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Hurricane Sandy: Enemy of Fordism?

When it rans, it pours. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hurricane Sandy had lingering effects on Christmas shopping this season:

The annual holiday shop-a-thon drew to a muted close for many retailers, according to preliminary data, reflecting what some experts said was the slowest growth in spending since the 2008 recession. […]

This year, “it’s a lost season,” said Michael McNamara, Spending Pulse’s vice president of research and analysis. “Sales and volume are about the same as last year, but the growth was marginal.”

He and other analysts said a steep sales decline in the mid-Atlantic states that were walloped by superstorm Sandy dragged down the overall tally.

Not to minimize the devastation of Sandy or the suffering it left in its wake, but it’s worth reflecting on whether the trend to an ever more frenetic and materialistic holiday season is a such a great idea in the first place. The hyper-commercialized Christmas season we have come to know is a product of large social forces, and as our society changes, our Christmas celebration will change with it.

The commercial calm after the storm may be a pointer towards where our society is heading. One of the downsides of Fordist or blue model industrial society is the combination of alienating work (like manufacturing jobs) with empty mass consumption that it both enables and drives. In the vicious cycle of a Fordist society, people try to make up for meaning-poor work with frivolous consumption patterns that fail to substantially enrich their lives. Dad never sees the kids so he gives them shiny gifts, and because the reality of adult work is so grim, childhood gets idealized as a world of pure consumption and play.

Christmas in a Fordist society bears a lot of weight; the grim world of work and production is banished into the background and for a few days families are (supposedly) united and consumption is the order of the day. In agricultural societies, Christmas was a time of feasting, but families worked and celebrated together all the time. Children, parents and grandparents worked side by side in the house and in the fields. Extended families saw each other all year round, rather than on a few special occasions. Our holiday celebrations are so intense in part because we are trying to cram so much into them that in former times was spread throughout the year.

In any case, few in 1900 would recognize or really approve of the commercial false-paradise into which the holiday had evolved by the year 2000. There are many more presents under the tree now, but the families gathered to open them are much weaker.

We don’t yet know what an information society will be like—it will have its own flaws and challenges. But, with the appropriate policies to help it along, America has an opportunity to get beyond Fordism, to find a new social model that is better than blue, and to find a way of life that is richer and more fully human than rotating endlessly between the factory, the mall and the arches of gold. An economy and a society that revolve less around big box factories and big box retailers just might be an improvement.

It is not written in the stars that every Christmas has to be more materialistic and over the top than the last one. There are many homes in the northeast where there are fewer presents but more love this year than last; that isn’t always such a bad thing. But our hope this season shouldn’t be for more hurricanes and disasters to remind more of us about what really matters. Our goal should be to build richer and more fulfilling lives as we move into a more affluent and interesting post-industrial world.

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