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Regina George was onto something.
Regina George was onto something.

SocietyApril 23, 2024

Is it time for anti-capitalists to embrace shopping? An argument with myself

Regina George was onto something.
Regina George was onto something.

Welcome to the whirring wonders of one brain trying to align its actions with its beliefs within a system it thinks is evil.

My brain has been spiralling in a woke conundrum ever since I found out a bookshop I’ve never been to was shutting down. Good Books, a bookshop in Wellington where I have never lived, announced its closure in March. It will be the third bookstore to close down in Wellington in the past five years. Something stirred among the dust mites in my pile of library books. Guilt. It has not been the only closure as a result of what everyone keeps saying is a difficult time in retail. Everything feels like it’s crumbling, especially the good stuff. Let me introduce you to a safe-for-work edit of my internal mechanisms:

What’s this feeling then? It seems like you’ve forgotten who we are – we don’t believe in capitalism and consumerism, and we are NOT business sympathisers!

I know, but it’s a bookshop! Owned by writers! Doing good things like paying a living wage, hosting events and, as Claire Mabey wrote, “consistently championing under-sung voices”.

[Eyeroll] A business is an endeavour to snatch the money of its customers and to exploit the labour of its employees. Kiwi-owned or not, small or not, whoever is at the top is siphoning the value of their employees’ labour for their nice lifestyles. 

Woah, woah, woah! That is true of bigger businesses, but not all businesses (don’t bully me for saying that phrase). I’m talking about shops where the owner will greet and serve you – they’re not off on a yacht while their employees work, they’re right there next to them, and probably staying late to do all the behind the scenes work. Or, like so many dairy owners, it’s just them, doing everything. An owner-operated business can’t be painted with the same brush as a multinational. If I go to the Avondale market, and buy a pumpkin for $3, I’m handing my money directly to the person who grew the pumpkin. If I buy one at the supermarket, then sure, someone at the top is siphoning the value of the pumpkins growth and everything involved in getting it to me. I’m talking about going to the market instead of the supermarket.

Yes and no. I agree with what you said but it’s not that you want to buy pumpkins. You want to buy cool books and probably some nice new clothes, I know you. You don’t need these things as much as you need to eat, and there’s more books and more clothes at the op shop than you could ever read or wear out. 

I think people do need books. Life is not worth living without books, and society would be more of a shambles than it already is. And not just old books, because we need new stories and progress in our thinking and cultures. Making books does cost money. The people who write the books need to live and so need to get paid, and the books should be read. So… we need bookshops. 

OK I concede, books are essentials, but they’re also at least $30 and sometimes you read the whole thing in one day. It is cheaper to buy them online or, obviously, free to borrow from the library.

Yeah, but actually, we CAN afford to buy a book from a nice shop from time to time. And because we can, we should – maybe we are even obliged. You won’t like this but there are more important things than watching your savings account creep up.

But why not buy the books directly, cutting out all the middle people taking a cut? That’s all a bookshop is – something taking a percentage of what you pay, simply for selling it to you. 

Are we also going to cut out the editors and publishing houses? Now writers also have to be merchandisers, advertisers, stockroom workers and sales people? Do they also have to print their own books and learn how to lay out a page and what fonts are good? Books are going to get pretty shit, if they continue to exist at all.

These are false equivalents, why do you always do this when we fight!

Grrrr. Bookshops have value, because people don’t know what books they want to buy. At a shop they can browse, and ask for advice, and even just chat about books and be part of society. The shop invites people to consider books they might not come across otherwise, so they don’t get stuck in online algorithm bubbles. 

Aren’t these things also true of the library?

Yeah, but if the whole of Aotearoa is sharing the same 10 copies of one book, the publishing houses will go under and the writers will have no income.

The Botany Library, a perfectly fine place to get books.

What about those fancy clothes you’ve been perusing? Surely looking good isn’t essential to society in the same way that books are?

Guilty as charged. Even though I am just tempted to quote Maybelline I’ll instead point to Kate Sylvester’s abrupt closure. It made me think of people like Kristine Crabb and Rachel Mills who make their clothes in NZ, employing local garment workers, which is no easy feat. Everyone’s saying KS was a stalwart etc, and that is true, but those clothes were made overseas (mainly China). So how much more difficult is it for these smaller companies who make things here? And how cool is it that their businesses mean we have those making skills here? Even if they’re very expensive and only affordable to some…

Do you think maybe it’s a bit virtuous and self-important to think your few hundred bucks make a difference?

Haha, maybe. But it’s nice to act in harmony with what we believe rather than cognitive dissonance. Also… maybe a few hundred bucks here and there for these small businesses does make a difference.

Well, maybe if the bookshop had innovated, it would have a lot more few hundred bucks and it wouldn’t be closing down.

Oh, so now you’re a proponent of the free market? What do you want, books to be sold as 14 limited editions that each have one exclusive chapter which in two hours’ time is no longer exclusive?

Well what do you want? I thought we liked being a retailer’s worst nightmare.

I reckon more people like us should be spending money at places they think should exist. We should do it proactively rather than getting sad and leaving soppy comments on their Instagram closing posts.

You almost gave me a heart attack. You know we are not a buyer of new things. We don’t “spend money”. If we need something, we try to borrow it. If it can’t be borrowed, we’ll pick through the refuse of consumer culture at op shops, the dump, school fairs or Trade Me. This is what it means to be anti-consumerist! This is how we live by our morals. Also, we like it! There’s always an exciting surprise at the op shop!

I don’t know if that’s working… if people like us don’t put our money into ethical good shops selling things of actual value, they seem to get squeezed out and only the evil giants remain, especially now when times are tough. And then all there’ll be to sift through at the op shops will be cheaply-made, low-quality items from the evil giants. And do you really want Amazon to be the last standing bookseller? That’s just gross. 

Maybe these soft-capitalism endeavours are just ways to keep the system limping on, and to keep us all tied into, and buying into it. 

Are you proposing accelerationism, because we have decided that is evil, people will suffer and only the privileged will make it through. I think if we wanna do good with our money we should put it into the hands of people trying to do cool good stuff within the un-ideal system we live in, instead of keeping it all to ourselves like a squirrel with acorns. 

I read somewhere, years ago, that to the capitalist system, the most important job of people in developed nations isn’t the one we do 40 (or however many) hours a week, but that it’s to buy stuff, and that creeped me out immensely. I don’t want to do that job that keeps the cogs turning.

That is creepy, but I think since the revolution continues not to happen we need to change things from inside the system. You know, incremental change.

Do you reckon there’s a book we could read about this?


Keep going!