A friend of mine posted a link to Adbusters.org, a site promoting a holiday season in which people buy nothing. This season, of course, begins with Buy Nothing Day, today, Black Friday. If you scroll down the page to which I linked, you'll notice a number of, frankly, hilarious pictures of protesters criticizing the consumerist rampages of the day. While I empathize with the anti-consumerist sentiment, while I think it utterly sick and disgusting that people are trampled and pepper sprayed in the mad rush for Deals, I have trouble with the idea of a Buy Nothing season. (But I may drop "Everything is fine, keep shopping" a few times. Some of these people do deserve it, after all.)
The ostensible aim would be to make our voices echo down the avaricious halls of corporate offices everywhere, to wrench the suits out of their greed comas just long enough to realize that what they're doing is Wrong. I have my personal corporate boycotts: Nike, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, etc. I don't pretend my actions make a difference, but for whatever it's worth, I try to avoid buying anything from these and other corporations if I can. I may have snagged a Nike headband over the summer because that's all the store carried; I ate a chicken sandwich from a train-station McDonald's because the other restaurants were closed. These things happen.
What would happen, though, if we dogmatically heeded the Buy Nothing campaign? By asking this question I'm not suggesting that Buy Nothing demands we stop purchasing groceries or other essentials; that's not what they're on about. Rather, I'm assuming they want a gift-free holiday. They want people to stop gobbling up electronics and toys and all those other giftables stores mark down during the holidays in order to clear their inventory for the next year. And more power to them. After all, the holidays do seem to ignite some atavistic resource-competitive instinct in the shopper, an insatiable urge to drive an ice pick through the eye socket of whoever just snagged the last 42-inch HDTV at a 60% discount and walked out of the store clutching their claim check like a mother gorilla holds her nursing baby, eyes darting around suspiciously, looking for any sign of trouble.
Materialism can be destructive. It can lead someone to grow addicted to acquisition and to prioritize this acquisition over what most people would consider more important resources—namely, personal relationships and forms of self actualization (intellectual, political, etc.). Materialism can blind us to poverty, slavery, and corruption; it can mute our willingness to upset the status quo. We all know it, and we've all allowed ourselves, at one point or another, to be blinded in this way. I sincerely commiserate with the Buy Nothing crowd on this count.
But to support crippling the holiday shopping season would mean implicitly supporting a form of collateral damage that should give Buy Nothingers and Occupiers pause. Seasonal workers will suffer first; they will lose their jobs very quickly if stores have no reason to hire them—a somewhat troublesome issue, then, as those most likely to suffer at the hands of a widespread anti-corporatist holiday movement are likely to belong to the demographic the Occupy movement is purportedly attempting to defend. Executives are tougher to root out; they weather boycotts and economic hardship much better than do the working class.
Perhaps this collateral damage is acceptable to some people. Maybe the net gain in "consciousness" will be worth it, but I'm not sure there will be such a paradigmatic shift if the Buy Nothing camp succeeds (unlikely, but still). It seems to me that the holidays will simply grow leaner for many people, perhaps even catastrophically for some of the less fortunate folks, and an economic system already destabilized by corporate malfeasance and political bickering will teeter more precariously on the edge of... well, we don't really know.
These are just my impressions, and I make them as someone who is conflicted over the issue, partly because I agree with the core anti-consumerist message, partly because I don't see material want as an entirely bad thing, as long as a person can keep it under control. Because here is the other issue during the holidays: I love my family and friends, and I enjoy surprising them with a gift they will truly enjoy (but I'm a notoriously unimaginative gift-giver, so take that as you will). Are there other ways to make people happy? Of course. But giving a good gift means that you've taken the time to try to consider someone as a person, to weigh their quirks and personal obsessions and give them something they will cherish. It need not be expensive at all. Remember that gift-giving also calls into play a purely social element, a drive that doesn't necessarily draw its power from consumerist greed. To paint all shoppers as driven by such impulses is disingenuous, I think, and doesn't adequately address the issue.
So should we buy less? Yeah. I'm for that. Should we expect less? Absolutely. We may even want to ask our family to give charitable donations instead of gifts; I love that idea, too. But I'll be buying gifts for people, hopefully gifts they actually need, and if I'm a consumer whore in Buy Nothing's eyes, so be it. The goal, for me, is not to unplug entirely but to be reasonable about consumption and to be as conscientious as possible.
For the record, I refused to have anything to do with this Black Friday nonsense today, but Cyber Monday may be a different story. It's time to put my current machine (an overpriced Black Friday burn from two years ago) to sleep. Seriously.
* Image Credit: Adbusters.org