Why Black Friday is More Red Than You Think
Marx was the greatest enemy of Capitalism, but he was also its greatest advocate
Bombarded as we are this time of year with ads, stories, and jingles telling us that the true meaning of Thanksgiving is “SAVINGS!” it is easy to think that there is no better evidence of the dehumanizing and alienating nature of Capitalism than Black Friday. Yet it is precisely for this reason that Karl Marx would not oppose Black Friday, but would welcome it.
Read The Communist Manifesto (available online and at retailers nationwide) and what you find is not only an impassioned plea for the “workers of the world to unite,” but also an argument concerning the nature of history and the role the bourgeoisie—our capitalist oppressors—play in bringing about the rise of the proletariat—we capitalist oppressed. While we tend to focus on Marx’s analysis of how the bourgeoisie destroy society, pushing all of the classes that used to exist down until there is finally no one left but the few Haves and the ever-expanding Have-Nots, we should not ignore what Marx believes this destruction and this oppression can reveal to us along the way.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
It is important to realize that while Marx is pointing out how the bourgeoisie have reduced us to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation,” he is likewise pointing out how we were already being exploited before the bourgeoisie came along. Hence “exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions,” was already in place before the bourgeoisie came and revealed this to us by replacing “For God!” or “For Country!” with “How much you want?” It is not that life was great until the bourgeoisie rose to power, but rather that we were tricked by “feudal ties” and “heavenly ecstasies” into believing life was great.
What is important then is not that the bourgeoisie turned the world into one of “naked self-interest,” but that they were able to do so, that the conditions of possibility for our exploitation, for our trading our beliefs and ideals for “callous ‘cash payment’” were already in place. It is for this reason that, as Marx writes, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” In other words, the bourgeoisie function for Marx not unlike the phenomenological reduction for Husserl, bracketing out what appears to be real so that we can more clearly see both what is real and what structures must be in place for these appearances to exist.
So did Black Friday destroy Thanksgiving, as so many of us today like to claim, or was there something about us that made Thanksgiving destroyable in the first place? When we see the Norman Rockwell painting of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to be, we of course see a family together, happy, enjoying each other’s company. But we also see the dutiful wife and mother serving a turkey for the black-suited husband and father to cut and to serve. What we see then is precisely the sorts of trappings of “religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism” that the bourgeoisie are so ready to replace with iPhones at the table, football on the TV, and Black Friday on the brain.
Black Friday reveals that we are willing to give up this traditional Thanksgiving so that we can stand in line for hours, in the cold, with strangers, to buy marked-down Xboxes. The Capitalist spin on such practices is of course that this is because we aren’t just buying anything, but that we are buying holiday presents for our friends and loved ones. Thus it is not the case that Black Friday means that the Spirit of Capitalism has replaced the Spirit of Family and of Togetherness, but that Black Friday brings it out most clearly.
These two spirits then, as we can now imagine Marx telling us, are in fact one in the same thing. Black Friday reveals that we know of no other way to be together with our families than to buy them stuff. Cooking, eating, talking are not nearly as meaningful as queueing, shopping, and gift-giving. The gift of your presence is all well and good, but I want that damn Xbox!
It is likely the case, as Marx might further tell us, that family togetherness always takes the form of the current social structures in place. Hence the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving is not a better Thanksgiving than is the Black Friday Thanksgiving, but rather a different form of patriarchal exploitation than we have today. It is almost as if the man in the bottom right corner looking out at us is daring us not to see the various “religous and political illusions” at work in this Thanksgiving fantasy.
Our Black Fridays, Ourselves
The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all times with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.
Marx further believed that the bourgeoisie not only revealed the true nature of society to us, but that they would be the ones to educate us about how to defeat them. So if Black Friday teaches us that we can stand in line for hours, in the cold, with strangers, because “SAVINGS!” maybe it is simply preparing us for standing in line for hours, in the cold, with strangers, because “FREEDOM!” Each time an Occupy Wall Street or another similar uprising of the proletariat takes place, a growing number of people will be prepared because of Black Friday to camp out and do whatever it takes to get what they currently believe they need most.