THE 
RED
CRITIQUE
 

Intoxicating Freedom: Drinking the Class Divide

Robert Faivre

 

8

Oil and War

EATING CLASS

The Imperialism of "Eating Well"
Kimberly DeFazio

The Class Regimen of Contemporary Feminism
Jennifer Cotter

Borderless Cuisine: The Diet of Neoliberalism
Amrohini Sahay

Let Them Eat Stigma: A Review of Fat Land
Julie Torrant

IMAGE AND IDEOLOGY

Main

 

Despite a failing stock market, rising healthcare and education costs, and the potential of global war, "frivolous" consumption is everywhere.  From tax breaks for buyers of SUVs, to television shows on MTV that "expose" the lavish lifestyles of pop-stars, to the theoretical work of "post-left" cultural theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, the return of frivolous consumption has become the dominant indicator of one's class.  In short, "class" has become "classy".  While having "returned" to class, the dominant cultural theory today has emptied class of any connection to relations of production and, instead, now substitutes a theory of class as desire, defined primarily by one's level of "frivolity" (i.e., consumption) in the marketplace (Dimock and Gilmore 1-11).  The aim of this paper is to explain why, in a time of acute crisis, theories of frivolous consumption emerge and circulate to promote the enjoyment of little pleasures over and above the satisfaction of real needs.  Because of the seriousness of this situation for the majority of the world's people whose needs are unmet, this paper takes up one of the most "frivolous" commodities—alcohol, which, despite its serious health risks, is perceived almost entirely as a recreational consumable—and shows how its consumption, and indeed all the consumptionist theories like Bourdieu's, are determined by the primary conflict between capital and labor.

According to the World Health Organization, "[...] overall, alcohol causes as much illness and death as measles and malaria, and more years of life lost to death and disability than tobacco or illegal drugs" (Quoted in Zuger, F1).  Ranging from binge drinking among college students in the North (40% of whom binge regularly) to fetal alcohol syndrome in the South (for instance, the FAS rate in South Africa is 52 times greater than in the United States), alcohol consumption is a global health crisis, the severity and scope of which is heightened by the marketing practices of the alcohol industry.[1] Targeting young people worldwide and especially in the emerging markets of Asia, the industry uses advertising to represent drinking as glamorous and reinvigorating.  Indeed, in much "frivolous" discourse, alcohol consumption—rather than being understood in relation to addiction, illness, malnutrition, domestic violence, and other social harms—is usually represented as a matter of individual choice.  Consumption of alcohol in moderation is represented as a form of virtually harmless recreation and indeed a key feature of a classy lifestyle.  How and where one drinks is taken as an index of one's status in society, a sign of one's identity, and a measure of one's success.  This contradiction—that is, between the widespread harmful effects of alcohol consumption and its persistent role in recreation—must be addressed critically if one is to understand not only alcohol but the social reality in which it is consumed.

Frivolous consumption, such as the recreational consumption of alcohol, emerges at a time of global crisis.  More specifically, a condition of the emergence of frivolous consumption is the highly developed productive capacity of labor now and, at the same time, the existence of social relations of production which prioritize profit over need.

While the recreational consumption of alcohol, in a range of forms, tastes, and styles is taken as the measure of one's "freedom", it is, in actuality, a symptom of the irrationality of organizing production for profit.  At a time when the productivity of labor has reached the point when it would be possible to meet the basic needs (and more) of everyone in the world, the continued restriction of production to the demands of transnational capital against the needs of the majority means that the few who own the means of production can fulfill their every desire while increasing numbers of people have little or no access to clean water, healthcare, housing, and education.  This is what is at the core of the "frivolity" of alcohol consumption.  The image of alcohol as "freedom" is based upon the only "freedom" capitalism offers to the world: the free-market in which a few profit from the labor of the majority.  Transnational capitalism promotes the recreational consumption of alcoholwhich as a source of empty calories has no real food value but is a source of profitswhile millions suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and related illnesses.

Exemplary of the frivolity that circulates nowin which increased consumption, as opposed to transformation of the relations of production, is promoted as the solution to social inequalityis a recent book by Stuart Walton, Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication (2002).  The book is a celebration of the recreational consumption of intoxicants, including alcohol, which Walton describes as one of the most widely available and legitimated "radical intoxicant[s]".  For Walton, intoxication is one of the most essential human experiences, one that he aims to reclaim from the various institutions (legal, religious, and medical), which have attempted to seize control of it because it is perceived as a threat to social stability and progress.

