Marx and Engels saw religion as a conservative force which prevented social change by creating false consciousness. This post summarises their key ideas and offers some supporting evidence and criticisms.
From Marx’s materialistic perspective, religion serves to mystify the real relations between men and inanimate objects.
In reality, according to Marx, nature is an impersonal force which imposes limitations on man’s capacity to act, but nature can be understood scientifically and manipulated rationally, via technology, potentially for the benefit of man-kind.
However, through religion, humans project personal characteristics onto nature: they invent gods which they believe have control over nature, and come to believe that the way to manipulate nature is to appeal to these gods through ritual or sacrifice.
Religion as the ‘Opium of the People’
In Marx’s own words:
‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. it is the opium of the people’.
According to Marx, one of the main ‘functions’ of religion is to prevent people making demands for social change by dulling pain of oppression, as follows:
The promise of an afterlife gives people something to look forwards to. It is easier to put up with misery now if you believe you have a life of ‘eternal bliss’ to look forward to after death.
Religion makes a virtue out of suffering – making it appear as if the poor are more ‘Godly’ than the rich. One of the best illustrations of this is the line in the bible: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Religion can offer hope of supernatural intervention to solve problems on earth: this makes it pointless for humans to try to do anything significant to help improve their current conditions.
Religion can justify the social order and people’s position within that order, as in the line in the Victorian hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
Such lines make social inequalities seem as if they are ‘God’s will’ an thus unchangeable.
From the Marxist Perspective, religion does not only ameliorate the sufferings of life, it also effectively creates false consciousness.
Marx believed that the ‘objective’ truth was that the proletariat (i.e. most people) suffer deprivations because of their exploitation by the Bourgeois (namely the extraction of surplus value empowers the minority Bourgeois class and leaves the majority of the proletariat with insufficient money to lead a decent quality of life), however, people fail to realise this because religion teaches them that all of the misery in life is God’s will.
Or in Marx’s own words:
‘In religion people make their empirical world into an entity that is only conceived, imagined, that confronts them as something foreign’.
Religion and Social Control
Religion also acts as a tool of social control in a more direct sense: according to Marx and Engels:
‘The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord’.
This was especially true in feudal England when the landed classes’ decisions were frequently legitimated be religious decree: as Marx and Engels saw it, the bourgeois and the church supported one another: the former generously funded the later, and church legitimated social inequality, thus maintaining the established social order.
The non-necessity of religion under communism
Religion is only necessary under exploitative systems where the majority of men do not control the conditions under which they labour, under systems where men work for someone else rather than for themselves: in such systems, religious doctrines which teach that ‘you are insignificant in the eyes of gods/ the supernatural’ make sense, and serve a useful function for those who are in control of and who benefit from said exploitation.
Under communism, where man controls the conditions of his labour, he is essentially ‘for himself’, and thus will have no need of religion. Under communism, where reality is ‘fair’ religion will not be required, and so will simply whither away.
Evidence to support Marxism
There is a considerable body of historical evidence which supports the Marxist view of the role of religion in society: for example the traditional caste system in India was supported by Hindu religious believes (in reincarnation for example); and in Medieval Europe Kings ruled by the ‘divine right of God’. Possibly the most ‘extreme’ example, however, is in ancient the ancient Egyptian belief which held that Pharaohs were both men and gods at the same time.
A more recent example, drawn from the USA, lies in the support that Republican politicians have enjoyed from the ‘New Christian Right’ who, according to Steve Bruce (1988), support ‘a more aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, more military spending, less welfare spending and fewer restraints on enterprise’.
The new Christian right have persistently supported more right wing (neo) liberal candidates – such as Ronald Regan in 1984 and George Bush in 2004 – when the later was elected, an exit poll found that two thirds of voters who attended church more than once a week had voted for him.
While it might be debatable how successful the religious right in the USA are in getting their candidates elected to political power, what does seem clear is that they do tend to support more economically powerful sectors of the political elite, suggesting support for the Marxist view of religion.
Criticisms of the Marxist perspective on religion
Firstly, it is clear that religion does not always prevent social change by creating false class consciousness. There are plenty of examples of where oppressed groups have used religion to attempt (whether successful or not is moot here) to bring about social change, as we will see in the neo-Marxist perspective on religion.
Secondly, religion still exists where there is (arguably) no oppression: the USSR communist state placed limits on the practice of religion, including banning religious instruction to children, however, religious belief remained stronger in the 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe than it did in the capitalist west.
Thirdly, and building on the previous point: just because religion can be used as a tool of manipulation and oppression, this does not explain its existence: religion seems to be more or less universal in all societies, so it is likely that it fulfills other individual and social needs, possibly in a more positive way as suggested by Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim, Malinowski, and Parsons.
Adapted from Haralmabos and Holborn (2008) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 7th Edition, Collins.
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Functionalists might interpret the wedding as one of those symbolic events which brings people together – enhancing a sense of national identity, and possibly social solidarity. You certainly get this impression from Sky News’ Live Stream which is already in full swing – showing footage of the massing crowds, bunting and al.
HOWEVER, if you dig a little deeper, it seems that this interpretation just doesn’t stack up… for starters, 50% of ‘us Brits’ were indifferent to the royal engagement:
And there’s also small but significant undercurrent of anti-royalist sentiment:
On the question of belonging, this New York Times article is well worth a read, on what Black Britons think about Meghan and the royal wedding – it’s an odd one, given the very whiteness of the royal family, FINALLY including a mixed-race woman into the ‘bloodline’…..
Maybe a Marxist interpretation might be more appropriate…..?
Despite the continued existence of royalty being one of the most obvious reminders of the class divide in the UK, there is some evidence that the state (in the form of the police) are very much inclined to work for the elite class, and suppress those who would oppose it, or even just make it look a bit untidy:
For example, it’s unlikely that the homeless of Windsor probably will celebrating the event, given that the local police have been involved in seizing their Belongings Before the Royal Wedding in an attempt to ‘clear up the area’, maybe so ‘brand Britain’ looks its best for the global media
You also have to wonder how many anti-royalist protesters have been arrested and locked up this morning: the video below shows some anti-royalist protesters on their way to do some ‘street theatre’ being arrested for ‘pre-crime back in 2011 a few hours before Kate and Will tied the knot.
