In Praise of ‘Greed’: Communal Luxury and the Meaning of Christmas

Phobia-hatred: The Crusade against Dawkins and Greer and the Demonisation of Mental Illness
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July 3, 2016
By Bradley Tuck –
I used to hate Christmas, in many respects I still do. Of course, I almost always enjoy the occasion, but there often seems to be an unsettling hypocrisy that seems to intrude on my otherwise delightful process of unwrapping presents. Christmas is an occasion that seems riddled with religious nonsense, bullshit humanitarianism, dull consumerism and labour exploitation. People will readily tell you what the true meaning of Christmas is, but what they say often seems to fundamentally contradict the festival itself. It’s about Jesus! It’s about peace on earth, good will and the brotherhood of man! It is about giving! It’s about consumerism! It’s a pagan festival of revelry! Christmas is a festival that is fundamentally unable to know what it is. Christmas is a hodge-podge of conflicting and competing elements that never exactly gel and any purism looks likely to appear as a kind of hypocritical denial.
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Stained Glass Nativity Scene. Top Banner: Scrooge in A Muppets Christmas Carol

First off, let’s face it, Christmas is not about Jesus. Of course, I get you, Christ-mas, it’s actually named after the dude, so how can Christmas not be about Jesus? The problem is Christmas seems like a re-branding exercise that never fully worked. Christmas has been with us for millennia and it still feels like a pagan festival with a story about the birth of Jesus tagged on. Christmas trees? Yule logs? Presents? A massive feast? Maybe if you cut out these things and spend your day in the church praying to God, reading the bible, and watching nativity plays, then I might grant that this is a festival about the birth of Jesus. But that is hardly how most people experience it.
At best, Christmas is two festivals uncomfortably smooshed together: One about the birth of Jesus and the other a pagan celebration of revelry; a massive feast to get you through the winter and a story about a poor family looking for shelter. Unfortunately for the Jesus side of the equation, that story about the baby and the manger, immaculate conception and mass infant genocide doesn’t do much when everything else about Christmas stimulates our base brain. People find it much easier to identify with the food, the lights, the decorations, the tinsel, and all the sensory delights than they do with the biblical story. That isn’t to say that the story doesn’t have some exciting bits, some interesting unexpected twists, or some excitement and anticipation. The problem is we’ve heard it all before. Moreover, this festival would hardly have the same kind of power if it didn’t have a whole load of other things tagged on. Here I side with many Jehovah’s witnesses, if you really want to celebrate the life of Christ, Christmas is probably not the festival for you.
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Alistair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 film A Christmas Carol

Nor is Christmas about selfless giving or “goodwill, peace on earth and the brotherhood of man.” This Dickensian humanism equally reeks of denial. Christmas might involve giving, but it is hardly the altruistic, saintly type. Real existing Christmas is largely about reciprocal exchange. We spend most of the time trying to ensure that the presents we give have roughly equivalent value to the ones we receive. Of course, there is wriggle room here, conventions that ensure that little Timmy doesn’t have to slave away down the mine to ensure that he has a reciprocal gift for his parents. Yet Christmas is largely an occasion of where people give in proportion to what they expect to receive. If you were to suggest that families give away their worldly belongings to those in need and spend the day in an empty room eating dry crackers, you would most likely be called a humbug.
Christmas is not about giving, at least not that sort.
This is why I can’t really get behind the later Scrooge. Of course, his shift towards charitable generosity is an obvious improvement on his old incarnation, but there is something that reeks of dishonesty. Christmas, in actual practice, is not about that kind of generosity. It is a festival of indulgence founded upon labour exploitation, and to embrace it, in the name of offering a little back to those less fortunate, seems fundamentally blind to context. Isn’t this the problematic tendency within charitable acts and humanitarian good will generally? Charity and humanitarianism alone do little to illuminate the social structure that gave birth to the problems they try to alleviate.
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‘Do-gooder’ Mother Teresa and convicted swindler Charles Keating. Sourced here. Caption: “Mother Teresa with Charles Keating, the convicted Savings & Loan swindler from whom she received over a million dollars. In return, she sent a personal plea for Keating’s clemency to the trial judge.”