The problem, as Walton presents it, is not that alcohol consumption is harmful.  In fact, Walton asserts that most alcohol consumption has "no negative medical or social side effects" (12), but rather provides necessary recreation and release from the daily grind.  In his experience—and experience is what he relies on to make his claims—only "the small minority of drug use" is "problematic" (12).  The central concern of his reading is that people are prevented by various cultural prohibitions from having good information about and free access to the experience of intoxication, and Walton sees in the increasing calls to moderation an attempt to stop the play of identity that intoxication enables as an escape from the everyday.  He writes, "I consider [intoxication] a heartening and positive phenomenon, a last tidal wave of mass defiance against institutional apparatuses whose power is now concerted on a global scale, and yet whose minatory efforts at dissuasion are being stubbornly brushed aside" (9).  How can we know "moderation", he asks, without excess?

As Walton sees it, all that is necessary to make a positive experience of alcohol consumption available to everyone is a cultural reform which reconceives alcohol to understand it in its positive essence.  Alcohol becomes, in his text, a trope of individual autonomy in an increasingly homogenized society.  It represents, he argues, "the moments of our lives given over to the ludic, the celebratory, the digressive and the recreational" (270).  Alcohol, in other words, is understood as a cultural matter, and in the terms of all dominant cultural theory today, culture is a matter of ideas, not class.  All one needs to do to "escape" class is to re-arrange one's perception of the world.  However, despite taking the view that the cultural history of intoxication can be written only from the singular experiences of people's lives, this argument presupposes that recreational intoxication is transhistorical and a means of crossing all social and cultural boundaries.  Throughout the book, Walton habitually repeats that "the drive to achieve intoxicated states is a universal and abiding one" (15, 23, 270,…).  That is, while focusing on the "unique" experiences of intoxication, Walton locates intoxication as a universal and indeed an almost biological drive which will always exist, and recreational use of alcohol and other intoxicants as a constant across cultures and through history.  In short, it is not that Walton is against any totalization, but rather against any totalizing theory of the world that connects intoxication to class.  For Walton, intoxication is a transhistorical constant, the forms of which are only conditioned by the realities of the particular culture in which people live.

I have focused on Walton's text not because these textual inconsistencies and slippages are a mark of any sophisticated deconstruction of the cultural symbolism of alcohol, but because of its symptomatic popularity. By even the most basic standards of intellectual inquiry, Walton's text is a "thin" investigation of the issues.  The level of attention that it has received despite the conceptual "thin-ness" of the argument, however, is an index of the dominant understanding of class in cultural studies today.  Walton's text is symptomatic of the way in which post-al cultural studies has become the theoretical wing of transnational capital by celebrating consumption—and, increasingly, "frivolous" consumption—as a means of realizing individual autonomy.  In its relentless promoting of increased consumption as a viable alternative to economic and social justice, this view accepts capitalism as the "natural" and only way of organizing production, and rewrites the inequitable division of access to resources, which is an effect of the divided social relations of class, as cultural difference of taste.  Class is reduced to a matter of style, and, according to this logic, one can achieve an improved market situation with more "classy" consumption.  The book's reliance on "experience" as the only reliable basis of knowing, in other words, is an integral part of a cultural theory of class in which class is reduced to a lifestyle.  Walton is but one instance of the consumptionist theory, which addresses the diverse surface appearances of commodity culture but brackets them off from the deeper determinations thus universalizing the differences because the reality of class—not only its appearances in consumption but it cause in production—is denied.

In so far as class-as-lifestyle has become the dominant theory of class, I am aware that to argue otherwise is to immediately call into question my ability to discuss "frivolous" consumption.  However, if cultural studies is to be more than a witness to the effects of capitalism but a force for transforming the material conditions in which the few profit by exploiting the labor of the many, it is necessary to return to a theory of class in which class is understood as one's relationship to the means of production.  I will argue that in order to understand consumption, and indeed to understand the diverse cultural forms, institutions, and practices that make up daily life under capitalism, it is not sufficient to limit one's analysis to culture as it is immediately "experienced", but rather it is necessary to explain cultural appearances in relation to the basic social relations.  This means that to effectively understand consumption—to understand, for instance, why frivolous consumption of alcohol exists alongside hunger, or why alcohol appears at all as a form of "recreation"—it is necessary to show how the relations of consumption are a manifestation of the social relations of production, relations which are determined by the exploitation of labor by capital for the production of profit.

