Black Friday, Through the Eyes of Smith and Marx

The mega shopping day became a nationwide phenomenon in the 1980s, but what would the early theorists of capitalism make of it?

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Black Friday has become American ritual, as American as the day that precedes it. Each year, the shopping extravaganza brings schadenfreude-worthy videos and news photos of greedy stampeders jostling each another. And things have gotten rough: The website “Black Friday Death Count” lists seven deaths and 90 injuries related to the festivities in the past eight years.

Black Friday now begins before the turkey is even digested. As commerce and tradition collide, some retail workers have to report earlier for duty as competitive retailers battle over whether, and when, to open on Thanksgiving Day. Activists, on the other hand, have gathered over a hundred thousand likes in their effort to Boycott Black Thursday via Facebook. In addition, a growing union-led, anti-Walmart campaign, with vocal support this year from Senator Elizabeth Warren, will organize protests at 1,600 Walmarts on Black Friday.

For all the flare-ups over coveted toys and conflict over labor practices, Black Friday—which only became a nationwide phenomenon in the 1980s—remains very exciting to shoppers. On this day, American hyper-consumerism is on full display. But in many ways, Black Friday is about what we don’t see. A look back at the early theorists of capitalism explains what’s behind the doorbusters and exuberant shopping, and why it’s important that we look.

The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Capital notes that wealth “presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” Marx marveled at capitalism’s potency, its over-productiveness even—and how it creates a wellspring of new “needs” that we didn’t know we had. The commercial spectacle we walk through each day—a visual inundation of alluring objects, tempting prices, glossy advertisements, exclamatory price tags and deals—is presented in this way, but conceals a vast social and economic machinery of production and exchange underneath. This illusion is the commodity fetish.

The idea is rooted in the thinking of Adam Smith, who famously observed in The Wealth of Nations: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In some quaint preindustrial marketplace, the reader imagines, these small producers buy and sell their wares. Each buyer knew where the meat, beer, and bread came from, and all the marketplace activity—rooted in the exchange of an individual’s labor—built the very foundation of society itself. “It was not by gold or by silver but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased."

Nearly a century after Smith, Marx witnessed the rise of great machines, mass production, and the factory, of William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” The industrial revolution was a time when the origins of production became lost, dispersed. Today, the web of global connections between producers and consumers is even more elusive. When we see that dazzling rows of iPads at the Apple Store, we do not see all the tinkering, gluing, and assembling that young women did at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. At the coffee shop, we don’t see the Mexican campesino who harvested the beans, or the truckers who hauled the green coffee north in sisal bags. Our connections to producers are anything but direct, but every bit as real as Smith’s fanciful butcher buying bread from the baker.

Even if we know how a product came about, it’s nearly impossible to experience these relationships in a meaningful way, which is why consumer society presents us with a moral problem. Our relationships with Farmland bacon, the latest Jessica Simpson platform boots, and the frenzied charge of Black Friday itself are immediate, sensory-rich, and compelling, but our relationships to the human beings making our things have only become more of an abstraction. Consumer society, especially on this day in November, seems designed to hide this simple fact.

In Reynosa, Mexico, nearly a hundred thousand workers—the entire population of Boulder, Colorado—labor in a huge complex of factories just across from the southern tip of Texas. Each month, the combined work-time—most of it logged by displaced rural women and men from Mexico’s southern states—approaches 20 million hours. That’s billions of bends, pivots, and thrusts of elbows; billions of circuits soldered, copper tubes brazed, and auto components degreased by calloused hands; 72-billion seconds of finger-work, some of it strenuous, all of it tedious. Twenty-million hours of labor—made into sleek televisions, seat belts, women’s intimate apparel, wheelchairs, vacuum cleaners—that crosses a border the workers themselves are not permitted to cross.

Yet these are some of the people that make Black Friday possible. They work for about a tenth of what the American worker does, and are at the source of the rock-bottom prices. Indeed, Mexican workers, many of them unauthorized, make Thanksgiving possible too. They harvest our pumpkins and kill our turkeys. In fact, the entire low-cost American food system—from its servers, dishwashers, and short order cooks, to its itinerant farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers—is quite literally in their hands.

Black Friday has become a yearly battle over what America capitalism ought to be, and who it ought to serve—a flashpoint in a never ending culture war. Today’s economy is tilted almost entirely toward the consumer. The consumer is capitalism’s citizen, entitled and empowered, and the worker, and his unions, has been forsaken. Amazon, to take one example, wants to become the “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company,” all while engaging in dubious labor practices.

Thinking about the origins of our stuff (and stuffing) should not preclude gleeful participation in tomorrow’s free-for-all, nor do I mean to send anyone on a guilt trip for enjoying traditions old and new. The American economy, after all, runs in large part on consumer spending, and Chinese youth rush to work at Foxconn’s factories, just as consumers rush to buy the iPads they make. Indeed, the anticipatory predawn thrill of Black Friday’s doorbusters can even become what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” a state in which individuals bind together—like bees in a hive—for a higher purpose.

But I would argue that while we might enjoy Black Friday, we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s behind it. Some resist commercialism’s creep into the holidays by buying handmade creations on Etsy or from a local artist, or by making a gift of fair trade coffee or artisanal ceramics—or even the gift of livestock to alleviate poverty in the developing world. Patagonia’s joined the resistance: This Black Friday, Patagonia and Yerdle will “celebrate the stuff we already have” in a day of sharing and trading instead of buying. There’s also a growing sense in popular culture that it’s important to know where our food comes from—whether it’s attention to the cruelty of gestation crates for hogs or a film about exploited farmworkers by a Hollywood superstar.

Black Friday has become a day for the Great Commodity Hunt, but also for cultural criticism, labor activism, and, this year, political boycotts. Whether you shop or not, Marx would insist we see past our fetish for the stuff stacked on Best Buy’s shelves and hanging from Macy’s racks. But if Marx is just too much on Black Friday, how about another great thinker from that time—a more American one for our distinctly American ritual?

“Capital is only the fruit of labor,” Abraham Lincoln said in his first annual address as president in 1861, “and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.” Like Marx, Lincoln would have us remember that the whole system, all of it, is built on human genius and toil—and that human labor, not the false idols of Black Friday, is a society’s true source of wealth.