It’s a bit strange how we have these compartmentalized cultures; every day we split ourselves into these different microcultural orders. It’s pretty simple, really, if we look at it. One way this happens is that we have a democratic system of individual civil liberties with their rights, but these rights are curtailed for many of us in our work life, which is typically authoritarian. Another way this happens is that we have a strong public ethic of individualism, a kind of hodgepodge of Randian virtue of selfishness and the self as credit score, private property, the self as an agent in a social Darwinian meritocracy. There are all these little daily managements over what is “mine,” what has been labeled, designated as belonging to me, even at its most crude level, identifies ourselves as individuals.
This narrow version of individualism, however, has its own cracks and contradictions if we consider the self in relation to the family. In family, this version of the self is in tension with sharing. There are often relations of power around who, for instance, brings home the proverbial bacon, or other more nuanced emotional power relations. In any event, the narrow version of individual freedom is very different in the private spaces of home. It’s a remarkable contradiction: our contemporary socioeconomic ethos is basically dog-eat-dog, but the family is more of a microculture of mutual aid.
Parents are familiar with negotiating with their children between what is considered the private items their children, and items that are considered common to share among the siblings or the rest of the family. The family dinner, perhaps, is the ultimate expression of primordial sharing. The production of the dinner, a dinner table, the breaking of bread, are primordial signs of kinship and affiliation. In relationships and friendships, sharing food, at home or in going out to eat, is a ritual that bridges narrow individualism and opens the door to rituals of mutual sharing. It is still rather common that courtship rituals or dating begins in the sharing of dinner, it’s a moment where the offer to buy someone dinner is a gesture to break down one’s individual property, in this case, cash money, and extend this to cover another. Implicit in this gesture is an emotional investment on each person’s behalf.
Remarkable in our culture today is that in a society that is so thoroughly inculcated with individualism and an endless obsession with detailing the legal and personal territories of property rights and so forth, that we have a season devoted to the opposite – to giving, to purging the notion of the personal for a communal investment. The mutual aid that is familiar becomes extended through society. Charities like the Salvation Army make most of their year’s revenue in this season of giving, office co-workers engage in white elephant gift exchanges and the like. Marcel Mauss’s landmark anthropology text The Gift noted that these rituals hearken back to the earliest societies, and that these exchanges were rather essential to holding a society together.
Krampus, the 2015 film, begins with a remarkable slow motion montage of Black Friday shoppers storming a big box store, trampling over each other for petty consumer items set to Bing Crosby’s 1940’s hit “Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” The sweet melancholy of the song, along with the montage captures the ironic cynical content of the Christmas season. Here we have individual consumers set loose to celebrate their credit by getting some sweet holiday deals. So we get the typical ugly stereotypes of people shoving each other and so forth while at the same time plotting to escape with their loot to share their productivity in their own family. Basically, people are paradoxically engaging in a consumer take ethic in order to be great in a give ethic, which is, of course, the gift giving virtue represented by the largess of Santa Claus.
It’s this precise ironic dualism that our sudden contemporary fascination with the lesser known tradition of Krampuslauf finds its proper and welcome home. Krampus, which is perhaps best described as Santa Claus in his shadow form, has been part of Austrian and Bavarian culture for centuries. Men in villages would dress up as half-goat demons and march in a parade to frighten children, the myth being that naughty antisocial selfish children would be kidnapped and sent to Shadow Christmas Hell. It seems that the Austrians, in their folk pedagogical rituals tried the Santa carrot along with the Krampus stick. In any case, the gift giving virtue is integral to breaking down individualism and opening the self to the unifying groundwork of the community.
For us today, the myth of Santa can be diminished in a mire of consumer excesses. Gifting to others went from a virtuous gesture to an empty consumerist injunction, as if there was any further need for that. The joke being the cliche that Santa is really a contemporary invention courtesy of Coca-Cola. What it means is that we cannot escape the cynical cycle of consumption, and we use our cool cynical distance in order to stomach the consumer injunction such that the idea of the gift itself in its ritual origins, as a means of opening personal and social barriers that offer a glimpse of the primordial sharing society, gets drowned out in the blast of Mariah Carrey songs, plastic trees and eggnog. So it is at this precise time that forces have conspired to import the Dark Santa, which is sort of like a clarion call of the Ghost of Christmas future. Jolly Saint Nick, the carrot, has no capacity to beat out the pernicious cynical consumerism that is so endemic. But Krampus, the stick, can.
