Archive for December 22nd, 2009

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.