As the Christmas season starts anew, I cannot help but notice that malls and bazaars are ridiculously jam-packed with a euphoric crowd. They are prepared to search every single alley that will offer them any gift-worthy items with huge discounts. One by one, people clamor and queue for various shopping sprees, midnight sales, and some other gimmicks which stores devise to invite more customers. In the end, people go out of stores clutching loads of paper bags more than what their bare hands could carry. For Filipino workers and employees, December is the month when Christmas bonuses and extra month salaries are given. Without a doubt, the opportunity of spending becomes fonder when the abundance of income is apparent.
The purpose of this article is not to lecture about the ills of consumerism to society nor teach Christmas shoppers on how to achieve sustainable financial management. More so, this article will not delve on the religious and spiritual aspects of the season. Instead, I will expound on Antonio Gramsci’s riveting assertions concerning cultural hegemony and postulate that our attitudes and proclivities towards this season might have sprung up from an “unseen force” that we may or may not be aware of. Gramsci might, after all, want to have a word (if not a litany) to all holiday shoppers who are still caught in the rush.
Theory of cultural hegemony: In a nutshell
The theory of cultural hegemony was promoted by the works of Gramsci, a Neo-Marxist philosopher. For Gramsci, there is cultural hegemony if a ruling class exerts inordinate dominance over a society and its culture. Gramsci views culture as the repository of consciousness such that it guides people over their courses of action, creates norms and values, and reinforces beliefs and perceptions. Through their dominance, the ruling class can successfully manipulate the society’s culture in order to impose their own worldview. When the newly-constructed ideology is successfully embedded in the society’s culture, it is unlikely to be viewed as a social construct which favors only the ruling class but rather, as the culturally valid ideology that justifies the politico-economic status quo as natural and favorable for everyone.
According to Gramsci, the power of cultural hegemony rests on its invisibility. Since culture can neither be felt nor seen, pockets of hegemony are more difficult to notice and resist. A culture becomes hegemonic if it already invades the most private, personal aspect of people’s lives or, to borrow from a scholar’s interpretation, “it becomes ‘common sense’ for the majority of the population.” As long as there is something or someone backing them up that what they are doing is beautiful or good, the ideology becomes dominant and habitual. The people then fail to recognize that the ideology is unilaterally beneficial.
The case of the holiday shoppers
This leads me then to the case of holiday shoppers. Let us posit that the cultural norm during the Yuletide season all over the world is holiday shopping. A question is worth asking: From where did we get this idea? Is this a requisite for survival? Do we die in an eye’s wink when we would miss Christmas shopping? One will opine, we want to give something to our fellows as this season is about love, and giving is a manifestation of love. But I am certain that love can be manifested through myriad of ways, and most of these ways are free of charge (a hug, for instance).
Then why do we spend lavishly during this season? Why do we give presents? Children would expect that when they wake up come Christmas morning, presents addressed to them are piled underneath the Christmas tree. We can cite a number of reasons why. But one of the reasons can be this. The store owners and business enterprises (let us loosely call them the capitalists for the sake of our discussion) benefit from our extravagance, deluding us with the notion that squandering money is a crucial component of this season.
The capitalists as the ruling class propagate the consumerist message that this season ought to be spent through acquisition of things for greater satisfaction. Everywhere we look gives us an overwhelming encouragement to buy what we cannot afford and spend what we have not earned. Advertisements would bombard us with images of happiness gauged on purchasing this or that product, or with enthralling Christmas scenes in which colorful packages surround the tree. This pervades in our culture; we in fact regard this as a tradition, a habit, or a ‘common sense.’ When Christmastime comes, gifts are inevitable. They are to be anticipated. There seems nothing wrong about this. Certainly, nothing is conspicuously wrong as the real message is wrapped in an altruistic parcel: giving. Who would think giving is a notorious act? Surely, no one. Again, to reiterate, the power of cultural hegemony rests on its invisibility.
Let us find out who are the winners and losers in this system. The capitalists’ profits triple, if not quadruple, and their revenues become more robust because of the increased consumer spending. As for the consumers, most of them go miserably in debt. As famed financial guru Dave Ramsey reports, “more than $70 billion, over half of what was charged last year, ended up as revolving debt and the interest on last year’s gifts are still being paid today.” (This is in the United States alone.) This is not to mention that most of the gifts people receive every year end up in landfills as waste.
I do not purposefully intend to dampen the readers’ Yuletide gaiety and discourage them to do what they want during this season. What I want is to theoretically show how our daily practices and cultural traditions, including even the most humdrum aspects of our lives, fit into a larger picture. They intertwine. They fall under a broader system that we may or may not see. Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony laid us down the framework that we may employ to analyze some of these things in another perspective.
As for the holidays, spending is left in your discretion. I will be true to what I promised earlier (i.e. no lectures on financial literacy and the like). But I do hope that you spend meaningfully (that is, in keeping with your budget) and let not consumerism take you over during this season.
I wish you happy holidays!
*This article was published at ‘A Different View’, the official online blog of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS), on 25 December 2013. To read the articles written by my colleagues, click this link: http://iapss.org/index.php/articles