There was the man who threatened to stab his fellow shoppers for pushing his kids outside a Sacramento K-mart, the melee of frenzied Georgia shoppers mauling each other to get at a stack of cell phones in a Walmart, the trampling that followed after a man brandished a gun in a line outside a Sears in Texas, the gang fight in a Michigan mall, arrests of hysterical consumers in Florida, the vicious brawling over lingerie, etc. etc.
This ritual has come to define us as much or more than Thanksgiving. It is a bit of grim Americana that serves to underline what we like to think of as the excesses of our frenzied consumerism. But sadly, these transgressions are simply lightening flashes that illuminate a greater darkness: we are consuming ourselves to death.
In a world where millions go to bed hungry, many of them children, North American overconsumption is a grotesque spectacle that lords the voracious hunger and waste of a tiny minority of the world’s population over the majority. And this colossal waste that follows our ongoing orgy of materialism is killing the planet, plain and simple. We need to stop.
As if the catastrophic problems that follow from the severe economic inequality and environmental crises we are facing were not enough, the religion of consumption has turned our lives into living deaths. The magic system of advertising promises to deliver the tangible in the intangible: it whispers to us that love, happiness, pleasure, respect, and even identity itself can be purchased on the market.
Our lives are dominated by an industry whose sole purpose it is to create false desire, to proliferate artificial wants for the unnecessary and frequently destructive. Hell, it will even sell you your own dissent in the form of ironic t-shirts telling you to “Obey.”
We know it’s not true, but we fall for it again and again, wandering miserably (or worse yet) affectlessly through the mall in search of the totems that will deliver us from our lives of quiet desperation. We surrender to a system of social relations mediated by the commodity spectacle. We don’t need to profess this or even know it for this to be true: we live it.
Hence, the real tragedy of Black Friday is not the handful of violently deranged bargain seekers who make the news but the hordes of unsung zombies who tramp through the parking lots or zip through virtual space in search of their piece of heaven on the cheap.
Nobody has to make us do this because we are beyond alienation. To be alienated one has to feel a separation from the world, but for many of us today the world as constructed by market forces has colonized our inner space so thoroughly that we confuse it with nature.
But, of course, the magic object always disappoints, the dancing table inevitably turns into a piece of wood. As the Barbara Kruger piece published by the New York Times succinctly put it, “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.” Thus the cycle continues ad nauseum.
And, sorry, the Democrats won’t save us from this one. Indeed, our entire political system is designed to NOT question this. To do so is to ask too big a question, to think long term rather than short term, to challenge rather than simply negotiate with the central myth of our culture. For have we not just survived a national and local campaign season driven not by a high-minded discussion of big ideas, but rather by the lowest common denominator logic of a multibillion dollar advertising crusade?
Still, along with those protesting Walmart on Black Friday, there is an international movement encouraging you to buy nothing . And they are moving beyond their original protest of Black Friday to the more ambitious “Buy Nothing Christmas.” As the folks at Ad Busters put it:
The journey towards a sane sustainable future begins with a single step. It could all start with a personal challenge, such as this: make a vow to yourself to participate in Buy Nothing Day this year. This November 23rd, go cold turkey on consumption for 24 hours … see what happens … you just might have an unexpected, emancipatory epiphany!
Buy Nothing Day is legendary for instigating this type of personal transformation … as you suddenly remember what real living is all about … you sense an upsurge of radical empowerment and feel a strange magic creeping back into your life.
Sounds like a good idea. So as we march headlong into the holidays think about replacing a shopping trip with a cheerful “zombie walk” through the mall or join your friends for a “whirl mart” empty shopping cart conga line through the store of your choice. Or better yet, cut up a credit card.
If buying nothing is too much to ask, buy less and give to those who need it. Spend more time with your family and friends, feed a hungry person—love someone.
P.S. For extra fun, be sure to watch the Buy Nothing Day TV spots on the link above and pay special attention to the segment where the notion of buying nothing almost makes the CNN anchor’s head explode.