Reframing Black Friday: An Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals

By James Anderson

Black Friday discussions this year should focus less on the quickest route to get from the store aisle with the new Stars Wars Remote Control BB-8 Droid to the checkout stand. Likewise, endless debates about whether or not to boycott the Black Friday shopapalooza should be eschewed in favor of more fruitful discussion.

The sorts of deliberations noted above divert energy away from what should be the primary consideration for people concerned more with eliminating social iniquities than with giving thanks for the established order that sustains them. We need to return our attention to the wage labor and class divisions in society that grow increasingly abhorrent and pronounced in direct correlation with the degree to which they are omitted from public discussion.

There are efforts to address these omissions. International Food Workers Week, organized by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and allies, is held annually around this time to remind people of the struggles food and retail workers remain immersed in while society’s more affluent sectors help themselves to another piece of pumpkin pie. Additionally, a project to promote economic justice all through the food production and supply process, Voices of the Food Chain, shares the stories of the some 20 million food workers in the US and highlights challenges – and key successes – in struggles at the intersection of labor and food.

To be sure, the decline in manufacturing jobs and the shift to service-based industry in the US has altered the employment landscape and the nature of workplace struggles. While the three largest employers in the US circa 1970 were the manufacturing-based companies of General Motors, Ford and US Steel, as David Harvey points out, the largest employers today are the holding company of McDonalds, the holding company of KFC and the retail giant Walmart.

Harvey also inquired, albeit rhetorically, as to whether workers in the aforementioned service jobs are productive of value. He answered himself in the affirmative. The value produced by Walmart workers is indeed realized in the form of enormous profits on the market, but those producing the profit-realizing value reap little reward for their exploited efforts.

That is true for workers around the world, given that Walmart has global reach. A preventable fire just over three years ago, on November 24, 2012, tragically took the lives of 112 garment workers immolated inside the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh where they were making products mostly destined for Walmart stores. Walmart, the enterprise that ranks 17th on the list of the largest US companies in terms of stock market capitalization, continues to refuse to pay compensation to the families of the workers who burned to death while making the corporation’s “always low prices” possible. Workers and labor rights advocates in turn, continue to pressure the business.

In fact, the company now faces opposition on multiple fronts. Walmart workers across the US will #Fastfor15, going without food throughout 15 days of action. The action will take place at Walmart stores, at the homes of the Board of Directors and at the residences of the Waltons before a national day of action on Black Friday. While Walmart workers suffer disproportionately, the Walton family, those six heirs to the Walmart fortune who continue to reap enormous benefits from the low-wage labor of the corporations’ retail workers, own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to analysis from economist Sylvia Allegretto.

To be fair, those 40 percent of Americans really do not own much. The same holds true for an even larger percentage of the US population. The Global Wealth Report released by Credit Suisse for 2015 documents that a full 70 percent of Americans own just 6.9 percent of the country’s wealth, which is one of the lowest percentages of national wealth ownership in the world. Of the half-billion poorest people in the world, the report also notes, one in ten is an American.

While Walmart no doubt does its part to widen the country’s wealth divide, other US companies oft-lauded for their innovation and non-conformist cool similarly super-exploit workers to the hilt to realize profits for a few at the expense of many.

Apple, the largest company in the US in terms of stock market capitalization as of mid-November 2015, largely escapes the criticisms levelled against the likes of Walmart and other mega-corporations. Not only did its late co-founder Steve Jobs help the company become a post-modern techno-empire, he also helped immunize Apple from popular reproach through a multi-layered ideological apparatus.

This is not the sort of app you acquire for your iPhone 6s Plus.

Rather, the iconic Jobs, with his penchant for sporting the long-sleeve mock turtleneck and blue jeans at work instead of stuffy business attire, played a crucial role in re-defining cool in a way conducive to corporate power.

Capitalizing, quite literally, on the anti-authoritarian and non-conformist sensibilities of the 1960s and 1970s, Jobs marketed Apple as a symbol of hip counter-cultural challenge to corporate convention.

The famous Apple commercial that aired during the telecast of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 borrowed an image from George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four about a dystopian future under a totalitarian regime. The Apple ad featured an athletic young woman wearing a white tank top with a sketch drawing of Apple’s Macintosh computer on the front of the shirt. In the ad, she runs past mindless drones to smash the Big Brother telescreen, saving humanity from conformity. The ad reminded viewers why 1984 wouldn’t be like Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that you too could reject conformity by buying a Mac.