Then there’s the apparent disdain with which the royals are treating the ‘commoners’: despite her £400 million fortune, the Queen isn’t even prepared to stump up a free lunch for the 2000 ‘commoners’ who have been invited to Windsor Castle to celebrate the big day – the ‘normal’ guests have [been advised to bring a picnic lunch](https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/03/bring-your-own-picnic-royal-wedding-guests-bemused-by-lack-of-catering).
So while I wish Harry and Meghan as individuals all the happiness in the world, maybe we should wish that the institution surrounding them would just whither away?
In the first section Bauman provides an overview of some of the key features of contemporary urban areas.
Firstly, that modern urban areas are increasingly gated – To illustrate this he offers a description of Heritage Park, a new 500 acre gate community about to be built not far from Cape Town in South Africa, complete with high-voltage electric fencing, electronic surveillance of access roads and heavily armed guards. Within the fortifications, Heritage Park contains several amenities – from shops to salmon lakes, but the most significant feature for Bauman, is the assumption that lies behind the project – that in order to build a spirit of community, we can only do so if we exclude others.
Secondly, he illustrates that a fear of strangers is common by pointing out that increasing amounts of people think they are victims of stalkers and, although there is a long-historical trend of people looking for the source of their misery outside of themselves, this fear of stalkers is just the latest manifestation of a society-wide fear of the ‘mobile vulgus’, the inferior people who are always on the move (stalkers are not generally of the places which they stalk).
He rounds of this section by drawing on Sharon Zukin’s description of LA to provide an overview of the current evolution of urban life which can be described as the ‘institutionalization of urban fear’ the key features of which include…
‘defence of the community’ translated as the hiring of armed gatekeepers to control the entry.
Stalker and prowler promoted to public enemy number one.
Paring public areas down to defensible enclaves with selective access (thus reducing freedom to move about).
Separation in lieu of the negotiation of life in common.
The criminalisation of residual difference.
This is actually a very tame section for Bauman on this particular topic. There is a much stronger commentary in ‘Liquid Times’ in which he comments on ‘Fortress cities’, talking about how, for the marginalised, cities are increasingly becoming full of places where they cannot go.
(94) When strangers meet strangers
Drawing on Richard Sennet (which he does often), Bauman points out that ‘a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’ – the encounters are likely to be without a past or a future, and such encounters require a particular set of skills which Sennet calls civility.
Civility is not an easy skill to learn, it involves putting on a mask to shield others from having to deal with the private burdens of one’s own self, and we expect the same from others. In other words, civility is based on the mutual withdrawal of the ‘true self’ – we don’t expect to be cajoled into expressing our inner most feelings to others in public spaces, instead we put on a ‘public persona’ and expect others to do the same and this is what enables us to share space with masses of other people. This, in short is civility, which the city requires. Something else Bauman says later in the chapter (to my mind this is the important bit, obscured by his artistic efforts to define the concept) is that civility is hard-work – it involves making the effort to get on (and I assume work with) people that are not like you! In order to work effectively, the city requires civility.
Bauman doesn’t go into too much depth here about what ‘civility’ actually is btw, but crucially it clearly doesn’t involve just doing whatever you want, it involves restraint, and not just of your actions, but of your ‘true’ self-expression
BC – I’m not at all comfortable with the analytical divisions stopping with the distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘true (private?) self’ – I’d me much happier with a distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘that confluence of aggregates which people in their ignorance label their true-selves’
Bauman then argues that there are two general types public space which are removed from the above ideal-type model of civility –
The first of these categories of public-yet-not-civil spaces are public squares such as La Defense on the right bank of the Seine which are designed to be kept empty by their inhospitable architecture.
The second category is meant to serve the consumer – the most obvious example of which is the shopping mall in which the primary task to be performed is individualised consumption with a minimum of human interaction. In such spaces, encounters are kept shallow and strangers are kept out to minimise the disruption to consumptive acts
On this note, something interesting to explore further are how successfully counter-movements devoted to subvert the logic of such consumer-spaces. Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping is the most obvious example of this, and some aspects of the UK Uncut protests here in Britain might also be read in the same way.
Our consumer spaces, such as shopping malls, are completely ‘other spaces’ – the temples of consumption may be in the city, but they are not of the city. The temple of consumption, like ‘Foucault’s boat’ maintains a distance from daily life, it is anchored out at sea. Temples of consumption are also purified spaces in that diversity and difference are cleansed of all threats to us, unlike the more threatening and potentially disruptive differences in daily life (such as the increasing likely threat of losing your job!), and so these unreal spaces offer us the near perfect balance between freedom and security.
I’m reminded of two things – the contrast to the relative lack of purity and increased uncertainty when shopping in markets in developing countries, and the attendant requirement to pay close attention to the dynamics (and it is more dynamic) of barter – this contrast is useful for criticising western notions of development; secondly, the fact that such purity really is lulling consumers into a very false sense of security because the ‘security’ gained through the act of shopping is so very short-lived.
In such places as shopping malls we also find a sense of belonging, in that we are all there for the same purpose, and so it is here that we find (a very limited idea of) community. The problem with this, as Sennet points out, is that any idea of community, of sameness is a fantasy… it is only achieved through ignoring differences. However, inside the temples of consumption, fantasy becomes reality and we find a sense of belonging for a few hours in a ‘community’ of shoppers. In these ‘egic’ spaces, for a short-time we can ignore differences because we are all united by the urge to shop, we all share a common purpose. The problem is that this is a shallow community that does not require empathy, understanding, bargaining or compromising.
From personal experience, he may as well be describing every sit-down cup of coffee I’ve ever had in a Cafe Nero or Costa Coffee… Such an EASY feeling of non-community. At some point I must try and work out the average cost per hour per table, I’d like to put a figure on the cost of non-community.
Bauman now turns to Claude Levi-Strauss, who suggested that just two strategies were deployed in human history whenever the need arose to cope with the otherness of others:
Anthropoemic strategies – which traditionally involves vomiting out strangers, which today takes the form of deportation and incarceration.
Anthropophagic strategies – ingesting strangers, which traditionally takes the form of cannibalism, but today takes the form of enforced assimilation.
The first strategy was aimed at the exile or annihilation of the others, the second aimed at the suspension or annihilation of their otherness.
Bauman now brings the above threads together to argue that the public square is the emic stratgey, the shopping mall the egic straegy, both are a response to our having to live with strangers combined with our lack of skills with civility. Rather than learn the skills, our urban spaces are designed to either exclude others or nullify otherness.
