Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Sixteenth Point

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.

17 comments:

Sanctuary said...

"...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..?"

You've completely missed the point. The supermarket duopoly extracts the lowest possible price from suppliers not to pass them on to consumers, but to export the fat margin as profits back to Australia.

Jan said...

Excuse me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Shane Jones saying anything about a guaranteed minimum price or even hinting that that was a good idea. He wasn't even saying anything about driving a hard bargain; it was the bad faith bargaining that was the point at issue, was it not?
As for Hitler, he did have some worthy ideas and attracted some good people to him at the beginning - it is possible for bad people to have good ideas - and it only slowly dawned on them that his insanity also drove him to extremely evil actions

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Chris, you should know better. While the Nazis began perhaps supporting small businesses eventually they did a deal with large businesses and forcibly liquidated businesses worth less than a number Reichmarks that I have forgotten since I was at school :-).

David said...

Fantastic blog which just goes to show that if you take an argument full circle (as in the case of Australian supermarkets) you end up in the same place as those you detest.

markus said...

The Nazi twin attacks on Big Business and the Labour Movement were always designed, in part, to appeal to the petit bourgeoisie. And the rural, small town and provincial-city middle (and especially lower-middle) classes certainly became their core constituency. Small-time and middle-sized farmers, small businessmen and self-employed tradesmen in the handicrafts industry (particularly in certain Protestant regions like Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg, East Prussia) were moving to the Nazis in appreciable numbers by 1928.

Which isn't necessarily the point of your post, but sometimes, you know, I do like to focus on your historical analogy rather than your substantive point, Chris.

Call me pedantic.

Victor said...

Chris

After a long string of fantastic posts from you, this one is a dud.

First of all, the current furore is not about claims that the supermarket chains were seeking lower prices for consumers but that they were trying to compensate head office for past losses.

Secondly, Shane Jones (of whom I am normally no fan) is suggesting that standover tactics have been used that go way beyond normal commercial practice.

Either he's right or he's wrong. If he's right, someone certainly needed to make a fuss.

Thirdly, I really don't know what to make of your reference to the alleged "futility of trying to halt the relentless advance of capitalism grown large".

Are you really recommending political quietism and acceptance of the tyranny of unalloyed market forces, until such time as the constantly postponed Golden Socialist Dawn illumines the skies? If not, what are you recommending?

Fourthly, whatever the Nazi party programme said, the high street boycotts were reserved for Jewish-owned businesses. Moreover, the slogans used to urge on the boycotts were clearly and explicitly antisemitic (e.g. "Deutsche! Wehrt Euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden!").

Many of Germany's big retail multiples were, as it happens, Jewish-owned, but the industries that really mattered (coal, steel, textiles, chemicals, shipbuilding and armaments)were not. Had they been, they too would have been targeted, if not by consumer boycotts than by some other means.

Moreover, the boycotts extended to small Jewish firms and non-multiple retail outlets as well as to the multiples.

Yes, of course, a hungry, depression-wracked nation was likely to respond with some sympathy to claims that the big stores were price-gouging, whether they were or not and whether or not Aryan small business could provide goods any cheaper (which it almost certainly couldn't).

But, essentially, the boycotts were an early foray in Hitler's ultimately genocidal war against the Jews. More immediately, they were a way of enabling the SA to let off steam in the months before it was crushed. Any other motivations were of trivial import.

Chris Trotter said...

Ouch! Victor - that's a bit harsh!

The purpose behind this column was to alert readers to the fact that, historically, the ideological drivers of campaigns launched in defence of the "small firm" come from the Right - not the Left.

And while I'm willing to concede that following the seizure of power in 1933 the 16th Point was played out in exclusively anti-Semitic terms, its inclusion in the NSDAP Programme was much more than a mere anti-Semitic flourish.

The "socialist" aspect of National Socialism was an important part of the Nazi appeal (even if it was a "socialism" aimed at artisans, peasants and the petit-bourgeoisie).

Attacking the big firms and landed estates and lamenting the demise of "Mom and Pop" retailing and peasant small-holdings formed an important part of the Nazis' appeal in the provincial cities and the rural east of Germany.

This was especially the case during the Great Depression when the Strasser brothers' more populist/socialist pitch to the German electorate began to threaten Hitler's dominant position within the Nazi Party.

As for not being able to stop the advance of capitalism grown large: well, that's a conclusion drawn from simple observation, Victor.

The "Golden Socialist Dawn" seems further away than ever. And it will not be hastened by Shane Jones taking aim at Progressive Enterprises from his nationalistic, protect the "little guy", sniper's perch.

Just ask yourself, Victor: "What, precisely, would a victory for Jones entail?"

Ennui said...

