Although I have oft deplored Black Friday, this trademark of a culture gone mad, this most sacred of all holidays to our national god of Mammon, I had not until today stopped to reflect on the sad irony of its position in our national calendar. Its defilement of the liturgical calendar, with expectant, ascetic, penitent waiting for the Advent of our Lord being overrun with the frantic feeding frenzy of the Christmas shopping season, is something that has increasingly troubled me in recent years. But sharper still is the contrast with the day that now marks the start of this shopping orgy: Thanksgiving.
The origins of our Thanksgiving, and of its analogues in many other cultures, lies in a grateful celebration of the gifts of sustenance that God has supplied us from the bounty of creation. Thanksgiving is the day when our ancestors rejoiced that their basic needs had been supplied, and expressed their contentment and gratitude for their freedom from want. Today, no sooner do we pause to engage in this now-artificial ritual than we hurl ourselves with wild abandon into the whirl of covetousness and discontent, leaving behind the repose of satisfied needs to stoke the fires of artificial wants and needs. Of course, the theologically-minded defenders of our modern consumer capitalism will insist that there is a connection–that the extravaganza of shopping can serve as an expression of gratitude for the gifts we have received, that enable us to purchase so freely, and indeed, to purchase gifts for others. But this is to overlook the deep difference between the gratitude that accompanies the satisfaction of genuine human wants and needs, and the still-restless temporary satiation that accompanies the indulgence of artificial needs that a bottomless consumerism constantly creates. The former is not impossible, even for the modern American shopper; but it is increasingly uncommon.
Since my birthday always falls on or near Black Friday, and I have for years received mostly cash gifts after relatives despaired of following my arcane and eccentric tastes, I have for several years found good reason to join the teeming masses and make an uneasy truce with the manic ritual. This year, the day’s proceedings concluded on a note of heavy irony with my final purchase–a book called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.
In it, the author Benjamin Barber (best known for the prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld) argues, more or less, that in its quest for ever-greater consumption of its limitless production (I think of Arendt’s The Human Condition), global capitalism has learned to expand its consumer base by aggressively marketing to children, the easiest to persuade and hardest to satiate, and hooking them early on the consumerist drug, and by increasingly converting the adult populace to a state of childlike gullibility, dependence, and insatiability. The result is the simultaneous destruction of childhood and the infantilization of adulthood.
I have only read the first chapter so far, whose thirty-seven pages read like one great rant composed in a fever of moral passion which, though often merely reactionary, occasionally attains heights of genuine eloquence. Although the moral passion rings somewhat hollow in the absence of any theological conviction (as I found also with Naomi Klein), such a prolonged and at times cranky rant is on the whole justified by the seriousness of the subject and the keenness of Barber’s insight. Already in this first chapter he exposes the risible obsolescence of appeals to a “free market” that is based, more often than not, on manipulation and captivation of the defenceless, to the “Protestant work ethic” of a capitalism that is now much more about consuming than producing, and to the operation of the “law of supply and demand” in an economy where supply does not so much meet demand as create it. Here are a couple striking quotes, one from near the beginning of the chapter and another from near the end:
“Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates: dogmatic judgments of black and white in politics and religion come to displace the nuanced complexities of adult morality, while the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure, and indolence without indolence. Hence, the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility. In the epoch in which we now live, civilization is not an ideal or an aspiration, it is a video game.”
“The consumer at once both imbibes the world of products, goods, and things being impressed upon her and so conquers it, and yet is defined via brands, trademarks, and consumer identity by that world. She essays to make the market her own even as it makes her its prisoner. She trumpets her freedom even as she is locked up in the cage of private desire and unrestrained libido. She announces a faux consumer power even as she renounces her real citizen power. The dollars or euros or yen with which she imagines she is mastering the world of material things turn her into a thing defined by the material–from self-defined person into market-defined brand; from autonomous public citizen to heteronomous private shopper. The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes: she ceases to buy goods as instruments of other ends and instead of other ends and instead becomes the goods she buys.”