The Class Struggle in the North Pole

What's behind Santa's bloody rise? Three leading elven labor activists offer a class analysis of the North Pole 'gift economy.'

The North Pole Labor Study Group was constituted by a group of Christmas elves in fall 2008. Santa Claus’s workshops had been reeling from the global economic recession. The sense of discontent among our ranks was palpable. Since then we have been meeting biweekly to develop a concrete analysis of our conditions as workers, as well as debate strategies for resistance.

The following is a document we are submitting to the group in the spirit of deepening our analysis.

The Arab Spring and the Occupy movement radicalized many elves. But it is clear that there remains uncertainty about what it will take to challenge the system of exploitation we live under. We believe that the confusion around political strategy is at least in part a product of a mistaken analysis of the class structure and dynamics of our economic system.

What is the true nature of the relationships among elves, Santa Claus and his reindeer? How were these relations first constituted and how are they reproduced?

In order to answer these questions, we first need to grapple with the dynamics of our supposed “gift economy.” While it is true that the gifts we produce are not sold, they are governed by more than social norms and custom. Warm cookies can sustain Santa’s waistline, but a manufacturer cannot survive on sugar and flour alone (unless, of course, he’s selling cookies). He still needs money to expand his workshop and to purchase new equipment or maintain ones of an older vintage.

Another issue is that our workshops depend on resources not immediately available to us in the North Pole. For a long time Santa could simply exploit our natural reserves of wood and fossil-based fuels. But as new product lines have been introduced additional materials need to be purchased on a global market.

In place of wooden toys we have increasingly had to adopt plastics in order to effectively compete in the Christmas market. This has as much to do with consumer demand as it does unit labor costs. While Santa might want to think he lives in a gift bubble, a growing share of annual Christmas presents has been privatized since the onset of the neoliberal era, made possible by increased price competition with thriving Chinese industry.

But competition has not led Santa to necessarily increase the productivity of each worker. Instead he has been able to drive down unit costs of production by more aggressively sweating the labor he already employs, or by simply adding more workers to reduce the time the workshop is left idle. As long he has surplus elf labor to draw on, as he certainly still does, we cannot expect him to be much concerned with the health and safety grievances we have filed with management.

Furthermore, gratitude only gets a businessman so far. Santa, as sole proprietor, is able to keep his finances secret. But those who have had the misfortune to work in his office have reported that letters from the Vatican and Washington have regularly arrived days before Santa announces quarterly plans for production. We can surmise that financial support from these sources, along with their yearly estimates of “nice” children, are what actually sustains our economy. It is through these external funds that Santa is able to provide the candy and shelter for which we must exchange our labor power.

But how did he come to hold such power over us? Was it through greater ingenuity or was it something more sinister?

The Rise of Santa Claus

We must remember that Santa started his life as a petty commodity producer of wooden toys. He had been a master craftsman of wood, trained by some of the best elves in the North Pole. Yet, while others had been content to exchange their wooden commodities in local markets, Santa began selling his in nearby towns.

As luck would have it, the clergy in the some industrial towns he visited saw in these scarce commodities the means to engender moral discipline in the increasing numbers of children that flooded their streets from the lower classes.

The clergy raised funds from rich patrons, as well as the middling classes, to generously compensate Santa for delivering his wooden toys as gifts to a select group of children.

As urban populations expanded and the problems facing the ruling class worsened, Santa became overwhelmed by the increased demand for his handmade toys. He initially sought to expand production by exploiting his own family, but he soon had to look for surplus labor elsewhere. But try as he might with stories of serving the greater good and helping the impoverished in distant lands, he could not compel the necessary numbers among us to labor in his workshop.

Finally, after a failed experiment with a putting-out system, Santa resorted to violence as the only means by which he could coerce us into his employ. This would not have been possible without the support of the clergy and rising bourgeoisie in the towns. With their help, Claus organized an underclass of reindeer, who have historically had tense relations with elves, by promising them economic security and social status.

Gangs of reindeer were sent out to elf villages to tear up farmland, which they were well-suited for given their antlers. The constant disruptions to food production left many of our people with no choice but to go work for Santa.

All the while, the ruling class in the towns had fabricated a story to counter the reports of violence in the hinterland that made their way to the cities. Pointing to the gifts he bestowed on the children of the town, they likened Santa to Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna — a rich man who was known to be generous with children — and depicted the reindeer as noble creatures.

But Santa is no saint and the reindeer are no friends to us. Santa violently reconstructed the old class structure in his narrow interests. He separated us from our primary means of subsistence through the coercive threat of antlers, a strategy he has had to maintain to this day in order to protect his class position.

Understanding the different class interests in our society is essential if we are going to develop an effective strategy of resisting our exploitation. Armed with such an analysis we can explain to our brothers and sisters why recent statements about a few “bad apples” among the reindeer ring hollow. They remain “Our Enemies in Antlers” as long as they serve as a bulwark of power in our society.

A class analysis also counters the dominant narrative we are fed about why Christmas elves are so willing to work for meager compensation. We did not enter his workshop because we have innate dispositions that better fit the production of toys. Nor did we leave our farms because we preferred candy to tubers.

This is a crucial point. The popular lore about us is that we gladly work for candy. But that was not by choice. Before the reindeer devastated our family plots we cultivated a diverse range of vegetables well-suited to the surrounding land. We were even recognized worldwide as experts at storing harvests in the warmer months for consumption year-round. All that has now been lost.

Our dependence on imported sugar is the result of social conditions beyond our control. And in this sense we have much more in common with the worker in the cane field than we do with the oversized exploiter who benefits off our blood, sweat, and toil.

Some have concluded that the old slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” is far too outdated for the new post-industrial reality. They have said that the working class is no longer the agent of social transformation. But this conclusion, we believe, ignores the conditions that continue to prevail in Santa’s workshops and beyond.

We hope that the above clarified some of what we see as crucial for a correct analysis of classes in the North Pole. Let the “war on Christmas” recommence on a more scientific basis.