Maybe Christmas Should be Time to Reconsider Consumer Culture


Some people want to tie the annual Black Friday tragedies and other bad behavior committed by holiday shoppers to the dismal economy. They have a point in suggesting that dire economic circumstances can make people more desperate, increasing the chances of bad behavior. When the act of shopping begins to feel like a competitive high-stakes venture, we should expect higher levels of aggression. But most of the articles I've read on the subject seem to be missing something important.

We are not automatons without the ability to examine how we got in this mess and how it might be time to consider some radical changes. Frankly, I'm not sure we have been well served by our consumer culture. Perhaps the holiday season is an appropriate time to ask ourselves whether we might be better off by making some changes.

In a recent post for AlterNet (update: link no longer active), Anne Thompson begins with the following:

Amarilis Aponte arrived at Wal-Mart at 6pm on Thanksgiving Day to stake out a spot in line for a discounted PlayStation 3 for her four kids. After losing her job last week as an assistant at a brokerage firm in the area, Aponte was determined to get the best price for the special Christmas present she had promised them.

How's that for a desperate situation? I can empathize with Aponte. She's just lost her job at a time when the "job creators" are not hiring. So it is understandable that she's desperate for bargains and making the sacrifice to brave the crowds to find presents for her family.

Thompson uses Aponte to make a point about how the recession is affecting American families. This year, Aponte's children will receive fewer presents than they did last year. That tugs at the heartstrings.

What I reject about this sort of scenario is the notion that Aponte and the rest of us are somehow locked into this requirement to buy presents we cannot really afford. Buying beyond our means was an important part of how the economic crisis came about in the first place. But beyond that, can we not simply throw off the self-imposed obligation to buy presents because the calendar says it is time to do so? I'm not trying to be anti-Christmas here; I'm suggesting that buying a bunch of crap nobody needs and we cannot really afford may not be the best way to celebrate it.

Thompson brings us a similar tale about another shopper.

With her Christmas list in hand, Donna Wermuth of Levittown maneuvered her cart through the jammed Wal-Mart aisles on a quest to find a Dora the Explorer t-shirt, a Bissell vacuum cleaner and other gifts that her four children and seven grandchildren have asked for this year. “This is so nerve-wracking,” she said as she made a quick right turn during a break in traffic.

It does not sound like Ms. Wermuth is enjoying herself very much, does it? Then why is she buying this stuff?