It is a scene that is repeated with ritualistic certainty every year. Hordes of people spend hours queuing outside shops and malls, waiting for the doors of these temples to Mammon to open and grant admission to those brave or foolish enough to make this journey. The second entry is finally granted, a surging sea of humanity pushes forward with roars of anticipation drowning out the screams and yells of those unfortunate enough to be trampled under the onslaught. Terrified staff can only look on in helpless disbelief as men, women, and children literally fight for possession of the shiny trinkets and objects lining the shelves. Fists, elbows, knees, legs, and even teeth are liberally employed to ward off potential competition, as well as to deprive others of their loot, and those lacking in physical fortitude and sheer ferocity can only look on with covetous hunger at the ones who make their way to the checkout counters, proudly displaying their spoils for all to see. It is an ugly picture, one that depicts humanity giving in to the baser instincts of greed, lust, and violence.

For the blessedly uninitiated, Black Friday is an unfortunate Americanism, exported from the United States to the rest of the world, that involves retailers slashing the prices of their goods on the day following Thanksgiving. Consumers have historically responded to this by gladly, and frenetically, emptying their wallets to take advantage of reduced prices on items ranging from designer clothes to electronics, and it is perhaps fitting that this orgy of consumption immediately follows a holiday dedicated to eating excessively while simultaneously glossing over and ignoring the genocide of the Native Americans displaced by the first European settlers. With tens of billions of dollars being spent on Black Friday in the United States, retailers across the world have launched similar initiatives in an attempt to garner a similar response from their own consumers, and 2015 arguably marked the first real stab at doing this in Pakistan.

It is too early to tell whether or not retailers in this country were able to replicate the success of their North American counterparts. What we do know is that Pakistan’s major cities did witness lines and fights not dissimilar to those seen elsewhere; in a video that has since gone viral, dozens of women waiting outside an upscale clothing retailer in Lahore were filmed engaging in the hair-pulling, punching, and insult-trading that has been the hallmark of the Black Friday experience around the globe. Similarly, various online stores were found to be crashing throughout the day, undoubtedly owing to an inability to cater to the sudden surge in demand that followed their blanket advertising campaigns.

While much of the commentary on Black Friday in Pakistan has focused on the lack of decorum displayed by shoppers, there is a deeper malaise at work that merits investigation. For one, the barbarity associated with Black Friday is not unexpected it is, after all, nothing more than a manifestation of contemporary consumer capitalism shorn of its quotidian civility, exposing the ruthless competition, unbridled accumulation, and selfish individualism that underpins the economic order. It should not be surprising to find that a system premised on greed and the pursuit of self-interest at all costs produces people who embody these values in their day-to-day interactions. The images produced on Black Friday might appear shocking due to the sheer scale involved, but the truth is that this happens all the time. One need only witness the frenzy that accompanies lawn launches in Pakistan, or the opening of a major fast food franchise, to find proof of this.

However, this represents only part of the picture. As the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse insightfully argued, consumerism is a means of ideological control that is essential to the perpetuation of the capitalist system; across the world, capitalism and its relentless drive for profit and accumulation necessitates that workers engage in far more labour than would actually be required to meet their essential needs.

More often than not, this also involves being employed in alienating, stultifying jobs that provide little outlet for creativity and expression, reducing most people to being cogs in faceless, corporate machines. Nonetheless, all of this is justified by the mantra that buying things can make people happy; advertising manufactures wants, and the very same people producing goods nobody actually needs end up being convinced than purchasing them is the key to fulfillment and happiness. The more they produce, the more they buy and so on. Capitalism might sow the seeds of its own destruction, as Marx once predicted, but it also contains within itself the mechanisms for its reproduction.

Seen this way, Black Friday starts to look less like a celebration of capitalism and more like a collective cry for help, with people fighting tooth and nail to secure plastic trinkets and electronic gizmos that might help them feel just a tiny bit better about themselves and their lives. Such relief would, of course, be short-lived, courtesy of unending advertising and the promotion of aspirational lifestyles, both of which constantly tell consumers that they need to buy the newest, flashiest, and shiniest versions of the goods they just procured in order to find meaning in their lives; smartphones with screens that are a quarter-inch larger, televisions boasting qualities undetectable to the human eye, and clothes with patterns marginally different from those that came before, all are goods that nobody needs but which manage, nonetheless, to fuel an unending cycle of consumption.

That this is self-defeating should be obvious. In addition to the ecological cost of a model premised on unlimited expansion, and the human cost of competition for raw materials in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the fact that much of this consumption is fuelled by credit automatically demonstrates its limits (see, for instance, the nearly catastrophic effects of the 2008 financial crisis). A more rational assessment of the global economy would suggest that the solution – to the contradictions of capitalism and the alienation it produces – would be to shift to an economic system geared towards meeting essential needs through sustainable production while providing people with the freedom to work as much as they need to, rather than enslaving them at the altar of endless profit. That such talk is often viewed as heresy in telling in and of itself.

There is one final factor that bears consideration in the Pakistani context. As has been pointed out elsewhere by my colleague Umair Javed, the ‘retail revolution’ that is currently being seen in Pakistan, manifesting itself in the massive malls and shops now dotting the landscape in the country’s largest cities, is overwhelmingly skewed towards providing goods and services to the elite. That this is problematic is self-evident, as it demonstrates the growing inequality and deprivation that is characterizing Pakistan. What it also shows, however, is the importance attached to conspicuous consumption; the people fighting over clothes on Friday were not part of a dispossessed subordinate class. They were elements of the elite, aiming to acquire baubles that could be used to demonstrate their wealth and status in the bubbles they inhabit that insulate them from the squalor and deprivation that surrounds them. What is more interesting, however, is that even the elite, with all their money, power, and privilege, are ultimately so insecure that they physically fight each other in the hope that buying things will make them feel better.