The War on Christmas

There is a war being waged against Christmas, but it’s not by those who prefer “Happy Holidays” and don’t like nativity scenes on government property.   The war on Christmas is being waged by capitalism, a force that at this point seems to have defeated Christmas, marginalized both the religious and philosophical ideals of the season, and has turned time with family and friends into pressured frenzied buying in the shopping malls.

Karl Polyani, who perhaps more brilliantly than any other economist or philosopher realized the true impact of capitalism on social life, recognized that unregulated markets would damage community and environment.   In capitalism, everything becomes a commodity.  People are “human resources,” nature is valuable only in terms of what it can produce or earn on the market, and unregulated, capitalism can consume societies whole.   Capitalism is soulless, and seeks to view all of reality as products to consume or sell.

Capitalism, to be sure, is different than markets.   Markets have been around for all of recorded history.   Markets do not represent the dark side of capitalism.  Markets regulated either by laws or the force of social norms and traditions serve the community.    Many who claim to be capitalists and defend capitalism as a system are really only defending markets.   Markets allow people to better exchange products, to produce what is wanted, and earn wealth for innovation and effort.   Markets help free communities from shortages and suffering, organizing productive life in a manner that allows for adaption to change with the dissemination of diffuse information.  So alluring are the virtues of the market that many leap to a conclusion that markets mean capitalism, and that the best markets are wholly unregulated.

Capitalism, however, is a system whereby the logic of the market becomes the religion of a society.   The market is not a tool to help buy and sell, it defines the very nature of human existence.    Everything is a commodity, the worth of anything is determined by its market value.   Why does an inner city teacher who tries to educate children and save the lives of students who are being tempted by gangs and drugs get paid little while a back up professional athlete gets millions?   The market says that’s the way it should be!   The worth of what the back up defensive back is much more than the inner city teacher.  A wall street trader probably offers less to society than that of an honest small town cop (given recent events, a lot less.)  But in our society, the wall street trader has the most value.

This has a profound impact on human societies and psychological states.  In a capitalist system, a sense of self-worth becomes problematic.    It tends to get defined by wealth and what we have, rather than a sense of value to family, friends or community.    For many, it leads to life as a cog in a machine.  Originally it was the sweat shops of Manchester, England, working most waking hours for enough pay to barely survive, putting children to work at age 11 with no chance of a real future.  Now we have worker protections, child labor laws, and get paid enough to buy televisions and computers, and take vacations now and then.

But for many this still is life as a cog.  Few can take meaningful vacations, and often people fall into routines where it’s work, watch TV, relax, go to work…life in a guilded cage.   Like Huxley’s Brave New World we treat our boredom with distractions.   For some it’s drugs — prozac, alcohol, and other legal and illegal drugs.   Even the super wealthy find themselves drawn to prescription pain killers and the need to numb that nagging recognition that material success does not provide a sense of meaning.   For others the distractions may take the form of entertainment, a voyeuristic following of celebrities and their problems, being a hard core sports fan, or addiction to porn or gambling.   It may be other life-dramas — affairs, conflicts, and personal situations that take over ones’ life to add excitement or a sense of danger and intrigue.   Anything to numb the boredom.   Others immerse themselves in religious belief, and churches can sometimes capture the sense of community capitalism has driven out of much of the western way of life.   Often modern religion is taken over by the same forces: the 700 Club (and who can forget the infamous PTL Club) play to the worst of both the deviant tendencies of capitalism and our need for spectacle and distraction.

This escape from the real seems a harmless tragedy, though it is one of the main causes of our current economic and political breakdown, the scope of which I think people still underestimate.    News about Tiger Woods is more important than the President’s Afghanistan plan.   People who aren’t gay through themselves deep into a fight against gay marriage — something which affects them not a wit — and downplay issues of foreign policy and the economy.  And people don’t notice the widening gap between rich and poor.  Yet nowhere are these problems more pronounced than the capitalist war on Christmas.

