Instead of counting shoppers and speculating about whether retailers are gonna make out like they hoped, he examines what transformed our annual frenzied ritual of consumption into something that on Friday killed a temp worker at Wal-Mart, an outcome that somehow seemed preordained in an economy addicted to bad habits and desperation.
It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday. They were engaging in early-morning shopping as contact sport. American business has long excelled at creating a sense of shortage amid abundance, an anxiety that one must act now or miss out.
For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop. China, Japan and other foreign powers have provided the wherewithal to purchase their goods by buying staggering quantities of American debt. Financial institutions have scattered credit card offers as if they were takeout menus and turned our houses into A.T.M.’s. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have excelled at persuading us that the holiday season is a time to spend lavishly or risk being found insufficiently appreciative of our loved ones.
Wages for most Americans have fallen in real terms over the last eight years. Pensions have been turned into 401(k) plans that have just relinquished half their value to an angry market. Health benefits have been downgraded or eliminated altogether. Working hours are being slashed, and full-time workers are having to settle for jobs through temp agencies.
Indeed, this was the situation for the unfortunate man who found himself working at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. Friday, a temp at a company emblematic of low wages and weak benefits, earning his dollars by trying to police an unruly crowd worried about missing out.
In a sense, the American economy has become a kind of piñata — lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any, making people prone to frenzy and sending some home bruised.It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled by desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.