Quick Commentary – I think Bauman might be the world master in dualistic constructions (no wonder he likes Levi-Strauss.)
Bauman rounds off this section by (much more briefly) outlining two other types of space found in cities (I think the idea is that they also prevent the development of civility, although I’m not sure what his opinion is on the later)
Non-spaces, such as airports and hotel rooms, are those which discourage settling in, and share some features of the first kind of space. These are uncolonised, free of all identity markers.
This is an eerily accurate description of my one (and never to be repeated) experience in a Travel-lodge. As if the sterility of the room wasn’t enough, the final straw was having to pay for breakfast first and then showing the receipt to collect a plate, bowl and cutlery set, although they did give us unrestricted access to the plastic cups.
Finally, there are empty spaces – Those which are unmapped, to which no meaning is ascribed. These are basically the poorer and unknown bits of the city.
(104) Don’t Talk to Strangers
The main point about civility is the ability to interact with strangers without holding their strangeness against them and without pressing them to surrender it or to renounce some or all of the traits that made them strangers in the first place.
All of the above four places are designed to strip out any of the challenges of togetherness by rendering strangers as invisible as possible and minimising interaction with them.
However, even though we have arranged our public places so we minimise the risk of having any meaningful interaction with them, they are still full of strangers. (Bauman argues that our preferred is to try and organise our lives so we do not have to interact with them at all, but for most of us this is simply not possible.)
And so, following Sennet again, we have arranged our cities into ethnic enclaves where we mix with people ‘just like us’ and we end up with little islands of people bound together by a shared sense of ‘being like these people, but not like other people’ – We have avoided the difficulties of forging relationships with and negotiating how to live with people who are different to us, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy – because we avoid dealing with people ‘not like us’, those people are more distant, so they appear more dangerous, and the idea of constructing an ‘ideal-society’ of shared interest in the midst of cultural difference becomes ever more fanciful. Or, to summarise all of this succinctly in the words of Sharon Zukin (again) – ‘No one knows how to talk to anyone anyone else’.
Ethnicity is the first and foremost way we retreat from the difficult realm of the heterogeneous society out there, the society which requires negotiating and effort to get along in. In ethnic groupings, we don’t need to talk to people, we just feel the same, our sameness is heteronomous, it is given, our right. Identity is about who you are, not about what you do.
Note to self – or question to self – how does this square with the Buddhist notion of transcending the self through ‘non-doing’ and non-identification. What is the difference between ‘doingness’ in Buddhism (ethics) and doingness in Bauman? Also, is Bauman saying that part of being ethical (being responsible) is ‘doing’ in the sense of making the effort to forge meaningful bonds with people who are not like us (in which case this could be a very noble, ideal reading of Habermas’ communicative utopia)… More to come on this…
Bauman sees such a carving out of ethnic niches as a rational response to a legitimately perceived crisis of public life, where the public realm (this is from the last chapter, remember?!) has been narrowed down to private confessions. Politicians in fact give the message that identity matters above all else, it is who you are, not what you are doing that truly matters. Once you have ‘identity’ as the central logic of existence, purging others not like me needs no further rationale.
Bauman now casts our obsession with purity and purging of strangers perceived to be dangerous as a public pathology – a pathology of public space resulting in a pathology of politics: the wilting and waning of the art of dialogue and negotiation, the substitution of the techniques of escape and elision for engagement and mutual commitment.
He finishes by saying…. ‘Do not talk to strangers has now become the strategic precept of adult normality.’ and providing the basic problem with the premise of the gated community…. George Hazeldon Heritage Park (the gated community mentioned at the beginning) would be a place where, at long last, all passers-by could talk freely to each other. They would be free to talk since they would have very little to talk about – except exchanging the routine and familiar phrases entailing no controversy, but no commitment either. The dreamt-of purity of the Heritage Park community could be gained only at the price of disengagement and broken bonds.
By way of commentary on this section – look at the picture below… from my local paper commenting on travellers using a piece of local grassland to graze their horses on. Odd how this is on my regular running route, and I’ve regularly run across this field, people, horses and all, and never felt particularly threatened by any of them.
(110) Modernity as History of Time
Today, if asked how long it will take to get from a to b, we will be asked about what method of transport, because the amount of space we can cross in a given amount of time is very much dependent on the mode of transport we use to get there. It is normal for us today to try to calculate how long tasks will take us given the technology we are using. We are normatively very time-conscious.
However, it has not always been thus. In pre-modern times, people did not think very much about time and space because such thinking was not required given the nature of their lifeworlds. If people were pressed hard to explain what they meant by space and time, they may have said that space is what you can pass in a given time, while time is what you need pass it, but they didn’t think to much about either because their conception of both was limited because their transportation and work techniques (what Bauman calls ‘wetware’) – humans muscle, oxen or horses – which made the effort and set the limits of what amount of space could be travelled in what time.
He now seems to celebrate the efforts of Enlightenment thinkers such as Newton and Kant (who he calls the ‘valiant knights of reason’) for their efforts in setting apart time and space in human thought and practise – or as he puts it, their efforts in ‘casting time and space as two transcendentally separate and mutually independent categories of human cognition’ – the distinction between which provides us with the ‘epistemological ground for philosophical and scientific reflection’ and the ’empirical stuff that can be kneaded into timeless truths’.
Bauman seems to be arguing here that the development of the basic conceptions of time and space have been historically useful, illustrating his modernist roots.
He then argues that it was the construction of such things as vehicles (hardware) that enabled us to travel faster and technologies more generally that enable us to do more in less time that gave rise to this widespread perception of time and space being separate fields of thought.
In Modernity, time came to be seen as something which could be manipulated and controlled, it became a factor of destruction, the dynamic partner in the time-space wedlock, and thus controlling time became crucial to controlling space – Whoever could travel faster could claim more territory. In a nice evocative phrase Bauman says that ‘modernity was born under the stars of acceleration’.
As modernity progressed, time became its central logic: rationalisation was essentially a process designed to make us more productive, to cajole us to do more in less time.
Bauman finishes off this section by saying that the main focus of what the powerful do with time (use their time for?) in modernity is to conquer space. Bauman casts the powerful as those who invade and redraw boundaries, and the faster they can do this, the better, whereas the the weak are those who must defend their territory, for them and their world, time is experienced as something which is ‘running out’. (The very last line is my interpretation, but I’m 99% sure it’s accurate.)