Brilliant. Co-opting the rebellious ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, promising iconoclastic individuality – but only insofar as one, perhaps unconsciously, submits to the authority of the commodity form and conforms to the demands of a commodity-driven market society – Jobs and Apple inaugurated a new phase in the capitalist world economy.

Through “the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination,” to borrow lines from Herbert Marcuse, Apple advanced a marketing scheme in which “the antithesis is redefined in terms of the thesis.” If the thesis is we should obey pre-established authority, and then the antithesis is that the established authority is illegitimate so we should challenge it, then the “unification of opposites” entails challenging authority by purchasing Apple products.

The flip-side of the coin in the new capitalist order is the erasure of the labor of those who produce and assemble our Apple devices.

Giving Walmart a run for its money, quite literally in terms of production cost-cutting arrangements overseas and the low-wage labor that entails, Apple now abstains from manufacturing the iPhone and other company products itself. As John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney illustrated, manufacture of iPhone parts and components is undertaken by eight corporations in several countries, and then those parts are typically shipped to Shenzhen, China for assembly before being exported to the US. Chinese factories like Foxconn, now notorious for high worker suicide rates and abhorrent labor conditions, are where many Apple gadgets are assembled.

The high-tech leviathan that is Apple no doubt opts to have its commodities pieced together outside the US and usually in China because, as a Bureau of Labor Statistics paper shows, the hourly compensation rate in the latter’s manufacturing sector has been only about four percent of the hourly rate of compensation in this country. Foxconn workers in 2009 made the minimum monthly wage for Shenzhen, about 83 cents an hour.

The question should not of course be how the US can best compete in a system with workers from different countries pitted off of each other in a global race to the bottom. The question should not legitimize these logics as affluent and deal-minded American consumers all the while busy themselves with Black Friday purchases from businesses that specialize in transnational labor arbitrage.

Rather, the question becomes how best to critically comprehend, communicate and meaningfully engage in struggles with the aim of showing solidarity with all those exploited and with the objective of overcoming existing conditions.

This must entail an ideological analysis aimed at unpacking insidious mantras advanced by companies like Apple and others that style themselves as über cool. This means interrogating how the supposed non-conformity celebrated by those corporations actually involves many of us around the world being coerced into conforming. We are unable to extricate ourselves from a system of low-wage work buoyed by planned obsolescence schemes concocted to ensure people keep purchasing new models of the same products wastefully designed to be discarded in under two years, lest we risk falling behind technologically and becoming victims of the digital divide.

Any substantive analysis in this vein should connect the abysmal pay and working conditions found in Chinese factories, where products like the Apple iMac are made, with the plight of low-wage workers struggling to survive in the US where many of those high-tech commodities are consumed.

A serious critique must also clarify how the “do what you love” mantra propagated by Steve Jobs at a commencement address to the Stanford graduating class back in 2005, and much celebrated since, has the ideological effect of erasing the labor at factories like Foxconn where workers are so immiserated while they assemble Apple gizmos that suicide seems like the only solution. The notion of just doing what you love has the added effect of obfuscating the degrading dominance of low-wage service industries in the US economy today. It ignores how the majority of people are denied the privilege of being able to make money doing what they enjoy. Further, it debases the labor of those who work in far more onerous jobs than Jobs ever did, and for far less pay than he received; billions of people around the world do so under conditions that are anything but lovable.

Miya Tokumitsu has argued the “do what you love” maxim pervades the university environment as well.

She claims the doctrine undergirds the internalized notion that it is fine for those with a terminal degree – and with the massive debt to show for it – to readily accept low-wage precarious labor as adjunct faculty because, hey, at least they get to pursue their passion teaching, doing what they love. It also, Tokumitsu suggests, helps explain why the more relatively privileged parts of the professorial class can remain silent about the working conditions of their peers. Ostensibly, this professorial stratum can do so without losing sleep at night because the ideology normalizes and legitimates the structural violence their more contingent colleagues face every day. They need not lose sleep because their relative affluence insulates them from the hardships endured by large swaths of co-workers with little-to-no job security. That is, the privileged parts of the professoriate are not the ones waking up in a cold sweat at night worrying about how they will pay their rent.

When, in contrast, those rounding out the bottom of the academic hierarchy challenge the unjust exercise of power within higher education, there can even be outright hostility coming from those among the more empowered professorial class intent on protecting relative advantages. Once, when I personally objected to the illegitimate exercise of authority while working as a graduate assistant, one associate professor in my college reportedly chided, “I don’t want my faculty around James Anderson.”