Consider: the three wise men come from afar to give gifts to the Christ child to acknowledge his divinity.   This becomes a tradition of exchanging gifts, originally small tokens to symbolize friendship and sharing.    With capitalism this becomes the driving force of the economy.   Charles Dickens, a very shrewd chronicler of the early days of capitalism, captures this in his famous Christmas Carol.   Scrooge the capitalist sees the poor teeming masses as “surplus population,” with no value as they produce no goods.    His cold disregard for others, but very staunch regard for good business and profit, symbolize the soul of capitalism.   Money is worshipped, humanity is a tool for the creation of wealth.    What gives life joy and meaning is derided as worthless sentiment, distracting one from the real business at hand — work to gain wealth.  The values embraced by Christians at Christmas time are subverted by capitalism.

Scrooge, of course, is saved when confronted with the lack of meaning in his hyper-materialist world view.   The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future make it clear that he has been wasting his life in a meaningless pursuit of transient trivialities, while what matters in life — love and connection to the humanity of others — got forgotten.   Awoken,  he gives to the poor, and saves himself by embracing the notion that wealth and markets mean less than community, friends and the real life conditions of other people.  Unfortunately, capitalism as a system is immune to such a salvation.    What now isn’t in the hands of some corporation?  Big money seeks to expand profits with whatever means necessary.  Ethics are embraced only to avoid a backlash — and even then appearance is reality.   Marketers will sell a message that a company is ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ — but who checks out the claims?   With the media in corporate hands, and the culture defined by a sense this  is the way things should be (communism failed, after all).  There is no restraint, everything is a commodity.   Only when the excesses and contradictions in this state of affairs leads to collapse will people wake up.

This is the real war on Christmas.   One half day with family to celebrate, weeks at the shopping mall, going through gift lists and the stress of having to get everything done.   Christmas cards sent with assembly line efficiency, children making lists of what they want, their behavior itself valuable as “good” only because it gets them more presents.   Santa commodifies “naughty or nice.”   The themes of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ are hijacked by corporations trying to connect those values with their corporate image.    Christmas becomes the most materialist day of the year.

And yet, Christmas has not yet lost.   Some, like Helen at “Windows On the World,” hold on to religious values and the power of music, meditation and worship.   But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the universal appeal of the values put forth at Christmas: peace, love, caring, generosity, family, community and charity.   Besides Dickens, there are cultural artifacts, ranging from films like It’s a Wonderful Life to silly modern cartoons like Grandma Got Runover by a Raindeer that keep our imagination from losing the sense of Christmas completely.   As humans, we deep down sense that the hyper-materialism of capitalism and the commodification of all life into defining meaning as what something is worth on the market is wrong.   We deep know know that being is more important than having.

If you feel stressed by the holidays, worried about plans, gifts, lists and money, seeing this as  a series of chores to be accomplished, with the value ultimately in what you receive, or whether others like the gifts you gave, Christmas is losing.    If the highlights are “black Friday,” going to the mall, and thinking about all the gifts you’ll return, Christmas is losing.  If the movies seem too quaint or silly, and the messages of holiday cheer too corny, then at least on your private battlefield, Christmas is losing.   If you feel a sense of joy, community, and find that this time of the year reminds you of the human desire for peace, love and a sense of meaning in life, and can brush aside the stress and materialism as unnecessary distractions, then there is no battlefield.   If you hold on to a sense of what Christmas truly means, either in a religious sense or in the universal values affixed to the season, then you are not part of the war.   The only way for Christmas to win in each of souls is to be at peace.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on December 23, 2009 - 03:27

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Is it me, or is there some controversy every year about the “war on Christmas?” It seems like every year it’s some big controversy, and people complain about “political correctness” and the like. But I think you are more on the dot, I think what you are describing is the real threat to what Christmas is supposed to be about.

    • #2 by classicliberal2 on December 24, 2009 - 00:58

      “Is it me, or is there some controversy every year about the ‘war on Christmas?’ It seems like every year it’s some big controversy, and people complain about ‘political correctness’ and the like.”

