Santa is a communist

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In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Saunders displays the atrophy of the anti-communist argument since it had to deal with real live communists.

Following a travesty of Raymond Williams and Marcuse, the basic argument goes like this: (1) capitalism is synonymous with material progress, (2) socialists don’t want you to have the stuff you like, (3) let’s show them by enjoying ourselves this Christmas and drinking some wine!

Let’s start with number one:

Capitalism has certainly performed better than any alternative system. In 1820, 85 per cent of the world’s population lived on less than a dollar a day. Today it is 20 per cent. This dramatic reduction in human misery owes nothing to socialist engineering, nor even to ageing rock stars demanding we make poverty history. It is due to the spread of global capitalism.

Plus, if capitalism had stopped in 1977, we wouldn’t have the internet or cellphones. This reminds me of the stock giggle in countless pieces coming to terms with ‘the anti-globalisation movement’ (or whatever) after Seattle: They wear Nikes! Ha! They organise over the internet! Ha! Not really anti-capitalist, now, are they?!

Alas, this kind of argument could equally be applied to Soviet Russia: ‘Russia’s industrialisation and the dramatic reduction in human misery it brought owes nothing to capitalist markets, or even to self-satisfied entrepreneurs. It was due to the spread of global communism.’ And: ‘They went to tear down the Berlin Wall in public transport? Their shoes were made in state-owned factories? Not really anti-communist, now, were they?!’

Here’s the fallacy: if a society is capitalist, everything about it is capitalist in essence. Criticise the relations of production, and you are criticising production tout court.

Which brings us to point two. Saunders may be right about Clive Hamilton. Hamilton does indeed see the consumption as the primary problem of today’s capitalism. (This is perhaps why he is the favourite ‘anti-capitalist’ of the mainstream, and certainly the only one to get in the op-eds.) But this is far from the arguments of Williams or even Marcuse. The problem was never the consumption as such, but the way our lives are dominated from cradle to grave by the alienated labour necessary to produce and acquire the stuff. Technological progress is full of potential for a reorganised society to liberate us from necessity and take real democratic control of the productive machinery.

Number three, the punchline:

So enjoy the prawns and the chardonnay, and don’t feel guilty about the money you spend on the children’s presents. Download Bing Crosby from iTunes, phone the relatives in London at a couple of cents a minute and have yourself a really good Christmas!

What does a socialist say to that? Hell, enjoy the prawns and chardonnay, get your kids presents. (Fuck iTunes, though, steal the Bing Crosby – if that’s your thing – with filesharing software.) But give a thought this Xmas to why you can’t relax and enjoy yourself all year round – and for that matter, why the holidays are so bloody stressful when they only come but once a year.

As a postscript: it’s funny to read this kind of thing despite the total absence of a radical critique in the mainstream. What is Saunders so worried about? Where does he hear these people complaining? The Herald op-ed page runs a rabid reactionary almost every day of the week: Miranda Devine, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan, Michael Duffy, Miranda Devine again on Sunday… These people are always lashing out at some outrage from the left. Which is where? They are haunted by ghosts (or should that be ‘spectres’?).

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Published in: on 20 December, 2007 at 9:19 am  Comments (9)  

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  1. Haha! Well, what do you expect from a CIS bozo? Saunders is a paid ideologue of a simplistic ideology, free-market libertarianism. Somehow I find his views being aired in the SMH even more offensive than the views of the Herald’s own stable of reactionaries. But the similarities are great: the task of wading through their prose highlighting every error is crazy-making, since the prose is just a tissue of mistakes.

    Nevertheless, I think I do actually disagree with your criticisms. I think overconsumption is a real problem, on at least three fronts: environmental unsustainability, implied imperialism (both ecological and in terms of super-profits) towards the non-consuming masses of humanity, and the stimulation of demand as an element of hegemony (this last front having to do with the happiness problem: we are stimulated to consume, so stimulated to work, which doesn’t make us happy, just tired, pliant and co-opted).

    I think you’re bang on in your last paragraph, though: it’s never been truer that the world today is haunted by the spectres of communism – they’re everywhere. They lurk behind every argument, in every society, much more so than in 1848, when it was only Europe that was so haunted.

  2. Yeah, I think you’re right about the environmental problem. Also about the fact that Australian workers materially benefit to some extent from low manufacturing wages abroad, though we shouldn’t overstate this (and it’s a very hard thing to quantify).

    In both cases though I don’t think moralising about individual consumption alone is a solution, mainly because it is ineffective. Maybe I am being a little unfair to Clive Hamilton in focusing only on this side of his argument. There is also an element, which I agree with, that less alienated work is a corollary of less consumption, but I think the leisure is good in itself while the less consumption is good only because it supports leisure and sustainability. I don’t see anything inherently perverse about wanting things.

    There is also much to be said for ecological planning – transport systems, power infrastructure and everything else. There’s a lot of room for making society more sustainable even aside from reduced consumption. Capitalism diverts technology in the wrong directions.

    The third point about the role of consumption in hegemony or consent: It’s true that capitalism has survived mainly because on its watch the production of more goods for a broad base of people (which is not to say equally) has occurred. I don’t think the desire for more goods is an alien implant in people’s characters though. (Not that you suggest this.)

    That said, I think a viable socialist transition would involve a re-evaluation of leisure above goods+work, which I think you can see around us already in many forms. This isn’t new, though, but goes right back to Marx, William Morris etc., and more importantly, the famous working class battles over the length of the working day.

  3. Sure, there is nothing perverse about wanting things per se! But surely the pervasive point that Hamilton is making is that desire is now so overblown. Desires are today clearly artificially managed and produced in order to encourage consumption. So it is not desire itself that is problematic but the specific desires we have, the specific things we want. It’s also an issue of the quantity (in terms of labour power and resources invested and in terms of environmental damage caused) of the things we want. These two issues are clearly somewhat distinct in principle, although in practice the two categories overlap almost entirely.

  4. enjoyed the post keep it coming!

  5. The problem with Marxist thought is that Marx purposefully confused the role of capital and the role of land.

    While a capitalist (in the sense of the creator of capital) makes a contribution to the economy and thus rightfully earns his income (assuming he isn’t collecting monopoly rents), landowners contribute nothing to the economy in their role as landowners, since the land is already there.

    Thus, landowners are truly parasitic, but capitalists aren’t.

  6. Hey liberal,

    What do you mean by ‘the creation of capital’?

  7. Hi, Im from Melbourne.

    Saunders and all the usual CIS and right wing propaganda hacks are clones of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz—they were given a diploma and thereby presume they are qualified to give “authoritative” statements on all and everything. Put in another way, they are so one dimensional as to be painful.

    That having being said please find a critique of the “culture” created in the image of these one dimensional Tin persons.

    1. http://www/ispeace723/realityhumanity2.html
    2. http://www.coteda.com/fundamentals/index.html
    3. http://www.dabase.org/coopcomm.htm

  8. It sounds like you’re saying we have to accept some version of the Marxian critique of the capitalist mode of production in order to be anti-consumerist.

  9. Why do you say that Acumensch? As Mark pointed out this post isn’t even really ‘anti-consumerist’!

    I imagine most people who are ‘anti-consumerist’ are not in fact much aware of any strand of Marxian critique, let alone accepting of it.


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