According to this story in the Wall Street Journal, Sears is on the verge of finally going out of business. For people under the age of forty, this is a meaningless event, as Sears has not been a part of the public consciousness for decades. For those old enough to remember, the early 1990’s was the last time Sears was an anchor store at malls and shopping centers. I think the last time I had a reason to shop at Sears was at the old Natick Mall in the 1990’s. I bought a kitchen item, but I no longer recall exactly.
The conventional telling of these stories says that the big retail stores were killed by some combination of Amazon and the internet. That is mostly just mythmaking as companies like Sears were struggling when Amazon was still just a river in Brazil. The big box store, as they came to be called, was always a bad idea that started to show signs of weakness in the 80’s. The logic of this type of retail is a race to the bottom, where margins are maintained by stripping out the value that is implicit in the local retail store concept.
Think of it this way. The local retailer does more than sell stuff. In practice, he stocks the things popular with his community and offers customer service to help his neighbors get the best product for their needs. He is also going to sponsor the local little league teams and participate in the community. Big retail takes the social capital and customer service and turns that into a quick profit for the chain store, by cutting prices on the retail side and purchasing power on the supply side. It is a form of economic piracy.
This model works fine until all of the local competition is gone. At that point it is a battle of soulless wholesalers operating out of warehouse style facilities. The only competition between Sears and K-Mart, another defunct chain, was price and location. One thing that is certain about a race to the bottom is that everyone eventually reaches the finish line and for big retail that has meant bankruptcy. You see this with Amazon. Their retailing arm is the marketing expense for their media and technology services now.
This is why conservatives used to be skeptical of capitalism. They correctly saw the reality of large-scale retail. It was not that the big retailer was better at selling products or provided a better service. In fact, it has always been obvious. If you go to your local Home Depot, for example, you are unlikely to get any help from the staff, unless you tackle one of them in the aisle. Even then, the quality of service is so poor, you are better off not asking for help. Big retail turns customer service into a net negative.
Big retail operates as a parasite through false economy. It is a form of cost shifting, where the loss of social capital and customer service is pushed into the distance, while the cheap prices are in the present. The Old Right understood the corrosive nature of this form of retail and opposed it. Today, everyone laments the loss of local retail and the town shopping district. We are told it is the result of Amazon being a better choice, but in reality, the cause is the willingness of our leaders to auction off our social capital.
Another example of this is the local industrial supply store. Electrical wholesale, welding supplies, HVAC wholesalers and other businesses that served the trades used to be locally owned family businesses. They were never wildly profitable, but they provided a nice living as a family business. Fred’s Welding Supply would sponsor a little league team, while Fred participated in the community and sent his kids to the local schools. Sometimes one guy would own a couple of stores if his town or city were big enough to support it.
Today, these businesses have been bought up by investment firms powered by credit money from investors. An investment firm gets set up and they bankroll one bigger player as he buys up all of the competitors. The “economies of scale” are that the owners are removed, the accounting and sales staff is centralized, and the social capital is carted off to the investors as profit. The customers may get a small break in price, but usually the only thing they notice is the staff now treat them like strangers, rather than neighbors.
Libertarians and “conservatives” will read this and reflexively start chirping about free markets and invisible hands, but there is a reason they are now a punchline. That is because these are ideologies, if you want to be generous and elevate them to ideologies, that make all the same assumptions about humanity as the Marxists. That is, they see man as the ultimate consumer, a beast that devours his environment, in the same way a plague of locusts wipes out a field. Whittaker Chambers explained this 60 years ago.
Tragedy is bypassed by the pursuit of happiness. Tragedy is henceforth pointless. Henceforth man’s fate, without God, is up to him, and to him alone. His happiness, in strict materialist terms, lies with his own workaday hands and ingenious brain. His happiness becomes, in Miss Rand’s words, “the moral purpose of his life.” Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist Socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence, in part, I presume, her insistence on “man as a heroic being” “with productive achievement as his noblest activity.” For, if Man’s “heroism” (some will prefer to say: “human dignity”) no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche’s anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held “heroic” in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author’s economics and the politics that must arise from them.
A life with no other purpose than to work and consume is actually lower than beastly, because the beast in the field only eats to live. It does not live to eat. Like all living things, it lives to make more copies of itself. For man, possessed of a self-awareness and the capacity to remake his environment, the purpose of life expands to the celebration of life by not only reproducing but leaving a cultural legacy for the next generation. The point of life is for old men to plant trees in whose shade they will never stand.
The auctioning off of our social capital has corresponded with the startling spike in suicide rates. Cosmopolitan globalism and the transactional consumerism that drives it strips people of their humanity. Like drug addicts, they no longer have the capacity to experience the normal pleasures. The heroin addict is always faced with the choice. Give up the junk and become whole again or take the easy way out. That is what faces the people of the modern West. The choice is revolt against modernity or amuse ourselves to death.