A couple thoughts on Black Friday

1)Consumer capitalism is an addiction. Black Friday demonstrates this better than any other event, because it shows the truly unhealthy relationship American culture has with consumerism: there’s riots, there’s violence, and there’s encroachment on non-materialistic enjoyments (Black Friday now starting on Thursday evening, meaning people working at these stores don’t get to have Thanksgiving; and neither do the shoppers*), all of which is deeply systemic: if people weren’t poor, they wouldn’t obsess about these supposed bargains; if huge amounts of bought-gift-giving weren’t culturally mandatory, people wouldn’t obsess about these supposed bargains; if corporations didn’t collude to have these “one day only” or even “a few hours only” sales pretty much at the same time, there wouldn’t be such massive events with huge crowds that now have entered into cultural tradition territory; etc.
And that doesn’t even address the less-visible consequences of such rampant consumersim, esp. the environmental costs, which are likely (barring a miracle cure for carbon emissions and resource depletion) to destroy our civilization in the medium-to-long-term. So, consumerism is highly destructive behavior; but it’s a destructive behavior that, to those who participate, at the moment of participation, can often be enjoyable (or at least better than the consequences of declining participation, be they pissy, guilt-tripping family or d00dz commenting on your unfuckability); very similar to most addictive drugs.
And similar to an addictive drug as well is the massive systemic shock should we decide to quit, AKA withdrawal. The entirety of the modern global economy is based on consumerist growth capitalism; when consumer spending drops because people become thrifty, suddenly the joblessness rates go up, small business profits go down, investment goes down, and people suffer. Quitting consumerism cold-turkey would destroy our civilization in short order; a slower transition out of consumerist growth capitalism may be theoretically possible, but I don’t know what that would look like. As much as I like the concepts of Deep Ecology, it is what we could have after transition; it’s not a manual for transitioning a global economy (for that matter, the Transition movement is not a manual for transitioning a global economy out of consumerism; it’s local by design)
IOW, just now I have the distinct impression that we are addicted to a drug that will kill us if we continue using it, and kill us if we try to quit. whee.

2)I recently re-read some writings about the “conspicuous consumption” model of status-signaling, which was developed before mass-production really took off. Anyway, it occurred to me that due to that mass-production, almost everybody can conspicuously consume now; and plenty of people do still follow that model of behavior (pin-striped jet anyone?), but in addition to “conspicuous consumption”, “conspicuous leisure”, and “conspicuous waste”, I think now in the age of mass production and universal consumerism (and near-universal lack of leisure-time, at least in the USA), I think we can add another status-symbol: the “conspicuous willpower”.
Being fat used to be a high-status symbol, but now that even poor people can be fat, it isn’t, and instead being able to have the time, money, and willpower to stay fit and skinny is; having a car or two used to be a high-status symbol, but now that a car is a basic necessity, it’s the ability, energy, and willpower to bike and walk everywhere that signals high-status; etc. Basically, now that pretty much everyone can participate in conspicuous consumption, and now that everyone is pretty much compelled, by cultural and economic imperatives to do so, it’s the abstaining from these acts of (over-)consumption that has become a status-symbol of the (white?) upper middle class (see also: “I don’t even have a TV”). The reason I refer to these things as “conspicuous willpower” is that all those things are counter-luxuries in the traditional sense: they add effort, instead of reducing it. That, in combination with the scientific research showing that willpower is a limited resource, can make the showing off of willpower a status symbol: if your have to use up all your willpower to work two shitty-ass jobs, dealing with the constant status-threat of being at the bottom of a very unequal society, having to constantly deal with a constant barrage of low-level emergencies not solving themselves because of lack of emergency funds, etc., you likely don’t have any of that very limited resource left to NOT stop by your favorite fastfood/desert-joint, to NOT hop into your car to go to work/shopping/whatever, or to NOT indulge in any number of unhealthy or environmentally damaging but easily accessible and cheap forms of relaxation and entertainment. OTOH, when you don’t have to spend all your willpower just on surviving, you can conspicuously show off the reminder in displays of righteousness, of individualist rejection of social ills.
And this works, btw, for conservatives as much as for liberals: teen pregnancy isn’t going to solve itself by personal willpower any more than global warming will (and both groups, for different reasons, tend to whine about consumerism, conservatives calling it “godless materialism” while liberals calling it “capitalist consumerism”), but both are talked about often in that context, instead of in the context of systemic change that would, again, allow even those who don’t have spare willpower lying around to not contribute and be affected by those social ills.