I’m not sure how far Bauman takes his analysis of the differential experience of time in his later works, but one fairly obvious interpretation is that the wealthy, have time on their side, most obviously in the form of privileged access to high speed rail and air networks, the fastest broadband, and also their ability to employ people to do things for them. In contrast, middling people experience time as something that is scarce, and frequently have too much to do in the limited time available, especially where family and work need to be balanced. In addition, it is worth noting that those on the margins have ‘all the time in the world’ and are free to use this time as they see fit, according to their limited means, but if they are hooked on the synopticon, then much of that time will be spent watching the money-rich, time-rich worlds of the elite who take up such a disproportionate amount of media air-time.
I’m further reminded here of another two things – Firstly the 1960s futurologists such as Toffler who predicted a 4 hour working day once we were properly ‘teched up’ (whatever happened to that?!) and secondly I think there’s utility in developing a methodology for calculating how much of our time we give away in surplus value, most horrifyingly in the form of interest payments on our mortgages. The utility of this would lie in being able to calculate how much time we would gain if gave up these things.
NB – At some point in this section Bauman also makes the point that the conception of our place in physical space seems to have ontological significance in modernity – when he suggests that at the individual level we could replace Descartes’ well known ‘I think for I am’ with ‘I occupy space therefore I exist’ and the meaning would remain the same. This didn’t seem to flow with the rest of his argument but I quite liked the point so I thought I’d make a note of it!
(p113) From Heavy to Light Modernity
This section deals with one of Bauman’s most well-known dualisms
The term Heavy Modernity refers to the era of hardware, or bulk obsessed modernity, where size is power and volume is success. This is the era of ponderous rail engines and gigantic ocean liners. To conquer as much space as one could hold,and then guarding the boundaries was the goal.
In heavy modernity wealth and power were firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land, empty space was seen as a threat, and heroes were made of those who penetrated the hearts of darkness.
In terms of production Modernity meant the factory, and the bigger, more routinised, more homogeneous the logic of control and the clearer the boundaries in many respects of the word, the better. Daniel Bell described the General Motors Willow Run plant in Michegan as one of the best examples.
Heavy modernity also involved the neutralising and co-ordination of time; in this eara, time, and what one could achieve in a given amount of time, became the measure of progress.
The relationship between labour and capital was like a marriage, until death do us part, because the factory tied both labour and capital to the ground. Neither could survive without the other which meant conflict, but a conflict born of the rootedness.
This is now changed, as evidenced by Daniel Cohen in the example of Microsoft: whoever begins a career there has not the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Today’s management is concerned with loser organisational forms, with adaptability, and as a result of thisthe idea of a ‘career’ seems out of place.
Behind this watershed change is the new irrelevance of space, masquerading as the annihilation of time. Space no more sets limits to action because of the instantaneity of communications. The instantaneity of time devalues space. Since all parts of space can be reached in an instant, no space has special value, and thus there is less reason to bear the cost of perpetual supervision of such spaces, given that they can be abandoned and revisited in an instant.
This might make sense when we are talking about software development, but in many other areas of work this just doesn’t apply. Surely we still have heavy modernity in places? The mining sector for example, and even supermarkets, which are at the centre of our nexus of consumption, are rooted physically to one place.
(p118) The Seductive Lightness of Being
In this section Bauman contrasts power in heavy modernity with power in liquid modernity.
He uses Muchel Crozier’s Bureaucratic Phenomenon to illustrate how power worked in the heavy period. Crozier pointed out that people who manage to keep their own actions unbound, norm-free and so unpredictable, while normatively regulating the actions of their protagonists rule: the freedom of the first is the main cause of the unfreedom of the second, while the undfreedom of the second is the ultimate meaning of the freedom of the first.
In Liquid modernity, while this basic relationship remains the same, it is those who come closest to the momentariness of time rule. Today Capital does not concern itself with managing labour; surveillance and drill are no longer necessary. Labour (because it either has little interest or choice in the matter, dealt with at more length in the next chapter) allows capital to travel light and engage only in short term contracts, in hopeful search of opportunity, of which there appear to be many. In Liquid Modernity, domination consists in one’s capacity to escape, to disengage, to be ‘elsewhere’ and the right to decide the speed with which all this is done, stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to resist their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battled of domination is waged with the weapons of acceleration and procastination.
The bit below is actually at the beginning of this section in the book, but I thought it made much more sense at the end…where he deals with how we are possibly beginning to view time differently.
In the extreme case of the liquid modern, the software world, time appears as Insubstantial and instantaneous, and so Bauman argues this is also an inconsequential time, in which we demand on the spot fulfilment , but which is also characterised by immediate fading of interest. Today, given that space and time are closer together, we have only ‘moments’ – points without dimensions.
Bauman provides two qualifications to the above –
Firstly, he questions whether this way of conceiving time (time with the morphology of an aggregate of moments) is still time as we know it.
Secondly, he says that the above only describes the developmental horizon of late modernity – the ever to be pursued yet never to be reached in full ideal of its major operators. It is a tendency towards rather than a state reached.
(p123) Instant Living
Bauman starts with Sennet’s observation that Bill Gate’s is very willing to destroy that which he had created in order to bring into being the next best thing, representing the trend for Liquid modernity to devalues the long term, (possibly because instanteity makes every moment infinite?)
Bauman next spends another couple of pages outlining how, in modern society, we valued the long-term more, and there was basically a balance between stability and change.
Today the balance has shifted towards an incredulity towards the value of stability/ immortality and there has been a culture shift towards constant revolutionising of many aspects of life.
Rational choice in this culture means to pursue instant gratification while seeking to avoid the consequences. This ushers both culture and ethics into unexplored territory. Today’s generation is living in a present that wants to forget the past and no longer seems to believe in the future…. but the memory of the past and trust in the future have been thus far the two pillars on which the cultural and moral bridges between transience and durability, human mortality and the immortality of human accomplishments, as well as taking responsibility and living moment by moment, all rested.
I may come back to chapter 4 later, but it’s only about architecture, which doesn’t really interest me!
The Condition of Postmodernity: A Summary of Chapter 5.
NB this is a very heavy going chapter….
Modernism is an aesthetic response to conditions of modernity produced by modernization. A proper interpretation of the rise of postmodernism, therefore, ought to grapple with the nature of modernization. Only in that way will we be able to judge whether postmodernism is a different reaction to an unchanging modernization process, or whether it reflects a radical shift in the nature of modernization itself, towards some kind of ‘post-industrial’ or even ‘post capitalist’ society.
