Everyday communism and the “spirit of Christmas”

In these times of crisis, it is crucial to remember that the seeds of a better society already lie embedded in the contradictions of the current one.

by Jerome Roos via ROARmag.org

In the Western world, at least, Christmas is a profoundly schizophrenic time of year. On the one hand, the holidays bring out some of the best aspects of what it means to be human: people coming together to share food and gifts in a communal spirit that temporarily breaks with the alienation of everyday life. But, at the same time, the holidays shine a light on some of the worst elements of consumerism and false pretense that have come to pervade the social fabric: endless lines of zombified humans stumbling mindlessly through pretentiously decorated shopping malls in search of the latest useless gadget or gift card, confirming once again that the only way to express value in late capitalist society is through the accumulation of entirely useless commodities, even as countless people to go sleep in the cold streets at night.

When Charles Dickens waxed poetic about death, greed and misery in his classic Christmas Carol, he very much had in mind the societal dislocation wrought by early industrial capitalism. Of course the Dickensian critique of capitalism lacked a thorough political economic analysis and ultimately failed to move beyond moral outrage at poverty and the decline of human virtue. But, that said, even Karl Marx opined that Dickens in his lifetime “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, just five years before The Communist Manifesto and the revolutionary wave of 1848. If we were to write A Christmas Carol for our time, would the story really look so different?

Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear

The character of Scrooge still seems omnipresent — from wealthy Wall Street investors who haven’t paid a penny for the financial mess they created in the lead-up to the current crisis, to the power-hungry politicians who literally surround themselves with gold while announcing an Age of Austerity for everyone else. Misery and death are rife once more as social safety nets are dismantled at the altar of the marketplace, while millions toil just to make ends meet, surviving off poorly paying, thoroughly meaningless and increasingly precarious jobs, even while being burdened with ever higher debts and taxes. And, especially in this time of year, it’s not just the material deprivation that counts; the psychological trauma of persistent economic insecurity and social atomization wreaks havoc on a scale we can barely even fathom — a silent murderer taking thousands of lives we will never even hear about.

I recently moved to Athens, where the Dickensian depiction of naked capitalism is on full display every single day: ordinary people sleeping in front of banks and supermarkets like stray dogs; tens of thousands of “for rent” signs covering apartment walls; immigrants hiding inside dilapidated buildings, too afraid to come out for fear of being attacked by police or racist scum. A layer of smog hangs over the city as people resort to burning wood and plastic for calefaction. Landlords have shut down central heating across the country, simply because tenants can’t afford the petrol anymore. Just a few weeks ago, a 13-year-old girl died from carbon monoxide inhalation after her mother tried to fight back the freezing cold in their apartment. The electricity had been cut off because she couldn’t pay the bills. These are not isolated incidents. Third World-style poverty is making its way into the very heartland of the “developed” West.

Hunger and inequality are on the rise across Europe and North America. A record 48 million Americans — 22 millions of whom are children — rely on food stamps to survive. Oxfam recently warned that Europe faces a “lost decade” of poverty and marginalization, with the NGO’s head of advocacy lamenting that “we were founded in 1942 because of the famine in Greece; no one would have believed we would be here more than 70 years later, saying Greece is in a terrible state.” And, again, Greece is not the exception — the so-called cradle of democracy is merely the concrete universal of a terrifying trend across the world, as nominally democratic regimes resort to increasingly authoritarian and inhumane measures to enforce their neoliberal dogma, which can be summarized in a simple formula: privatize the gains, socialize the losses. Scrooge is all over us today, wielding batons and teargas canisters.

It is no coincidence, then, that the rioters who took to the streets of Athens and cities throughout Greece in December 2008, following the police murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, immediately attacked and torched the huge Christmas tree that had been so ostentatiously erected at Syntagma Square in front of Parliament. A few days later, the words of a prophet appeared scribbled on a city wall: merry crisis and a happy new fear!

Everyday Communism and the Crisis of our Times

But this is not the full story. Just like Christmas, times of crisis tend to be profoundly schizophrenic — producing both extreme dangers of social disintegration and unprecedented opportunities for radical social change, neither of which seemed possible in the previous state of normalcy. Embedded in the very contradictions of capitalism lies the latent potential for both its disintegration into monstrosity and its dissolution and transcendence into something better. In ancient Greek, the word crisis (κρίσις) referred to exactly this: a moment of separation, decision or judgement — like a turning point in a disease that determines the fate of the patient: a moment of life or death. Crucially, the word implies conflict: two possible outcomes lie before us; our actions today will determine the world for decades to come.

