“Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence. What is a policeman? He is the active servant of the commodity, the man in complete submission to the commodity, whose job is to ensure that a given product of human labor remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or rifle.”
S.I. “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, 1965
Last year, it seemed, suddenly everyone was talking about Black Friday. Which massacre were they talking about? The Black Friday massacre in Iran, 1978? No. Black Friday is the sales. Black means, ‘in the black’. As in businesses being ‘back in the black’. In some ways it’s a day of ritual: prices are dropped, and our materialistic urges are evoked like demons. To the everyday consumer, Black Friday is legal, commercially driven, pay as you go looting. A day spent on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. And of course, as in Pinocchio, people are turned into asses.
The aesthetics of Black Friday are indeed like a mini-massacre. People fighting over TV sets, bloodied, stampeding, pushing, shoving and elbowing their way across warehouses and stores, surging into buildings, relentless waves of mindless bodies like the ending of a zombie film. And can you blame people for crushing one another to death over a TV set at this stage of civilization, when commodities are the sine qua non for participation in society? It’s so deeply embedded now, an addiction that spans generations. “You are what you buy” we are constantly told, as we’re shown lives to aspire to in adverts, commodities that can let us into that narrative, a packaged happiness peddled by shining TV stars, actors, posters, songs, city walls, tubes, the sides of buses, every piece of free space decked out in this message. “You are what you buy.” “I buy therefore I am.” And the state of non-being is bandied around as a despicable thing, a place of homelessness, misery and untouchability.
The scenes of Black Friday, this brutality over the hunt for inedible resources, can only be down to what these objects mean, and what the cost of them means. In today’s world, life is for most reduced to time spent attaining wealth and property in order to feel comfort, to see physical reward for labour, and to purchase a sense of wholeness and self that can’t be gained from working –– or rather, is seen as the reward for working. A spiritual reward, in a sense. The barrier to this is money and –– indirectly –– time (the time you need to spend working to generate the necessary money). When that barrier is suddenly dropped, when 3 months of drudgery in the office or factory or shop floor are turned into just 1 month, when that symbol of success is suddenly extremely attainable, the sense of need is overwhelming, and we instinctively turn to violence to fulfil it.
It seems absurd, in some ways, or even funny. But if you think about money as a grim token of many people’s lives spent doing things they don’t really want to do, it’s actually a human tragedy, to be reduced to little more than a thing that desires other things. Not just a black Friday for humanity but an endless sequence of black days crowned with the occasional moment of victory. The fact that we are prepared to duke it out on the shop floor over these objects is just a taste of the violence that can be provoked in this scenario, under less controlled conditions. Could these sales –– beyond being a commercial show of force over reason –– be a sort of safety valve as well? Isn’t our behaviour in these situations a sort of looting-lite? “This is your chance” it is declared, “to take what you can, for less; to beat the system and advance further than you normally could… And don’t forget to pay on the way out.” You’re encouraged to beat the system by giving into it, and allowing it to live through you.
If we look back to the Watts Riots of 1965, fuelled in the main by the aggressive institutional suppression of the black population of LA, anger was taken out on property along with law enforcement agents and perceived oppressors. Cars were set alight, shops were looted and burned. Commodities –– the forbidden symbols of social membership and oneness with the socially conditioning universe of advertisements –– were declared the enemy. Stuff you couldn’t afford, things that therefore enhanced that sense of social alienation, embodied the schism between majority and minority status in America.
In 2011 London had its own taste of disorder: The London Riots were characterised as the looting of commodities and the destruction of property. For the media, looting was the angle used to undermine any trace of socio-political motive in the rioters. What started as a demand for answers from the family of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police without explanation, became for the mainstream press a mass explosion of avarice among London’s underclasses who had given into their baser instinct to steal and set fire to buildings. The rioters were denounced as merely thieves and vandals, with no other cause but greed and stupidity, and people were sent to jail with hefty sentences.