3)The actual reason that prompted me to finally write on this blog again is actually the shortest: pandagon linked to this article, which is not too bad overall, but the concluding sentence is making my brain hurt. she writes “When we create a political alternative to [...] capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself”, which earns a big “no shit, Sherlock” from me; consumerism is simply the most common form of capitalism, so of course getting rid of capitalism would get rid of its most common form. But saying we shouldn’t do anything about it is a bit like saying that “When we create a political alternative to sexism, the sexual harassment problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself”. Of course it will, but sexism WON’T be eliminated if we don’t focus on the way it manifests and self-perpetuates: bottom-up approaches that attempt to interrupt the self-perpetuation cycle of the cultural aspects of capitalism as well as sexism are just as needed as top-down approaches meant to eliminate the root of the systemic problem.

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*if having to work on Black Friday, or participating in these “riots” is something you find you need just so you can get away from your family for a few hours, you probably shouldn’t be going home for Thanksgiving in the first place. Though I get that for many people, that’s just as culturally mandatory as having to buy people shit for Christmas; what I get less is what exactly the cultural consequences are, since shunning by a family you can’t stand to be around doesn’t seem salient. Is it the financial support some people get from family? Are there really families out there that will demand visits on holidays under threat of not allowing visits at less crowded times? I iz confoosd.

7 comments on “A couple thoughts on Black Friday

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Bookmarked for conspicuous willpower.

    Mostly inconspicuous willpower to party escape the consumer society: the Freegan movement. Dumpstering. I recently watched a mini-documentary that mentioned http://www.containern.de .

    the consequences of declining participation, be they [...] d00dz commenting on your unfuckability

    o.O

    Am I understanding this right? You’re not fuckable if you don’t go shopping the day after Thanksgiving?????

    what I get less is what exactly the cultural consequences are, since shunning by a family you can’t stand to be around doesn’t seem salient. Is it the financial support some people get from family? Are there really families out there that will demand visits on holidays under threat of not allowing visits at less crowded times? I iz confoosd.

    What’s going on here is the widespread inability to think beyond one’s cultural norms, beyond the Three Austrian Arguments (“that’s always been that way”, “that’s never been that way”, “if we did that, anyone could come and…” – they sound better in the original). It’s considered lovely, romantic, and culturally normal to celebrate religious and quasi-religious holidays with your Loved Ones™, means, your family; you’re supposed to like your family; if you actually don’t like them, you’re still supposed to fake it on holidays when everyone is supposed to feel good. To visit each other on random dates but not on holidays, which you’re supposed to spend together, is simply beyond the imagination of lots of people. To admit to yourself and themselves that you don’t like your own family is likewise not supposed to ever happen. And sure, if you go to such extremes as to imply you actually don’t like them, some will go as far as cutting you off financially if they can.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    to imply you actually don’t like them

    Should have said “officially” instead of “actually”. That’s what it’s about, after all – an arbitrary code of behavior according to which the same actions have the same meanings and trigger the same consequences regardless of context.

  3. Jadehawk says:

    Am I understanding this right? You’re not fuckable if you don’t go shopping the day after Thanksgiving?????

    not to my knowledge. declining to participate in consumerism in general is, though: women aren’t supposed to wear +10-year-old clothes. it’s unsexy and unprofessional, dontchaknow

  4. David Marjanović says:

    women aren’t supposed to wear +10-year-old clothes

    Oh, that’s what you mean. Yep, so much for “men don’t even notice what you’re wearing” – some don’t.

  5. johannes says:

    Lots of money is spend for high fashion garments in spite – or because – men hate them: http://www.manrepeller.com/

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Heh. Birth control glasses. :-)

    …Aaaaaaaaand I just noticed our esteemed host is on Twitter. *howl* Since when? How much have I missed by not looking at the right sidebar during my daily visit?

    I can relate to the odd feeling of submitting an assignment 45 minutes before the deadline :-)

  7. David Marjanović says:

    …Never mind, I just clicked on “Twitter Feed” and learned a lot about Romney. :-) Congratulations on your income! Commiserations about the pumpkin! I can relate in this apartment full of apples and quinces.

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