Small Business Friendly: The manifesto of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) or "Nazis" promised fulsome state support for the small businessperson against the depredations of monopoly capitalism. Department stores, in particular, were singled out. Had they existed at the time, supermarkets would undoubtedly have been similarly targeted for their sins against the "little guys".
IT WAS THE SIXTEENTH POINT of the Nazi Party’s 25-point programme. Adolf Hitler and his comrades, in the interests of creating and conserving a “healthy middle class”, demanded “the immediate communalisation of the great warehouses” [today we’d call them department stores] “and their being leased at low cost to small firms”. Nor was the Nazi Party’s concern for the survival of small businesses limited to the forcible break-up of their largest competitors. Point 16 of the party programme also insisted that “the utmost consideration” be given to all small firms “in contracts with the State, county and municipality.”
All of which goes to show how mistaken Shane Jones was in his choice of historical metaphors when he described New Zealand’s supermarkets as: “the brown-shirts of the food industry”. There can be little doubt that had supermarkets existed in Weimar Germany, Hitler’s sturmabteilung (brown-shirts) would have been found on the outside picketing, not on the inside panicking.
Which is not to say that Mr Jones’ extraordinary attack on Progressive Enterprises is evidence of anything other than inspirationally populist political instincts. His superbly crafted attack, delivered under parliamentary privilege during last Wednesday’s “General Debate”, certainly ticked all the populist boxes.
First, it tugged at our nationalist heart-strings by pitting ruthless Australian supermarket owners against hard-pressed Kiwi suppliers. New Zealanders were already smarting from the two largest Australian supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, decision to remove New Zealand products from their shelves as part of the “Buy Australian” campaign.
Mr Jones sensed that for his Kiwi audience this was just one more poke in the eye with a sharp stick. One more undeserved insult to add to all the others we’ve copped from our cobbers across the ditch.
No vote. No superannuation. No dole. Yeah, cheers mate!
And now we hear that these Aussie bastards are negotiating “robustly” with acutely vulnerable Kiwi battlers. To hell with that!
Second, Mr Jones’s speech was directed at the small-to-medium enterprise (SME) sector. The place where so many of Labour’s erstwhile working-class voters have ended up. There’s upwards of quarter-of-a-million going concerns in New Zealand and more than four-fifths of these are small-to-medium. Many are family-based businesses. Others owe their existence to a fat redundancy cheque and the working man’s long-cherished dream of becoming his own boss. All of them are fragile economic entities. None of them enjoy being squeezed.
But squeezed they have been – ever since the consolidation of capitalism in the fourth quarter of the Nineteenth Century. The period 1875-1900 was the age of Carnegie and Rockefeller in the United States; the age of octopus-like monopolies and price-fixing trusts; the age of cut-throat competition and conspicuous consumption; the age of capitalist “Robber Barons”. It was not the age of the small-to-medium business owner. As capitalism got bigger, being the owner of a small business got harder.
Hitler’s contempt for this sort of capitalism is clearly expressed in the pages of his autobiography, Mein Kampf:
“The various nations began to be more and more like private citizens who cut the ground from under one another’s feet, stealing each other’s customers and orders, trying in every way to get ahead of one another, and staging this whole act amid a hue and cry as loud as it is harmless.
This development seemed not only to endure but was expected in time (as was universally recommended) to remodel the whole world into one big department store in whose vestibules the busts of the shrewdest profiteers and the most lamblike administrative officials would be garnered for all eternity.”
That the Nazi leader’s preference was to remodel the whole world into one boundless slaughterhouse was, of course, the measure of his madness. But the passage quoted above does demonstrate the ease with which nationalist demagogues like Hitler could whip up animosity against big business. Nor should we forget how appealing was the vision they presented of the volksgemeinschaft – the people’s community. In a world from which all class distinctions had been eliminated and where the people’s welfare had become the greatest good, the depredations of big business would have no place.
That even as they prattled this pretty fairy tale to the German masses, the Nazis were accepting huge donations from some of Germany’s largest and most ruthless capitalist enterprises, indicates the futility of trying to halt the relentless advance of capitalism grown large.
Mr Jones undoubtedly struck a nerve with his attack upon Progressive Enterprises. But is he really suggesting that our supermarkets cease securing the lowest possible prices for their customers? Is he willing to promise their suppliers a minimum price for the produce on offer – effectively a pledge to subsidise the supermarkets’ profitability?
It is never wise to expose the blood on capitalism’s teeth and claws unless you are equally willing to pull them out.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 February 2014.