The anti-consumerist left’s tactic of non-buying emerges from a broader ascetic anti-consumerism. The most egregious example of this unfortunate tendency is “Buy Nothing Day,” the demand (largely invisible to the world beyond Rev. Billy’s flock) that people refrain from spending money on the day after Thanksgiving, the second-biggest day on the retail calendar.
Telling people to stop buying things is a political nonstarter, because the one thing American–style capitalism succeeds in delivering to the average person is the pursuit of happiness through consumption. Unless you’re rich, the U.S. is a terrible place if you want healthcare, education, or security in your old age – but it’s the best place on earth to buy stuff. So why target the one side of the system that works – and even provides some enjoyment – for most people? Good luck trying to inspire a mass following.
What’s worse is that this ascetic position accepts the larger historical trend of reducing citizenship to consumer choice. The wording is very reassuring on this point: all you have to do today is stay away from the mall. Or, as Reverend Billy puritanically put it, “Back away from the Shopocalypse and you are not merely spared. You’ve got your body back.” Revered Billy’s preacher persona is entertaining, but he’s not actually kidding: He shares American Protestantism’s conviction that sensual pleasure is sinful. That’s not radical – it’s conservative.
Of course capital would like nothing better than a population that defines politics as the decision to shop or not to shop; business interest spent most of the last century trying to convince us to find meaning in such gestures. When we do that, capital wins, since unless you’ve got the capacity to grow your own food and ride a horse and buggy to work, you’ve obviously got to start shopping again at some point.
Yes, a lot of American consumption represents waste on a grandiose scale. Routine American buying is ecologically unsustainable, and is a constant affront to the several billion people worldwide you are barely getting by. But you’re not going to change that through symbolic gestures, or even altering individual behavior; it’s going to take far deeper structural transformation than keeping the wallet shut on a single day could ever inspire.
Another problem is a muddled understanding of how the economy works. If – taking a preposterous hypothetical – this boycott actually did strike a blow against the economy, who would suffer? Not the Bush Administration, that’s for sure. They’re not going to lose their jobs, be forced to work unpaid overtime, or find they’re suddenly not on the schedule for the next three days because the store manager has to cut hours to make payroll, just a few of the indignities retail workers suffer when times are tough. If there’s one person who can’t help you out with your complaints about GWB & Co., it’s the cashier at your local Wal-Mart.
Impotent gestures like Buy-Nothing Day are symptoms of a left that prefers doing something to nothing, even if that something doesn’t even reach the level of an empty gesture. Fantasizing our power isn’t the same as building it, and we’re unlikely to build it by advertising our powerlessness in ephemeral pursuits.
Liza Featherstone’s Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart is now out in paperback from Basic Books, and Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy is available in paperback from the New Press. A version of this article originally appeared in the newsletter Henwood edits, Left Business Observer (www.leftbusinessobserver.com).