“Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale,… — Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but — But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? — The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety — but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. … It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick — ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other.”
K. Marx, Human Needs & the Division of Labour (1844)
Winter arrived early in northern New Mexico in 2013.
Outside my window the barren field was adorned with a beautiful blanket of snow. Inside a thermometer read -12 degrees Fahrenheit. Although it was cold, I had not turned up the thermostat, opting instead to use a space heater for my feet and the kitchen oven on my back. My reasoning was that this should be adequate to prevent my pipes from freezing and more economical than filling a propane heater. This is what I contemplated every morning while lying paralyzed in my sleeping bag as I also tried to figure out ways to come up with this month’s rent.
In a not so distant past I had worked as an art handler. An “art-handler” is someone who packs, moves and installs fine art objects for museums, galleries and private collectors. However, the way I defined my job was simply to make rich people happier. Inversely, as I became more efficient in my work, my employer’s pay formula resulted in a significant benefit to him and substantial wage decrease for me. Coupled by this and the fact that the job was affecting my optimal well being, I decided it was time to abandon the handling of art. And yet again I found myself living like a bohemian, and somehow I still managed to find comfort in this life-style.
Admittedly, I have bourgeois sensibilities, but since the 2008 financial collapse of Wall Street, I have fallen from the ranks of the American Middle-Class.
I was awakened out of my holiday indifference by the continuous bombarding by an announcement on the radio of the upcoming Black Friday Sale: a vulgar ritual that is practiced on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Each year hoards of people fight over deals for products and stuff; fights that often lead to more than one homicide. Watching this strange spectacle it is not difficult to see where the inspiration for zombie movie sequels comes from.
I’m not certain of the date on which I heard this on the radio, but I do remember people still had hideous Halloween decorations displayed on front lawns. The “bombardment to buy more” announcement seems to have hit us earlier this year. I am convinced that with each passing year the call to buy more seems to arrive earlier. Very soon the big Christmas Sales will be announced the day after we have spent celebrating and ushering in the New Year.
Also early this year, right-wing pundits were denouncing the so-called “War on Christmas.” I heard it on the radio the same day I was bombarded with the big sale announcements.
I promptly went about searching for evidence of this war on Christmas. I could not find it on the media. I could not find it on the streets. What I found instead was a pathological capitalism that had infected our lives. I found souls diminished by their worship of unbridled consumerism. Like everything else in an advanced capitalist society, I found that the “holiday season” had been cheapened and rendered disposable like any other commodity. Christmas had become just another one of those Chinese-manufactured products sold on the shelves of Walmart.
After swearing to switch off my radio for the remainder of the year, I conducted a non-scientific survey on my social media page and asked people, “What does Thanksgiving mean to you?”
Here are some responses:
It means Christmas and Hanukkah are coming. This year it means Hanukkah is here.
I can’t help but think of how the generosity celebrated this day was eventually repaid with treachery, which then apparently became a survival characteristic.
Today, fighting with people at the Whole Foods for parking spots and miscellaneous items, makes me hate the holidays. People get mean! It’s supposed to be fun, not stressful.
Don’t let this influence you… http://www.popularresistance.org/genocide-and-the…/
Genocide and THE THANKSGIVING MYTH www.popularresistance.orgLet us recognize that accounts of the first Thanksgiving are mythological, and t…
The world wasn’t a perfect place then, it’s not now, and as long as man inhabits it ,won’t be in the future.
The commercialization of our holidays may not be a pretty picture but they still bring families together and what’s not to like about that.
The spirit of Thanksgiving is one that I find the need to think about every day. Too many people only focus on their problems and that will not go far in helping us continue to have the strength needed to get through a life that isn’t always easy.
Thanksgiving to me is about being with the ones I love and being thankful for what I do have.
November 28 at 7:45 am via mobile · Unlike · 2
How the U.S. Media Would Cover Thanksgiving if It Were in Another Country www.slate.com This is the fourth installment of a continuing series in which American events a…
Family. Yes of course “the white man” did unspeakable things to the natives and the shopping/ consumerism has gotten out of control, travel sucks etc but I think it comes down to being with who you love and cherish, we have a limited time here and it’s nice to take a day/meal and be together. November 28 at 9:58 am · Unlike · 2
Thanks for being part of our thanksgiving this year! Thanksgiving is about gratitude and I am grateful for wonderful friends and family. Of course thanksgiving has another meaning as well, but I’ll just stick with gratitude. November 28 at 8:20 pm.
