Monday, November 24, 2014

Capitalism's High Holy Day

All this week, when not that long ago one would have expected the focus to be on the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we are instead being treated to a commercial crescendo all building up to consumerism's high holy day. Now commonly called "Black Friday" (which increasingly extends back into Thanksgiving Day itself), the day after Thanksgiving features buying and selling elevated to a quasi-civic ritual. It is commercialism and consumerism run riot. It is capitalism's high holy day.

This is not, of course, the capitalism that Karl Marx famously analyzed and critiqued in the19th century. His predictions proved spectacularly wrong by virtually any standard or measure. In part that was because of his erroneous materialistic presuppositions. But also among Marx's many errors was his not having anticipated how 20th-century capitalism would transform (and save) itself by turning workers into consumers. Capitalist greed drives "Black Friday," disastrously continuing capitalism's historic role of destroying the fragile fabric of human community - tearing away from the family, as Marx famously remarked, "its sentimental veil."

But capitalist greed in its post-modern, consumerist form, characterizes buyers as much as sellers. I read recently or heard somewhere how one retail chain that last year opened for business at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day will this year open two hours earlier - because customers complained about having had to wait until so late to go shopping! If this story is true, it just illustrates how throughly the human necessity of shopping in order to live has been perverted into the consumerist disorder of living in order to shop!

The corruption of Thanksgiving Day is only the most recent such development, but remains an especially poignant and tragic one. Thanksgiving, after all, is one of the most beautiful (and distinctly American) holidays. And, until very recently, it had escaped much of the consumerist take-over that has corrupted every other American civic holiday (and, of course, Christmas). 

Better by far than the anachronistic critique of materialistic Marxism is that of Pope Francis, who has tellingly written: "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ" [Evangelii Gaudium, 2].

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