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Death of a superstore: thoughts on BHS, neoliberalism and feminized labour

Losing a high profile chain from the high street (or shopping center) is a big, nostalgic deal. Mention Woolworths and you’ll typically bring forth misty-eyed recollections of pick ‘n’ mix and Pokémon trading card Fridays (that might have just been me); Blockbusters has been immortalized in movie and meme. The recent collapse of British Home Stores (BHS) is rumored to be but the first in another tranche of old warhorses soon to fall victim to the Invisible Hand.  As the final burial of BHS draws closer, three entwined conversations will be had: on the radio, on those Channel 4 segments, on Question Time. One will detail the various ways in which BHS’ business model, its engagement in a competitive market, fell short. Mary Portas wrote on this subject last week:

To separate yourself from the pack, you have to be the best in practice, whatever that means for your particular business. That can be across different things: the best fashion, the best product, the best price, the best social experience, the most desirable, the most innovative or simply the most wanted because you’ve got a brilliant brand. Sadly, British Home Stores was none of those.

The next conversation will focus on the human cost of such a large business failure: 11,000 jobs directly under threat, the giant question mark[et] over pension obligations which could affect over 20,000 current and ex- workers, and the inhospitable environment for jobseekers in a retail sector that has struggled since the 2007 financial crisis. The knock-on consequences for nearby businesses, adjoined now to massive empty units, will no doubt be equally sizeable. The delivery-truck drivers who brought stock, the outsourced cleaners, the security: 11,000 is by no means a suitable guestimate of the number of jobs which will be lost, nor the number of working hours soon to be deemed unnecessary. Across multiple businesses, further pressure for low-hour contracts will be ramped up.

Finally, we will hear plenty of hand-wringing over the nefarious doings of a variety of individuals, mainly beginning with “Phillip” and often ending with “Glass”. These individuals will be anointed with the retrospective “responsibility” for BHS’ mismanagement and grisly demise. Hand-wringing is typically a slimy, occasionally squeaky noise. It has a short lifespan before it starts to cloy. Thankfully, we don’t generally speaking need to find too many arbiters for this kind of responsibility. Bernie Madoff, one single human being, quite successfully managed to become the poster-boy for the Ponzi Scheme dynamics of an entire financial system. Somewhere in the ether critical economist Hyman Minksy wept into his spreadsheets, as the 2008 financial crisis became increasingly framed a failure of morals. Too many wolves of Wall St., too many mini-Madoffs, had corrupted our system.

You might remember the lament of Harriet Harman: if only it had been Lehman Sisters! The female (or should that be feminine?) propensity for caution, borne of generational oppression, would have prevented these rotten apples from getting into the pilot’s cabin and doing an Icarus. If you don’t remember that’s okay, because I now want to make several claims which also seek to locate the role of gender in neoliberal political economy. They are more useful interventions, if only because they reject the implicit stability of gender performance Harman’s hypothesis rested on. Through these claims, I intend to open up an alternative interpretative space which synthesizes these conversations, all of which have some merit but which, without a critical dimension, remain isolated from one another and limited to an aesthetic response. The conceptual glue which holds these claims together is an acknowledgment of the multiscalar impact of feminized labour.

  1. Neoliberal common sense has mad love for the retail sector

I have hypothesized before about the ways in which neoliberalism has utilized changing subjectivities of “radical, emancipatory” love in order to pursue its own reproduction. It remains a wooly theoretical apparatus: part- Deleuzian lament, part- identity politics. The tale of BHS is a tale of a different kind of love: the value that neoliberalism places on the services sector, which accounts for – by conservative estimates – anything from 26% of the total British workforce. Within this, the retail sector employs some 2.9m workers: it is the UK’s largest private sector source of employment.

The “age of austerity” dictates that the unemployed require a damn good explanation for their “work-shy” lives: retail work provides a neoliberalist valve for those out of work. Why is this?

Unprofessional, low-paid, flexible hours, feeble union representation: the retail sector idealizes a feminized workforce, and this is a quintessentially neoliberal impulse. Since the turn of the century and in the post-2007 reorganisation, developments like the death of defined benefit pensions and a stalling of mandatory corporate social responsibility charters have made the sector internally more disciplined to the neoliberal tune. Further, the oft-cited decline in manufacturing, the polarisation of skilled and non-skilled work and the clumsy introduction of universal credit as a symbolic as much as practical warning against “shirking” has afforded the sector a paradoxical importance, just as its workforce faces extra pressures and a less stable environment. Often the solitary requirement for working retail is some experience on the shop-floor (which can be acquired via unpaid volunteering in charity shops, or forced through by DWP programs designed to “get people back to work”) and a willingness or need for income that supersedes any qualms about short-shifts, irregular shifts, weekend working or poor pay.

  1. The failure of BHS changes nothing

What has happened to BHS ought to be criminal. It might end up being considered so, legally. Unfortunately, until there is a rigorous re-appraisal of the importance of the services sector and retail work – in capitalist democracies generally, as well as specifically in the UK – the pattern of BHS’ decline will be repeated. Quietly, perhaps, but you can be sure that it is those already existing in the sector’s ample precariat who will absorb the damage.