Marx provides one of the earliest and most complete accounts of capitalist modernization. His theory of capitalist modernization makes for particularly compelling reading when set against the cultural theses of postmodernity.
In The communist manifesto Marx and Engels argue that the bourgeoisie has created a new internationalism via the world market, together with:
‘subjection of nature’s forces to man,
application of chemistry to agriculture and industry,
steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs,
clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers,
whole populations conjured out of the ground.’
It has done this at great cost:
destruction of traditions,
reduction of the valuation of all activity to the cold calculus of money and profit.
‘Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober sense the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men’. (Marx and Engels, 1 952, 25) .
Marx here unleashes a rhetoric that defines the underside of al modernist aesthetics.
Marx begins Capital with an analysis of commodities, those everyday things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) which we daily consume in the course of reproducing ourselves. Yet the commodity IS, he avers, ‘a mysterious thing’ because it simultaneously embodies both a use value (it fulfils a particular want or need) and an exchange value (I can use it as a bargaining chip to procure other commodities). This duality always renders the commodity ambiguous for us; shall we consume it or trade it away?
But as exchange relations proliferate and price-fixing markets form, so one commodity typically crystallizes out as money. With money the mystery of the commodity takes on a new twist, because the use value of money is that it represents the world of social labour and of exchange value. Money becomes the means by which we typically compare and assess the value of all commodities. Plainly, since the way we put value on things is important, an analysis of money is of interest.
The advent of a money economy, Marx argues, dissolves the bonds and relations that make up ‘traditional’ communities so that ‘money becomes the real community.’ We move from a social condition, in which we depend directly on those we know personally, to one in which we depend on impersonal and objective relations with others. As exchange relations proliferate, so money appears more and more as ‘a power external to and independent of the producers,’ so what ‘originally appears as a means to promote production becomes a relation alien’ to them.
Money concerns dominate producers. Money and market exchange draws a veil over, ‘masks’ social relationships between things. This condition Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities.’ It is one of Marx’s most compelling insights, for it poses the problem of how to interpret the real but nevertheless superficial relationships that we can readily observe in the market place in appropriate social terms.
The conditions of labour and life, the sense of joy, anger, or frustration that lie behind the production of commodities, the states of mind of the producers, are all hidden to us as we exchange one object (money) for another (the commodity). We can take our daily breakfast without a thought for the myriad people who engaged in its production. All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object (there are no finger marks of exploitation in the daily bread). We cannot tell from contemplation of any object in the supermarket what conditions of labour lay behind its production.
Marx’s meta-theory seeks to tear away that fetishistic mask, and to understand the social relations that lie behind it. Marx would surely criticise postmodernists for simply focusing on the ‘masking’ without looking deeper at the social relations of production which lie behind the production of commodities.
But we can take the analysis of money deeper still. If money is to perform its functions effectively, Marx argues, it must be replaced by mere symbols of itself (coins, tokens, paper currency, credit), which lead it to be considered as a mere symbol, an ‘arbitrary fiction’ sanctioned by ‘the universal consent of mankind.’ Yet it is through these ‘arbitrary fictions’ that the whole world of social labour, of production and hard daily work, get represented.
In the absence of social labour, all money would be worthless. But it is only through money that social labour can be represented at all. The magical powers of money are compounded by the way owners ‘lend their tongues’ to commodities by hanging a price ticket on them, appealing to ‘cabalistic signs’ with names like pounds, dollars, francs.
So even though money is the signifier of the value of social labour, the perpetual danger looms that the signifier will itself become the object of human greed and of human desire (the hoarder, the avaricious miser, etc.).
Money, on the one hand a ‘radical leveller’ of all other forms of social distinction, but is itself a form of social power that can be appropriated as ‘the social power of private persons.
Postmodernism seems to be a reinforcement rather than a transformation of the role of money as Marx depicts it – after all postmodernism suggests that we should focus on:
signifier rather than the signified,
the medium (money) rather than the message (social labour),
the emphasis on fiction rather than function,
on signs rather than things,
on aesthetics rather than ethics.
As commodity producers seeking money, however, we are dependent upon the needs and capacity of others to buy. Producers consequently have a permanent interest in cultivating ‘excess and intemperance’ in others….’ Pleasure, leisure, seduction, and erotic life are all brought within the range of money power and commodity production. Capitalism therefore ‘produces sophistication of needs and of their means on the one hand, and a bestial barbarization, a complete, unrefined, and abstract simplicity of need, on the other’ (Marx, 1964, 148). Advertising and commercialization destroy all traces of production in their imagery, reinforcing the fetishism that arises automatically in the course of market exchange.
Furthermore, money, as the supreme representation of social power in capitalist society, itself becomes the object of lust, greed, and desire. Yet here, too, we encounter double meanings. Money confers the privilege to exercise power over others – we can buy their labour time or the services they offer, even build systematic relations of domination over exploited classes simply through control over money power.
Money, in fact, fuses the political and the economic into a genuine political economy of overwhelming power relations (a problem that micro-theorists of power like Foucault systematically avoid and which macro-social theorists like Giddens – with his strict division between allocative and authoritative sources of power – cannot grasp).
The common material languages of money and commodities provide a universal basis within market capitalism for linking everyone into an identical system of market valuation and so procuring the reproduction of social life through an objectively grounded system of social bonding.
Yet within these broad constraints, we are ‘free,’ as it were, to develop our own personalities and relationships in our own way, our own ‘otherness,’ even to forge group language games, provided, of course, that we have enough money to live on satisfactorily.
Money is a ‘great leveller and cynic,’ a powerful underminer of fixed social relations, and a great ‘democratizer’. As a social power that can be held by individual persons it forms the basis for a wide-ranging individual liberty, a liberty that can be deployed to develop ourselves as free-thinking individuals without reference to others. Money unifies precisely through its capacity to accommodate individualism, otherness, and extraordinary social fragmentation.
But by what process is the capacity for fragmentation latent in the money form transformed into a necessary feature of capitalist modernization?
Participation in market exchange presupposes a certain division of labour as well as a capacity to separate (alienate) oneself from one’s own product. The result is an estrangement from the product of one’s own experience, a fragmentation of social tasks and a separation of the subjective meaning of a process of production from the objective market valuation of the product.
