Intoxicating Freedom: Drinking the Class Divide
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.
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. Targeting young people
worldwide and especially in the emerging markets of Asia, the industry
uses advertising to represent drinking as glamorous and
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.
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
as a source of empty calories has no real food value but is a source
of profits—while millions suffer
from hunger, malnutrition, and related illnesses.
Exemplary of the frivolity that circulates now—in
which increased consumption, as opposed to transformation of the
relations of production, is promoted as the solution to social
inequality—is 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
matters of taste," Bourdieu writes, "more than anywhere
else, all determination is negation" (Distinction
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.
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
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".
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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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
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Journal of Sociology 22 (1987).1-18.
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.
The Condition of the Working
Class in England. Collected
Works. Vol. 4. New York: International Publishers, 1975.
Jeff. "Cycle of Shame." U.S.
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1 March 2003.
Karl. Wage-Labour and Capital.
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Karl and Frederick Engels. The
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Sidney W. "Time, Sugar, and Sweetness." Food and Culture: A Reader. Eds. Carole Counihan and Penny van
Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 357-369.
Rod. A Short History of Wine.
New York: Ecco / Harper Collins, 2000.
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.
 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.