Last week was St Nicholas’ Day here in Romania where you wake up to find chocolate and fruit in your shoes. It was cute. It turns out in my shoes St Nicholas knows what chocolates Olivia enjoys! It’s a tradition for kids but charming for all.
In the shops alongside the chocolates were signs for Black Friday, the horrible American sales day. America produces plenty of great products and ideas. Its scientific research is so far ahead of the rest of the world as a collective. It invests money and education which while often the basis of the capitalist creative destruction is also the driving force of our human survival, curing disease and furthering modernity.
Black Friday comes the day after Thanksgiving, the American tradition of family gathering to be thankful for what they have, originally to the Native Indians who helped the first immigrants survive the early winters. Later of course as noted in the Trail of Tears by Gloria Jahoda, the new immigrants would use God and greed to turn on the Indians, cordoning off land, pushing them further West and starving them of their foods. Yet Thanksgiving continues ironically, just without the Indians. Families gather, eat copious amounts of food and hand over gifts.
Black Friday shows a return to that greed and similarly it’s fundamental to the nation and economy. The images on the news focus on the stampede at opening time, the wrestling for electronics, (you don’t see many fights in the book department) or the stubborn refusal for some to give up on a good claimed by someone else. It’s seen as a bit of fun by many (we all like fun wrestling) but often tempers get frayed as people aggressively grab at what they think they need. Customers forget what Thanksgiving is about, being thankful for what you have, as quickly as they forgot the Indians.
Thanksgiving sounds pretty similar to Christmas doesn’t it? Well it is except for the traditions behind it have a European source. Similarly after Christmas come the sales where shops reveal how they make real money. Profit margins are reduced as prices are cut but shops make money on volume, selling far more than usual. This reveals how cheaper supermarkets survive and eventually do well. It explains the size of product bundles in Wal-Mart and that stores’ success. It also explains why Tesco is struggling and Aldi is prospering. It explains why Japanese firms previously succeeded by focusing on market size and stability over short-term raider shareholders. If you provide a decent product for a cheap price, people will buy. Once you start forgetting your basics and the dynamism needed to create, destruction is the end result.
This greed fermented by consumerism and materialism is manifest in our culture these days. This short-termism can be seen in the banking crisis, the vulture capital funds that seek to asset strip or create short term profitability, taking no responsibility for the lives of others. Selfishness is a human characteristic but community is a natural state. The problem is we often believe in our community over others. Selfishness leads to societies battling depression, abuse and greed. It strips us of our stability and humanity. Black Friday is a horrible example of community being hijacked by retailing, downgrading our humanity. Thanksgiving and Christmas might be flawed but they are looking in the right direction.