A highly organized technical and social division of labour is one of the founding principles of capitalist modernization. This forms a powerful lever to promote economic growth and the accumulation of capital, particularly under conditions of market exchange in which individual commodity producers (protected by private property rights) can explore the possibilities of specialization within an open economic system.
This explains the power of economic (free market) liberalism as a founding doctrine for capitalism. It is precisely in such a context that possessive individualism and creative entrepreneurialism, innovation, and speculation, can flourish, even though this also means a proliferating fragmentation of tasks and responsibilities, and a necessary transformation of social relations to the point where producers are forced to view others in purely instrumental terms.
The existence of wage labour is also required before profit-seeking (launching money into circulation in order to gain more money) can become the basic way for social life to be reproduced.
The conversion of labour into wage labour means ‘the separation of labour from its product, of subjective labour power from the objective conditions of labour’ (Capital, 1: 3). When capitalists purchase labour power they necessarily treat it in instrumental terms: the labourer is viewed as a ‘hand’ rather than as a whole person and the labour contributed is a ‘factor’ (notice the reification) of production.
The purchase of labour power with money gives the capitalist certain rights to dispose of the labour of others without necessary regard for what the others might think, need, or fee and this suggests one of the founding principles upon which the very idea of ‘otherness’ is produced and reproduced on a continuing basis in capitalist society. The world of the working class becomes the domain of that ‘other,’ which is necessarily rendered opaque and potentially unknowable by virtue of the fetishism of market exchange. Where an ‘other’ already existed (along gender or race lines for example) Capitalism also made use of this.
Capitalists strategically impose all kinds of conditions upon the labourer. The latter is typically alienated from the product, from command over the process of producing it, as well as from the capacity to realize the value of the fruit of her efforts – the capitalist appropriates that as profit. The capitalist has the power to mobilize the powers of co-operation, division of labour, and machinery as powers of capital over labour.
The result is an organized detail division of labour within the factory, which reduces the labourer to a fragment of a person. The ‘division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him. This is enforced through hierarchies of authority and close supervision of tasks – of the workshop and the factory.
The division of labour in society ‘brings into contact independent commodity producers, who acknowledge no other authority but that of competition, it is anarchic
This enforced fragmentation, which is both social and technical, is further emphasized by the loss of control over the instruments of production. This turns the labourer effectively into an ‘appendage’ of the machine. Intelligence (knowledge, science, technique) is objectified in the machine, thus separating manual from mental labour and diminishing the application of intelligence on the part of the workers.
In all of these respects, the individual labourer is ‘made poor’ in individual productive powers ‘in order to make the collective labourer, and through him capital rich in social productive power’ (Capital, 1: 341). This process does not stop with the direct producers, with the peasants pulled off the land, the women and children forced to give of their labour in the factories and mines. The bourgeoisie ‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous “cash payment.”
[It] ‘has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers’ (The communist manifesto, 45)
The ‘bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production because the ‘coercive laws’ of market competition force all capitalists to seek out technological and organizational changes that will enhance their own profitability vis-a-vis the social average, thus entraining all capitalists in leap-frogging processes of innovation that reach their limit only under conditions of massive labour surpluses.
Capitalism is necessarily technologically dynamic, not because of the mythologized capacities of the innovative entrepreneur but because of the coercive laws of competition and the conditions of class struggle endemic to capitalism.
The effect of continuous innovation, however, is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills.
Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. Not only does the life of modern industry become a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis, and stagnation, ‘but the uncertainty and instability to which machinery subjects the employment, and consequently the conditions of existence, of the operatives become normal.’
All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the workers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (Capital, 1: 604)
The struggle to maintain profitability sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to redouble their efforts to create new needs in others. The result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of capital and workers shift from one line of production to another, leaving whole sectors devastated, while the perpetual flux in consumer wants, tastes, and needs becomes a permanent locus of uncertainty and struggle. This is global in scope.
The resultant transformation in the experience of space and place is matched by revolutions in the time dimension, as capitalists strive to reduce the turnover time of their capital to ‘the twinkling of an eye’. Capitalism, in short, is a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history. If, therefore, ‘the only ‘secure thing about modernity is insecurity,’ then it is not hard to see from where that insecurity derives.
Yet, Marx insists, there is a single unitary principle at work that underpins and frames all of this revolutionary upheaval, fragmentation, and perpetual insecurity. The principle resides in what he calls, most abstractly, ‘value in motion’ or, more simply, the circulation of capital restlessly and perpetually seeking new ways to garner profits.
By the same token, there are higher-order co-ordinating systems that seem to have the power – though in the end Marx will insist that this power is itself transitory and illusory – to bring order to all this chaos and set the path of capitalist modernization on a more stable terrain. The credit system, for example, embodies a certain power to regulate money uses; money flows can be switched so as to stabilize relations between production and consumption, to arbitrate between current expenditures and future needs, and to shift surpluses of capital from one line of production or region to another on a rational basis.
But here, too, we immediately encounter a central contradiction because credit creation and disbursement can never be separated from speculation. Credit is, according to Marx, always to be accounted for as ‘fictitious capital,’ as some kind of money bet on production that does not yet exist. The result is a permanent tension between what Marx calls ‘the financial system’ (credit paper, fictitious capital, financial instruments of all kinds) and its ‘monetary base’ (until recently attached to some tangible commodity such as gold or silver). This contradiction is founded on a particular paradox: money has to take some tangible form (gold, coin, notes, entries in a ledger, etc.) even though it is a general representation of all social labour.
The question of which of the diverse tangible representations is ‘real’ money typically erupts at times of crisis. Is it better to hold stocks and share certificates, notes, gold, or cans of tuna, in the midst of a depression? It also follows that whoever controls the tangible form (the gold producers, the state, the banks who issue credit) that is most ‘real’ at a given time, has enormous social influence, even if, in the last instance, it is the producers and exchangers of commodities in aggregate who effectively define ‘the value of money’ (a paradoxical term which we all understand, but which technically signifies ‘the value of value’).
Control over the rules of money formation is, as a consequence, a strongly contested terrain of struggle which generates considerable insecurity and uncertainty as to the ‘value of value.’ In speculative booms, a financial system which starts out by appearing as a sane device for regulating the incoherent tendencies of capitalist production, ends up becoming ‘the main lever for overproduction and over-speculation.’
