Bingo in Utopia

by Kieran Healy on August 14, 2012

Will there be Bingo in Utopia? It is hard to say. The emancipatory potential of bingo as praxis has been criticized from the earliest days of modern social theory. In 1862 Marx was prompted to write the first draft of what became Theories of Surplus Value during very straitened financial circumstances (he had pawned the clothes of his children and his maid, Helene Demuth) brought on mostly by clandestine visits to an East London bingo emporium, where he would play games of “Housey-Housey” while his wife Jenny believed him to be at the British Library conducting research. The game itself was for some time believed to be mentioned by Marx directly in a well-known if difficult section of the Grundrisse:

Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of bingo itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because natural need has been replaced by historically produced need.

This passage provoked considerable confusion—and a substantial amount of theoretical debate—amongst the small circle of scholars who had access to it from 1935 onwards.

Following the thaw and wave of rehabilitations during the Khruschev era, however, it transpired that David Riazanov’s original transcription of this passage (with a reading of “activity” and not “bingo”) had been correct. It was altered by an unknown member of the NKVD as part of the effort to falsify evidence establishing the existence of a so-called “United Front of Mensheviks and Mah-Jongg”. The unhappy fate of bingo as an element of emancipatory praxis was sealed by Adorno, who intensely disliked the game (and indeed much else) in all its forms, defending instead what he saw as the more austere but purer pleasures of the tombola.

Notwithstanding its unhappy history in the sphere of high theory, bingo persisted in the practical life of the working classes in England. Its position was memorably described and pungently defended by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, where he gives an unforgettable account of Johanna Southcott’s legendary ability to pick winners at parish hall games in Devon in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Its most substantial revival, however, had to await the arrival of a new generation of scholars in the 1970s. Based mostly in the United States, this group’s members were well-versed in the traditional concerns of emancipatory theory but were also more technically minded than their predecessors. They were the first to notice the uncanny similarity—later shown by Goodman and others to be a formal homology—between ordinary bingo cards and intergenerational social mobility tables.

Figure 1. A partial instantiation of a Goldthorpe-Erikson mobility table disguised as a bingo card. Originally discovered by Richard Breen on a trip to Atlantic City in 1972. (Excludes Categories I and II.)

Like any fundamental insight, the connection was obvious once made, but to make it at all took a stroke of genius. Suddenly, in retrospect, Marx’s haunted frequenting of bingo halls seemed less the hopeless obsession of an improvident, boil-ridden German autodidact and more the fundamental apprehension of a central feature of capitalist development. This insight opened up rich veins of technical analysis and pure theory. On the technical side, square-table and latent-class methods occupied a generation of scholars and, by way of their direct application to bingo hall games, illicitly funded the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study for two decades and allowed the Berkeley Sociology Department an unheard of level of financial autonomy (which it sadly squandered during an infamously disastrous collective outing to a Palm Springs Casino in 1981). This methological work at the intersection of social organization and gambling only began to be surpassed in the 1990s with the rise of so-called “Monte Carlo” methods.

In terms of theory, the realization that such a direct representation of class mobility was embedded at the very core of an ordinary working class leisure activity—one where, moreover, “winning” consisted of systematically blocking or dabbing mobility pathways in a cryptic act of ideological abnegation—seemed at once a bitter irony of life under capitalism and a latent opportunity for liberation.

Figure 2. Your 2012 ASA Bingo Card

Which brings us to the present, and the excellent program that ASA President Erik Wright has assembled, featuring sessions on a satisfyingly wide range of topics, with a special emphasis on the possibilities and problems of institutional transformations. Good stuff, with the possible exception of the “Utopia Reel” music and dance session, where the danger of an outbreak of the worst sort of Taylorism (i.e., James Taylor) seems quite high. Here, then, is your Official ASA Utopian Bingo Card for the Denver Meetings. As with the Las Vegas card last year, there are no cash prizes of any kind, just the warm glow of satisfaction that comes with completing a row or column. For the first and likely last time, however, a Mobile App Version of the Card has been made available at great expense, specially tailored for your iPhone, iPad, Android Tablet Device, RIM Blackberry phone, Apple Newton, Palm Pilot, Dot-matrix printer (be sure to align the paper holes correctly on the carriage wheels before printing) or IBM Series 360 Punch Card Input System. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.

If you are interested in winning a cash prize at this year’s ASA Meetings, you should participate in the SLACer Scavenger Hunt, which carries a purse of $50. Personally I very much hope the scavenger items will be good ones—a lock of Andy Abbott’s hair, for instance, or Claus Offe’s glasses, Phil Cohen’s travel rack, or Brayden King’s Black Amex card. Good luck.



tomslee 08.14.12 at 2:19 pm

I cannot believe that you wrote a whole post about bingo without mentioning the burgeoning macroeconomics of the subject. The successful funding of Team GB by the National Bingo is just the beginning, presaging a complete replacement of the tax system by bingo.


Dave 08.14.12 at 3:43 pm

“BINGO,” everyone shouts at once, as the conference plummets through a stroboscopic void and explodes into tiny fragments on the barren, extra-dimensional shores Beyond Rethinking Dystopia.


Salient 08.14.12 at 4:00 pm

You get double points if you manage to find all 24 other than fifth row third column and then get blindly wasted at the banquet, so you can blackout while you black out.


rm 08.14.12 at 4:47 pm

So that’s what happened to Unfortunate Ponytail Guy. The one whose ponytail sprouted from the top of his head? Harvard Square, c. 1991, used to mention Chomsky every sentence?


Dave 08.14.12 at 9:01 pm

“I have a question that’s really more of a suicide note.”


