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A retail-led recovery? Get back to school. Primary school.

The gnashing of teeth over the failure of a retail-led economic recovery is the sound of the old order paralysed in a theoretical world where nothing works any more. Why is anyone still listening? 

Today we read that the momentary hope that everything was going to be ‘OK again’ as people started spending in the shops has been dashed because “latest figures showing February’s retail sales north of the Border were the worst for the month since records began”. It would be easy to write off the story as just more neoliberal-hope-yo-yo – that is the process where every day we are told that things are getting better simply by doing the same things we were doing when things were getting worse only to be informed the following day that despite all the previous day’s optimism actually things turn out not to be getting better at all.

This is the yo-yo effect that defines the Office for Budget Responsibility and all those bodies monitoring the economy (the IMF, the Bank of England and so on). These are entities which these days are defined by the word ‘revised’ – as in ‘we have revised our guesses’. Which is fine, so long as you keep in mind that in this context ‘revised’ really ought to mean ‘sorry, we were wrong again’ and not ‘we’re slightly adjusting our previous estimates which were broadly correct’.

These are the death-rattle of the old economic order. I do not mean by this that neoliberal economics is ‘nearly over’ or anything that encouraging. The ideology will remain, what is dying is the old description of the ideology. Shop your way to nirvana was the 1990s story which didn’t die until everyone finally noticed how the shopping was being paid for. Since we have had those who say ‘shop our way out of recession’ and others who seem to me to go even further down the road with ‘shop our way back to normality’. Which, in this view, is shopping. Again.

There are two telling points in this. The first is the change of the possessive – when the rich were getting richer and richer with no risk on the back of our indebted shopping sprees it was all about ‘you’, about ‘me’, about the individual. Now it is about ‘us’ and about ‘our’ and about the collectivity. So when things are going well for the rich we’re on our own but when things are going badly for the rich we’re all in it together. The idea of ‘socialism for the rich’ is properly understood in the realm of ‘too big to fail banks’ but it is not yet understood in attitudes to the entire economy. The responsibility for returning profitability to the high street belongs to us all.

That is the second telling point – that this joint responsibility is sold to us as being in all our interests. We shop our way into recovery. What we get in return is minimum wage checkout jobs and more personal debt. What they get is rich. The point is that the economics simply don’t stack up. How can there be no link between outputs and inputs? If the economy outputs fewer jobs and lower wages, how can it expect to receive higher retail inputs? If we know already that we were shopping on credit, spending money we didn’t have, how are we supposed to keep this up when we have less money and simultaneously less access to credit? It just makes no sense.

Anyone who is surprised that the high street isn’t leading economic recovery needs help. It isn’t even a matter of needing to go back to university, it is a matter of needing to go back to primary school. As in ‘if I have ten pence and someone takes away three pence, how much do I have left?’. It is time to pay attention. We had a period of growth based on more or less nothing. Some people got rich on our debt (housing or credit card) and those people kept pushing us to get them richer through more and more debt (although they called it ‘spending’). No-0ne was making anything, no-one was getting good jobs out of this retail bubble, it was just a system for transferring the debts of the ordinary person into the wealth of the rich person.

There is no conceptual way that this can work. There is no theoretical way that we can strip demand out of the economy in an anti-Keynsian strategy of deficit reduction while simultaneously growing the economy by hoping for a supply-led recovery in retail, a sector completely driven by market demand. It is nuts. It can’t work. And it is so obvious that we have to ask what the people running the show are thinking. The strategy only works even in theory if there is business diversification. Austerity means cutting back, so it means a reduction in retail activity. Personally I think that is to be welcomed – hyper-capitalism simply made us buy lots of rubbish we didn’t need and it will be better for our collective souls if we have some means of self-expression other than the credit card. But it most certainly precludes a retail-led fight-back.

The people who used to whisper into the ears of politicians are no longer whispering, they are slevering. If someone else doesn’t get this idiocy into a proper perspective we’re going to make an even bigger mess than we already have.

Robin McAlpine