Black Friday and the folly of anti-consumerism

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 27 November, 2019 - 7:16 Author: Eduardo Tovar
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In the US, Black Friday is the Friday following Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). The day revolves around large discounts in shops.

Black Friday sales are notorious for the levels of chaos or even violence that occur as crowds pour into the shops and scramble for the discounted goods. To take an extreme example, in 2008 a stampede of shoppers on Long Island, New York, trampled a Walmart employee to death.

Although Black Friday as a long-running annual tradition is specific to the United States because of its relationship to the holiday of Thanksgiving, retailers in other countries, including the UK, have more recently adopted the practice.

Black Friday is a target of ire, especially as a symbol of rampant consumerism. Sometimes this outrage against Black Friday has taken the form of anti-consumerist protests on the same date, such as “Buy Nothing Day”. Sometimes these protests involve such public displays of anti-materialism as “zombie walks” around large chain shops and or mass credit card cut-ups.

There are genuine left-wing criticisms to be made of Black Friday. However, I believe that many of the anti-Black Friday protests from an environmentalist or even anti-capitalist perspective make the error of blaming mass consumption as such for social and environmental ills.

By placing the focus on consumption rather than production, one loses sight of the fact that just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. [1] Changes in how industries are run would lead to a significantly greater reduction of these companies’ global emissions than changes in the purchasing choices of their street-level customers, targeting the latter seems to arise from abstract notions of “complicity” rather than strategic considerations of leverage.

Also, many shoppers take advantage of discount sales because they have low or modest incomes and so these sales are some of the only opportunities they have to acquire “luxury” goods at all. There is a serious risk that anti-consumerist protests outside shops on Black Friday will come across as moralistically shaming poor people for trying to acquire objects of comfort or enjoyment beyond what they strictly require to live.

The ascetic ethos of “You shouldn’t buy more than you need” only makes sense to people regularly able to buy more than they need. Workers on low wages are usually careful with their expenditure as a matter of material necessity. Preaching asceticism to low-waged workers casts this thrifty lifestyle as a virtue. It tells poor workers to embrace their meagre way of living on ethical grounds rather than resist the systematic exploitation that makes their way of living meagre to begin with.

Yet some anti-consumerist preaching receives support from large sections of the would-be Marxist left. The figure of Marx looms large in critiques of consumer society. This is especially true in academic and activist circles influenced by “Western Marxist” interpretations of the concept of commodity-fetishism, most famously those of the Frankfurt School.

The basic thrust of this line of thought is that, by producing and marketing commodities, capitalism creates artificial desires that distract people from their real needs. In this vision of capitalist society, the bourgeoisie uses mass advertising and other constituent elements of “the culture industry” to manipulate people into wanting things they do not actually require, thereby keeping them in an almost mesmerised state of compliance and passivity.

For example, the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse categorised the prevailing need “to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements” as a “false” need “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression”. [2] In Marcuse’s view, “[t]he products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood”. [3]

Despite their theoretical and practical-political differences with the Frankfurt School, one finds a very similar perspective on consumer society, commodities, and the generation of “false needs” in the writings of the Situationist International:

“The true fulfilment of genuine desires — which means the abolition of all the pseudo-needs and pseudo-desires that the system manufactures daily in order to perpetuate its own power — cannot take place without the suppression and positive supersession of the commodity spectacle.” [4]

Although the “Frankurtised” version of Marx is omnipresent in the study of consumer society, it seriously misunderstands Marx’s own views. In his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx wrote: “Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it…”. Engels, in a letter to a comrade in 1889, commented wryly on some workers’ desire to show “bourgeois respectability”: “even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the finest of them, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor”.

