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(en) Britain, Anarchist-communist Common Action: Thousands of jobs at stake, yet all is quiet on the Leftist front

Date Fri, 18 Jan 2013 17:10:46 +0200

So the news this week is the now-familiar story of High Street titans going into administration, with only Deloitte set to gain from their collapse as thousands of jobs are put at risk. Joining the long line of has-beens (remember Woolworths, JJB, Our Price, Comet…) and the recent closure of Jessops (costing 1370 jobs), HMV and Blockbuster have declared their insolvency. They have between them around 8700 jobs at stake. ---- Cue a series of bizarre claims about the situation from the ‘loony left’. Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy claimed the demise of HMV was due to letting Amazon off the tax hook. Nothing to do with rising rents, a stagnant customer base, and online competitors having superior distribution models and lower costs of variable capital then… Unfortunately this type of delusion is the result of viewing the economy through the newly-popular lens of ‘tax justice’.

‘Traditional’ models of retailing such as those found in so many High Street stores are fast becoming outmoded by their online counterparts, which have cheaper prices, fewer staff to employ and are able to provide quick, cheap and hassle-free distribution. In just five years internet sales have increased from comprising under 4% of national retail sales (excluding petrol), to over 10%. Last annum, internet spending grew 25%. This week as Blockbuster went into administration, online streaming websites Netflix and Lovefilm were pointed at as the main source of the rental store’s struggles, alongside cheap DVD prices provided by supermarkets.

Similarly, while HMV was initially able to cash in on the demise of Woolworths, Virgin Megastore and Zavvi, the only surviving national music store now has nowhere to go and missed the online boat a long time ago. The Financial Times said this week that HMV’s closure would have an “irreversible negative impact on the entertainment industry” with record labels and distributors particularly concerned. In the last 10 years, online downloads of music and film have rocketed from 6.5% to 73.4%, without taking pirate downloads into consideration. The blame is particularly being aimed at iTunes, which by far has a monopoly on music downloads, and Amazon, which is most popular for DVDs, CDs and books, as well as electrical items. Such is the anger directed at Amazon from the High Street, that recently even James Daunt, Waterstones boss, labelled the online company a “ruthless, money-making devil”.

While there has been limited speculation that HMV’s decline could benefit independent retailers, the headline story has been the 4500 jobs at risk as long as there exists the threat of closure. Notably, there has been a silence from the majority of the ‘left’. Aside from Mr Hundal’s (ahem) insightful input mentioned above, the most significant contribution came from the Socialist Party youth campaign, ‘Youth Fight for Jobs’, tweeting: “Govt should nationalise #HMV to save jobs… Invest in #job creation & make the 1% pay for it!”

Yes, really, the nationalisation of a CD shop.

The ‘1%’ reference and re-hashed and irrelevant Keynesian sentiment aside (transglobal companies often have the means to avoid potential constraints nation states may place upon them), we should be aware that while these mass redundancies are being threatened, those who claim to be on the side of the workers (anarchist communists included) are too often either coming up with bizarre solutions or remaining silent. The case of HMV is becoming typical, which is all the more reason for it to be of interest to us. What would be the best option from the workers’ point of view? Strike action in this instance could seem self-defeating as it would potentially bring the closure date forward. Indeed we cannot ignore that HMV is insolvent. Perhaps the most appealing option would be to strip the company’s assets and redistribute the surplus to the workers? There is no clear cut answer, but these are the kind of discussions we need to be having if we want to relate to the real problems we are presented with.

Furthermore, we might ask how, as communists, we relate to this shift in distribution model. Clearly it is successful in satisfying an existing desire, as can be extrapolated from the rise in internet retail spending; however it also requires fewer workers in the process, and compliments the UK government’s ambitions of making Britain more ‘competitive’ by undercutting labour standards. Given that union density in the traditional retail sector is already sparse, how do we need to augment our ideas now that retail is moving online? It is worth noting here that current attacks on postal workers are often shrouded in the guise that mail is becoming ‘outmoded’ – interesting as online retailers rely on it. Currently, it seems that leftists are unwilling to move out of their comfort zone, particularly when it comes to supporting workers in the service sector (which makes up over 78% of the economy – ONS) where work is so often especially precarious. We need to overcome this attitude if we genuinely want to make communist ideas a leading alternative in public discourse.

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