Putting the gross paternalism and senselessness within that professor’s statement aside, insofar as the mentality it demonstrates is representative of faculty attitudes in my former college or anywhere else in academia, I’m not exactly thrilled to be around them either.

Yet, I’m more interested in eliminating the institutional arrangements responsible for creating situations in which statements like the one the aforementioned professor made – and the events that precipitated it – arise at all.

Finding the time and energy for that imperative is no easy feat.

Many adjuncts, myself included, work for low wages not only teaching at a university, but also labor for less than $10 an hour in the aforementioned service sector. After teaching classes the day before, this Thanksgiving I’ll be fulfilling customers’ grocery bagging needs and retrieving shopping carts at Ralphs, a West Coast Kroger company affiliate, from around noon until 9 p.m. I’ll be working retail, performing courtesy clerk duties at the store, on Black Friday too.

Clearly, adjunct professors, graduate assistants and the 70 percent of recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in the US now owing $28,950 on average, are all up against a lot.

And yet, they are the ones perhaps best poised to offer the necessary and pointed ideological critique while also – unlike other strata within the university shielded from the worst structural violence – remaining willing and able to engage in the militant organizing and direct action needed to transcend the harmful material conditions giving rise to, and reinforced by, the “do what you love” philosophy.

Those indebted students and recent graduates, the massively indebted graduate students working as teaching assistants yet still forced to take out loans because of egregious university fees, and the growing numbers of contingent faculty within the university are all potentially catalytic déclassé intellectuals. They are the excess of educated persons unable to find meaningful and decent paying work once commensurate with their level of learning. This strata includes the downwardly mobile among us. It encompasses those who are no longer able to attain the middle class work available to their parents’ generation. The déclassé strata is filled with those whose parents also labored in the largely unionized manufacturing jobs that once provided relatively well-remunerated working class employment but have, in the main, disappeared throughout the era of de-industrialization leaving few opportunities for the dehumanized youth today rendered superfluous and disposable by, ironically, a crisis-riddled and sclerotic system that should really be disposed of and displaced by egalitarian forms of organization.

Déclassé intellectuals are aware of the situation. The onus is upon them – or admittedly, us – to address ongoing problems with the knowledge, skills and technical know-how gleaned from university education that no longer automatically translates into adequate income post-graduation.

Amidst all the Facebook posts and ads promoting Black Friday super sales, we could begin by analyzing just how someone like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues in the tradition of someone like Steve Jobs, insofar as the former echoes the latter’s innovative techie coolness, augmenting the same insidious ideology as the iconoclastic Apple executive that came before him. Jobs preferred turtlenecks to business suit and tie. Zuckerberg sports hoodies to business meetings. Zuckerberg’s wealth, not unlike Jobs’, also comes at the expense of others.

In the case of Facebook, as new media scholar Christian Fuchs has argued, the company makes part of its profits by infinitely exploiting the wholly unpaid labor of the billion-plus users on the social networking site. According to Fuchs, Facebook users, or “prosumers,” the simultaneous producers and consumers on new media platforms, engage in unpaid labor time producing user-generated content that is then commodified by the company and realized as profit on the market when it sells peoples’ data to third-party clients. The third-party clients are often advertisers who then directly target users with ads on the Facebook site where they work for free.

Zuckerberg and his company call this “sharing,” an ideologically serviceable euphemism, to be sure. The real profitable sharing on the social networking site of course is between Facebook and the other corporations it shares users’ information with, enabling the enterprise to become the eighth wealthiest US enterprise in terms of stock market capitalization as of late November 2015. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg has thrown some $100 million of that wealth he accumulated, thanks to unpaid Facebook prosumer “sharing,” into the New Jersey educational system, leading to historically non-unionized charter school development, closure of public schools and teacher layoffs.

How best to challenge socioeconomic arrangements and narratives that have benefited companies like Walmart, Apple and Facebook – and rewarded those atop the hierarchies in both that corporate world and in academia – at the expense of many others, should be the big question concerning déclassé intellectuals tasked with converting ostensibly individual issues into veritable social struggles as they reframe debates this Black Friday.

 

James Anderson is an adjunct professor at California State University San Marcos teaching classes in the Communication department during the Fall 2015 semester. To supplement his low-wage contingent faculty salary, he also works at a local Ralphs, part of the Kroger-affiliated grocery store chain along the West Coast, where he bags groceries, retrieves shopping carts in the store parking lot and performs general store upkeep. He is a member of three unions at present: the California Faculty Association representing educators at Cal State; UFCW local 135 representing Ralphs employees; and the Industrial Workers of the World. He remains a doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.

 

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