Saturday, November 26, 2011

Karl Marx and Black Friday

After visiting Best Buy yesterday for some discounted DVDs, I found an article from BBC describing how this year's Black Friday turned violent at stores across the country (see the article here: I could not help being reminded of Marx's harsh critiques of the capitalist system. 

If anything exemplifies capitalism in America, it is Black Friday. It is a day devoted to consumerism, where the focus on family, tradition, and giving thanks of Thanksgiving Day is abandoned for the pursuit of private property at discount prices. 

And while Marx argues that capitalism alienate the laborer from nature, himself, his “species-being,” and his fellow humans, I think that one can also argue that the capitalist system also alienates two other members of the capitalist food chain--the retailer and the consumer--particularly when viewed through the lens of Black Friday.

First, let’s look at the retailer and the consumer’s relationship with nature—the product of production. The retailer is the most alienated from the product, as he is never owns the product, but simply mediates the transfer from the laborer to the consumer. The consumer is alienated from the product because although he is the final owner of the product, he played no role in its creation. Thus, the product can never be completely “his.” On Black Friday, the gaps between retailer and product and consumer and product widen even more. The retailer devalues the product by slashing prices, and the consumer devalues the product by attempting to give up as little money for it as possible.

As for alienation from ourselves, which Marx describes as the process of production, it is easily apparent that retailers and consumers are alienated from this process, as they are not involved in this process at all.

It is in light of Black Friday (particularly this year’s violent turn) that the alienation between retailer, consumer, “species-being” (or what it means to be human), and their fellow humans becomes starkly evident. Retailers are reduced to their sales job, working 10-hour shifts and being treated by consumers as simply a means to an end. Additionally, retailers don’t act like humans, as this year’s incident of security workers pepper spraying shoppers exemplifies. The consumers don’t act like humans either—they must be contained like a heard of animals, they fight each other with pepper spray or with guns to be the first to the sales or possess the most sought-after private property.

If any day brings out the dark side of capitalism, it is Black Friday. But with the deals as they are, how can we not be consumed by our consumerist culture?


  1. Black Friday can get rather barbaric. A friend's Facebook status gave claim to have witnessed a fight in Wal-Mart over bath towels in which one person had to be carried off in a stretcher. I think the hype for Black Friday has built up over the years and escalated to an event that seems to make it ok for people to act like savages toward each other. I went Black Friday shopping once before and found that the few things I purchased were more out of being a good deal than because I was dying to have it. I realize the wrong in this, and I don’t think I am the only one who is guilty of this. People probably spend more money than they normally would because they think since it’s a better deal they should make the purchase. The bargain shoppers who start their shopping day knowing exactly what they are looking for are different, but not any better as they must look at everyone in the store as people they have to compete with. While we are all trying to stretch our dollars and make the most out of our holiday budgets, I can’t say that this justifies fighting someone for a good deal. Therefore, deal shopping is probably addictive to budget shoppers and it is sad how companies monopolize on people in such a way. Clearly, we place too much emphasis on the receiving during the holidays.

  2. While some people are the extremes of the situation, like the woman in wal-mart who peppersprayed the others to get ahead in line or the fights breaking out, I don't think these are truly representative of the Black Friday scene. Most people I have talked to, if they go shopping on black Friday, do not just rush into the stores at full speed with no regard for everyone else wildly grabbing things that are on sale off the shelf. Rather, they look at the printed ads beforehand and know exactly what they are getting or know a general idea of what they are going to get, and shop likewise. I think it is a few bad apples the media hypes up that gives the negative image of Black Friday, which is already a media-hyped event to start off with, rather than a reflection on all the shoppers themselves.
    Also, for some of the people who do go way to early to Black Friday and take it too far, perhaps this is the only chance a year they get to buy something they really want due to their circumstances, so can you really blame them for running into the store or camping out overnight in the cold to get that one prized item the one day a year it is at prices they can afford? (Not permissive of violent acts, just those who camp/get very excited)

  3. On Black Friday I witnessed to fights myself a physical one and a verbal one. The first was at walmart over a pallet of two dollar waffle makers. I saw about fifteen people all around a pallet of waffle makers and they ripped off the wrapping holding the boxes and then everyone rushed the pallet and people pushed each other, yelled at each other, and when the cops came I saw a box fly in the air and hit one of them in the chest. Once all the waffle makers were gone the rest of the store was a riot and people were fighting over everything in sight. People lost their humanity over saving money for items that were worth more. This situation would prove what you say that the lower prices and rush of Black Friday makes people treat the people around them as objects and put private property as a priority over other people.

    My second altercation that I witnessed was over the line getting into the store Belks to be one of the first 250 people there because they got free gift cards. Just because people could win money people would count the people in line, yell at each other, and stare them down as if they were not human because they suspect them of trying to cut into the line. In the two hour span I waited in the line with family I witnessed two people trying to cut into the line and both of them getting yelled at and threatened by people in line. What those two people did was wrong, however there were many more people who were yelled at for talking to someone they knew in the line or stared down as they walked down the side walk. Just because they were going to win some money to go buy some clothes they were willing to treat other people inhumanely. I don’t think any philosopher that we have studied so far would say that the actions of the people in the line were moral, not even Nietzsche because the people in line were definitely not of the master class.

  4. I thought this post was really interesting - I am assuming that you had a discussion about this in the class? Either way, I think that this is such a good example of people becoming alienated from their species-being as well as from their labor. In fact, it seems that this "holiday" creates a push for society to fall back into an almost animalistic state-of-nature in some ways, and the violence of such is apparent in the examples given by the class. It is as if morals are completely set aside in many of these situations, and for reasons that seem wholly unjustifiable. It is definitely a good place to start when looking at the effects that capitalism and consumerism have on our society.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.