Monday, October 15, 2018

The Trouble with "Shop Local"

As we near the October 22 public hearing for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, I want to think critically about the use of the phrase "Shop Local."

First, let me be clear, I am not critiquing the act of shopping locally, which is important and necessary. I am critiquing the use of the injunction "Shop Local" by city leaders, which I believe is sometimes weaponized against the real possibility of systemic change to help save small, local businesses in the city.

It is, quite simply, a way to deflect blame from the system and onto the individual, stopping progressive change in its tracks.

I was struck this summer by the appearance of this deflection at a town hall meeting with Mayor de Blasio and City Council Member Helen Rosenthal on the Upper West Side.

When an audience member asked what can be done to stop New York's mom and pops from vanishing, the mayor said that, while he supports a vacancy tax to stop landlords from leaving storefronts empty, "We don't have...good tools to protect small business in a free-market system... But there's a citizen piece of this, too, and I don't mean to minimize the problem, but people need to go to those stores and patronize those stores."

To this, the audience member responded off mic, possibly saying, "They do," to which the mayor replied, "They do and they don't. My experience is...a lot of people who value those stores could also be part of the solution by going to them more often."

Helen Rosenthal concluded, "Mr. Mayor, I'm with you. We all need to step up and shop local. It's very frustrating."

Again, shopping local is necessary, we all can do it more, but it won't solve the main problem. And when we hear it in response to the question "what can be done?" we are often in the grip of neoliberal ideology. Sometimes, the people saying it don't even know they're part of that ideology. For decades, it has been the air we breathe. We have all become, to some extent, brainwashed by it.

Many of us say to each other, "If only we shopped there more often." On this blog, commenters inevitably accuse, "When was the last time you shopped there?" As if we are the main problem and not the landlords who quadruple the rent or refuse a new lease.

Neoliberalism, in short, is a free-market capitalist ideology and approach to governance that uses the policies of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, redistributing wealth and other resources from the lower, working, and middle classes to the wealthy.

It's not new and it's not liberal.

It began in the U.S. in the late 1970s, kicked off as a response to New York City's fiscal crisis, and went global under Ronald Reagan (trickle-down economics) and Margaret Thatcher. Whenever you hear "it's the free market," you're hearing the voice of neoliberalism. It is the reason for the 1% and why we have such massive income inequality.

It is also the way New York City has been governed since about 1979. It's why we have gentrification as public policy, with tax breaks and incentives going to big real-estate developers and corporations, private parks, etc., while our public resources suffer. In this system, celebrated by former Mayor Bloomberg, the city is run like a corporation and its citizens are consumers.

This brings us to the "neoliberal individual."

In the neoliberal worldview, there's a philosophical shift from state responsibility to individual responsibility. Now, there's nothing wrong with individuals being responsible for each other and their own actions. But when we're talking on the level of systems of power and governance, it's another thing altogether.

From the point of view of the neoliberal individual, if climate change is causing death and destruction, well, it's your fault for not recycling plastic bags, and don't blame the deregulation of polluting industries (read this). If you're a woman and you're sexually harassed in the workplace, it's your fault for not reporting it, and don't look to the system of patriarchy. And if small businesses are shuttering by the dozens, it's your fault, New Yorker, for not shopping local enough, and don't dare blame the big real estate machine that is supported by our neoliberal state and city government.

In short, the problem lies with you, the individual. If we hear this enough, we might become convinced that the problems of society are all our fault. If only we were better. If only we tried harder.

That idea is toxic enough, but it goes further.

If the problem lies with individuals then there's no point in trying to change the system. The system is blameless! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This is a clever way to make us feel guilty and hopeless, and thus to render us passive. It makes us squander our power as citizens and give up on democracy. Don't fall for it.

In so many cases, small businesses are not closing because we didn't shop enough. In over a decade of writing this blog, I have walked the streets of this city talking with countless small business people. Over and over, they have told me that the number one force shutting them down is a landlord who demands a high rent increase or who refuses to renew a lease. Thriving, beloved, successful businesses that were staples of their communities for 20, 40, 80 years are pushed out by rents that double, triple, quadruple, and more.

