Source Direct: Lost from the Supermarket

Retail data shows that the public health crisis should not disguise an imminent economic emergency.

A SUCCESSION OF grim headlines suggest that the pandemic will continue to dominate our lives in 2021. The new strain continues its surge through the UK: in Scotland there are concentrations in areas like Stranraer, Hawick and parts of Glasgow. There are further curbs on international passengers arriving in England and Scotland. And retail data shows that the public health crisis should not disguise an imminent economic emergency.

Compared to the previous Christmas period, footfall on Scotland’s highstreets was cut in half. Our shopping capital, Glasgow, according to the Scottish Retail Consortium, was “down massively”, registering a fall of nearly 60 percent. Anyone who travelled to Buchanan Street during the Christmas peak will have felt it. Reluctantly, I made the journey on the 23rd of December, and while the town wasn’t empty, there was nothing like the usual festive hordes. It was like 3pm on a normal, grim workday rather than the annual frenzy.

For almost a year, our economy has been kept on life support by unprecedented injections of government support. The furlough scheme has persisted far longer than most thought economically possible. Naturally, this means the edicts of the old, post-Thatcherite economic order are in the historical bin, but the return of “big government” should not disguise the challenges or the injustices.

Changes to shopping and city centre life are a major contributor. Workers in hospitality and retail have suffered the brunt of the pandemic, making up a large chunk of the job losses: hospitality alone accounts for a third. Even those who still have jobs experience nothing like precautionary home working privileges. Usdaw, the shop worker’s trade union, suggests that staff receive “unprecedented levels” of abuse and violence during the pandemic, with 76 percent reporting that abuse was “worse than normal”. A Co-op spokesperson likewise admitted that violence, abuse and antisocial behaviour had become “normalised” which “impacts the mental and physical welfare of frontline shop workers”.

Of course, the collapse of high streets has not put an end to shopping. Instead, a massive reorganisation of capitalism has concentrated power in the online titans. This is shown in new data, also today, on demand for commercial property, which is falling in central Glasgow but booming in out-of-town spaces demanded by logistics firms. New, low paid and equally unpleasant modes of working have emerged, principally in data-driven warehousing and delivery. Ken Loach’s excellent Sorry We Missed You was only released in 2019, but after the pandemic, the exploitative practices and attendant miseries dramatised in that film are even more normalised.

It’s not a new idea that capitalism evolves through crises which impose new patterns on our lives. And it’s not just a Marxist notion: it’s the central claim of the greatest of capitalist economists, Joseph Schumpeter, captured in his idea (popular with Thatcher) of “creative destruction”. That said, the magnitude of this crisis means that even the most libertarian governments have been unwilling to let the market rip. The result would have been catastrophic. So, the winners and losers of this pandemic are thoroughly dependent on state support. Capitalism today is inseparable from it.

Which simply highlights the absence of creative agendas from the anti-capitalist left. It is difficult to mourn the imminent death of high street behemoths like Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. But the post-pandemic economy will force us to reimagine city spaces in a world where the market has run out of answers. And while this all feels unprecedented, it equally feels like just the beginning. This is a trial run for the overdue changes demanded by climate change, and it’s unclear that the old business models are capable of saving themselves or worthy of saving.