"They sit there and use subliminal messages to suck your children's minds out...they make your children feel like garbage"
The Christmas Season, every year, proves itself a bloodier battlefield in a fight for the soul of Americans between capitalism and solidarity. "Jingle All the Way" (1996) starts this conversation.
Howard Langston, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a workaholic. He is also clearly an immigrant, sold on the American Dream of prosperity, a family, homestead, and above all else, freedom. And yet, he can’t seem to breakaway from his mattress business to spend time with his family, lest he potentially lose every, and again, why shouldn’t he? He had to work hard to earn it, and if he doesn’t, then his work has no meaning. He forgets to buy his family Christmas gifts as a result.
Myron Larabee, played by Sinbad, is a mail carrier, a single father, and no matter how hard he works, he won’t see prosperity or stability, and puts in the effort, but ultimately is reduced to an act of desperation to make his family feel loved and to have the things others are (comparatively) more easily able to acquire.
These men are not each other’s enemy, and in fact, they have the same enemy, and beyond being the two protagonists of Jingle All the Way, the thing that bonds them most is that the crush of capitalism first, and foremost, comes most directly for the working class, immigrants, and people of color— consumerism is their enemy, and the biggest barrier to either of them living a satisfying life, at least under the framework the consumers around them are operating, and by which they, as providers, are measured.
This film depicts both as clearly loving and devoted parents, and yet, their singular inability to acquire a Turbo-Man doll is the icon of their failure as providers— they both descend into criminal activity— with Larabee ultimately faking a bomb threat to end this madness, only to be arrested- to beat the other, to prove to their respective families that they not only work hard, but that their devotion to their families is why they work so hard. The problem is that they shouldn’t have to, and yet, here they are.
Mail Carriers, in 2020 in particular, are among the most acknowledged of workers while remaining the most actionably underpaid, while the state consistently slashes budgets and inhibits their ability to do their job— not since the 90’s (when this film was made) has this been so starkly in contrast with how much the public relies on the mail for its smooth and orderly operation. By this logic, they should all be millionaires, or if they’re not they should seek private enterprise to solve their problems (ask a UPS driver how that has worked out for them as an alternative)— this culture, this nation simply does not care about its support laborers.
Langston is a mattress salesman— a business that requires not only grinding hours, but volume to be a reliable source of income (and int he film, Langston lives a lifestyle consistent with success in such a business, but the human cost is that of his relationships, however, without this business, this lifestyle comes apart). This can be said of any business under capitalism— you grind perpetually and earned the right to dictate economic discourse, or you fail to do so and you had it coming, or so the discourse around this has developed. Because I suffered, you must too. It’s depicted as an isolating element of his existence, despite it making his family prosperous.
The thing binding them, as I said, is the pursuit of a hot Christmas gift that year, and that pursuit costs them almost everything; only an act of benevolence by Langston’s son (giving Larabee the doll for his own son, deeming him a real hero) proves decisive about the role of scarcity and institutional inequality in our economics, but also provides an out for refusing to embrace solidarity—this is the argument made by neoliberals for charity over welfare, the idea that benevolence is likely enough that robust social programs are not required, which is, demonstrably (as in this plot, for example), not the case. There’s a reason this fiction comes across as not only plausible, but relateable.
There’s a possibly apocrpyhal story Arnold Schwarzenegger tells about why he became a Republican, and ultimately set his sights on the office of Governor; when he first came to the United States, he watched a presidential debate with Richard Nixon, and asked what party Nixon belonged to. A friend told him “Nixon is a Republican” and Arnold replied, “Then I am a Republican”. It’s the kind of story that immediately gets tokenized and exploited by the party duopoly (whichever side the anecdote is favorable towards) to justify all manner of generalizable (incorrectly) demographic claims (“the immigrant vote” in this case) as if they represent, in any meaningfuly way, a monolith. Schwarzenegger is not the problem here, the system is— as a politician, he’s broken with his party in a lot of key ways (environmental policy, criticizing Trump administration travel bans, speaking out against gerrymandering), none of which redeem the ways in which he hasn’t, but it speaks to the mentality of first (and even second and third) generation immigrants in the United States who attempt to operate in good faith within the system, even as conservatives, to be active and willing participants as a citizen of a new place. I believe this is the core of the Langston character.