This is what is so nauseating about crude and sentimental do-gooders. In their desire to defend the most vulnerable, they often overlook the very causes of inequality. They ignore the complex socio-dynamics that give rise to particular problems and go for easy “feel good” answers. The irony is that easy feel good answers are the easiest to corrupt. That is why it is often hard to trust a do-gooder. From Mother Teresa to Jimmy Saville, do-gooders are often a dubious bunch. Do-gooders offer a way to quell our guilt and unease at the sight of injustices without actually changing the order of things. The fact that they often cozy up to conservative politicians and violent dictators often reveals where their true allegiances lie. Furthermore, humanitarianism and charity are often the perfect PR stunts; they offer a patronizing and degrading pity for the poor, and a moral aggrandizing of the giver. They demoralize the weakest and empower the already powerful. They do almost nothing to redistribute power itself.
It’s no wonder that warmongers love humanitarianism and paedophiles love charity. That’s why the idea that Christmas is about ‘good will’ should be viewed with the utmost suspicion. It easily slides into a PR stunt to hide the evil that people do.
In abandoning the idea that Christmas is about giving, it is tempting to vindicate the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is consumerism. Yet there is something about this claim that is, morally, hard to swallow. In reality, Christmas tends to amplify society’s tendency to induce misery for the many. As children, we were taught that our presents were made by little people in a far away land. This is often true, but it isn’t exactly the little people we imagined. Many Christmas presents will be the products of child labour, slavery, sweetshops and extreme exploitation.
For the first world working class, state regulation, at least for the time being, curbs some of the worst excesses. Yet even in the first world, Christmas seems to play up to the harshest criticisms of consumer capitalism. Christmas is often the worst kind of consumer festival, one that induces the working class to work longer, poorly paid hours in order to indulge in a short stint of consumer gluttony that offers little but stress and an existentially empty impulse to buy, buy, buy. Aesthetically, the cultural elitist within me wouldn’t mind so much if this were a consumer festival that induced us to buy cool-ass music and awesome experimental cinema that expanded our horizons, but there is something about the collaboration between marketing moguls and the institution of the family (with its uncritical valorization of childhood) that produces a vomit inducing dreariness. That is why, whilst I might enjoy the opportunity to buy or receive nice things, I can’t uncritically celebrate consumerism. Christmas often exacerbates the worst side of consumer capitalism.
©ALPHA 050000 1989 MARGARET THATCHER. - PRESENTING A CHEQUE TO THE TV CELEBRITY JIMMY SAVILE LONDON.

‘Do-gooder’ and prolific sex offender Jimmy Savile and conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. ©ALPHA 050000 1989 MARGARET THATCHER. – PRESENTING A CHEQUE TO THE TV CELEBRITY JIMMY SAVILE LONDON.

This, of course, leaves us with a fourth potential meaning of Christmas (or more to the point, the winter solstice, that celebration that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year). This is the pagan interpretation. I like many of the elements in this interpretation. I like the fact that they give us the best excuse to simply indulge in revelry and fun. I like the fact that they brighten up an otherwise dark and miserable winter. But I have very little interest (apart from fleeting curiosity) in the pagan mythology of the yuletide. Of course, I would be open to learning more about it, but this is not what motivates me (nor most other people) when they want to have a fun Christmas.
Libertarian thinker and writer Ayn Rand

Libertarian thinker and writer Ayn Rand

Maybe we should propose a different meaning of this Yuletide festival; a distinctively modern one, one that can be summed up with the incendiary motto: “Greed is good”. Of course, I am aware that in saying this, I bring to mind yuppie spirit of the 1980s: a soulless solipsistic self-interest that wallows in short-term self-destructive impulses. Not all greed is good, but does this mean that all greed is bad? Selfless asceticism is itself a source of multiple ‘sins’. It is often born of a failure to truly care for the self and foster those indulgences that make life beautiful.
The free-market individualist Ayn Rand was, herself, alert to the dangers of altruism, especially the way it masked a sniveling self-hatred. She proposed instead an ethics of selfishness, which, as different as our resulting politics are, strikes me as interesting, nuanced and insightful. For her, altruism itself seemed to produce a perverse ethics of “anything goes”, an ethic deserving of the same criticism that was often directed at her (i.e. of offering a cold and empty nihilism.)

“Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action take for ones own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of the action is the only criterion of moral value – and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.” i

Rand saw in altruism a rejection of all substantive moral values, choosing instead to focus on the beneficiary of the action. The result was “appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards, the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history”ii.
Yet she was also aware that not all selfishness is good. She warned against “the kind of ‘Nietzschean egoists’ who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.”iii
Isn’t Walter White from the TV series Breaking Bad the perfect example of this kind of ‘counterfeit individualism’? Walter White is a chemistry teacher who, after discovering he has cancer, turns to producing crystal meth under the pretense (at least) of providing for his family after he dies. He likes to think of himself as the ultimate individual; a free market entrepreneur who will not sacrifice himself or his vision for anyone else.
walter-white-with-hat
He almost seems like a perfect ‘Randian’ (or in her own language, objectivist) hero and yet far from being too selfish, Walter White is often not selfish enough. He hungers for the kick of adrenaline that comes from taking risks, outmaneuvering his opponents and playing the bad boy in a similar way to how meth-heads seek their fix. Walter White might look like the true individual, but his ‘individualism’ is simply self-destruction that undermines everything and everyone he holds dear.
Genuine self-interest is not diametrically opposed to the interests of others, just as the interests of others are often entangled with our personal interests. This implies that not all self-interest is cold, cruel and solipsistic.
For Ayn Rand, what was needed was rational self-interest. Rational, because not any self-interest would do. Self-interested, because altruistic servitude did not realise mankind’s natural aptitudes. In contrast, altruism tended to demoralises man, it “permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man – a man who supports his life by his own efforts and neither sacrifices himself or others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites – and that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men – it permits no concept of justice.”iv
As strange as this may sound, in seeking to overcome the interplay between victims and parasites, Rand come close to Karl Marx, for whom such an interplay was to be found between the bourgeoisie who fed off of the living labour power of the proletariat, and the proletariat who depended for their survival on their wages from the bourgeoisie. Each found themselves dependent on the other and encumbered by each other. Through the creation of a new economic system, the communists of the 19th century sought to free mankind from this mutual enslavement. Isn’t this what is admirable about modernism in both its capitalist and communist forms? It sought to go beyond a crude Christian ethic of altruism and instead build towards a society of mutual self-interest, abandoning the crude moralism that kept mankind under the cosh of servitude and self-denial.
This brings us back to greed; a word that seems to evoke a kind of self-interested indulgence. If one part of the modernist project was that of overcoming a Christian moralism that required us to slavishly live for others, the other part was the promise of material plenty. They no longer looked to the hereafter for our salvation; instead salvation was to be found in technological industriousness. Capitalists, communists and anarchists alike promised a world of earthly abundance. Peter Kropotkin talked of a ‘need for luxury’v, Sylvia Pankhurst sought an economic system where all would “satisfy their needs without stint or measure” producing a world beyond “rationing and limiting of consumption”vi and the Paris commune called for “the inauguration of luxury of the whole community and the splendours of the future and the universal republic.”vii Yet the luxury imaged by Kropotkin, Pankhurst and the communards was not luxury for the few, but a luxury for all: a world of communal luxury.
This takes us back to Christmas. Christmas, at its best, ignites a communal spirit grounded in mutual self-interest and the indulgence of earthly plenty. It is in this respect, and not out of altruistic good will, that it approaches the brotherhood of man.
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Political philosopher and economist Karl Marx

Albeit in unrealized form, this is the positive message that the Christmas festival gestures towards; Communal luxury grounded in the mutual self-interest of all.
For all the exploitation, hypocrisy, stresses and strains, Christmas glimmers with a utopian potency. To adapt Marx’s comments on religion, Christmas “is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”viii Here we discover the proper ‘religious’ dimension of Christmas. It offers a momentary cessation of toil and misery and in its place provides a temporary heaven on earth. Christmas in providing temporary happiness illuminates the nature of real happiness: a cipher for the earthy dreams of the indulgence and self-interest of all.
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i Ayn Rand, “Introduction” in The Virtues of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (Signet: Penguin: New York. 1961/64) p. 5.
ii Ibid
iii Ibid p. 7
iv Ibid P. 6
v Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (First published 1906) (See https://libcom.org/library/conquestofbread1906peterkropotkin9)
vi Sylvia Pankhurst, Communism and its Tactics (Published 1921) (See https://libcom.org/library/communism-tactics-sylvia-pankhurst)
vii Declaration of the Artist’s Federation of the 1871 Paris Commune, quoted in Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy. (London: Haymarket Books. 2006/2011) p.33. Also see Kristen Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso. 2015)
viii Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) (see https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

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