Alcohol, as it appears to us, or as we conceive of it or experience it, is an example of what Marx calls an "imagined concrete".  Alcohol appears, like all commodities, to have no history.  It is presented as a "natural" experience, one that cuts across all cultural and class boundaries.  What Marx's analysis of daily life under capitalism explains, and why I argue it provides an effective and necessary means of understanding culture today, is that a "concrete" thing such as alcohol is not simply a given but rather a set of relations which have come to take on a concrete form or appearance as a seemingly singular entity, but which is best understood, as Marx says, as "a rich totality of many determinations and their relations" (Collected Works, Vol. 28, page 37).  What is important here is that Marx is saying that in order to understand what appears to be a purely "cultural" event like the consumption of alcohol, we need to understand the relations in which this "concrete" is produced.  Thus, in order to understand alcohol as it appears to and is experienced by people now, it is necessary to understand alcohol in its various forms as a commodity.  Alcohol, in other words, is produced and, like all commodities, is part of a complex system of production that goes beyond one's immediate perception.  Marx's theory of the "concrete" as a set of relations is effective because it allows us to begin to understand alcohol both as it "appears" and in terms of the underlying relations which produce alcohol in its various appearances and forms.

Marx's theory of the commodity and commodity relations has, however, been displaced in what is known as the "cutting-edge" cultural and social theory by theories which address commodities and their consumption separate from any underlying relations.  These theories regard commodities as items of exchange and consumption, as things, and not in terms of basic social relations within which these things are produced, exchanged, and consumed.  Pierre Bourdieu's theory of "distinction", or cultural consumption, is such a theory.  That is, while Bourdieu uses the term "commodity", his theory of commodities and commodity consumption regards commodities as things which express not a fundamental relation underlying all social reality (a concept which Bourdieu critiques as a logical illusion), but as things which are consumed with distinction, that is, things which in their consumption signify or construct the identity of the consumer, marking the consumer's position in a spectrum of lifestyle status.

According to Bourdieu, the problem with Marx's analysis of "concretes" is that such an approach to the understanding of substances, practices and indeed to all of "reality" confuses "the things of logic with the logic of things" ("What Makes a Social Class?" 7).  He argues, further, that such an approach is a "theoreticist illusion which grants reality to abstractions [and] hides a whole series of major problems" (7).  Here, Bourdieu is arguing, in effect, that to claim to "know" a "thing" through concepts ("abstractions") poses problems because one is trying to grasp one type of thing with another.  That is to say, because of the mediation of the concept, one can never get at the "nature" of the thing in question.  It would seem, then, that Bourdieu is saying that it is not possible to know or to have reliable knowledge of substances and practices, because ideas occupy a different reality than things and are thus always a totalizing reduction of unique experience.  That is, conceptual apprehension of a thing such as a particular form or style of alcohol is not the same as actual consumption of a specific alcoholic beverage.  No theory of "alcohol", in short, can ever account for the multitude of possible experiences of drinking.

For Bourdieu "reality" can only be contingently defined by the innumerable cultural distinctions that make up the "experience" of alcohol.  In this view, alcohol can only be understood through its consumption, whether it is one's own experience of drinking or it is others' recognition of one's consumption within a hierarchy of drinking distinctions (such as those between consuming a six-pack of canned beer from the convenience store, consuming a few raspberry cosmopolitans in a trendy urban club, and consuming a glass of a rare aged port after a business deal).  According to this logic, alcohol is a matter of "taste," or the ways that it is consumed differently by different people.  Bourdieu argues that to understand consumption practices, one needs to look at the ways in which people are culturally conditioned to consume alcohol.  This cultural conditioning is presented by Bourdieu as a matter of what is considered legitimate, both in terms of an overall hierarchy of "distinction" within the social space (that is, the social reality as imagined by social subjects themselves) and in terms of which specific consumption practices appear as legitimate for subjects at various shifting positions within this hierarchy.

