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Capitalism’s Grossest Win: The Final Triumph of Black Friday

From Plymouth Rock to Thanksgiving at Best Buy: The Puritan ethic went spectacularly astray, all for an iPad mini.

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Every time Black Friday rolls around, I always wonder how the German sociologist Max Weber, author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” would have explained what’s been happening outside our biggest big box stores over the past few hours. Because buried deep down beneath the jumble of tents and maddening crowds are things he might have recognized as crucial to the evolution of capitalism, profit-inculcating values like thrift and frugality and self-denial. Perhaps Weber got a little too enthusiastic about the supposed correlation between Protestantism and capitalism-friendly habits, but he didn’t get it all wrong. Black Friday strikes chords that many Puritans would thrill to: It rewards sacrifice and discipline.

The very name Best Buy is an obvious shout-out to Calvinist frugality. What could be more true to America’s deepest cultural roots? The Wal-Marts and Targets and Macy’s can compete on price, but they don’t have a chance at that level of semiotic purity. In its bland profundity, the title “Best Buy” is more American than baseball or apple pie. It’s both a comforting promise, and a call to arms. In a country where 70 percent of the economy is accounted for by consumer activity, the notion of the “Best Buy” is the ultimate in potency. It’s the Platonic good, except that you can actually touch it.

Surely Weber would also have appreciated how the urge to profit forces a constant froth of innovative thinking, itself the wellspring of capitalist progress. Take the “doorbuster,” for example. Limiting your best deals to the first handful of people through the door has proven so effective a motivator that some of the biggest chain stores now have multiple doorbuster events throughout the entire weekend, opening and shutting their gates like automatic garage doors with terminal cases of the hiccups.

GeekSugar reports Kmart’s plans:

An Early Thursday Doorbuster begins at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and runs until 4 p.m. Stores will reopen at 8 p.m. on Thursday and close at 3 a.m. early Friday morning, marking the beginning of the Late Thursday Doorbuster deals. Stores open again two hours later, at 5 a.m. Friday morning, and run until 11 a.m. for Friday Doorbuster deals, which are effective through Saturday.

Get in line. The doors open. Grab the best deals. The doors close. Get back in line again! New deals! It’s a perpetual motion machine. It’s the very perfection of retail capitalism, simultaneously imprisoning and liberating consumers in a revolving door of alternating denial and satisfaction.

The sound of that revolving door is the sound of the throttling engine of a mighty world economy. Sure, it’s scary when those doors first crack open, and that tide of human flesh grabs at everything in sight. But it’s also kind of awesome. The sterile alienation of Cyber Monday can’t compare to the gladiatorial thrill of real human contact.

But the weirdest thing about Black Friday, the part that Weber might have had the hardest time explaining, is how fine the line is between thrift and greed. Consider the case of  19-year-old Ashley Wagner, who started camping outside a Best Buy in Saginaw Township on Monday morning. No china on the dinner table for Wagner, who took a week off from her job at Taco Bell to make sure she didn’t repeat last year’s disaster, when she was second in line.

With a generator, a can of Pringles and some Little Debbie snack cakes, Wagner said she’s ready for the week ahead. On Thanksgiving Day, Wagner’s mom will deliver a hot meal from the Turkey Roost restaurant in Kawkawlin.

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