Tag Archives: Middle Class

Christmas is for Capitalists: The Bourgeois History of American Yuletide Ideology

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise fumes stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

A depiction of a 19th century middle class New York Christmas. The amount of bourgeoise stuffed into the this image is enough to make you want to reach for a guillotine.

The middle class is a big deal in American society. Last year, America’s ever-observant punditocracy, including southern-fried campaign guru and Gollum look-alike James Carville, harped endlessly about how corporate Democrat Barack Obama and Montgomery Burns stand-in Mitt Romney waged their electoral battle royal in the name of the American middle class. President Obama dived head-first into this quadrennial tradition of bourgeois boot-licking, blowing past Romney in terms of the number of times he mentioned the phrase “middle class” in campaign speeches.

American politicians universally exist as servants/toadies for the country’s oligarchs, but they nonetheless pepper their campaign rhetoric with appeals to the middle class because bourgeois identity may as well be considered “American identity.” Want proof of this? Look no further than Christmas.

That’s right: Christmas, perhaps more than any other American tradition, has promulgated the ideal of a middle-class ideology that sanctifies capitalist conspicuous consumption (alliteration is always alluring) and warm, hearth-centered family togetherness as an antidote to cold (literally and figuratively, being December) external worldly ills. Since its emergence in the nineteenth century as the dominating signifier of American cultural identity, consumer capitalism has marched arm-in-arm with Christmas to create a highly idealized seasonal tradition that promotes excessive market consumption and middle-class, “on the make” values as synonymous with American identity.

Sure, that stuff about a deified Jewish kid being born in a livestock trough after his supernaturally inseminated mother was refused admittance to the Bethlehem Best Western has always been an important component of American Christmas, but Americans even celebrate that story through the ritual of consumerism — just look for yourself. It’s always been that way, and as long as Americans continue to bow down to the omniscient and ever-wise god of the marketplace, malls and Amazon.com will continue to be the holiday temples in which they do the majority of their December genuflection.

The idea of Christmas as middle-class consumer ritual is less a value judgement than it is a statement of reality. Shameless capitalism, the engine of bourgeois domestic ideology, is as Christmassy as Tiny Tim and a swaddled up infant deity. As scholar of popular culture Sheila Whiteley observes in Christmas, Ideology, and Popular Culture, the idea of a ‘traditional Christmas’ evokes “a concern for the family, children, and family-centred activities, the rituals and expectations framing gift-giving and receiving, and an idealized nostalgia for the past, which prioritizes themes of neighbourliness, charity and community.”* Christmas ideology is middle-class ideology. It was the construction of a new leisured class, born in the nineteenth century, that had the time and the money to envision family togetherness and the exchange of mass-produced market goods as a traditional annual ritual, rather than as the relatively recent historical development.

Historian Mary Ryan notes in her classic book Cradle of the Middle Class that the early nineteenth century transition of the American socio-economic structure away from a predominantly agricultural framework towards an economy increasingly characterized by industrial mass-production fundamentally reshaped the American home and family. As Americans farmed less and shopped more, their identities shifted to accommodate an increasingly reliance on the market economy. “The family’s economic unity was now expressed primarily at the point of consumption rather than production,” Ryan writes, “the separation of the place of work from the place of residence was of central historical importance.”*

Ironically, the new middle-class domestic homes couldn’t have come into existence without the market from which they were supposed to be separate. Those domestic shelters were created by an industrializing society in which white-collar work became increasingly distinct from older forms of manual work. The rise of a non-laboring, white-collar middle class brought about an increase in market consumption, and that consumption, in turn, helped weld bourgeois identity to shopping. Thus, as historian Stuart Blumin writes, “with its new-found wealth, the non-manual stratum soon moved into fashionable homes, and the formal parlor became the recognized hallmark of middle-class life.” As middle-class homes flourished, distinct “patterns of consumption” emerged, and store-bought items such as carpets, sofas, pianos — and yes, Christmas presents — came to define the lifestyle of a new leisured class.*

A middle class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesey of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

A middle-class, commercial Christmas embodied in a 1951 ad for Plymouth automobiles, courtesy of Norman Rockwell. Christmas is better with family, presents, and a new car.

