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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.

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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.