No amount of "shop local" is going to fix that.

We need systemic change from the top. The first step? Pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. It's getting a public hearing on October 22. So act like a citizen. Show up and speak your mind. Click here for a list of easy, quick things you can do to tell the City Council you want this bill.


Tom M said...

Good article as usual Jeremiah. I find the term "neoliberalism" to be too confusing for a great deal of the population. The public probably links it to Democrats or progressives. A better term may be supply side economics. This would link it to the people who are the supporters of this philosophy

The Seditionist said...

Great post, J; everything that's fucking up the world in a single post. Fact is that our leadership class -- private sector as well as elected officials -- are essentially sociopathic. That is, not good for society.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

When a long-standing, decades-old establishment that's still thriving and attracting lots of customers as it always has (past and present) suddenly has to close up shop permanently, due to the current owners of the property it rents from refusing to renew their lease, how did the continued patronage ever serve to protect this business and keep it afloat? DIDN'T---and COULD NEVER HAVE POSSIBLY DONE SO!!!!

Mark said...

It's really very hard to shop local when the shops aren't there due to obscene rent increases.

c smith said...

The blame falls squarely on the Federal Reserve. Free money for nearly a decade, vacuumed up by the largest financial aggregators (and generally unavailable to small biz), has driven the nominal value of real estate beyond the reach of the middle class. The same applies to housing. There ain't no way to fix it, other than a crash.

Unknown said...

Shopping local CAN make a difference in rural areas but there is growing resistance to it. People in my community are increasingly angry that local businesses refuse to hire local. Don't tell me to shop local if you are not making it a priority to hire people from our community. I am sick of local businesses bringing in workers from urban areas who have no ties to our community.

Unknown said...

Can you say...Commercial Rent Control? Nobody has the kahunas to bring that up...

Benjamin Frey said...

One topic missing from this post is the tax breaks given to people who invest in real estate. Real estate "losses" can be used to offset any other profits from capital gains meaning that the wealthiest among us use large property holdings to offset stock market gains and other capital investments. In order to do so, they need the "lost revenue" from vacant properties to be as high as possible, meaning that both the asking rent must be high and that they must maintain an artificially high vacancy rate. The proposed NY bill is nice, but will do little to offset the property investor friendly irs regulations.

meesalikeu said...

Please explain how a rural local business can hire anyone who isn’t a local? And how do big national chain businesses help an area more in that respect?

Roku's Blog said...

My husband and I had a store called "Old Japan Inc", for 16 years at 382 Bleecker Street, starting from 1990 and ending in 2007. We had 3 years left on our lease when our new landlord (a multi-million dollar real estate conglomerate who'd bought the building for 8 million dollars from our old landlord, who had reassured me for 15 years that he was "never going to sell the building") offered us a quarter million to leave. Realizing that he would throw us out anyway at the end of the 3 years, we did finally sell our lease. After that we moved to Boston, where two years ago (2016) the gentrification in the South End forced us to finally leave another quaint neighborhood. Now we have essentially given up on ever opening another store ever again. Anywhere.

Our years on Bleecker Street were so much fun and a dream come true! We didn't know how to run a business when we first opened, but we learned. And we got to meet all these incredible people like Sam, who ran the junk shop/antiques store two stores down from us, and the owner of Nusrati Afghan Imports, on the corner of 10th and Bleecker. On Bleecker street we had the most interesting stores in the world, in a two block radius! We never became rich selling Japanese antiques and gift items in our store, which we opened on a $20,000 budget. We sold $150 Kimonos, $2 incense and $3 lucky frogs, to local customers and to tourists from all over the world. Again, we never became rich except in the exceptional people we met, who walked into our store every day. We were very lucky to have been on Bleecker Street when we were, when it was still a funky, hippie hide-away, unlike the rest of over-commercialized New York City. We will never see those days ever again. When I first started working at The Feenjon Cafe (on MacDougal Sreet) in 1970 when I was 17 years old, a co-worker and friend of mine used to jokingly say to me, "The Village isn't like it used to be . . . but then again it never was." We will all miss our various variations of what The Village used to be.