Between Thursday, November 24th–Thanksgiving–and Sunday, the 27th, an estimated 226 million Americans went shopping. Nearly three quarters of the entire population of the United States poured out of their homes, into big-box and chain stores, and spent 52.4 billion dollars. Not “million.” Billion. On “Cyber Monday” digital shoppers spent an additional $1.25 billion. This sum represents the most ever spent in one day, which beat the previous record holder, last year’s Cyber Monday, by twenty-two percent. Economists and financial analysts refer to this holiday ritual, kicked off by “Black Friday,” as an annual stimulus package. This one requires no lobbying, no congressional debate, nor political infighting. This stimulus is endorsed and paid for by the majority of Americans, without question. Sociologists have long believed that we can learn a lot about ourselves when we examine the things that we hold most dear. Particularly as it comes after an autumn of fierce protest and in the midst of a broad social movement against economic domination and wealth inequality, this year’s holiday shopping extravaganza reveals a lot about American culture, and our relationship to capitalism.
In November 2011 I went to Hôtel de Ville in Paris to see an exhibit titled “A New Perspective on the South.” It was organized by Agence Française de Developpement (AFD), a non-profit French development agency, to showcase the results of projects with partner organizations throughout the global south. I had seen it promoted in newspapers, on the Métro, and in public spaces around town, and was curious about it because the tales we tell ourselves about the world are deeply important, sociologically speaking. Whether we encounter them in textbooks, museums, televisions shows and films, in church sermons, in conversation with our families, in theater and literature, or increasingly, in the digital world via sites like Facebook and Twitter, narratives give us a script that we use to make sense of the world. They provide logics for fitting people into roles; they teach us about heroes and villains, victims and saviors, and right and wrong. They help us understand who we are as people, and how we fit into the greater scheme of things. In short, narratives play a big and important role in our lives. So, armed with an umbrella on a rainy afternoon, I arrived at the open-air exhibit to see what the French narrative of development looks like.
As I walked the streets of Amsterdam in late September of 2011, I sensed the oldness of the place all around me. As an American, I often find myself awestruck by the visible age of European cities. In terms of the built environment, the United States is a young place. I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the original thirteen British colonies, and have seen my fair share of old New England. I have eaten at “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” The Union Oyster House (established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1826), and have taken care of business in one of the nation’s oldest plumbed indoor toilets, at Harvard University. But, there is something different about Amsterdam, a city that was founded around 1300. Its oldness, and all that represents, is on the surface, looking back at you, as you look at it. Maybe it’s the distinctive and uniform architecture of the original brick buildings that line the city, or they way they tip toward and away from its streets, and slant sideways, due to their slow sinking. Maybe it’s the canals, which remind me of the role of waterways and seafaring in the building of the Dutch empire.
As I walked through Zurich’s old city to meet my friend Anne for a beer on a warm, late summer night, I paused at an intersection to wait for the signal to cross. A cyclist approached from across the intersection, and I noticed that he rode on the wrong side of the street. As he approached the corner on which I stood, he lifted his arm and shouted forcefully in the face of a man on a scooter, “Sieg heil!” Stunned, I turned toward the scooter rider, and noticed that he had dark skin. The signal changed, and I crossed the street as the man on the scooter rode away. Disheartened, I noted that this was not the first instance of open racism that I had witnessed in the city.
My host was unnerved. His neighbors had been talking loudly outside of his apartment again. He explained to me that there is a “certain class of people” who behave this way. They have loud conversations in public, behave and speak crassly, and they have taken over the public spaces of the city. He supposed the volume of their conversations might be because of cultural differences. In London there are ever increasing numbers of immigrants from beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. It didn’t used to be this way, he told me.
On Thursday I visited Highgate Cemetery in London to spend some time reflecting on the philosophy of Karl Marx. The celebrated Prussian thinker is buried there; in fact, his is the most visited grave at the site, according to the cemetery guide. I arrived there seeking inspiration, and with the intent of writing about my own philosophy. However, as I stood at his grave, I was overcome with emotion, and with the undeniable urge to appeal to Marx for guidance. So, I did.