"In matters of taste," Bourdieu writes, "more than anywhere else, all determination is negation" (Distinction 56).  That is, "taste" cannot be explained by any causal theory in which one aspect of social life, such as class, is made more important than any other.  On the contrary, at the core of the theory of "determination is negation" is the notion that society is an open, fluid space of multiple determinations without a center.  For Bourdieu, one's position in social space as a subject is a matter of the distribution of the different forms of "capital", his term for the various culturally legitimating assets—including economic capital (such as wealth or income) and cultural capital (such as education or particular sorts of knowledge)—that everyone "owns" in differing degrees.  In other words, Bourdieu is arguing that "taste" is determined by one's social class.  However, "class" for Bourdieu is not, as it is for Marx, a matter of positions within the exploitative relations of production, but rather a network of various social resources that everyone has access to.

The relationship of "taste" and "class" is evident in Bourdieu's discussion of how practices are identified in relation to each other and to two primary "tastes" in the hierarchy of legitimation.  These are the "taste of necessity" and the "taste of luxury," the latter of which Bourdieu also terms the "taste of freedom".

The taste of necessity is that set of tastes which is most conditioned by economic necessity (or limited economic capital) and, at the same time, by limited knowledge of other tastes (or limited cultural capital).  Calculated in terms of the "distance from necessity," the taste of necessity is a matter of the degree to which "economic power" keeps economic necessity "at arm's length" (55).  In other words, the taste of necessity is the most constrained taste.  Thus, Bourdieu is arguing that taste, or one's preferred forms of consumption, is determined by one's status, or place within a hierarchy.  In this sense, "taste" is merely descriptive of the behavior of consumers based upon a matrix of their income and their cultural "status".

An illustration of this ordering of tastes can be seen, for example, in the hierarchical arrangement of vodka brands on the shelves of the liquor store: nearest the floor are the cheap and rough brands (often with the highest alcohol content—100 proof or higher); above these are the range of highly advertised "middle" brands in their various forms, from plain to flavored, with their familiar designs and novelty features; and on the top shelves are the premium and specialty imports, the "purest of the pure".  Which subject consumes which brand or level of vodka, for example, is a matter of the conditioning of his/her taste.  In this way, Bourdieu's theory of consumption aims to address the appearance of distinct consumption practices within a population, practices which constitute particular styles and mark specific tastes, without reducing these decisions either to economics or to culture.

It is this fluid nature of class status, Bourdieu argues, that makes it is possible to distance oneself from the taste of necessity not only by acquiring economic capital but also cultural capital, or knowledge of the taste of luxury, a taste which can be acquired in degrees.  In this sense, Bourdieu suggests that cultural knowledge of different tastes is an equally determining factor in one's position in the hierarchy of social space as one's position in the relations of production.  That is, one can gain access to different tastes and therefore "make it" into a higher class strata by learning how to consume like the cultural other.  In short, one can consume one's way into the upper class.  But, of course, this "refined" consumption is a matter of superseding one's cultural pre-conditioning (or pre-dispositioning) through access to knowledge, or cultural capital.  Thus, for Bourdieu the difference between "haves" and "have-nots" is ultimately a cultural imposition upon the "lower" classes, whose problem is that they just don't know how to live well.  That is, to return to the example of vodka consumption, social subjects will tend to consume at the level to which they are accustomed, which means that through what Bourdieu calls a "forced choice" their preference for either a crude, or alternately a premium, form of vodka is dependent more on what they "know" than what they can afford.  In other words, through experience and education, a social subject can develop a taste for what is seen as better vodka, thus acquiring cultural capital and the ability to exceed their "class" position.  Those who continue to drink crude vodka or who drink it in ways that are not "classy" thus do so because they do not "know better".  What is needed to improve one's taste and class is the knowledge for making an informed choice, rather than a "forced choice".

This representation of freedom as informed choice in the marketplace is the freedom which calls on people to identify themselves as individuals who will do whatever they can to meet their own needs and desires within the existing social structure.  This appeal to individuality as the site of freedom rather than collectivity is the dominant understanding of freedom in capitalist society.  Thus, in his theory of consumption, Bourdieu repeats the logic of commodity culture which has its most familiar ideological representation in advertising.  For instance, to stay with the example of vodka, a highly advertised form of alcohol today is specialty or premium vodka, which is marketed in terms of its distance from alienated labor, a distance demonstrated through various strategies of representation in advertisements.  One such strategy, taken in the ads for Vox vodka, makes use of images of vacation sites (alpine ski resort, remote Caribbean beach), associating a taste for Vox with the escape or respite from work.  This is alcohol as a marker of status, or in Bourdieu's terms, alcohol as the taste of luxury and freedom.

