The Machine & The Carnival

Submitted by WS

There’s something exciting about seeing old friends. The burning question of, “What have you been up to?!” always springs to mind. I really do truly want to know what this guy, who I used to smoke weed with in a grocery store parking lot is up to. How has he grown, what hobbies has he pursued, what perspective shifts have taken place, what religious revival may have happened? The possibilities are endless. The maturation of a human being is a beautiful thing. To go from a teenager rolling joints in a parking lot to a fully functional adult who presumably is no longer rolling joints in a parking lot is nothing short of a tectonic shift. Well, much to my disappointment, the answer is never that satisfying.

It’s the same answer I receive from men much older than me. It’s the same answer I receive from younger men trying to impress me, casual acquaintances, to friends I keep in contact with, and everyone in between. It’s always some variant of, “Man, I’ve just been working” or “Just staying busy!” There’s really not a lot of variety there. Sure, fine, maybe that’s just a cultural way to address the question and further conversation will reveal that ACTUALLY there is much more to this human being than laboring away at some job. Well, usually, no. There isn’t. I usually end up uncovering more details of how much this person has been working. Often pridefully I’ll be told how many hours they’re grinding away. “I put in 60 hours last week!” they’ll say with a chuckle. The real braggart will go on about multiple 70 hour weeks and that he hasn’t had a weekend off in awhile. 

I’m often impressed by their good spirits, but I know something isn’t right with this. Why in God’s name are they working so much? Why am I working so much? Dear reader, why in the hell are you working so much? It’s something that isn’t often addressed in normal conservative circles. There’s a “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mentality that assumes that the more you work the more you get ahead, and the better you’ll do for yourself. The left has often been the one’s who have been willing to criticize the working drudgery of our time. But there’s fertile ground here for the right wing if we can just let go of some priors, ie, “arbeit macht frei.” In English this is “work sets you free.” This is the conservative sermon given to the unwashed masses. And let’s keep something in mind, this was a slogan put above a concentration camp. Why is conservative America’s work ethic and motto not any different than the slogan used for the prisoners at Auschwitz? Seriously, something about this is terribly wrong.

One of those precious factoids that always flummox most people is that medieval peasants worked less hours than us. They only worked roughly 150 days of the year, and they enjoyed carnivals, and festivals, bouts in nature, hobbies, arts, singing, and a whole manner of other soul lifting things. Sure their work was back breaking. But it was the type of work that a man truly enjoys: physically exhausting and infrequent. Would you trade your job for 150 brutal days in the field, swinging a scythe, wrestling with a horse and plow, hoeing up weeds, and gathering up crops by hand? And you get all the added cultural benefits above.  I would certainly take that deal, who wouldn’t? 

So the question that begs answering is, if medieval peasants really did have a sweeter deal than us, what happened? What was the Industrial Revolution even for? This was a question posed by David Fleming in Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. It hit me in the stomach. What are labor saving devices for if all we do is work? Where is my saved labor? That was the promise of the Industrial Revolution. A future of more leisure. Even in the mid-20th century writings of John Kenneth Galbraith and Keynes, economists expected a 10 hour workweek. We got something entirely different. I can almost hear the devil laughing at such a ruse. A bait and switch happened. Instead of more leisure time we got more products. Instead of less back breaking labor, we doubled the amount of tedious non-back-breaking labor. And what was lost? That precious carnival and culture the peasants enjoyed.

It can be discussed ad nauseam how this bait and switch happened. But roughly speaking, as Fleming beautifully lays out, there’s a paradox that occurs with the intensification of the market economy. As things become more efficiently made, things must be more efficiently delivered. This leads to more roads, bigger/more towns, a constant growing population to fill jobs (which relaxes sexual mores), delivery of raw materials over farther distances, more bureaucracy to manage logistics, greater need for food and raw resources, the greater necessity for military power to defend this ecosystem of complexity, and by the end of it, more products need to be made for more people. And finally, the cherry on top is that it snowballs in to a machine that requires roughly a 2% growth rate to avoid mass unemployment. The net result is that you and I work highly specialized jobs for longer periods of time. It’s a labor trap, and it’s destroying our environment as well as our souls within.