To remind us not of what we desire, but what we already have. To be grateful for an abundant universe, not just in materialism, but in all the situations that allow us to learn and grow. All of it. November 29 at 1:49 am·
On Thanksgiving what I usually hear is this message of gratitude and I hear of people showing how thankful they are by helping others, like the folks handing out free turkey to the homeless on the closing segment of the evening news. However, to me, there seems to be something about this that lacks authenticity. And why do I bemoan this? After all people are only trying to show a little appreciation and love, right?
Thanksgiving, unfortunately, also marks the official beginning of the “Christmas shopping season” which every year raises some fundamental questions for me: Who are we as a people? And what do these holidays really mean? In particular I become overtly sensitized to inequality. On one side of the continuum you have people living in abject poverty, hunger and living on the streets and on the other side rampant displays of conspicuous consumption. Living in this consumer culture I feel like I am living in a modern-day Dickens tale.
However, before I decided to get into this argument inside my head on “what would Jesus buy,” I unconsciously picked up the phone and called my ex-wife whom I hadn’t spoken to in over eight years. The idea of thanksgiving made me want to just thank her for what she taught me in life. I also wanted to owe up to the role that I played in our failed marriage. Although I attempted to make an apology years ago, I felt that my words had shallow meaning. I was feeling that it was time to take proper responsibility and make proper amends.
In looking back, it isn’t difficult to understand the divorce and I have no resentment for her wanting to flee from this most basic of economic institutions: marriage. Plus living with me also couldn’t have been very easy. While living in “the City of Brotherly Love” (also known as Philadelphia) we had achieved what some may have described as the quintessential American dream: a house filled with lots of stuff and two people who had their own careers. But that dream quickly turned into a nightmare. I became certain that this life was made of plastic and a hyper-reality that was seducing me. I was beginning to feel numb to the world around me… and that life was literally killing me.
As we continued to consume within this American dream, I felt more estranged and separate from nature. My moods began to shift from manic to melancholy and my reality had become distorted. I was beginning to think that I was going mad. My world became darker and darker to the point I felt I was falling into an abyss. Eventually we both recognized that the fairy tale was coming to an end.
She filed the divorce papers after both of us were spending less and less time at home. There was a general loss of intimacy. There was no marriage – only the photographs of a wedding.
I can only concur that I was a difficult person to live with as it is with anyone who can’t live with himself or herself. Several metaphors would be appropriate to describe my psyche at this time, but through the roles I was acting out in various modern institutions I was living in the Bureaucratic Iron Cage (borrowing from Max Weber). It became apparent to me that I was living in a rational institution that negated irrationality; hence this modern dilemma.
I did not have any expectations from the call nor was I sure what would be gained from it. I guess I wanted to make certain that my actions at the time didn’t have long residual effects. When I dialed the phone I believe I was just as startled to hear her voice as she was hearing mine, because at least subconsciously I was hoping to go directly to her voice-mail. Initially the voice on the other end sounded cold and aloof but it shortly warmed up as we exchanged pleasantries as we brought each other up to date.
I expressed my pleasure in her happiness and went on to tell her that there was an actual purpose for the phone call. She said that she figured this much. As I shared that I take full responsibility for the failed marriage, she interrupted and said that she played an equal role. She said in her assessment we were two people that did not belong together. Although I knew the love had long been lost, admittedly I felt a dull pain in my heart.
After I put down the receiver I sat for a minute, reflecting on the conversation. In short, it was nice to hear her voice but it also reminded me of that lonely and isolating feeling I had years ago. I recalled my time trapped in purgatory, in the “City of Brotherly Shove”. However there was something immensely beautiful taking place; I really didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was being taught some important life lessons. Specifically I was realizing how to escape from my own bondage. For this, I had this woman from Queens to thank.
I tell this very intimate story because I believe my marriage was a clear instance of what Marx maintained: All major social institutions, including marital institutions, are marked by alienation. Alienation permeates in all of Marx’s writings but sociologically the concept relates to estrangement as a consequence of a social structure (mode of production) that oppresses human beings and denying them their humanity. In short, the alienation concept can be defined as the estrangement from one another or from a particular process.
Reflecting back I felt detached and foreign. I could not experience the direct results of my labor and it was all to sustain some mythical reality of a dream. This illusion was conveniently masked with consumption.
What is this elusive notion of gratitude? Although gratitude is equated with the Thanksgiving holiday, I would assert that in a society where there is so much suffering, the meaning offers little emotional or intellectual complexity. Playing voyeur on a community social network page, I witness a heated discussion that was quickly unraveling and becoming uncivil. Several posters were irate over the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obama Care.