Another such strategy is through marketing's aestheticization of labor.  For instance, the ads for Belvedere and Chopin, printed in sepia tones or softened black and white, depict workers as pre-capitalist craftsmen or peasant workers.  The ads feature the potato or the rye as well as the rustic implements of their processing (the flail and pitchfork), leaving mention of distillation to the fine print.  In one ad, a worker's soiled and cracked hands seem to be made of the same earthy substance as the potatoes they hold.  This strategy of representation presents the consumer with an image of the worker as someone s/he might encounter while touring rural Europe or observe gathering or cooking potatoes in a painting by Van Gogh.  There is, in fact, a brand of specialty vodka named after Van Gogh, reproducing various familiar paintings, which can be viewed inside the bottle through the "framing" label.  This association of the vodka and the artworks represents an association of taste, whereby the consumer can enjoy the vodka as if it were an artwork; together these make a display of cultural capital.

In either instance, the distancing from or aestheticizing of labor exemplifies the use of an idealized representation of reality that covers over and thus denies the reality of both production and consumption.  Vodka, for instance, is produced under specific historical conditions and is consumed within them as well.  The producers of vodka, unlike the owners of the means of production and the privileged, do not generally experience the artworks or the resorts; indeed, they have no distance from necessity, but by necessity must sell their labor power, their ability to work, under the harsh conditions of exploitation which the images of advertisements soften, dehistoricize, and obscure from view. 

As already noted, in his conceptualization of social structure, Bourdieu represents class quite differently than Marx.  Specifically, he draws on the Weberian notion of class as a matter of identities which are basically an array of differences in "capital" holdings.  While Weber theorized class as a sort of cultural spectrum, Bourdieu theorizes a multi-dimensional space of identity mobility, or mobile identities, which shift according to the alignments of various combinations of the different forms of "capital".  This is a more nuanced version of Weber's differential rewriting of Marx, but what both versions of this bourgeois theory of "class" are aimed at denying is the classical Marxist concept of class as exploitative relations of production, that is, class as the difference between exploiter and exploited and the way this basic difference determines cultural differences. 

Bourdieu's treatment of the commodity, in other words, is only as an item of consumption as if consumption occurred independent of production.  But as Marx has theorized, this is merely the way in which the commodity appears in culture.  The reality of the commodity is in why and how it is produced within capitalist relations of production and how this determines its consumption.  Thus, from a Marxist view, one must explain the consumption of alcohol and its effects by turning to the commodity relations.  In Capital, Marx explains that the commodity is significant in this respect because "in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of their labour" (82-83).  That is, the relation of commodities as exchange among things appears as such because this is also the social character of people's labor in the capitalist mode of production.  The ability to work, or the labor-power of workers, becomes in these exploitative relations a commodity; that is, labor becomes something that is bought and sold on the market like any other commodity.  Moreover, these relations of the buying and selling of labor are exploitative relations because this most basic exchange is not an equal one but only appears as such.  It appears as such because the wage appears as compensation for a certain amount of labor.  However, as Marx explains in Wage-Labour and Capital and elsewhere, workers are not compensated for the full value of their labor (or more accurately, the full value of the labor-power expended), but rather for the cost of reproducing their labor-power (more or less), with the excess or newly created surplus-value going to the capitalist, who has paid the wage out of already existing capital. 

What is ideologically hidden in the exchange between the worker and the owner is the double "consumption" of the wage.  That is, a worker consumes the wage by spending it on the means of subsistence, for various commodities, while the owner of capital consumes the wage by paying it to the worker out of already existing capital for a certain expenditure of labor-power which yields a value greater than the wage.  Thus, as Marx explains in Wage-Labour and Capital, the wage is consumed "reproductively for the capitalist", as the exchange of wage for labor-power has netted the capitalist the surplus-value, and "unproductively for the worker", as it is then "exchanged for means of subsistence which are lost forever and whose value [the worker] can obtain again only by repeating the same exchange [...]" (32).  The wage for the capitalist produces surplus-value and accumulates as capital; the wage for the worker produces the means of subsistence, more or less.  If more, then it may be spent on commodities above and beyond subsistence (the means of privilege and pleasure), either immediately or mediated by an interval of savings and investment in order to be spent on commodities with a perceived higher yield of pleasure, prestige, etc. If less, then the wage may be spent on means of subsistence of lesser value and quality, or indeed need may go unmet.  The "more or less" situation is mediated somewhat in two ways: on the one hand by credit, which allows the wage to be spent in advance, again "unproductively" for the worker as this tends to result in debt and interest payments to investment capitalists; and on the other hand, by state interventions such as public assistance, which do allow many in the U.S. to survive at a minimal subsistence level, but which are never more than a reform within the social relations which bring about the basic unequal exchange.

