Colin Cremin, author of Totalled: Salvaging the Future from the Wreckage of Capitalism, discusses the horrors of that old American tradition, and how we are all implicated…
‘It was ‘trolley warfare’ according to one report. A stampede of animals according to another. One Tesco store closed after 36 minutes with police brought in to quell the violence. A franchised brand for the disadvantaged, “Black Friday” is the latest invented tradition from the US where retailers clear their inventories at discount prices the Friday after Thanksgiving. It’s a forerunner to our very own Boxing Day sales. This year, Stratford Westfield mall drew the attention of one tabloid when, according to a security guard, a shopper used her pushchair replete with child as a battering ram to get to the bargains first.
These scenes appear to back up Freud’s claim that, when primitive forces deep inside us are not kept in check, chaos ensues. The Superego law has not, as such, been suspended. The Id is commodified by its spatial and temporal enclosure; a structured outlet against which the urban riots of 2011 are an unstructured counterpart. The shoppers understand what’s expected of them, performing on cue exactly what, despite appearances, the rioters before them had performed; namely, violence borne of desperation and fodder for critics of consumerism to masticate on. Like the executive who can sustain a coke habit without resorting to crime, the affluent observer chewing on the scene can do without a battering ram to sustain his or her own consumerist pleasures.
Whether it’s due to material hardships or imagined ones, sales frenzy is symptomatic of a condition of scarcity. Needs and desires were long ago scrambled. The urban dweller can no more do without a fashionable jacket than a cave dweller can do without an animal skin. Not even the Marxist can escape the lure of a shiny electronic gadget; sure, they need the smartphone in order to twitter, but it’s always more than that. There’s an intangible quality that even aesthetic judgement is unable to explain. That the swipe of a plastic card is our addiction is not, as critics of consumerism want to tell us, the issue. Nothing can be achieved by berating others, or ourselves for that matter, for whatever indulgences wages can afford; wages have to go somewhere and the only place is the shops. Consumerism cannot be understood in isolation from the human psyche, but equally it cannot be understood without consideration of the first moment in the circulation of capital: production. This is where our focus should lie.
Marx was right that labour is a species activity; more precisely it is an activity that begins as an image in the mind and, through a collective endeavour, is realised as an expression of a body that has transgressed its material limits. The spectacular cityscapes on the eastern seaboard of China are a showcase of what our activity is capable of and how far science and technology has progressed suggesting, if evidence is still required, that indeed the forces of production have matured. Scarcity can theoretically be overcome. But like the enclosed Black Friday space in which the superego law is suspended, our labours were long ago colonised and made to work for the profit of others rather than the betterment of society. Consumerism is specific to the capitalist mode of production giving rise to its own kind of alienation discussed in my book but which at a more fundamental level is symptomatic of the labour relation including the drudgery of so many jobs, unemployment and so forth. The individualistic excesses noted above are not strictly symptomatic of alienation though. The clincher is the defeat of organised labour and with it any prospect of collectively transforming the relations of production that have not kept pace with the maturing of the productive forces. In the context of labour market insecurity (some would say ‘precarity’), establishment academics have set their stall by declaring that full employment is a thing of the past and unions likewise anachronistic, and so we should ‘fix’ welfare perhaps through universal credit or basic income. It’s the equivalent of the ‘no alternative to the market’ mantra: there’s no alternative to the current labour compact. Welfare is only ever the measure of the condition it aims to ameliorate. It’s the condition we need to begin with. The question that arises from this is how to repoliticise the terrain of labour?
Rosa Luxemburg once said if there’s one thing worse than being exploited by capital, it’s not being exploited by capital. It’s the fear of this for some and the reality for others that compels each one of us to put our energies in ensuring our fitness for exploitation, the elusive ‘good’ CV like an MOT certificate proving we’re job worthy. It’s a need, a passion, a way of life: it exercises the imagination and causes us to expend energy in far greater quantities than, as my initial observations appear to suggest, consumption ever has. Employment anxieties, feelings of alienation and disempowerment – for some, humiliation, for others, a loss of dignity – it’s all too easy for the political right to advance their own cause by resignifying these problems as ones of immigration and so forth, stoking the xenophobia that if not openly articulated is faintly observable under the surface of a rapidly disintegrating third way tolerance. No doubt recognising the vote winning potential, ‘job creation’ is nonetheless a standard trope of government and their official opposition. Riding high on anti-austerity and demands for full employment, the left in Spain and Greece have understood this, Syriza in particular blistering to power with a manifesto that speaks directly to this and to the left throughout Europe.
With tackling unemployment, job insecurity and so forth high on the political agenda, the left has a historic opportunity to return to the battlefields where the neoliberals were victorious. The defeat of organised labour is the cornerstone of the neoliberal project and for this reason, whatever form it now takes, what needs to be kicked away. The palliatives of commerce -if not enterprise – calcify the wounds of those who lost the war and which pronounces an individualism belying a collective predisposition that cynics have a canny ability to ignore. If there’s a shred of morality in a state that exists to regulate capital, it’s the level to which all of us can make a meaningful contribution to our collective betterment. While full employment may itself appear utopian, the demand is a reasonable one that irrespective of whether it can be achieved is the backbone of piecemeal reforms to improve the working condition and prospects for stable and fulfilling employment. In tandem with a resurgent and confident trade union movement, these in themselves would aid in shifting the balance in favour of a class whose principal weapon against capital was and remains the capacity to strike.
The ugly scenes of shopper frenzy that amuse and cause moral indignation in Daily Mail and Guardian readers alike, is, like many reality TV shows, a prurient distraction. The real struggle – and it’s a struggle for a future that is at once individual, societal and now planetary – is on the terrain of the state as the instrument for transforming the labour relation; the terrain, as Nicos Poulantzas recognised, of the class struggle. It’s why, for all its limitations, it’s important to vote for parties that support progressive labour reform while also holding them to account on the streets and squares of our great cities. Surely this is what can unite us.’
Colin Cremin is author of Totalled: Salvaging the Future from the Wreckage of Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2015), Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis (Pluto Press, 2011) and iCommunism (Zer0, 2012). He teaches sociology at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Totalled: Salvaging the Future from the Wreckage of Capitalism is available to buy from Pluto Press here.