Antisophie on: Black Friday in the UK

[Thanks to Antisophie for penning this at 1am]

 

“Can you say something about Black Friday [for the blog]?” – Michael asked me. “So long as you let me be honest”, I replied.

 

I had the same line as he did initially. A response of cynicism and despair about all the negative things it entails. Firstly, the idea of a Black Friday surely presupposes a Thanksgiving Thursday does it not? However there’s something a little bit rich about having a US holiday in the UK where the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving is about a group of British (and other European) exiles settling in a new land. Probably not the narrative that the UK would want to address given the whole immigration ‘crisis’ it’s dealing with in the political public sphere.

 

I was going to say it’s a cynical attempt to display the naked capitalistic/Marxist narrative where our consumption is the most ingrained/taught/primal desire, evidenced by all the notorious stories about violence and disorder as people seemingly panic buy special ‘one time only’ deals in retail hubs.

 

Then I thought about two things. Firstly, how the former old guard of grocery/supermarket retail organisations are in a bit of a fight for survival with new players, and secondly I can’t decry Black Friday because I bought so much (unintentionally).

 

The retail issue

 

As someone who works in an industry where…lets say, I depend on the sudden whims of other people’s decisions in order to work at all. I have a bit of sympathy with the figure of 1.4 mill (ONS 2014) people estimated to be on ‘zero hours’ contracts. When people panic buy, I imagine all those folks working security jobs and shelf stacking will be asked to work an extra and additional day. It’s the easy response to say that these so-called ‘zero hours’ contracts are being overused but I suspect it’s for things like sudden influx of customers where it really can be beneficial.

 

I also hear (and I am uncertain of how much credence to give this) that many people in management at retail wish to ‘invent’ a UK Black Friday (which was introduced last year, and implemented more this year) to deal with their own difficult revenues. In other words, people on the whole are spending less and going other places to do so. From that perspective, having a pretense of a black friday probably wants to help what is usually a busy period of the retail year but in recent years has been disappointing. And now, there’s the personal story.

 

We are all slaves to spending

 

Michael was spending the best part of friday watching some of the YouTube uploaded footage of how Black Friday is observed in the USA, by apparent fighting, stampedes and in one video, a use of a taser. Michael mumbled something about how this is the Hobbesian State of Nature in a world of actual government and statehood, and attempted to make some deep point that the role of the state was to fundamentally prevent the disorder of the Hobbesian state of nature, and as such contractarian accounts need to find some way to account for how actual limited forms of chaos exists in a world of authority (the state). Michael also said something to the effect of ‘Black Friday shows who we really are in extremis’.

 

I was sort of in agreement except for two things. I largely ignored black friday except via a whatsapp chat group which included Michael’s weird Hobbesian reference and diatribe about conspicuous consumption. I just went by my busy day as I normally would.

 

-Then I got a text from my sister – telling me that she wants a DVD of Season One of Something or Other* made by HBO and that ‘it’s probably cheaper on Black Friday’. It wasn’t, but I got it for her anyway.

 

-Then she texted me again – telling me the DVD is for my Brother In Law and she actually wants a shawl from Cos*. Ugh, okay sis I’ll get it for you.

 

-Then when I was at the website, I saw a nice deal on a nice little number that I was meaning to buy anyway. So I bought it. I’ve ended up spending £70 already. But I did save £40 and I got free delivery.

 

What black friday seems to reveal is that we live in a world where we both seem to need and we indeed want, many of the things that are put on a discount or offer. By buying, we consent to perpetuate whatever it is many people find objectionable about consumerism. This is very much an issue of choice, and it isn’t the retailers or the customers or the economy that really wins out. It’s our choice. Notably consider how choice varies from another word choice such as liberty or agency.I suppose because I already buy into the notion of Christmas that I also invariably found a £40 saving so attractive on things I probably was going to buy anyway. I feel utterly disappointed in my ability to launch a critique at Black Friday.

 

As I was checking my RSS feeds just earlier, I got a pop up notice from Feedly which said there was a ‘black friday’ sale of 20% off a yearly pro subscription. I’d lie if I wasn’t attracted by that. But there is a massive and perhaps inevitable liberal hypocrisy in paying for a black friday only deal on Feedly, and then using feedly to read blogs criticising black friday and how problematic it is. Even though my shopping was in fact online, I do feel I contributed my part to the social reality that larger encompasses the mobs crashing into superstores and people rushing to buy the latest so-and-so  for such and such a discount.

I think the moral if there is any is this: I spent £70 on stuff but think/was told I made a saving of £40. That is the meaning of Black Friday.

