Show Hide image

Occupy Black Friday, says Laurie Penny

The yearly sales are a short-term sugar rush, in a world where true security is impossible.

Discount shoppers are not the 1% - and activists must remind them that another world is possible.

It's 1am on a Friday morning, and all over America, as the country jerks and plunges towards economic calamity, people are fighting each other over cheap chocolates and discount shoes. This is Black Friday, an annual festival of cultish consumerism with some shops marking down their wares to 50 per cent, and it is as much a part of the Thanksgiving holiday as cranberry sauce and football.

This year Black Friday has started earlier than ever -- just after midnight in some cities. People pitch tents and queue outside their shopping temple of choice for hours. This is one unauthorised public camping party that city officials like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are happy to indulge, despite the fact that in previous years people have died in stampedes to get into major stores. So much for health and safety concerns.

Outside Macy's, the New York department store, a handful of protesters from Occupy Wall Street have attempted to "Occupy Black Friday": standing in front of the main doors to block the queue before being moved along by security, chanting "shame!" and "stop shopping!" at the throngs of people rushing into the store. "We stopped Black Friday!", one of them tells me. "We won!"

It is unlikely, however, that the people queuing outside Macy's all night in the hopes of getting their hands on a half-price handbag are members of the "one per cent". The one per cent don't have to wait in the cold or shop in sales to get pointless bits of flashy kit. The thousands of people who surge into Macy's after the doors open, flocking excitedly around racks of belts and bags festooned with teasing red stickers that suggest people on an average wage might just about be able to afford them -- those people are not Senators, bank directors or hedge fund managers. They are office workers and small business owners and tourists and temps and teachers. They are the American middle class, and countless thousands of them are prepared to stay up all night during their precious holidays and enter the special circle of hell that is sales shopping. Yes, it is somewhat galling to those who have begun to invest time and energy in building a ground-up anti-corporate counter-culture that so many human beings can be roused from their beds for shopping, when they might be striking or occupying a major urban thoroughfare. One suspects, however, that the required level of socio-economic consciousness-raising will not be achieved by twenty activists with the look of people who have been sleeping outdoors for most of the past two months, shouting at them in the street.

There are a lot of lazy metaphors I could use to describe the organised chaos inside Macy's. I could talk about the shoppers, bundled in their winter coats and milling mindlessly around piles of sweaters and jeans, some of them already loaded with swag-bags from Gap and Forever 21, as sheep, or cattle, or zombies. But that's too easy, both as a conceit and as a reading of consumerism. Yes, there is a certain glazed abstraction to the eyes of those cheerlessly turning over labels to look at prices, jostling and shoving past fellow shoppers without really seeing them -- but it is not inhuman.

It is, in fact, painfully human. It's about craving, and the chase. It is about wanting to seize small pieces of luck and luxury for yourself and your loved ones in a world in which real wealth -- secure, comfortable places to live, safe and supportive communities, decent healthcare and education -- is almost universally the territory of the rich. It's the short-term sugar-rush of twenty-five per cent off a Michael Kors tote that feels like just enough to keep you from crashing. This is why we go shopping for things that we don't need and can't afford, even when quite a lot of us know better.

One of the remarkable things about the Occupy movement is how it has evolved into an alternative economy of care as well as a static series of protests. Earlier in the day, I spent time at the Thanksgiving celebrations in Liberty Square, where thousands of meals were distributed for free to the homeless and needy. Music played; people danced and smoked and chatted and made human connections whilst sticking it moderately to the man. If the movement wishes to continue to win hearts and minds, it is this generosity of spirit that its members must nurture. Outrage and indignation are not enough, and nor is yelling at shoppers in the street; activists must also persuade everyone else that another, better way of life is really possible. From my experience, free food is never a bad place to start.

In Macy's, thousands of stony-faced late-night bargain hunters scramble for the escalators under huge, sparkling holiday store signs, convinced that they are enjoying themselves. The store signs are round and red and animated by one enormous word, writing and rewriting itself in illuminated script. The word is "believe". Just that -- "believe" -- something between an exhortation and a plea for meaning. If activists can offer an answer to the implicit question "-- in what?", they will come closer to winning hearts and minds than any amount of street-corner shouting will achieve.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Celebrate Labour's electoral success – but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

0800 7318496