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‘Black Friday’ is the high holiday of capitalism’s calendar

KEVIN HARGADEN :: It used to be that the Christmas season kicked off in Ireland around December 8th. It is significant that this is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Catholic calendar. Long after holy days of obligation were widely observed, the tradition persisted that gift shopping kicked off on this day.

In recent years, that feast day has been supplanted by the phenomenon of “Black Friday”. This “holiday” is widely resented as yet another American importation intended to get us to part with our cash. At least the “Hallmark holidays” of Father’s and Mother’s Day limit their consumeristic ambition to greetings cards, pairs of socks, and bouquets of flowers. Black Friday seeks to seduce us with much more considerable outlays. The window displays around our cities promise staggering discounts and the television advertisements tempt us with luxury goods suddenly made affordable. Christmas may start earlier and earlier each year, but in the calendar of capitalism, the orgy of consumerism known as Black Friday is now the high-holiday.

The Black Friday tradition was established as the American equivalent of our December 8th. For many, the day after Thanksgiving was an ideal time to get some Christmas shopping done. Accounts differ as to whether the “black” referred to the large amount of traffic on the road – a sort of “dubh le daoine” historical interpretation – or to the fact that the large volume of sales turned retail accounts from red to black for the year. But this basically benign tradition has been transformed in the internet age. The globalisation represented by the smartphones we carry in our pockets mean that the distant traditions of Wisconsin become relevant in Westmeath and the habits of Louisiana get taken up in Louth. It has extended its imperial influence into calendars around the world, along with its lesser-known sibling “cyber Monday” and its newly minted offshoot “Singles’ day”. Singles’ Day – November 11th – has not quite gotten traction in Ireland, yet, but we can expect it to arrive soon. Since its inception a decade ago, it has become a retail sensation in Asia. The Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba registered $30.7 billion in sales in one 24-hour period during this year’s “Singles’ Day”.

Ireland seems to display a widespread cultural scepticism towards these evolutions in our collective calendars. Enthusiastic queuing through the night to grab bargains feels a little too exuberant for our tastes, and thankfully there have not been outbreaks of violence that sometimes are associated with more feverish sales in North America. But the companies that increasingly commit to marketing in terms of Black Friday must have found a willing response in Irish consumers. Black Friday presents them with an invaluable opportunity to focus the relentless festive pressure to consume on a short window of time, concentrating sales and intensifying profits.

The time when the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception” was widely celebrated in Ireland feels distant to us now. If we polled a hundred people on the street, those who could hazard a guess as to what that holiday represents would surely answer incorrectly that it referred to the virgin birth of Jesus (when in fact, it refers to the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived without sin). Yet Black Friday reminds us that we are not as far removed from the religious impulse as we might like to think. The fortune of the nation can be dramatically affected – negatively or positively – based on something called “consumer sentiment”, which is discerned in part based on how flaithulach we are on the Friday after American Thanksgiving. In other words, policy possibilities are shaped by how we enact our faith in our wallets.

A central component of neoliberal capitalism is the cultivation of continuous desire. If we reflect for a moment we realise no problem more profound than what we should wear to the office Christmas party can be resolved by spending money in a department store, but the point of compressing everything into a single day is to ensure there is little time for such reflection.

Walter Benjamin, one of the great philosophers of the last century, reflected on such matters in a 1921 essay entitled Capitalism as Religion. He would have us notice how easily – it even happens in this article – we slide between “citizen” and “consumer” and ponders whether capitalism allays “the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances” that traditional religions are meant to answer. But if capitalism is a religion, it is a barbaric one. There are no days of rest. “Each day commends the utter fealty of the worshipper” and Black Friday is the pinnacle of that inexorable dynamic. Spend, spend, spend again, because you do not have enough and maybe a little more will stifle that stubborn voice of dissatisfaction which persists even though we live surrounded by material comforts.

In this light, we come to see Black Friday as the Good Friday of neoliberal capitalism: in a world where wealth is divine, we sacrifice our liquidity in pursuit of a consolation, a liberation, a salvation, from the anxiety of modern life. The old feasts of Christianity at least were based around the idea of rest, a presumably more effective antidote to angst than ceaseless activity and spending. In the face of this new consumerist orthodoxy, perhaps the most subversive activity for consumers/citizens to engage in is the refusal to buy anything at all.