Pulling the Wooliesby Brandon Edmonds / 05.08.2009
Neo-Liberal Marketing with a Nation-Building Twist
Capitalism gets you where it hurts. It turns your needs into profit – and your loss is the Man’s gain. Same goes for wants. Needing and wanting are two separate human urges conflated by Kapitalism into one of the truly global imperatives of the 21st Century: shopping. Well, shopping and fucking. But we don’t generally pay for the latter. In public. Over the counter. Unless you’re in Hamburg. And we’re not. We’re in Afrika man! Home to Amadou & Mariam, those peerless blind troubadours, the fallen Fela Kuti, the wisest wildest musician since Mozart, and the lasting potent cinema of Ousmane Sembene.
Anyway, I’ll put my rich creamy cup of settler guilt down over here, and turn once again to wants and needs…
We don’t “need” to shop at Woolworths (though… drum roll, please, what with retail price-fixing allegations it appears to be a good place to get fucked!). Thank you. Thank you. Nobody “needs” to shop at Woolworths. Yes, aged vacuum-sealed rump steak is delicious. Pan fried, a little pepper. For vegetarians and the poor… soul-stirringly delicious. Trust me. But unnecessary. At eighty bucks a pop. It’s a luxury. Luxury is the realm of the unnecessary. Keep this in mind as we turn to Sigmund Freud. Siggie, who’s great for anyone lazily looking for a phrase to cap an argument, gave us that B-movie horror notion of ‘The Return of the Repressed’. Which suggests that the stuff you’re trying hardest to hide from yourself (and everyone else) is precisely what ends up giving you away. So children often deny doing something they’ve done before you’ve even accused them. And the conviction behind Mbeki’s claims to being a true African statesman, a defender of the Continent’s history and traditions, curator-in-chief of an African ‘Renaissance’, was given away by that pipe of his, symbol of European cultivation and self-regard, a habit picked up in his many decades exiled from Africa.
Or maybe his pipe was just a pipe…
Anyway, I think Luxury is Woolworths’ repressed. The specter that keeps returning no matter how much the Brand denies it. Luxury, the unnecessary, is dangerous in a developing country – beset by urgent, proliferating necessities. Luxury is elitist, decadent and delicious. It’s more Oscar Wild than Oliver Tambo. You build nations out of common basic needs not rarefied singular exceptions. (Unless you’re the Vatican, Evita’s Argentina, or Imelda’s Philippines). The last thing Woolworths needed amidst the world-historical euphoria of 1994 and all that stirring Socialist talk of nationalization and the glorious, much-missed Reconstruction & Development Program (RDP) was to seem like a luxury. Unnecessary. Overtaken by the liberating tide of History, a regressive throwback to moneyed Whiteness, and so on. The concern was based on alarming social factors. According to the 1996 Census, 40% of the population got less than 3% of the national income, while the top 10% enjoyed over 50%. These figures are inciting and revolutionary. Big Business had to respond, and BEE was born, which, along with the introduction of the rabidly neoliberal GEAR policy (make workers temporary and cheap, focus on fiscal responsibility rather than basic needs, privilege the bottom line over the bread line) meant general conditions for the poor have worsened in the ANC decade since, and a thin layer of black insiders got obnoxiously rich. Woolworths, meanwhile, like a prisoner at a parole hearing, has worked double time at recasting itself as relevant, caring, conscious, and kind.
Everything Luxury isn’t…
Much like Vodacom, SAB and FNB, all worth billions, Woolworths, has since become a marvel of neoliberal marketing with a nation-building twist. “You can wander into any Woolworths store and your attention will be immediately caught by the large scale photographs of South African legends, heroes and extra-ordinary people who exemplify what it means to be one of us. A real South African,” Errol Solomon, a Store Design & Visual Merchandising Executive for Woolworths, once said. Apparently ‘real South Africans’ shop. A lot. The noxious pairing of nationalism with consumption is precisely neoliberal marketing with a nation-building twist.
Neoliberalism, or the ‘Washington consensus’, is the prevailing orthodoxy of Power. It wants State spending to be slashed at the expense of the working population and State Industry & Services to be privatized in the interests of corporate profit. Neoliberalism is the philosophy behind your climbing electricity bill, inflated food prices (got to keep those investors happy), and your static pay packet. The call to have a ‘set price’ on staples families need to get by: bread, milk and maize, won’t happen thanks to the global reach of this idea. It’s as ‘new South African’ by now as xenophobia and non-delivery protests. It lies behind that ‘sado-monetarist’ Tito Mboweni’s plump self-satisfied middle – a perfect symbol of the growing distance between the masses and the elite.
Contempt for ordinary working people and the blind worship of profit, which drives neoliberalism, has to be softened by a veneer of care, of course.
Tellingly, according to the London Review of Books, chunks of which are free online, that arch neoliberal, Tony Blair’s, “political personality has always been predicated on the proposition ‘I am good’…and tied to this self-projection as a Good Man.” I am good. Trust me. Doing good is good for business.
And digging a little, you find Woolworth’s ‘good conscience’ all over itself like a rash.