The market economy has demolished carnival and culture. With so many days spent working, we lose out on these precious things. Today, only echoes of culture can be heard and felt. A lucky European can live in a quaint village with the aesthetic trappings of a previous stronger culture with none of the values that created it. An American likely doesn’t have any truly beautiful architecture or art that surrounds him. The market economy doesn’t allow for slow craftsmanship to build a home. It doesn’t allow excess labor and resources to be wasted by building a gothic church. Which, funnily enough, is an important part of a civilization not built around infinite growth. Wealth must be destroyed. Why did the vikings burn people in their ships with all their belongings? Whether they knew what they were doing or not, they created something beautiful—a fire on the lake, a mystery of sunken treasures, and they destroyed excess wealth. These are cultural things that are lost with a market economy as well as a clue that people truly had plenty of time and resources on their hands to allow beautiful wasteful acts. It’s counter intuitive, but our ancestors were wasteful in a way that we couldn’t dream of being.

And “carnival” to today’s youth is nothing more than drinking fests in a hyper-sexualized environment. But how does that cultivate a sense of community? It doesn’t. The middle aged and elderly are not part of this carnival. Only the young. And this carnival is something people typically outgrow, and if someone doesn’t, well, that’s even worse. They’re looked at as oddities by everyone.

So what did David Fleming have in mind when he discusses carnival? He means it in the sense of a ritual. A ritual of a community of people coming together, to sing, to make up silly games, to mark important dates, to display creative talents, demonstrate athletic prowess, etc. And this isn’t a once a year occasion, no! With so many variations of a carnival, there will be dozens. You will have your favorite. You will attend some you probably aren’t too interested in. But you will because you’re part of the community. You do it for your family, friends, and the baker who you trade services for. And prohibitions will be lifted. You will get exceedingly drunk and let loose. You will sing with the mayor. You may help a police officer puking on a wall. A leveling of rank will happen. During a carnival you are equal to those above you.

Goethe relates in his journal the closing day of The Festival of Fire in Coso. Let’s suppose you are there. You’re in the crowd and everyone has a candle. The mood is solemn. A chant begins. It increases with intensity, “Siz ammazzato chi nom porter moccolo!”— “Death to anyone not carrying a candle!” Suddenly everyone is madly trying to blow out each other’s candles. You try to protect your candle because if it’s blown out, you have been condemned to death! You see an old priest, a man who has helped you deal with many problems. He’s not as quick as he once was and is incapable of protecting his candle. You sneak up behind him and blow it out and yell, “Sia ammazzato il signor Padre!” — “Death to you sir Father!”

The mood is happy. The priest can only laugh. You are both recognizing death playfully. The candles are slowly blown out and everyone is left in the dark. Everyone knows what fate they will have, and the community together has given birth to a fun cultural way to deal with it. Everyone recognizes that they must give way for the next generation. The community is restored through death. Goethe reflects on this in a poem:

And as long as you do not possess

This “die and become”,

You are but a gloomy guest

On the dark earth.

Carnival is community glue. It cements it. It makes it more resilient and willing to sacrifice for itself. It gives birth to cultural values. It is the intensification of emotion among the crowd. It is a celebration with people you know. We give a lot up in the pursuit of the market economy. We chase a 6% increase in GDP year in and year out vainly trying to find happiness. It can be found, but it is much more difficult. Don’t you dream of another world and the time to actually live in it? Why not the old one?

6 Comments Add yours

  1. newtoncain says:

    State and county fairs are supposed to do this in the summer. But for the most part it is sheepish tourists fattening themselves up.


  2. What a beautifully insightful rendering of my late mentor David Fleming’s work. Thank you, editors, for this.

    For more on his ‘Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy’, see:

    You will notice there that on Monday Sterling College are starting an eight week online discussion of how to apply its insights today – you would be more than welcome to join us.


    1. whirlingsun says:

      I’m more than thrilled to see that you read this. The book was phenomenal, and you did a phenomenal job organizing it.

      Thank you so much.


  3. muunyayo says:

    Reblogged this on Muunyayo.


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