A crisis of consumerism

By Tyler Wolfe

Black Friday, the Friday after American Thanksgiving, is annually one of the busiest retail days of the year. Kicking off the Christmas shopping season, the idea behind the name is that it is supposedly the day in which all American businesses magically happen to begin turning a profit– out of the red and into the black. This year the name was particularly appropriate as a 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a ravenous, merciless consuming horde, concerned less with human life than being the first to get their fat, greedy hands on whichever cheap product they had been indoctrinated to buy.

The horde had yet to unveil the true extent of it sinister nature, however. Upon being informed that their gluttonous frenzy had resulted in the death of a fellow human being and that the store would be closing as a result, the mob grew indignant, some complaining that they had been waiting in line since the previous evening. They demanded to know what right management had in closing the store and denying them their dear consumables, their lust for things overwhelming any moral sense or human emotion.

While this disturbing example may not be the norm– although it is certainly not an isolated incident– it is nonetheless a representation of our consumption-centric culture. It’s unfortunate, but it appears more and more that the highest ideal within this culture is to possess commodities– having the newest and greatest gadget before anyone else. What a great achievement it is to get the newest iPhone or the largest flat screen. And what the hell, you don’t even have to pay for it– at least not now. Just swipe that plastic and it’s yours. Spending within one’s financial limits, to say nothing of savings, be damned!

However, is it really the consumer’s fault? After all, we are bombarded with advertisements from all sides. The New York Times Magazine estimates that city dwellers are confronted with 5,000 ads every day. For every hour of television you watch, roughly 20 minutes are spent convincing you that there are items that you don’t yet own and you need. Even the American President is a slave to the hyper-consumption mentality. Following the devastating attacks in September 2001, with a country confused and terrified, in need of strong leadership, how does he calm their nerves? He tells the country to go shopping. Buying more things will fix the problems we face or if it doesn’t, at least you’ll have more stuff.

But this is a copout– it is the consumer’s fault. Most people have a mind of their own and a perk of this is they possess the ability to make their own decisions. It’s time more people took a second to reconsider how necessary that next big purchase is. If you don’t need it, and especially if you cannot afford it, perhaps it is best to postpone the purchase.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some wing-nut communist suggesting we abandon the capitalist system. It’s a fine system, in principle. Instead, I’m arguing it’s time for people to open their eyes and acknowledge that this fine system is a little fucked up. The economy is collapsing around us, largely as a result of people taking out loans to buy homes they could not actually afford. Governments which have been committed to an unregulated market are now throwing hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars at the problem in an attempt to prevent an even greater collapse. Meanwhile, CEOs of major corporations will be left without their multi-million dollar bonuses this year. A travesty if ever there was one.

I’m not an economist and I don’t have the answers to the wider problems. There are however, a number of simple things you can do to help. This holiday season buy locally, look for Fair Trade and above all, avoid joining the orgy of unnecessary spending that is Boxing Day.

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