Upon moving to Athens, I quickly discovered why the patient has managed to survive its crisis so far. It obviously has nothing to do with budget cuts or EU-IMF bailouts. It’s all about mutual aid and communal solidarity. Without ordinary people simply helping each other get by, Greek society would have been a lot worse off. If it weren’t for parents taking their unemployed twenty-somethings back in, soup kitchens providing food to the hungry, autonomous clinics providing free medical assistance to the uninsured, and social centers distributing free clothes to those who need them, it is difficult to imagine how people would have coped at all. This leads us to an ironic conclusion: if it weren’t for the sense of community and mutual aid — both of which defy the Smithian and Hayekian logic of self-interest — capitalism as such would probably not be able to survive. Indeed, no society can function without a healthy dose of altruism. The trick, then, is how to wield this altruism not as a means of sustaining capitalism, but as a weapon with which to kill it.

David Graeber refers to this social bedrock of communal solidarity as “everyday communism.” Building on the work of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, Graeber distinguishes between three different kinds of social relations: hierarchical relations based on precedent, formally equal relations based on exchange, and genuinely equal relations based on sharing — or the old communist principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” These different types of social relations are never monolithic and should therefore not be totalized: no society is based only on precedent, exchange or sharing. Instead, the three coexist to different degrees in different types of societies. Feudal societies may be marked by a predominance of hierarchy, capitalist societies by a predominance of exchange, and genuinely communistic societies by sharing. But even in the latter type of society, hierarchy and exchange will never fully disappear; they will just be subordinated to a different cultural and systemic logic — the logic of sharing will come to take precedence as social priorities are radically rearranged.

Of course things are not that simple. But at this time of year, and in this time of crisis, Mauss and Graeber direct our attention towards something very important: even in capitalist society, “communistic” relations (of altruism and sharing) continue to exist. Indeed, in many ways, “we are already communists” — especially towards family and friends, and especially on a day like this. It would be utterly inconceivable for any of us to present our parents, siblings or children with a bill for the Christmas dinner we just cooked for them; just as it would be utterly absurd for mothers to charge their children for nurturing and breastfeeding. In the same way, it is totally absurd that today’s Scrooges — presented with a “crisis” of their own making — now seek to socialize their losses by forcing austerity down everyone else’s throat and slapping a price tag on common goods like water and knowledge. If pursued to its logical extreme, this Randian logic of naked self-interest would simply lead to total social disintegration; and that’s precisely where neoliberalism is pushing the world today.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come

We are living through a moment of judgement in which the fate of humanity is to be decided. In these dark days, when all hope seems lost and even the most communistic of social rituals are succumbing to the spectacle of shallow-minded consumerism, it is crucial to remind ourselves that the seeds for a better world already lie sown in the scorched earth of the present one; and that our challenge as “radicals” or “revolutionaries” is not necessarily the creation of a whole new society from scratch, but rather the liberation and actualization of the hidden potentialities for altruism and communal living that are currently being repressed at the barrel of a gun. This should give hope for the struggle: we do not necessarily have to innovate the new so much as we have to crush the past and intensify the already-existing.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was ultimately transformed into a better man, embracing the Spirit of Christmas and the sense of joy and community it represented — but not before being visited by three phantoms: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. The first showed him his own past self, the child within who had relished in the spirit of sharing; the second confronted him with the thoroughly despicable man he had become, clinging to his money as if there were no tomorrow; and the latter presented him with a terrifying image of what lay ahead if he persisted in his cold-hearted and tight-fisted ways:

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. … It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

Let us be this gloomy spirit; the cloaked phantom of the future tormenting the miser before bedtime. Let us be the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come — the specter of already-existing communism haunting the capitalist present from the firm grounding of a future yet to come. Let us be the Spirit of Revolution reincarnated, striking down upon the Scrooges of our time right as darkness seems to envelop the world. Merry Christmas everyone. May 2014 mark the year of our ghostly reappearance.