Matthew Oulton approaches the idea of ‘Black Friday’ from a left-wing perspective.
Black Friday, like the grey squirrel, Maris Piper potato, and garage rock music, has finally moved from the realm of American import – viewed suspiciously by a conservative British public – to a cultural staple. Where once the media viewed Black Friday with suspicion, it has now become an annual tradition as entrenched as complaining about Mariah Carey in mid-November. All this despite the fact that it is an astonishingly recent phenomenon. Until 2014, there was no real trace of Black Friday in the UK. It was the actions of a few US-based retailers, including Amazon, that marked this new date into the British calendar.
On the left, there’s something a little repulsive about Black Friday. It’s a nakedly consumerist holiday which, unlike Christmas, Easter, or even Halloween (all of which have a strong consumption-centred component), doesn’t even pretend to have a spiritual or communitarian angle. When you look at the army of eager shoppers heading down to seize their share of available bargains, it’s easy to see the whole thing as a violent capitalist overreach. You can’t help but think of the fall of Rome. So, is Black Friday the final gasps of ‘Late-Stage Capitalism?’ Is it exactly the kind of meaningless consumerism that will push the West into political and economic irrelevance?
Firstly, Black Friday isn’t even that Capitalist. If you think about it, retailers responding to increased demand for goods in the run-up to Christmas by lowering their prices is not at all what you’d expect. Any basic economics textbook will suggest that the opposite to this should occur. In fact, the entire concept of ‘Christmas shopping’ at all is hard to fathom. Why don’t retailers put up their prices so much in the Winter months that everyone buys the same quantity of things all year round?
Sure, it acts as a crude form of price discrimination. Those who are the most price-sensitive are also the people who will be most willing to stand in endless queues to grab a bargain. By concentrating demand in a single day, retailers can siphon off the people who wouldn’t buy their products for a higher price, whilst still being able to charge the more willing to pay extra on subsequent days. Some of the searing criticism of Black Friday, directed especially by tabloid media outlets, stems from this basic snobbishness. Older middle-class shoppers often wouldn’t dream of standing in line for hours to secure a 10% discount on a TV, so it’s easy for them to sneer at those who will and, indeed, must. This provides one potential economic rationale for the existence of such a day, but it’s not enough on its own. Retailers could offer price discounts on a certain day of the week or for certain specific products and replicate the same effect.
Additionally, Black Friday is a giant advertising event. The buzz generated by this arbitrary day brings out new shoppers and encourages people to buy things they wouldn’t ordinarily. Why does this work? We don’t have Thanksgiving in the UK – a shame in my opinion, given how nice pecan pie is – so the whole idea makes no sense. It is literally an arbitrary excuse for an event. Like Halloween, New Year, and even Christmas itself, Black Friday is another way for us to make one day in the never-ending stream of dark and depressing days feel a little bit different. Ultimately, it’s the impulse to celebrate the winter solstice or Yule in a 21st Century setting. Far from being the triumph of market-driven rational consumption over a more gentle traditionalism, Black Friday is the market expression of an impulse as old as storytelling beneath the cold winter’s moon. It's a fitting reminder that for all we pretend that markets are filled with anonymous rational decision-makers, they are composed of people.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still my least favourite annual holiday. I, for one, like to at least pretend that Christmas is still about family, food, and – perish the thought – even a God I haven’t believed in since I was a child, before it’s about gifts and money. I try to think first of going to see my grandparents at Easter before I think of chocolate. Even Halloween, which, I’ll be honest, I normally avoid like an ear infection, has an element of bringing together neighbours in entertaining children. Black Friday has none of these things.
Nevertheless, it is a reminder that society is made up of people, and our economic lives cannot ever be abstracted away from that. It is a reminder that a £20 cut in Universal Credit is not just an imperceptible fall in national consumption, but the imposition of a complete lack of Christmas presents for thousands of children this year. Parents who may have gone out to queue up for hours to spend a little saved cash on their children today may well not be able to afford it, spending it on rent or essentials. It’s a reminder that the nurse or care-worker who has their National Insurance Contributions raised this year will have a little less to spend on treats throughout the festive season. It’s a reminder that the economy is people, and economic policy is a series of human choices.
From Merseyside, Matthew is a final-year Economics Student at the University of Warwick. He’s the Secretary of the Economy and Finance Network and writes frequently on economic issues. In his spare time, he worries about Labour’s path to victory and daydreams about a progressive Government.