In our heart of hearts, many of us at times feel a bit hollow about the holidays. Besides garish ads, so predictable that they lampoon their own excesses and try to have us in on the joke, the general tense, tone, and tenor of the shopping frenzy seems to first imbibe a year’s frustrations and then spew it out as a series of pricey purchases. But wait, surely mutual joy and glad goodwill toward humanity can abound at the holidays. We’d all have a holly jolly merrier-ass time if sentiments of peace and love abounded. Yet maybe, just maybe, like a twinkling Christmas light that doesn’t shine just right, the problem with the season isn’t in attitude so much as in that the reason for the season falsely appears to be based on fraternal beatitude. At no time of year and no place more than under a Christmas tree do economic inequalities appear more clearly. Yet, out of love we tend to purchase gifts based on heartfelt sentiment, even though our minds know we are encouraging a system that connects possessions with caring. AU critical thinking to the rescue!
The ambivalent nature of the Holiday shopping season isn’t exactly a secret. Karl Marx would guffaw at the would-be astuteness of this observation. Enjoying his daily pint of cool pale ale, English style—as he was in exile in London—he’d probably address us at AU with the look of any scientist about to brusquely take us aside in order to impart his discovery of objective historical truths. To him, our economic circumstances matter more than how we feel about one another. Circumstances, he’d note, change not with the whims of our minds but with economic facts on the ground. Marxism sees class conflict as the driver of history; in each epoch different classes of people, based on their relations to economic power, duke it out over control of resources. The winners set the priorities and write the rulebooks. And, voila, we have a consumerist Christmas spirit.
All of this might seem a bit old hat, even worthy of an eye-roll from students and onlookers alike. Consumerism seems as old a target as saving the whales or putting trash in its place. And stereotypical sermons of righteousness based on economic injustice are part and parcel with the political mindsets of our times. Marx, however, was less interested in feelings and intentions than on cold, hard, facts about who controls the levers of industry, both producers of goods and progenitors of ideas. The ideas of any time period are invariably the ideas of the ruling class, he famously said. And ideas that resist those ideas are also suspiciously popular among those who decide what kind of life we all live.
In no uncertain terms, like a Grinch come to set the record straight, Marx lambasted socialist alternatives that began with hallowed phrases about peace and love and moral injunctions to be good to one’s fellow citizens. Not all spiced wine and plastic garlands, the window dressing of leftist revolution is problematic from a Marxist perspective. When sentiments lead, we ought to suspect that we’re being duped. If we’re all in life together and equally how come so many of us feel so disempowered when seeking housing and monetary security?
Here a slice of humble pie is doled out by Marx himself, who saw his sociological research as one that discovered scientific truths about history rather than philosophical realities about human nature and morality:
“The robe of speculative cobwebs, embroidered with flowers of rhetoric, steeped in the dew of sickly sentiment, this transcendental robe in which the German Socialists wrapped their sorry ‘eternal truths’, all skin and bone, served to wonderfully increase the sale of their good among such a public’ (251).
Marx noted that 19th Century aristocrats, part of a declining class of landed gentry losing sway by the day to an ascendant urban business class bourgeoisie, often sought common cause with landless peasants. Under banners of equality and justice (think here of buy green advert campaigns, and that ruthless tinkle of Salvation Army jingle bells awaiting toonies outside grocery stores), aristocrats gently prodded their serfs to follow them into revolutionary action based on trust and goodwill and parochialism, rather than any real rearrangement of property relations. Better scraps was all they seemed to offer, more crumbs for their mice. Marx saw that the ruling class was pleased to deploy pleasantries if it would avert any real uprisings against the oppressed: “To the absolute governments, with their following of parsons, professors, county squires and officials, it served as a welcome scarecrow against the threatening bourgeoisie” (250). A class in decline, said Marx, seeks to cultivate friends anywhere it can. And in the 1800s the industrial movers and shakers, the bourgeoisie, were on the rise over and against the frills and gimmicks of traditional nobility.
In our times, being academic and all, we see how business motives clearly trump traditional aspects of the Holidays. Think of how few people listen to the Monarch’s Christmas message compared to those who are busy unwrapping an ungodly number of parcels, bundles, and generalized plastic gadgets. Perhaps one reason that consumerism works so well is it all seems to be about us, the shoppers, in much the way that the aristocrats in Marx’s time claimed to be seeking reforms in order to help and aid those they had kept underfoot for so long.
In the end, to opt out of the Holidays remains a difficult and socially sanctioned act. Sure, we can say that gifting means participating in a system that reduces our love to goods at a store, usually tacky, but the spirit of the season seems to say this time it’s okay. One seems to be betraying social goodwill by not buying and dispensing trinkets from the mall. Or we can make our own gifts knowing, if our artistic talents are lacking and laughable, that in theory it really is the thought that counts. Should we choose to accept the task of not shopping for gifts, we will find many an hour of AU studies freed up when we would otherwise be out frantically shopping for that special knickknack that, in theory, will at once appease our conscience and bring joy to our special someone. Plus, we can theoretically indulge in more family time and in a less apprehensive sense; time and attention are huge gifts to give, especially with those beloved cellphones turned off and out of sight.
The best gifts are often not found in stores at all but are dispensed straight from our brain in combination with our heart. So, this Holiday season, maybe, let’s remember to thank our loving ones for their support in our private scholastic struggle (maybe by dedicating an essay or a Voice article to them?) With that in mind I’d like to dedicate this column to my dear wife, Janice! ♥ And in case you’re wondering, we don’t do Christmas presents in this house!
Marx, K. (1848). ‘Reactionary Socialism’ in The Communist Manifesto. Retrieved from