I’ve been studying a lot of history, and what I’ve read over the past few years has led me to the conclusion that the ideals we associate with the Holidays here in the Anglo-Saxon world—spending time with our loved ones, taking a break from our labors, feasting, singing, dancing, and reveling; helping the poor, lonely and downtrodden; charity, fellowship and brotherhood; putting aside conflict and working for peace; cooperation; open-handed generosity; and just basically celebrating human-centered values….
…These were one just the way we acted 365 days a year.
In other words, before Capitalism, Christmas was year round.
Once upon a time, we all lived in gift economies. This was what “economic” behavior consisted of, not buying and selling with gold coins in impersonal markets, and certainly not trying to “profit” from the people in your community whom lived and worked with every day. This fact has been conclusively demonstrated by anthropology.
At Christmas, we revert to this atavistic gift-giving economy, with only conscience and sentiment compelling our behavior rather than necessity or rationality. It is not our instinctive nature to “truck and barter” as Adam Smith had it; it is our nature to be reciprocal, as even lesser primates demonstrate. We do not like to be only receivers; we like to be givers as well. Of course, we so today in the context of a wider capitalist economy (we still buy our presents from corporations, by and large). But the fact that we mark out a special time to revert to gift-giving is fascinating, and tells us something, I think. If there is some “natural” economic behavior based in human nature, then I believe this must be it.
Before the advent of Capitalism, European society was organized around the values promoted by the Catholic church. Of course, these were often honored far more in the breach than in the observance. Men aren’t angels, after all. But this was seen as the ideal for human society and human behavior, even if it was practically unattainable due to our fallen nature. Our fellow Christians were our brothers, and even charging interest on loans was forbidden.
Now, the ideal for human society—its lodestar, if you will—is making money, consumerism, and maximizing stock valuations and the Gross Domestic Product.
This was the “disembedding” of the economy from human-centered social values that I’ve talked about so often based on the ideas of Karl Polanyi. What became recast as “economic” behavior became permanently divorced from the moral order or pro-social behavior. Activities that would have once been looked down as immoral and sociopathic upon became celebrated above all others (such as raising the price of essential medicine for sick people). There once was such a thing as a moral economy.
Now we were expected to behave according to the cold, hard calculus of market logic; that is, rationally, selfishly and hedonistically. What was good for me was paramount; what was good for thee—or for the society—was not, even if some pseudo-philosophers like Bernard de Mandeville insisted that they were actually one in the same.
This, then, became the ideal, not Christian charity or brotherhood. Even more extraordinarily, such behavior became recast as man’s “natural” state—just the way humans are. And this is continually emphasized even today by evolutionary biologists who claim indisputable recourse to timeless scientific truth. Hence, any behavior which deviated from this norm—like charity, giving stuff away, renunciation, or working less—is, by definition, “unnatural”; aberrations marring a nominally “rational” human species. The conception of man as a social being defined in relation to his fellow man—as well as to the broader society in which he was embedded—was abandoned as a quaint, old-fashioned relic of ignorance and superstition. We were now all self-sufficient Robinson Crusoes, each washed ashore on our own private island.
And that’s where we are today. I think we’ve forgotten that it ever used to be another way.
However, during Christmas, we are granted “permission” to deviate from this behavior just a little bit—and for a limited amount of time. A “pass” as it were, to abandon the cold, hard logic of the market ethos to give stuff away, to be freely generous, to not care so much about money, to spend time in “nonproductive activities” (like caroling and decorating), and to just basically have fun without an overseer constantly looking over our shoulder (let the brandy flow!) When your neighbor invites you over for Christmas dinner because you are all alone at Christmas, they do not present you with a bill afterwards (well, some hard-core Ayn Rand supporters might, LoL).
The Holiday season allows us just a brief period to act in the ways we used to do all the time.
It’s at Christmas when we take a short break from the capitalist ethos and turn back the clock to the values we used to have the whole year round. To what it meant to be a member of a society. back to the days when the prevailing ethos was inspired by the Church instead of the Market. In fact, during Christmas, these values are even celebrated— glorifying God, childlike innocence, caring for the lonely, sick, and less fortunate, merriment and good cheer, and just basically looking after one another. In other words, acting pro-socially.
When Market society came along, it stripped away all that. People were expected to behave “economically”, and that behavior became disembedded from society. In fact, we are compelled to act this way, regardless of our most deeply-held beliefs and sentiments.
And this “economic” behavior is quite different than what preceded it. The pursuit of individual gain became paramount. In turn, this required a whole new new set of values: hoarding, a certain callousness and indifference towards poverty, a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, a belief in “self-reliance” and looking down upon those with less as “lazy” and “charity cases.” Society became comprised of winners and losers—a zero-sum game played out in the competitive arena of the Market.
This was a profound shift that I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with deep down even today. Markets came along and colonized every aspect of human life, so it’s no wonder we need a break from itsometimes! And the Holidays have become that break for us in the capitalist world; that reversion to pre-capitalist values. A brief glimpse into what Charles Eisenstein once referred to as “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
But, the question is, do we truly act “unnaturally” during the Holiday season and “naturally” the rest of the year, as capitalist apologists wold have it? Or is, perhaps, it the other way around?
Sadly, it only lasts during the season. Then it’s back to “normal”. It’s back to the “every man for himself” ethos. Back to “basic human nature.”
I suspect this originated with Charles Dickens. It’s no secret that Dickens was a trenchant critic of the callous society that capitalism has engendered in the Anglo-Saxon world of his time. He used his writing to appeal to the human heart in a way that only a great writer can—to appeal to the values that had been overshadowed in place of those of greed and accumulation. He reminded us all of what it meant to be human. This is most apparent in A Christmas Carol, but these values permeate his writings. Dickens lived in a time when remnants of that older tradition still survived, albeit in isolated pockets. We probably have him to thank for giving us just a brief respite from the viper pit that is normal, everyday capitalist society.
It’s truly ironic that this exists alongside the orgy of crass consumerism and consumer fetishism that Christmas has become. But then, we are a bundle of contradictions, are we not?
I would suggest that if people enjoy the feelings of warmth produced by the Holidays, as so many do (suicide rates decline dramatically during the Holiday season rather than increase), then I advise people to remember that this used to be the way we lived all the time. And really, nothing is stopping use from living that way again, at least as individuals. To make a choice. To realize—if only at the personal level—the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible.
And in that may lie the hope of a better world for all.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy New year to all my readers!