I, obviously, have no idea if Langston was supposed to be read as an immigrant, but the decision to cast Schwarzenegger absolutely codes him as one, and thus makes his narrative orthogonal, rather than oppositional, to that of Sinbad’s Larabee as a working-class Black man, when it comes to the pressures of succeeding in this culture or facing the consequences of a capitalist state; for Larabee, this took the form of being arrested for his bomb threat, however, isn’t this exactly the the circumstances demanded of him to remain competitive at all costs? This is what is meant when corporatist-minded capitalism runs rampant on a culture and breeds violence, not because of the people forced to participate in it, but what the structure demands of its participants to remain competitive. There’s an element of fighting for solidarity and liberation to this film, and the missing piece is, as Fred Hampton puts it, solidary:
“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best ; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.”
And the core issue is racism, just like it is any other -ism that exacerbates, necessarily, for capitalism to function, and that is the biggest, single element rotting our culture in its service, and only together does it get resolved meaningfully.
I have a very cynical view of the holiday season, and part of it was due to my religious education. I had an instructor, Mr. Klasner, who was not well-liked by many of my classmates, but I found his philosophy fascinating; Jewish people hadn’t gone through all we had just to have our traditions and beliefs coopted for politics that don’t represent those values, an economy that treats the vulnerable oppositionally to those values, and ultimately, that the generational aspects of our shared traditions should build a coalition, and yet, the conclusions I drew from this were that, among the American Jewry, we have failed to do so, strictly for those reasons under capitalism. One of the more revealing things he taught us was the origins of gift-giving tradition in our holidays:
In the early 20th century, what Eliezer Segal calls the “exaggerated commercialization of the American Hanukkah” occured— until this point, not only was gift-giving not a feature of Hanukkah, the holiday itself didn’t even feature prominently in the calendar. Today, it is one of very few Jewish holidays observed even nominally in the United States, and mostly because of its convenient proximity to Christmas, itself commercialized beyond all recognition to its original purpose. Mr. Klasner explained to us that his family observed the traditional mitzvah of משלוח מנו (or “sending of portions”) on Purim (typically months later, and now with its own muted visibility for many)— the purpose of this tradition is purely socialistic; the sharing of food and comforts to ensure that everyone is provided for and no one is left hungry, and this is a core function of any Jewish holiday, but especially this one. It’s easy to understand, in the modern era, why one misappropriation of a holiday would prevail over one so foundational to the core of the religious ideology of not only Judaism, but Christianity and Christmas as well.
This is an example of how capitalism not only corrodes the prevailing majority traditions, but the ones forced to coexist with it, and adapt and assimilate, and ultimately run counter to the entire reason it exists— solidarity.
Even this film, for example, is permeated by a denial of what the problem actually is— review of the film citing its cynicism as a problem, correctly identifying that “this painfully bad movie has been inspired strictly by the potential jingle of cash registers”, as one critic put it, as a bummer of some kind rather than a reality check about not only commercialization’s effects on our belief systems, but on our perception of it as well, is sick commentary on the state of solidarity. Another critic notes “Howard Langston is supposed to be a successful mattress manufacturer, but the movie paints him as a hot-tempered buffoon without a sensible idea in his head.” hits the nail on the head— we deny the effects of scarcity and stability by citing momentary material prosperity as a reason to be dismissive of justified cynicism, and instead sink further and further into the narrative that, because one was successful, all who are not simply didn’t want it bad enough, and thus erase the reality of our prevailing economic system that institutionally prevents stability or else it ceases to be profitible as a vector of exploitation of the working class.
The cost for all of this? The integrity of our spiritual wellness. That’s what capitalism takes from you every holiday season, and that’s what, mid-pandemic, it’s demanding the literal lives of shoppers to spend in order to perpetuate itself, rather than perpetuating and enlarging, as Murray Bookchin puts it, the human spirit. At one point in the film, Myron Larabee is flustered, he draws down to why anyone participates in this system at all— they want this all to have meaning, and if under capitalism, that means providing materially against unjust and artificially imposed scarcity, then so be it, but it doesn’t change the material reality of being a working class American:
“How about these stupid letters from kids to Santa at the North Pole: "Dear Santa, can you send me a bike and a slinky?" No! Your father's been laid off!”
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
The Real Reason American Jews Give Gifts During Hanukkah
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen
Quentin Tarantino on Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express