      It’s a stupid propaganda game cynically launched by Fox News (principally Bill O’Reilly) every year for the benefit of feeble-minded reactionaries who wish to gin up some validation for their delusions of persecution.

  2. #3 by renaissanceguy on December 24, 2009 - 00:29

    What you are calling capitalism, I would call commercialism, consumerism, or materialism. (One time you call it “hyper-materialism.”)

    Capitalism does not necessarily produce the effects you describe any more than any other economic system could or would. Think, for example, of how the high-level Communists lived in the Soviet Union.

    One problem with you analysis is that your examples come from the United States, which can hardly be said to have a capitalist system any more, if it ever really did. It has a highly regulated, semi-statist system, as did England in Dickens’s time.

    You did not mention two things about Scrooge. The first is that in his unrepentant state Srooge believed that government had the solution for poverty. He said that the poor should go to prisons and workhouses, for which he was taxed. The second is that Scrooge gave his own money to the poor after hs conversion. He raised his clerk’s salay and paid for Tiny Tim to get medical treatment. Without a free market system in which Scrooge could have amassed wealth, he would not have had the money to do those charitable things. He became the prime example of voluntary giving to the poor.

    • #4 by classicliberal2 on December 24, 2009 - 01:18

      “One problem with you analysis is that your examples come from the United States, which can hardly be said to have a capitalist system any more, if it ever really did. It has a highly regulated, semi-statist system”

      That’s what capitalism is. It’s an economic structure, not, as some would have it, an ideology, and the United States is the premiere example of it in the world today.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on December 24, 2009 - 04:33

      I doubt Charles Dickens had the same view of Scrooge and capitalism that you have. He seemed pretty critical of the “free market.”

      Purely free markets is what England had during Dickens time. Oh there were some workhouses and the like, but taxation and regulation were very low. The fantasy that somehow all that would go away if markets were ‘pure’ is something that has no justification in reality. Whenever there is little regulation, there is more oppression and poverty.

      Yes, bureaucratic socialism is just as bad. Both extremes fail because they are based on ideology, rather than humanism. Both try to defend abstract theory without regard to real world practical results. Absent ghosts to change the hearts of capitalists, the system produces Scrooges who don’t embrace voluntarism, and thus perpetuate the problem. That is the culture of capitalism, an inherently materialist anti-spiritual approach to reality. Do you really want to embrace that?

  3. #6 by Scott Erb on December 24, 2009 - 13:23

    Also, note my critique of capitalism isn’t a critique of markets per se. Markets are very useful and an essential part of any economy. When markets become the religion of society, when humans are seen as ‘homo economimus’ making all decisions on a materialist rationality, and when all is commodified, even people, then the culture loses part of its humanity. That is what Dickens noted. People lose their desire to voluntarily contribute or help the poor because under capitalist rationality it is not in their self-interest. There is no reason to care for the poor — and much cheaper to have ‘poor houses.’

    Only when Scrooge looked outside of the capitalist mentality did he realize that his goals were misplaced. As a culture, our embrace of capitalism has made it very easy to become consumers first, defined by what we have rather than who we are. Economic rationality — or rational materialism as a primary principle — leads to the de-humanization of a culture.

    Right now the state is the main bulwark against this. Yet I understand the dangers and limitations of the stat as well. There is no panacea, I think — no perfect or ‘right’ ideology that will “save” us as a culture. You have utopian socialists and utopian capitalists who think that simple propositions can somehow prove that their ideas will work in complex reality. Everything I know about history, psychology and economics suggests that there are difficult choices and compromises to make and lessons to learn. I think we’ll improve, but slowly, with no simple formula to tell us what’s best.

  4. #7 by helenl on December 28, 2009 - 04:52

    Hi Scott, Thanks for the shout out. You are so right; the values of Christmas is universal. People spend so much time in a stupid shopping frenzy that they are glad to be rid of Christmas as soon as it comes. How sad for them and for the rest of us who hear their nonsense. Gifts are good but not insanity and greed. Capitalism unchecked is of the devil, indeed.

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