Post Thanksgiving Update 2: Black Friday, AKA American Thunderdome, or possibly Lumpenfest USA

What can be said about the uniquely American quasi-religious retail holiday known as Black Friday? This year’s observance happened to coincide with a Walmart worker’s strike that almost no one appeared to care about. Well, that’s not quite true; I’ve heard of several stories indicating that many shoppers expressed support for and approval of the Walmart strike – as they crossed the picket line to shop AT WALMART.  (This account of some of the more successful actions may lift spirits a little.  Let no one say I’m more than 95% gloom).  In addition, I’m aware of an incident of mass pepper spraying by a shopper looking for a cheap Xbox (California), two people shot dead in a Walmart parking lot over a parking space (Florida) and a man who tried to punch his way to the front of the line outside Sears, until he happened to attack a man with a concealed carry license, who drew his weapon and chased the attacker away (Texas). While I’ve never been a fan of concealed carry (if one must carry a weapon, surely open carry is both more honest and a better deterrent), the Texas Sears incident is probably the best argument in its favor I’ve yet seen. Of course, the Florida parking lot shooting seems a more potent argument against it.  But back to the matter at hand: How has this de facto holiday achieved such significance that people are prepared to kill for it? Why also do so many see no contradiction in indicating their approval of the Walmart strike even as they cross the picket line to shop at Walmart?

This second question is made more interesting in light of the revelation that the term “Black Friday” was used by factory managers in the 1950s not to refer to crowds of shoppers, but to the large number of workers who called in sick.  Only later did the day transition from a headache for manufacturing into a for profit free for all for retail. One might characterize the transition in this way: 1950s Black Friday was a day for workers to tell the boss “piss off, I’m extending my holiday and there’s nothing you can do about it,” while present day Black Friday is a day for consumers to say “it’s great that you’re standing up to this evil company I’m about to make more profitable. I’d stay home or shop elsewhere and actually support you in a meaningful way, but I can’t show any real solidarity. I mean, seriously dude – there are plasma screens at stake!” Between the violence and the disregard for workers, I think the following ought to be the official Black Friday slogan (or mission statement, if you’re the corporate type): “Plasmas over people!” This attitude shouldn’t surprise us. It makes perfect sense in the context of a society in which people have come to identify as consumers rather than workers.  This is what becomes of six decades of local news reports on who’s getting ripped off at the register instead of who’s getting ripped off on payday.  Yet the culture of Black Friday doesn’t really favor the consumer, either.  The desperate violence, after all, ultimately stems from the once a year availability of products that most consumers ordinarily can’t afford.  This is another effect of the worker-consumer disconnect. The exploitation of American workers is what sets the stage for the annual struggle over products that are temporarily affordable.  This is what leads to actual human beings calmly considering the pros and cons of unleashing pepper spray on their fellows in the name of savings, and this is what leaves us with shoppers who seem totally unaware that the bargains they’re hunting come at the direct expense of the striking workers they’re largely ignoring.  There is no understanding that the workers and consumers are the same people; even the workers and consumers themselves seem unaware of this.  Everything is simply part of the environment.  Deploying pepper spray against a rival for a game system seems as natural as two predators fighting over a gazelle carcass if it’s perceived as an environmental necessity.  Ignore the man behind the curtain, peon.  This contrived retail scenario has nothing to do with him.  Now face your opponent and fight to the death!  Two shoppers enter, one shopper leaves – with a discount!

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