should be organised to that end.

Taken as an ethics of political commitment this requires a delicate balancing act between self expression  and self sacrifice.  At the time of the last great  strike  against pit closures in 1984 I asked a young miner who was playing an active part in the campaign what socialism meant to him. He thought for a long time before replying.’ I think it might mean giving up my Hi Fi system’.  Since he was a DJ in his spare time and this equipment was his pride and joy I was puzzled as to why he should think that the struggle for a better world should mean giving up something that was such an important part of his life outside work. But that was precisely the point I had missed. He explained :‘Its like this, when I go out DJ’ing or if I’m just  listening to my music   at home, part of me knows that its just a way of blocking   out a whole lot of stuff  that makes  me angry or sad about what’s happening  down the pit and to my community; some of  the music, like the blues, might express  what I’m feeling  but it can’t do anything to change things. But if there was real socialism  it would mean that music wouldn’t need to make up for  all the shit in the world,  we’d be dealing with it directly, and I wouldn’t need an expensive amplifier  to make me feel I was somebody special or it was worth getting up in the morning ‘.

This young miner refused the  kind of trade offs that most of us make most of the time between   moral and market economics. Why should the well off  vote for socialism if it means giving up their advantages  for a more modest existence? Clearly only if  they feel their privilege has become an intolerable burden And why shouldn’t the poor vote for capitalism if it promises  them a more comfortable existence?  Only if it means abandoning or losing forms of social life  they have come to value more highly than  material prosperity.  There are indeed circumstances in which  such exceptional conditions may obtain but they do not obtain today.

There are more extreme  trade offs in which self sacrifice  becomes itself a medium of excess. The  use of  the hunger strike whether by the  Suffragettes, Ghandi or the  IRA dirty blanket campaign   transformed  fasting  into an effective  weapon of political protest, and  in some cases created a secular martyrology  to rival  that of religions.   In general, serious  fasting, like Ramadan and Yom Kippur,  either preceded or followed by serious feasting is best left to  faith communities who have developed special ritual techniques for managing  these things.  Meanwhile, for the non- religious ,  fasting or dieting is less a form of spiritual purification,  more  a way of ridding the body of its overdose of  toxic chemicals used in modern food  production.

So  what  am I giving up for Lent, if it is not carnival or socialism? Its easy enough to give up small indulgences you enjoy, but clearly don’t  do you any good: eating  Belgian chocolates, watching East Enders, or reading gossip columns, for instance. I have already given up my TV and Hi Fi but only because I can watch and listen to stuff on my computer, if I want to. I don’t have a car because I never passed the driving test, so I  use public transport,  take the occasional taxi ,  walk or cycle.  Now that’s something I could give up –  taking taxi’s. Its expensive and  not environmentally friendly. My partner is keen to reduce the amount of traffic generated by people  taking their cars when they go quarter of a mile up the road to the local shops, instead of walking. The only problem is our local taxi driver,Bob, is a retired fisherman, and has a  fund of stories about the old days when Wivenhoe was an industrial village. He also   keeps me tuned into the local gossip channels. I’d miss his yarns….