The dollar store is a good example of that creature commonly termed a phenomenon, something of apparent and great import which cries out for explanation. In every city they are popping-up almost like roadside weeds, taking advantage of meagre soil. You may pass them by without regard, but take a careful look and you’ll discover a good deal about the niche they exploit as well as their own remarkable qualities.
I can’t go into a dollar store without being impressed by the sheer productive capacity of industrialism. It’s impossible to overstate the ability of machines to make stuff, stuff of very low price and astonishing variety. Not only this, but there is almost an effortlessness implicit in the cheapness and abundance. Whereas scarcity of goods is the classical economic problem, here there appears to be a casual glut. The goods roll out by the millions in hundreds of factories and are shipped to thousands upon thousands of dollar stores. The numbers! And yet this feat occurs unremarked. The Socialist of an earlier era wrote hymns of praise to the awesome power of machines, but today we are supposed to forget about this power and instead dwell upon the ancient fact of scarcity: not enough jobs for workers, not enough money for social programs, not enough labour productivity to justify wage increases, not enough food to feed the children, etc. Austerity, based on diminishing expectations, is the order of the day. In contrast, the dollar store reminds us that at some point in our history (when?) we attained a technological level sufficient to solve the basic human problem of scarcity. It became possible, for the first time, to lift all people out of a condition of deprivation. There was no longer a technical reason for people to live without food, clothing, and shelter. Utopia, defined as a generalized state of physical well-being, was at this point not only thinkable but practical. There is so much wealth about, in fact, that it’s possible now to dedicate considerable resources to the manufacture of baubles. That, in a sentence, explains the phenomenon of the dollar store.
We’ve established then what a marvellous and unparalleled thing industrial-based capitalism is, so far as productive power is concerned. It’s fashionable to lament the destructive effects of the machine, but really, would you prefer to return to the simple days before penicillin and electricity? Neither would I. There is too much to give up to make giving up a viable option, and anyway we should admit also that we enjoy our mass-produced trinkets as much as the essentials, if not more. Even the notion of essentials has been changed by mass-production. You could hardly extricate yourself from the industrial system, but suppose you could. Historical evidence suggests you’d enjoy pollution-free food and drink – and die at 42, as a result of complications from a common cold. Industrialism, we should remember, was compelling because it emerged amidst the conditions of near-universal poverty and misery.
Needless to say poverty and misery are widespread even today. I’ve praised industrial capitalism’s quantity of production, but what about the quality of distribution? For instance, most of the goods come from China, a low-wage country. William Greider has coined the phrase “job arbitrage,” which means moving jobs from a high wage market to a low wage market, not to eradicate global poverty but indeed to take advantage of it. In the dollar-store universe, North America is significant only as a point of consumption, which is another feature of distribution. We’re told the market arrives at the best of all possible conditions, so don’t worry. But look at those conditions: the market has shuffled things with the result that the North American worker is becoming obsolete and the impoverished ‘developing-nation’ worker is exploited. That much has long been known and discussed, but what about the North American consumer? Will the market render this creature obsolete also? The dollar store is only representative of a universal trend – exportation of capital, goods, jobs, and indeed every other domestic function. Consumption is the only job we’re given in many industries. And you’re replaceable, you know. When the Chinese market is more fully developed, it may turn out to be cheaper and more profitable to sell the goods there as well. If workers can compete so too can consumers. The dollar store at least lowers the standard to the point at which the game becomes possible.
Is the dollar store, then, the cutting edge of an unintended consumer-force downsizing? Surely it trivializes the social roles which attend industrialism. Put the 99-cent Virgin Mary nightlights beside the Utopian-Socialist conception of human potential and you’ve got something which approaches contempt. The dollar store implies you aren’t really worth very much, even as a consumer. ‘Just spend your damn loonie and get out already’: this is what these places convey to me. You’re so close to being not worth the bother, 50-or-so cents away from lumpenprole. One suspects secretly that the store is a diversion to keep us from noticing the entire economy has at last been shipped-off somewhere else. All that remains are the beads and trinkets which have always attended such dealings. [-June 1998.]