Paul Dundon’s Weblog


A little cheese and a little whine

Rudolph: an Indictment of Capitalist Ethics

The traditions and stories of Christmas are, of course, a rich source of inspiration for those opposed to the ravages of free-market capitalism; but one myth, one story, is particularly potent. I refer, of course, to that of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Better known than the older Christian myths, the story of Rudolph provides a rich demonstration of the difficulties of the commoditised society.

I assume that my reader is familiar with this dismal tale of the exploitation of animal-slaves in the service of the distribution of mass-produced entertainment products designed to satisfy manufactured needs. Let us move directly, then, to our analysis, noting only that I shall, in the spirit of the season and the story, assume that we may anthropomorphise Rudolph and his colleagues and reasonably judge their actions and treatment by human-animal standards.

We begin with the observation that Rudolph is a figure of ridicule because of his physical disfigurement. Despite Santa’s responsibility for maintaining standards in Rudolph’s workplace, he does nothing, at any point in the story, to address the clearly unacceptable bullying behaviour of the other reindeer. Nor does he have any incentive to do so. Civilisation begins where we treat each other better than we have to, where we strive to be better people than we have to be. Capitalism, on the other hand, is founded in the idea of efficiency of production – doing no more than is necessary. Since Santa is concerned only with the problem of gift production and delivery, the appalling treatment of Rudolph at the hands of his co-workers is of no importance to him. This would be less of a problem were capitalist principles limited to the workplace; but increasingly, we find them applied to civic life. Rudolph and those like him can expect very little in such a society.

Santa’s response is in fact very telling. Rather than considering Rudolph as a person – a person with a right to dignity, which imposes a duty on others which Santa, like everyone, is morally bound to uphold – he considers him as an exploitable resource. While Rudolph himself is of no consequence, his glowing nose is of value to Santa’s delivery operation. For this reason, Santa places him at the head of the team. In doing so, he both reduces Rudolph to his disfigurement (since this is the only feature of Rudolph which is of interest to him) and objectifies him, making him into a device for guiding the sleigh.

We can only assume that Santa would take a similar attitude to other people; and indeed, to natural resources in general. That is, everything and everyone is conceptualised purely in terms of their role in economic production. Any question of wider consequence is ignored. Santa, in objectifying Rudolph in this way, demonstrates the immediate dehumanising effect of such a mindset, but also reminds us of the potential for the devastating environmental destruction which becomes possible when short term production is the only consideration in our actions.

Nonetheless, we may feel that Rudolph is better off in his new position at the head of the team. There is, of course, no mention of any improvement to his pay or conditions, and it is indeed common for employers to foist additional responsibilities on employees without any additional reward when operational demands require it. We can, however, imagine that Rudolph feels happier in his new role (and indeed the story goes on to imply that he gains increased social status from it). But look how fragile that position is. Rudolph has been “promoted” not as a consequence of his abilities, much less his moral character – he has been promoted because of the utility of his disfigurement. That utility, however, is dependent entirely on the prevailing weather conditions. Were it not a foggy Christmas night, Santa would have left Rudolph in his previous role; and we can only assume that Rudolph will be returned there in future years if this year’s fog proves to be unusual.

Even if the fog – perhaps as a consequence of man-made climate change – proves to be a permanent feature of yuletide meteorology, Rudolph’s status is no more secure. Santa will no doubt, once the urgent requirement of this year’s delivery is satisfied, review his operation and see that Rudolph represents a critical point of failure. Much better, he will conclude, to replace him with some sort of mechanical guidance system. From one point of view, this is a better outcome, since we now have a device – and not Rudolph – treated as an object. But it comes at an enormous cost to Rudolph, bringing an end to his moment of security and status.

Rudolph would not, we might assume, lose his employment entirely, but many are not so fortunate. Reducing a person to their productive capacity means that they are at constant risk of displacement as a consequence both of changes in the requirements of production and changes in technology. This insecurity is the price of efficiency, but as Rudolph shows us, its consequences are not merely financial. It is not that Rudolph cannot afford to play in all those reindeer games, but that his peers exclude him from them, something he is only able to rectify by escalating his economic status. Those of low economic status may find themselves excluded not only from processes of exchange but from society and civic life generally, but in general they can do no more to control that status than Rudolph can do to prevent his nose from glowing.

In Rudolph’s story, then, we see the clearest possible demonstration of the way in which capitalism strips away our humanity, reducing us to our capacity as a means of production, both in what it acknowledges and what it rewards. As the gatekeeper to the means of production, Santa is both the arbiter of Rudolph’s happiness and the one least inclined to defend it.

We do well, then, to teach this myth to our children. In an age when media and culture are increasingly controlled by capitalist interests or censored by their puppet governments, such potent material is in dwindling supply. We can only hope that Rudolph’s plight might become a rallying cry for future generations, a symbol of capitalist oppression and a focal point for resistance.

Merry Christmas.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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