Christmas emerged during the Victorian era as a holiday that fed the ideological needs of the new middle class. They had money to spend and fancy homes to decorate, and Christmas gave them an annual excuse to load up on mass-produced joy. Cultural historian John Storey puts it bluntly when he explains that, “Christmas was invented first and foremost as a commercial event. Everything that was revived or invented – decorations, cards, crackers, collections of carols…visiting Santa Claus and buying presents — all had one thing in common: they could be sold for profit.” Indeed, Storey notes that Christmas was, and is, a celebration of “the achievements of industrial capitalism — conspicuous consumption in a market economy.”* And as much as Victorian Brits embraced leisurely holiday buying, Americans soon proved that they could out-capitalist even their Industrial Revolution-spawning cousins across the pond.

Historian George McKay notes that by the 1860s, the American economy had been thoroughly transformed by the acceleration of Western capitalism. The transition from an agricultural to an urban nation that began in the early part of the century fed demand for an economy increasingly based on production and consumption. These cultural trends provided the perfect breeding ground for that most American of creatures: the department store. Department stores “made a new shopping leisure experience and consumerist lifestyle possible.”* American shoppers had more money and flashier homes that housed kids eager to receive store-purchased items, and what holiday symbolized family togetherness and domestic bliss via gift-giving and excessive consumption? Christmas, of course.

It’s no surprise, then, that perhaps the most recognized of American Christmas icons, Santa Claus, is also an icon of capitalism itself. Santa Claus became a fixture of American department stores by the late-nineteenth century, and what a commercial symbol he was: who better to symbolize capitalism than an obese, bearded, cookie craving, near dictatorial factory owner who rules over a diminutive, proletariat army that slaves all year to mass produce the products over which middle-class American kids salivate? The ‘deity of materialism,’ as one scholar labels old Claus, perfectly embodies the modern American fusion of Christmas and capitalism, as evidence by the prominent role he’s played in advertising everything from Coca-Cola, to Lucky Strike cigarettes, to M & Ms.* Its ironic, then, that Santa Claus and Karl Marx sort of resemble each other: one railed in vain against capitalism, while the other developed into the smiling, grandfatherly symbol of world-dominating bourgeois excess.

Santa Claus once hocked cigarrettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Santa Claus once hawked cigarettes. Dude, Santa, not cool.

Of course, American materialist consumption at Christmas hasn’t been historically limited to the store. After all, gifts purchased in stores were meant to be enjoyed in the warm domestic bliss of homes populated with kith and kin. When industrial capitalism took hold of food production, it helped create yet another American holiday consumer tradition in the form of the “traditional” Christmas dinner. Yet, as food historian Cathy Kaufman writes, “Christmas dinner” became popular “only in the mid-nineteenth century, when turkey with gravy, stuffing, potatoes, and plum pudding was hailed as the quintessential American Christmas dinner” that emulated the Cratchit family meal in Charles Dickens’ Victorian era classic, A Christmas Carol (1843).* Although the ingredients that make up the “traditional” American Christmas dinner have changed over the years, the idea that there had to be some kind of middle-class, home-bound, family centered holiday feast remained a core element of the commercial festival that is American Christmas.

So the next time you’re out at the mall in December and you feel a bit sick amidst the shameless commercialism displayed by your fellow shoppers, try to remember that, historically, Christmas has never been some kind of spiritually pure tradition that was separate from the cold, secular whims of the marketplace. The marketplace made Christmas, and the American middle class long ago adopted Christmas as the quintessential bourgeois holiday that best embodied the virtues of domesticity, family, consumption, and leisurely living. To criticize Christmas commercialism is to criticize the very middle-class values that have become synonymous with American values. No wonder American politicians consistently pander to the middle class: they’re the only group who can claim their own world-renowned holiday.

* See Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 2.

* See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 231.

* See Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 155.

* See John Storey, “The Invention of the English Christmas,” in Sheila Whiteley, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, 20.

* See George McKay, “Consumption, Coca-colonization, Cultural Resistance – and Santa Claus,” in Whiteley, ed., 52, 54.

* See Cathy Kaufman, “The Ideal Christmas Dinner,” Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture 4 (Fall, 2004): 17.

