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.
For the second year in a row, I find myself outside of the United States for the Thanksgiving holiday. Feeling that you should be celebrating something that doesn’t register to anyone around you is a strange experience. Here in Paris, today is just another Thursday. There is no scent of roasting turkey, nor aroma of cinnamonny pumpkin pie wafting through the halls of the building where I have rented a studio, and there is no run on cranberries at the grocer. I did not cook an elaborate meal. Apart from picking up my favorite food–potato chips–an extra large beer, and a dessert I have been eyeing for weeks at my corner patisserie, I hadn’t planned on marking the day in any special way. But, as I smoked a cigarette while gazing down at the busy Rue Bobillot last night, I realized I have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I wanted to take the time, absent a feast and holiday cocktails, to express that. Here goes.
Though it is a taboo topic in the United States, socialism is everywhere in Paris. At least, aspirations toward it abound. The city as I see it is awash in advertisements for socialist party candidates and those of “Front de Gauche,” a coalition of leftist and workers parties in France. Not limited to contemporary politics, the city wears its socialist history on its sleeve. Historical markers that explain the relevance of places to the revolution of 1789-99, and to the events of the Paris Commune of 1871 remind Parisians and visitors that the history of France is one of cyclical struggle for radical social, economic, and political change. Far from the derogatory intonation “socialist” has in the U.S., its ideals are infused into everyday life, and are mainstream influences in the political terrain of France. Though the word is hurled about rather liberally in the U.S., many do not know what it actually means. This post addresses one simple question: What is socialism?
Much has been made of the bathroom issue at Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy encampments across the U.S.. I refer to the question posed many times by mainstream media outlets: where do the protesters go to the bathroom? Often framed as a public health and sanitation concern, there have also been reports of merchants upset by the use of their facilities by protesters. This is one facet of the movement on which many media outlets have zoomed in, so much so that the media attention to it has warranted satirical address on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. From a sociological perspective, it is interesting that this issue has come into focus, because it is a manifestation of the central gripe of protesters: the privatization of public resources.
“By changing the world and changing our lives we transform ourselves.” –Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
While in Amsterdam in September I picked up a recent issue of the International Communist Current, which features a celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Despite my affinity for Marx and his legacy, I knew nothing of this brief period when the working classes and political radicals of Paris ousted the ruling government from the city, and ruled with a grassroots model for a couple of months. A bit of research into the founding, short duration, and goals of the Commune revealed once again that despite how much things seem to change, they remain mostly the same, particularly where power is concerned. One hundred and forty years later, Occupy Wall Street, now a globally dispersed movement of assembly and resistance to wealth inequality, is premised on many of the same ideals of the Paris Commune, as have been most successful and attempted political revolutions that came before and after it.