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Black Friday protests against exploitation and racism

Faline Bobier

November 28, 2014

Buy Nothing Day is described as “an international day of protest against consumerism celebrated annually just after Thanksgiving.” Buy Nothing Day was first conceived in Mexico in 1992 and then popularized and taken worldwide by AdBusters. While it has traditionally been based on consumer politics that denounce shoppers, this year the Walmart strikes and Ferguson protests have added working class and anti-racist politics.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of the idea of refusing to participate in consumerist culture. The quote by Fawzi Ibrahim on the Buy Nothing Day website says it all: “Today, humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.” Especially for young people, bombarded everyday with images of things, things and more things that they absolutely have to buy to make themselves feel better, the popularity of Buy Nothing Day is completely understandable.
Overconsumption or overproduction?
Buy Nothing Day coincides with “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. Typically retailers offer “bargains’ on this day and it’s seen as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Its popularity has spread both inside the US and to other countries as well, including Canada. There are typically media reports of huge scrums in department stores and other retail outlets and scenes of people physically fighting with each other over bargains. Mainstream consumer politics feeds into this narrative by blaming shoppers for the state of the planet—like Adbusters ad from a few years ago showing North America as a pig, with the warning, “We are the most voracious consumers in the world.”
But the response should not be to deride people for being so stupid or gluttonous as to fight over bargains. Working class people, people of colour and the poor are often the ones fighting over these bargains. Under capitalism, where we are made to see our worth in terms of the money we have and the commodities we can buy, the holidays are usually very stressful times—where working class families struggle to provide their kids with the commodities that are advertised everywhere, or to get deals on big ticket electronic items that are often difficult to afford.
Buy Nothing Day tends to focus on us as individuals, as consumers. This can be demobilizing for communities where the problem is not spending too much on frivolous things, but not having enough money to put food on the table or pay the rent. Blaming overconsumption also ignores the real root of the problem in capitalism: overproduction.
Profits don’t come from buying and selling, they come from exploiting the labour that produced the commodity in the first place. By paying workers less than the value they produce, capitalists extract profits that are realized when the commodity is sold. The competition between capitalists drives them to exploit workers and reinvest profits into greater means of production, giving the system a relentless drive to expand. As Marx wrote in Capital Vol. 1, “Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, the capitalist ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.” The same competition that drives accumulation also prevents coordinating, leading to recurring crises. As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism “is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells…In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of overproduction.” We already consume less than capitalism produces—with economic crises to prove it—so demanding the 99% consume less will not alter capitalism’s drive to accumulate.
This year, though, there’s the possibility of making this day not an individual choice about buying or not buying the latest gimmicky invention of capitalist culture, but collective resistance—to a system that treats as throwaway and disposable not only the commodities we produce but also the producers of those commodities, workers ourselves. This Black Friday, November 28 in the US, workers are striking at Walmart stores across the country, demanding $15 an hour, full-time hours and an end to the victimization of workers trying to unionize. The OUR Walmart campaign has joined the Black Friday protests by encouraging people to call their local Walmart to support the strikers, and to donate to the strike fund. This collective response, by some of the most poorly paid workers in the US, is a means to push back against the root of capitalism—exploitation—and to inspire millions of others facing similar situations.
Hands up, don’t spend
This year the Black Friday protests also coincided with the protests against the grand jury decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed 18-year old Black youth Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Activists are encouraging Black consumers to boycott Black Friday using hashtags #NotOneDime, #BoycottBlackFriday, and slogans such as “No Justice, No Profit,” and “Hands up, don’t spend”. Protesters want to prove, in a language business will understand—the language of money—that injustice doesn’t come without consequences.
Blackout for Human Rights, founded by Ryan Coogler—director of the film Fruitvale Station, about the racist killing of Oscar Grant—is using Black Friday as the first event in a campaign: “We have witnessed enough. We mourn the loss of men like Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford and Michael Brown, who met their deaths at the hands of police officers. We mourn the loss of life and the absence of justice for Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis, killed by private citizens, in a climate where police action demonstrates this as acceptable. An affront to any citizen’s human rights threatens the liberty of all. So, we participate in one of the most time honored American traditions: dissent…Our First Action: To make Black Friday (November 28, 2014) a nationwide day of action and retail boycott. Blackout will be organizing grassroots events, nationwide, for people to come out and show their solidarity in the fight for equal human rights.”
Many of the Walmart workers are also Black or Latino. They are among the lowest-paid workers in the US. This Black Friday it seems it may be possible to unite the struggle for dignity at work and against racism and oppression. These two phenomenon are intricately linked under capitalism: the exploitation of labour and the oppression that people face both in the workplace and outside.
Marx pinpointed what he called commodity fetishism as the root cause of human alienation under capitalism. We are alienated in the first instance from the products of our labour. Workers have no control over what we produce (often substandard and overpriced goods that do not last), how they are produced (often in sweatshops in the Global South under conditions that are noxious both for the workers themselves and for the natural environment) or who can afford to buy the products of our labour.
The production process, because it is controlled by the tiny minority who own and control all wealth in society, is taken completely out of the producers’ (workers’) hands. The production of commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace alienates us from the products of our labour and from each other. For Marx, the only way to solve this alienation is for the producers to bind together to end the system of exploitation based on profit for the 1%.
All people under capitalism, whether capitalist or worker, are affected by this alienation. But unlike bosses, who actually increase their wealth and power only through this alienation, the working class has a clear interest in dismantling this economic system so that we can begin to live truly human lives. Marx explains this brilliantly in The Holy Family: “The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement, the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, and the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.”

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