 

* names have been changed

 

Consumption and survival

Lately I’ve been reading Thorsten Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. This has been as part of my general reading list. My general reading list consists of everything from about Aristotle to Confucius up to about Philip K. Dick. I have a big list of books to read, and that doesn’t include new books or journals, and I have said to myself jokingly but half seriously that it will probably take most of my life to read them. Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure class’ (henceforth: Leisure) is one of them.

Veblen’s Leisure was introduced to me in first year sociology. I then found that it was referenced by a few people who talk about subcultures, consumption and even a few economists. Veblen’s Leisure is said to be one of the first serious works of Sociology, when the academic discipline was at its burgeoning stage. Veblen’s initial part of Leisure consists in a pseudo-anthropological thesis, about how human communities have moved from a base stage of co-operation in order to survive, this involves a division of labour oriented towards fulfilling necessary tasks towards human survival, the later parts of the book, which I shall touch on in this post concern how when the human community is affluent enough, reaches a stage where items are produced and goods are procured that are less about survival, but status.

I think it must have been Veblen who conceptualised the term Conspicuous Consumption. The notion that we spend our money and use certain goods just for the sake of using and obtaining them. There is no need about certain items in the way that we may need sustenance or shelter or warmth, but we use things for a sense of pleasure. Society had reached a point by Veblen’s period where a greater number of people engaged in this conspicuous consumption.

So what is an example of conspicuous consumption? Veblen gives some very interesting and odd instances. Women are conspicuous consumption objects. By that, I take him to mean, the furnishing of women’s wants (by men, and the women themselves), in terms of makeup, fancy outfits and so forth.The status of having affluence can be indicated by a male partner looking very ornate. I think there’s an interesting dimension of objectification here, women in this courtly sense are portrayed as arm candy accessories and confer status. The more one Victorian can spend on his wife, the greater sense of upper class sensibility can be accorded to him. Women are treated instrumentally in this sense of conspicuous consumption.

Another aspect of conspicuous consumption offered by Veblen is horse racing. The pursuit of going to see horse races, betting on them, to be seen at the races and even the cultivation and sponsoring of race horses. These are eccentric 19thC examples, but I can see how it still resounds today. Consider for instance how people pride themselves in an ever so bourgeois way on their book shelf. As a way not of showing their intellectual prowess (although it is under the pretense of doing so), but indicating fundamentally how useless their sense of interests are in the wider scheme of human survival. To have a bookshelf seems to suggest that you are not hungry or destitute in life. That said, half of my book collection is in a shed at the moment because I life in a small place, I fear my Aristotle will suffer a fate worse than the burning of Alexandria’s library: winter damp.

The pursuit of social activities such as going to the pub, drinking alcohol for pleasure (instead of sustenance), theatre, gaming, gigging or even shopping when one has enough clothes, all show our obsession with consuming beyond need. I think that the frame of conspicuous consumption is a good analytical tool, I understand it has been used as such in economic research. There is apparently a legacy that Veblen has for economics beyond sociology, which is interesting for a sociologist to have such a legacy.

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is something that has come to my mind lately, because it is essentially the pursuit of status, and expressing to social others that one lives towards a financial and material means that they produce enough for survival that they can spend their time and money on leisure. Anyone who lives in a country with poor economic growth right now can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Resources are spent on both leisure and survival, even when we don’t have enough to fully cope with the latter. Economic conditions are making life difficult for many families, business and individuals, but the culture of leisure pursuits and conspicuous consumption is not changing in accord, if anything, it’s exploding even more.

Leisure seems to be the outlet, the lightning rod of the frustrations from struggling to make ends meet. Industrialisation has shown that its possible to live in a way that sustains survival, but the post-industrial reverses this trend due to wider economic factors, but leaves the economic system of conspicuous consumption in tact. We still have ‘industries’ that work towards consumption and away from need, it may be the case that for many people, the presence of these industries provide jobs and a means of survival. There isn’t quite the equilibrium in today’s climate that Veblen saw that there was in his description. But maybe it wasn’t the case either that humanity had reached a point where its survival was guaranteed for all either, but rather conspicuous consumption highlighted an upper and middle class. One thing that is certainly true today, is that conspicuous consumption is encouraged for all economic groupings. To the point, I would say, of undermining other issues of importance.

I’ve come to think about consumption in other ways lately. Thanks to Transition Town Tooting hosting earlier in the summer a series of discussion groups called ‘Carbon Conversations’. I came to think about consumption in relation to sustainability and environmental impact. One of the themes addressed in the talks by many people was the concern about the way their decisions as consumers have an impact upon the kind of world they want to have. Consumption therefore has a much deeper dimension in relation to survival. It is not an opposition between conspicuous consumption and survival, but a relation on how our mass decisions as consumers (for instance, consuming beef products which has a high carbon footprint, or driving a car) impacts on wider global issues.

Michael