There are few things as ‘Merican than apple pie… and the mayhem known as Black Friday. On this day, which just happens to be the day after families are reunited for a homely turkey dinner during the celebration known as Thanksgiving, we see the spirit of kindness and sharing break down into an orgiastic shopping fury for the bargain of the year. Time after time we see the videos showing a complete breakdown of society as soon as the doors to Walmart and Best Buy open at the stroke of midnight, in what could easily be filmed as a sequence for The Walking Dead or some other zombie apocalypse movie. Decent Americans hang their head in shame at the sight of this insanity being showcased to the rest of the world, while foreigners look with a sense of smug relief: hey, we may not be a global superpower, but at least we’re not that pathetic!
Well, except Britain.
Replace Walmart with Tesco or ASDA, replace the name of any mid-western hick town for any chavy London suburb and you pretty much have an exact replica of the US’s singularly most awful cultural peculiarity. Don’t believe me? Just watch this. There were screams. There was tussling. There were fistfights. There were arrests. If there was a final exam for aspiring to US statehood, Britain passed it last week with flying colors (err, colours).
But wait. Isn’t something like Black Friday so very un-British? I mean, sure, Britain has its barbarous side (just go to a Millwall game or any Leicester Square club on a Friday night) but this degree of materialistic savagery just doesn’t seem compatible with the more restrained British Way of Life. Cynics may point at this country’s adoption of Black Friday as the definitive proof of the Americanization of this island but an economist should sit back and wonder whether the explanation lies elsewhere. Is Black Friday in Britain a cultural thing? Or could it, perhaps, be a logical consequence of inequality?
The death of the middle class
In today’s Britain, it appears that the notion of what we generally consider the middle class is a moribund one. Down in the south, the housing bubble has effectively stripped all but the most affluent of Londoners of the possibility of owning a decent-sized home or flat (a 30 sq m shoe-box in Zone 4 hardly qualifies as such). And the rising cost of rail means that even those venturing out into the hinterlands face an insane transport bill. Yeah, the economy seems to be getting better and unemployment is falling but digging deeper into the numbers it’s clear that the quality of jobs just keeps getting worse and worse while real wages stagnate for those people not working for the money machine that is the City of London or Canary Wharf. And hey, London is still the best of it. At least here there are jobs. Fancy being a nurse in Cardiff? Or a primary teacher in Leeds? How about a warehouse floor manager in Bradford? A few decades back these people could have probably afforded a small but dignified house in which to raise a family, plus a decent TV, washing machine, etc. and not felt the social pressure they do now to keep up with the Joneses.
In the absence of these basic middle class amenities, what’s left are the “consumer durables” that compensate the lack of the former. I’m talking about the plasma screens, smartphones, tablets espresso machines, and the like. More affluent people wonder with disdain why is it that people buy things they cannot afford, yet across all cultures the pattern of aspirational behavior is repeated to more or less extent; it is not an Americanism. And it is far more obvious in unequal societies than egalitarian ones which is why the US, being (by far) the most unequal society in the Western world is more prone to this behavior. You don’t just want that 40-inch TV, you need it in order to feel that you and your family are not doing so bad in this life. And if fighting off a legion of fellow “squeezed middle” and working class shoppers is necessary in order to get 50% off its retail price, then it will be well worth the bruises and the humiliation.
So sleep well Britons, knowing that Black Friday shopping bargains aren’t turning you into Americans. Inequality is turning you into Americans. Come to think of it, that is probably a scarier prospect.