Business Insider reports that the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), an Indian business lobby group, is planning mass protests against a visit to the country by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Outside big Indian cities, retail is dominated by India’s estimated 63m small businesses. These are now mobilising against Amazon’s ambitions to expand deeper into Indian markets, saying the $1 trillion internet retail giant has so much money that it will be able to use heavy discounting to drive competitors out of business. CAIT, in its press release, accused Amazon of “cash burning in maintaining predatory pricing and deep discounting, controlling inventory, having preferential seller system and exclusivity of products”.
Amazon’s activities here seem calculated not so much to buy a position in the marketplace so much as to buy the marketplace itself. That is, to privatise and control access to a trading environment which is at present open (subject to government regulations) to all who wish to trade.
A market fundamentalist might ask: so what? What does it matter if the Indian public retail marketplace is enclosed — that is, replaced by a digital marketplace operated by Amazon or Flipkart for profit? Provided consumers get the goods they want at the right price, who cares?
India’s small businesses see this enclosure as an existential threat, fearing the loss of their livelihoods to Amazon’s predatory tactics. R. R. Reno’s review of Oren Cass’ The Once And Future Worker in First Things suggests the longer-term consequences of prioritising the needs of consumers, or the imperative toward growth, over the livelihoods of ordinary people. In America, Cass argues, the policy focus has long been on sustaining consumption and growth at the expense of focusing on work and livelihood.
The upshot has been a tendency toward financial rewards that accrue only to the most successful, with a growing battery of consumption subsidies propping up the stagnating middle and lower orders. In the process solidarity, dignity, meaning, community and other critical values are lost and with them much that gives strength to the American democratic enterprise.
The prospect of small traders uniting to challenge this direction of travel carries an intriguing echo of the growth of unionisation among industrial workers in the nineteenth century. Perhaps they will fail, as the Luddites failed to prevent the mechanisation of weaving. Or perhaps in the digital era we will see traders’ unions emerging to defend and promote small business livelihoods, just as trade unions defended the livelihoods of industrial workers in the past.