Santa Claus and the Contradictions of Bourgeois Ideology

A comrade recently pointed my attention to a comedy skit by Foil Arms and Hog called “Santa is Captured by the Russians,” where for two minutes Mr. Claus is interrogated by the Soviet police. Below are some excerpts from the conversation:

Santa:  I think there has been some sort of a mistake. You see I have a very busy night tonight.

Soviet Police 1: He was found attempting to hide in a chimney.

Soviet Police 2: Chimney? What were you doing in Russian airspace?

Santa: I’ve already told you…

(Santa gets slapped): Ho, ho, ho… That was naughty.

Soviet Police: We found a list of names.

Santa: Ah my list.

Soviet Police: These are American spies?

Santa: No, no…

Soviet Police: There was also a second list.

Santa: Oh you don’t want to be on that list.

Soviet Police: You plan to kill these people.

Santa: No, no, they just get a bad present… It used to be a bag of coal… but the whole climate change thing…

Soviet Police: We intercepted a communication from one of his assets.

“Dear Santa, I have been a good girl. I would like a Silvanian Family Cosy Cottage Starter Home.”

Soviet Police: This is clearly code.

Santa: No it’s not code.

Soviet Police: Then who is Santa?

Santa: That’s me.

Soviet Police: You said your name was Father Christmas.

Santa: Yes, I’m known by very many names.

Soviet Police: So you are spy?… How do you know my children’s names?… What are you doing in Russia?

Santa: Presents, I deliver presents.

Soviet Police: Presents? For who?

Santa: Well, to all the children in the world.

Soviet Police: All the children in the world? In return for what?

Santa: Well, nothing.

Soviet Police: Nothing? So…You are communist?

Santa: Da (Yes)… Why do you think I wear red comrade?

Soviet Police: Signals to officer outside “Comrade, two vodka, one cookies and milk.”

This captures wonderfully the gap between reality and the values and narratives enunciated by the liberal capitalist world. Father Christmas is said to be this selfless gift-bringer, someone who enjoys seeing the smile on kids’ faces as they receive – assuming they weren’t naughty – their new toys. Santa Claus gives, in the traditional narrative, to all kids, irrespective of class (but especially the poor), race, nationality, and sex. He gives these gifts, most importantly, for free. He does not give in exchange for money. His purpose, telos, is not profit. He gives gifts to meet the playful needs of children. His goal is social good, not capital accumulation. He gives so that kids can play, so that they may fulfill what it means to be a kid. He does not give so that parents’ pockets are hollowed, and his North Pole bank account inflated.

Santa Claus’s logic is completely antithetical to the capitalist system. A system premised on producing for the sake of capital accumulation and not social and common good is in contradiction with Father Christmas’s telos. Both the real St. Nicholas (270 – 342 AD) and the Santa Claus we consume in popular culture gift-give without any attempt at obtaining recognition. Unlike the charities in the capitalist West, Santa’s giving does not afford him major tax deductions, and neither does it boost his ‘humanitarian philanthropist profile’ through large, broadcasted events. Saint Nicholas’s giving was not some big spectacle, quite the opposite. He climbs in through the chimney when everyone is sleeping to leave gifts and go. He stands on the side of the poor and does his part in attempting to bring about social justice.

While this is the dominant narrative we operate with, the reality of our commodified Christmas, and of Santa Claus as the personified agent of such commodification, is directly opposed to the narrative itself. As Valerie Panne notes, modern capitalist Christmas has turned Santa Claus into a “decorative marketing tool…for hysterical shopping.” Santa’s commodified image – first used by Coca-Cola in the 1930s – has become instrumental in helping the capitalists realize profit. He has become an instrument used to, as Marx notes in volumes two and three of Capital, “cut the turn over time of capital… The shorter the period of turnover, the smaller this idle portion of capital as compared with the whole, and the larger, therefore, the appropriated surplus-value, provided other conditions remain the same.”

Here we see a clear gap in the enunciated values and the reality of capitalist society. At the ideological level, that is, at the level of how we collectively think about the story and figure of Santa Claus, we find heartwarming values of empathy, selfless giving, and community. However, this ideological level is rooted in the reality of a Santa Claus used to promote conspicuous consumption (as Thorstein Veblen notes), the commodification of family time, traditions, and relations, and the accumulation of capital in the hands of the few.

The ideological reflection of the real world provides an upside-down, topsy-turvy image of itself. This is the essence of bourgeois ideology qua false consciousness. It is a social order that necessitates the general acceptance of an inverted understanding of itself. We come to erroneously understand the “capitalist” Santa through the narratives of the “communist” Santa. Reality is turned on its head. But this is not, as Vanessa Wills notes, a problem of “epistemic hygiene”. The root of the ‘error’ is not in our minds, that is, in our reflection of the objective phenomena at hand. As I’ve argued previously, “it is much deeper than this; the inversion or ‘mistake’ is in the world itself… This world reflects itself through an upside-down appearance, and it must necessarily do so to continuously reproduce itself.” As Marx and Engels noted long ago,

If in all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

To understand the gap between how Santa Claus (or Christmas) is understood and how it actually functions in modern capitalist society it is insufficient to see the problem simply as one of subjective ‘misunderstandings’ held by individuals, classes, or whole peoples. One must investigate the political economy which grounds, that is, which reflects that erroneous image of itself. The gap between the actual “capitalist” Santa and the ideological “communist” Santa is objective, it is required by the existing material relations of social production and reproduction. Capitalist ideology must disguise the cut-throat values of bourgeois individualism with the universalist values of Santa’s socialistic humanism.

But this is nothing new. Santa Claus is just another particular instant of a universal bourgeois phenomenon. The capitalist class has never been able to fully realize, to make actual, the values it enunciates with its appearance in the arena of universal history as a dominant force. Its universal appeals to liberty, equality, fraternity, etc. have always been limited within the confines of their class. As Marx had already noted in 1843, “the practical application of the right of liberty is the right of private property;” “the necessary condition for whose existence,” he and Engels write in 1848, “is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.” The phrasing of ‘all men’ used to formulate rights under capitalism is always with the understanding, as Marx notes, of “man as a bourgeois,” it is “the rights of the egotistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community.” Its values, and their reflection in their judicature, always present their narrow class interests embellished by abstract language used to appeal to the masses and obtain their consenting approval for a form of social life which they’re in an objectively antagonistic relation with.

The ideologues of the bourgeoisie always provide the masses with a “bad check,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say. But eventually, as King notes, the masses will come in to cash that check somehow. They’ll notice that within the confines of the existing order, the prosperity that checked promised is unrealizable. Capitalism has never, and will never, fulfill the universal values it pronounces as it breaks out of the bonds of feudal absolutism. Only socialism can.

The values embedded in the narrative surrounding Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or whatever else you want to call him, will never be actual within capitalist society. Only socialism can universalize the form of selfless relationality we have come to associate with Santa.

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). Read other articles by Carlos.