The tell-tale neoliberal strategy of ‘parading a good conscience’ characterizes the ‘Woolworths Difference Card’. No ordinary debit card. This has the magic curative power of social redemption. As comely ‘former Miss SA’ Jo-Ann Strauss puts it in an in-store pamphlet, “I love knowing that every time I swipe my card at Woolworths, I am helping to educate the children of our country.” Again, the naked equation of spending with social development is nationalist neoliberal marketing in a nutshell. “You can help us make a difference in the lives of your fellow South Africans,” the pamphlet crows, “just by shopping!” Apparently a million smackers goes to schools and charities every month thanks to the card (1% of the debit goes to ‘good causes’ every time its used). This is principled private enterprise with a feel-good public face. As online media analysis puts it, ‘Being at the heart of the new South Africa is crucial to Woolworths retaining its unique position in retailing in the country… backing new South African designers, and reinforcing its sustainability credentials.’
It’s all part of the Company’s amazing ‘Good Business Journey’ – “our plan to bring about positive change in our communities, our country and our world”. Goodness! Given that Woolworths was only founded in the early 1930s, its a tragedy that Ghandi, that other tireless do-gooder, who was briefly in the country at the turn of the Century, missed the chance to shop there! But hey, I kid.
Really though…a good business journey. What might this entail?
According to Woolworths CEO, Simon Susman, sounding oh so necessary, there are ‘four key priorities: accelerating transformation, driving social development, enhancing our environmental focus, and addressing climate change.’ Notice how anxiously far we are from Luxury? Is this a company or a social movement? Neoliberal marketing works to blur the distinction. Good business is good works. Now go shop already!
The saintly CEO has committed the Brand to slashing its ‘carbon footprint by 30% over 5 years’. Amazing. Simon’s salary even shrank 15% last year. (Oh, he still took home 8.1 million, in the context of a company net income down 12%, but man that’s commitment.) The Brand also just loves the hell out of children. In partnership with UNICEF, it launched the Kids Changing the World campaign, “an innovative way to engage ordinary kids in philanthropy”, by selling a toy little consumers could buy in good conscience, since the proceeds went to educational programs. Isn’t that great? And you better believe Woolworths is kind to animals. There’s the story of the frog found in a head of lettuce when a customer got home that Woolworths flew back to its habitat. There’s the principled axing of honey suppliers killing honey badgers, fish stock conservation and a host of ‘humane’ killing protocols. There’s the small farmers of Ezemvelo, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, who were ‘almost organic’ in their potato production, until Woolworths insisted the humble mdumbi be fully organic. And lo it was so!
Children, animals…check. What about women? Well, there’s even a ‘Black Economic Empowerment Employee Share Ownership Scheme’ bringing long-term workers (chiefly black women) into the golden circle of dividends, a good thing, which seriously spiked employment costs by over 50 million last year. Again, amazing. Indeed there’s a warm, loving caring quality to Woolworths that’s borderline maternal, given ‘80% of the 1 million people that pass through the retail chain’s doors each month are female’. Oh, you’ve got to love Woolworths! They have nice undies. The Chain is the very best we can be as ‘new South Africans’. Active, generous, prosperous and kind. And all this goodness hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2008, the Company was named ‘responsible retailer’ of the year at the World Retail Awards. Talk about disavowing Luxury – Woolworths is officially the most responsible retailer in the world!
I’m sold. Aren’t you?
Screw shopping, I want to pray at Woolworths! Drop to my knees in the fruit section. Speak in tongues at the till. But wait… am I even good enough to spend my filthy lucre there? Well, yes. Woolworths is open to all, silly.
“We invite you to come along with us and play your own role in ensuring a brighter future – not only for South Africa, but for the world at large”. Oh wow, thanks Woolworths! I can buy my garlic bread and save the world.
Okay now this kind of neoliberal hokum – that shopping will save us – is the reigning ideology. Anyone seeking ‘a better life for all’ must fight it. So let’s start by sparing ourselves the relentless goodness of Woolworths and see the supermarket chain ‘with the soul of a Deli’ for what it is: a business maximizing profit. That’s all. It isn’t a mobile army of Mother Theresa’s making the world, as Michael (RIP) would have wanted, ‘a better place, for you, and me, and the entire human race.’ Nope. Just a business adept at selling an overblown idea of itself.
A business that gets ugly and plays rough.
The National Union of Mineworker’s (NUMSA) had this to say, last year, about the most responsible retailer in the world: “We note in other sectors the psychopathic manner in which Woolworths has been undermining the constitutional right of workers to organize. We call upon all our members and South Africans in general to boycott Woolworths which… has also been one of the first in the retail sector to introduce and entrench casualisation and other strategies of brutalising work.”
Making workers cheap and expendable is central to neoliberalism. Worker’s health and retirement benefits are expensive. The recent unbundling of General Motors was largely about avoiding giant employee benefit costs. China’s ‘great rise’ is built on cheap and expendable workers without benefits. Woolworths ’employment categories’ fall right in line with the profit-driven downgrading of work. The Company has set Flexi-8 and Flexi-28 casual worker guidelines of 8 and 28 hours of guaranteed weekly work, amounting to around R500 and R1600 a month, respectively. Without benefits. The rapid staff turnover such low wages encourages means long-term employee benefit costs dwindle and shareholders enjoy solid returns. According to SACCAWU, the retail union, which fought Woolworths for ten years for recognition, by 2007, the Brand’s staff was 70% casual, ‘with the percentage of full time staff shrinking’. Chillingly, the union reminds us that in this period the Company revenues leapt from 8.8 to 18 billion and operating profits jumped 300%. A spectacular showing ‘achieved through the high levels of exploitation of workers’.
Screw Woolworths. It’s a luxury we can’t afford.