This was an attack on social control through its agents –– the assemblage of commodities and their sellers and guardians. It was ascribed to the pettiness of the rioters, their vandalism and greed, denounced by centre, right and most of the left as apolitical. That the riots happened against a backdrop of persecution of the poor and the unemployed, massive cuts in many key social areas, the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police, and the ongoing insult of gentrification escaped most mainstream commentators. Yet in truth, even this satiation of desire for goods and their destruction, the urge that emerges with most force when law and order seem to be overcome by force of numbers and aggression, is a political act. It’s the hunger to forcibly join the system of social positioning, to get ahead, to beat the limitations of money and labour (or the lack of labour, the lack of money) –– to violently enter mainstream society, to cease to be alienated, marginalised or relegated to minority status. In a grand archetype of this idea, Prometheus looted the fire of the gods to allow mankind to access something it was excluded from. I have therefore I am can be a life-shattering imperative for those unable to have. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine how the quest for commodities could turn into a bigger political demand. Given time, a more fully formed, and rationally articulated demand could develop, rather than an unconscious urge out of control.
What does the fact of people quickly turning to looting, attacking things rather than the system of control itself –– corporations, governments and so on –– provide to those in power? The answer is hinted at by the fact that looting is nearly always televised. The presentation of other people engaged in the act of looting, lost to desire for commodities, prepared to attack fellow citizens for a TV, is for them a gross demonstration of the fact that consumer society has triumphed, and infiltrated the deepest levels of human consciousness. In a protest in Oakland against police violence in December 2014, there were reports that undercover police were discovered by protesters, walking along with the crowd. Some sources claimed the cops were trying to incite the crowd to looting, to turn it away from a political objective and to discredit the popular action. The subtext of the act of looting –– the fact that the symbolic power of those commodities represents that very system of control, the system that all the frustration, anger and desire is created by in the first place –– is not communicated by a picture of two guys brawling over a TV. The viewer though is linked to the looter on an uncomfortable score, as both share the same desire for goods. And yet the viewer is alienated by the amount of goods he or she has. The actual quantity isn’t important, but as a viewer, they assume they have more than the rioter and fear the loss of their things to the rampaging hordes. In fact, the fear and loathing that are created are in part born out of the very idea that someone else could break out of the legal system and advance unfairly. This sense of the extra-systemic outsider is exactly the same that is glamourised in mafia films –– but with an important caveat: the conclusion of these films in most cases shows the gangster meeting his comeuppance, the law catching up with him, or his death.
Just as the political action is debased, so too is any thought toward change or improvement of society by political action in the viewer, who also turns his or her thoughts towards objects. Me, mine, and conservation of a status quo loom up in the minds of all, and law enforcement, restriction of any challenge to a ruling authority, and control have their hegemony reinforced. The object that is attacked in looting is the same consumerist idol used to bring those who don’t take part to heel. We rally against any harm to these emblems of our hours spent in labour, our children’s inheritance, daily survival, the homes we rely on and “something to show for it all”. And who can blame us.
The sales serve as a stark reminder of our dangerous lust for things. Commodities are the guardians, the barriers, the hurdles, the fences. The false idols of worship for the consumer mind, the drug fix, the one true love at first glance, forgotten when attained. Disposability guarantees false hope, the never satiated desire –– the perpetuity of need, lust, and gratification. This desire is latent in the consumer, and the violence on days like Black Friday is a reminder: remember who is master in your mind; remember when law breaks down, this will be your ruler, and this will be what rules your fellow consumers. Control over society is a firm grip on the commodity. The power of it to inspire desire, and the power to withhold it. Any attack on these systems of control must first break through that same force, these fetishes, totems of power, which reduce any social motive to an apparent selfishness.
Martin Dean is a writer and musician based in London; @Martin_c_Dean. Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London; @f_sd.
 One man was prosecuted for entering a shop, licking an ice cream and putting it back (http://metro.co.uk/2011/08/26/uk-riots-looter-jailed-for-single-lick-of-stolen-ice-cream-128414/); a pair was sentenced to four years for seeming to incite looting in his town over social media –– without success (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/aug/16/uk-riots-four-years-disorder-facebook)