What can some people’s fights for acquiring and affording objects of commodity teach us about inauthentic utopias, and the underlying authentic struggles for a better quality of life we are overlooking?
Last week I followed Black Friday news in the media, but just now found time to sit and write about it so here it goes.
Black Friday, an American event: Some try to rationalize it, others just mock at it. I had no clue it existed until 5 years after I came to the United States and lived in the south. There, I had a friend who took me Black Friday shopping with him. We drove the car at night to the Walmart in Charlotte, North Carolina listening to Johnny Cash. We loaded up on items we didn’t need but were amazingly cheap, including candy, a printer, and two extra coffee maker machines for the house. I loved it.
In an article by the New York Times titled “What Does Black Friday Mean to you?” one reader called it a “nonsensical consumer binge day” while another stated, “you don’t save enough to justify the experience.” In another article, Nick Wing from Huff Post asked “Is the urge to buy things really so strong that you need to partake in a free-for-all that will undoubtedly end in tragedy for someone, somewhere this year?”
In this context of contradiction and absurdity crowds of people are interpreted by some audiences as violent, “uncivilized” or angry. I am not denying that violence happens and that it should be prevented, but want to point at other forces at play in the struggle to buy things. Some views are promoting a general rejection solely towards the buyers, consigning them to a lower region while overlooking the greater forces of capitalism that feed these “spectacles.”
I used to shop at Walmart every month during my early twenties when I managed a coffee shop and, later, worked a cash register at a retail store. I was always on a budget, and Walmart was cheap. Most of my friends, on budgets, also shopped at Walmart because it was open 24 hours and cheap. Not everybody liked admitting it because we all know how horrible the work conditions are. This year, people beat each other up over 29 cent towels at Walmart in Memphis and various tweets mocked those who participated in the incident. Finally enough, Walmart’s Black Friday bestselling item was a 29 cent towel. Pretty cheap.
Considering that better deals for most items are found online, and, in fact according to the National Retail Federation, only 30% of Americans polled planned to go to the mall Thanksgiving weekend, the other justifiable reasons behind attending Black Friday sprees are hope and optimism that buying something will make things better. This authentic need to remain optimistic clashes with the inauthentic idea that objects of commodity are the final solution.
Consumerism promises progress through private consumption, but its individualistic forces control people and undermine their options of working together. This is an example of Hume’s paradox, and not everyone can see through it and struggle against it, thus, the fighting for a towel at Wal-Mart, or the crowds of people running to grab discounted items represent a struggle, but towards the wrong force.
Merchants use Christmas to invoke these hopeful desires and futures of happiness through objects. Amy Merrick mentioned the story of the “myth surrounding Christmas” in her article for the New Yorker. Regarding black Friday,
Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American founder of the British department-store chain Selfridges and the first to post in his stores the number of shopping days until Christmas, understood that retailers must seduce their customers; he titled his history of merchant cultures “The Romance of Commerce.” In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Selfridge and other retailers used the Christmas season to spin a fantasy of a happier life, invoking the Victorian era’s emphasis on children and the domestic sphere. Merrick writes.
I am always falling for this fantasy of a happier life, even when I’m already happy. As soon as I step into a mall surrounded by things I cannot afford, my hopes and desires for grandiose things kicks in. Last week before Black Friday, looking to buy a present for a guy friend, I decided to walk into the Macy’s in Flushing, Queens. As I walked through those aisles filled with shiny cosmetics and lotions that promised future comfort and beauty, a sales lady walked up to me.
These are all male perfumes, why don’t you find one for yourself?
She smelled great and had great eye make up on. So, duh, I followed her as she gave me some samples and described her own experience wearing the perfume.
“This one is a great scent, I wore it once when I went to St. Martin Island for vacation, and I used to put this lotion on every day too.” she said.
My hands where already smeared with scented lotion, and sales-lady had managed to take me to St. Martin’s paradises of romanticized scented vacations through her sales pitch.
Now if we multiply this product and better life desirability times three thousand we have an idea of the forces at play in Black Friday crowds. People waiting in line all night to get their own discounted objects that promise better, prettier, shinier, more comfortable selves are expressing a valid need and desire for a better situation, a better “now” who can blame them? and why laugh?
Under the grand narrative of consumerism, products have an authentic and inauthentic side. The bottle of perfume for example, reflects on my wants and anticipations, and it embodies decontextualized hope of better possibilities for the future (such as the vacation I can never afford to take). These are authentic desires because they express our daydreams for a better life. But, trying to fulfill them individually by purchasing objects of commodity prevents us from actually uniting and struggling in solidarity for better, concrete, and more authentic qualities of life.
The problem of Black Friday, which represents consumerism at its worst degree, is not its crowds of people who rely on objects, or consumption objects’ inability to fulfill authentic hopes, but rather how its grand narrative prevents any further possibility for concrete utopias. For example, while some will go to any lengths to get their discounted television for grandpa, others are moving the struggle by asking that retail workers get paid higher hourly wages, which would in turn allow them to improve their quality of life on the long run. This might not be the Holiday I’ll win over my Ayn Rand-worshiping uncle, but there is a lot to do, and class struggle will still be alive in America tomorrow. You don’t have to join it, but don’t mock at those who will.
Carolina is an argentine immigrant who enjoyed Black Friday shopping in North Carolina, but stays home reading about it now that she lives in NYC. Follow her tweets here: https://twitter.com/CarolinaADrake