Welcome to Wal-Mart Republic

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing” said our own Oscar Wilde. We are learning the value of cheap: cheap thinking, cheap stunts and cheap politics.

Earlier this year the Government decided to lift the limit to the the size of hypermarkets in order to let one furniture company move into Ireland. The company in question couldn’t, after all, be expected to tailor its operations to the standards of little Ireland.

Now the Groceries Order has been abolished. This, we are told, was done in the interest of consumers. (And not, of course, in response to the populist whinings of a right-wing telly crank earlier this year.)

Well I’ve read the coverage, seen the Minister’s statement and even read the famous(!) Competition Authority report. But there is still one question I would like answered: Why would any company want to sell goods at a loss on an ongoing basis?

You can write and tell me but I’ll have a stab at it myself. The answer is that they do it to build market share. Then when they get you into the store, they make money out of you on other products. So the gain is illusory.

Except that small traders cannot compete with these marketing strategies. And after the big multiples have used this muscle to build market share they have even more of a stranglehold over the producers.

What you have then is the Wal-Mart phenomenom which has swept the US. Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world and is now so powerful that some Third World countries send emissaries to its headquarters like we send ambassadors abroad. 

Wal-Mart has had pretty much the same affect on American Main Streets that Katrina had on New Orleans. For every Wal-Mart that opens, two local supermarkets close. Its 1.2 million workers are non-unionised and paid rock-bottom wages, with many of them actually on welfare. The company has begun a race-to-the-bottom which has left huge numbers of other low-income workers impoverished and producers in a stranglehold.

The point is that cheap prices are not in any way a measure of value in our society.

Here in the Omni Park Shopping Centre we have a bookshop, Books Upstairs, which sells a whole range of books. Across the way Tesco sells a small range of books on the best-sellers list. In other words, for very little effort and with no committment to the written word whatsoever, Tesco is sucking the value out of Books Upstairs’ business.

Independent book shops are disappearing off our Main Streets while popular books are getting cheaper. Is this a good trade-off? Are we better off in the round?

What this Government is doing is empowering the huge multi-national traders. It is doing this to court cheap votes with no thought for the long-term consequences for our social fabric.

Fundamentally, we are not just consumers. We are also workers. We are residents. We are parents. We are communities.

We need to be in control. Being bought off by the cheapest price is not taking control – it is handing over control of our lives to the powerful. And they don’t intend to sell at a loss.