By Jim Miller
As the Salon story reposted here on Black Friday noted there were about 1,500 protests around the country on our annual day of consumer madness mostly designed to shine a light on the horrendous corporate practices of Walmart, America’s beloved externalizing machine. While Walmart’s propaganda insists that the company is a provider of good jobs and many benefits to our communities, the facts suggest otherwise.
For instance, as The Guardian’s reporting on the Black Friday protests observed:
[T]he company has come under mounting pressure over its treatment of its staff. Though the retailer drew a $17bn profit last year, it also paid more than 825,000 workers – about two-thirds of its total workforce – less than $25,000 a year. By contrast, the Walton family, which owns more than half of the company, are worth more than $144bn.
A report prepared for the House committee on education and the workforce found that taxpayers were subsidising workers at just one Walmart superstore to the tune of almost $1m a year, in food stamps and other public-assistance programs, to make up for the less-than-subsistence wages they took home.
Thus protesters took to the streets outside Walmarts across the country to splash some cold water on the consumer delirium. Indeed, even Santa got hauled into the pen for civil disobedience at one demonstration.
Inside the stores, away from the protests, things were a bit more disturbing and, as ABC News reported, many customers documented the holiday fun by taking “photos and videos of bloody noses, paramedics wheeling stretchers, women smacking one another on the head, security officers wrestling shoppers to the ground and employees yelling at shoppers to stop recording the melees on their cellphones.” And for those who want to keep a tally of shoppers who were truly dying for a bargain, there is now a website called, “Black Friday Death Count” that does precisely that.
While all of this makes us want to condemn those few “nuts” out there engaging in murderously uncivil behavior, the meaning of Black Friday is much deeper than we’d like to think. As I noted in a column on this same subject last year:
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.
In response to this, well before the activists protesting Walmart adopted Black Friday as a day of symbolic action, the folks at Ad Busters have been promoting both Buy Nothing Day and the more ambitious Buy Nothing Christmas as a way to just say no to the consumer addiction that is destroying our planet and killing our souls. Interestingly, the Ad Busters campaign has been joined by a group of Canadian Mennonites who share their aversion to the religion of consumerism.
But to really understand what’s happening here, we need to go beyond the desperation of the holiday season and see how we have come to define happiness itself. Recently, in a fantastic review essay in The Nation, Jackson Lears surveys a series of new books on happiness and takes a look at the “happiness industry” itself, a pure product of “the neoliberal world.”
As Lears sees it, the happiness industry is a kind of social science that wishes to study and “define happiness as something more than per capita GDP, but which wants to do so without ever challenging the economic system that produces the GDP.” Hence this “science of happiness” in official academic circles ends up treating happiness as “a simple, unconditional good, measurable along a single dimension.” This ends up telling us that, “all that matters is whether you have more or less of the stuff” rather than dealing with “the larger interactions of the self and the world” or “grappling with the powerful and conflicting meanings of money in everyday life.”
In contrast to what he calls the “conventional pieties” of the positivist psychologists, Lears holds up the work of Robert and Edward Skidelsky in their book How Much is Enough?. The Skidelskys argue that much of our current malaise stems from the failure of economists like John Maynard Keynes to foresee how the ethos of capitalism would not stop once people had fulfilled their “finite quantity of material needs” but would rather work to make sure that “wants could be recast as needs, that luxuries could be transformed into necessities.” The result, they argue, is that, “Capitalism has achieved incomparable progress in the creation of wealth, but has left us incapable of putting that wealth to civilized uses.”
Another key mistake happened, they insist, “As social democrats began justifying the maintenance of a well-paid, healthy working population on utilitarian grounds of efficient productivity [and] moral arguments for the good life faded from view. When the fiscal crises surfaced in the 1970s, social democrats had no cogent response to the neoliberal charge that unions and government largesse were undermining the capacity to compete in the world marketplace. The failure of institutions was at bottom a failure of moral imagination and political nerve.” The result is that “our continued addiction to consumption and work is due, above all, to the disappearance from public discussion of any idea of the good life.”
Thus when the local news reports on Black Friday, they happily explain that early holiday sales would have been down if not for the bold move that retailers took by opening stores on Thanksgiving. The sales arrow is up and so should be the national mood. It makes me think of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” in which the pale, cadaverously polite clerk throws his Wall Street office into moral panic simply by uttering these words: “I would prefer not to.”
Ah Bartleby, ah humanity!