Last week America feasted, reenacting a foundational myth of the Republic -- that benevolent "Indians" saved innocent "Pilgrims" from certain starvation, celebrating a nascent friendship that would last, well, until everyone got smallpox and died. The reality, as we now know, is a bit more complicated. America's traditional day of gustatory gluttony is followed by Black Friday, 24 hours of unrestrained consumerist capitalism. We've all seen and heard the stories -- folks camping out for weeks to be the first in line for deals, fights over the last flatscreen TVs, store employees trampled to death.
Most historians agree that America's economy tipped into a consumer-driven model sometime in the 1920s, some thirty years after becoming the world's largest economy. Credit cards were introduced, followed by cheap home mortgages, which unleashed a huge reserve of consumer potential that had previously been limited by cash on hand. Then came the war, the baby boom, the suburbs, and the shopping malls. Pundits fight over figures, but most folks agree that consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the economy's growth. And so, as 2008 illustrated to all of us, if the consumer's confidence or ability to spend is shaken, the whole economy tanks. Presidents, even in the face of real national tragedy, regularly encourage the American people to go out and shop, optics be damned.
Black Friday kicks off the Christmas shopping season. Retailers, trapped in brutal price wars, fight for market share during the most lucrative four weeks of the year. Americans get up, bleary-eyed and hungover, and swarm the stores, confirming the world's worst fears about rampant, ugly empire. A few days later, the recently made-up rejoinder to Black Friday, Cyber Monday (seriously, who the hell comes up with these names?) kicks off with ridiculous fluff pieces about delivery drones. Massive regulatory and safety issues non-withstanding, it sure would be awesome to have a robot drop toilet paper on my doorstep! I mean, the Wall-E life looks great from where I'm sitting!
Buy Nothing Day kicked off sometime in the nineties and was co-opted and promoted by Adbusters in 2000. Founded in 1989, Adbusters was put together by two filmmakers who used spoof ads, a magazine, and slick marketing methods to promote less consumption. I subscribed to Adbusters for awhile in my younger days, and proudly hung a corporate American flag in my apartment. Kalle Lasn, one of the co-founders, went on to jumpstart the Occupy movement in recent years, another experiment in radical unconsumption. I have tried hard to subscribe to Buy Nothing Day each year. It's not that difficult; I'm not a huge shopper to begin with, and I sure hate going to the mall. That said, I failed this year, forced to get a tank of gas on the road to the lady's house.
Consumption is a sticky question for me -- by employment and inclination, I produce stuff. I aspire to produce things that other people want to make, or buy. Furniture is not an essential thing, like food -- I mean, people can always sit on the ground. Architecture, my other main avocation, is a less morally slippery animal, as shelter is a true human fundamental.
There is always an argument for responsible consumption, but it is still fundamentally passive -- choose, pay, walk away. Buy Nothing Day is even more unassertive, requiring absolutely zero of the consumer (given our penchant for doing nothing, it's a wonder it hasn't taken off!).
Next year, what about a Build Friday? Instead of buying Nothing, or creating Nothing, or sitting and contemplating Nothing, I will make Something. This seems a good compromise: a little sweat to work off the feast, a way to satisfy the urge to get something new, and a way to constructively reclaim consumerism. If every Black Friday rampager took a crack at making something, with their own hands, and discovered something about the value of consumer goods in the process, perhaps no one would ever be trampled to death in a Wal-Mart again.