For those of you who have managed to remain ignorant of the USian behemoth, last Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the Stolen States of Genocide. Which means yesterday was Black Friday — the day when all the retailers’ books go from red (in the hole) to black (making a profit). It was also, of course (because no mainstream tradition is without its counterculture movement) Buy Nothing Day. And today, for the first time ever, was Small Business Saturday, a day for supporting local/small business — sponsored, naturally, by a mega (multi?)national credit card company.
As a slightly agoraphobic crazy person with a major panic attack trigger of large numbers of people or many threads of sound, the thought of queueing up in hour-plus long lines with hundreds of other people under brain-fog inducing florescent lighting while the noise of a thousand bargain hunters and overstimulated infants pound out of beat with the uncounted battery-powered noise makers all competing to be this years Must Have Toy leaving my ear drums jittery and my brain beaten — is, no joke, one of my top three nightmares. I would be unable to function in any meaningful way.
So I stay home, and buy nothing.
Today, in the last hours before my parents started the drive back to their house 650 miles away, my mom and I went to a local yarn shop, one which, when I visited three years ago, had a cafe attached; we thought a little fiber love and caffeination would be a fair pleasant way to spend some mother-daughter bonding time. Turns out the cafe shut years ago, but they did have the perfect yarn for a present I was planning, a locally made silky soft machine washable kettle dyed wool, ideal for a winter project close to the skin for someone sensitive to cheap scratchy yarns.
So I supported a small business.
There is nothing wrong with either Buy Nothing Day nor Small Business Saturday1; indeed, both are in line with my values of environmentalism, simplicity, quality over quantity, and, to the extent that one can have and seek and spend money and be anti-capitalist, against the excessive accumulation of capital by a tiny, homogeneous, privileged minority of the population.
Traveling in the circles I do — where Buy Nothing Day is more likely to be celebrated than Black Friday, where buying local or handmade is, if not the default, at least a well-represented position — I’ve seen and heard a lot of ardent advocacy and pointed humor in favor of buying nothing/local/quality and against buying lots/china-made/quantity. And without exception each has left my brows creased and my lips pursed, thinking anything between “That’s fine, but…” and “Dear Gods don’t let me be associated with this.”
Everything I’ve seen — every post spreading the gospel of small business support, every I-would-never comment on overnight queues, every joke about Zombies of Walmart and duels over the last flat screen TV — grew from the fetid soil of classism.
Because Buy Nothing Day is great — if you can afford to pay full/er price on your holiday presents (or clothes or kitchen tools or household goods). Buying local is wonderful — if you can pay $13.95 for a small skein of wool instead of $1.95 for super bulk acrylic.
But y’know, not everyone can. And I have no patience (but plenty of pointed words) for anyone who says that if you can’t afford handmade from Etsy then you don’t deserve anything under your tree, or that if you’re struggling to make rent or don’t have savings you’ve not the right to “extras” like Christmas presents or DVDs or cell phones with cameras. We all of us — unless you are reading this at a public access point on a mandatory fifteen minute break from your 100 hour a week unpaid job of serving the disadvantaged — make “selfish” decisions sometimes. We indulge. We allow ourselves luxuries — yes, sometimes when we don’t have the basics, because it helps us feel a little more human in a world that would deny us our humanity. This isn’t a trait of those poor people over there, it’s something we all of us do; it is only kyriarchy and classism that somehow makes it ok when it is our own indulgences (or those of persons of a similar class), yet calls it “imprudent” and a sign of “stupidity” when they do it. We cluck our tongues at those who fail to buy handmade, while clutching our Kindles and fretting about our retirement and ignoring our hypocrisy.
There are a lot of critiques to be made of USian consumerism. Our “need” for stuff, our unwillingness to repair when we can replace (for how long?), our economy that rewards those who can create the most profit regardless of human benefit (or harm) — there’s enough there to fuel thousands of blog posts, millions of snide remarks, even, if we will ever get off our asses to do it, a revolution or five. Do not mistake me for supporting a system that doesn’t care what brown people overseas are starved or raped or enslaved or murdered so we can live in luxury, for I do not2 — but the solution isn’t as simple as cajoling people to “shop smart”, because so many do not have the option to buy the “better” product. Or they could buy it and eat exclusively beans and rice. Or they could do without and feel that much more defeated by life.
Or, they could wait in line in the cold overnight for a chance to have some part of the life that those of us smugly sitting at home mocking their “greed” take for granted.
What I want you — if you have made those comments or read them and not seen any problems or thought them quietly to yourself — to take away from this isn’t an urging for self-castigation (my brain certainly doesn’t need any assistance in that area), nor a blanket don’t-critique of USian-style consumerism. I certainly don’t want anyone stop advocating for alternatives to mainstream disposable-junk holiday traditions.
But I want you to look and to really see the people in the lines you’re tempted to mock. I want you to realize they might have many more reasons to be there that do not fall neatly into your (spoken or not) theory of “stupid sheeple under the control of Big Money”. I want you to recognize that you do not know what brought them there (and neither do I), and it might be simple joyful bargain hunting
and it might be unacknowledged need
and it might be desire for the life you lead
and it might be they’ve always wanted a gaming console and finally one is in reach
and it might be their kid’s convinced them Christmas will be ruined if they don’t have a particular plastic toy
and it might be they’re trying to fill the void left when kyriarchy sucked their soul
and it might be they can’t drive in to the city or out to the ‘burbs to shop at the independent stores
and it might be they never liked those snobby places anyway
and it might be it’s where everyone they know goes
and it might be a family tradition
and it might be they’re too damned tired to figure out what the “right” place to shop is
and it might be because stretching the family budget gives them more for education or babysitters or retirement or savings or hair styling or whatever else they have decided is important to them and they don’t particularly care whether you or I approve of their values or their reasons or their purchasing habits today or tomorrow or any other day of the year.
It might be that they are people just like you.
- Ok, something is wrong with a day supposedly in support of local economy that is in fact adding to the coffers of a megacorp. ↩
- And yet, because I do live in the USA, and have consumer debt, and shop sometimes at big box stores, and do not grow all my own food and wear only second hand clothes, in many tangible ways I do financially support slavery and murder and rape and starvation. Short of joining a self-sustained commune or hanging myself from a hand made hemp rope out in the forest, I don’t know how to avoid it entirely; such is the system as it is. ↩