Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Friday, 29 November 2013

On Black Friday

Today is Black Friday and there has been a lot of news about what's going on. It's a relatively new phenomenon here in Canada, but growth in Black Friday sales has been substantial over the past few years. For most it marks the start of the holiday season.

One of the most troubling, though entirely unsurprising, stories to come out this year has to do with the presentation of prices. In an effort to lure customers, retailers shock us with prices that continue to look lower. The operative part of this is that prices appear to be good deals when in reality there are not. For example, some shoppers refuse to go out unless the reduction is greater than, say, 40 per cent. Some stores will inflate the price to show consumers deals that look for fantastic that they really are. It's a trick that we're used to seeing on infomercials, and unsurprisingly they are effective. Studies have in fact suggested that we are spending roughly the same amount on purchases but merely feeling that we are getting a better deal. That psychological element should not be overlooked.

What perhaps makes this even more interesting is that the notion of door crasher prizes, where the first people admitted into the store get a free product, are often lesser products. Reports that televisions given away are actually a variation on a model available on the shelf. In most cases, these products are either fashioned with inferior materials or have fewer functions than the for-sale counterparts. This trend is on the rise, particularly with electronics such as televisions.

This year has seen a scandal in that American Thanksgiving and Christmas are the closest they can be to one another. As such, the number of days between holidays is projected to cause people to spend less money during the holidays. Most retailers are deeply concerned that this will cut into their profits and damage their financial standing. There are numerous problems with this, not the least of which being that the long-term viability of most retailers will be entirely unaffected by the sales from one quarter. Moreover, customers will have numerous other reasons to get out and shop. I imagine that, for the most part, the sales figures from this year will be comparable to all recent Black Fridays, despite the fact that there are five fewer shopping days than last year. Customers will likely be packing their shopping into more intense sessions.

In order to combat the shortened season, many stores have began opening on American Thanksgiving, which is a watershed moment in Black Friday history. It has not gone without some serious controversy, some even calling this Grey Thursday. Many retailers, however, are staying out. These stores are viewed as heroes by many on social media as they are resisting the creeping barrage of consumerism into what is a family holiday and a paid day away from the working world.

A lawmaker in Ohio has, in response, urged the state government to intervene in this madness. He has suggested that retailers who wish to remain open on Thanksgiving be forced to pay triple time. This proposal is a valiant attempt to prevent the holiday from being taken over completely, but it is also not taken seriously as a real remedy. This is especially true since most Americans hardly think that a day of sales being extended into a binge weekend is even a problem in the first place.

The general attitude of consumer madness is highly problematic and speaks to the larger question of intense materialism in our society. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is full of an overwhelming pressure to shop and to be good corporate citizens by consuming. I've written about this phenomenon before, but I wanted to restate that finding alternate ways to show your affection and care for others is important for many reasons. There are many great way to participate in what is often termed the "No-Gift Christmas" such as giving your time, a donation, your crafts, or something that is not new. There are plenty of places to get inspiration, but not a lot of support for people who wish to remove themselves from the web of consumerised giving at Christmas.

The craze of Black Friday is not a fad - it's an integral part of the shopping calendar in an increasing number of countries around the world. Without being checked by consumers or by governments, these sales will only continue to become more aggressive and overtake a greater amount of time away from what is meant to be a time for family and for getting away from the workplace.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Talking About Remembrance

There has been a lot of talk this year about acts of remembrance. The White Poppy, which is an alternative symbol of memorialising victims of war, has been in the spotlight in what has been a contentious debate about the role of remembrance day in Canada and, more broadly, the purpose of historical memory. As an historian I know that one of the most significant roles of history is how it is remembered publicly. Academic history is absolutely fascinating but is a realm not generally accessible to the masses. In most cases, constructs of history are played out more frequently in film or in commercials than they are in journal articles or seminars.

From my vantage point, I feel that a lot of the conjecture about poppies comes from the fact that Canada's history is both a very clear narrative and a sparse amalgam of divergent stories. Most people are aware that Remembrance Day is an important holiday in the trajectory of Canada as a nation. However, for most I believe the shared sentiment stops there. Everyone's personal perspective on the act of remembrance changes thereafter, to whether they think about the families of soldiers recently deployed in Afghanistan, or about the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder, or about the military as promoting violence and war. Individuals are entitled to think about what interests them personally and what affects them emotionally about these questions. I believe the point of remembrance day is, quite explicitly, to remember the cost of warfare, which is left wide open to interpretation.

I feel that the right has a tendency to voice support for the military in a doctrinal way such as placing the soldier as an idealised figure in a glorious service role. Likewise, I feel that the far left is often all too keen to disparage most elements as though everything about the military actively promotes ideals like hierarchy and obedience in the name of "freedom" or "democracy". To me, the wide rift is mostly a result of thinking about the military as something we are either for or against. These positions lack precision and are gross oversimplifications of the role of violence and order in a global historical context. It's helpful to separate the military into several interrelated pieces: the soldier, organised violence, military institutions, and conflict itself.

I can't speak to the multitude of perspectives on these complex issues, but I can flesh out how I feel. I'm inclined to support soldiers, not simply because they have given of themselves, but because there seems to be a tacit respect for them but no real support in the long term once they leave active duty. I think of numerous family members who served during the Second World War only to come back to a society that did not understand them. I think of infantry coming back from Afghanistan who experience night terrors. I think of the families profoundly affected by this. While I support the people who serve, I don't buy into the rhetoric that we need to "support our troops" because that for me is wrapped up in supporting specific conflicts and/or the military as an institution. I'm under no auspices that the military should be abolished or that we can live in a world without conflict, but the military needs to be an institution worthy of criticism and transparency. I think that, as I mentioned before, Remembrance Day should be about taking the time to reflect privately and publicly about these issues. It makes me think about the types of questions I want to ask. What I want to talk about. What I want to hear others engage with.

What is or is not admirable about the roles of those who are in the military?

What is the cost of peace?

What is the role of states to intervene in the affairs of others?

How can military institutions be held more accountable?

How can we promote peace while going to war?

How do we honour those who serve without valourising war?

Lastly, what of the poppies? Ultimately, remembrance is a very personal and invididual choice. I believe that those who choose to remember differently or who choose not to remember are participating in valid ways. Likewise, I believe that policing the types of poppies people wear is problematic and polarising. Let's not allow Remembrance Day to be a holiday away from critical thought, one where we feel obliged to follow tradition. Let's be conscientious and try to approach issues around peace and sacrifice with open hearts and minds.