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On Liberalism: Its Faults and its Historical Necessity

Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought,

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m a political liberal. I make no apologies for this stance, and have spent plenty of time on this blog critiquing conservatism as a political theory. Simply put, I think that an examination of modern history supplies sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism, despite its many flaws, remains the best hope for individual freedom and small “r” republicanism in the modern world. 

Liberalism, therefore, must be preserved and vigorously defended against the relentless conservative onslaught that, for decades, has sought to delegitimize it in the eyes of the American public. On many fronts, the Right has succeeded in doing just that, often with the unknowing aid of wishy-washy lefties who are quick to descend into hyperbolic pits of despair in moments when their ideas and policies falter. But this doesn’t mean that liberals shouldn’t critique their ideas in order to make them better and to justify why such ideas are superior to those of the Right in terms of extending freedom in America and across the globe.

In a recent article for Salon, noted liberal Andrew O’Hehir provides a brutal critique of modern liberalism via what he calls the “monumental catastrophe of the Obamacare rollout.” Crucial to O’Hehir’s critique is the notion that liberalism suffers when its ideas and policies are watered down in a futile effort to make them palatable to conservatives who are hostile to liberalism as a basic political philosophy. Hence, by eschewing any type of single-payer program and, instead, basing Obamacare on a conservative model of mandated individual private insurance, President Obama and Congress created a law that sought an unattainable balance between states’ rights and federal power. The result, O’Hehir observes, was “a complicated mishmash with dozens of brand-new moving parts.” The complexity of the health care law allowed for “red-state resistance and bureaucratic incompetence” that made the law’s initial rollout a qualified mess.

O’Hehir views Obamacare’s difficult rollout as indicative of a broader problem that reveals the still inherent weakness of liberalism in the 21st century:

[T]he fact that a Democratic president who’s perceived as a liberal and has been comfortably elected twice had to fight so hard for such a patchwork law testifies to the ideological weakness of his party, which has been dragged inexorably to the right ever since its historic schism between Cold War liberals and antiwar activists in 1968, and often appears to have no clear principles and no core constituency beyond New York lawyers and Hollywood celebrities.

This is a biting indictment of liberalism made all the more harsh given that is comes from one of its own. But O’Hehir’s critique rings true because it hits at what has always been liberalism’s strength, as well as its weakness: its commitment to equality. Unlike conservatism, which views freedom and equality as incompatible, liberalism seeks equality of opportunity in a world where hierarchies are the norm. Conservatism, at its core, is a political philosophy that defends hierarchies, whether earned or unearned, because it sees hierarchies as essential to maintaining social order. Thus, as O’Hehir notes, liberalism does itself no favors by “moving inexorably to the right,” thereby diluting its commitment to challenging hierarchical powers that pose a threat to human freedom.

Ideologically, liberalism’s commitment to equality has given it a moral edge over conservatism by providing a trenchant critique of the Right’s historical defense of social hierarchies as ends unto themselves. In the realm of policy, however, liberalism’s defence of equality has often necessitated much more universal support for liberal programs. Conservatism is a philosophy predicated on hierarchical social divisions. Rather than seeking universal appeal, conservatism needs only to gain enough popular support to bolster the power of the ruling classes. Liberalism’s task is more difficult. Because it often seeks to challenge the power of entrenched ruling classes, liberalism must gain a broader base of support from various subordinate classes that, historically, have been far more willing to either side with the ruling classes, or divide amongst themselves. Such tendencies have made broad-based political challenges to conservatism difficult to sustain, a fact embodied in Will Rogers‘ classic quip: “I’m not a member of any organized political party…I’m a Democrat.”

In the rest of this post, I’m going to further discuss liberalism’s flaws, but I’m also going to offer a firm defence of liberalism – especially in contrast to conservatism – as the political philosophy that offers the best hope for preserving both individual freedom and democracy in the 21st century and beyond.

Modern American liberalism reached its peak during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privilged jerks everywhere.

Modern American liberalism reached the peak of its powers during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privileged jerks everywhere.

