Time For A Rollback

« December 2008 »

Memo to everyone involved even tangentially with Black Friday: YOU ARE DUMB.

The fact of the matter is, the day after Thanksgiving has always been a sign of something fundamentally and systemically wrong with American society. But now, perhaps, there's a tiny chance that systemic flaw will get some actual attention, thanks to the incident at the Valley Stream, NY Wal-Mart in which a store clerk was trampled to death by the crowd rushing in for that morning's all-too-literal "doorbuster" sale.

Make no mistake about it, this death was inevitable. It was built into the very fabric of free-market capitalism that makes Black Friday possible. You can try to place the blame on the individual customers, but if you'd gone to all 2,000 shoppers in July, and offered each of them $150 off a flat-panel TV is they allow an innocent man to die a horrible death, fewer than 50 of them would have agreed.

Yet, when actual push came to actual shove, that's just what the vast majority of the shoppers did. They rushed the door, they trampled the clerk, they got in the way of people trying to help him, and they complained loudly and angrily when their shopping was curtailed. Why? Because they were placed in a situation where the inexcusable seemed excusable. And at the heart of it all is the concept at the core of free-market fundamentalism: COMPETITION.

Competition is why Jdimytai Damour was holding back the crowd in the first place. He was described in news reports as a "temporary worker", which means he wasn't even a permanent Wal-Mart employee - just one of millions looking to feed themselves in a shitty economy in a job even worse than full-time Wal-Mart employee. And instead, he ended up trampled to death.

Competition is why Wal-Mart was having Black Friday sales in the first place. The same corporate culture that somehow got the day after Thanksgiving enshrined as the official start of the Christmas shopping season have, year after year, built the day up until it was the kind of juggernaut that could not avoid leaving at least one corpse in its wake.

Competition is, inexplicably, why the doors opened at five in the motherfucking morning. If you wanted to lower the inhibitions of a crowd full of people, there are a lot worse ways to do it than the combination of sleep deprivation and temperature extremes. For fuck's sake, the CIA considers them both "enhanced interrogation techniques", yet we're encouraging average citizens to voluntarily get up in the middle of night, on the edge of winter, to go shopping? But Wal-Mart's afraid that if they open at 8, then everyone will spend their money at Best Buy which opens at 7, or Target when it opens at 6, etcetera, etcetera, until the ungodly hour becomes tradition.

And nobody likes it. Shoppers don't like it. Employees sure as fuck don't like it. But the inexorable force of competition leads us all to misery. Not to sound like a fucking communist, but maybe, if these store clerks were unionized, they could negotiate a contract that says they wouldn't work before 9:00 a.m. on Black Friday, and at least the fucking sun could be up when the panic starts.

And, of course, the cruelest form of competition of all is built into the very essence of Black Friday - pitting large numbers of people against each other in order to get large savings on a deliberately-limited quantity of stuff. That's the competition that really gets into people's heads. That's the one that makes them see the person ahead of them in line as an enemy, and the guy in the blue apron making minimum wage as an obstacle. That's what turns people into a crowd and a crowd into a mob and a mob into murderers.

And that competition is why it'll never stop. According to free-market fundamentalism, eventually, we as consumers are supposed to get fed the fuck up with getting up at midnight, standing in line in the cold, and temporary workers being crushed. Eventually, we will opt out of participation in Black Friday, and the retail outlets, bereft of customers for four hours, will start opening later and offering more reasonable sale prices on larger quantities of merchandise. But we all know it doesn't work like that.

Greed does not self-correct. We know this in our bones, from dozens of historical precedents to the current financial meltdown. If no authority, be it store security or the government, steps in to make greed stop, then greed will only stop when there is nothing left to take. Maybe this death will cause some authority to step in and decide something needs to be done about Black Friday, but until then, all we can do is opt out individually. It won't change the system, but at least I know I'm absolved in the death of Jdimytai Damour, because on Friday, I fucking well slept in and didn't shop.