Chris, well stated that the Nazis were both nationalist and "socialist" as a flavour If not by definition what we commonly understand as socialist.

Victor, to understand the above a very timely article on this appeared last week on the origins of the term "fascism". Go to http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.nz/ , Greer expands on the national and socialist aspects very well.

Victor said...

Chris

I never thought I'd hear you cry "mercy"! I really must apologise for any excessive brutality.

I agree that the "Socialist" element in National Socialism was part of its appeal and, as previously discussed on your website, I've never accepted that Fascism in general was simply reducible to capitalism with the gloves off.

But I thought we were primarily discussing the retail trade, Shane Jone's reference to Brownshirts inside the supermarkets and your contention that they'd be picketing outside.

And the fact remains that the very visible Nazi campaign against the retail trade was almost wholly antisemitic in both intent and accompanying rhetoric. It's not, therefore, particularly relevant to the current discussion.

I don't know what a strategic victory for Shane Jones would entail. But I'd certainly like to see a thorough investigation of the charges he's made.

And, tactically, he's clearly tapped into an interesting electoral vein, viz. that of consumer rage.

We could argue for eons as to who Labour's natural support base might now be in terms of objective roles in the process of production. It's now quite opaque as compared to, say, two thirds of a century ago. Moreover, consciousness of such roles is even more opaque.

So maybe consumer rage(with its potential to unite a wide coalition of "have-nots") is a more effective path to office. Certainly, Labour could do with such a path at this point.

And maybe a more apposite comparison might be with Margaret Thatcher and her shopping basket rather than with the brown swarm on the streets of Berlin.

Demagogic? Certainly. But isn't that what elections are about?

Victor said...

Ennui

Thanks for pointing me in the Arch Druid's direction.

I agree that Greer has done an excellent job, although I'm not sure what shape extremism of the centre would take in the current day United States.

I also think he's given Mussolini too easy a pass. Along with the thousands of Italian victims came hundreds of thousands from Spain, Libya, Ethiopia, Greece and Albania.

I agree though that some of these victims may well have died had Italy not had a Fascist regime but a Liberal Imperialist one of the sort that ruled the country prior to the March on Rome.

.....all of which, I suppose, takes us some distance from Shane Jones and the supermarkets.

Ennui said...

Victor, you are right about Benito getting away with a little, I think Greer would agree, he might however merely have been commenting on the regimes comparatively low rate of internal political homicide.

Pleased to point people at Greer, he is one of the more thoughtful characters in blogsphere even if you don't necessarily agree with him. Others who are fun and a good read I would recommend are Ugo Bardi, Dimitri Orlov and Kunstler, all great rattlers of the conceited cage of conventional wisdom. Locally there is of course Chris.....

markus said...

I think it's true to say that, initially, the Nazi rhetoric against big business was designed to win them support from urban workers but, of course, this strategy failed: the unionised industrial working class in Germany's larger cities remained largely immune to Hitler's appeal right through until his seizure of power in 1933.

To the Nazis great surprise, their first electoral breakthrough actually came in Protestant rural and small-town areas and so they began to tailor their appeal to peasants and the provincial petit bourgeoisie. Both of which considered big business and trade unionism (and its political expression in the SPD/KPD) as twin threats to their way of life.

Precisely the same petit bourgeoisie, incidently, that formed the core support-base of the rejuvinated Far Right Poujadists in 1950s France, Le Pen being their youth leader / youngest MP.

There you go - two comments and no mention whatsoever of Shane Jones and his current campaign.

peterpeasant said...

Jones"s reference to brown shirts was a little surprising. The Mafia would have been more appropriate. In fact ,as I recall he also referred to the Sopranos in his speech. Much more apposite.

Super market management are ruthless, brutal and bullying.

I have worked there at various levels over many years.

Anyone remember how Woolworths treated NZ workers when they took over Countdown?

Anonymous said...

I think the critical issue here is that a duopoly/monopoly is able to act ruthlessly with its suppliers but can also overcharge its customers. This was the situation with various industries in the United States in the early 20th century and the only remedy was to pass laws to break up the monopolies into smaller (but still giant) companies to create some real competition.

Richard McGrath said...

Chris, the moment a business starts to seek (or is offered) special favours or protection from the state is the time it ceases to be "capitalist" and becomes corporatist, a different beast altogether. Capitalism implies rule of law and non-interference by the government in private business matters.

Richard McGrath said...

Chris, the moment a business seeks special favours from the state is the time it ceases to be capitalist and becomes corporatist.

Richard McGrath said...

Sanctuary, you seem to imply that New Zealanders, similarly, should not be allowed to remit profits back here from businesses run overseas. So what if profits are remitted back to Australia by the supermarket chains? That doesn't prevent a Kiwi from starting a competing chain over here, or starting one up abroad.