Before going any further, I should at least explain what liberalism is. In his book The Future of Liberalism, political scientist Alan Wolfe defines the basic, core principle of liberalism as this: “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” A commitment to liberty and equality underlies liberalism. As Wolfe notes, liberals want equality to extend beyond the aristocratic class or the business elite via equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. “Liberals,” he writes, “believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such as way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective.”*

In contrast to conservative claims that liberty can best be achieved via free markets and the absence of state intervention, liberals believe in a “positive liberty,” which holds that human flourishing should not be reduced to a series of monetary exchanges. Thus, it is not enough for a free person to be merely “left alone” by the state; a free person should also have the capacity to realize her own personal goals, and liberals are “prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”* In his book American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time, an excellent compliment to Wolfe’s study, political scientist John McGowan quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel to succinctly define liberalism as a philosophy favoring both ‘individual rights’ and ‘a form of distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities.’* Liberalism, then, recognizes that equality is absolutely essential to ensuring individual freedom and the functioning of democratic societies.

The value that liberals place on equality is what puts them at odds with conservatives, who view equality as, at best, an unachievable state, and at worst, an impediment to individual freedom because it rejects the role that organic social hierarchies play in maintaining social order. In a 1790 speech, one of conservatism’s towering thinkers, the Irish political theorist Edmund Burke, outlined conservatism’s preference for hierarchy when he described the implications of the French Revolution:

It was the case of common soldiers deserting from their officers, to join a furious, licentious populace. It was a desertion to a cause the real object of which was to level all those institutions, and to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination: to raise soldiers against their officers, servants against their masters, tradesmen against their customers, artificers against their employers, tenants against their landlords, curates against their bishops, and children against their parents. That this cause of theirs was not an enemy to servitude, but to society.*

Here, Burke outlined his core reasoning for why liberalism, as unleashed by the chaos of the French Revolution, was dangerous. Liberalism entailed the overturning of what Burke considered to be the “natural” hierarchies that held society together through a “chain of subordination.” And why did Burke consider this to be so dangerous? Because those in power, whether they be employers, landlords, or clergy, always view their rule as “natural.” They therefore view rule by the subordinate classes as an “unnatural” affront to social order. This is why political scientist Corey Robin characterizes conservatism as “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Winning back power restores order, and conservatives view equality as a threat to order.

Edmund Burke still stands as as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

Edmund Burke still stands as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

The need for order was a central tenet of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, one of the core texts of modern American conservatism. “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order,” Goldwater writes. He rightly observed that freedom is impossible if one man can deny to another “the exercise of his freedom,” but, like conservatives throughout history, Goldwater postulates that state intervention in the marketplace more often than not diminishes freedom by overturning orders that conservatives view as “natural.”* These so-called “natural” orders, however, tend to be defined by those who have the power in society and, by extension, have the most to gain and maintain by describing their rule as “natural.” It’s no surprise, then, that those “natural” rulers tend to be conservative.

Liberalism has fallen short of its goals, and witnessed its greatest failures, when it has failed to convince the majority of society that their interests are not synonymous with those of the ruling few. In some historical instances, such as the Democratic Party’s failure to unite its middle class, socially liberal wing with its more traditional working-class supporters, liberals are to blame for their own messaging failures. But liberals also face a more difficult task than do conservatives: they must consistently forge broad-based coalitions in order to maintain support for their cause.

As Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson note in their study The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, liberal unity has historically fallen prey to ugly American divisions that strengthen conservatives’ political power. “Liberals’ inability to unite the poor and the middle classes in America,” Alterman and Mattson write, “is profoundly complicated by historical circumstances – specifically the divisions of race…that continue to define so many citizens’ identities.” Liberalism’s failures, they conclude, can often be explained by the fact that people “do not generally appreciate subsidizing, through tax and transfer policies, the lifestyle’s of those they deem to be different from themselves.”*

The less-than-successful rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges bares such hallmarks: it is a law that could never gain broad popular support beyond its component parts. Conservatives exploited widespread fears that Obamacare would redistribute wealth from whites to “lazy” minorities, leading the president and his Democratic Congress to compromise the bill into a complicated mess that attempted to please everyone but ended up pleasing almost no one.