This is no humanist doom-mongering either. Portas is correct in her appreciation of the role of online entrepreneurialism as an influence on shriveling high streets and shopping centers. The success of Uber-esque sites like Etsy, and the lowering of barriers when it comes to individual sellers, shows no signs of abating. For every example of individuals making big money through doing their business here in [micro] cyberspace, there are many more users making smaller sums to supplement their income. The result is a development of the neoliberal maxim of the “human capital” doctrine. One is presumed to have a base online presence, now one can hope to use that “brand” to sell within their own communities and abroad. It is an internecine dynamic, which threatens the smaller- and medium-sized businesses that exist between the Gap, if you will.

You would be forgiven for assuming we should pit the two relatively small-scale industries against each other as dialectical, but there is little inherently dangerous about individual sellers. Indeed small-businesses often compliment their shop-floors with their own selling websites, ebay and Amazon stores. The sellers themselves are disproportionately women who work at home: an archetypal customer for many high street sellers. The problem is in the policymaking that has skewered the market architecture around which physically existing businesses operate. Rate relief following 2007 has ended. Rents remain high (“stubborn” doesn’t do justice to the longevity of this problem). It is not hard to conclude from this parallax that the constructivist arm of neoliberal ideology does not extend to the rentier market, and that  it is big business which will enjoy the privileges of scale as well as tax assistance (let’s call it that…) before having their pension schemes semi “rescued” when the bottom falls out. This is the new, warped, Invisible Hand, an increasingly distant relative to Smith’s first approximation.

Further, the warning signs over the particular problem of pension funding dot the industry’s recent history. The UK’s Pension Protection Fund (PPF) warned just last year that the pension regulator required increased robustness when judging the plausibility of company pension funding. The stagnation of sales on the UK’s high streets has become an axiom. If, as we know, it is the lower-paid workers who will have their lives most brutally altered by the neoliberal common sense, how then should we confront the task of resistance?

  1. Retail unionization over more women in boardrooms

The theory that having more women in boardrooms influencing corporate strategy at the highest echelons will inevitably result in a spike of humanist policymaking has been firmly rebuked – most firmly, as it happens, by feminist scholars (see Griffin, 2015). And yet, the myth continues to reproduce itself. I suggest here that the “feminine” is understood almost exclusively as subservient to “money-blind” business acumen. More precisely, the neoliberal common sense argues for all the difference and diversity under the sun: that sun is the bottom line, however, and it is inequality as a natural phenomenon. Thus, we can have Facebook offering their users over twenty options of “Gender” so long as they acquiesce to demands for great mining of their data generation. This is the dialogue on gender that neoliberalism permits: “can women break the glass ceiling? / anyone can become a woman!” Funnily enough, neither conversation explicitly tackles the feminization of labour so characteristic of neoliberal societies. So, we have the actual “issue” of precarious working conditions elided via the false antagonism over whether women make better neoliberal leaders, or whether neoliberal societies are ignoring institutionalized sexism in favour of “identifying out of oppression”.

The lesson from the plight of BHS workers is that only certain types of work are considered worthy of organisation. That work might be heavily gendered, as is the retail sector, but gender only exists under neoliberalism insofar as it can be monetized. Thus, the feminization of labour is not an issue of gender – though it might be enforced by sexist and racist norms – it is an issue of profit. This is most clearly demonstrated in the political conversation over a national minimum wage, in which the “anti-” position often boils down to a belief that untrained work should not have its remuneration dictated by national standards, let alone internationally. It’s an uncontroversial belief too, but it does create problems for those still attached to a “back to work” model of welfare state: if people cannot attain a mobile standard of living through the work that neoliberalism relies on, then they are lost as failures of human capital.

If the genitals of who runs these companies – or the regulatory bodies that poke them into reform – has negligible impact on their chosen priorities, and yet there is an expectation that swathes of the retail workforce ought to silently accept the violence implicit in a communicative-capitalist feminization, where do we go? I follow two impulses here, one somewhat quaint, the other esoteric. In the case of the latter, we should embrace Occupy’s “demand the impossible” mantra. What is the “impossible” utopia in the retail sector? It’s quite boring: regular hours, a living wage, a guaranteed pension scheme. This need not even counteract the other leftist dream, a Universal Basic Income and the end of the fetishisation of work: decent pay in services in fact makes complete sense within the world outlined in the second half of Srnicek and Williams’ “Inventing the Future”. At the same time we could do a lot worse than recalling the twentieth-century socialism of organisation: unionize retail workers. It’s been attempted before, though the vitriol that greeted striking McDonald’s workers points to the ideological transformation that is required to garner popular support for such a movement.

In sum, resistance to the mundanity of BHS’ collapse means resistance to neoliberal common sense. It means the end of retail and services’ relegation to the fag-end of national workforces. It also implies radicalism: championing the struggle and the precarity of those in sector, and supporting an enhancement of their labour power, remains as distant a dream as a revolution.

Sources

Griffin, P. (2015) crisis, austerity and gendered governance: a feminist perspective feminist review 109: 49-72

Portas, M. (2016) How I would have saved BHS The Guardian 25th April https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/apr/25/mary-portas-how-i-would-have-saved-bhs

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso)hqdefault

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