The effect of this unequal exchange is that workers are alienated from the full value of their labor and the owner receives the surplus as profit, all while the wage is represented as a fair exchange.  The reason that capitalists are able to extract this surplus value (or profit) from workers is because they have monopoly ownership of the means of production and the workers have only their labor power.  Therefore, in order to work at all and thus meet their basic needs, workers have to sell their labor power to capitalists.  It is in these social relations where the owning class can command the labor of others that their interest in profit is structurally prioritized over workers' interest in production for meeting needs.  This prioritizing of profit over need begins in production, but it determines consumption. 

Consumption cannot be the solution to the contradictions of capitalism because, as Marx argues, production "produces the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption" (Grundrisse 29).  That is to say, what we consume, and how we consume it, is determined by the structure and organization of production.  If production is organized, as it is under capitalism, to produce commodities irrespective of the needs of the producers and for the private profit of the owners, then no amount of consumption can change this relation because consumption always comes after the extraction of surplus labor in production.  Frivolous consumption, in other words, is not the resolution to the problem of unmet need; it is its contradictory other within the relations of exploitation.  To posit consumption and forms of frivolous recreation as the compensation for want is to ideologically resolve the problem of historically produced want so that the contradictory social relations which produced both frivolity and unmet need in the first place can continue.  Unless the structure of inequality based upon private ownership of the means of production is transformed, consumption works only to reproduce the conditions of the exploitation of labor. 

The idea, however, that consumption is the most fundamental "right" and the primary means of expressing of one's identity is an example of the way in which "freedom" under capitalism is determined by the needs of the market.  Under these conditions of commodity relations in which many social needs are not and cannot be met, workers turn for recreation to commodities and culture generally for consolation and escape, for a temporary resolution at the level of consciousness and consumption of what remains unresolved at the site of production.  Thus the recreational consumption of alcohol, which is in fact a harmful and addictive substance, becomes a way to respond to the needs which the relations of production have denied and which alcohol can cover over, if temporarily, but at great social cost.

At the level of culture, the social relations produce the social contradiction of what Bourdieu calls "taste".  Marx explains that the refinement of tastes and luxury are "the refinement of needs" which develop in relation to

an artificially produced crudeness, whose true enjoyment, therefore, is self-stupefaction—this illusory satisfaction of need—this civilization contained within the crude barbarism of need.  The English gin shops are therefore the symbolical representations of private property.  Their luxury reveals the true relation of industrial luxury and wealth to man.  They are therefore rightly the only Sunday pleasures of the people which the English police treats at least mildly (1844 MS 311-312).

While Bourdieu theorizes a social space in which luxury and freedom are defined in their "distance" from necessity and the constraint and out-right denial of pleasure and need, Marx emphasizes that no matter how far removed the refinements appear to be from the crude reality of class, they occur within the same social relations of exploitation, and the luxury commodities and their various forms of consumption are "symbolical representations" of the relation of private property, or capital, to wage-labor.  The distance of luxury from necessity and its freedom, for Marx, is an appearance, a matter of culture, but as Marx explains culture is best understood as an expression of the basic social relations, which are the very relations culturalist theorists such as Bourdieu obscure from view. 

