Christmas and Capitalism

I’m sitting in a black slush-covered Philadelphia, enjoying something of a lull in the usual daily chaos that comes with the working world.  On a quick side note, the only improperly shoveled sidewalk in my entire neighborhood is owned by the city, betraying what a lie that whole government-as-social-servant claptrap is.

I noticed a few things in the run up to Christmas Day this year, and for all I know it could be my imagination, so take it with a grain of salt.  Maybe some of you can help me to gain some perspective on this.  People, in the main, seemed to be quite miserable this year.  There was a palpable unhappiness in the air which I don’t think I was confusing with the increased busy-ness that is tied up with the December chaos.  There was a different spirit in the air, and as far as I could tell people weren’t as eager to decorate, either.  Maybe it’s just that the City of Brotherly Love is, well, not exactly aptly-named.

It’s entirely possible that many were feeling depressed because of the economic situation.   Though some surveys have concluded that holidays centered on religion and family are happier than those focused on material things, I still think there is something to this.  I don’t know what else it would be, and I don’t know how anyone can prove that material want guarantees a return to family and religion.  My generation in particular is accustomed to Christmases that get drowned in piles of wrapping paper, and those piles, if the news stories are to be believed, have diminished since the Depression of 2008 began.

If my observations are accurate, materialism—in the practical rather than the philosophical sense—is the obvious culprit here.  Materialism is an oasis; it provides no real satisfaction for any ineffable longing.  There is nothing wrong with material things; the problem starts when we expect them to solve all our problems and make all our happiness for us.  Many moral crusaders are right to confront materialism, but they often go too far and speak as if we can conjure up the needs of our bodies and families out of the ether.

Many also seem to conflate a lot of things that might not necessarily be intrinsically related.  I’m thinking in particular of capitalism.  It seems almost too obvious that the capitalistic system is what causes all this material greed.  But the face-value pitfalls of a situation can sometimes mislead us and make us forget to ask more carefully about the actual causes of things.  The first assumption in this notion that capitalism is the bad guy is the idea that there would be no greed, misers or material want in a collectivist system.  Such blots on humanity are, however, part of the human condition and come with any system that might be invented.

The other important aspect of capitalism is to look not only at how people do use it, but how they could use it.   In capitalism (really, though, we labor presently under corporatism), people have the choice to be greedy, but they also have the choice to embrace poverty.  They can work eighty hours a week to pay for a McMansion and two SUV’s, or they can work just enough to survive at a level they deem appropriate.  They can keep all their money for themselves, or give it to their neighbor.  They can focus on the real reasons for a holiday, or they can use materials and drugs and alcohol to drown their miserly misery.  And perhaps most importantly, capitalist societies can spend money on making merry and making beauty for the sake of itself.  In many ways, such soulful activities are the highest achievements of man.

I worry that someday our society will rightly discover the folly of materialism, and, in an act of throwing out the baby with the bath water, embrace a political and economic system that takes away not only the materialism but the necessary freedom to do the right thing.  Then life will be strictly about function.  Instead of multiplying loaves, the few pieces of bread that can be found will be divided up equally, into an equalitarian gloom.  One hates to imagine what those Christmases would be like.

As usual, the real solution to this problem lies not in condemning the behavior of others, but in looking inside ourselves.  In the end, the only useful question is whether or not I am greedy, whether or not I had less of a Christmas because there isn’t as much stuff, and whether or not I use the mere straw of material wealth for purposes for which it is not intended.

A very merry Christmas to you all.

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