Friday, November 22, 2013
The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas
I like flash mobs. Not the ones that steal your iPhone, of course, but the ones that speak truth to power or offer a moment of entertainment to an unsuspecting crowd. The best flash mobs do both, actually--they're entertaining and truth-telling at the same time. They might even steal your iPhone to make a point. Here's a good one that took place in Grand Central Station in New York, put on by Improv Everywhere. The best flash mobs I've come across are not those I've experienced first hand. My favorite is set at Christmastime, when a handbell choir gradually assembles around a Salvation Army bell ringer to transform his annoying ring into something transcendent. But right up there next to it is the cash mob. A cash mob is when a group of people prearrange to descend on a purveyor of some good or service with their business. National Record Store Day is a kind of cash mob, although it's specific to an industry rather than a particular shop. I first read of cash mobs when a small, family-owned hardware store was found to be planning to close due to business lost to the big boxes, and area residents decided not to wait till the closeout sales to bring the store some business. Rather than conducting themselves as vultures, residents renewed their commitment to the store and its owners. Who knows how long that commitment actually lasted, but it certainly was unusual enough to make the newspapers that week. What I like about cash mobs is that they recognize that our consumer activity is fundamentally moral and personal; it's culture-shaping no matter how unconsciously we approach it. Such is life in the twenty-first century that more of us are consumers than producers, and so our responsible participation in the life of our community is, as much as anything, a matter of how we spend our money. But we're besieged with invitations and enticements to imagine that our money has nothing to do with our community, nothing to do with our neighbors. So we buy from Home Depot and WalMart and Amazon, understanding (rightly) that real people work for those institutions but failing to recognize that those institutions' commitment to us and our neighbors could only ever be mercenary. They are too big to care--too remote and diffuse, with their accountabilities directed to shareholders spread throughout the world, to bother being concerned whether even their own store in your community, with all its employees, lives or dies. So I'd like to propose that we care in their place. This holiday season, I propose that we commit ourselves afresh to our neighbors, that we emulate the loving act of God moving into our neighborhood through the birth of Christ by moving our money into the coffers of shops and service professionals who have themselves forsaken the convenience and ease of becoming a cog in a multinational machine and instead rooted themselves in your place, for your time. I'd like to propose . . . The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas! Here's how my friends and I envision this working: 1. Conspire with a few other people. It might be your family over Thanksgiving dinner, or your friends over Facebook, or members of your church during a boring sermon. Ten to twenty people would be good; twenty to fifty would be wild. My coworkers and I are hovering around seven now, with a few other prospects waiting in the wings. 2. Brainstorm four local, non-franchised businesses that would be blessed and not cursed by a sudden blast of business during the holiday season. 3. Make a schedule. Advent 2013 begins December 1 and ends December 24, so there's plenty of time to make it happen. My coworkers and I will be doing it on our lunch break or at the end of four workdays. 4. Commit to each person spending at least $10 per business on each business's allotted days. This was a sticking point for me and my friends, especially when we were thinking of this as the Twelve Cash Mobs of Christmas. So we made the dollar amount optional. In any case, depending on the store, the goal of giving a business your business might best be met by pooling your money. For example, maybe you and your neighbors could all go in together on a shared snow blower, bought from your local small-motor mechanic. 5. Go and do. Feel free to recruit more conspirators for each cash mob. Anyway, that's my idea. It's not perfect--we live under the shadow a multinational economic oligarchy, and establishing an independent alternative economy is nigh on impossible. But at least it's local, and it's personal. It might even be entertaining. I suppose it'll be whatever you make it--which is, I suppose, the definition of a conspiracy. In the meantime, here's video of Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce, my favorite flash mob, and one of my favorite ways of invoking the season that is now nearly upon us.