Monday, 30 July 2012

To the Immoderate and the Abstemious.

Although my own inclination is abstemious it cannot be denied that the hostility to popular recreation is bourgeois. It isn’t my place to sneer at the decision of vast swathes of my fellow citizens to go out after work on a Friday night and get hammered. It’s certainly the case that the working-class needs an outlet in a system which increasingly is not to their benefit. Alcohol is the one constant in working-class life that has outlived many governments and political orders. It was once the social lubricant that accompanied quite a variety of recreations, from blood-sports to fairs. It has retained its close association with football, which the pub holds onto as the central gathering where the beautiful game can be watched. You pay for the atmosphere and not just a drink, so it's not really public space but private space which appears public. It was once the case that the pub and the music hall were the hangout of only working-class men, women were excluded from pubs for a long time.

The elites had their own drinking arenas, rituals and standards. The pub was a space where the bourgeois standards of sobriety would not be adopted. It is possible that the public house is a declining phenomenon, it is clear that pubs are closing all across the country. Some are being bought by oligopolies that can afford to cross-subsidise in an effort to prop them up. Around 300 pubs closed between September 2011 and March 2012. This is nothing new, but it does dull the weekend for many people in this country. There isn't much to say about the politics of alcohol, if there is such a thing, we might be able to take down a few worthwhile observations. It has been noted that the level of inequality correlates with high rates of drug and alcohol dependency. This would be because of the amount of deprivation which comes with living in a crookedly unequal society. There is also nothing new in alcoholism, or the plague of "binge drinking" that seems ineradicable on this dreary little island. Clearly there is a lot of sorrow to drown in Britain.

In retirement Churchill once remarked as he stared into the fireplace "I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed." Today Churchill would be labelled a functioning alcoholic in his constant attempts to fill his inner abyss with a near endless river of brandy, wine and whisky. He shared vodka with Stalin and compared his first meeting with Roosevelt to the uncorking of that first bottle of champagne. Goebbels opted to depict Churchill as a depraved drunkard who loved war mainly because it was quite true. As for people who know how to drink for fun, Karl Marx knew all too well as Liebknecht recollected: "Now we had had enough of our 'beer trip' for the time being and in order to cool our heated blood, we started on a double march, until Edgar Bauer stumbled over a heap of paving stones. Hurrah, an idea! And in memory of mad students' pranks he picked up a stone and Crash! Clatter! A gas lantern went flying into splinters. Madness is contagious - Marx and I did not stay far behind, and we broke four or five street lamps." 

If we're talking about the drinking culture of America it might seem apt to single out the Irish who fled famine at home for a better life. The cultural whole of America has been constituted the near-constant flow of immigrants into its great cities. So it's fair to say that the Irish aren't the only people of drinkers to settle in the US. There was the great swathes of Germans, a people whose influence on American culture is often overlooked. Benjamin Franklin had worried that the German immigrants of his day weren't taking up American customs. It was the German-Americans who organised the kindergartens, supported the Republican Party in its bid to abolish slavery as well as stood for votes for women. Many American breweries were established by Germans. This united beer with radical politics in a way which had been out of reach for the American strain of puritanical radicalism - a most English of imports - with its combined support for abolitionism and temperance. As it was with creationism the marriage between prohibition and radicalism wasn't meant to be.

Then after the Civil War and the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan the temperance cause became a plank in the platform of the racist terrorist organisation. The anti-Catholic nativism to defend a white America of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic peoples converged with prohibitionism. The Klansmen were violent defenders of prohibition once it was established in 1919. The repeal of the Volstead act and the end of prohibition came in 1933 with the Roosevelt administration. In the Great Depression with millions unemployed and impoverished the US government may have decided to get the people out of the streets and into the bars. The counter-culture then took up the sword of the German settlers in a bid to maintain a varied quality of alcohol in the new world. As the late Alexander Cockburn noted "The back lot brewers who began Sierra Nevada beer in Chico, California, who ultimately beat back Budweiser's efforts to destroy them and thus sealed the victory of the microbrews, came out of the Sixties' alternative culture."

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