Capitalism, Christmas and Debt

The build-up of debt, either on the part of the government or on the part of the public: credit card debt, student loan debt, car payment debt, mortgage debt. Debt is a way for capitalism to secure mass support when they can’t do it any other way any more. – Professor Richard D. Wolff

There isn’t a better example of how our system, economy and culture relies upon debt than Christmas. Research shows that “the average person will spend £923 on food, drinks and presents” at Christmas. Additionally, “over half of Brits will spend more than they earn in December and that the average time to pay off Christmas debt is five months.” This links into the concept of a ‘Debt Hangover’ – another example of how capitalism normalises debt and excessive consumption alongside related instability and imbalances through language (also, remember the use of ‘Credit Crunch’ to describe the international financial meltdown of 2007/8).

UK debt – including household debt, student debt and consumer credit – is increasing. As you can see from the graph below we are the second most indebted country in the G8:

This links to small or non-existent wage increases when taking into account inflation, as people turn to credit to cope with the increasing cost of living with The Resolution Foundation finding the UK “on course for the longest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s.”

Related to this is the concept of debt peonage that David Harvey has discussed:

I mean basically debt is a claim on future labor, and when people are indebted they have to labor to pay off their debts. And we see this with students, for example, right now. Many of them come out, they’ve got this huge debt, in a sense their future is foreclosed — they’ve got to pay off that debt before they can really have a life. And this is extremely, extremely difficult. That’s why I call it anti-value, because it’s not as if people have a right to the value they’re going to create. They have to actually create value in order to pay off the debt. So for them it’s a negative life that they’re living as opposed to a positive life…So this is the world we’re living in, we’re living in a world of debt peonage…their future is foreclosed by the way in which the capital is wrapped around them. This kind of thing about the good life is: borrow money and then everything will be OK.

This is an important concept to understand the reality of the system we find ourselves within. Debt constrains what we can do, it keeps us invested in a system we need to be able to pay for basic things but also to live up to cultural demands of consumption that things such as Christmas create. Described as a ‘golden quarter’, the Christmas period is considered a great time for business – with food shops and online shopping especially benefiting – and despite there being concerns about consumers tightening some of their spending, especially when it comes to the high street, there is still a big increase in consumption:

Total retail spending is expected to rise 4% in December, compared with the same month in 2017, to reach nearly £48bn excluding VAT, according to data from the market research firm Mintel.

The obsession with consumption also links into the biggest threat to our future: environmental crisis. Extinction Rebellion are an inspirational grassroots organisation raising awareness of this issue. The effect Christmas has on the environment was something Adbusters have highlighted in a recent email sent to subscribers:

Since manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of the global carbon emissions, choosing to buy as little as possible this Xmas may give our Planet Earth some much needed relief. And if you still need to be convinced to consume less, consider that if we heat up just 4 degrees more, we will witness the total and irreversible collapse of human civilization as we know it.

The Washington Post also covered why such an increase poses a danger to the world as we know it in a recent article here.

Alongside being critical of what is happening we have to be positive and hopeful about what we are for. Whilst I am critical of the capitalist co-option of Christmas, there are lots of good things about this time of year including: a healthier work life balance; focus on the importance of seeing friends and family; compassion, togetherness and caring about people in positions and situations of disadvantage and hardship. However, rather than being reserved for this time of year, they are things we should be focussed on all year around. It shouldn’t be part of a token appeasement tied up with capitalist driven consumption. That fun, enjoyment and happiness and concern for others and having a more cohesive, fairer and inclusive society for all should be something we strive for no matter the time of year. Only through a radically new way of doing things via systemic change can this happen.

Jane Watkinson (she/her) is an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist and vegan interested in Marxism, social ecology, sociology, revolutionary humanism, and studying radical social, economic, and political theory and how this can be applied in practice. She is a freelance researcher working in the community sector. Her LinkTree is here.