Thus alcohol, for Marx, is first and foremost a commodity, and in its various styles of consumption are " symbolical representations " of the social relations determined by production.  This means that these appearances—these historical and cultural forms of alcohol—are manifestations of the basic fact of exploitation, the unequal exchange of wage and labor-power.  The (mis)representation of this forced and unequal exchange as a free and equal one is the primary ideological representation of culture.  It is the basis of ruling class ideology.  As Marx explains in The German Ideology, "The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas" (59).  The notion that the wage-labor exchange is or can be free and fair circulates as the dominant idea, and it does so because the "means of mental production"—that is, much of culture, including media, advertising, education, etc.—are very much within the control of the class with the means of material production.  Thus the means of producing and reproducing culture and consciousness are put to use in the interest of the ruling class, which means that not only ideas about society and culture, but also cultural practices and uses of commodities, circulate as ideological forms which cover over the real relations.  The forms of alcohol and its styles of use are ideological forms in that they appear as choices, preferences, tastes, recreation, the escape from worries, a moment's pleasure, etc.  But the reality which is made partially manifest even as it is covered over in the ideological forms is that alcohol, like food, comes from the same natural and agricultural sources as food; that is, alcohol production like food production is a use of resources which are put to particular use depending on the priorities of those who control or own these resources.  As an example, turn again to vodka.  In times of grain scarcity, vodka production often displaced the production of bread (Phillips 126).  Why would this be the case since bread provides nutrition whereas vodka provides no nutrition and in fact harms people's health? Marx explains this contradiction by referring to the underlying economics.  In short, it is more profitable to produce vodka than bread, and thus if there are limits on the availability of grain, then the grain goes to the producer who can pay the most for it.  That is, producing frivolity is prioritized over producing food.  Vodka competes with bread for grain—in order to produce profit.  Intoxication competes with nutrition—in order to produce profit.

This is of course a particularly telling instance where workers' access to different commodities is directly limited.  Why though, from this view, do workers drink at all? Is it to demonstrate a certain taste or to take up conspicuous consumption? Or because of one's social conditioning? Is it to slip free of the social order in obedience of a transhistorical desire? Sociologist Sidney Mintz cuts through such musings when he characterizes commodities such as rum and sugar as "proletarian hunger-killers" (360).  This characterization of drinking and why it is done—to kill hunger, to mask the effects of unmet need—clarifies what is obscured by the rationales of Bourdieu, Walton, and the marketeers of frivolous consumption.  It shows the class nature of consumption in a manner that is not merely descriptive of an apparent transhistorical difference, but explanatory of historically produced inequalities.

Here it is useful to turn to concrete instances of alcohol consumption.  In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels chronicles the conditions under which the industrial working class lived, labored, and recreated.  Although working from the surveys and empirical studies of others, Engels does not simply describe the "experiences" of alcohol consumption and its effects on the working class.  More importantly, he connects these experiences to the exploitative relations of production which were the cause of these contradictory conditions of consumption, whereby the owners and to a lesser degree the managers of the industrial means of production were able to consume and recreate with refinement while the laborers, the unemployed, and the unemployable were forced to live in degradation, poverty, and social neglect and thus to consume and recreate in crude and indeed ultimately harmful ways.  That is, as opposed to Bourdieu's notion of taste as "the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference" (Distinction 56), which naturalizes the historical conditioning of consumption practices and the class subjectivity of taste, Engels argues that the conditions of life forced upon the working class—conditions of life which include the denial of education beyond training for work, lack of access to healthcare and nutritious food, exposure to sewage and industrial pollution,...—are not inevitable, but rather are the product of the capitalist mode of production.  He explains that if workers in general seek respite in crude and harmful means of recreation it is only because the existing relations of production, and thus conditions of consumption, make these the only forms of recreation available.  He writes, "It is morally and physically inevitable that, under such circumstances, a very large number of working-men should fall into intemperance" (Engels 401).

Under these conditions, which in their crudeness stand in direct contradiction of the refinements of the exploiting class and its privileged managers, it is not surprising that workers would turn to drunkenness as recreation.  Indeed, Engels emphasizes that

All possible temptations, all allurements combine to bring the workers to drunkenness.  Liquor is almost their only source of pleasure, and all things conspire to make it accessible to them.  The working-man comes from his work tired, exhausted, finds his home comfortless, damp, dirty, repulsive; he has urgent need of recreation, he must have something to make work worth his trouble, to make the prospect of the next day endurable. (400)

The materialist explanation of workers' alcohol consumption differs significantly from the "frivolous" interpretations served up by Walton and Bourdieu.  Walton, for instance, asserts that everyone turns to intoxication as a means of compensation for the workday and the daily grind, as well as the inevitability of pain and loss that is the human condition.  Bourdieu posits that people of all classes drink in the ways they do because they are conditioned to do so, with some conditions allowing for greater freedom from necessity.  Engels, however, explains that while "recreation" cuts across the classes, the form and quality of recreation which the exploited and alienated workers take up is a response to the conditions of life which are brought into existence and perpetuated by the relations of production that benefit the owners.