The state, constituted as a coercive system of authority that has a monopoly over institutionalized violence, forms a second organizing principle through which a ruling class can seek to impose its will not only upon its opponents but upon the anarchical flux mentioned above. The tools of ‘control’ include:
regulation of money and legal guarantees of fair market contracts
provision of social and physical infrastructures
direct control over capital and labour allocations as well as over wages and prices,
the nationalization of key sectors,
restrictions on working class power,
police surveillance and military repression.
Yet the state is a territorial entity struggling to impose its will upon a fluid and spatially open process of capital circulation. It has to contest within its borders the factional forces and fragmenting effects of widespread individualism and rapid social change. It also depends on taxation and credit markets, so that states can be disciplined by the circulation process at the same time as they can seek to promote particular strategies of capital accumulation.
To do so effectively the state must construct an alternative sense of community to that based on money, as well as a definition of public interests over and above the class and secretarian interests and struggles that are contained within its borders. It must, in short, legitimize itself.
It is, therefore, bound to engage to some degree in the aestheticization of politics.
‘The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past,’ Marx argues, ‘but only from the future.’ It must strip off ‘all superstition in regard to the past,’ else ‘the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’ and converts the cathartic tragedy of revolution into the ritual of farce. In pitting himself so mercilessly against the power of myth and the aestheticization of politics, Marx in effect affirms their remarkable powers to stifle progressive working-class revolutions.
Marx criticised Bonapartism as doing just this, and we can criticse Facism as doing the same in the 20th century.
The tension between the stability that state regulation imposes, and the fluid motion of capital flow, remains a crucial problem for the social and political organization of capitalism. This difficulty is modified by the way in which the state stands itself to be disciplined by internal forces (upon which it relies for its power) and external conditions – competition in the world economy, exchange rates, and capital movements, migration, or, on occasion, direct political interventions on the part of superior powers.
The relation between capitalist development and the state has to be seen, therefore, as mutually determining rather than unidirectional. State power can, in the end, be neither more nor less stable than the political economy of capitalist modernity will allow.
There are, however, many positive aspects to capitalist modernity:
The potential for reducing the powers of nature-imposed necessities over our lives.
The creation of new wants and needs can alert us to new cultural possibilities (of the sort that avant-garde artists were later to explore).
Even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual.
The reduction of spatial barriers and the formation of the world market not only allows a generalized access to the diversified products of different regions and climes, but also puts us into direct contact with all the peoples of the earth.
Above all, the passage to postmodernity opens up new vistas for human development and self-realization.
Revolutions in technology rendered possible by the division of labour and the rise of the materialist sciences had the effect of demystifying the processes of production (aptly called ‘mysteries’ and ‘arts’ in the pre-modern period) and opening up the capacity to liberate society from scarcity and the more oppressive aspects of nature-imposed necessity. This was the good side of capitalist modernization.
The problem, however, was to liberate us from the fetishisms of market exchange and to demystify (and by extension demythologize) the social and historical world in exactly the same way. This was the scientific task that Marx set himself in Capital.
However, until we reach socialism, there is always the possibility for nature to be re-mythologised.
It is out of the tension between the negative and positive qualities of capitalism that new ways to define our species being can be constructed: Capital may well create Bourgeois society and all of the exploitation and fetishisms that go along with it, but Capital also drives beyond national barriers and prejudices and beyond nature worship…. [beyond] all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproduction of old ways of life. (Grundrisse, 410)
Marx gives us plenty of advice on how we might fuse all the sporadic though widespread resistances, discontents, and struggles against the oppressive, destructive, fragmenting, and destabilizing aspects of life under capitalism so as to master the maelstrom and become collective creators of our own history according to conscious plan.
What Marx depicts, therefore, are social processes at work under capitalism conducive to individualism, alienation, fragmentation, ephemerality, innovation, creative destruction, speculative development, unpredictable shifts in methods of production and consumption (wants and needs), a shifting experience of space and time, as well as a crisis-ridden dynamic of social change. If these conditions of capitalist modernization form the material context out of which both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and cultural producers forge their aesthetic sensibilities, principles, and practices, it seems reasonable to conclude that the turn to postmodernism does not reflect any fundamental change of social condition.
The rise of postmodernism either represents a departure (if such there is) in ways of thinking about what could or should be done about that social condition, or else (and this is the proposition we explore in considerable depth in Part II) it reflects a shift in the way in which capitalism is working these days.
In either case, Marx’s account of capitalism, if correct, provides us with a very solid basis for thinking about the general relations between modernization, modernity, and the aesthetic movements that draw their energies from such conditions.
Education teaches us specialist skills for work – At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs. This allows for a complex division of labour to take place.
Role Allocation and meritocracy – Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy
The reproduction of class inequality and the myth of meritocracy – In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced
School teaches the skills future capitalist employers need through the ‘Hidden Curriculum (e.g. pupils Learn to accept authority; they learn to accept hierarchy, and motivation by external rewards)
Willis described the friendship between the 12 boys (or the lads) he studied as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work. The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.
Stereotypical views of teachers and careers advisors as well as peer group pressure means that subject choices are still shaped by traditional gender norms – which limits the kind of jobs boys and girls go onto do in later life.
Even though girls do better at school, they still get paid less than men, so qualifications do not necessarily result in more pay!
The mid 1970s was a time of rising unemployment in Britain, particularly among the young. It was argued that the education system was not producing a skilled enough workforce and that the needs of the economy were not being met. From the mid 1970s both the Conservative and Labour governments agreed that education should be more focussed on improving the state of the economy by providing training courses for young people in different areas of work.
This emphasis on meeting the needs of industry became known as ‘New Vocationalism’ which first took off in the 1980s.
One of they key ideas of Marxist criminologists is that the Law is made by the property owning Capitalist class and serves their interests.
(NB You might like to review the perspective by reading this long-form post on the Marxist theory of crime more generally before continuing…)
The issue of tax avoidance, which means legally bending the rules to avoid paying tax, is one of the best examples of how the legal system surrounding tax is structured in such a way that allows the wealthy to set up ‘shell companies’ in tax-havens to avoid paying tax on their income and investments….
Such methods can only ever benefit the rich as you need to be quite wealthy to be able to afford the legal and accountancy fees associated with doing this, so these methods are not really available to average, or even moderately high income individuals.
To my mind, the most notorious example of a tax avoider from 2017 was Lewis Hamilton, who used the ‘off shore’ method to get a £3 million VAT rebate on his £16 million private jet.