By compromising with conservatives, who have little interest in a functioning government that uses its power to ensure greater freedom to individuals left at the mercy of insurance companies, liberals failed to fully embrace and defend their commitment to universal equality. This does not mean that Obamacare can not work, or that the president should not make it work to benefit of all Americans. Rather, Obamacare’s rocky introduction should push liberals to defend their ideas with greater confidence, and recognize that caving to the Right’s demands in the name of short-term political gain ultimately weaken’s liberalism’s overall political hand. Americans get behind leaders who are firm in their convictions, and if liberalism is to regain its once prominent stature in American society, it must first convince voters that it has backbone. In that respect, liberals have their work cut out for them.

* See Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 10-13.

* See  John McGowan, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 8.

* See Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (New York: Viking, 2012), 465.

* See Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (New York: Viking, 1960), 5, 3.

The real history of the “war on Christmas”

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commericalization of Christmas in the form of alluminum mass-produced Christmas trees.

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commercialization of Christmas in the form of aluminum, mass-produced Christmas trees. In an attempt to push back against the sanctification of mass consumption, Charlie Brown opts for a small wooden tree, and gets called a “blockhead” for his troubles.

If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus. 

Labor Day in the New Gilded Age

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper's Weekly Magazine

United States Infantry square off against Chicago workers in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper’s Weekly Magazine

Well, its Labor Day 2013, a national holiday in both the U.S. and Canada bolstered by an idea — that the national economy thrives when we recognize workers’ contributions to creating an economic system based on broadly shared prosperity — that seems more and more hopelessly symbolic in the New Gilded Age. In the contemporary U.S., American income inequality has reached pre-Great Depression-era levels, private sector unionization is now a pale shadow of its former strength thanks to 30-plus years of concerted right wing ideological and policy assaults, and public sector unions seem destined for collapse for the very same reason.

So what is the status of labor in 2013? And does Labor Day still mean anything to most people other than serving as a nice three-day weekend for cook outs — if you’re lucky enough to get the day off, of course? Writing in the New York Times, the immortal Paul Krugman reminds us that Labor Day was born in a previous age when, like today, government and industry colluded to suppress the rights of workers:

Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.

Even more depressing for Krugman is that after decades of hard-won concessions from America’s industrial titans that made labor a major player in American economic and political policy, in 2013 the very idea of labor has been so devalued by the force of conservatism in America that the New Gilded Age may be harder to break than the previous one:

You might ask why we should provide any aid to working Americans — after all, they aren’t completely destitute. But the fact is that economic inequality has soared over the past few decades, and while a handful of people have stratospheric incomes, a far larger number of Americans find that no matter how hard they work, they can’t afford the basics of a middle-class existence — health insurance in particular, but even putting food on the table can be a problem. Saying that they can use some help shouldn’t make us think any less of them, and it certainly shouldn’t reduce the respect we grant to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

But obviously that’s not the way everyone sees it. In particular, there are evidently a lot of wealthy people in America who consider anyone who isn’t wealthy a loser — an attitude that has clearly gotten stronger as the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has widened. And such people have a lot of friends in Washington.

As political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson incontrovertibly demonstrate in Winner-Take All Politics, their essential study of the creation of the New Gilded Age, the loss of working peoples’ place at the political table was not the inevitable, irreversible result of globalization and technological advancement — a claim consistently made by U.S. conservatives. Rather, the growth of an ultra-powerful one percent that controls most of the country’s wealth, despite their numerical minority status, is the result of a an intentional, concerted effort by businesses and right-wing organizations to destroy organized labor and, more importantly, to destroy and delegitimize the very idea of labor as a valuable contributor to the nation’s broader economic and social well-being.

History shows us, however, from the French Revolution to the growth of strikes in authoritarian China, that nations ruled by oligarchies always exist at the cusp of instability. Revolutions, whether in France, Mexico, China, Russia, and elsewhere are historically born out of vast discrepancies in income distribution. A national economy based on broad-based prosperity, in which the rich can be quite rich — but not as obscenely rich as today’s financial oligarchs — is an economy that is healthy and inoculated against revolution. On that note, Labor Day deserves to be more than just a day for cook outs. Americans could use a good-ole’-fashioned dose of workers’ rights not just for some, but for all.