As opposed to the frivolous or consumptionist theories which represent drinking and drunkenness as a matter of "choice"—whether free or (un)informed or "forced"—the materialist theory of drinking shows that alcohol consumption is determined not by subjectivity but by the objective relations of production in which people live that determine how their food is produced, where they live, how they get to work, and whether or not their ability to afford these things comes from the sale of their labor-power as wages or whether it comes from the ability to command the labor-power of others as profit.  And just as drunkenness is a response to the conditions of life, its consumption has consequences which reproduce and indeed worsen these conditions.  As Engels explains, "What else can be expected than an excessive mortality, an unbroken series of epidemics, a progressive deterioration in the physique of the working population?" (396).

The conditions of life for the working class in the mid-nineteenth century which Engels describes and explains are conditions which also exist today, not only for those exploited in the North, but even more intensely for those in the South.  For instance, in South Africa, one of the world's main producers of wine, alcohol has been used as a form of "payment" by landowners in order to placate agricultural workers laboring under extreme conditions of exploitation, a practice that has resulted in fetal alcohol syndrome rates of 1 in 55 (Glasser).  Excessive alcohol consumption, intoxication, and the legacy of effects on health and society are not produced by choice, but by the conditions under which people try to live their lives.

Engels noted that working people are "constantly spurred on to the maddest excess" of the only pleasures available (396).  One influence which "spurs" them on is the intensive marketing of compensatory commodities, such as alcohol.  In our time, alcohol advertising, for instance, is so ubiquitous, and its consequences for global health so devastating, that the World Health Organization repeatedly criticizes and lobbies to restrict the marketing of alcohol to young people and to emerging markets in those parts of the world where increased industrialization has brought into existence new markets of workers whose wages can now be split between providing for the reproduction of labor-power and compensating by means of intoxicating recreation for exploitation and alienation.  The marketeers of alcohol and its intoxicating promises of pleasure and reinvigoration actively target specific markets, with regard only for new sources of profitable consumption and none for the inevitable harm of such consumption. 

When one drinks, one drinks one's class.  But contrary to the frivolous discourses which celebrate the differences of drinking as inevitable and which posit improved consumption within exploitative relations as the solution to want, what is needed is class knowledge of the material conditions of consumption and a sobering critique of the discourses and theories of frivolous consumption which circulate as alibis for exploitative relations.  The forms of consumption and the economic conditions which underlie these conditions can and must be changed so that people can produce, consume, reproduce, and recreate in meaningful, healthful, and sustaining ways—that is, to live full lives.  The condition of a full life for all people is the end of the exploitative relations which drive people to drink.  The end of the exploitative relations is in the struggle to establish new relations in which the means of production are collectively owned and managed, and in which frivolous consumption is not substituted for the meeting of real needs. 

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

_____. "What Makes a Social Class?: On the Practical and Theoretical Existence of Groups." Berkeley Journal of Sociology 22 (1987).1-18.

Clayton, Mark. "Bottomless Pitchers." Christian Science Monitor. 21 May 2002. 11.  

Dimock, Wai Chee and Michael T. Gilmore. "Introduction".  Rethinking Class: Literary Studies and Social Formations. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 1-11.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Collected Works. Vol. 4. New York: International Publishers, 1975.

Glasser, Jeff. "Cycle of Shame." U.S. News and World Report. 20 May 2002. http://www.help4fas.org/usworldrport.htm 1 March 2003.

Marx, Karl. Wage-Labour and Capital. New York: International Publishers, 1933.

_____. Capital. Collected Works. Vol. 35. New York: International Publishers, 1996.

_____. "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844." Collected Works. Vol. 3. New York: International Publishers, 1975.

_____. "Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58" (Grundrisse). Collected Works. Vol. 28. New York: International Publishers, 1986.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Collected Works. Vol. 5. New York: International Publishers, 1976.

Mintz, Sidney W. "Time, Sugar, and Sweetness." Food and Culture: A Reader. Eds. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 357-369.

Phillips, Rod. A Short History of Wine. New York: Ecco / Harper Collins, 2000.

Walton, Stuart. Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication. New York: Harmony Books, 2002.

Zuger, Abigail. "The Case for Drinking (All Together Now: In Moderation!)." New York Times. 31 December 2002: F1.


[1] Binge drinking statistic from Mark Clayton, "Bottomless Pitchers." Christian Science Monitor. 5/21/02. F6. FAS rate from Jeff Glasser, "Cycle of Shame." U.S. News & World Report. 5/20/02. http://www.help4fas.org/usworldrport.htm 1 March 2003.

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