“My dream is to become hopeless.”
The premise of Seinfeld is that it is a show about nothing. Seinfeld began in 1989. This is the same year that history ended, capitalism won, and communism fell. Seinfeld represents an era that is explicitly apolitical. The battle over whether Western civilization would triumph was over. We no longer had the scapegoat of communism. Win, lose or draw, capitalism would take credit or blame. Communism’s defeat, in the minds of commentators, marked the “end of history”. There would be no more conflicts between powers, merely a free market that united them.
Ironically Seinfeld exists as a communist utopia and this is what American viewers gravitate towards. In Slavoj Zizek’s vision of communism, it is not surplus value that determines society, but rather an envy. Likewise, Seinfeld’s characters spend little time engaged in production or consumption. Instead, they seem to live perfectly stable lives. Politics and economics have no impact on their well-being. All of this, under communism, is taken care of.
Instead, the characters end up going to extraordinary lengths to address the pettiest of concerns. This could be labeled as bourgeois but I like to think of it as utopian. Rather than sell their bodies for basic resources as the working class must do under capitalism the characters in Seinfeld have basic human (economic) rights and instead spend their time and energy navigating social norms.
Capitalism gives us exactly what it warned communism would. Authoritarian governments, famine, economic crisis, endless war, monopolization of power, automation of everyday life, degradation of the environment, droughts, and instability. This was a time when it seemed okay to talk about communism because capitalism appeared triumphant. This framing of communism vs. capitalism was a little bit off anyways. The point of capitalism is to compete. To try and win on capitalism’s terms is to already lose. This was the internal failure of state capitalism often mislabeled as communism but it was more so a failure of capitalism itself. By meeting any resistance towards its profit logic with violence, capitalism does not win a fair fight. To fight capitalism with capitalism is simply capitalism. To fight capitalism with another form of economic organization leads to violent annihilation by forces that aren’t strictly within the rules of markets but rather exterior to the games of economic theory these battles were supposed to be fought on.
Even within this context, the optimism in Seinfeld seems particularly wonderful today. Rather than be driven by producing value or branding themselves the characters nitpick as if they were part of Marxist sects. Jerry’s primary concern is cleanliness. Rather than having to subject his body to the environmental hazards of the working class today to make a living he sabotages every advantage he could have in order to service his particular desire. George is concerned about money but again this is not because he is poor. Rather George does not want to do any work and he is proud of it. Despite this he never seriously struggles with his finances. Elaine is a rare female character who is openly sexual. While sex of women is being criminalized under capitalism, Elaine has no such fear. Like the men in the show she bounces from lover to lover each episode, giving each up when they have a tick that throws her. Rather than sacrifice her body for the good of the reproduction of the family she tosses the men aside and moves on. Kramer is a sort of entrepreneur and he fails at each project. He has no job and it does not matter. Jerry lets Kramer eat whatever he wants from his apartment and Jerry’s cleanliness always takes a back seat to helping out his friend Kramer.
Seinfeld addresses the elephant in the room named communism in an episode called “The Race”. In this episode, Seinfeld bravely fights the War on Christmas. Kramer gets a job as a Santa in the mall. He seems interested in this job but he does not need it. After reading communist literature Kramer converts to communism and tries to convert the children sitting on his lap to it too. Kramer is kicked out from his job but the logic of capitalism does not take over. Kramer moves on with his life, forgetting the need for communism because he already has it. His society is organized not around an authoritarian exchange of goods but rather a democratic exchange of social desires.
In a parallel plotline, Jerry runs into an old high school classmate who is faster at running than Jerry. Jerry, however, beat him in a race by getting a head start. Jerry withheld his labor for the next two decades, refusing to race his classmate again, knowing he would lose. Since then the world believed Jerry to be the fastest man. Jerry currently has a girlfriend named Lois, a fantasy of his as Jerry admires Superman, who is the fastest man on earth. Jerry wins a rematch with his old classmate by starting early again. This is a metaphor for the rigged competition of capitalism. However, in the show, the stakes are so low all of this is only humorous.
In Seinfeld a world of immoral human beings and a moral world is possible. This is a formulation that is relevant to the left today. Communism is the fulfillment of capitalism’s failed goals rather than a moral version of capitalism. Many of the anti-Marxists, perhaps still living in the rosy picture painted by the 1990s, see capitalism as a moral failure.
The question then becomes, in a world of staggering inequality, who will get blamed for the immorality of the system? For many of the anti-materialists, the democratic socialists, and the Trumpenleft, this remains a contested question. Unfortunately, this moral framing of society always seems to end up as reactionary.
With the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is once again time to question the thesis of the anti-materialists, some of whom call themselves leftists. Blaming the left is a tired game played by both the center and the right. Let’s not waste time on that here. Instead, let us even ignore the useful sociological term Trumpenleft and focus on a broader group of anti-materialists and democratic socialists.
The thesis of said group is basically that capitalism is immoral. However, capitalism is dialectical. Is it immoral to develop technology that increases life expectancy, human connectivity and enjoyment? Most working-class people would have a dialectical understanding of the ways this technology exploits them and increases their quality of life. The question of morality is moot precisely because it implies agency at the point of production itself. However, it is labor that drives society forward and it is labor that has produced capitalism’s dialectical failures and successes.
