Sunday, December 30, 2012

Retailers Pout, But Charities Are Glad 'Muricans Didn't Totally Revert to Infants this Xmas Season

If anyone has been reading the financial press or at least financial pages in major newspapers the past week, they'd have noticed the hand-wringing of the usual consumption cheerleaders that this Xmas season was a downer. Why? Well, despite the early (ca. Thanksgiving period) shopping trends and highest consumer confidence index in 4 years, citizens didn't completely revert to the stage of infantile consumers and blow as much $$$$ as they used to on garbage that will most likely be either exchanged or re-gifted.

In general, the season itself -  despite all the appeals for recognizing "Christ's birth" - was in fact Mithra's long before Christ's. The Christians simply copied the Dec. 25th template, see e.g. ) didn't live up to the merchants' expectations. There was a major drop off and retailers ended up having to savagely slash prices - sometimes from 50-75%, just to get people in the stores.

Less reported is that many of those would-be "consumers" took their disposable income and used it in a constructive way,  donating to a local charity - say a food pantry- as opposed to simply fueling the consumption machine. As reported in yesterday's Denver Post (page 1A) charities and non-profts are elated at seeing in uptick in seasonal giving.  One Sr. Vice-President at Philanthropy Experts was quoted as saying she's really grateful people "didn't feel it was totally appropriate just to blow a bundle of money."  I think their pocketbooks and bank accounts are probably grateful too!

As well as the better "angels" of their nature, the ones who maybe long for Americans to be a bit less consuming and infantile. As Benjamin Barber points out in his book, CONSUMED, markets and consumption basically corrupt children and infantilize adults. A primary dynamic in this infantilization process is the meme of "privatization" and its attendant twin, individualism. The more these twins are fed, often ironically by hard work, the less the social or communitarian embrace.

Barber notes (p. 134):

"Infantilization acts to reinforce the preference for the private and the puerile by treating the impetuous, grasping child as the ideal shopper, and the shopper as the ideal citizen. It inculcates in adults an obligation to give free rein to 'I want!' and 'Gimme that!' that both disclose and constitute the infantile Id."

And most germane to the point:

"More than simply an option, puerility is regarded as a necessity of capitalism's survival and hence a mandate of the zeitgeist- which of course, is the ethos of infantilization."

Buy, shop and spend! That will make you happy! And that, in turn will make the capitalist Overlords and their protectors happy!  Or to put it another more direct way: When you're out in the Mall buying crap, or even immersed in using it (Barber also makes the point that with the panoply of goods in people's possession they barely have the time to use any one of them for very long) the Powers-that -be will be elated. They will be elated if you're so consumed in such infantile self-immersion you will be less likely to join any "Occupy" movements, investigate any of the country's political assassinations...or maybe seek to learn who is in the Bilderberg group. In other words, a contented state is one which doesn't have to do too much surveillance of smart alecky citizens who refuse to toe the line, i.e. be a good sheep and shop, then play with their i-pads, i-phones, twitter accounts, video games...or whatever else retains them in an infantile state.

But I get a bit ahead of myself. According to the Post article, the retailers aren't too soothed by the "paradox" of people who have money - but donate to charity! According to the piece (p. 11 A):

"For retailers expecting sales to be high after consumer confidence hit a four year high in October, the paradox remains an unwelcome reality. But local non-profts aren't surprised and say heart wrenching stories often inspire people to help out in their community."

Now, let's deconstruct that paragraph a bit. In other words, many people - despite having "consumer confidence" - opted to take their money and use it to give to the nearest food bank or other charity rather than blow it on themselves or their greedy (often ingrate) kids, say for i-pads, cell phones, X-boxes or whatever. Meanwhile, the non-profits were not surprised that when so much societal need occurs (such as after Sandy struck, or the fires here in Colo.) people sought to help others rather than hoard their cash stash to buy more toys- for themselves or their consumption-conditioned, "branded' kiddies. ("I don't want any non -name brand jeans!")

According to Terry Tedeschi of Community Food Share, quoted in the article:

"It's a matter of people opening up their hearts, period. Certainly the tragedies like Sandy and the shootings in Newtown and Aurora break people's hearts and make them want to reach out to people in some way."

Another non-profit head, John Arigoni, said:

"Maybe people are saying 'Let's do less around the presents and more with giving back to the community."

Indeed. And this is the opposite of what Barber sees as the price of overt consumption, meaning more and more privatization, individualism. Especially in purchasing gobbledegook. Whereas in places like Barbados, a family will purchase one large gift, say an X-box video game - to be shared among all the kids, in this country each kid demands his own. Then he can lock himself away in his room and be away from the rest of the family ....privatization!

Capitalism depends on this non-sharing, non-community buy meme because if all families go the route in Barbados, there'll be too much inventory left on the shelves. Can't have that! So it behooves the markets to pander to the infantile to always purchase for the individual, never for a group! Oh, and this drives them to constantly come up with a new individual want (as opposed to a genuine need) to feed the insatiable capitalist coffers and the need to fuel the nation's GDP. (70% of which is upheld by consumption).

If Americans are indeed giving more and spending less, it is an encouraging sign because it perhaps signals a greater attention to society and the commonweal than the perpetual 'Me'.  But time will tell, so we will have to wait and see!

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