The Lewis Hamilton story was revealed as part of the ‘Paradise Papers’ leak – which consists of 13.4 million documents from offshore legal service providers such as Appleby covering seven decades, from 1950 to 2016. Tax-dodging is a very common practice by the wealthy!
Focussing on Corporate Tax Dodgers rather than individuals…
Corporate Tax Dodgers: the UK’s Worst Offenders – This article lists Google and Gary Barlow (or rather the Corporate entity ‘Take That’ as among the UK’s worst tax-dodgers, although it doesn’t distinguish between tax evasion (which is illegal) and tax avoidance (which isn’t)… I especially love the fact that it was put together (as basically an advert) by an accountancy firm in the North East of England – one of England’s poorest regions and thus the most likely to suffer from lower government revenue to tax dodging.
On a similar theme this Daily Mail article outlines with more clarity the Corporations avoiding Tax – including some very big names such as Café Nero and Vodafone, and LOTS more!
Lord Bassam, Labour’s soon to be chief whip in the House of Lords has just agreed to repay £41 000 in expenses. The peer claimed a remarkable £260 000 over seven years to cover the cost of his accommodation in London, despite the fact that during that time, he commuted daily to his accommodation in London, a trip for which he claimed an additional £41 000 in travel expenses.
It might appear that logic would dictate that one of these must be a Fraudulent claim, a fraud committed against the UK taxpayer who pays these expenses, given that you can’t do both at the same time!
However, no sanctions or prosecutions were brought against Lord Bassam, because peers of Lord Bassam do not define his actions as a Fraud, just a ‘breach of the rules’.
Imagine if this had been someone in work claiming benefits – it’s pretty much the same thing! It’s a fraud against the UK taxpayer – the state would have taken action action against such a person.
This is a great illustration not only of how crime is socially constructed, but also yet more supporting evidence for the Marxist view of crime – in this case that ‘fraud’ is only ‘fraud’ when it’s being ‘committed’ by the poor.
Lord Bassam is far from the only only criminal peer: a recent study identified 16 ‘silent’ peers who had collectively claimed about £400 000 in expenses and daily allowances, over a year in which they had made no contribution whatsoever to debate.
Family, friends, gifting and food, these are the main things which people say makes ‘Christmas important to them’, at least according to a survey carried out by YouGov this time last year, on behalf of the British Humanist Association…
And less than 25% of the population seem to think religion is an important part of Christmas, at least as measured by the two questions in this particular survey (about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and attending a religious ceremony), both of which tap into whether people actually do anything ‘religiously active’ to celebrate the tradition.
Personally I’m inclined to think the results of this survey as valid, as this is an online survey (so anonymous) and people get to choose (NB the format of the above version varies slightly to how the original was administered!
The Social (Media) Construction of Christmas
Some oddball versions of the history of Christmas take it all the way back to the birth of someone called Jesus Christ, but the modern (real?) version of Christmas didn’t really start to take shape until the 19th Century….In other words Christmas is a social construction…
Goose was the popular choice for Christmas dinners for generations. Middle-class families with lots of relatives might go for a boar’s head, while the seriously rich showed off with a swan. The turkey really took off with the Victorians after Charles Dickens had Scrooge ordering a turkey in A Christmas Carol.
The mastermind behind the Christmas cracker was a London sweetshop owner called Tom Smith. In 1847, after spotting French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end, he started selling similar sweets with a “love motto” inside.
They were so popular as a Christmas novelty that Tom made them bigger and included a trinket. But the real flash of inspiration came when he poked the fire and a log exploded with a sharp CRACK! That gave him the idea for a package that went off with a bang. By 1900 he was selling 13 million a year.
The red robes, white beard, and booming ho-ho-hos we associate with Santa Clause has only existed since 1935, when this colour-combo was created Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola campaign.
In previous lives he was thinner and paler, a character based on a 4th Century Asian bishop called Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children in most of Europe. Different countries still have their own variations on the theme, but the coca-cola version has pushed them all to the cultural margins.
And personally, I can’t imagine Christmas without Christmas Movies, and especially Christmas Songs. I mean in one sense, Christmas didn’t really exist before 1986….
A Marxist Analysis of Christmas…
A broadly (read ‘simplified’) Marxist approach to Christmas would probably highlight the extent to which Christmas has been hijacked by Corporations to become hideously commercialized, with advertising basically manipulating us into spending money on shit we don’t need which puts us into debt and makes profit for Corporations.
An important part of this which links to the family is that Christmas is a key event which reproduces the norms of materialism and consumption – as kids come to expect lots of shit they don’t need. This also links very nicely (horrifically) into Toxic Childhood.
This all certainly seems to tie in with the gendered results from the BH survey above – women seem to be more involved with Christmas than men.
One final thing…. there is maybe a hint of frustration in the results of this survey from YouGov…. Is it Father Christmas, or Santa Claus? Of course men are more likely to the think the former, and women more likely the later…evidence of female frustration at the Patriarchy, or is that reading too much into it?!?
And Something Extra…
Black Lives Matter are currently calling on people to boycott a ‘white Christmas’, which basically involves not shopping with white corporations in order to divest them of money, and to invest in black shops by shopping only in them.
I could only stomach one episode, which I watched to confirm my suspicions about the general format and broader function of this series – it basically consists of The Berry visiting Lords in their large estates, and having a jolly nice time cooking for them and dining with them….. making it seem as if ‘they’re just like us’.
From a Marxist Perspective the narrow and uncritical agenda of this show perpetuates the class structure through suggesting that we should identity with the elite.
The truth is, according to a broadly Marxist analysis, that these Lords and Ladies are are not like us- they mix in their own privileged circles and ‘fine dining’ is precisely one of the mechanisms they use to distinguish themselves from us ‘plebs’.
The deeper truth is that this ascribed status, which people are born into through sheer luck, is an affront to meritocracy – and needs to be challenged, or at the very least questioned, rather than ‘doffed’, like The Berry does.
Then again, and again from a Marxist point of view, what would you expect from The Berry? Doffing to the elite class above you is a widely used tactic by the upper middle classes (you see it in the Daily Mail a lot, when they defer to the royals), suggesting that the majority of the rest of us, like Gregg Wallace, in The Berry’s case, should doff their working class caps to her.
At least according to Marxism… these views in no way represent my own on the matter!