There is something moral, certainly, about Seinfeld’s refusal to enter into the capitalist mode of production. Perhaps the show’s producers recognized how intellectually dulling this would be. But if we take this fictional world as a world in and of itself we see that the characters, within our context, are not superficial, but rather supremely moral for choosing to organize their lives not around the exploitation of labor but rather around an egalitarian exchange of human desire.
Framing these characters as moral though isn’t really the point of the show though. The point of the show is in their own words: nothing. What is nothing though? Nothing is only possible when the “everything”; the political, economic, and ecological questions are already settled. The characters aren’t refusing politics. Politics isn’t necessary.
So this is the optimal endpoint of the left, at least in my opinion, but the question remains: how do we get there? Without a clue of how to do that I can at least point to an approach that is getting it wrong; which is the anti-materialism of social democracy. I would likely be scolded for openly advocating for the War on Christmas, for example.
I would be told that I was busy fighting culture wars and that the real base for social democracy in this country is the illusionary swing voter who has been turned off by neoliberalism. The social-democratic left, in much of their analysis of the “white working class” does not just mirror the approach of the progressive democrats, who must be criticized because they stay away from radical politics across the board.
Rather the anti-Marxists align themselves more with the corporate Democrats when they bypass the working class and instead aim to persuade the Trump base. Not only has the Trump base been outed as primarily bourgeois, it has been clear from the beginning that this group of people, regardless of their class, are driven by sadism, not class interest. It seems fairly obvious why the corporate Democrats aim for fascist voters rather than the working class. Their platform, while somewhere in the middle of these two populist interests, more easily aligns with the fascists.
However such reductionism by social democrats is more surprising. Looking a little closer I think we can see it is related to a rejection of Marxism and materialism. If one fails to accept materialism one must look for reasons that society is failing elsewhere. Blaming the liberalism of society becomes the reactionary non-dialectical stomping ground for the bourgeois.
In a recent video on Naomi Klein, Douglas Lain asks whether the left should begin defending neoliberalism in the face of ascending nationalism. Doug is right to answer no to this question. But are neoliberalism and nationalism really opposed? Isn’t the nationalization of politics an inevitable feature of the globalization of economics? It seems that these things must come together because if people became as mobile as capital then capital could not gain the advantages it does.
More specifically the development of technology has led to an increase in constant capital, which is the money invested in production, and a decrease in variable capital, which is the investment in labor. Because capitalists profit from exploiting labor their rate of profit declines (a technical, not a moral definition of exploitation is necessary here). Following this capitalists must take over new markets across the world and there is nothing liberal about it. The capitalists want new people to exploit because the workers deemed most important couldn’t make them anything of value anymore. Thus reactionary anti-globalism turned inward to white nationalism, and reactionary family values politics, turning inwards to patriarchal domination, is not the base of the working-class revolution.
This illusionary idea of social democracy, which can only exist in time and space when the majority of the world is simply ignored, is hindering our vision. Religion is a key component of reactionaries and this cannot be glossed over. As a Christian myself there is no denying that Christian fascism is perhaps the most dangerous ideology in the world today.
Many people like to say we have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas when we turn to materialist gift-giving this time of year. While refusing to invest into the reproduction of profit value is absolutely the right thing to do, it is the working class, not the ruling class, who is at the heart of materialist production. Halting such production only, as we see during the COVID pandemic, does not necessarily lead to a more just world. Such crisis, in the stage of a captured state, leads to a slush fund for corporations, who invest in more technology to make labor power even more obsolete.
The idea, in theory at least, is that this technology leads to more work in the short term as capitalists want to use their machines before they break down. The problem is that machines can’t be exploited and therefore they can only provide surplus-value relative to other capitalists but not absolute surplus value. As machines run down, so does work, until new technology provides another boom. Each cycle lowers labor’s value, and increases the fixed power of technology. Thus the competition is no longer between classes, for only one has power, but rather between capitalists themselves.
Does this mean we should buy Christmas presents? The answer is no. For the sake of the environment at the very least, consumption must cease. The problem is that people need other people to consume in order so they can consume under capitalism. Production then must also cease, and labor withheld. This too is an ever greater challenge as capitalists need labor less and less.
It is tempting at this point to turn to social democracy in order to alleviate some of the harms under capitalism. This could work but it won’t come from the Trump base. Leave them for the Democrats to woo. More likely still is that capitalism will not be overcome through bourgeois democracy as the state is most useful these days at giving money to the rich and murdering the poor. Nor will it come from a massive ideological yearning for social democracy as human desire is better understood by Seinfeld than it is by the left who assume that the working class are simply puppets rather than human agents. It is not a question of whether people have their “own class interest” in mind but rather if such a condescending line is really how any human, rich or poor, thinks about the rich layers of existence as the most intelligent species on earth.
As the right to female personhood is abolished across the United States it is worth recounting that the Virgin Mary was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. It is likely she was raped, as so many girls across the world are today. This doesn’t mean, in my opinion, that we have to cancel Jesus himself. But I find solace not in Jesus’ moral teachings, which are losing steam in the working class as less self-righteous cultural institutions emerge. I rather have hope in the possibility of his physical resurrection, the way he materially transcended death. Whether or not one believes in that materialist transcendence, hope for a transcendence beyond the laws of capitalist production can still be on our Christmas wish list without apology.