Granted this system of health care delivery is highly problematic. It is a for profit system that falls way short of a single-payer system. However, the arguments I witnessed were reactionary, heartless and lacked rational basis. Nothing I read was based in empirical inquiry and most were pushing ideological sound bites that they heard from their favorite conservative commentator; with a general assumption that the 50 million Americans that were without insurance are the entitlement class. The rant was topped with racist innuendo made at America’s black president and a general consensus that communists are taking their freedom away.
Yet the advantage of socialized institutions is clear when one considers every awarded Standard & Poor’s AAA Rating went to eighteen countries all with socialized health care systems. Also noteworthy is according to the World Health Organization’s healthcare rankings, the United States ranked 37th just above Slovenia.
I do agree that there is a cultural and class war happening; it is ideological and filled with fear and disinformation. While the middle class and the working poor have been hit particularly hard by the Great Recession, many House Republicans and Democrats want to put Social Security on the cutting block: cut food stamps, unemployment insurance benefits and other social safety net programs. There is very little capital flowing into jobs programs. The power-elite, those who acquire most of their income through capital gains and along with large corporations, continue to enjoy generous tax breaks. Hence, it was of no surprise to read in an article published by University of California Berkeley researcher Emmanuel Saez that during Barrack Obama’s first term of office, 95 percent of income gains went to the top one percent, which also happens to be the highest income inequality since the great depression.
The policy trend is for more draconian implementation and creating a climate of austerity that is crushing down on America’s middle-class and working poor. And to top it all we hear heartless arguments that we as a society don’t have a responsibility to our most vulnerable while just like in one big crap-shoot – banksters and racketeers gambled away the savings of the middle class.
As I write, trade deals are being conducted behind closed doors to bring down the cost of American labor. In this same winter of giving thanks, whilst buying goods we do not need, a guest (from The National Review) on the Diane Rheme Show claimed that the American worker is going to have to learn to accept less; and while receiving less also learn to budget and save more. This same guest also argued that extending unemployment benefits deters people from looking for work. However there was no mention of the obscene levels of income inequality, that the rich are getting richer, and the fact that so many jobs have been lost. Even NPR programming doesn’t have the editorial privilege to mention that most income reallocation has been redistributed to the top one percent.
Adam Smith said that society is a commercial enterprise. The holidays epitomize that notion. In fact they illustrate the true American religion: capitalism with a capital ”C”. As long as our society continues to worship this “golden calf” the masses will continue to experience the serious disconnect between themselves and nature. Interesting enough it is the new “postmodern” Pope Francis that articulates so eloquently:
“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.”
It isn’t surprising that suicide rates jump this time of year. Emile Durkheim would have likely referred to it as anomie suicide, due to the normlessness of society, but I sense that the reason is there is interplay of the overwhelming feeling of estrangement due to rupture of community and family affiliation and a broken economic system that places unnecessary burdens on most people.
For the working poor the stockings of holiday emptiness cannot be stuffed with commodities. Someone usually has to work during the holidays to pay the heating bills; and typically it isn’t the bourgeoisie that will work on the holidays. Hedonistic celebration is not something that is accessible to all.
This begs the question of whether we live to work or work to live.
I remember hearing the quote a while back that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, but personally I haven’t encountered many people of late with this type of privilege. Even artists with total autonomy to do all things creative have the drudgery of marketing and sales that removes them from the personal essence of their creativity.
Therefore it can be said that holidays in advanced capitalist economies are only as authentic as economic determinants. From what I can see people are stuffing themselves with holiday crack to mask the estrangement, all in an attempt to desensitize them and from the casualties of a predatory economic system. This is why I would avoid the turkey because chances are it is a mutated beast loaded with hormones and antibiotics. Plus the l- tryptohan in the turkey puts us all in an oblivious state – well beyond Thanksgiving.
Winter arrived early in northern New Mexico in 2013.
© Dennis Dodson
Some photographs taken by Dennis Dodson, Bridget Zhang
Other Images References:
Please no food pic: http://eatdrinkbetter.com/2011/12/30/reduce-food-waste/
Food in atrash can: http://www.takepart.com/photos/5-easy-ways-stop-food-waste
Food trash top view: http://www.takepart.com/photos/food-waste-facts/food-waste-facts
Trash facts about food: http://blogs.stlawu.edu/chelseapriebe/chelseas-first-page/
Into the trash it goes federal study: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-food-waste