But, far from being a cultural pessimist who denounced mass consumption, Marx believed that capitalism’s expansion of desires and needs (beyond basic food and shelter to literature, art, decoration, travel, etc.) was its “great civilising influence”. [5]

As Ishay Landa explains, for Marx, “[t]he proliferation of needs which occurs under capitalism is... a quintessentially emancipatory moment, a token of human enrichment and socialisation”. [6]

Marx famously and pointedly criticised bourgeois economists for labelling as “artificial” “firstly, the needs which arise out of the social existence of the individual” and “secondly, those which do not flow from his naked existence as a natural object”. [7]

Instead, Marx’s critique of consumption under capitalism was mostly directed at how capitalism expands the workers’ desires and needs, but simultaneously constrains their ability to consume. In his own words, the sale of commodities under capitalism “is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor”. [8]

All this might come as a surprise because of how much it is taken for granted that capitalism encourages over-consumption. In truth, the relationship between consumerism and capitalism has never been straightforward.

Although much ink has been spilt over the plausibility of Max Weber’s (frequently misunderstood) “Protestant Ethic” thesis, the association in certain cultures between the capitalist drive to accumulate wealth and the ascetic practice of denying one’s impulse to spend provides a clear example of how capitalism and consumerism are not necessarily good bedfellows. [9] Indeed, as the independent socialist blogger Ralph Leonard observes, “Ebeneezer Scrooge, arguably the most notorious capitalist villain in English Literature, was against Christmas precisely because it encouraged such ‘excessive’ mass consumption”. [10]

Criticising the desire for material things overlooks how many activities people engage in to pursue social relationships and human self-development themselves depend on access to material things; “one can hardly fence or paint, for example, without first obtaining brushes, canvasses, helmets, swords, and the like”. [11]

It also overlooks what Marx found so objectionable about commodity fetishism, namely that it obscures the object’s material, useful existence as the product of human labour and reduces the various kinds and concrete forms of labour embodied in the object “to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract”. [12] In other words, Marx’s objection was to how the commodity’s value becomes detached from the earthly creation and use of the physical object itself by living human beings.

As Peter Stallybrass puts it:

“For Marx, as for the workers of whom he wrote, there were no ‘mere’ things. Things were the materials — the clothes, the bedding, the furniture — from which one constructed a life; they were the supplements the undoing of which was the annihilation of the self.”

“It has become a cliché to say that we should not treat people like things. But it is a cliché that misses the point. What have we done to things to have such contempt for them? Why are prisoners stripped of their clothes, if not to strip them of themselves?” [13]

If left-wingers still wish to protest outside shops on Black Friday, then they should protest in solidarity with the underpaid and overstretched retail workers being put at risk of physical injury from having to deal with the sheer number of sales and customers. Better yet, talk with the workers directly about unionising to fight for better working conditions. If one’s primary concern is environmentally harmful company practices, then strike up conversations about how organised labour can exercise its collective agency for environmentalist purposes, drawing from such history as the “green bans” of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation.

Protests against consumer culture might superficially cohere with left-wing values, but not all anti-consumerism is anti-capitalist and not all anti-capitalism is progressive. Instead of berating buyers for their “excess” or insinuating that they are mere dupes of consumer society, socialists and environmentalists should fight for a world in which everyone can enjoy material abundance; a world in which each individual’s needs are both expanded and satisfied.

Footnotes

[1] Dr Paul Griffin et al, The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017

[2] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Abingdon: Routledge 2002), 7.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Members of the Situationist International and Students of Strasbourg University, On the Poverty of Student Life (1966), ch. 3.

[5] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1993), 287.

[6] Ishay Landa, The Nature of Abnegation: Marx on Consumption, Historical Materialism, 26, no. 1 (2018): 3-36, 23.

[7] Marx, Grundrisse, 228.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1992), 391.

[9] Max Weber’s central thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is that Calvinist ascetic practices, which responded to the doctrine of predestination by emphasising the denial one’s immediate gratification through diligence and accumulation of wealth in order to produce outward signs that one is amongst God’s chosen, had an “elective affinity” with existing forms of early capitalism and so fused with them to create the specifically modern capitalism that first arose in the West. Despite common misconceptions, Weber does not argue that capitalism in general arose from Protestantism, nor does he argue that religious factors have a historical priority over material ones.

[10] Ralph Leonard, A Marxist Defence of Consumerism (18 August 2019).

[11] Landa, The Nature of Abnegation, 13.

[12] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1990), 128.

[13] Peter Stallybrass, Marx’s Coat, in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, ed. Patricia Spyer (New York: Routledge 1998), 203.

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