In Tibetan Buddhism, they have a version of the Buddha called Mahakala, which is a demonic Buddha. He is depicted dark, with horns, a necklace of skulls, and a long tongue, and it is said that one encounters this force in the chod meditation, and it is a force that drinks the hot blood of the ego, stripping away attachments to the world. Krampus, for me, represents this force in a cold Austrian winter, a force that if one cannot find selflessness through the spirit of St. Nick, a more painful path awaits those who praised selfishness as virtue, a fate that ends up confined to a small, bitter, solipsistic hell of loneliness, a snow globe on Krampus’s shelf. (This was, incidentally, how Ayn Rand ended up, stubbornly never having entered meditative liberation.)
Mauss’s The Gift included a study of the potlatch ceremony of Pacific Northwest tribes, which were usually held in winter. It was a ritual conducted where the the richest in the community would give away their belongings redistributing useful goods. It was believed by anthropologists observing this that this helped restore the sanity and health of the community by resolving grievances deriving from economic and social imbalances of ownership, resentment, jealousy, and emphasized the health of the public good. (It’s of note that Canada attempted to ban the ceremony in 1884’s Indian Act, calling the ceremony “worse than useless custom” and “uncivilized” contradiction to an accumulation culture.)
In Anthropologist David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, he notes that debt is often a force that leads to revolutionary times, and often forgiveness of debts is a hallmark of starting over, for like the potlatch ceremony, it restores justice and relieves societal tension. Revolutions often resolve themselves through a transfer of wealth. Consider, for instance, the loss of slaves (labor capital) of the Confederacy after losing the Civil War. Graeber ends his wonderful book suggesting a jubilee in our own system of debt, which only grows and is now a multi-trillion dollar house of cards, a creditors paradise in which the credit system has turned into a global system of debt peonage. Amidst this, the disparities of wealth, disparities between use value and exchange value, and the resulting social problems (i.e., crime, addiction, escalating housing costs, health costs, and on and on), creates a society of anxiety and tension. It’s harder to see how this system can continue than at some point, any number of points, will falter. It seems that our culture at this historical moment is in quite its own contradiction, as being perhaps the wealthiest nation in world history, but ninety percent of all wealth is controlled by two percent of the population. A country in which the Walmart family has as much wealth as the combined efforts of the bottom forty percent of the country, or 120 million people. That family alone could end poverty in this country. Another shocking statistic I heard from economist Mark Blyth, there are about 29 trillion dollars stored by capitalists in offshore tax havens like the Cayman Islands. But I digress …
The protagonist of Krampus the movie is a boy named Max Engel. His name could be translated as Maximum Angel. Is it a pure coincidence that it could be read as Marx/Engels, the authors of The Communist Manifesto, which advocates for a society that is run by the working classes? I can’t say that the movie is a symbolic economic treatise, but rather, I think with even dealing with a figure like Krampus, the film cannot help it. I think the timing of the film is interesting, signaling changing awareness about the global economy, preparing the imagination to challenge the status quo. The logical direction the logical direction would be toward the grounded, practical use value of things, the return to communities, to mutual aid societies, challenging and re-sorting the repressive boundaries of private property and the bourgeois nuclear family. It is in this setting that Krampus, if he can be considered a specter of economic rapprochement, and perhaps a sociopolitical demon Buddha, arrives to our popular consciousness. Maybe I’m too far into the tea leaves here, but it is a fun thought not without precedent. Remember this: ideas such as wealth, wealth creation, rituals of gifting, the rituals of the selfish virtues, all entail behaviors, that is to say performance efforts, some of which are even mystified, given ideologies, given justifications, given prayers, given gospel. If we dress up like Santa, that is to say, celebrate the selfless gift giving virtue, don’t we also dress up like Krampus, which is more geared toward economic justice? If we dress up like Randian heroes, cannot we also dress up like Bodhisattvas?
Imagine a parade of Krammpus scarring the hell out of the Scrooges and naughty plutocrats on Wall Street, drinking up the debt record. Krampuses storming the gilded lobby at Trump Tower, where Rand Paul cheekily tweeted “I haven’t seen so many billionaires in one place since Alex Jones and I were staking out Bilderburg.” A case can be made that in addition to the now famous mask of Guy Fawks, Mr. Robot‘s F-Society, Krampus is a suitable Occupy Wall Street mascot.
Economist and journalist Paul Mason is observing that there are communities spontaneously transitioning into a sharing society with the influence of the revolution of information technologies, highlighted in his book Post-Capitalism. Sharing societies in, for instance, cooperatives, farmers markets, sharing and barter amid artist communities and software developers exist within the larger system. Online lecture here.
Krampus the movie ends with the implication that each family is being watched over for who is naughty or who is nice through the Dark Santa’s collection of snow globes. It reminds me a bit of billionaire Charles Foster Kane’s lonely snow globe falling from his hand has he uttered his last words, “Rosebud.” A dream of his childhood, a simpler time before the inheritance, before money, before becoming a big shot, before running for office. A dream of Rosebud, that precious Christmas gift in the snow, the the specter of the road not taken.