David 08.15.12 at 4:11 am

I had a dog and his name was……


godoggo 08.15.12 at 4:16 am

I wonder what Marx would have said about Ted Ngoy’s story.

That’s about as close as I can get to the lorgnette and powered wig commenting style that’s standard here. Hope it’s satisfactory.


David 08.15.12 at 4:22 am

Don’t worry, godoggo. There are a few of us not up to snuff.


godoggo 08.15.12 at 4:27 am

I was actually thinking about a “Snifters and Snuff” section to my blog list, with two entries.


godoggo 08.15.12 at 4:29 am

cos they both have that “snuh” thing.


godoggo 08.15.12 at 7:37 am

Sorry, amusing myself. But this is never going to be a place where I feel comfortable commenting.


NickT 08.15.12 at 7:42 am

“Bingo” is an obvious typo for “the Bengals”. Clearly, Marx foresaw one of the key trends in the NFL with merciless clarity.


Cheryl 08.15.12 at 11:54 am

My thesis advisor was always engaged in a debate with members of a different department who were always criticizing his agric extension approaches. Once my advisor used the expression “trying to drag the old cows of Marx out of the ditch” to describe the theoretical approach of one of these colleagues. I was surprised and asked one of my classmates and she told me that the farmers in the proud agricultural country that we were in did sometimes leave old cows in the ditch.


des von bladet 08.15.12 at 1:04 pm


It’s a well-known phrase or saying in Dutch.


Matt McKeon 08.15.12 at 3:18 pm

There’s a game called “buzz word bingo” played in protracted teachers’ meetings. After the speaker has mentioned all the buzzwords on the card: “assessment” “authetic” “outside the box” “student based” etc. the player with the winning card is supposed to raise his hand and say, “when you mentioned “state mandated testing” I thought “bingo! That comment is right on the money!” and nod vigorously.


LFC 08.15.12 at 7:00 pm

godoggo @11
People on this site, in my experience, are quite free in expressing their opinions, whether they happen to be wearing powdered wigs or not.


Geoffrey de Ste. Croix 08.16.12 at 3:38 am

Marx’s love of Bingo is actually well known. Recent building work on the old site of the German Workers Educational Society in Soho uncovered a remarkable communication between Messrs Thaddeus Wilkinson & Ezekiel Amersham of Hackney Bingo Emporium and Karl Marx dated June 14th 1849:

“My dearest Herr Marx,

It t’was but yesterday that we suddenly realized who you were when I made a query as to who the large bearded fellow was who attends here most evenings. As good bourgeois (!) businessmen, we have a proposition for your attention, a matter which such a formidable lyricist as yourself would be most suited to.

We wish to spread the message of our humble establishment and we could not help but notice the effect your splendid rabble rousing pamphlet of one year past made upon some of our-shall we say- less gentle clientele, the type of people who make up most of our custom. And although we cannot agree with all the sentiments of your pamphlet (!) we are distinctly aware of the impression and following you have amongst those of the East End.

To this effect, we would be delighted if you could take it upon yourself to modify your most splendid pamphlet to promote the virtues, benefits and enjoyment to be attained by an evening of numbers based carousal. A healthy retainer would be commensurate with your co-operation and we wholeheartedly look forward to a reply in the positive,


Messrs Wilkinson & Amersham”

Unsurprisingly given the impoverished state of the Marx household at the time, it is clear Marx contemplated it. Attached to the letter is one page of a notebook with Marx’s unmistakable scrawl across it:

“A spectre is haunting the gambling world — the spectre of Bingoism. All the powers of old betting have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Cock fighting and dice throwing, Cribbage and shove ha’penny, dog racing and German bare hand boxing.
The history of all hitherto existing flutters is the history of (FAT LADY WITH A FLEA-83!)….”

Unfortunately for the future of the revolutionary movement the text breaks off at this point.


Niall McAuley 08.16.12 at 7:46 am

While the Shire is intended to evoke a nostalgic fondness for a pre-industrial England, I don’t think it can be regarded as a Utopia, since we see it viewed through the eyes of the rather wealthy Baggins family, and it’s clear from Frodo’s relationship with Sam that there are strong class divisions in Hobbit society.

There is also the fact that at least some of the goods we see are not produced by Hobbit society, and require that another race, the Dwarves, spend gloomy lives underground in dark and sometimes literally Satanic mines and workshops.

I’m not sure how Bilbo’s uncle comes into the picture, as we know little enough about him, except that he married a Chubb and had a son Falco, Bilbo’s cousin.


JohnR 08.16.12 at 6:08 pm

With reference to yours of [fig.2]:
“Auto-da-fe'”? What’s an “Auto-da-fe'”?


JP Stormcrow 08.16.12 at 7:52 pm

When Durin delved and Galadriel span
Who was then the gentleman?


Fred Cairns 08.16.12 at 9:18 pm

@JohnR – “Auto-da-fe” – isn’t that when people torch a motor-car?


mcd 08.16.12 at 11:40 pm

I hope there’d be bingo in Utopia, but given the frantic utopian schedule of hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, rearing cattle in the evening, and criticizing after dinner, I don’t think there’d be any time left over.


JP Stormcrow 08.17.12 at 1:02 am

Cow Patty Bingo. Fun and efficient!


Louis Proyect 08.20.12 at 8:32 pm

Was this supposed to be funny?


JP Stormcrow 08.20.12 at 9:07 pm

I dunno, did you laugh?


harry b 08.21.12 at 12:14 am

Just to say — this was my first (and probably last — I only attended for Erik’s sake, though I enjoyed it immensely) ASA, and I am so glad that I didn’t read this until the very end because it would have ruined it for me. Very funny.

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